• kentona
  • 11/01/2007 12:00 AM
FUNdamentals of RPGs
Part III - Story

By kentona
Based on the book Swords & Circuitry by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford.

In exploring what makes an RPG fun to play, this article series will explore the following areas:
I. The Role of the Player
II. Attributes and Skills
III. Story
IV. Quests and Objectives
V. Rewards
VI. Balancing

For an excellent series of articles on worldbuilding, please read Pasty's Worldbuilding Weekly

For an excellent article on linearity, please read Brickroad's When Linearity Attacks!

For a decent discussion on character creation and development (and many people feeling the need to point out that I am an idiot because I want to learn how to write good characters and am not innately awesome at writing good characters) check out Mommy, Aeris just died and I'm crying!!

Epic Story

Story: "The narrating or relating of an event or series of events"

Despite the fact that RPGs are games first and foremost, story remains one of the most powerful and frequently cited reasons why many RPG players say they enjoy this genre. Most people are coming to play your game with the expectation that you are going to entertain them. People playing RPGs expect to be given a goal and and to find themselves immersed in an involving story line.

Being dumped into an exotic locale may be diverting for a while, but unless there is something going on in the environment that will involve the player and pique their interest, there's really no reason for them being there. In a single-player game, a game that most of you would be making, it is critical that there is a significant reason for the player to take action - a threat that demands a heroic (or heinous, depending on your story) response. That does not necessarily mean that the entir eworld must hang in the balance, but the events that draw the player into the action must be in some way important to the avatar. Furthermore, whatever the larger issue into which the character is placed, the player must empathize with their plight and therefore care about solving their problem.

Yet there is a critical difference in storytelling in games and any other medium: Interactivity.

The story of an RPG needs to invite, intrigue and inspire, but leave the actual action up to the player. Once that larger, story-driven purpose is given, the player should then be allowed to do - or not to do - whatever you've suggested. We are talking about games, after all, and the player is concerned with having some choice in where they go, when they go, and how much influence they have over events in the game.

Mything Links

Looking beyond storytelling in games for the moment, let us explore the classical mythic structure. Based on Joseph Campbell's works on comparative mythology, it identifies the overarching patterns that are frequently repeated in nearly all mythic stories. It is an outline of that ancient system for connecting the audience with the story, for making that powerful bond between the user and the experience. When sitting down for that first time to write your own story, it would not be a bad idea to model your plot around it's tenets. Filling in your own ideas into this 12 stage narrative is an excellent place to start.

Swords & Circuitry
1. The Ordinary World
We meet the avatar in his or her Ordinary World, surrounded bu the things that are familiar to them. This is home.

2. Call to Adventure
At some point the avatar is confronted by a change: a coming war, a summons from the king, a friend showing up and mysteriously dying while carrying an ominous message. It is a call to do something, to find out what's going wrong, to deal with a new problem.

3. Refusal of the Call
The hero feels uncertain about their abilities, about the wisdom of chasing after whatever is going on. Hesitation occurs for any number of reasons, from selfish motives to honest self-doubt. (In literature and movies this step happens fairly frequently, but in games this step virtually vanishes. Games require the player to act, to immediately accept the Call to Adventure.)

4. Meeting of the Mentor
The mentor provides guidance and perhaps even magical gifts to assist the hero. This could be an agent of the supernatural, a wizard, or a seasoned veteran ready to coach the hero. This is a staple of the genre.

5. Crossing of the Threshold
The avatar goes out into the big, dangerous world beyond. This is the departure from Candlekeep in Baldur's Gate, the moment at which Luke decides to leave Tatooine in Star Wars. The world the hero or heroine discovers is unlike anything they've ever known before: big, weird, and dangerous.

6. Allies, Enemies, and Tests
Along the path to deal with the big problem, the avatar finds themselves surrounded by people who may help or hurt them. They are challenged everywhere, and always their life or cause is in danger.

7. Approach of the Final Cave
After pinpointing the heart of the problem, the avatar heads toward their nemesis to confront them.

8. The Ordeal
Once inside the stronghold of the enemy, the avatar must struggle for their life, sanity, and soul as they confront their ultimate enemy.

9. The Reward
With the enemy defeated, the avatar achieves their goal. This may be simply the removal of the threat to their lands or people, or it might be the acquisition of something, as when Indiana jones retrieves the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

10. The Road Back
With the enemy vanquished, the avatar begins the journey back to their Ordinary World as a victor and is reunited with friends or family.

11. Resurrection
After coming up against various obstacles, the avatar faces yet another severe test, often with a symbolic death and rebirth. This may be the confrontation with something left unfinished from the start of the experience or some other event that demonstrates how the hero has changed.

