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Baern

How I Think About Storylines

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I've been thinking a lot about storylines and storytelling recently, and so I wanted to take a moment to post. I think there's another version of this where I write it as a recommendation for people, especially people that have never run a plotline before, but at the end of the day, I really don't feel like I'm enough of an authority on anything in order to be doling out that advice. In fact, the only reason I'm really writing this is because it's 2AM and I'm working the graveyard shift and there's no one to talk to and, oh, yeah, because I kind of don't feel like I've set aside a time or space to collect and categorize my own thoughts on this stuff before. 

So, consider this that. 

I also have no idea where to start this, I feel like I've cooked a bunch of spaghetti and now I need to figure out some way to get it back in the box it came in all straight and flat. But I suppose I'm going to begin at the beginning: 

Why I Care About Structure

I think story structure is absolutely of paramount importance. It's basically the most important thing that goes into a storyline, like, for me, at the end of the day the thing that most often determines a story is either good or bad is structure. Like, yeah, I've definitely seen certain things take off inside of a story and really carry everything on its back, like sometimes you can hook into a super sweet villain with very cool powers or motivation, or just one event or character relationship just completely sells the whole thing, but man, nine times out of ten? Good or bad story in RP comes down to structure. And I'm sure there are plenty of folks who RP for plenty of reasons, but it all boils down to good storytelling for me. My number one goal is to tell a good story. And I think the straightest line to get there is structure.

Shit, I think I need to define some terms. Ok, when I talk about structure, I'm kind of bundling up the overall outline, top down view of a story and character stuff, plus a little consideration for like pacing and themes and all that. What does the beginning/middle/end of your story look like? What are some of the character arcs that you're planning? What are the character motivations going into this thing? What idea or concept are you trying to get across in this story? How are you going to keep things from going too quick? Too slow? Getting boring? What is the size of the storyline? 

I guess these are the kinds of questions that get bundled up and answered under structure for me, and more importantly, they're the things that I want to dissect when I talk to folks about their structures of their stories. And I think some of those questions are things we just don't think about when starting a storyline. Like, the implied answer for "what is the size" seems to be "anyone that wants to come in and join." But I also kind of think that chopping out extraneous stuff to the story and really drilling down and focusing on it where it counts is a very good thing. Like, I think it's OK to have a small scale storyline for a handful of people that's very tailormade for them, or a large scale one that's very open-ended and generalist so that everyone on the server can get involved and go nuts. But I also feel like it's a decision that I don't really think about a lot of the time, I just kind of GO and don't take the time to think really. I guess what I'm really describing is that structure forces you to think about these things. 

Holy shit, that's super what I'm trying to get at. I think a big danger with RP storylines is not thinking about them enough. Not focusing on the details and going through what you're trying to accomplish piece by piece. There's this temptation just to do it and not think about it, and structure, thinking about structure and planning and figuring shit out from the ground up makes sure that you don't just shoot from the hip. In one sense, I like the shooting from the hip. I think improv and especially spontaneous kind of storytelling moments can be profound and genius. But I also think that they can be poor and relying too heavily on them just forces things down weird, shitty, unfulfilling paths. Alright, I want to zero in on this: Structure forces you to think about your story, and the more you think critically about your story the better it will be. 

I guess that's my first principle for how I think about storylines. 

The Three-Act Structure

I apologize to everyone that went to film school. But I can't get it out of my brain, I love the three act structure and it's my favorite template to figure things out. I think there's a danger, especially with TAS, to making all your shit formulaic by overrelying on it, but with the right kinds of failsafes installed, it's basically bulletproof. The divide between Beginning/Middle/End, it's just so fundamental, so natural to the building blocks of story that I can't rip it from my head. That said, I don't think it should look like it does for a lot of movies and stuff. I think RP demands its own subdivision about the TAS that makes it something specific. But I'm going to break it down I think. 

First, as a quick disclaimer: I'm advocating using this as a jumping off point for how to outline a story, rather than as a definitive formula that you can plug your variables into and a good story will pop right out. If I'm taking that principle above and using structure to force me to think about my story and make it better, using the TAS as a formula doesn't actually accomplish that goal, you're literally using it to avoid thinking more about it at that point. The TAS is about giving structure to your thought processes while you're writing and making sure that you're covering your bases. 

Defining Some Terms:

Some terms I'm going to use, I think. The first is tension. The heart of everything in storytelling comes down to tension. You want to build tension and then release it, create problems and then solutions, and it's this ebb and flow of tension that's the addicting lifeblood of storytelling. Someone wants something. Then, they get it. A tension gets created, then resolved. Anything that happens in between those two things happening carries with it a tension, and the longer that you go between them, the more tension gets created. Creating a lot of tension is super fucking good. It is what hooks your players/audience in and demands their focus and attention. When tension is created, players want to play. When there's no tension, then there's no engagement.

Ok, I'm really on to something with this tension stuff. The problem with tension comes down to letting it go too quickly or letting it go too long. Letting it go too quickly is when you're playing with kid gloves. You're pulling your punches. Mostly I see this kind of thing when players give themselves something "for free" like they're training to learn some new technique and then the next time you talk to them they demonstrate that they can use it flawlessly. The tension in there wasn't given enough time to build, so the release feels unsatisfying and unearned, On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have tension that goes on too long and never gets resolved. This kind of thing crops up in villain RP a lot, where the villain keeps escaping or coming back to life or straight up beating the heroes, and for a while that's great! It builds a lot of tension and makes it so that when you finally take the villain down it's that much more satisfying, because he's evaded you so many times before now. But if it takes too long for that to happen, all that tension that gets built up starts to turn into frustration for the players, and then even releasing the tension doesn't necessarily make things better because it took so long to get there that all the tension is gone. To me, this stuff is what makes good or bad pacing, which is a tough term to define. If you're building and releasing your tensions in the right spots, then your story has good pacing, but if you're going too short and then too long and then too short sort of thing, then you're working with bad pacing.

The third thing about tension is that tensions can and should be layered across one another methodically rather than haphazardly. Tension can be super small scale, resolved inside of a scene, hell inside of one exchange. Bilbo freaking out at Frodo when Frodo won't let him see the Ring in Rivendell is created and resolved immediately, because Bilbo does that freaky eye thing lash out and then instantly apologizes. But tension can also be created for the super long term. The tension of Sauron using the one ring to conquer middle earth takes three whole books/movies to resolve. And tensions of all shapes and sizes get littered in between there, mostly to make sure that things stay interesting and the story builds upon itself. Helms Deep is an important tension that feels great in the moment, but also sets up Rohan to come to Gondor's aid later in the series. Keeping track of the tension that you're creating and then releasing and doing your best to hit the right points is the nuance, the minor detail stuff to structure, the building blocks that the rest of the structure is built on. Every scene, from beginning to end, should create some tension and then release it, but also build the larger overarching tension that it's contributing to. 

The second term is just: "Act." Act is a functional term, used to functionally describe what stage any particular arc or story is going through. Act 1 is the beginning, and is where the status quo is established, the characters and arcs introduced, and the main problem is set up and starts building its tension. Act 2 is where the dynamic storytelling takes place, where the characters start making progress at tackling the problems set up in Act 1, both changing the nature of the story by acting upon it, but changing themselves as the story acts upon them. Act 3 is where the problem gets resolved, where the arcs finish, and where characters and the status quo settle back down after having been changed by the events of the story.

When we define Acts this way, we're dodging the formula problem, and we're nesting the structure of stories in our minds like Russian Nesting Dolls. Acts have acts within them and acts within those, all describing and setting up the beginning/middle/end of the smallest minutae. Even inside of a single scene. Your PC goes to interrogate someone, beats the answers out of them, and then leaves them in the jail cell missing a few teeth. That interaction all happens in one scene, the prisoner may never be seen again, but it's got a Act 1/2/3 when you introduce that guy and then beat him up and then leave him to rot. And even though that whole scene is part of a series of scenes that makes your overarching Act 2 (where the characters start making progress on the problem,) it's still got little Act 1/2/3 bits in there. 

Act is a lot of time used as a placement term, like "this thing had problems in Act 2," but the term "Act" is a functional one, not a temporal one and even though Act 1/2/3 is sequential, it's very tricky to nail it down in time. For instance, each "Act" should also have the little minor sub "Acts" that are the beginning, middle and end of the sequence itself, that I described above. So, if you think that prisoner from above has problems because he wasn't established well enough, you might be tempted to describe that as "Act 2 problems" because that scene takes place in Act 2. But the problem you're really describing (not enough introducing this character to the story) is an Act 1 problem, because that's the function of Act 1 (to introduce stuff.) I super apologize if this kind of nomenclature is confusing.

