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Storyboard: Play to the medium

Eliot Lefebvre
One of the greatest moments of education I had in college was when a professor sat down to discuss a story I was writing with me. He said to me, "Eliot, this story is never going to be as good as it could be like this."

"Well, I'm learning. I mean, I could rewrite the --"

"No, it isn't that you're not good enough as a writer, it's that this story isn't a novel. You're writing the best novel out of it that you can, but this is a story for a graphic novel. No matter how well you write it, it's always going to be a novelization of a comic book."

That was the first moment that I really started to understand the idea of writing something for a medium instead of just writing a story in the form available to you. That there are some stories that just don't work in certain formats, whether that format is novels or comics or movies or even roleplaying. And it's why I'm talking specifically about the medium today, because it's an easy concept to miss but an important one to keep in mind.

I'm limited to observing conspiracies rather than enacting any here, for instance.Limitations and format

I've said before that roleplaying is not the same as telling a story, and I stand by that. When I talk about stories in roleplaying, I'm referring to the simple act of having seeds in place and letting a story grow from there. Because that's the sort of story that roleplaying actually can handle better than any other medium, just tossing a character out into the wild and seeing what happens next.

In a book or a game or any other medium, you have to figure out what happens next. With roleplaying, you just walk into a bar and things are happening, and you get to find out what happens next along with everyone else. It's a sense of simultaneously creating and experiencing a story at the same time. The best events and arcs in roleplaying are ones that start with open endings and loose sketches of a potential endpoint, with the details filled in as characters take part in events.

My Jedi Knight in Star Wars: The Old Republic didn't start out with a character arc in mind, certainly not one that had her captured by the Sith, left for dead, and rescued by an old friend whom she grew romantically involved with. It didn't involve her befriending bounty hunters and soldiers until she would happily leave the Jedi if she had to choose between that and hunting down Sith. She started out with a backstory, personality traits, and a lot of places she could go afterwards. And while the events in her history form a story, it's not one I told. It's one that happened.

Had I gone in with a path in mind, I would have missed a lot of opportunities.

Plots and how to rock them

Roleplaying plots do exist; I reference them a lot. It's easy to have a plot in which players A, B, and C all try to find an answer to mysterious insignia X, for example. The problem arises when you try to apply proper story logic to that riddle and start off by planning out what the mysterious insignia means and who it points to and why.

In roleplaying, the insignia means whatever people want it to mean for the most interesting plot. It leads wherever people want to go.

If you're writing a novel, this is terrible plotting. You should know ahead of time what's going on all the way through, because threads need to tie up nicely. In roleplaying, that will never happen. You are always going to have messy resolutions, there will always be elements that don't quite come together, and you are always going to have some players drop off the face of the earth partway through a story. Heavy retroactive editing will always be necessary to make things shore up nicely.

The result is something collaborative. You start a plot wherein someone finds a mysterious note, and that's all you. But then another character takes the note and deciphers it, and she discovers that it's a reference to a cave on an island. You go out there with other characters, and a third character recognizes it as the spot where he trained with a ninja clan. And then you tie the note back to the clan by referencing your character's search for his father. You put out elements, other people take them and run with them.

If you just want to write a novel about this guy, you can do that.  It might even be easier.The nature of the beast

None of this is meant to discourage people from having ideas for roleplaying, because I have them all the time. Ms. Lady and I usually have at least a half-dozen balls in the air between us, characters playing off one another and interactions that we figure will take place. But these aren't firm plans; these are loose outlines, scenes that seem fated to happen by the nature of the characters. Sometimes the character interactions don't even turn out the way we're expecting.

In World of Warcraft, my paladin and her priest weren't meant to become mortal enemies. Nor were they meant to develop a mutual respect followed by something between romance and friendship. We knew that they would meet (because they had a shared interest), but the scene played out in such a way that it led to something else.

If you're fighting against the medium, that means you're not trying to formulate a roleplaying plot, just like seven pages of scenery description reveals your work not to be a novel but a movie that you're trying to shoehorn into text. And it's diminished as a result. If you try and shoehorn a novel plot into a roleplaying situation, you're selling the plot itself short and you're selling the potential for roleplaying short.

The trick to roleplaying is not "how do I tell this story via roleplaying?" The trick is "what story will work well in roleplaying?"

Feedback is welcome in the comments like always, and you can mail if you'd prefer. Next week, I want to start something similar to the archetype discussions from last year but with a twist. Instead of talking about character archetypes, I want to look at some obvious character professions and discuss the sort of characters that might fit in there. And I'll tart with one of my favorite professions -- the spy.

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.

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