Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Plot is the opposite of roleplaying

Jerry Stratton, January 19, 2022

God plays dice with the universe

In Burning Wheel, Luke Crane writes that “…nothing happens in the game world that doesn’t involve a player character.” But if NPCs aren’t proactively running their own storylines even when the player characters aren’t involved, doesn’t this mean the NPCs are static?

For example, the orcs are defeated and the player characters leave the frontier village that had been threatened by them. Do the villagers stop everything once the player characters leave? Or do they continue with their lives, long after the PCs have gone, making their own stories and living their own plot lines?

That’s the kind of question that always comes up when someone says something like what Luke Crane wrote. But I’d argue that it’s the NPCs running their own storylines that are static. Such NPCs have their actions locked in without regard to the player characters. They are far more static than the cloud of possibilities that they ought to be in a game that is about roleplaying, about the interaction between player characters and each other, and between player characters and the world.

A dynamic NPC is a cloud of potential narratives waiting to coalesce once they interact with an observer, and the only true observer in a roleplaying game is a player. Non-player characters are not lesser player characters. They are part of the world that the players interact with through their characters.

Of course the villagers would continue their lives, and would do so long after the PCs have gone. But what this means, what they do, only matters once those villagers’ lives involve the PCs again. Nothing happens—there is no plot—that doesn’t involve player characters.

Sandboxing is sometimes described as “plot everywhere”, but that assumes plot must exist. In a sandbox, there is no plot to find. Any narrative must be created by player interaction with the world. Players expecting to find rather than create a plot will be frustrated by sandbox play, as the common complaint about having to “hunt for plot” indicates. Hunting for something that doesn’t exist will always be frustrating.

It occurs to me that much of the misunderstanding might come from an assumption of the GM as a god who knows all, and therefore knows what the NPCs are doing, which implies that what they are doing is always known. If I say that the NPCs are of unknown potential, then, clearly they must be static. God is no longer paying attention to them! But the GM is not god. In a roleplaying game, god is merely one of the GM’s NPCs. The GM does not know everything, and attempting to pretend they do, by treating unobserved and non-affecting ideas as if they were part of the plot, is a failure mode.

To paraphrase Chesterton1, a GM does not go mad because he designs an adventure a mile wide, but he may go mad by thinking it out in square inches.

It is only at the moment when PCs or players enter the action that the cloud of possibilities can coalesce into plot. There’s a rumor that someone’s hired an assassin to kill the local duke, and the PCs ignore this and instead go after the orcs raiding villages on the frontier?

The players have interacted with the rumor. The rumor exists. Everything else is potential until there is more interaction with the players. The GM can have all sorts of ideas for what the assassin is doing, but even the existence of the assassin is not plot until there is interaction. This is a roleplaying game. Where is the roleplaying without that interaction?

Where there’s no effect on player character or player, there cannot be plot. Until the players take up the rumor, or the GM introduces the consequences of ignoring the rumor and the players respond, no one, not even the GM (especially not the GM), knows what the plot will be, because any plot relies on player interaction.

Once the PCs are in a position that the players can learn the consequences of their choice, the players will have their PCs respond. Then, having been observed by the players and affecting the PCs, this backstory may become plot. Or not. Being observed is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for something being plot. Some action on the PC’s part is necessary, or it’s just color.

The fact that something must have happened while the players have been ignoring the assassination rumor is only true once the clouds coalesce. That is, once it has its effects upon the player characters. Before that, there is no requirement that something has happened. Only that something did or did not happen, which is of course the whole world, and the whole world is not plot.

Plot is the opposite of roleplaying because plot suppresses the interaction between the player characters and the world that is necessary for roleplaying choices. Narratives lying around to be found are static narratives. Dynamic narratives must be created.

In response to The Adventures of Heisenberg’s Cat: There are no plots without players. A plot is a line graph where dead games go.

  1. A man does not go mad because he makes a statue a mile high, but he may go mad by thinking it out in square inches. — G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy)

  1. <- Loose ends
  2. Burial plots ->