But now I want to dig a little deeper.

Act 1

Ok, so, Act 1 is the beginning. Pretty simple, right? But holy moly do I think this is the step that gets skipped a lot in RP and is so detrimental to skip when you're writing for RP. 

It's so fucking tempting to skip this step when you're prepping your storyline because if you're putting the work in, then you know Act 1! You know the characters! Their arcs! The problem! The world! And if you're viewing RP from that kind of self-centered point of view, the idea that you skip Act 1 is easy. The trick is to view your story and RP from as much of the players'/audiences' perspective as possible. Because your job in Act 1 is to introduce shit to the audience that's reading your stuff and reacting to it, that you're working with to get from point A to point B. Honestly, I shouldn't call this a "trick" really because most people have a natural inclination to it somewhat, but it's very easy to get lost because of one idea: not everyone reads all the RP that you do, so you are going to have to repeat yourself. 

Honestly, this is one of those places where RP gets unique, and from the perspective of the writer it's a huge negative because you feel like you're being redundant and repeating yourself constantly, but the effect is a huge positive, because not everyone has seen what you're written in other places and you need to backtrack and set things back up more than once in order to make sure that they're up to speed. Even in small doses, this can be very important, like describing the setting of your personal home for the first time or what a character is wearing when they walk into a room. Even in the context of discord RP, where everything is saved and logged and people can go back and write and read these huge big long things, it's story suicide to assume that everyone's reading what you're reading and then leaving key stuff out because of it. 

In general, I think there are two big pieces to act 1 things that need to happen, essentially introducing the status quo of the world for your storyline and establishing the status quo of the characters. In movies, the first thing that typically happens is the world gets introduced with what's called the "Point of Attack" which is the thing that typically has nothing to do with the main characters that gets the ball rolling. It's the thing that they then bounce off of and react to when they choose to leave their current status quo behind and move into doing Act 2 things. In RP, things are messier than that. The characters aren't something that you own or grow or wield, so you might need to start with them first and then move into the Point of Attack because it'll take some time for other people to do things. Act 1 establishes a lot of the time a deficiency, a flaw in the characters that are built to be resolved, something that the character is hung up on that they need to grapple with and overcome over the course of the story. 

I'm actually going to break this into its own paragraph because it's so fucking vital to making good RP and storylines. Good RP when you're GMing a story is a gift that you give to another player. It creates a bond of trust and mutual admiration, because players trust you with their characters and you reward them by giving them something interesting or unique or novel to work through, usually coming with it some kind of reward once they've solved their own personal hurdle. When you're designing your problems, when you're designing your villains, when you're designing your worldbuilding and status quo and everything else, you want to do so with other players in mind, give them interesting shit to do that reflects on them personally and uniquely. Make the villain a dark reflection of one of the heroes, sharing some similar qualities, but also warping those qualities into something sinister and evil. Incorporate something from the character's past, something in their backstory that will hit a sore spot and allow the character to move past it. Include a challenge or aspect of the problem that's specifically within the skill set of your players, something that is tailor made for them to contend with and solve. There's a small caveat here, because sometimes players will not like you taking liberties with their characters, but on the whole, you are giving this RP to someone else so make it a good, personalized awesome gift for them. 

The second piece of Act 1 is the inciting incident, which is typically where the Point of Attack gets revealed to the players and they get to grapple with it the first time. Because Act 1 is tough to do in RP and can get jumbled, a lot of the time your Point of Attack and your Inciting Incident happen essentially back to back, because since the Point of Attack is something outside of the character's knowledge and a lot of time the character's knowledge and player's knowledge are one and the same, it's easy for them to miss that villain set up RP that you stashed away in a quick post in some other channel or forum thread somewhere. But if you can get them to see your Point of Attack, then all the better because the Point of Attack's tension is automatically resolved once the main characters encounter it for the first time and have to grapple with it. Your inciting incident also typically carries with it the first big introduction to the main tension of the whole story. In a typical "bad guy wants to do something bad" this is where the bad guy gets introduced and what he wants to do gets at least teased out to the players, though sometimes you can just reveal the whole thing and make Act 2 about jumping through a billion hoops to get there. 

When it comes to the nitty gritty, I love using Act 1 to set stuff up with a big event. They say you're supposed to start your story with some action, but in RP that maxim takes on new life since things are so naturally ongoing. When we all have characters that have been around for forever, introducing a storyline with a slow, plodding build up (while very, very doable) is much harder than throwing a big, climactic event to start things off with a bang. So much stuff has to be introduced in Act 1 that throwing it all into one event saves you a lot of time and real estate, and it also serves as a convenient status quo shifter for the characters in your story. People naturally gravitate towards events as placeholders in time and use them to define key turning points in their characters, big events make big splashes in people's lives, and so using that to introduce new characters, concepts, do the world building that you need to do, all of that works wonders. Also, it makes things a bit easier because if you're making a big splash it allows you to break some logic/narrative rules that you otherwise might have trouble grappeling with. For instance, if you want to introduce your villains, it's very tough to do that directly without a big, flashy event. Villains don't come out of the woodwork for nothing, and your villains can't get rounded up and beaten right at the start of Act 1. Getting them in the same room long enough with the players to introduce themselves, but not long enough that the players kick their collective tuchas and solve the problem before it starts is a fine line. I'm also a big fan of "the villains start by beating the shit out of the players and handing them a big loss." Doing this creates a natural arc for basically everyone because anyone who suffers that failure wants to overcome it later down the line, and when you can juxtapose your losing fight in Act 1 to your winning fight in Act 3, you get the most straightforward (in a good way!) character arc that you can muster. Plus, getting wrecked by the villains right off the bat does a great job of uncovering the deficiency/flaw/insecurity that you're going to be wanting your players to fight in order to give them a satisfying arc. 

The last piece of Act 1 is called the "Lock In" where the players decide to leave the comfort of their status quo and shake things up and commit to bringing down this big bad. RP has a funny way of messing with this section though, because not every fish takes the bait you give them and that's alright. Something that happens naturally in plenty of RP storylines is that the intended protagonists kind of fall by the way side as someone that you thought was only going to player a bit part takes up the slack. This is OK. Not everyone needs to commit to every story, and there's plenty of room for players who want to take a step back from the early aspects of a storyline only to "Lock In" at some point later down the line. Remember, Acts are functional terms, not temporal ones, and it's absolutely normal and fine for the "Lock In" to happen in the middle of Act 2 or Act 3 stuff that's going on elsewhere. If this kind of thing happens, the important piece of the puzzle is to make sure that someone locking in later gets the same Act 1 stuff they need in order to start off in the right context, and when everyone is moving through Act 2 problem solving, it can sometimes be hard to rope people in and give them the intro they need. The good news is, once you have your players locked in and ready to rock, now you can get busy with Act 2. And I don't mean to alert any spoilers, but Act 2 is when the fun stuff happens. 

Act 2

Act 2 is consistently some of the most fun stuff that happens in RP and Act 2 being so much fun is typically why people underserve their own Act 1s. It's tempting to jump right into the fun stuff and then fill in the gaps later, but it's a big mortgage you're writing there and a lot of the time the RP debt collectors catch up with you as your Act 2 stuff is coming to a close. 

I use the term "fun stuff" but Act 2 is pretty consistently the best period for going back and forth between GM and player, typically the GM sets up small problems and the player showcases various solutions until they find a good enough answer and progress forward. Act 1 can be unfun because you as the GM are controlling the Lion's share of the story. You have all the information and you need to barf it all up to the players (and they can only really latch on to some pieces of it.) But Act 2 is when the players get to start influencing the story in a big way. See, because you don't control every aspect of the story, and a lot of the time you're farming out important pieces of your story to other people, you need to remain flexible and open to their input. Something that I see happen pretty often is the GM scripts things out so rigidly ahead of time that anytime the players try and color outside the lines they are met with a big, fat no. And while failure on the players' part can be great to set up the contrast and growth I outlined above, you can't shower the player in failure and keep them engaged. And you especially can't shut down the players' creativity because it's a doubly demoralizing experience. If we wanted to be passive in our stories, we'd go watch TV and movies. We're RPing because the ability to affect the story as its being told is fun and interesting and compelling. The solution to this a lot of the time is to allow players to fail forward, where they try something and accomplish a piece or a percentage or gain something tangible despite their overall failure. This allows you to keep their progress in check if they're progressing too far too quickly, but also allows you to reward their efforts. Dolling out partial victories (or, on the flip side if things are moving too slowly, unexpectedly huge gains) allows you to make sure that the pacing stays on point, and you're not resolving tensions too quickly or too slowly. And I think all of that kind of thing, balancing your tensions, setting out interesting problems before your players and seeing what they come up with, is the heart of what makes Act 2 great. 

