"Plot" is not a four-letter word




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  1. #1
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    "Plot" is not a four-letter word

    I haven't been gaming much lately. In fact, I'm not sure I've played more than half a dozen times in 2011. (And if I have, it wasn't by much.) That's partly why I also haven't done one of these columns in a while. Sorry, Morrus.

    But I have spent a lot of time thinking about gaming because, let's be honest, that's what gamers do when they aren't gaming. And I've to a conclusion. It's not a new conclusion, as such things go, but I've come to it from a new direction.

    There are, apparently, a lot of bad DMs out there.

    This isn't news to anyone who's gamed for a while. We all have our share of stories. We also all have our share of different criteria; I'm willing to bet that every one of us--or at least almost every one--has at at least one DM that we consider awful, but that someone else on ENWorld would consider great.

    Again, nothing new. But what's hammered this home for me a lot in recent years is the plethora of people who automatically assume that "plot" in an RPG must automatically equal "railroad."

    No, I'm not accusing those people of being bad DMs. But I'm willing to bet they've had a few.

    Because in the hands of a bad (or just inexperienced) DM, yeah, plot often equals railroad. The DM knows exactly what's going to happen, and when, and by gods, the PCs will play their parts exactly as scripted! If they don't, they're either forced into doing so, or they're punished for not doing so.

    And yes, that's bad. If that's been your primary experience with plot, I can see why you'd automatically equate plot to railroading. But it's not the only way to run a plot-heavy D&D campaign.

    A skilled DM runs a plot flexibly, in reaction to what the PCs do. Now, I'm not talking about a sandbox game, where the DM has no story in mind to guide the PCs. I'm talking about a middle ground, where the DM puts specific events in motion, but without a roadmap as to how the PCs are going to react. The DM knows what'll happen if the PCs fail, and he might have an idea as to how they'll solve it. But so long as he doesn't force them to correspond to that idea, it's not railroading.

    Some people will still call it that. I disagree. Assuming the PCs will get involved in the story isn't railroading any more than assuming they'll stick to the passages and rooms in a dungeon (as opposed to spending the entire campaign digging through the rock with a pickaxe) isn't railroading. There's a certain level of assumed cooperation in RPGs, and it involves meeting in the middle.

    Or, to put it another way, "sandbox" and "railroad" aren't binary terms. They're a continuum, and only become problematic at either extreme. If I say "No, you can't go left instead of right" to the party, that's potentially railroading. If, however, there are consequences to going left instead of right--and if said consequences make sense in the game world, and don't exist solely because I'm trying to shepherd the party through my own story--that is not a railroad. Similarly, a "sandbox" game may include the freedom to do almost anything, but it doesn't necessarily promise an absence of consequences for those actions. If it does, then the game swiftly loses any and all sense of verisimilitude. To me, at least, utterly aimless is just as bad as utterly railroaded.

    And yes, that means means that a DM's motive plays into the question, as well as his actions. Consequences that make sense in the larger campaign might not equate to a railroad, while consequences put in place solely to force the PCs back on script do--even if the consequences, on the surface, look the same.

    Tricky, ain't it? I'm not saying that pure motives cancel out bad DMing. I'm just saying that one needs to look at pattern and intent (as best as can be inferred) before judging whether a given instance is a sign of railroading or not. It's one of the reasons I prefer only playing in games run by friends; I can more easily judge that sort of thing.

    Sure, I could avoid the issue entirely by only playing in, or running, sandbox campaigns. But here's the thing. I don't like sandbox campaigns.

    (Mandatory disclaimer: If you do like sandbox games, that's fine. I'm not making any sort of declaration about the "wrong way to play." I'm explaining my preference.)

    See, at the end of the day, I prefer the collaborative story elements of RPGs to everything else. What I remember, when a campaign is long over and done with, is how interesting the plot twists were, how cool the characters were in a roleplaying/dialogue sense. I do not reminisce about how cool the magic items were, or which powers I got to use, and the only time I fondly reminisce about a particular combat is if someone did something really creative or funny, or if it was a real nail-biter of a fight that also had a major impact on the story. (In fact, I want all the combats, or at least almost all of them, to advance the story. I could happily play in a campaign where less than 5% of the combats were random encounters.)

    Now, lots of people will argue that the story is what the PCs make of it. And to an extent, I agree. I despise feeling railroaded, and the most well thought-out story in the world won't change that. But by the same token, I despise feeling aimless, like the DM is just coasting without any notion of what's happening outside the PCs' immediate actions. I understand that some people like the appeal of the "let's go out, find a dungeon, and explore it" game, with nothing bigger happening. But for me, that doesn't scratch the itch. I don't want to feel like my character is helpless to do anything but play through pre-arranged steps--but I do want to feel like my character is part of a story, not just a world. I want the things we do to matter. I want there to be consequences, not merely to our actions and successes, but to our inaction and our failures.

