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Plots and RPGs

A topic by LeviKornelsen created Mar 20, 2019 Views: 301 Replies: 11
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Let's talk about plots!


Here's the basic plot of a "defeat evil" story.

1. The hero is called to action against a partly-known enemy.
2. The hero collects their armaments.
3. The hero makes easy progress towards confrontation.
4. The first confrontation fails; the hero learns much more about their adversary, but is now faced with (or trapped in) a harder and more isolated place to go through to the second confrontation. (The adversary is defeated but revealed as not the real threat is also "learns much more").
5. The hard journey occurs; it is a grinding one, damaging the hero.
6. The hero emerges at the heart of or out of the bad place; a last confrontation occurs there.
7. The hero is victorious, and at least a little changed.

Here's my assertion about this plot:  When gaming falls into this loose structure, roleplaying games tend to fall pretty flat on 4 without good and flexible prep. Additionally, many games empower but don't really change the heroes at the end; they aren't made different by their struggles, only stronger.


Rags to riches (Joseph, David Copperfield, Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling) goes like this...

1. The protagonist is shown in exposition as miserable, under the thumb of some antagonist (which need not be a person).
2. A great gift of position, status, wealth comes to the protagonist (sometimes explicitly temporarily).
3. Enjoying this gift, the protagonist shows both that they enjoy it and have qualities suited to it (which future allies notice), but also that they are in some way unready to hold it - a lack of maturity or self-assertion, often.
4. The gift expires / a crash occurs and it is lost. The antagonist reclaims the protagonist, who is left to reflect, despair and possibly plot.
5. The protagonist or their future allies take some action that has the potential to reclaim the gift. The protagonist shows new maturity or assertion which seals it.
6. The protagonist returns to a gifted state, often more grown up or now on their terms.

My Assertions: Traditional RPGs aid with very little of this, but good prep can get you a "gift" that trends this way, and an antagonist that's ready to make these moves. Also, it's likely that (4), again, will feel railroaded unless prepped with care, might be taken badly and won't prompt a "personal growth" point, and the action taken/"their terms" will be violence (and the more traditional the system, the more likely it'll be violent). Low points and reversals being growth points is a thing - a mechanism for "the bigger the hit, the bigger the potential growth" seems like a clear thing.  Moving into (5) might do well with a "mentor" npc that tries to teach them to do it "properly" early on, but comes around to "I was wrong; let's do it your way" after (4).


So, this one (Oscar, Midsummer night, etc) is... Different.

1. A series of characters are introduced, many of whom are largely out of alignment with the world. They are with the wrong partners, trying to be something they can't, not in good family setups, and so on. They are dissatisfied.
2. Their dissatisfaction leads to them calling in or going out to some agent of chaos - or, by distraction and conflict, mistakenly turning something into an agent of chaos (grabbing wrong bags, say).
3. The agent of chaos causes an atmosphere or domino effect of things falling apart, or circulates and disrupts, or multiple such. Things get slightly ridiculous.
4. Things get bad or weird enough that under the pressure, the misaligned setups the characters cling to come apart (sometimes explosively). This is largely portrayed as worse chaos; it tends to the ridiculous or horrible-seeming, or both.
5. In the chaos, one or two things that were out of alignment come into alignment via realizations, amends, and so on. These prompt other wrong things to be set; realignment spreads.
6. The chaos comes to an end, whether by coming to a climax, being overcome by the realigned characters, or otherwise.

Assertions: Putting this into an RPG in mechanical terms as something that will emerge from play would likely require relationship traits that can be overwritten, and some evident "good state" they can be shifted into. I have never yet seen a game suited to generating this; but I believe it'd be possible.. Turning Fiasco inside out might do it; it's the closest I know of.



Always a classic....

1. The protagonist is described as having some strong desire, often related to power or position.
2. To obtain this desire, the protagonist takes some terrible action (which includes striking a nefarious deal).
3. The desire is fulfilled! All seems well.
4. Problems (internal and external) with the desire or resulting from the bad action slowly appear; further bad action is taken to resolve them, but they don't resolve well and/or spin out more problems.
5. The problems resulting from this badness connect - enemies form a side, visions cause public outbursts in front of those already suspicious, and so on.
6. The unified problems come for the protagonist, to defeat said protagonist. The protagonist may escape through suicide, face their fate, or attempt to escape the tragic end (they sometimes do escape, to prove some point about forgiveness or some such; blech).

Assertion: Traditional RPGs have all the tools for this to occur, but it only occasionally does; players flee the possible plot as it emerges and GMs often help with this. But if the group is up to go there, traditional mechanics don't push back on it.



Something you'd expect RPGs to be great at: The Hobbit, Alice in wonderland.

1. The hero is portrayed at home as vulnerable or incautious. They may be small, naive, curious, etc.
2. By some device, the hero is pulled into a strange new (part of the) world. They must perform some task or seek some exit to return home.
3. For a time, the new world is relatively wondrous, though not without challenges.
4. The wonders of this new world darken and the challenges intensify; a singular dark power takes precedence.
5. The hero is taken (or goes into) the clutches of the dark power, where it becomes plain they cannot defeat that power alone.
6. The hero escapes the dark power in some daring fashion; they bring out with them knowledge or treasure or personal growth (or all).
7. The hero passes on what they have gained or learned to the aid of those opposed to the dark power, or otherwise weakens that power by the escape itself (which folds 7 into 6). Confusion and realignment occur in the new world.
8. The hero returns home, often somewhat changed, grown, and enriched.

