Saturday, 22 March 2014

Horse or Rider: Plot Vs Character?

A recent talk at Games Developer Conference really got me thinking about writing for tabletop RPGs. Titled Death to the Three Act structure it proposes an alternate approach to delivering story to Players. This link, you will notice, is to the slides from the talk because there is no video or transcript of the talk in the public realm. To gain more context check out this video from IGN and this post at Gamasutra. This MS power point file includes the slides and the discussion notes of the talk, well worth it if you have the time.

The short version is that there is a mystery that the multi-billion dollar video game industry is trying to solve:

Why do so few players complete a game?

So why does this matter for tabletop games? The longevity of your favorite campaign is all about engagement. If you can't engage your players you will not sustain your campaign. It really is that simple. But figuring out how to engage your players - that's the hard part.

The short version of the talk, contextualized to RPGs, is that successful story telling is all about Characters. Your Plot, no matter how clever it is, will always take a back seat to the Characters. The Player Characters and the Non Player Characters. Ten years later, if your Players remember the campaign at all,they will remember it in terms of the Characters they played and the characters they interacted with. Microsoft spent a bunch of money to prove this, see Slide 21. Players have a hard time explaining the plot of a game compared to explaining the plot of a film or book. They have invested in the Character not the Plot. The following slide provides the four key findings of the study and they are quite telling. 

All the Old School and Sandbox GMs out there are wondering why their eyes are rolling because they definitely don't read this blog. A sandbox GM would claim that Plot arises from encounters and encounters are driven by characters. They are not impressed by any of this and confirm that introducing film narrative structure to RPGs was something that they ignored because it has nothing to contribute to the sandbox or hexcrawl style of play.

For the rest of us, pretty much all of the GM advice printed in a game since 1990 suggests some variation of the Three Act Structure as the proven method for creating and presenting content to your Players. It is one of those `best practice' things that is presented without question. The research within video games (and I see no compelling reason why it isn't equally valuable for RPGs) is that this structure does not mesh with Players. Are we emulating a structure that does not resonate for our chosen medium?

The writers Richard Rouse III and Tom Abernathy end with three points to steer or reconcile Character and Plot.
  1. Focus on character first; align character motivations with player motivation.
  2. Align your narrative with the structural needs of your game's user experience, learn-practice-master loop, and level/mission design.
  3. Use that information to inform your narrative structure – build your story’s dramatic rhythms around those needs.
The first point is interesting to me because tabletop RPGs don't consider the relationship of needs between the player and the player character to anywhere near the depth that video games do. Maybe that needs to change and if so does it gift the GM greater utility?
The second point is one that I think RPGs often do better than video games is not so much a lesson that GMs really need to hear. Your narrative is being told within a game; respect that.
The final point ties back to points made earlier in the talk. If you have an agenda ie; a story that you want to deliver through play, figure out the story before you decide how to tell it. Ideally, don't decide how to tell it, tell it through the characters that the Player Characters encounter both directly and incidentally. 

If, at the conclusion of play, a player can list all the key characters that they interacted with and by telling the story of heir interactions with those characters they tell the story as a whole, you have successfully created a narrative without a three act structure. Imagine that!