But that doesn't mean you wing it. 

I think there's a temptation to set out some scenarios for the players and allow them to figure out their own path through them, a lot of the time the path isn't going to be something that you see coming, but I'm never going to suggest that for a storyline someone just wing everything without a direction at least in mind. What you should probably be doing is setting out a start point and then an end point and then letting the players fill things in in between. Establish a problem ("We need to find Mcbaddie!") and keep the next stage of the quest in mind ("Once they have McBaddie, he tells them about the Fuck-u-lizer") but give the players the freedom to get from that point A to that point B the way that they want to ("I'm going to go smooch McBaddie's girlfriend and she'll give up his location because one of my skills is getting chicks to smooch me.") This gives the characters an opportunity to demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses in a satisfying way for them, but the overall skeleton of the story isn't being xylophoned into skeleton dust by players trampling all over what you laid out. This, I find, is a pretty good balance between what you as the GM want to do and what the characters want to do. And thus, is why Act 2 is the most fun stuff to do. 

Alright, let's get into some nitty gritty structural stuff. 

The last piece of information that we got was the lock in, where the character commits to the story and the quest at hand and decides that they're going to take responsibility for resolving whatever underlying tension got set up way earlier. After the players lock into the quest, they need a vector. In technical terms, a vector is a direction plus a magnitude, but in story terms that "magnitude" is mostly just a plan for what happens when heading in that direction. Most of the time as a GM, though, you only want to supply the direction. At the end of Act 1, Frodo agrees to carry the one ring to Mount Doom. This is his "Lock In." Then, the story gives him a direction (They are going to Caradras,) and a magnitude (he'll be joined by 8 companions and they'll journey as the fellowship of the ring.) This is his vector. I like this example because they don't make through Caradras because of Saruman and instead end up taking the Mines of Moria. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and no vector gets to its end point without shifts in its direction, magnitude or both. The point of giving a vector to your characters though is to reward them for their locking in. If you lock them in on your quest and don't give them a new direction to head in, some breadcrumb to follow, something that they can latch onto to accomplish, then all the enthusiasm and engagement and support you've just gained is then squandered. I also want to mention that I typically only give my characters the direction and let them figure out the magnitude. When you point them towards the goal and then let them figure out how they want to get there, you're beginning the back and forth problem solving that defines Act 2 fun stuff, so it's a good thing to put into their hands. 

Something else I want to mention really quickly is that the completion of the first vector should definitely carry with it a positive milestone for the characters (make the first step easy and the second step hard.) Movies a lot of the time reward the hero with some new skill or trait, but because of powergaming and power creep in RP, I typically bundle those kinds of things and dole them out as a reward for Act 3. You can give someone a temporary boost or bonus, but plan to take this away a bit down the line for fear that things get too powerful. If they find some magical sword that can do XYZ, make sure it gets stolen or broken by the end of Act 2, especially because this sort of thing is typically a great metaphor for the hubris of the character. They think they've gained what they need to take on the big bad, but really they still have far to go. 

The end of the first vector should then key the characters into a new vector to keep moving forward, and it almost always ends in a place that they didn't expect it to. The fellowship of the ring expect that they can use Caradras, but Saruman prevents them from using that pass, which forces them to adopt a new vector on the fly to Moria. This kind of bouncing around of vectors is the minute to minute stuff of your Act 2. It outlines the path that your characters are taking towards resolving the overall tension of the storyline. Most of the time, vectors will be disrupted by some unforeseen circumstance for the players and they'll have to adapt in order to compensate for this. It doesn't mean that they don't accomplish their goal, it just means that the plan they set out with might not work, and they'll need to figure out something new on the fly. The fellowship are still trying to get the Ring to Mordor, they just need to take a new path to get there. 

After the first few vectors in Act 2, you reach the midpoint, which is a big, fat disruption that typically shakes things up to their core. This isn't "Caradras is closed, find another way across," this is "Gandalf dies." In many films and stories, the mid point carries with it a major defeat for the characters, but this is less of a necessity than it all seems. The point is that you need to really shake things up and in many cases redefine the aims of the characters to prepare them for the big, big challenges to come. A lot of the time, you can accomplish this just by raising the stakes through the roof for your characters. When Gandalf dies, it shows everyone that this journey is going to be more difficult than they ever imagined, and they're going to have to face it without the most powerful member of their group in tow. That's a major defeat. But Man of Steel when Zod tells Superman that he's going to rebuild Krypton on the ashes of all humankind, that's not a major defeat. That's just the story raising the stakes into the stratosphere. When it becomes clear what the antagonist's main goal is, and the true horror of the threat that they're fighting is nakedly revealed for all to see, that huge raising of the stakes is what makes the disruption. This disruption can look like a lot of things, but the point of it should be to redraw the map of the situation for the characters and put them really onto the path to Act 3 main tension resolution, and that every vector they go on from here on out, is getting them closer and closer to that goal. In short, the vectors that your characters embark on at the top of Act 2 will never get them where they need to go. It's the vectors that they choose from the midpoint that will get them there. 

After the big disruption of the midpoint, you have a hurdle to get over. A lot of stories fuck it up here because now that the characters are actually on the path to resolution, how do you keep them from just jumping straight into Act 3? The answer in good stories comes down to sub plots a good amount of the time, other tangential focuses and goals that need to get resolved before moving any further can take place. It's a useful time to put in some breathing room for the characters and so they can collect their shit before they start trudging into Act 3 stuff. In a more conventional story, you'd give this time to other characters, let some of the supporting characters round up their shit and round off their edges before moving forward. But you don't really have that luxury in RP because not everyone is reading everything. This is why you work on sub plots, you give the characters a quick, immediate goal to accomplish that helps prepare them for the big transition into Act 3, without actually forcing the story into that direct a confrontation with Act 3 material yet. In LOTR, this is when they come to Lothlorien, and the members of the fellowship have to deal with their very recent loss and refocus before moving on. A lot of the time, you'll use this time to collect the next plot key to unlock that Act 3 goodness. Alright, now you know what McBaddie is up to, you just need to get his location so that you can finally put a stop to his existentially horrific plans. That process of finding his location is its own little mini-story inside of this section of Act 2, typically complete with villains and vectors unique to the subplot, but the players come out of it with someone definitive to show for it. A fire in their bellies, a determined look in their eye as they finally get ready to face down the biggest problem yet. 

But when you're done with that sub plot and you're ready to kick things into gear, you get to reach the end of Act 2, which is most often the lowest point for your characters. The end of Act 2 is where you stack shit high on your characters, where you make what they're working towards in an overarching story sense harder by hitting them personally. If someone they trust is deceiving them? This is where that distrust comes out. If they bonded hard with a particular NPC? This is where you brutally murder that NPC. If they have some lingering hang up that they haven't been able to get over, this is where that hang up gets attacked directly. The reason you do this is because you want the character to be facing its toughest challenge personally just before they start working to overcome the story's challenge. When a player who is at their lowest is strong enough to beat the bad guy, that creates the super satisfying underdog story that we all get so wrapped up in. You can have this stuff be linked to the main antagonist, but it's not a necessity. If the antagonist murders their new friend NPC or strips them of that super cool power that you gave them at the end of the first vector, that's fine, it heightens the tension and gives the character even more reason to go after the antagonist. But it's also fine to have just random bad shit happen to them to get them in this spot purely by coincidence. If you're feeling the frustration come out from the players, then I'd probably say lay off. You don't need to give the villain ANOTHER win. But if they're into it and you want to fan the flames of hate even higher, use the villain. 

