Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Storytelling I

With a successful kinship-wide plot behind me, and the inspiration of both Melthanwen's wonderful guide to PvP (which has already proven extraordinarily useful to me) and some recent conversations with friends online, I have decided to start a guide to doing one of the few things on this game which I think I excel at: plots. Now I must say, up front, that for some people the very notion of a guide to player plots is something of an oxymoron. To some, the only true kind of RP is completely freeform, so that no player ever communicates with any other player Out Of Character, characters know only what they are told, and anyone can join or leave the story more or less at any time, and take the story in whatever direction they choose to take it.

These are not "plots." Because, to be frank, they don't have a plot. A plot is a storyline structure, or at least some kind of basic goal or summary which the story encapsulates. These freeform experiments are stories, and sometimes those stories can rivet the attention of the players that are in them. But they do not suit me, and I will tell you why: in theory they are good, they have a certain conceptual purity which appeals to the hardcore roleplayer. But the practical issues of playing in an MMO "on the ground" nearly always prove destabilizing to this kind of freeform RP, so that the person you need to RP with never seems to be online when you need him to be, or someone quits the game, or gets bored with her character, or decides to do something wacky to the story so that what could have been a satisfying and triumphant conclusion instead fizzles out with a whimper, or the story accumulates so many involved characters that it spirals out of all management until eventually everyone just sort of tries to pretend it didn't happen -- sort of like World War I.

Now I am not trying to suggest that plots should be scripted. No one finds such a script more boring than I do, and spontaneity, suspense, and tension are the hallmark of some of our favourite stories. But I maintain that it is possible to craft and play in a plot which is both unpredictable and yet dramatically organized. Ultimately, many will see this as the age-old debate between the Simulationist and Storyteller. The first camp is made up of folks who want the game to be as much like real life as possible, and if it is messy, and stories prove unsatisfying, well, that's the way life is. The game should be no different. The other camp has a different priority: they are not trying to mirror life, they are not attempting complete immersion. Rather, they are trying to create a dramatic narrative, and that is not going to happen spontaneously. Lives are not dramatic by nature. They only attain great drama when we shape them and cast them.

This guide could be book-length. It could go on indefinitely. I'm not going to try to write the whole thing now or even try to outline it or make chapter titles. I'm just going to pick a place that seems like a good spot to start, and follow my nose. So, see, I may be a Storyteller at heart, but even I can't help the occasional freeform moment.

Story Goals

This is usually where I start. And even when I don't start here -- such as when a moment of random RP in the Pony leads me into someone else's story -- I often find myself coming back here. A story goal is perhaps the key thing that separates that random RP from something more long-lasting and memorable. In short, we ask ourselves, "What is it that I want this plot to do?"

Note that we are not outlining the plot at this stage. We are not deciding how it is going to go, what characters or in it, or how it will resolve. Some of those things we may never "decide," leaving it to chance. Instead, we are taking the macro view. We have a character; that character is important to us, and we want that character to grow, change, and tell a story. So, what chapter are we on? What is the function of the story we are about to embark on?

15 sample story goals (you may recognize some):

  • I want to create a really neat history for my new tier 5 critted item.
  • I want to explain where my character has been for the last three months while I was away in Real Life.
  • I want my character to move on from a personal relationship with a player who is no longer in the game.
  • I want to give the kinship a flavorful recurring adversary.
  • I want my hero to have a rival played by someone other than me.
  • I need to explain a drastic change in the character's personality, because I find the character boring as he currently is and I want to change him.
  • I want to reveal an aspect of my character's past which I think is really cool but which no one knows about but me.
  • I want to give my character a heretofore unknown child -- a young son or daughter he did not know he had.
  • I want to explain why my character is suddenly followed around everywhere by an unshaven guy carrying a flag.
  • I want to explain the new skin I just gave my bear pet.
  • I need to come up with a reason why my character hangs out with her kinmates, and doesn't just ride off to Angmar or home.
  • I want to forge an alliance between my kinship and another.
  • I just read the Lord of the Rings for the first time, and I want my character to have a stronger connection to the lore.
  • I want to explain why my Man character has a house in the Dwarf neighborhood.
Looking over these story goals, you will see that most of them can be highly variable in terms of scope and size. Indeed, you can achieve some of them without really having a plot at all. You can simply decide -- since you have control over your own character and plenty of NPC cast members -- that your character performed some service for a Dwarf-lord, who gave her a house, and that's all there is to it. Story told. There's no "plot" to speak of because the whole thing happened off-stage (though now that she has a Dwarf house, that house itself could spin off into more stories). On the other hand, if you decided you wanted to make a plot out of this, then you could start thinking about how you could earn that Dwarf-lord's favor in the game, and what complications might ensue, and who might not want you to have that house, or who might want the Dwarf-lord dead, and pretty soon you have more than a goal, you have Story Elements.