    I want plot twists. I want mysteries. I want surprises. I want recurring NPCs that we come to care about, and recurring villains we come to hate. I want to walk away from the table talking about how damn cool that plot twist was, and I can't believe it turned out that Father Reginald and the Dragon Prince were actually in cahoots. I don't mind fighting Generic Orcs 1-16, or Generic Skeletons 8-12. But if it's a lich? A dragon? A mind flayer? I want it to have not just a name, but a personality, and a plan. I want it to be doing something other than serving as the end-boss to a dungeon, and I want whatever it's doing to have far-reaching consequences.

    To me--and again, I stress to me--rolling dice is a means, not an end. I want to engage in interesting combats and make difficult skill checks, absolutely, but I want to do them because it advances the plot, not because it's fun to roll dice. It's a role-playing game, yes, but for me the "game" part of that serves primarily as a foundation for the role-playing--and, even though it's not part of the name, story-telling--part. I don't want, and in fact don't enjoy, the game experience without those.

    Similarly, I feel that the mechanics are a tool for playing the character, not the purpose of the character. In fact, as much as I still love designing for both 4E and 3E/Pathfinder, I don't actually want to run either just at this moment. They're both fantastic games, and I'll happily play either or both, but in terms of running a game, I'm ready to spend some time in a much more mechanics-light system for a while. I want to remind myself of how to do the collaborative storytelling without worrying about the mechanics any more often than I absolutely have to.

    (Another mandatory disclaimer: I'm not suggesting you can't do that with PF or 4E. Of course you can. I just want to try it without the heavy mechanics for a while.)

    RPGs and novels are very different things. One shouldn't try to run a campaign like a novel, and one shouldn't try to write a novel like one runs a campaign. The same is true of a TV series. But...

    When a campaign is over, when all is said and done, I want to feel like the story and characters were interesting enough in their own right that one could write a novel, or a few seasons of TV, based on the same basic skeleton. Not detail for detail, not chapter for chapter, but based on the core ideas.

    And that requires plot. Not railroading, not script, but plot.

    Yes, it's pure preference. Yes, many of you are reading this with abject horror and thinking "I never want to game with him!" And that's fine. I'm not suggesting you have to want to game the way I do. What I am suggesting is this:

    That, if this isn't your playstyle, you say "That's not my playstyle," rather than lumping it in and dismissing it with "railroading." That, if you don't like this style and have been thinking of it as railroading, you take a moment to consider whether it's because of poor experiences that might not be representative of the playstyle in question. Because I'm willing to bet that, in most cases, a skilled DM who knows how to balance plot with player freedom of choice might just change your mind.
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  • #2
    So what "rules light" system would you use to run a game ?? I have played in an Amber game and I remember a system called Theatrix which our group played around with a bit...
    Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    http://www.amadan.org/Theatrix/Theatrix-summary.html
    Last edited by WiredNerve; Monday, 15th August, 2011 at 08:16 PM.

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    I really want to give Green Ronin's Dragon Age a try. But I'd be willing to consider other systems as well.
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  • #4
    I once had a DM that I think you would have liked. (I think it was either 1st or 2nd edition) He ran a very “sandbox” style game, but there was also a major plot running through the game world as well as lots of subplots that may or may not be related to the main plot. But you could go in any direction you wanted and he was very good at adlibbing on the fly. And your actions mattered! The more you interacted with the main plot the greater your impact. His philosophy was that you were the movers and shakers of the world so that everything you did caused ripples. And the plot moved along whether you interacted with it or not. Not doing something was a valid choice and bad things could and did happen when you ignored the bad guys. I don’t know how he kept track of everything, but it was a pretty good game.


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    Great article Ari!

    Hopefully no one minds that I respond on an ongoig topic that is more on-topic here.

    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    But still, I think that you're running together things that are different. For example, in some games (including mine) the players provide key elements of setting (in building their PCs and writing up their backstories, and then bringing those backstories into play). This is not a trivial difference from strong GM control over setting, in my view, because it has a major impact in play.

    I can't speak for a sandbox game, but in the sort of game I run the GM does not hook the players. Rather, the players hook the GM.

    That is, the players - through the backstory and build of their PCs, and then building on those things over the course of play - signal clear goals and thematic concerns, and as GM I design encounters and scenarios that speak to those goals and thematic concerns. In 4e terms, you could think of this as player-designed quests.

    Which is why I think it is more helpful - if we're all going to better understand our games, and get better at running them the way we want to run them - to recognise rather than elide over differences! Which is not at all to say that any of us is doing it wrong - of course we're still all playing RPGs!
    Like I said in the other thread, I'm not trying to equate people's games at a detail level, more big picture. And I think there is certainly great value in examining the details. I know I've benefitted from reading about other GM's styles.

