Plot:Design:Main Plot

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In this section we have a closer look at the plot. How it is composed and how it should look like. A thought we’ll have to keep in mind all the time is that the player should drive along the plot, not vice versa.

Components

A plot is a rather abstract concept. It is made up of many different aspects, and all of them are equally important. First of all it needs a world to take place in. This does include the geographic location as well as a history and culture.

  • The history is essential as it helps to explain the situation that sets the plot in motion. A player needs not know the complete background right from the beginning, or at least not all of it. However, as she progresses through the game, it should be revealed step by step, so that she can finally understand the reasons for her situation. Not only solving the main quest can be motivating, but also figuring out the background.
  • Culture gives the plot a frame. It defines acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and gives the player something she can rely on, even if everything else is uncertain. It also helps with the creation of NPCs, history and locations. Diversions from the expected behaviour of NPCs and appearance of locations will bring additional flavour to the game. They stick out most if the rest largely follows the rules dictated by culture.

The plot further needs a storyline. It unravels in dialogues and cutscenes, in scripted events and in the player’s exploration of the world. In general, there are two ways to tell a story, and in our case it is important to find a good mixture of them.

  • Interactive story-telling includes dialogues (if they offer enough choices) and in general the player making her way through the world. These parts of the story are centered around the player’s actions and decisions, and so often differ from player to player. But for an interactive game, they are to be preferred of course. Still the player needs some short- and long-term goals, to give her a direction. Being lost without a clue what to do next is definitely a plot-killer.
  • Non-interactive elements such as cutscenes and scripted events are the best choice when more control over the story is required: to create suspense, to add some interesting twists, or simply to surprise the player and to throw her into new, unforseen situations. These elements are the spice of the plot, but they have to be utilised with care.

Structure

Unlike a book or movie, the plot of a role playing game cannot be linear. As the name implies, the player should be able to take on whatever role she likes and consistently stick to that role. In other words, the plot should adapt to a player’s style of playing, not the other way round. This however would lead to completely open-ended gameplay, where everything depends upon the player, without predefined storyline. A (good) storyline however is part of the motivation to continue playing. It provides a long term goal and indicates progress, apart from gaining higher levels and acquiring better equipment.

So the difficulty lies in finding a good compromise between a linear story and non-linear, adaptive gameplay. If we look at a story, we will soon find key points that are essential to it, while other parts are merely required to connect those key points. This is something we can use to our advantage. In case of our plot, those key points are events or situations every player needs to pass in a certain order for the plot to make sense. Different paths between those key points allow for different styles of playing. Depending on the style the player chooses, she might experience the key point from a different perspective and will also find different ways to carry on afterwards.

To be more precise, a key point is a set of plot nodes that are roughly equivalent. Usually they share the same location and events, but often differ in the player’s possible actions and outcome. The outcome then influences the paths that are available afterwards. Some of them might be shared between different nodes, while others would be exclusive to a certain node.

Overall plot structure

Each of those different paths can contain a number of key points itself, so that we can have multiple alternatives on this lower level as well. These might not depend so much on the player’s style of playing, but more on other factors. Basically, a task would be completable in different ways. Some of them might require certain skills or artifacts and would therefore apply to a limited number of players only, while others would be open to any player. There can’t be distinct ways to complete a task for every possible player, but there should be a fair number of alternatives.

Of course, at some point further division of the plot makes no more sense, or is simply impossible. But if there are different ways to complete a task, or part of a task, these alternatives should be implemented. This especially applies to alternatives that are really unique, while it is no must-have for alternatives that just differ marginally.

Design

There are numerous ways in which two paths between key points can differ, and it is certainly impossible to implement each of them in every case. The list below is a selection and by no means complete, but it should give you an idea how a particular aspect of the plot might be accomplished in different ways.

  • Player alignment is probably the most obvious. Especially tasks that involve NPCs can often be accomplished in either good or evil fashion - or some shade in between. Give them something in exchange for an artifact, or just steal it. Do as they say, or deceive them. Help the fair and pursue the foul or slay the innocent and band with the villains.
  • The gender of a player might also affect the way a task can be accomplished. Some NPCs might prefer either male or female characters, and therefore make life harder for the other sex.
  • Special equipment can help to simplify many tasks. The proper spell or item at the right place might unlock shortcuts or help persuading NPCs without doing the usual errand for them.
  • Special skills are similar to the equipment. A charming player may influence others to his favour, and an athlete may be able to climb walls or cross obstacles that force everybody else to a long detour. Practically every skill can be used to ones advantage at certain occasions.
  • Different quests could lead to the same result or reveal similar hints for the next step. That way, the player may chose the one that suits her best, although it needs not always be obvious that different quests are available.
  • Different NPCs can give the same information after sending the player on an individual errand first. They might also offer completely different solutions to the same problem.
  • Different artifacts can have the same or similar effect, just like different NPCs can give the same hints. Thus they are interchangeable and either of them helps to accomplish a certain task. There might also be multiple occurances of the same artifact.

Quite a lot of these alternatives have special requirements, meaning they will be available to a small number of players only. When designing multiple ways to accomplish a task, it is important to keep this in mind. Otherwise individual players might still find themselves without a choice. So most ways should be open to all, or at least a large number of players. A few ’shortcuts’ for gifted (or lucky) players are in order though, as long as each player can be lucky from time to time.

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