A while back, I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about the concepts of story, plot, and player agency in roleplaying games. The conversation started with them asking me about techniques for keeping players on track story-wise without railroading. Which struck me as kind of an odd question. It seems to presuppose a directed, largely immutable story that the players are expected to follow.
That kinda sounds like railroading.
So, this has led me to a couple of new questions. How do we think about “story” and “plot” in a roleplaying game? And, furthermore, are these concepts compatible with the level of player agency that we’re looking for in our game?
I believe that, as with so many things, this is — in no small part — a problem of language. So let’s start by laying out some definitions. Many of these ideas come out of literature and I’m going to knowingly abuse the hell out of them for my own nefarious ends. Deal with it.
Story. The story of your game consists of everything that will happen if the player characters do nothing.
Plot. The plot of your game is what happens when the player characters interact with story elements.
Static events. Any event that cannot be changed by the player characters is a static event.
Dynamic events. These are everything else.
Excellent. So what do we do with these things?
Well, first off, I’d like to observe that static events should probably be used sparingly. If there’s a bunch of stuff going on that your players can’t change, they’re not going to feel like active participants in the game. If I have to explain why that’s bad, you might be reading the wrong blog. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that static events should only be used as “setup” and placing static events in an ongoing game will feel like railroading.
For example, if you want your game to revolve around the players investigating the assassination of the king, that assassination will be a static event that occurs before the player characters arrive on the scene in the first session. However, if you’re running an ongoing game and your players have been dealing with the king a lot, making his assassination a static event won’t seem fair to your players.
Also, it’s worth noting that a “dynamic” event that doesn’t include the player characters will feel like a static one. To return our earlier example, if the players “had a chance” to learn of the planned assassination of the king earlier in the adventure, but missed the clues, your players will still feel cheated if the king dies off-screen. See, they don’t know that they missed the clues. From their perspective, the king died basically out of nowhere with no chance for them to intervene. And that sucks.
Fortunately, the fix to this is fairly simple. According to the definitions and observations I laid out earlier, all plot-relevant events should not only be dynamic, but must include the player characters in a meaningful way. To continue with our regicide example, instead of having the assassination occur off-screen, have the assassin make his attempt while the player characters are in a position to do something about it. Maybe they’re having an audience with the king and he decides they should walk the city so as to be seen by his subjects. Then, the assassin can spring a trap along the route. The player characters’ job (protecting the king) might be a hell of a lot harder than it would have been if they had advance warning about the attack, but they’ll still have a chance to save the king’s life.
I think this should probably extend to all villains and opposing NPCs, as well. Basically, the general rule is if you want on of your bad guys to fuck with the players, their favorite NPCs, or their stuff, the players must have an opportunity to intervene.
These concepts also tie in really well with my notions of planning and preparation. Before you start running the game, you should probably have a notion of what your story looks like (i.e. what will go down in the game world without the players mucking about in it), but once the players start doing stuff, all bets are off. That’s why I write characters, rather than plot. Well-written NPCs are easy to improvise around and can easily be transplanted from place to place (or story beat to story beat) in your campaign with little more than a simple re-skin. If all you have is “A happens, then B happens” and your players do something that doesn’t fall into this mold, you’re hosed.