    Your player-driven hooks are exactly what I was speaking to when I said each DM mines his hooks from different sources. You're still generating the hook, just with a high level of player input. I would and have used this style for groups that enjoy this kind of play. I've also run more of a sandbox for players that like a wide range of options. And I've run APs for players interested in focusing on a singular goal. Many of these players are the same people and are in the mood for different styles at different times. I've had to be adaptable. I've had the least experience with your style, though, and I wish I could get my players more into this style as change of pace. At best the character-driven hooks have been a minor part of a mixed style in my games.
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  • #6

    Well said, Ari!

    Excellent column. I must say your opinion surprises me not at all, having worked with you on several projects in the past (ahem, Neverwinter), and hoping to work on more!

    I tend to err on the side of Sandbox, making me sort of the mirror image of your preference (on the continuum but closer to railroad than sandbox). I develop my campaigns progressively, basing the next session on player actions in the current session. I have a number of major plot points, but we get to them in the proper time, as the story unfolds.

    My goal is for the players to feel absolutely in charge of their own destiny in a collaborative storytelling experience, whilst I work behind the scenes to lead them in the directions I want.

    The Dragon Age analogy is a good one here, wherein the players feel their choices have a definite impact on the game. Some certainly do, but the majority don't change the story, only change reactions to the events that happen. One string of dialogue might result in a NPC friending you, or you could make a rival, but the outcome of the conversation is still much the same.

    You and I should get together and play some Dragon Age RPG sometime. I think that would be rock.

    Cheers

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    Content aside, the title of this article is wholly inaccurate.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Vyvyan Basterd View Post
    Your player-driven hooks are exactly what I was speaking to when I said each DM mines his hooks from different sources. You're still generating the hook, just with a high level of player input.
    In my view this is not true. It suggests an equivalence that is not there.

    Per Ron Edwards:

    Sorcerer presented the Kicker Technique, which is to say, a player-authored Bang included in character creation, giving the GM responsibility to make it central to play. It may be considered the precise opposite of the "character hook" concept presented in many adventure scenarios and role-playing games.

    Per Eero Tuovinen:

    The standard narrativistic model

    . . .

    One of the players is a gamemaster whose job it is to keep track of the backstory, frame scenes according to dramatic needs (that is, go where the action is) and provoke thematic moments . . .

    The rest of the players each have their own characters to play. They play their characters according to the advocacy role: the important part is that they naturally allow the character’s interests to come through based on what they imagine of the character’s nature and background. . .

    The actual procedure of play is very simple: once the players have established concrete characters, situations and backstory in whatever manner a given game ascribes, the GM starts framing scenes for the player characters. Each scene is an interesting situation in relation to the premise of the setting or the character (or wherever the premise comes from, depends on the game). The GM describes a situation that provokes choices on the part of the character. The player is ready for this, as he knows his character and the character’s needs, so he makes choices on the part of the character. This in turn leads to consequences as determined by the game’s rules. . .

    The player’s task in these games is simple advocacy, which is not difficult once you have a firm character. (Chargen is a key consideration in these games, compare them to see how different approaches work.) The GM might have more difficulty, as he needs to be able to reference the backstory, determine complications to introduce into the game, and figure out consequences. Much of the rules systems in these games address these challenges, and in addition the GM might have methodical tools outside the rules, such as pre-prepared relationship maps (helps with backstory), bangs (helps with provoking thematic choice) and pure experience (helps with determining consequences).

    The Burning Wheel rulebook, in the final section (called "Playing the Game", I think) also has a heading "Role of the Player" (or something similar) in which the first item is to the effect of "Give your PC beliefs and instincts that provide solid hooks for the GM" (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but not too inaccurately).

    This is not about the GM hooking the players. It's not even about the GM hooking the players with player input. It's about the players hooking the GM.

    As is often noted, if the group agrees to play an adventure path, than the players are obliged to take the GM's hook. Otherwise the game will not even get going.

    Well, similarly, in the sort of play that I, Edwards, Tuovinen and Luke Crane are talking about, the GM is obliged to take the players' hooks, as presented at first via their PC builds and backstories, and then as those hooks develop during play. A very simple example - if my player builds a paladin of the Raven Queen, I'm obliged to put undead and/or Orcus cultists into the game. That's an instance of the player hooking the GM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    In my view this is not true. It suggests an equivalence that is not there.
    Good points. I guess the equivalency I'm seeing is that you're taking those hooks and building from them compared to developing the hook yourself and building from there. The hook itself is not equivalent.
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    It's funny but I didn't know a sandbox did not have things happening off screen, aka plot. Do people really run "sandbox" games where the world is trapped in amber until the party shows up, only to get in motion as the PCs wander through and then freezing up once again as they leave? In every sandbox game (as I call it) that I've run. Things happen.

    If you ignore the goblins harassing farmers to the north long enough, some other adventuring band will go deal with it.

    The duke will unwittingly marry the doppleganger princess the party might have discovered if they had gone left instead of right. Yes, the party can go anywhere. That doesn't mean that the world only exists where they are.

    Do we a need a name for this style of game? Because I always called it a sandbox. I didn't know there was some even more sandboxy than my sandbox. Or is Ari talking about something else entirely?
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