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

Plots are for the dead

Jerry Stratton, February 16, 2022

Plot is where games go to die

In Plot is the opposite of roleplaying, I wrote that “no one, not even the GM (especially not the GM), knows what the plot will be, because any plot relies on player interaction.”

Especially not the GM because plot must be directed action, by or upon some observer. This is true even in fiction, where some things the author knows must have happened are not plot until they are written for the reader. Sure, the walk-on character probably slept within the last twenty four hours. But that’s not part of the plot until it has some effect. Likewise, the plot of Mountains of Madness is not boy meets girl despite Lovecraft knowing that boys and girls were meeting all over the world while Dyer and Danforth were exploring the subterranean ruins.

That’s despite all the efforts of Hollywood to require a boy-meets-girl subplot in any such movie. The fact is, much of what I dislike about tying roleplaying to movies isn’t even true of movies. From Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (or Waking Life) to The Breakfast Club to Napoleon Dynamite or Lost in Translation, movies can be great without a traditional plot. An arbitrary beginning, a middle that is about the characters, and an arbitrary ending that doesn’t really tie anything together can be a great movie. A typical D&D game is in the middle of those extremes.

I dislike comparing roleplaying to novels and movies because too often this means dumbing down the roleplaying to ensure specific outcomes. But our understanding of “plot” comes from those sources, so it’s worth looking at them. The most basic requirement for being plot in non-roleplaying formats is that plot must be presented, directly or indirectly, for the reader to read it or the viewer to view it. There can be more restrictive definitions of plot, but less restrictive ones are a hot mountain of madness.

Saying that there are plots in the game that don’t involve the PCs is like saying that there are plots in the novel that readers never see, or plots in the movie that viewers never see. If an NPC’s plot never comes near the PCs’ plot, how do the players discover it? How does it matter to them? If the only player that knows about it is the GM, how can it be part of the narrative? How can it be involved in the roleplaying of a roleplaying game?

It may be true that there’s a character who never shows up in the book who is hunting a murderer who also never shows up in the book. But if the author is the only person who knows that’s going on, it’s not part of the plot. It’s not part of the book or the movie.

Similarly in roleplaying games, things whose effects only the GM knows or can know are not plot. Backstories that none of the characters engage in, side issues that are never observed by the players, are at best part of the cloud of potential that hasn’t yet collapsed its waveform.

Ultimately, just as I dislike the attempt to force roleplaying games to resemble movies and books, I dislike the word “plot”. Plot is for books and movies, for static narratives—narratives that are planned ahead of time. While as a writer I know that plots even in books can emerge semi-spontaneously, in the wider world plots are things that are plotted. The reader cannot change them.

I prefer the term “narrative” because a narrative is something you can look at after things have happened, and say, sure, that was the narrative, whereas a plot is something that is decided on ahead of time by some creator. Narrative is not a perfect term, but it is far better than “plot”. People reasonably expect that if there are plots, plotting must happen. In other formats, plot is something devised by an author or committee that is imposed on the characters, and that’s a bad analogy for roleplaying games.

In a roleplaying game, plotting is the death of roleplay.

Is it likely that the GM had something in mind when introducing the assassination rumor I used as an example in the previous post? Absolutely. Is the GM likely to use that idea was when deciding what happens in response to player character actions? Sure. The GM may even decide what happened weeks before it becomes necessary. But that doesn’t make it part of the narrative any more than anything else the GM knows is probably going on is part of the narrative.

If everything is narrative, there is no narrative.

If GM knowledge is all that is required for plot, what is the purpose of having player characters and of playing a roleplaying game? I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. If NPCs running their own storylines without the involvement of the PCs is a narrative that matters, why have PCs? Why have roleplaying?

Until the PCs interact with an idea, the idea, like Schrödinger’s cat, neither lives nor dies. Unlike Schrödinger’s cat, it also has no existence within the game. Plots are where games go for burial.

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. <- Plot, revisited