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Plotting Advice across Platforms

Today a GM came in and asked to talk about laying out a new plot. She is an officer in a WoW roleplaying guild, and was looking for advice on a new story arc. I’d never been in an MMO roleplaying guild before (though I have, at least, played WoW before), but figured that plots are plots. Besides, I do have some experience [1] spinning out plots… so I figured I’d give it a shot.

It’s always nice to have something more useful than “my character” stories to talk about when you’re talking about roleplaying, and it engaged my “problem solving” skill group–always a bonus. Here’s how it went and what I learned.

Get Context

I haven’t played in a roleplaying guild, so I was unclear as to how they engage with the world. It turns out that it’s very similar to tabletop RPGs–the scene and events are described, often not matching the graphics engine at all! Just like a tabletop RPG, you have to enhance what you see (the town or a field in WoW, minis on a battlemap in traditional roleplaying) with your imagination. The person you’re advising might have entirely different powers and interactions–one friend, Stacy, works with her MUD’s designers to add new content. That gives you a different chance to engage the senses–or at least resolution engine!

Context reveals the inherent limits. If there’s no in game way to teleport characters to a new location, then describing an enemy wizard who teleports them will be difficult to implement. Even if the players pretended to hop to the dreaded forest after they were cursed, trudging there will feel very different from what you described. So part of figuring out the context and limitations is planning out which quests and events make sense for the resolution system. (For the above example, being cursed to journey to the dreaded forest makes more sense, given the system’s limitations.)

The Story So Far

No matter what system you’re using to resolve conflicts, your plot needs to make sense for it to engage the players. One of the most ingrained expectations is that it’ll be a “story”–what happened before influences what comes after. So listen up and ask good questions about who the PCs are, as a group or individuals, and build what comes from their pasts.

Once you have a sketch of the group’s reason for existing and its history, offer up a plot idea. Is there a foe that makes sense, given the backstory they’ve presented? Do they need a foe to justify the group’s concerted efforts? Even though you might not know the specific foes in their game world, you can mention a few traits that your foe should have–the GM seeking your advice will probably be able to name villains and evil organizations to fit your ideas. If not, you can brainstorm one together.

Most groups/guilds need a reason to exist. If they don’t already have a formative kickoff event [2], then that’s what you should be brainstorming with your GM. Who will make a great recurring villain in this setting? Who will the PCs eagerly work against, and who can you blame their defeats on? Just like a tabletop RPG, you’ll want a struggle the players are happy to identify their characters with.

Now Use Your GM-Fu

Once you have the kickoff/precipitating event planned, you can offer a menu of twists and developments that your GM padawan can toss in response to their guild reacting to the kickoff event. Mysterious notes, bystanders who present conflicting reports, villains who are catspaws of other villains–these are tools that you can provide for further development.

Don’t worry about your twist being hackneyed or trite; it’s a new medium, and hopefully you’ve been approached because of your success in your own realm. The first time you experience a twist, it’s amazing; because few of their players have sat around your table, you can line things up similarly, and between a different GM implementing the plan and the differing world/situation, it’ll feel completely different. It’s a new environment, so old can be new!

One thing to keep in mind is that the GMs are coordinating events more like a LARP than a traditional tabletop game–each character can wander off and interact with the world simultaneously, rather than waiting for the GM’s attention. Ideally, your plots can simmer and thread behind their daily tasks–giving their animal skinning and gold gathering a justification in between scheduled events.

How about you?

Are you in roleplaying guilds in MMOs or MUDs? How DO you come up with plots for online games? Is it the same process that you use for your tabletop game? How does the committee nature of larger guilds affect story creation and coordination?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Plotting Advice across Platforms"

#1 Comment By BryanB On July 13, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

I was in a guild during my Everquest days and I tried to form a guild in EQ 2 but it didn’t last. In the case of MMOs, we would have a guild meeting somewhere that was easily accessible to all of the members of the guild, as dodging the Freeport militia as a Troll warrior was somewhat problematic. 😀

We would discuss guild raiding and would determine what the goals for a particular mission might be. We would make strategic decisions on who would chaperone the younger guild members, possibly in a near by zone should the primary goals be found in very bad place. The goal was to make sure everyone got something useful out of the guild mission, even if it was just some coin or lootable quest items they were in need of. For the most part, our role playing experiences were largely driven by our actions and communications within the game. My troll would bring alcohol flasks he had made and pass them around the room, much to the chagrin of our Guild Leader. They had to let my character speak first before he would quickly descend into a drunken stupor. 🙂

It really isn’t that much different from a pen and paper RPG when the people are wanting to role play and get into character. We had a running gag about the Trolls in the guild cooking and eating bards. Our guild leader was a bard you see. He didn’t like the idea. So my troll was never eating bard B Q, he was eating singing birdies with no wings. It is probably easier to coordinate things in a pen and paper group though. And pen and paper games still outshine MMOs for player choice and plot development.

#2 Comment By recursive.faults On July 13, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

I first did my roleplaying on a MUD. I spent years as a player and then became one of the administrators/developers.

One of my joys was to facilitate ongoing stories that either we administrators created or to add to player created ones. I would say that in general the processes I used were very similar. Take some interesting part of the world or current events, and then escalate and twist it.

An example would be that at one point we had demons attack the main city. After it was over, some of the PCs got hostile towards a PC orc and they RP’d lynching him. I ran with it and had the orcs attack the city next.