Story Elements

A Story Element is, again, not an outline or a script. At its most complete, it might be a single scene, but it is probably not even that developed. It is the "cool bit" which you want to include in the story: that moment of drama, or tense revelation, or particular game mechanic which you just can't wait to do. Writers and directors often start writing without a full knowledge of what the story will be, but they know that at some point the protagonist is going to draw a sword out of a stone, or have a fencing duel atop a crumbling tower, or nearly die from drowning, or pretend to be a nobleman. Kenneth Brannaugh, who has directed several adaptations of Shakespeare for the cinema, started working on his version of Hamlet with only one idea in his head: he knew Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were going to arrive in Elsinore on a steam train, waving hello while the thing trudged through the snow. That was his first Story Element. What's yours? What scenes, vignettes, lines of dialogue or other "cool bits" are making you really want to do this story?

15 Sample Story Elements (look familiar?)

  • Someone will utter a prophecy about my character's death
  • My character will reveal scars she got at the hands of her off-stage torturers
  • My character's father will admit that he is not my real father after all, but was charged with raising me by a wandering wizard
  • Someone will be entrusted with a Ring of Power
  • It will be revealed that the mysterious spy lurking in Bree is a creature unlike anything the heroes have seen before
  • A hero will be knighted
  • My character will defeat the mysterious masked villain, only to learn that that villain is her father
  • My character will have a "training montage" in which much time passes as I quickly learn a new legendary skill
  • I will wrestle an alligator
  • I will make an impossible shot with my bow and save the day
  • My friends will engage in a riddle game. The stakes: my life!
  • A Maia will appear before us and recognize us as peers and friends
  • King Dwalin will angrily banish my dwarven champion
  • My character will be left at the altar
  • My character will be poisoned, and have only hours to live unless the cure is found
You may not have a lot of story elements when you first start thinking about a plot. You may be intimidated by the blank page. Don't worry, it'll come. There is no reason to force yourself at this stage. Don't think of the page as blank -- think of it as obscured. Your exciting, suspenseful, and dramatically satisfying story is there, you just can't see it yet. You will find your way one step at a time, and fill in blanks as you go. As long as everything you decide later makes sense with what has been revealed so far, you're golden. Contrary to some opinions, you don't need to have all the answers to every possible question. If you're like me, the best answer to that question will come to you when you are eating lunch and far from the computer. Let it happen. Write down what you know and move on.

Story Scope

We don't have an unlimited canvas in LotRO. There are some things we can control, but many other things we can't. If you want Barliman Butterbur to have a role in your story, you can probably get away with it. But he can't die, and even getting him out of the Pony can pose some logistics problems. It's tough to RP having a horse if you are less then 35th level, even if your character is from Rohan and should have an effing horse. You see what I mean. But now is probably the time for you to decide just how big you want your story to be. Most of us have an epic streak; we have gotten it from movies, from the novels themselves, or just our own ego. We want our stories to be big. But we should rein in that impulse at least a little. When you are starting out as a Storyteller, you will want to keep the loose ends to a minimum. The more people that are involved, the more likely it is that someone in your story will start taking it over with an idea which that player thinks is brilliant, but which thwarts your goal for the plot. Moreover, as the cast of a story gets larger, it begins to snowball into an ever larger cast, as each person in it comes into contact with more and more people. Stories are as communicable as the common cold, and just as hard to cure. Once a person is hooked into a story, it's very hard to just let it go. You end up with two dozen people all struggling against each other for dominance, and since you can't put any of them out of your misery with an axe to the head, your story is the only casualty.

Think about your scope. There are some obvious categories to work with here, but these are almost entirely artificial and highly variable. What is most important is not the scope you choose, but that you choose one in the first place and stick to it.