12. Return with the Elixir
The hero at last returns to the Ordinary World, bearing something special or magical. This could be literal (a cure for a disease, money to save the farm) or figurative (greater wisdom and insight, strength to stand up to the local bully) or anything else to make living in the Ordinary World easier.

The 12 steps above more or less represent the "ideal" mythic structure, but obviously this is not sacred doctrine set in stone. For example, Refusal of the Call is often glossed over or outright omitted in games (who wants to play a game where you can just refuse to go adventuring?) and steps 10 through 12 are often summarized in a final cutscene. Step 6 is the meat of the game. It is here in the structure that the player will find themselves for the bulk of the game.

Of course, not all steps are required, nor must this structure define your game. This is classical myth, developed over the course of humanity.

Stock Story Convention

RPGs have long been praised for their great stories. The long, narrative driven structure puts RPGs in an excellent position to invoke innovative, creative, moving stories. This is rarely, if ever, the case. For the most part RPGs use stock story structures and attempt only to improve on the telling of that archetype.

I'll let you decide if this is a good or a bad thing, but this is the typical structure of your typical RPG:

1. The protagonist
2. The girl
3. Sidekicks
4. The betrayal
5. The hidden evil

The protangonist (usually a male) is marked by an exceptional birth, and possesses some quality that sets him apart from his peers. Often he is the quiet type (if not completely mute) and his personality is blank slate. The underlying assumption is that you are this avatar, thus it is you that is in the story.

This main character will meet up with his soon to be significant other. This oft female character will be a sorceress, a healer, a summoner, or some other sort of spell hurling heroine. In most cases she will also be marked at birth. The two, while clearly in love, will not confess their feelings until the game is over.

Additional sidekicks will join our hero, and are often of stock types - the silent, strong bruiser, the impetuous and brash young girl, the cunning thief with a surprisingly warm heart, etc...

A betrayal will happen eventually - count on it. All too often it is by a trusted member of your party, but occasionally you will instead be betrayed by an NPC.

The bad guy is never quite what you think, and neither is the story. There is always the Bigger Evil. The story will unfold and the player will realize that the evil king, queen, wizard, duke etc., is simply a pawn for a far more sinister evil wizard, demon, king, duke, or otherworldly monstrosity. In all likelihood this process will duplicate itself several times until at last our hero confronts the puppet master at the root of the current evil. Roll end credits.

Is this structure a good thing? It is quite easy to pull off, and it must be somewhat attractive because it is quite common. Also, it works as a story structure, even if it is often cliche. That may just be enough for amateur games, but you should strive for more or at least recognize and reconcile yourself with the timeworn story.

Storytelling in an Interactive Medium

The value of story in the context of your game's structure is that it helps organize plot points and quests into a comprehensible whole, giving players a sense of direction and purpose for their actions and efforts. Story also goes a long way toward orienting the playr into a world that will otherwise be strange and alien to them. At every point, the story needs to serve the purpose of helping the player understand the situation and provide guidance that they can follow.

  • Unfamiliarity with the Fantasy World. Hopefully the player will identify with the avatar, but they're not going to have the benefit of knowing all the things that a person from that world should reasonably know. Interactive storytelling requires a great deal of work to get players the information they need about the world and their avatars in a timely and concise manner.

    Useful tools for accomplishing this are:
    - NPCs
    - Cutscenes
    - Dialogue between major characters
    - In-game textual information, such as books in a library, descriptions for items, or tutorials and hints

  • Players are going to perceive negative plot turns as gamplay related. If something severely terrible happens to the player, such as arbitrarily killing off a party member, they are going to struggle to find at what point they could have done something different in the course of the gameplay to change that outcome. Perhaps give the player a choice in who to kill off (if you feel someone must be sacrificed) or at least justify and explain the situation clearly.

  • Bad Endings are just bad. Bad endings may work in other media (and often are quite poignant) but it doesn't work in games. Players work very hard to get through them and they deserve the reward of a good ending. It must make the player feel glad they participated.

    Real World Example: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords was an excellent game with an excellent story that was quite fun to play, perhaps even more fun than the original, but the ending was rushed and unfinished leaving many, many players (and critics) ultimately unsatisfied. (You can thank LucasArts for that) It wasn't a deliberately bad ending, but it failed to make the player feel glad they participated.

  • Players want to decide, not follow. You should never force the experience down the player's throat nor abdicate the responsibility to be an entertaining host. The point is not to act as a slave driver that whips players down a particular path, but instead to act as a kind of tour guide, suggesting interesting things for the player to check out whenever they've got the time. You want to give players things that they can choose to do, not things they are being ordered to do. Let the story advance when the players choose for that advance to happen.

The important thing to remember when dealing with interactive fiction is the need to pull, not push. Instead of have an NPC rush up to the player and tell them everything (which leaves the player with little to do but go out and confirm what they've been told), try to engage the player by making them ask questions: Why did she do that? Where are those monsters coming from? Who was that masked stranger? Why did the Wookie attack me?

