Let's talk about plots!
1. DEFEATING EVIL
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.
2. RAGS TO RICHES
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).
3. THE COMEDY
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.
4: THE TRAGEDY
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.
5. THERE AND BACK AGAIN
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?