Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Driving Force

Let me run an idea by you. A rag-tag group of misfits goes on a journey trying to bring to light a massive government cover-up while being pursued by a deadly covert-op assassin. The characters spend much of this time throwing witty banter and one-liners at one another even while dodging bullets and marauders or otherwise making fools of themselves and those that stand against them. Sound like your gaming group? Sound like a good campaign? How about a good movie? 

What I just described was, at bare-bones, Serenity, a 2005 movie written and directed by Joss Whedon. I'm going to say right now, I'm not the biggest fan of his work, but this movie is a good example of what I'm going to discuss today: Driving Force. (Incidentally, an RPG based on the franchise does exist, but I have yet to try it.) 

When I say driving force, I'm referring to a principle of storytelling describing the impetus of the story as a whole. This basically breaks down into two categories: Character driven and Plot (Narrative) driven. In a character driven story, the mind tends to ponder the question "What are the characters going to do next?". Conversely, in a plot driven story we wonder "What's going to happen next?". The core difference is which drives which: the plot driving the characters or the characters driving the plot?

The next question is: What does this have to do with RPGs and why is this movie a good example? Bear with me, I think this may be a long post. And for those who haven't seen the movie, there may be spoilers. You've been warned.

A Road Made of Rails

Plot-driven stories revolve around the idea that the primary storyline, the setpieces, and the adventure as whole takes center stage. That's what we're here for, and that's where the focus lies. The characters shuffle  from one plot point to the next in the effort to showcase the story and the events unfolding therein. Which characters take part is less important than the fact that the story proceeds. This leads to that dreadful idea that, in an RPG, players are merely riding the rail from one set piece to the next. Let's be frank and honest here people, no matter how good a GM is at hiding the tracks, a campaign with a strong narrative focus is always going to be a railroad. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, no matter how often it is done badly. In fact, modules and pre-made adventures are structured in a plot-driven way because they can't account for the characters taking part. There's no way to know that ahead of time.

Touching on the example, a member of a rag-tag group begins behaving erratically. The next move is to find out why, by consulting an expert. Clues in a video recording point to a destination, but a call from an old ally results in an impromptu rescue mission an a run-in with our Big Bad. More info is revealed afterward regarding the target locale. Making a pit-stop on the way, we find that the Big Bad has ordered the death of any and all allies of the group in an effort to deny them cover. From here the party must break through a blockade of savage hostiles to get to their goal, wherein they find evidence necessary to blow the conspiracy wide-open. Cue final confrontation, resolution and roll credits. 

At the bare skeletal level, you could refluff this for nearly any genre/game system and run it for whoever. The point here is that, regardless of how you flavor this, the plot moves from point to point. Plenty of room for action, investigation, or whatever else you may need. The important bit is the plot at large.

A Crew Made of Characters

Taking a look at the other side of things, character-driven stories revolve around the characters, their motivations, their personalities, and their choices. This is main tool of more sandbox type games, where what happens is a direct result of player choices and actions as opposed to 'the plot said so'. How this usually comes about is through decision making on the part of the player to direct the course of events, but also through character interaction via lengthy discussion or even so much as minor banter during dungeon crawls and combat. Dialogue plays a large part in all of this. This is the type of story where character backgrounds become good sources of plot hooks and every time a player opens their mouth, the plot can change.

A few more gems from the example: The movie starts with scenes of River Tam in a government testing lab. Due to her vast psychic abilities she picks up on government secrets locked in the minds of agents in the room with her. Shortly afterward, she's rescued by her older brother. Already the main plot is tied into the backstory of two characters. Later, when information is needed to move the plot, it's provided by one of the crews many contacts, Mr. Universe. As mentioned earlier, another of the crews contacts gives a 'distress' call, and in turn the characters decide to deviate from the main plot to go on a side quest to mount a rescue. Interspersed throughout this ordeal are moments of character interaction, further developing the universe, characters and everything else. Every exchange ties the characters closer together making each victory sweeter, and every defeat more heartfelt, especially in the event someone doesn't make it.

If this were run as a campaign, much of it is drawn from the characters and their actions. Every plot point is  tied directly to them.

So What Am I Going On About? 

This hobby is a collaborative effort. If we take these principles into account, the GM supplies the plot side, while the PCs supply the character side. In short, both sides have a hand in driving the campaign forward. Keeping this in mind, I've come across several things relating to this balance. Sometimes, as a GM, you forget to include the characters into your plans, ignoring their goals or neglecting to take their actions into account. Sometimes if the plot is too tied into the characters story, it becomes harder to justify someone dying and having to roll a new character. Sometimes, as a player, you don't go out of your way to explore things, relying too much on the plot to move things along. Sometimes you forget that characters are people too, and probably should get to know one another. Sometimes investing in an NPC only to have to save their butt time and time again is worth the trouble, even if only to have another grand adventure to go on. Sometimes we don't pick up on the plot hooks supplied by the GM and miss out on what could be an awesome story. We're all in this together, here. Never forget that.

Just some food for thought here. When was the last time you couldn't kill a player because they were critical to the plot? When was the last time you had a fireside chat with another PC? Have you ever suffered the tragic loss of a beloved NPC? When was the last time the main plot was more interesting than anything else you could come up with as a player?

Hmm...  Probably not as long a post as I thought it would be. Either way, Stay Classy!

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