Assertion: So, this plot seems like it should be both easy and potentially natural for traditional tabletop play, so long as the players don't carry the assumption that they can fight any enemy presented.  It fails as the emergent story for many because it ultimately makes the hero the critical factor but does NOT provide a power fantasy, which players are commonly expecting and seeking (even if they don't mean to), and which systems often aim to provide.  


Last assertion:  RPGs as traditionally set up are really really good at creating narratives; they're actually pretty bad at generating satisfying plots.  They do mechanistically ok on Overcoming Evil, except that they tend to fall flat on the "personal growth and development side", substituting in "MOAR POWER" for that.  (Aside:  A lot of them also construct their "Evil to be overcome" in colonialist, racist, and otherwise befuckered ways, but that's not so much a plot-generative issue as a "the material that's grabbed first for this plot is often shit".)

Anywaaaaaaaay.  Your thoughts?

Are you talking about externally provided plot, as in here is the broad plot line, and here is why I/we want to have this and that important turning points that lead to a climax?

Or emergent plot in which a sequence of events happen through play that can be fit into one of these categories with important turning points identified?

Or both?

In my experience 1 leads to a lot of problems when applied to certain that either implicitly, for example DnD, or explicitly, for example Monster Hearts, when not everyone is on board with that, the heroes and 2 seems to be how a lot of games work but can be dissatisfying when some players want to experience or need more of a frame in the campaign, whether to push against the "rails" or figure out what they are supposed to do.


I'm primarily thinking about emergent plots, elicited by playing the game without the GM or others driving hard towards the structure (other than as dictated by the rules), but the above (as written) is relatively neutral on how you CAUSE the plot to appear.

I think now need to set out how to address points 1-7 of "Defeating Evil" in my Macross rpg in a clearer or more direct manner, especially 4 and 7.


As a fun aside: A version of "Overcoming Evil" where the GM brings out the prep for step 4 and the players flip it or don't change tactics and keep on bulldozing through?

Die Hard.

So, like, the plot can work without a full reversal, but that usually means heaping on the pain, and making it obvious. 

Darkest Dungeon and Torchbearer know this.


I personally don't like to think of plot structure as a fiction writer or a game designer, as I feel that tends towards a sort of Campbellian simplification that erases the rich complexities that occur naturally in stories. Also, so many of these plots exist around the idea of conquest, of triumphing over a foe, which is so often an unsatisfying arc, compared to the idea of living and breathing in a world. These plots also forefront a single protagonist, a chosen one, over the value of the group and the community, and I feel like RPGs in particular have an immense power in creating community-focused plots, which is something that rarely emerges from traditional narratives.


Cool!  Also, this thread is likely useless to you.


Probably! :D
I still think there's some value in looking at non-traditional plot structures as an inherent contrast to traditional plot structures!


Levi, I appreciate that distinction at the end between "RPGs are good at creating narratives" and "RPGs are bad at conforming to plot structure." There are ways games encourage certain narratives but the games I've seen that try to get the plot to conform to a particular structure are usually too railroady for my tastes.

For example, I've played 15 sessions of a Blades in the Dark campaign and the narrative is building pretty naturally toward a massive climax very soon. The players have just wanted to live as illegal canal skiff racers who use their clout to advocate for better labor conditions for the Dockers. But trying to rise through the racing ranks while also avoiding the legal entanglements of that passion and also taking direct action against oppression has heaped a mighty pile of trouble on the crew's shoulders. 

It reminds me of Peaky Blinders: Tommy Shelby "just" wants his family to live well but there's always a better quality of life on the horizon, and each new plateau comes with new and unique problems. Tommy's method of overcoming those challenges means he's always sticking his neck out further and further. In the same way, this crew "just wants to live" but the interplay between Stress, Vice, Reputation, Heat, and Entanglement all push the narrative toward that increasingly fraught, difficult climax. The mechanics encourage a certain narrative without mandating a particular plot structure, and I think that's a sign of good design.

(2 edits) (+5)

I was waiting for "railroady" to appear.  :P

Okay, so, personally: 

1. I'm completely happy if a game loads me up with meaningful choices that do not particularly form into any given plot structure.  That's a good design, and Blades is good in that field.  

2. I'm also happy if a game pulls towards a given structure without forcing it (by enticement and having things like moves that all point that way) - it "pulls" instead of "pushing". 

3. And I'm happy if a game demands plot in a way that's deeply, deeply integrated rather than feeling like a tacked-on layer, so that "play the game" is "run the plot", straight up.   Fiasco, for example, IS a plot structure in gameable form, as is The Mountain Witch.  And for references right at hand, so is Atop A Lonely Tower, up there in the "Play" forum.

4. I'm not as happy when one layer of the game says "You're free to do as you like" and the other (or the GM) says "No you bloody aren't", unless I signed up for that exactly ("Want to play adventure module RB4?"). 


Agreed all around! I had a tickle in my brain that there was a "run the plot" game or two out there but couldn't remember what they were. Thanks for the reminder! You could also add Tobie Abad's A Single Moment to that list, although you can string that game's scenes together more or less however you like.

I guess it wasn't all that accurate to say "run the plot" games are railroady. I think they can run that risk... but maybe not any more or less than any other system. That is to say: the difference between guided plot and railroad may have more to do with the GM than the system.


I would hold up Fiasco as the (rare) example of a game that mechanically creates plot and does so from the improvisation of the players -- and consequently lacks rails. It creates a very reliable story structure without forcing the specific story.