The Myth of Flexibility
Five years ago, when a player asked whether my storylines were tightly scripted, I took that to mean that players didn't want plots with pre-destined outcomes.
But, since then, I've come to this understanding: That's a load of camel dung.
In general, players are perfectly content with - and actually prefer - rigidly structured storylines under the following conditions:
1) They win in the end, somehow. 2) They don't die or suffer severe injuries as a result of the storyline. 3) They're allowed some measure of flexibility within the rigid plot framework.
For most roleplayers, that's the simple truth. You may find a precious few who love to live on the edge and want a less predictable ending. But, by and large, players who invest any kind of effort into developing their character won't want him killed due to an unexpected twist in the storyline.
At first glance, you may be thinking that this is adding up to a knock against players who want predictability in their plots. At first glance, that's absolutely what I intended. But the more I think about it, the less I really consider it such a bad thing. It's not bad. It's plain old human nature. Real life throws enough curveballs as it is without your favorite diversionary activity doing it too.
Sure, it feels good to say you want an open-ended plot where anything can happen. But for most people, that really means you want room to maneuver within the structure of the plot to ensure that your character survives the experience, with a clear victory if possible.
As I sat down to write this column, I considered that mindset to be loathsome. From a purely improvisational storytelling standpoint, especially if you develop and perform storylines, it's easy to bang that drum decrying a player's desire to protect their character from extensive harm or death. However, from a *player* standpoint, that desire makes sense and it's actually a wonderful quality: They're attached to the character and your game enough that it matters what happens to that character.
Way back when, in my just-a-player days, I got first-hand experience in what was obviously, in hindsight, a carefully scripted storyline on TOS TrekMUSE. The staffers put on an extended plot featuring these deceptively cuddly psionic teddy bears called the Ikarans, who threatened the cosmos, ate brains, seized control of the minds of certain Federation starship commanders and served as a menacing villain that needed wiping out. The Ikarans terrorized the galaxy for months, but all the players recognized that the storyline must end with the defeat of the Ikarans. We drew our roleplaying inspiration within that rigid framework from the crisis at hand and how it affected our comrades. The uncertainty - the plot flexibility - came in the form of how we set up our coalition attack fleet between the Klingons, the Federation and the Romulans, and who ended up going down to the Ikaran homeworld to kill the queen. Kill the queen, and the war ends. My character, Gavalin Brody, a Starfleet captain aboard the USS Excelsior, got to lead the assault on the queen. He got to shoot and kill her. In retrospect, that was terrific payoff for months of waiting, but it still came within a rigid plot framework - and that was *great*! I still got to roleplay the aftermath of being a hero.
At OtherSpace, some of our most successful plots have been rigidly outlined. During Arc III, back in 1999, some players opened a strange alien box and found themselves transported to an alien world where they lived the last days of several children whose family was doomed to join thousands in a mass suicide. The roleplaying bliss didn't come from trying to stop the suicide from happening, but from immersing themselves in the lives of those children before they died. During Arc XIV, earlier this year, the players had to stop a universe-threatening Moebius Effect wave. It was pretty clear that I didn't intend to let the galaxy get torn apart, but when the time came for the conclusion, I sought one volunteer to try and stop the effect with the understanding that the volunteer wouldn't survive. The job would be suicidal. (However, I found a way to let the character survive, providing an unexpected twist within the framework.) That player got to have an impact on how the planned ending unfolded, and made it his own, in much the same way as I embraced the finale of the Ikaran storyline on TOS TrekMUSE.
Some of our real stinkers on OtherSpace, when it comes to plots, have been open-ended, let-the-players-drive-the-train storylines. For example, a bunch of players got caught and stuck in an alien work camp, but refused to RP through it because 1) they didn't want to be imprisoned and 2) they didn't want to risk dying at the hands of the brutal guards. I can't say I blame them, really. Without exception, at least in my experience, such plots always end up requiring an excessive amount of admin-cleanup, in which staffers intervene as referees or non-player characters to wrap up the story and get the players out of the situation so they can move on.
In the end, we must accept that players don't want choices as much as they want excitement without great sacrifice. They don't want flexibility as much as they want maneuverability and relative invulnerability. They don't want surprising plot twists as much as they want to win. The trick is finding the balance of excitement and comfort, while presenting the illusion of a flexible storyline by giving players opportunities to affect some aspects of the twists and turns along the way.
Wes Platt is the creator of OtherSpace: The Interactive SF Saga and Chiaroscuro: The Interactive Fantasy Saga. He's a head-wiz on Star Wars: Reach of the Empire. (All games can be reached through his official site at www.jointhesaga.com.) He also produces Brody's MUD Index (mudindex.jointhesaga.com), a free quarterly periodical in PDF format that offers MUD listing opportunities. His e-mail address is email@example.com.