Another version of this end of Act 2 phase can also be the "prepare for war" vector, where the final, big shape of Act 3 comes into play. I like using this a lot because it really ramps up the drama and tension before you move into Act 3 and it's some of the best and most interesting RP that you can get out of a team of players. I use this commonly when I've given the players everything they need, all the information they could possibly want, and let them get in the sandbox and really come up with their strategy from the ground up. If you have the right set of folks, the strategy, the plan that they're walking into Act 3 with outweighs the kind of personal drama and stakes that come from hitting them on a character level, because now they've properly outlined Act 3 for themselves and you get to fuck with all their beautiful, beautiful expectations. A lot of the time, this section of things is relegated to the very beginning of Act 3, and in my honest opinion not given enough time to breathe. The other reason I like doing this here is because it's a fantastic opportunity to rally the troops and get everyone on the same page before moving foward. In RP, what tends to happen is that the vectors are less "the team moves here, then here, then here" and more "eight different characters are probing eight different vectors." When that kind of thing happens, you ABSOLUTELY NEED TO NO FOR REAL YOU ABSOLUTELY MUST DO THIS because otherwise you're not giving the characters a chance to compare notes and strategize as a group. If those eight characters accomplished eight different goals and are bringing those things home, consolidating everything into one plan involving everyone moving forward makes your Act 3 planning much easier. You can splinter things up a bit if you want, for instance keeping 2 of your 8 out of the loop so they can come in as the cavalry at some point during Act 3, but you need to round up plot threads into plot yarn if you want to end this thing in a good way. 

By the by, you don't need to have those two things be different if you don't want to. In fact, you can have your characters plan for the final push AND get hit by their personal demons simultaneously if you want to maximize the drama, but it basically works either way. 

Act 3 

Will actually be its own reply to this thread. 

Edited by Baern
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ALRIGHT I'M BACK AND BETTER THAN EVER FOR CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR. 

Act 3 is here. 

Act 3 is where you finish up the story. You want to resolve all the plot threads that you've given out so far (unless you're leaving some kind of hook for a new, future story) and close off the story so that your players can reach a satisfying conclusion. Act 2 is full of vectors, bouncing off and around on different issues, many of them incremental to whatever the big, fat main tension of your story is. Act 3 will typically have one vector and it will be compressed in time. If you're going to run only one event in tandem with your story, make it this one because the drama and tension are only heightened if everything comes crashing to a roaring conclusion here. 

Act 3 typically starts with a big, momentous decision from your character or characters, which is why you want to hit them on a personal level right at the end of Act 2 so that this decision and them being at their lowest coincide. This is the stuff of heroes. Characters that are beleaguered on all sides still standing up and fighting for themselves and what's right in the face of insurmountable odds. Act 3 is also where the stakes of your story sit. Whatever the stakes are or have been up to now, they need to be dwarfed by what you're rolling out for Act 3. If the difference between success and failure for the hero is too small and inconsequential, then you're losing out on a lot of tension and drama. 

This act 3 start is also right when your characters are complete. The character arc almost always completes at the end of Act 2 and beginning of Act 3 because you want them to make this decision here and contrast it with who they were way back in Act 1. The characters enter their final form (for this arc you're writing, anyway) and then face off against the villain when they're at their peak. The character that is incomplete in the third act isn't any of your protagonists; it's your antagonist. The third act is where your antagonist's inability to change, inability to overcome their flaws, and inability to complete themselves like the main characters have just demonstrated falls back in and implodes upon themselves. This is why villain double down on their villainous flaws and would rather die than change, in most cases. The principle characteristic that defines your antagonist in most instances is his inability to change like your characters do. That is his great weakness. That is why he fails, in the end, because even though he starts off with this great boost of confidence and power because he's satisfied with his incomplete self, that incompleteness will always crack and crumble in the face of a character that has overcome their flaws rather than built themselves on them. I'm going to go into this a bit more when it comes to villains, who really deserve a section all on their own, but this character consciousness is important for Act 3. If you're going to tell me that redemption villains don't fit this mold, don't worry I'll address that later. The short version is: you're right, but you really have to do your homework and dot your i's and cross your t's to get there. The long version is below. 

While Act 3 is where the villain falls apart, it's also where the villain is at their most menacing, threatening and dangerous. In most stories, this is because whatever the villain has been plotting has almost come to fruition, and just like the hero has been gaining power and abilities over the course of the ability, the villain has as well. (The heroes couple their power gain with overcoming their flaws/deficiencies. The villains do not, and typically, sell out themselves and make themselves more flawed in order to get the same boost in power.) This power will very frequently backfire on the villain, and just as quickly as its granted, also be taken away. But don't take that preceding bit to justify not letting your characters be awesome. 

Because Act 3 is where you take the ropes off and let your heroes be as super cool and awesome as they can be. 

During Act 2, you can beat up on your players, get under their skin, hand them defeats, because the promise at the end of the rainbow is getting to beat the shit out of McBaddie like a rock 'em, sock 'em robot. All that tension that you build up with failures in Act 2 gets released in Act 3, when they get to kick the snot out of the villain. But if you focus in too much on your villain's self-defeating nature and he kind of undoes himself with his bad bargains and flaws catching up with him, then you're not giving the characters a chance to relieve all that tension that you built up and then it festers and rots into unsatisfying frustration. Striking this balance, when you can hit it, works wonders. Because players like just as much to beat the tar out of someone while at the same time, being shown that that person's addiction to their own flaws is what made them fall. Because the heroes are almost always ideologically opposed to the villain, when the villain's ideology turns out to be rotten to the core and destroys him from within, watching that happen is super great. You're seeing that you were right all along, kind of thing. You can play with this a bit, too, if you want. Every villain should be sympathetic, and if you drive that to an extreme, you can have your characters sympathize with the villains so much so that it's a bittersweet victory. But in general, the bad guy is irredeemably bad and gets beaten pretty badly by the heroes anyway. It really depends. 

Back to Act 3 structure stuff for a second, there should almost always be a "twist in the third act" which is not about the overall tension, but about the act tension, essentially. The twist in the third act serves three big functions: 

1) It breaks up the story a bit so that whatever strategy the characters walked into the third act with needs to also change. This creates a need for the story to adapt around this twist and become something different. When you don't do this, you just have punching and fighting for the whole third act and it can get a bit stale. 
2) It refocuses the story from big stuff to small stuff. The first half of the Act 3 fighting typically happens on a very large scale, with large scale goals. It is when the big, epic, flashy stuff happens and the resolution to those big, epic, flashy things begins to really resolve. The twist almost always narrows the focus and drills it down into a single point. For LOTR, Gollum showing up in mount doom is the twist. The first half of the third act (with Sam and Aragorn playing high calibur double duty) sets up the stakes to the end of the massive conflict, but the twist focuses it in entirely on Frodo vs Gollum. Two husks, addicted to the ring, fighting over the fate of the world. When main characters, typically supporting characters, get mortally injured, that's the twist and the tension shifts from "saving the world" to "saving this person's life." When the villain injects himself with the unstable super serum and becomes a rampaging monster out of desperation, even if the stakes are the same or bigger, because we're drilling down to the conflict on just that one villain, it serves the same purpose. 
3) It puts the initiative back in the villain's hands. When Act 3 begins, the hero is the one taking the initiative and implementing a plan and strategy to overcome the villain. If there's no twist, a lot of the time, there's no swapping of the initiative between the hero and the villain, and if that swapping doesn't happen then the story can get static. By giving the villain a moment to redefine the fight (because 90% of the time, the twist is a result of something the villain does,) you are making the story more dynamic and more of a back and forth between the protagonists and the antagonist. 

The twist can also go the opposite way, in the right circumstances. Instead of the twist being something that the villain does, (stab the love interest, hit the self destruct button, or drink the unstable potion) it can be something the hero does. If you stowed away 2 of your 8 characters to follow up later with backup, that's your twist, and it's executed by the hero. It shifts some structural stuff around (you need the characters in Helms Deep to be desperate in order for Gandalf arriving with the rohirrim to feel good) but with the right set up and context, it can be great. 

Once the characters adapt their strategy to contend with the twist, which places the initiative back in their hands, we're ramping up to the climax. The climax is the single point, the one thing that happens, the very moment where the most tension will be released. It's not a sequence, or a scene, or anything else, it's one action, really at the end of the day, it can be boiled down to one sentence. The ring falls into the lava of Mount Doom. The Death Star explodes. Tirion Fordring kills Arthas. Arthas kills his father. What this climax will look like will change depending on the story, and there will be different techniques for different contexts. I have some die hard habits, like I love the immediately pre-climax speech, either the hero explaining how much he's gained and learned and how good this will feel or the villain coming apart at the seems and choosing death over defeat, but whatever works for you works for you. But it's a big moment that you want everyone to focus on as much as possible. Your antagonist doesn't have to die here, but they do need to stop putting up a fight. This is where they lose. 

