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Article - 'Making a Round RPG #3 - Story Definition and Tales' by SMOPHWoD.Y

An item about Game Design posted on Jan 14, 2004

Blurb

Mr. Y gets a bit technical, building a new, better-defined definition of 'storyline', and explaining how to do that storyline right.

Body

Another MaRR article, designed to help improve your gamemaking techniques, and to make your own games as round and flawless as possible. If you have not yet read my introductory MaRR article, please do so first by clicking here. The first Making a Round RPG article covers some definitions and basic tips, but in this article we'll be focusing on storyline. I am going to cover the differences between story and plotting, as well as explain some good storywriting tips for those that are inexperienced in it.



Before I can explain how important storyline is in a RPG, I think I need to ensure both you and I grasp it with the same meaning. Oftentimes most gamemakers take the broad definition of storyline that applies to almost any kind of media- the story of a movie or book, for example. They decide storyline just means any part of the telling or weaving of the game's tale. Well, that broad definition is fine and correct, and I also occasionally use that same definition when I explain storywriting (Matter of fact, I did it right there!). However, a second, much more particular meaning of storyline labels it as the sort of tree trunk that pulls all other story elements together- story is what connects the background, plotting, and characters, along with the less-connected sidequests and mini-games. In this case, storyline is basically the word to describe world events occuring in the present that happen to and affect either the hero and his immediate party, friends, and enemies, or to single entities or large groups not directly associated to the hero and/or his allies. Within this article, I will just label the much larger definition of storyline as the overall tale of an RPG, or the taletelling. New vocabulary to clear up something, go me! Now then, let's actually dig into the material.



I'd like to begin with a great example of a game that excels at locations and characters, but falls very short on plotting and events (Thanks to ol' Py for this idea). Take Final Fantasy 10. I don't care how much bashing I may receive from certain individuals for saying this (*cough*Seifer*cough*), but I think FFX is a superb example of a tale that does very well without a strong plot. I want to focus on a particular trait of the FFX tale that impressed me quite a bit- the locations of the game. Sections of FFX were very well-designed and thought out to make a very complex, varied, and satisfying world, that of Spira. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that the storyline was necessarily good- storyline is not just locations, but it is also composed of unique, interesting plot twists and events that swerve the storyline off of a typical path. Final Fantasy 10's main storyline was quite linear, in fact, and you could be certain that you would be showing up at whatever areas were forecast for the future schedule by your party members. FFX still threw in a fair amount of surprising plot twisting and events, especially around the fourth and fifth temples of the game. Also, I wonder if FFX could have retained the strength of its strong main cast of characters by introducing more non-linearity to the game. However, linearity and a lack of plot twisting and surprise events is not healthy for role-playing games. Part of the feeling of fantasy that I feels should go with RPGs is how unpredictable their storylines can be in comparison to real life. In real life we grow up in dragging days of school, knowing we need to pick jobs and futures so that we can drag on our own work, up until the dragging days of retirement until death. In contrast, characters in RPGs experience large, unpredictable chains of events in relatively short amounts of time. Messing with that honored tradition of plot twists and surprises can really throw off your game in a bad way- yes, I am saying that being original in everything you do is not a good idea. Maybe someday in the future I may write another article on the possibility of keeping an RPG strong and healthy without traditional plot twists and events, but as for now I don't have the time to examine the situation for any possibilities.



Storylines are very important to building round RPGs. One of the most important attributes of a round RPG is originality- people like seeing and interacting with things they have not encountered before in RPG tales, and as an entertainer you should therefore provide them with what they like. Thus, storylines become very important in the sense of their originality. You need to attempt a unique chain of events and situations that will place your characters in situations that are original for your own game, and you need to work hard to make every town, every dungeon, every map, and every corner of the game's universe unique as well. Are you beginning to notice just how important storyline can be, even when characters and plotting are not considered? Let's examine some ideas for creating unique events and locations in detail.



When I begin to make a new role-playing game, and I am just starting to design it, I like drawing out the world map first, so therefore I will explain location originality in detail first. Part of becoming and simply being an effective storywriter and plotter is plain inventiveness and creative thought- turn on your thinking juices before you sit down and write your ideas! So, get a plain white piece of paper, a few sharp pencils, and a clean workspace. If you are comfortable without music, try working without it; if you cannot concentrate, play some light, simple music with few or no lyrics- just standard talewriting background music. Draw your world's continents and land masses out on paper first,the giving a rough scheme for what everything is. Draw small dots to show the locations of areas within your world, and label and describe them below your world map, or on another sheet of paper. Try to establish unique traits for everything you create. For example, give dungeons themes such as impressive fire effects and fire-themed puzzles, or teleportation puzzles that take you in many places and directions. It's okay if you dislike ideas right now- you're just planning, you can always change before beginning your game! Don't exhaust yourself of every idea you may have by making every single dungeon and town you may think of- convenience over possibility. Just because you have a large, beautiful Fire Cavern doesn't mean you need an ice-themed dungeon as well. However, don't limit yourself or try to draw out your party's path across the world already- make lots of locations all across the world. Don't place the areas of your world in your hero's path- make the hero and the player come to all your world's locations on his/her own time while following the flow of the game's event structure.



Assuming that you have many diverse locations and are satisfied, you can begin working on your game's events and plot twists, or your basic structure of where the party goes and what it does. It is difficult for me to describe just how to do your event structuring in a real procedure, as I really do it in an A to Z fashion, from the game's very beginning to the final conclusion. Also, event structuring can be fairly close to plotting, because what your party learns of the world can change where they go. So then, since we're assuming you have not finished your plot, let me just give general tips for event structuring, thinking that you'll work on making those unique events and plot twists and the plotting at the same time. Once again, originality is very important, but don't go overboard. Remember, all those locations you drew were just plans set on paper, not stone. You can always remove or even add locations to your game- do not ever forget that! However, I for one enjoy a very expansive RPG quest that scours across a massive world with many locations that stick in your memory at least somewhat- a good example of such an RPG would be the amateur RPG you can pick up right at GW, iishenron's Three the Hard Way". Expansive, massive worlds may overwhelm some players if they are too large, but a healthy balance between small and big should keep everyone quite happy.



I'm nearly finished with this article. I hope I've covered this much smaller definition of 'storyline', and I also hope you don't think taletelling is too lame a new word. As always, give me your own thoughts on all of this material. Thank you for reading!