The Relation of RPGs and Traditional Storytelling

Another book I finished on my vacation was 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias (for those not interested in the MtG-posts, I mentioned a pretty interesting book called A Brief History of Vikings I also read in one of those yesterday). My former writing teacher (obligatory namedrop, because some of you will undoutably know her or know of her: Saara Henriksson) recommended it, so I read it. Its exactly what it says on the can: It describes 20 different plots with structures, emotional hooks, examples, and simplified lists of things you should bear in mind.

These are indeed the plots we see over and over again in fiction. Of course, this is just one view and the number of plots can be counted in a number of different ways as plots can be categorized in any way the author chooses. I bet there are plenty of people who are ready to find such an abtract plot that you can boil every story down to it. However, that wouldn’t be very helpful if we want this model to actually help us in some way (besides philosophical debates).

Anyway, one pretty common denominator in these twenty plots is that you have one protagonist and one antagonist. There might be all sorts of other characters running around in the plot, but everything pretty much revolves around the protagonist. Think about classic fairytales. They always have exactly one main character, who we follow through the story.

Of course, this goes against everything in our usual RPGs. In an RPG the players vie for attention. Each player has a special relationship to his or her own character and usually (although I’ve talked about exceptions in the past) wants to bring his or her character to the forefront. This means the players are not really pulling in the same direction, which can lead to very fractured plots.

Roleplayers like to think that we are some sort of continuation of people telling stories by the fire before modern entertainment. This isn’t true. Its just overly romanticized vision of our hobby. The medium has nothing to do with those days besides some social aspects, but even those are far-fetched, as just like many forms of modern entertainment, storytelling was done by one person (well, probably several, but one at a time) and the rest were more or less passive listeners (although it can be argued that they had to use their imagination more, but than again, this text doesn’t include animated instructions and you’re using your imagination right now, also I bet those storytellers used to use all sorts of tricks to make their stories more vivid).

This is probably why so many RPGs revolve around action, adventures and puzzles. Those don’t necessarily require a main character, as the arc of those characters is not usually that interesting (even if movie writers try to inject those forcibly). In these kinds of plots the characters have a clear common goal without having to put any character in the fore, whereas if the main plot was – say – romantic or transformation, one character (or maybe two) would be implicitly risen above the others.

Of course, you can always use the structure used by many TV series these days and have several plotlines running at the same time. However, this isn’t usually that interesting in RPGs, as people will have more invested in their own characters than the other player characters, and often players don’t even pay attention when their character is not in the scene. Even good TV series lose me at times. I wasn’t interested in every single inhabitant of Deadwood, but for some reason, we were following way too many of them by the end. Even though I was invested in several of the characters, many of the sideplots were just filler for me to get to the good stuff with Al Swearengen.

You can’t really fault players for not getting invested in the characters of other players. There might be a lot going on, but that’s often very internal. I try to explain my characters thinking when I can, but sometimes its just hard to relate these things to others… especially if they are just thinking about what their characters are thinking. Showing is better than telling anyway, but there are limits to what you can show in the usual environment.

So, basically we’re going against millenia of tradition and hoping our monkey brains can cope with the changed situation. Well, doing this from a very early age certainly helps…

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