  • You. This is in many ways the least satisfying level of scope, since by definition your hero is the only person to participate in it, and the only person to know what happened in it. It will make a fine journal entry or two, I'm sure. But it won't make any RP for anyone else, except potentially as aftermath when everyone asks you, "So, how did you lose your eye?"
  • Your close circle. This is a story for you and your intimate friends, family, and lover(s), who will care the most about you and who you can rely upon to shake heaven and earth where you are concerned. These sorts of stories are a great stage for intense drama, since with a small cast each person gets plenty of stage time and you don't have to worry about someone you don't know coming in and taking over. We're probably looking at around half a dozen player characters here. If you insist that you just have too many close friends to fit into such a small number, well, lucky you, but you are definitely biting off a larger story chunk. Advance to the next size scope.
  • Your network/kinship. If there are a couple of dozen people involved in your story, you are looking at a pretty challenging organizational hurdle to overcome. There's just no way that you are going to be able to keep tabs on everyone involved in a story of this size. Those in the story will do things you don't know about, and because they cannot find you or talk to you, they will make judgement calls regarding the story which you may later have to struggle to reconcile. Your inability to oversee everything also ensures that some of the things you absolutely need to have happen will not, in fact, happen because the person you expected to do them either will have misunderstood your directions or simply won't get around to it. What this all means is that you need to do more planning for stories of this sort, preparing multiple ways to accomplish certain Story Beats (we will get to Beats later). Also, information management becomes a big concern at this level. At smaller scope, you can just get everyone together in a chat room and share info. Exposition seldom needs to be given more than once. But at this level, you will never be able to get everyone in the plot together at once. You need to think about a way to get information out to players even when they are not online, and you need to recognize that some people will just be forever in the dark about what the hell is really going on. At this scope, you also have increased your cast to the point where there are major roles and supporting roles. With only five or six people to worry about, you can ensure that each character has a dramatically satisfying scene or two. But when you are working with a whole kinship, or your large group of friends, we must recognize that some of those people will be stars, some will be minor parts, and some will be walk-ons. Think about who you want to rely on, and who will get the bit parts. Perhaps you can give those minor players a larger role in your next story. Remember: you are not obligated to include everyone. This is a story you made. It may not be about you, but it is the story you want to tell. If someone else really wants to tell some other story, they can do it on their own time and leave your plot alone.
  • Multiple Kinships. Developers on LotRO can make plots that encompass every player in the game, but for those of us on the other side of the keyboard the largest story we can really conceptualize is one that involves more than one kinship. The most common sorts of plots at this scope are rivalries (in which two kinships are pitted against each other) and alliances (in which two or more kinships come together against a common foe). Both can be satisfying, but it is important to recognize some incontrovertible facts. Mechanisms for physical violence between player characters are woefully inadequate for most large scale conflicts. Two people can duel quite easily, but if two kinships decide to draw arms against each other there's no practical way in the game to resolve this. Even in small groups, "consent based" combat (Gandalf: "I smash the bridge under your feet, sending you down into the pit!" Balrog: "As I am falling, I swing my whip for your legs!") can be very difficult for some of the involved players to grasp, and when you are working with players you do not know, you simply cannot trust the 12th level hunter to fall down when the 36th level captain swings his sword at him. There's a good reason for this: despite all those deadly weapons flying around, no PC in LotRO can ever die unless they stop paying Turbine. In almost every case, this means that rivalries between two kinships must either be defused or at least cool down into a long-term simmer. Because no matter how evil a particular kinship may act, they will always escape justice. This doesn't make for a very satisfying story, and it doesn't even make much sense -- since one wonders why, if an evil PC is really in the wrong, they are not beheaded. Because evil players can therefore be evil without ever suffering any consequences for their actions, their behavior is encouraged. If you really want to do a story of two kinships quarreling with each other, my advice is to make a misunderstanding or trick at the root of the conflict, so that both kinships can return to honourable behavior and good will when the story ends. Otherwise, the rivalry only ends up with both groups looking impotent. You can only explain passifism for so long when your heroes are out slaughtering orcs and trolls every day. Alliance plots are much easier, since they involve a common foe, usually an NPC. or possibly some non-violent event that brings the two kinships together; you may have a marriage that unites the two groups, for example. But because the numbers are still large, these sorts of stories can still be a challenge to coordinate and ultimately you are still writing for a small group of select people within those kinships, and letting the bulk of the members find their own RP along the way.
Next time: Story Beats and the Wandering Path