Storyboard: Lessons from what roleplaying resembles most

If the header looks weird, it's because my new computer showed up and I had to remake it.  Will probably do a full redesign sometime soon.
When you get right down to it, roleplaying isn't really like a movie or a novel in which you determine the story. It's not even all that much like a video game in which you write the story; those tend to be structured better. No, roleplaying is most like making your own serial comic book.

Think about it. You have a number of charcters with superhuman abilities getting into conflicts on a regular basis. Sometimes those characters pan out into a satisfying story arc, but other times characters show up and then vanish, either because they were awful or because the author didn't know what to do with them. There's a real risk of running on into boredom, and there are a lot of times when characters get kludged into other storylines for cross-promotional purposes.

Regular readers will probably guess that I don't think of this as a bad thing. I like comics a lot, after all. And it means that we can take some interesting lessons from the long lifespan of comics because when you realize you're making a big collaborative comic, you earn the right to use some tricks of the trade.

We all knew how this was going to end.  (Hint: with breaking.)You don't have to go bigger, just different

I read through Strangers in Paradise well after the fact, but as I did so, I was struck by the fact that Terry Moore used one core plot (Kachoo getting pulled into organized crime) at least four different times. This is despite the fact that the core antagonist of that plotline is dealt with very early, and subsequent revisits are for very different reasons.

And yet the whole process never really gets boring because the plot is always changing just a little bit. There are different circumstances around each little mob incident, and thus it's not an unentertaining formula.

This isn't unique to Strangers in Paradise, as a lot of comics have found themselves producing the same basic stories time and again. Superman comics love doing a variant on scenarios in which Lex Luthor wins, either publicly or privately. Batman's villains all have four or five stories that get used repeatedly. Down a shot every time you read an Iron Man story in which Tony Stark is at least indirectly the villain and you'll need to have your stomach pumped. But some of these rehashes still wind up being good stories not by virtue of raising the stakes but by virtue of just taking the core elements and twisting them slightly.

Considering what I've said before about character arcs and the need for endings, I think this is a lesson worth internalizing. You don't have to fear revisiting certain elements, but you do need to put new twists on them. Doing the same two arcs over and over is repetitive, but a pool of a half-dozen arcs can be recycled periodically as you come up with new twists.

For those catching up, the one seething with darkness on the left is the heroine.Villains just villain about

People have come up with hundreds of explanations for why heroes don't just permanently deal with villains and why villains don't just kill the heroes. Some of those explanations are good (I love the idea, for instance, that Doctor Doom hates the idea of murdering someone but wants to prove his total superiority), and some of them are pretty bad. But for our purposes, we don't need any of them because we all know the real reason: The writers want the heroes and villains around for another go.

Narratively, yeah, it's dumb. But you and I both know that the main reason Batman will never kill the Joker is that people love Joker stories.

This is a useful lesson to embrace for roleplaying because the same rules apply. You want your villainous characters around to do villainy again, and you want most of your heroes around for another go. Killing characters is a rare thing, due in no small part to the simple fact that making characters all over again is a pain. So while you probably need a reason in-universe for not axing someone clearly axeworthy, there's no shame in admitting that your core rationale is just keeping these characters around.

Yes, that means that you'll occasionally shoehorn a certain amount of character motivations to keep future roleplaying more interesting. This is what was going to happen anyway, so you may as well be honest with yourself. Right? Right.

Not everything reaches a satisfactory conclusion

This is a sin I've been guilty of on more than one occasion, and it's one I was called out for during the RIFT project. (It wasn't the reason that project was a failure, but it's still a point worth raising.) Sometimes, you wind up with a story that's just not going to end with a neat little conclusion. You're going to have something just taper off and stop instead of conclude.

Maybe one of the major players stopped playing the game. Maybe you just didn't enjoy the story as much as you thought. Whatever the case, there's just a gap there, a story that was supposed to take place but didn't quite materialize. So how do sequential comics handle this situation?

They ignore it completely.

In any given comic, there are plots that just fizzle out or don't amount to anything all that interesting. When I was an avid reader of the X-Men titles back in high school, I think one consistent plot thread surfaced for every half-dozen that wound up completely dropped. And the writers handled the dropped threads by just providing interesting issues and interesting new threads so that you never asked about the lost threads unless you were reading the comic obsessively.

I don't think I need to specify how this is useful for roleplaying. When you're going to have threads dropped all the time, it's worth it to seed several and see what takes root. If an interesting one gets dropped, you can always find a way to get it picked up again. Just keep on going and let the momentum carry you.

I'm curious what others think of this concept and the comparison involved, so by all means, let me know what you think down in the comments or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Our next column will deal with the curious case of Truce Sokolov and other characters that should be able to make it anywhere... but don't.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.
This article was originally published on Massively.