I actually want to dwell on this for a moment, because I'm going to address it more thoroughly later, but the antagonist needs to extremely definitively lose at this moment. What that loss looks like will also change in the context of the story, but a lot of the time it's going to be death. But there are other options, too. You can depower the villain (after having burned himself out trying to kill the heroes) and then have him escape. You can have the villain be captured. Hell, you can leave the villain in the hands of the heroes and let them come to their own decision on what to do with him. But I highly recommend death, and if you choose not to go with death, you better make sure that the heroes feel good about this defeat. Also, don't repeat something that you've already pulled before. If the heroes cornered the villain and he teleported away, you can't repeat that, because it'll just feel cheap and frustrate the players. If your villain gets thrown in jail and then he breaks out, you can't ever lock him up again, because the heroes have definitive proof that he'll bust out. I'm a very big fan of depowering villains. If they're a shadow priest, they become magic locked and can't cast any more. If they have some great weapon, it's taken from them at the very least, but shattered in the final fight preferrably (think Frostmourne.) If they're a paladin, the Light abandons them. These kinds of things. 

After the climax, your whole job is wrapping up plot threads and phasing yourself out of a GM role. Players are good at picking up the pieces to stories. Most players will grapple with what happened on their own and you don't need to coach them through it. If you're done with your story, they're probably going to extend some piece out of it and create their own non-GMed RP and that's great. In fact, I tend to think the mark of a great event/storyline is that people walk out of it grappling with it, and the fallout of it extends for a bit. In story terms, this is called the denouement (which I think is pronounced DAY-NEW-MAW, because it's french) and outside of NPCs that you've introduced or any items, locations, powers, anything you need to explain a resolution to, you should be hands off here. Let the players resolve their characters on their own. Don't force that. 

And even though it's technically not an act, I want to take a moment to acknowledge...

Sequels

RPers love continuity. It's why we police people's lore. It's why we constantly reference our backstories, or old stories that we took part in. I've never in my life met an RPer that RPed without an eye towards the larger continuity of the server, world, whatever. When you've finished your story, you're adding to that continuity. My recommendation first and foremost: don't continuity police your own story. In the same way that I think the best approach is to be hands off with the denouement of the story, be hands off with the continuity of it after the fact. People will adopt it into their RP and the characters naturally and you don't want to stymie that by hounding everyone that references things after the fact. I've seen this happen from time to time (and I super fall into this trap all the time) and it almost always has negative results. Interestingly enough, the results aren't purposefully negative. It's not malice. People don't get mad at you. But they do feel a distance from it. RP is the gift that you give other players, and your storyline is a gift that you give other players. Once it's over, don't try to own it or take it from them. Let them play with it how they want. If you become overbearing about it, it creates this weird sense that they're playing with someone else's property, and they put it down and put it away. This is the last thing you want. Let them pick it up and go from there. 

But when a story ends, especially a good story, there's always a huge temptation to create a sequel. You want to recapture the magic! You want to go back to your favorite places! Your favorite things! You want to get the band back together and go on another tour! And there's a part of me that really wants to shit on this impulse, but I actually kind of have a hard time doing so. I think sequels can be a trap, sure, but I also think that they're fun and RPers sign up for continuity, so get them on board. The big thing that I recommend when it comes to sequels (or spinoffs, also) is that you work hard not to invalidate the original story. The Two Towers is the sequel to Fellowship, but it doesn't retroactively shit on aspects of Fellowship. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen basically does. The defeat of the cube and megatron is basically unwritten in the opening minutes of Revenge of the Fallen because the Decepticons wake him up immediately. All the gains that had been made over the course of the first movie are instantly undone with that act. This is the kind of thing you want to avoid. If you killed your villain, keep him dead. Even if he's a likable villain that we all want to see more of. Just let him be dead and move on to something else, or someone else. His old apprentice tries to finish what his master started. Someone finds the shards of his old weapon and falls under the same curse when they reforge his blade. Someone who chased the villain all their life turns their focus on you for stealing the kill. Absolutely bring back old elements of the other story, NPCs, locations, what have you, but do yourself a gigantic favor and use that moment to create contrast. When you journeyed to the village enslaved by the McBaddie, it was barren and desolate, but when you return to fight McBaddie Jr, it's vibrant and alive. This contrast shows the characters the gains that they've made by completing that first story. And it gives them something to fight for (keeping McBaddie Jr from returning the village to the state they  originally found it in.) Essentially, the failure state for the story becomes: back to square one, the positive changes that you've made are all erased. 

The last thing I want to mention when it comes to sequels is watching out for backstory bloat. Unless the group of people you're running for are exactly the same, which would be a miracle, you're going to have new people walking into this story who don't have the same basis for it that the long term holdouts do have. Boil that story into bite size chunks, throw away all the plot detritis and focus on what matters. A LOT of stuff is going to have happened during your first storyline, but let everything that's not absolutely essential go. And don't cater only to the people that have been here before. It can be easy to get wrapped up in collective nostalgia, especially when one player shares your enthusiasm for your story, but don't let that become a barricade keeping new people out. Yes, the relationships that have been forged and changed over the course of the first story matter, and you don't want to trample any of that stuff, but make sure that you as the GM are being as welcoming and open as possible when it comes to these folks joining the storyline team. Creating plot hooks for new folks to get on board, things tailored to them and their characters and their skillset, that's a one way ticket to an engaged player, even one who's new to your story. Don't be haphazard. Don't give them a thread that you could have given to anyone. Give them a thread made for them, that only they could take. If people see you going out of your way to get their character on board on THEIR terms rather than your terms, you're going to get a great response from them. 

------------------------------------------

Alright, so that's my act structure breakdown. I have a lot more that I want to address and talk about, but I'm not really sure what I want to get into next. If there's something that I've mentioned that you want to get some more thoughts on, let me know.

Here are some topics that I want to cover in future BaernRantz:
-McGuffins
-Villains
-Tropes/Cliches
-Lorebreaking/Lorebending/Lorepolicing
-Creating character arcs for characters you don't control
-Creating stakes

Shit, I'm sure there's more. IDK I'm going to just keep posting until I've exhausted my own well of unorganized thoughts that I want to get on paper. 
 

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I want more, so anything you feel like covering will be great!

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I'm going to start with stakes because it's on my mind with a recent RP. So, without further ado...

STAKES

Stakes are, simply put, my favorite fucking thing. I love stakes. I love high stakes. I love operatic, epic, end of the world if we don't beat him here stakes. And I think stakes are crucial to good RP and good storytelling. 

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Let's just start with a definition. 

Stakes are the collateral that the protagonists put up when they bet on themselves to achieve their goal. If they fail, whatever's at stake is lost. 

I mention "bet on themselves" because the etymology of the word "stakes" in this context comes from gambling, but it is the best, clearest way that I can describe precisely what stakes are and why they matter. Protagonists need to put something on the chopping block in order to buy their price of admission to the story. The more they put on there, the better, the more they go all in, the higher the drama and the tension becomes. The less they do, the worse. This is for two reasons, mainly, 1) because stakes obfuscate that the story is a story and 2) because high stakes imply meaningful consequences and meaningful consequences are required in order to support the foundation of any of our stories about any of our characters. 

The reason that stakes obfuscate stories being stories, though, is fairly straightforward. We all know that good guys are good guys and in most stories and instances, good guys win. What can get a bit confusing, especially for you post-modernists in the audience, is that people see that and say "I should have the good guys LOSE, that'll get your audience to get on their toes." Well, fair enough, but it also kills engagement and investment in your story at the same time. Good guys are relatable. We all like to think we are good guys and we all like to aspire to be good guys. We, the audience, WANT the good guys to win, we just don't want to be confronted with the fact that they probably will. The better answer to this is stakes. Stakes are not a cheap "gotcha!" that you get by pulling the rub out from under the audience, they're a contract that you make with the audience. If the hero fails, what happens? The more you show the players what happens if they lose, the more you seriously consider and entertain that possibility, the more you relay to them in specific detail, no if you fuck up I'm going to set off an earthquake that will bury Orgrimmar forever, the more they understand and internalize the possibility of the protagonists losing and let themselves be "tricked" almost into thinking that things could go *that wrong*. And even though I think it's not a great thing to set out to deceive the players in many other contexts (see: my thoughts on death and resurrection) it's absolutely alright to engage in this bit of misdirection. It's part of the reason that we love stories. 

