How to create the best plot for your roleplay (also known as: the difference between setting and plot)
(reposting because I accidently deleted the first one. If you could reblog this version instead so people don’t get sent to a broken link, I’d appreciate it. Thanks!)
Plot seems to be something I get asked about quite a bit lately, it’s also the most important part of your roleplay. The plot is what potential applicants should look for, it’s what should entice them to join, and further entice them to keep playing.
I won’t even bother lecturing on originality. I can sit here and talk at you all forever about originality and creativity, but truly, if anything is done properly it can be great, even if it has been done before. Obviously, this does not mean you shouldn’t make something your own, it just more so means that it’s not entirely what I intend to focus on now. So rather than talk at you, I’d like you think of this like a discussion. Ask yourself questions as we go. Better yet, take out a paper or blank text post, and answer them.
What is the difference between a plot and a setting?
Imagine you get a new video game. You have heard great things about the premise of it. It’s an action roleplaying game (forgive me if those aren’t proper terms as I know nothing about gamin) and the character is something totally new that you’ve never heard done in a game you’ve played before. You rush to the store, you buy the game, you read every article about it online, and you are more than ready. The time comes, you sit down, palms sweaty with excitement, the game starts and you are met with a universe. The universe is gorgeous, different, original, entirely new from what you’ve played before. But then what? You start of excited, exploring the game and seeing what cool things are there but you start getting bored after ten minutes. Why? There’s nothing there. There’s no game, nothing for you to do. You have a magnificent character and not battles to take them through.
Do you see my point here? What that game gave you is a setting. It can be as glorious and magnificent as a whole new planet or society or world, or it can be as simple as a small lobstering town in Maine, but if it is only a setting, you will come to a very quick stop. The first thing I ask myself when I read a roleplay’s plot is “What will I do once I start playing?”
I think the problem is that quite often, people approach roleplaying from a writing stand point. As they should. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s what roleplaying is. But I think, the act of creating a plot needs to START as writing, and continue on to be approached from the perspective of a gamemaker. I’ve always considered RPG to stand for Role Playing Game. If you don’t give your players something to play with once they get there, all the work you put into setting the stage will fall on idle hands.
Tell your story, set your stage, create your characters and then ask yourself: What next?
What is the setting?
Now that we’ve discussed the difference, identify what you’re setting is. And I don’t mean “A town in Maine.” I mean go beyond that. Identify the setting as where your roleplay starts. Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. Yes, the setting of Harry Potter is in England, more specifically at Hogwarts. But to talk about it from this standpoint, as in to go further than simply time, place and so on, try something like this:
In England, a boy named Harry Potter learns that he is in possession of magical abilities. He is a wizard. Not only that, but he learns of a whole world of magic outside of his own when he receives a letter to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcaft and WIzardry. What Harry does not know, and will quickly learn, is that he is the chosen one. Years ago, a dark and evil wizard tore through the wizarding world, causing fear and havoc. Years later, the world still knows his name, even if they don’t speak it, however they do know the name Harry Potter, the boy who lived.
Be honest with yourself. Is that what your plot looks like? That is a setting. That is the set up, the book back reading of what Harry Potter is about. It tells you what happened first. Can you imagine if that’s where it ended? If Harry just went to school because he learned about magic and that he was the chosen one? “See you in seven years, Harry. Enjoy Hogwarts. You might have some romances and conflicts on the way but that’s cool.” That isn’t really what makes Harry Potter as a series great. What makes it great is the tag line, the what comes next part. The idea that Voldemort may be coming back, that people in Hogwarts may not be on Harry’s side, that there may be more evil in him than he’s aware of, that strange things are happening at Hogwarts. All of those come after things are your plot. So start by identifying where your setting ends, and we’ll go on to where your plot beings.
What is the plot?
The difference between Harry Potter and your roleplay, is that in books, the authors can keep things from the reader and bring out the plot as it unravels. In your roleplay, you can do that to an extent, but you need to tell your potential applicants what they’re going to be able to do once the game starts.I don’t mean that by saying “Later, Joe is going to try and seduce Sarah.” That’s boring and leaves nothing up to the players. Instead, think of it in terms of what things are going to motivate things to happen for your characters and thus keep the game moving.
