Feb 24, 2012

The Long Narrative: Crappy Plotting

Twists are complicating factors introduced to a narrative to create dramatic tension by delaying the resolution of a situation the characters have found themselves in. They derive either from unexpected changes in the relationships between characters (Vader is Luke's Father), or from unexpected changes in the environment around the characters (the walls of the trash compactor start to crush together). Twists undermine characters' control of a situation. My experience has been that many referees plan twists for their sessions, but then in play often have trouble bringing them to fruition. The management of twists and complications is considered to one of the high arts of refereeing an adventure game, and from what I've seen and experienced, it is one of the most mentally demanding parts of prep.

My suggestion is that you should experiment occasionally with challenges that do not require twists to be interesting. Not just minor challenges of the sort that recur repeatedly during a session, but big ones that form the centrepiece of a session or series of sessions as well. In real life we encounter these situations reasonably frequently and find them challenging and interesting in and of themselves. For example, skiing down a hill is a pleasurable, challenging activity that allows one to have extremely good, if not perfect information, about the challenges one will face (through selecting the particular trail and then surveying it before one begins skiing).

A situation does not require to be twists to be interesting for the purposes of gaming if:

1) It does not have an obvious solution.
2) It requires several sub-processes to all or mostly be completed successfully for its accomplishment.
3) Gathering the information in order to overcome the situation is a significant part of the challenge.

I use all three of these reasonably frequently. They allow me to plan a situation or idea, and not have to worry about fitting a whole bunch of moving pieces together. It's one of the reasons that reconnaissance is such an important part of my games - if you can come up with a plan of action and gather the information you need, the actual solution is often a denouement. 

Based on reading things on rpg.net and elsewhere over the years, I think there is a tendency to deprecate planning and to reduce the amount of time it takes, in order to get to the action of the scene. Planning is not everyone's cup of tea, but I do think that there are a large number of people who would enjoy planning more if it was handled in a more structured and fruitful way. It's the lack of progression and the inability to arrive at a decisive conclusion that gets to them and turns them off from it, rather than anything inherent to the activity of sitting around talking about what might happen if they did this or that. It may also be, with more experienced roleplayers, the depressing feeling that no matter what they plan, the referee is going to throw a bunch of twists that will cause the time spent planning to be entirely wasted.

So, give it a try by designing situations that are complex and multi-faceted, but all the information is there from the get go and the challenge is figuring out how to incorporate it all into a workable plan.