When it comes to stakes implying meaningful consequences, I mean very literally. Good stakes will carry very severe consequences for a character if they fuck up. Those consequences aren't necessarily going to happen, but they might and that's what matters. Good RP is about consequence, it's about cause and effect, not about recycling the same bits over and over. While it might be alright if you design a character around consequence free RP, just a voice that you want to inhabit from time to time, most of us gravitate to the satisfaction that comes from the long form storytelling and self-expression of RP. We like our continuity, we like our lore, and if something happens to your character, we expect that your character grapples with that. Stories in many ways are great, big chains of cause and effect, one character does something and another character reacts to it. If you're not paying attention to these causes and effects, if you're not grappling with the consequences of your actions and reactions, then it's easy for those around you to feel cheated. If you have your character get blinded in some event, he shouldn't show up afterward as if nothing happened. He needs to grapple with that. Good stakes are going to be major things that your characters will be grappling with for plenty of time to come. 

I should mention as well that even though I talk about stakes in a big, grandiose way, putting smaller things at stake also works, in fact, for people that aren't me, it can almost be required. I respond very well to the "the whole city full of people will be killed if you fail," but other folks respond much more to the "this one person you care about will be killed if you fail," version of stakes. That's just a matter of taste. I'm an operatic, bombastic, superhero kind of guy, and the small scale stakes aren't what interest me. But that doesn't mean that they can't be valuable, and I absolutely don't want to recommend that people walk away from those kinds of low calibur stakes because I prefer one way or another. There is no intrinsically better set of stakes when it comes to higher or lower stakes. There are just tastes. If you're going to go for the small stuff, though, most of the time you need to set up your work. People aren't going to respond to you pulling a random nobody off the street. There's no investment in random nobody. But give that person a name? Some character traits? Have her tooling around with the characters for a while before shit goes down and now all of a sudden her life is on the line? Everyone now has a big emotional point of reference and that's something that you can latch onto. The danger that "oh my god, plucky redhead who's too young for the big leagues but so eager that I can't help but give her a shot, might be killed here" is very real once we've gotten invested in her and her character and plot. Even just there, I created a whole personality and arc and set the terms of her relationship with the protagonist inside of a paranthetical clause, it's not hard to do this stuff, but it is necessary. You can threaten abstractions much easier than you can threaten characters, because a lot of the time, you can just coast based on passive traits without doing much active work. 

This is a great point so I'm actually going to keep it up. What I mean by "coast based on passive traits" really comes down to using the setting of the world and the background stuff that players don't necessarily see to keep them engaged with the stakes in a real, material way. I want to call out Lohd/Tirien/Kirital here, because he did this kind of thing well in his Nightmare storyline at the top of the Legion expansion. Lohd is a tauren druid trapped and corrupted in the dream into a massive, constantly morphing chimaera monster, and he uses a Sanctuary hearthstone to teleport to the Sanctuary guildhall and wreck up the place, all while he's at it threatening the rest of Dalaran with his Nightmare corruption. I don't know how intended this was, but the effect is actually beautiful, because he's broken his stakes into three discreet components:

1) Lohd himself needs to be rescued. For folks that aren't like me and need that kind of a personal character interaction to get them involved and invested, this is the connection that they need. Everything else falls by the wayside, because what matters here is that Lohd, this one druid, gets saved, because Sanctuary doesn't leave a man behind (or however you want to flavor that.) 

2) The Sanctuary guildhall needs to be saved. This is Lohd coasting on "passive traits" but that's not a bad thing at all, in fact, it's pretty efficient storytelling and a really cool way to incorporate the ambient air of the guild into your RP. See, the Sanctuary Guildhall was the setting of so much of our RP at the time, that without him putting a single word into it, we all knew and subconsciously identified it as our "home." 

3) And the, of course, the looming threat of the Nightmare also meant that for folks like me the big, big threat of the corruption spreading throughout the city was omnipresent. If the protagonists of Sanctuary didn't stop him now, the base of operations for everyone fighting the Legion was going to fall. This kind of thing is candy to me, personally, but it also puts a very powerful impetus on the players for solving the problem. 

I've run out of time at work today, but I'm going to come back and finish up some stuff about stakes. I want to get into why different kinds of stakes work and, most importantly, when you should focus on reasonable, believable stakes and when you shouldn't. 

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Now, I've talked a lot about the larger than life stakes that I go nuts for, but I want to dwell on the opposite for a moment and really illustrate why focusing on small stakes can be of great benefit to your story. There are folks that are unlike me that have a very tough time with epic stakes. Why? 

Because RP is small. 

And what I mean by that is, outside of locations and events that we control the entire context of, RP cannot as a rule affect the greater context of the game world. None of our RP will ever have the ability to redefine the world, and even if Lohd writes that we fail to stop the monster in time, Dalaran will still be standing when we show up tomorrow to do our world quests and buy our Seals of Broken Fate. This incongruity, by the way, is something I'm going to touch on and get into in the future, but for now I just want to dwell on the fact that, no, we can't unleash a crazy Nightmare corruption virus on Dalaran. It is too big to work; RP is small. 

Because RP is small and those epic stakes are happening back to back, though, the way some people's brains processes that information is very straightforward: There is a 0% chance that these stakes could be realized. We're not betting the house on a winning hand, we're playing with monopoly money and pretending that it's millions of dollars. To these people, the idea that the stakes are that high just proves that they can never be followed through upon, which means there are no stakes. At the end of the day, we're going to beat the monster and everything will be fine. 

In other words, it completely undoes the good work that you've done by introducing stakes in the first place. You can't trick people into putting their knowledge of story aside if they know the outcome, and not for any reason that's diagetic (a term to denote what happens inside of the world of the story; non-diagetic would be what occurs outside the realm of the story world, like metagaming) , it's not like their character knows that there's this ace up their sleeve that guarantees victory. If they know victory is assured, you haven't actually created any stakes either. And when you go big, you also tip off to saavy players piloting their characters that whatever you described as going to happen if you fail not to be at stake at all. 

So, if this is the problem, how does one solve it? 

You go small. This is the genius of how Lohd set up his Act 3 of that Nightmare storyline, because he gave us all three options. Yeah, I'm sure plenty of people knew that Dalaran wasn't a threat at all, but the guildhall? It's a completely fabricated location that we decide the entire context for. If Lohd wanted, he could have had his Nightmare monster literally bring the guildhall to ruin, reduced it to rubble. Those are stakes that are controlled and executable on in the very same crosshairs as the stakes that aren't. And, because victory is something that often happens in degrees, it's entirely possible that we save the city (which everyone knows was going to happen, anyway) but lose the guildhall, and have to face that bitter victory. 

Hell, even if you can't get anyone on board with a location like the guildhall, and those medium calibur stakes, you can go small and personal. Invest in a specific character, a specific NPC, get the players on board for them and their survival and when you put that character on the line, boom, fantastic stakes for someone that likes to go small. You control that NPC. You have in your hand whether they live or die. Look, destroying a guildhall is pretty fucking disruptive. What happens to all the other storylines? What about the other scenes in it? People who aren't involved in that storyline? Are you really going to ruin that for them?

But even if you're facing a skeptic of that calibur, killing your own NPC? That couldn't be in anyone's power besides your own. Those are some stakes. 

That said, I don't think it's the easiest thing to get that kind of investment into characters. What characters players will get attached to and what characters they don't is a science that is very tough to uncover, especially in RP where things are so dynamic from end to end. I will say that I think it's plenty possible, and I'm sure I'll get into it in the future. (Those of you who know me better believe that a whole big ass thing on "Pathos" is coming down the pike.) 

So, I've basically hit on a lot of the math that underlies stakes and why they should exist, why you should be conscious of them in your writing, why you include them and how they work on players. But I do want to include a gigantic caveat: Stakes also are built on trust between someone who's creating RP or a story for someone else, and that should be respected as much as possible. It is not your right to cut off someone's arm. It is not your right to kill their character. It is not your right to force your stakes, win or lose, onto another player. But it's absolutely something that you can ask of them. 

Recently, in a bit of RP that got me thinking about all of this, I'm doing some small worldbuilding work for another player's storyline, a warlock that wants to retrieve their soul from a dreadlord that their mother sold for power. My character, another warlock that's gone through a similar process and is coaching her on the erratic rituals and fel sacrifices that she'll need to make in order to accomplish that goal.