Lessons from creative writing for a passive audience should not be dismissed.

Plot Structure

For an excellent article on linearity, please read Brickroad's When Linearity Attacks!

I will briefly outline the various common plot structures seen in game stories.

The Linear Game
The game's story has a main spine, and a single path follows that spine to the conclusion. It may be helpful to imagine a linear game as a string of pearls - the string of pearls still has the main spine, but within each pearl is a mini-non-linear game. The player will be free to explore and make choices within a pearl, but to progress the story he will eventually have to return to the main spine.

The Multilinear Game
The multilinear game has multiple story paths, often times with multiple endings. At the juncture between certain pearls of the story's spine, the player will be faced with a choice that affects which path they take. Sometimes this arc may rejoin the "ideal" path, sometimes not. Sometimes the player must take all paths, but the order in which they take them is up to them.

The Non-Terminal Game
This is almost exclusively the domain of MMORPGs. The game has no beginning and no end, only a now, and the goal of the player is to relentlessly build up their avatar. The game itself is wide open and the player is free to pursue whatever pursuits they desire.

On a final note, here is a little pearl lifted directly from Brickroad's article which I found quite insightful:
Here's a paradox for you - the more non-linear your game is, the easier you must make it to stay on track. If your player has only one option of what to do next, they're not likely to forget what it is. If they have four options, they might get sidetracked. If they have ten options, they might leave the flow of the game for hours-long stretches at a time! Be aware that your player might want to abandon their sidequest at any time and get on with the core game - make it easy for them to slip right back into it.

Conclusion of Part III

More than any other gaming genre, RPGs are known for their stories. They are an integral part of the game, and much effort should go into crafting a compelling and engaging plot, story and narrative. Keep in mind though, that you are making a game. If you only have a story to tell, there are better mediums for the telling.

Further reading:
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part I: The Role of the Player
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part II: Attributes and Skills
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part III: Story
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part IV: Quests and Objectives
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part V: Rewards
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part VI: Balancing


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RPG Maker 2k/2k3 for life, baby!!
Bad Endings are just bad. Bad endings may work in other media (and often are quite poignant) but it doesn't work in games. Players work very hard to get through them and they deserve the reward of a good ending. It must make the player feel glad they participated.

I've been reading these articles, and they are quite insightful, providing a lot of advice and guidelines (should we chose to accept them :p ).

But I really can't agree on this point, I think that what is important in game endings is closure, you can have a "bad ending" where per example the main character dies but with the necessary amount of closure.

Although I can see where your coming from with that thought, modern rpgs with the so called "bad endings" don't offer any closure, we don't get to see what happens to all important characters or a main plot point isn't fully explained. They are just bad in all senses! A bittersweet ending played well can make for an unforgettable game.
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
BioWare should have read this article prior to release Mass Effect 3, apparently!
RPG Maker 2k/2k3 for life, baby!!
It would have saved them a lot of grief! I didn't play the Mass Effect series, but I watched the ending and it looked like I'd be pissed off if I played the game, no closure!
Well,there are a few more details to the mythic struggle I would like to add.
The mythic hero is normally scarred at the end of the journey, like Frodo in the LOTR. He survives the journey, but will never be the same because he has a thorn in his side. Odysseys arrives home, but knows that he will soon be torn away from home again on another journey. Mythic heroes rarely complete their quest, but with massive personal costs.

"But wait a minute, Frodo isn't a mythic hero, he's a folk hero like Hans Solo," you may say. That is true. In the Lord of the Rings Aragorn is the mythic hero.
J.R.R. Tolkien reversed the traditional rewards for Frodo and Aragorn. Similarly, he used an anti-quest rather than a quest for his protagonists.

Both Star Wars and LOTR mixed the classic mythic structure and traditional folklore structures together with a character in the role of each.

Additionally, mythic stories tend to have what is known as the "Invocation" where the mythic hero receives divine power or help. The invocation can take many forms, when Captain Cisco get the Prophets to destroy a Dominion fleet in Deep Space Nine. A force of nature like a typhoon could be used as an invocation (similar to the Japan's Kamikaze.) Final Fantasy likes to use the Crystals to act both as the object of the quest and as the invocation.

Anyways, great article, thank you!
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
Thanks for your insights! It was an interesting read. Have you ever considered writing your own article on the mythic and folk hero stories?
Thanks for your insights! It was an interesting read. Have you ever considered writing your own article on the mythic and folk hero stories?

No, but sometime I might write an article about the art of writing reviews. I do realize that I have what many would call a tendency to be over generous in my reviews, but I see it as sorting through to find what's good in a work. People spend a lot of time creating these things and a critical review that is poorly done tends towards being disheartening.
A great critic once said, "Review as if your review is being reviewed, because it is."
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