Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Playing out the Story

Forms of narrative development in roleplaying scenarios.

Some debate on how narratives can be achieved with the Tefr system have already occurred on this blog. The debate, I believe, stems from some confusion over what I mean by narrative. Playing out any scenario will result in some form of narrative, by their nature roleplaying is about cause and consequence. But I am talking about offering what seems to be a structured narrative, with a beginning, middle and end. This will most likely seem to be counter to any notion of freedom of choice on the part of the player characters, but bear with me; it is possible to use a progressive narrative that will still give the players freedom to act within the framework of the system and the constraints of the environment in which they find themselves.

  Delivering any kind of designed plot without forcing the players to follow a linear path will be more down to the style of the narrator, the players, and the scenario they are undertaking than the system itself. Some narrators simply create a situation, a place, a set of non-player characters, encounters and objects then let the player characters explore the environment at will; allowing the actions of the characters and the system itself to determine the sequence of play and the way the story develops. This is usually the simplest form, though it is not the same as gameplay, because it relies on the players to roleplay within the situation they create. With only a small amount of help and adaptability from the narrator, this can result in some quite fabulous narrative created amongst the players themselves.

   For example: the characters learn from a messenger that a nearby city may need mercenaries. They travel there and try to find work (or they don’t, end of story), but are offered the chance to help smuggle a child out of the city to avoid a powerful mage extracting his essence.

If they accept this work their narrative will turn one way, if they refuse, it will take a different direction.
The resolution will depend upon the character's actions following their initial decisions.

    The next form is to use an unconnected plot arc that occurs at the same time as the type explained in the previous paragraph. The characters learn snippets of this story as they are undertaking the scenario, but their actions cannot influence its outcome. However, clever delivery by the narrator can sometimes lead the players to believe that the characters are involved in this other plot arc, even though their actions and choices will not change it. Their actions will only change their immediate, and usually unconnected situation.

   The characters encounter an exhausted messenger and learn that his Duath and his army have been defeated by an army from Tukis. The Tukisi had a mage with them who could unleash incredible destructive forces. The messenger must get to the Duath’s home city and warn them that they are soon to be besieged.

    In this example the city will be besieged, even fall, whether the characters chose to help the messenger or not, but they feel somehow involved. If they deliver the message, they will meet people in the city, perhaps even get hired to try and smuggle a child out past the enemy lines. But the city will still be besieged, there is nothing they can do that will prevent that.

    A more complex narrative will involve storylines which the player characters can influence. This requires a degree of further adaptability on the part of the narrator. Generally, outcomes are based on the way the narrator believes the non-player characters should react to the actions of the player characters in the context of the plot arc. While most good narrators will write, or at least consider, a number of outcomes for various encounters and conjunctions in the scenario, if the story changes in some unpredictable fashion, then the narrator must adapt it on the fly. With this method there is always the risk that whole chunks of pre-planned story can be lost or altered. Either the narrator comes up with a secondary plan to bring the story back on track, or simply goes with the new direction and rewrites when there is time.

   After warning the people of the city, the characters are asked to try and smuggle a child out of the city, but they learn that the child is rumoured to be Aren, The Lord of Light re-born in human form, and is the reason the city is under siege. The Tukisi mage wants the child, believing he will gain god-like powers by capturing his essence. The child, however, knows a way to deactivate the magical artefact that allows the mage to wield such destructive forces.

   Thus the characters can now learn the means (if they ask the right questions) to directly influence the plot arc in several ways, how, or if, they use the knowledge, is down to them.

   Plots like this can often be nested within even wider plots, perhaps the war is on an imperial scale, perhaps whoever has the child can influence some even greater event. A good example of nested plots can be found in a fantasy book series. In general the same characters will feature in each book, and all the books are connected by some overarching global story, a story that progresses in some small way in each book, but only concludes in the last volume. The individual books also have their own complete narrative stories, and within each book, every chapter will have some independent narrative structure. There will also be sub-plots, and secondary characters that appear and play out over longer plot arcs that might cover several chapters of a book, or even several books of the series. It sounds like it ought to be complicated to implement, but for the most part such plot arcs are all things which can be delivered in discrete packets, and for the most part are self sustaining. For example if the player characters have an encounter with a non-player character, the plot element of this might simply be why that encounter occurred, or perhaps the non-player character is there to tell or let slip some piece of information that builds on some ongoing story, like the exhausted messenger detailed earlier. There is no reason why that same character might not reappear in a later scenario, developed in some way by the story, ready to deliver some new information, or perhaps the reason for his reappearance is as a result of the characters’ own actions.

   Using combinations of the above types of story delivery, it is possible to create arcs within arcs; arcs the players themselves have created; long and short arcs that cross over; subplots and backstory that combine to make a strong overall sense of narrative progression for the players. Nested plot arcs will allow them to feel like they are playing a key part in an ongoing story, raising the interest above that of a simple game, to a feeling of participation in the events of the world in which the narrative is set.