As a note, and I'll talk a bit about this when I talk about power levels, but I'm a firm believer that if you're going to give your character an upgrade in power (in this case, getting her soul back and possibly a big power boost from the kill of the Dreadlord) you need to make them work for it. This is more a community minded thing than anything regarding the storytelling, though, it also happens to be excellent storytelling as a bonus. The community is much more willing to allow big upgrades to characters when you can show your work, how hard it was for you to trudge through the muck to get there, when you can display for all to see that you *EARNED* this. It was not given to you. And, to be honest, on top of that I think it's just that much more satisfying to wear that storyline as a badge of honor for others. It's not satisfying to tell a story where everything was a cakewalk, but it's great to tell people how the RP you did wasn't pulling punches on your character.

So, as part of the ritual, my warlock informs her that she's going to need to kill one of her demons, the one that she uses most often (who ended up being her succubus) in order to prepare herself to absorb her soul from the dreadlord. These were the stakes that I was giving her. Then, her warlock asked if there were any other way that she could accomplish her goal. Now, my thought process immediately struck two thoughts:

1) Out of character, she wants me to say "Yes." This sacrifice is not what she's looking for and wants another option. 

2) Out of character, she wants me to say "No." This question is something her character would ask, but she wants me to force her warlock down this path because it's important not to pull that punch and to hit her where it hurt. 

So, faced with two equally likely options, I did what any good GM would do. I just asked her in OoC chat: "Hey, do you want there to be an alternative?" Turns out, option 1 it was and so I outlined a separate version of events with the toll directly hitting her character, rather than being emotionally tied to her connection to the succubus. In fact, I used the opportunity to both up the drama with the one-two punch of "There is another option, but it's going to be much harder on you" and "We're in uncharted territory, now, and I can't guide you through it step by step."

That addendum, that extra option, was an opportunity for me to pump the stakes of the situation and I did. Now, not only is her warlock going to be drained by the process, a gaunt husk of herself for a time, forever weaker, but if she can succeed at her aims and take the dreadlord's power for her own, she'll be all the stronger for the process. And this state of things that we ended up in, with stakes through the roof, happened because we collaborated to get there. I think this kind of OoC coordination is important, especially when you're asking players to accept the stakes that you're putting up. If you're going to follow through with destroying the guildhall, you probably want to ask some permission before you write that into things. Railroading folks is just basically never going to be the right call when it comes to this. 

The last thing I want to touch on is the plot twist that are inherent to stakes, managing the kind of consequences that you set up for yourself when you are setting up these stakes for your characters and your storylines. While I don't think this really applies to the big world shaking ones like I mentioned, knowing when to kill off that NPC and when to let them live is a big part of setting up your stakes. Do you destroy the guildhall? There are going to be serious, far ranging consequences for doing so. As with most things, I am always going to advocate thinking it through and not making a decision haphazardly, even if you're improvising. There are two reasons for this, the most prominent being that not thinking things through can put everyone in a tricky spot where unintended consequences of that action have to be dealt with and no one is ready or in a place to do so. I'm absolutely on board if anyone wants to say "That kind of spontaneity can create great openings for RP!" and yeah, I think that can sometimes be the case, but others it can leave gaping plot holes that dismantle the logic of your story and shred the continuity you're making. The second reason is because most players internalize the relationship between themselves and the story in very direct ways, and when you have the stakes of the situation fall through, the players have just lost. Even if they beat the bad guy and accomplish this goal, them not being able to save everyone, them not being able to save the guildhall, them not being able to do whatever it is that you had them put at stake in the story is going to feel frustrating and bad. 

A lot of time, confronting players with a bittersweet win, making them cope with a Pyrrhic victory, can be some of the greatest RP and drama and tension that you get. But players like to have solid, fist pumping Big Damn Heroes wins, too, and having them walk away from a tough conflict with the goal intact and whatever got put at stake safe again is also something that they look for. I don't have a great sense for what works and what doesn't in a general sense, because this stuff is all context, but I would be sensitive to punishing players brutally over and over, and don't shy away from letting them get a big, fat win for themselves. 

-------------------------------------------------------

OK, that was stakes. I'm not sure what I want to do next time, but I'm sure I'll think of something. Things that I still have on the list:
-McGuffins
-Villains
-Tropes/Cliches
-Lorebreaking/Lorebending/Lorepolicing
-Creating character arcs for characters you don't control
-Creating stakes
-Pathos/Ethos/Logos
-"RP is small"

Let me know if you want me to cover any of those first. 

 

 

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Alright! So, I was going to start with pathos/ethos/logos, but as soon as I got into a mindset where I was thinking about these things and what they meant, I realized that I needed to do some more groundwork first. After all, these are greek terms, so we need to go back to the greek that forms some of the bedrock of our understanding of storytelling: Aristotle. 

Aristotle wrote a book called the "Poetics" and in it he basically tries to define storytelling, though through the lens of storytelling of his day: Epic Poetry, Tragedy, and Comedy. Unfortunately, the one he wrote on comedy is lost forever, but the other two? We've got records of those. I do not recommend you read them, because they're kind of a slog and the most important bits I'm just going to cliffnotes here anyway. 

The first thing I want to get out of the way is how he defined tragedy, which had seven component parts. 
1) it is mimetic (This means that it tries to immitate rather than narrate; basically, show don't tell)
2) it is serious
3) it tells a full story of an appropriate length
4) it contains rhythm and harmony
5) rhythm and harmony occur in different combinations in different parts of the tragedy
6) it is performed rather than narrated
7) it arouses feelings of pity and fear and then purges these feelings through catharsis.

These seven components, not gonna lie, don't really hold up well. Authors over the intervening 2 millenia have taken Aristotle plenty to task (Death of a Salesman is said to be a rebuke to Aristotle's idea of tragedy being "The fall of a great man.") and this is not the good part of what Aristotle is getting at, this isn't the universal, juicy stuff. But I want to mention it because it shows you the kind of mindset he was in: He was very concerned with acting and theatre as the principle storytelling artform of the time, and so we're going to need to alter things quite a bit for our needs. 

The good stuff, the juicy part of the poetics are the component parts that create a tragedy. In descending order of importance, they are Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody and Spectacle. This, in many ways, is the foundation of my own perspective on storytelling. I am going to break a bit from Aristotle here (because even though the concepts themselves are strong, they need some updating) and retrofit this to meet my needs. Therefore, I'm going to replace Thought with Theme (this is 1:1 for Aristotle, just a translation thing) Diction for Setting (Aristotle talks about the importance of setting the scene in diction, so close enough) and Melody for Aesthetics (Melody for Aristotle very directly talked about the songs in these sung tragedies needing to be good, so I'm just going to sub that out for aesthetic stuff like that.) 

This leaves us with the following list, still in order of descending importance: Plot, Character, Theme, Setting, Aesthetics, Spectacle. I like to split this list in half, because to me Plot/Character/Theme are all the most important aspects of storytelling and the stuff that comes after has a pretty big drop off. It's also convenient because Logos/Pathos/Ethos are comments on Plot/Character/Theme and that's the end point for this bit of thoughts. 

Plot

Alright, this is the easy first step, but also the most important component to any story. The plot is, simply put, what happens. And the reason the plot is so important is because it directs the flow and the action of the story as a whole. Weak plot absolutely cripples a story from the get go, mostly because the conventions of plot are baked into the DNA not just of how we understand the creation of storytelling, but also to how we understand it as an audience. Plot holes, troublesome plot logic, loose hanging plot threads, these kinds of things are a death knell of a good plot. Other aspects, like good and bad pacing (pacing being appropriately stretching and releasing tension for the audience,) factor into this too, but I'm really trying to talk about the basics. For instance, everything that came before the beginning of your story (whether or not it's viewed in chronological order, mind you) must necessarily be irrelevant. When the first event in your story starts (even if it's in a flashback at the end) it must appear as if out of nowhere, simultaneously the result of a thousand implied events that never reach the screen, but also the result of no events that leave unanswered questions for your audience. This is the tightrope that you need to walk. If you allude to some greater mystery, that is a loose plot thread until you can reel it in and tie it off. 

The ins and outs of good plots and, specifically, clever tricks to use in how you structure your stories will be covered in future installments (for instance, I want to go in depth on a few other story structures besides the Three Act Structure just for contrast's sake) but the point I'm making is that if you're going to get anything right, make it plot. A bad plot supercedes everything else. That said, I think it's tough to attain greatness with plot. A story that really goes above and beyond typically exalts one of the other aspects to get there. An amazing setting, rich characters, complex themes, or even just amazing spectacles can get you over the finish line to great story, but doing so with a stellar plot is always going to be hard. 