Let’s go back to that Lobstering town in Maine. Let’s make that our setting. It’s a small town, small high school, tight knit. Everyone is fairly middle/working class and gossip spreads like wild fire.
There is your setting. (Obviously this is really boiled down and not remotely creative, I’m just trying to make it simplified). Now, you need to give it a plot. So ask yourself, what sorts of things are happening in this town that are going to be interesting? What motivates your characters to do things? What may stop your characters from doing things? What are the conflicts? Maybe, recently a more upper class business man from New York has come and wants to try and get shares of all the lobstering companies and local restaurants. Maybe he’s brought a few people with them who are weasling their way into getting to know people to help their personal business. Maybe there’s been a recent decline in business due to something that happened in the harbor, causing everyone to be living much tighter than they used to. Maybe there are two high schools that usually rival each other. Maybe all of these things at once.
By adding those things, you’re giving your players something to react to. You’re giving them a means to say “well what would my character do now that such and such is happening.” That gives them so much more material than just telling them where their character lives and comes from.
What would change things?
Now, you all at this point might be saying, “Well that’s great Q, but I don’t have any ideas for those things.” I get it. Sometimes it’s hard to think of what could stir the pot and make the game motivated. What I do, is sit down and ask myself “What would totally change the ball game?” No matter how drastic, because you can always tone it down. What would be the BIGGEST game changer for the characters in your roleplay. For example, I once had a game that was post apocalyptic. A plague had wiped out most of the world until a cure was found much too late to save many people. The remaining people were living in a city run by a very corrupt and sadistic government. (that’s the very short boiled down version). Anyhow, later in the game, about three months in, we all started saying “now what?” So I went to drawing the board and I asked myself what would totally change things? Now, all of these people were alive because of a cure, be it they had used it, or that the plague never reached them because of it, that cure was still there. In the game, the cure had been used as a heal all. It could be ingested to cure sickness or put on a cut to kill an infection. So I said, what would they do without toxin 17 or if toxin 17 were to suddenly become dangerous. From there we created the plot drop that there was a serious sickness that people could develop later in life if they had ever ingested the toxin. It caused addiction, sickness, death in some cases if those people didn’t consistently drink it once they showed symptoms. Better yet, the government raised the price on the toxin when they found out and the lower class didn’t even have access to it.
Bam. Just like that we had a game changer. Suddenly, EVERYONE had something that motivated their characters. Whether they were upper class trying to buy it all out to sell, or buy it all out to cure a loved one, or they were lower class striking deals and making friends anywhere they could to get access to it.
To me, the most important thing your roleplay can have is the “What happens if——-” factor. That is so key. People ask me over and over what I think makes a good plot, and that’s it.
So there you have it. Ask yourself those questions, add something to your plot if need be. Better yet, then take it one step further and ask yourself how each character will react to that thing on an individual level and elaborate on that in their bio.
Some quick things to avoid when talking about plot:
- The murder mystery: I have a small town and I need something to make it interesting. “Here have a dead body.” Do you know what that does for your characters? It gives them about a week of going “wow I wonder who killed that boy,” maybe it gives a few people some time to mourn. But in a month, you won’t have anything to do. Try instead: The murder mystery that isn’t a mystery. It’s already been solved, the man was killed by what appears to be a poison generated by the government. Now, one in three people in the town are popping up with it and the rebels who know about it are paying scientists to help research a cure.
- The supernatural plot: “We have vampires, wolves, and witches in this town. It’s interesting.” Stop. That’s a setting. Making your characters supernatural doesn’t give them a plot. Try instead: Witches have found a way to become even more powerful than ever before. Some want to use their abilities to help vampires gain power, others wolves, and others want to become the most powerful themselves without involving any other creatures.
- The “what side are you on?” plot: While conflict is great, rivals get old. People will go back and forth and back and forth but at the end of the day it is over played. Try instead: A situation where there used to be two sides, now a third, more powerful side has come in and is forcing the two sides to have to work together or crumble beneath them.
HERE is a helpful article from Writer’s Digest all about creating a story that grabs people’s attention via the “inciting incident.”
HERE is a fun article about the Ideas that Inspired 10 famous novels. It may help you to get inspired for your own plots.