Sunday, August 16, 2009

Roleplaying Games and Story Structure, Part 3

Back from Colorado, I am now ready to continue this discussion.

I had a thought while I was out in the mountains, that it would be a good idea to use an entry to introduce everyone to some of the vocabulary I'll be using in this series.

As previously mentioned, I have a theater and literature background. A huge portion of my experience in those fields informs my hobby, so many of the terms I use will be taken from that as well. The following list are words I may employ to help you understand what I'm talking about, already digested for use in roleplaying games.

Drama: I use this in the sense of "good drama," as in "a struggle between two or more sides with irreconcilable goals that must be resolved."

Example: A group of kobolds steals a lucky charm that has been in the family for generations; the man wants it back and the kobolds want to keep it for the luck it brings them. This simple fetch quest is dramatic.

Conflict: What do the two sides wish to accomplish? Oddly enough, it's often a good idea to leave the PCs out of the initial conflict. Most games serve the PCs as forces reacting to the conflict, rather than serving as a catalyst. Think about it - in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is simply trying to find an old colleague and the stakes keep rising. Indy is a small part of the greater conflict, but is key to the resolution.

In our example above, the kobolds want to hang onto the artifact that the quest-giver wants returned. Though the PCs may have a personal stake of some kind in the conflict - a sister to the man in question, or a debt-riddled rogue out to make some coin - the conflict is not theirs.

: How will the drama be resolved? Both sides of the conflict need a defined and easily-grasped goal.

Now, let's talk down the road here: I always vote for keeping things very, very simple. Just get the game to the table with its easy to understand goals; we all know the players will provide plenty of complexity, conspiracy theories, and hypotheses that will both slow the game down and provide you with interesting ideas for the future.

It's also very important that PCs be the only people who can resolve the drama! If a visiting sheriff or paladin can go squash the bad guys on his own, then why are the PCs doing it?

The goals of our example quest are very simple: The PCs will resolve the drama by obtaining the lucky charm. The man can't do it by himself, and he can't approach the town watch with this problem because the kobolds lair is outside the zone they are willing to patrol.

Stakes: What is at risk? You may have heard the term "raising the stakes" before; over the course of a good story, what is at risk often becomes more personal and more important. Again using Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example, the Nazis fake the death of Marion Ravenwood, which creates a desire for vengeance within Indy - he realizes the Nazis will stop at nothing to obtain the Ark, so he decides he must do the same. Raising the stakes happens over time; if you recall most CRPGs, a simple task undertaken at the beginning of the game has more sinister underpinnings and is often the opening salvo of a larger conspiracy.

In our kobold story, perhaps the PCs discover that stealing the artifact has caused monsters in the area to respect the kobold tribe, who are now beginning to unite the ogres and goblins in the vicinity to march against the town.

Challenge: If you read an acting textbook (which may not be a bad idea, and I can recommend several), the writer would talk about "obstacles." For an actor, an obstacle is anything that stands in the way of the character accomplishing her goals.

For RPGs, the appropriate term is a "challenge," but the idea is the same. A challenge requires the PCs (and sometimes the players themselves) to employ their various skills and talents to receive a reward. Rewards are sometimes loot, sometimes experience, and sometimes moving the story forward.

Unlike acting, where you must follow a script and blocking, many challenges in RPGs are optional. Your character spies a gem set into a tall statue's eye; the challenge is how the character gets it into his pockets. Strictly speaking, this is not a challenge they have to accept, but it is soluble and will result in a reward.

In the kobold adventure, challenges may take the form of traps the kobolds have set, monsters they have intimidated to stand in the party's way, and of course the kobolds themselves. Optional challenges may be random encounters, treasure the kobolds have trapped, or alternate ways to reach the lair of the kobolds.

Protagonist: In strictest terms, the principal character of a story is the protagonist. In RPGs, there is no protagonist; the entire story is told from the point of view of the player characters - even though there may be more important people in the world of the game.

Antagonist: Whoever marshals the opposing forces to the protagonist is the antagonist. The antagonist exists to place challenges in the way of the progtagonist.

Scenes: A small unit of dramatic action in support of the main story is a scene. In RPGs, a scene invariably contains a challenge, and part of the reward is advancement of the story.

With the kobolds (again), sneaking past sentries and into the kobold lair is a scene, solving the puzzle of their mechanical locks is a scene, and defeating the chief's dire wolf guardians once he throws the PCs into an arena is a scene. Unlocking a treasure chest, luring patrols into an ambush, and defeating a random encounter in the woods are not scenes.

Reveal: The PCs have reached the end of the kobolds' lair and find not only a kobold chieftan but the younger brother of the man who gave them the quest!

A reveal is not simply a plot twist. Plot twists are the result of insufficient storytelling. Reveals are just what they say they are - something is revealed, which implies it was knowable beforehand. Players need a fighting chance at working out the reveals ahead of time so they can plan for it and congratulate themselves on their cleverness.

Reveals are very obvious in hidsight. A reveal for the example above might go like this: "Oh, the missing farmer from the quest last week, he's related to the blacksmith, we just never asked! And he was the one who robbed the rich widow, like we heard about from Sergeant Grimes! He bought off the kobolds, and now he's got what he thinks was his birthright - but it looks like they took him hostage in return! I was right, though, there was someone more intelligent behind this, and Kyle was correct when he said it wasn't the Thieve's Guild."

Act: Every time the PCs accomplish a major victory in support of their goal, we have reached an act break. At an act break, the stakes must rise. There does not necessarily have to be a reveal to close out an act, but it can help.

If the kobold chieftan captures the PCs, then that's a good act break; the tables have turned and they must now somehow escape his clutches.

Climax: When the story has gone as far as it can and can go no further without resolution, you have reached the climax. In RPGs, a climax is usually a gigantic, bare-knuckled, knock-down, drag-out fight.

In our example, the PCs must defeat the kobold chieftan to retrieve the lucky charm, the missing brother, and prevent him from unifying the threats to society in the area. They do not have to necessarily batter him into a pulp, but they may have to defeat his champions so he may get away, or convince the younger brother to retrieve the lucky charm.

Leave comments and questions below, of course. Next up: The campaign format...with special guests!

1 comment:

Sitting Duck said...

The differentiating between a reveal and a plot twist is interesting. I've often found that the term plot twist gets used when speaking of a reveal and vice versa.

A good example of a reveal occurs in And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. In the epilogue, it's revealed that the retired judge was responsible for the Weekend of Terror. During the reread, I noticed a hint of his culpability during the scene where the record player with the accusations is played. After the initial confusion, the judge asks a couple of leading questions which prompt some of the other guests into talking about what the accusations refer to. But in the first readthrough, it's not so obvious that they are leading.