Character

The second most important aspect of a story are its characters, specifically the protagonist and antagonist. In RP, where there are a few different characters, try and separate out for yourselves who lives in that protag/antag category (Main Characters) and who doesn't (supporting characters.) There can be plenty of main characters in a story (Lord of the Rings, for instance, has Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, and plenty more) and the difference comes down to who drives the narrative. The Main Characters will drive the narrative, supporting characters will typically be along for the ride. Aragorn, for instance, makes most of the major decisions for the Three Hunters phase of that story, and Gimli and Legolas tag along with him for the ride. They support him and help him, but he's the decision maker taking action over the course of the narrative. While the presence or absence of an arc can be helpful in telling the protagonist and antagonist apart (Protags typically have them, antags don't) supporting characters don't need them, but benefit from having them. Gimli and Legolas are better, more well-rounded characters because they have arcs (they start hating each other, end as friends.) It's plenty possible to break some of these rules, but this section has gone on long enough. Suffice to say that different kinds of categories break these rules as necessary (topics to maybe come back to: the Force of Nature villain, Heel/Face turns, Passive Protagonists, etc.) 

When it comes to RP, the reason I recommend figuring out who's active and who's supporting in your story is because it can be a big, red flag that allows you to course correct as necessary. If you are using your characters to drive the plot forward, if you are pulling along all these other characters on the heels of your PCs or NPCs, then you're relegating other players and the characters they're playing to being supporting players in this story. You should not do this. In tabletop terms, this is typically called "Railroading" and it's a trap that a lot of GMs fall into when it comes to RP. After all, you feel apprehensive about forcing anything on other players, right? Don't. Work with other players and collaborate with them on how they want the story to go down, if necessary, but don't get bogged down in that apprehension. Because the end result is you essentially keeping anyone from engaging with the story without a herculean effort. The baseline structure for most storylines should be "GM sets up a problem, Players set up a solution." Absolutely use your characters to set up that problem and all the context that they need in order to deal with it, but make sure they are the ones that get to plan a solution and implement that plan. If you don't let them do that, then you're making everyone side characters as you hog the GM spot, the Protag spot and the Antag spot. 

Theme

This one is probably less necessary than others, but to me it's of paramount importance. If plot is "What happens" and character is "Who it happens because of," then theme is typically "Why does this happen?" The good news is, theme tends to be easy. Good characters very often beget good themes, because if you're giving your characters proper arcs that properly test them, then you're creating themes naturally. If your character is a loner and her arc is getting over that by joining a community, your themes are inadvertently going to end up in the "Everyone needs people to help them; you don't need to do it all alone" territory. This kind of thing is great. Even more basic stuff, not on an arc level but a character motivation level, can work in a pinch. "My character is good and wants to protect innocents from dying" carries with it the very basic moral of: "Innocent people shouldn't die," but that's enough to get you through it without too much trouble. 

That said, I highly recommend using your themes as a window into characters because just like characters naturally create themes in your stories, themes naturally create character arcs and plots. If you're ever stuck or have writer's block or are having trouble getting in the headspace of a character, think about what that character stands for, what he represents, what are you using this character to ellucidate on and figure out. Once you settle on that ("I'm using this character as a window to explore the slippery slope from hero worship to fascism") you now have a great basis to create arcs and stories for that character. ("This character gets taken under the spell of a charismatic warlord and follows him too far without realizing it.") Arcs are pretty universally good things for most characters (even antagonists, though their arcs are upside down) so finding them for all of your characters, even the minor ones, can be a great exercise. This all takes on new dimensions, honestly, if you can make a few arcs from a few different characters weave together into one major, overarching theme that unifies them all. When all of your characters are grappling with the same thematic content, that's when your whole story is focused on a big theme and achieves greatness. 

Setting

Like I said earlier, not as necessarily important as the other bits, but still something that sits at the top of the B-row for a good reason. A good setting can really sell uniqueness and immersion in the world, and in the same way that stakes allow you to forget you're in a story and the conventions of that story apply to you, a good setting immerses you so strongly in the story as to have that same effect. Settings are tougher, because they're simultaneously about attention to detail and the little touches that you add here and there, but you can't get bogged down in this kind of thing because all the bandwidth that you're using for setting is bandwidth that you're not using for plot/character/theme, which are your big guns. Setting is about doing the most you can with that little time. 

In RP, I'm a big fan of using setting in order to set a mood or pieces of a scene that characters can bounce off of and interact with, especially in ways that let you express idiosyncrasies about your world. I'm a huge fan of the basic syntax of [describe the detail you want to highlight] and [a tiny bit of logic outlining why that detail is the way it is.] I love this structure in my writing because it adds a lot of texture to the spaces that you're creating. It's one thing to describe the three wells that villagers use to slake their thirst. It's another to explain how the buildings of the village get bunched up and cramped near the three wells, and touch on the shamans that periodically refill the underground aquifer by communing with the water spirits in the area. The downside to this, unfortunately, is that you end up creating a lot of lore for yourself to memorize and come back to later. RPers love continuity and you don't respect your own continuity of the space, then you're doing yourself a big disservice and punishing players that are keeping track of things. 

Aesthetic

This one is fairly simple. Have a voice. Have tricks to your writing, little things that you do that no one else does. Most people do this especially with speech and dialogue, like writing out your accents for your characters. But it's something that every character, even those without accents need and should have. The mark of this, by the way, is when other people can imitate you fairly well. My benchmark for character speech is typically twofold:

1) What are the specific words, phrases and clauses that this character uses? (Baern, for instance, uses "To be honest," while Gahnder uses "Truth be told," for the same concepts.)

2) What are the character traits that influence this character's voice? (Sylarian is a blood elf, and speaks in grand eloquence, while Regdar likes being casual and colloquial because it puts him and others on the same level.)

You can also root this outside of dialogue as necessary. I very very commonly structure my posts as: "Dialogue dialogue dialogue," dialogue tag. Intervening action that connects the concepts. "More dialogue more dialogue." The reason I do this is because I like having a post where I essentially acknowledge the dialogue that came before me and then progress the dialogue to its next point. Not everything is dialogue, obviously, but that kind of post construction is something I use very often. 

Spectacle

This is easy. Spectacle is a lot of the time just something that you do that grabs a ton of attention, even if it's fleeting. This isn't referring to outside of the narrative stuff, though, like Avatar being a spectacle for being the first great 3D movie. This is inside the narrative stuff. Spectacle might be better termed as "surprise" because surprises are basically what Spectacle is addressing. When you do something unexpected, surprise the audience, that's spectacle, and it can be a very useful thing. That surprise grips their attention and skyrockets their engagement. It is fleeting, though, and also has steep diminishing returns, which is why Spectacle comes in last on this list. Do things to switch things up, do things to grab attention, do things to keep folks engaged, but don't put all your effort here because at the end of the day it's not going to get you a ton of mileage. 

Since plot twists are a very typical form of surprise in most stories, I want to address them here a bit. The mark of a good plot twist is one that the viewer doesn't see coming, but also they realize was earned. A good plot twist needs to be set up well enough that by the time it executes, the audience can do a quick once over of the plot and story that came before and come to the conclusion: "Oh, I should have seen this coming." If you're not layering in your hints, then the audience will be cheated (this is what Deus Ex Machina feels like, because it comes out of left field.) If you're too blatant in your layering, though, the audience will see it coming and you won't get the hyper engaging WOW factor out of it. It's a tight rope, but if you can walk it, you'll do great. 

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Anyway, that's a brief overview of Aristotle's poetics but rejiggered for RP. Now that I've broken that down, I can finally get into PATHOS, ETHOS, AND LOGOS! which are a topic that I love and really want to dig into. I also added two other topics for future lists, so I'm going to address that down here. 

-McGuffins
-Protagonist Types
-Antagonist Types
-Tropes/Cliches
-Lorebreaking/Lorebending/Lorepolicing
-Creating character arcs for characters you don't control
-Creating stakes
-The Six Components of a Story

-Pathos/Ethos/Logos
-"RP is small"
-Clever Plot Tricks
-"And then/But then"
-Harmon Story Circle
-Harmon TV Circle
-A Plots/B Plots/Subplots
-Character Arcs
-Elements of Style, but for RP

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