There is a big difference that was touched on pretty well in the article, and that was knowing the world to the degree that things can actually work. I feel like with established game worlds like MUDS, WoW, and the like you run the risk of suffering a disconnect between what is actually there and what you’ll allow to be described for the sake of role-playing. Most MUDs for example are (system-wise) not built for RP. They are usually hack-and-slash. So you could wind up RPing with a little child who is precious and naive, but also one of the highest levels in the game.

So you have to take care to know the world and enhance what is there, and not break it. You also have to compete with the distractions that the game system put in place for you.

I’ve always felt that getting a feel for a tabletop RPG world was like trying to grab mud. All you know is what you are told, and often it is broad strokes. I’m not complaining about that, because it’s often necessary, but its just the view from 10,000 feet. These defined worlds can create really memorable places to go with great RP as well.

What it boils down to in my mind is that I could draw a pretty good map of the world, it’s cities, and the features in it for the MUD I used to be on, and I could barely tell you anything about the countless cities, continents, or any other facet of the tabletop game worlds I’ve ever played in.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 14, 2011 @ 11:48 am

[3] – Where there’s a will, we’ll all roleplay despite a lack of support! It sounds like your troll was quite the character.
[4] – That’s fascinating! Most RPG books have too much world information to keep track of (for me)– I wind up ignoring a lot of the specific details, because we’re not there yet. But I can definitely see that if everyone is exploring one city in detail, they’ll have a much more consistent view than GMs interpreting a city from the national description.

#4 Comment By recursive.faults On July 15, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

It’s because of that I’ve been slowly turning an idea in my mind for a campaign. The campaign will take place in a small area. Small, rich, and knowable. When the players have an encounter at a location, they’ll know it, and when they see an NPC, they’ll know them too.

Basically, I want to try to make as great a game as I can with a very small setting. I don’t like drawing this similarity, but Lost is a fair example of this.

I want to make a memorable game without diluting it with a constant flood of new things.

#5 Comment By Euphina On July 28, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

*waves vigorously*
Hi Scott, I was the one that actually asked you for advice. Just picked up your book, Eureka; 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters and that has caused a lot of ideas to flow for the WoW guild I run.

Granted, until recently I never actually played D&D or table top, but I’ve learned a lot since then.

To start, we almost always have to be a raid. There is a raid function that will make a sound and put big text across the screen of everyone in the raid when the DM talks in character or sets up the plot.

This way, we can describe the scene if it’s different than what we see in game. Maybe there are some Zombies in a town, or we’ll be on patrol and pass some civilians. Maybe it’s raining or blazing hot. Yes, we pretend the NPCs are there, we pretend to fight NPCs and talk to them. Sometimes we’ll even pretend a town is not the in game town name, and use the buildings and NPCs to our use.

It’s more or less what DMs do on table top, just in text. DMs can also put their personal characters into the scene if they want as well, although they must be careful not to be scene stealers. If anything, I use my personal character to give directional orders (say they want to go over some hill, but I already scouted the place and know that it’ll take us into a bad spot in game to RP due to monsters or bad terrain) but let the others make decisions and probe the story where they want it.

You’re constantly moving. You don’t take turns to post a reply or an action. So, unless the DM can find a way to have them post, then you do a DM post countering, it’s a mess of text.

In battles, in smaller groups a DM can reply to individual actions. Sometimes, you charge with the NPCs, let them fight, then respond to that. Sometimes, we’ll /roll 10 to see if you hit, missed or were hit.

In big battles, like the last battle of our two month campaign in Kalimdor, we had new fifty people from various guilds looking to fight. Here, you can break the people up. We sent some up the path to Orgrimmar and sent a DM with them. Another group fought on the shores to take back Alliance ships, a DM went with them. The remaining went to capture a keep.

In big groups, I use general battles. Like the melee are fighting orcs at the entrance to the Keep, so you send out a wave and let them just fight. Often, they will make their own wounds or victories against individuals they make up themselves. Then maybe I’ll say some warlocks are on the roof shooting at the ranged Alliance, and again, let the individuals make up their minds if they take out the warlocks or not. Some roll, some don’t.

If it’s huge and full of text I can’t follow, I’ll ask people to give me a private message to tell me if they did something significant to move the plot. Like, once we had a giant sea monster attack a ship with 20 PCs on board. We all fought off the limbs, but we couldn’t kill it. Someone told me they shot a cannon down the center of the ship and blew the kracken up. I missed the text action, but the PM allowed me to know what they did. So, I DMed a message in raid text what happened and we moved the story on from there.

Just like table top, they do ask permission to do things that might be out of norm as I notice PCs can get rather.. unrealistic at times. But they do get to do some decision making on their own. Like on the ship, we were learning about cannons the week before so he had previous knowledge of how to use the cannon and was able to make the decision to use it without me having to tell him yes or no.

With classes, we don’t always keep to what the in game mechanics have. Like my Hunter mechanics tell me she can toss out frost traps, but who would be able to carry heavy, steal traps with them all over Azeroth and toss a trap whenever they wanted? If anything, she might hold one or two with her, and only set them out when scouting.

A priest might be specced in Shadow magic, but in RP they are a divine healer. A Warrior might not be able to heal in game, but they could RP as if he were redeemed to the light and now has the powers of healing as a Paladin. A warlock, due to their evil nature, might RP as if they are simply a fire mage and not use their demons in character (unless of course you’re in an evil guild!).

Wow, I’ve wrote a lot. Eh hem…