Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.
— Ray Bradbury
You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.
— Joss Whedon
I have a confession to make. I’ve been a geek for much, much longer than it’s been cool.
In fact, I’m a roleplaying game geek from way back.
I cut my storytelling teeth playing MERP, AD&D, Cyberpunk, Amber, World of Darkness, and many, many more games that will likely mean very little to anyone who isn’t also a roleplayer. And the lessons that I learned running and playing those games taught me more about how to tell a story than practically any other experience in my life.
So today I’d like to share with you how some of my roleplaying experiences relate to the interaction between character and plot.
A quick aside, for those who haven’t ever played an RPG or who don’t know how they work. In a standard game, you have a GM who runs the game. The GM is responsible for creating the world, designing the plot, and managing the game mechanics.
Then you have the players. Each player creates one character who will take part in the plot. They each design a character – the more authentic the better – and make decisions as to what their character will do in any given situation.
The characters have no control over the world itself, the events that occur “off screen”, or the actions of the antagonists. And the GM has no control over the actions of the characters. Together, they work together to create a story.
Trust me, you haven’t experienced what it’s like for your characters to “take over your story” until you’ve designed a perfectly reasonable adventure only to have the characters choose not to interact with it at all, and instead to do something completely different. Something you haven’t planned for at all. Something that completely derails your story.
Or maybe you have. Because that’s often exactly how many writers explain the feeling of writing when they’re in the zone.
Imagine, if you will, that you’ve created a story that takes place in a large medieval-style city. You’ve designed dozens of important people in the city and set up a scenario whereby the characters are handed a strange glowing object and told to protect it with their lives. Then the person who gave it to them runs away, only to be chased down and killed by guards who loudly announce that anyone found with the “truthstone” in their possession will be summarily executed.
As a GM, you’ve prepared for every eventuality. Perhaps the characters will try to sell it. Perhaps they’ll try to figure out what it does. Perhaps they’ll try to return it to the guards in exchange for a reward. They could do anything – it’s not your job as the GM to determine what the characters do, only to set up the scenario.
But instead of doing any of those things, the characters decide to hide the truthstone under a flagstone and leave the city until things die down. Perhaps never to come back.
A Tale of Two GMs
There are several different ways a GM can handle this type of situation. I’m going to share two.
In my younger days, I played in numerous games with GMs who were known to “railroad” players. That is, they would remove all choice and only allow the characters to make specific choices that fit into their previously constructed story.
In the above scenario, a Railroad GM may:
- Have a giant storm sweep in, preventing the characters from leaving the city.
- Have the characters arrested (for no real reason) and then told they must find the truthstone or be executed.
- Have the Thieves Guild capture the characters and threaten to kill them if they don’t turn over the truthstone.
- Invent a curse that makes it impossible to leave the truthstone behind.
In other words, a Railroad GM doesn’t care what the characters want to do, or about collaborative storytelling, they just want characters to act out the script they’ve already written in their own heads. It’s never a fun game, and it makes for an incredibly boring (and predictable) story.
I’ve also played in games with GMs who were keen on Sandbox Games. That is, they let the characters do whatever they wanted, no matter how it affected the story.
Characters want to leave town? Sure. The GM discards the truthstone story and lets the characters control what happens next, merely answering questions and adjudicating as necessary.
In other words, a Sandbox GM doesn’t care about plot or planned story, they just want characters to follow their own instincts and have a good time. While this sounds like it would be more fun… it isn’t. Because instead of a story (you know, something with tension and conflict and a climax), you end up with a never-ending soap opera of People Doing Stuff. It’s not a boring story, because it’s not a story at all.
But What about Writers?
There are definitely writers out there that use those same two methods. There are Railroad Writers (those people who have plotted out the entire story before they start writing and will force their characters to follow the script, even if it seems out of character for them by page 250) and Sandbox Writers (those people who either don’t plot at all, or who throw their notes out the window as soon as their characters “come to life” and simply follow them around writing down what they do). And, quite frankly, I think both of those styles of writing are…
I don’t want to say “bad”. But they’re definitely not the most effective way to write a novel. Or, at the very least, both methods mean you’re going to need to do a lot of rewriting later.
I think it’s amazing when you hit the zone and your characters come to life, and all of a sudden you find yourself sayings things like, “Oh, Simon wouldn’t do that.” But there needs to be a balance.
If you try to railroad your characters, you’re likely to end up with a story that feels more predicable and paint-by-number than you’d like. (Even if it was perfect in the planning stage.) But if you give your characters total freedom to interact with the plot, or not, as they choose, you don’t end up with a story at all.
The best GMs I’ve ever met find balance through a combination of effective story hooks and consequences. They create story situations where the characters have all the choices in the world, but still willingly choose to interact with the story.
As for how they do that? I think that’s a topic for another day.
Do your characters run away with the story? How do you find the balance between Railroading and Sandboxing?
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