Trials and Tribulations of Arc-Plot in Roleplaying Game Worlds

Be Careful When Dictating Arc-Plot

Some games play with big, cool, heavy “arc-plot.” This means that the game world has a pre-determined direction in which a large, over-arching plot is supposed to go.

The advantage of this is that it’s easy to capture people’s imaginations with an arc-plot! How better to get people intrigued by and excited about your world than by wrapping them up in a fascinating story, after all? Unfortunately, if you want people to be able to make use of your game world, arc-plot can also be a problem. (If you’re only designing your world for your own game this is less of an issue, but you can still run into free will problems if you plan out too much of your plot ahead of time.)

Arc-Plot Can Get in the Way

Arc-plot can interfere with a game master’s (GM’s) ability to carry out his own game as he sees fit. He risks that his game will become incompatible with your published material if he does anything differently than you do. Some people find this pretty annoying, particularly if they care about the aforementioned free will issue and would like their players to be able to muck about with the world freely.

One solution is to give GMs some idea ahead of time which bits of the world you will and won’t be playing with in terms of arc-plot, and what general direction the arc-plot will take. That way GMs can more easily decide what they do and don’t want to play with, and how to make their games come out “right” if they care about that. Put out plenty of material that doesn’t directly involve your arc-plot, and which isn’t too affected by it. This gives GMs whose games don’t conform to your arc-plot material that they can still make use of.

Arc-plot can also be a problem with free RPG worlds available from web sites. GMs decide that the plots that played out during the course of their own campaigns would make great world material and work them in. But instead of working in the plot backgrounds so those plots can come out differently for other GMs, they simply dictate the entire course of the plots. This isn’t particularly useful to other GMs! This isn’t helped by the fact that plots taken from a roleplaying campaign are often intertwined and interdependent. This means that any deviation from the expected plot line can bring the whole thing crashing down.

Arc-Plot Can Interfere with Buying Habits

Working your arc-plot into all of your supplements might sound like a great idea for a professional RPG company. That way your fans have to buy more of your stuff if they want to follow along, right? It’ll increase your sales figures, right? In some cases yes, if it’s handled well.

Or maybe not, in the long run–particularly if it’s handled poorly. Sure, some people will buy all of your books in order to find out what happens next, but these are often your completists anyway, who would have bought your books without the arc-plot. Keep in mind that a lot of people just don’t have the money to buy all of your supplements. If they start to realize that they can’t keep up with things without buying all of them, they might stop buying them altogether.

After all, if buying two books is useless without the information in a third book, and they only have the money to buy two books (or just aren’t interested in the premise of the third), then why bother buying any of your books at all?

If you do play with arc-plot, try to make your books stand alone. Make sure that even if someone didn’t buy book number four, book number five will make sense to them. There are ways to use arc-plot to encourage people to buy more books that don’t screw over the people who just can’t afford to do that. Brief summaries of past details are useful, as are plot pieces that can stand on their own two feet without requiring a lot of background. An arc-plot that is overly twisted and intertwined can cause problems here.

The Brink of Armageddon

Beware of game-states that are constantly on the brink of the end of the world (or some other such world-altering event). Eventually, after so much build-up, you’ll have to actually deliver an armageddon in order to meet people’s expectations. And armageddons can wreak an awful lot of havoc on your game-world! If you aren’t prepared to go through with your end-of-the-world plot (or to at least provide an awfully neat save-the-world plot that lives up to all the build-up), then don’t put your game world on the brink of total disaster. There are plenty of other ways to lend excitement and intrigue to your game.

On the other hand, if you can get a lot of cool material out of actually delivering on that armageddon, then it might be worth it. Just remember that not everyone likes seeing their game world changed drastically out from underneath them.

Why the Save-the-World Plot Might Not Be Good Enough

Even if you can think of a great way to deal with your armageddon and have your world come out just fine, it might cause you more problems than you realize. On the one hand, you could create your save-the-world plot in a way that allows GMs and players to play it out for themselves. Sounds great, huh? Except that if the plot allows even the least bit of free will, then there’s always the chance that the PCs will fail to save the world. If that happens, that particular group of GM and players won’t have much use for your game any more unless they’re willing to start over from scratch. Not everyone wants to do that.

If, on the other hand, you make the save-the-world plot off-stage, where the PCs can’t affect it, people might feel cheated. How come they don’t get to have a hand in the really big, cool arc-plot anyway?

In other words, while it is possible to have brink-of-armageddon plots work out just fine (just as every other rule of thumb I’m giving you can probably be broken to good effect by someone), I don’t recommend it. There are too many ways in which things can go wrong, and too many ways in which you can annoy your customers.

World-Altering Plots

Armageddon has brought us nicely to an over-arching problem: huge, world-altering plots often invalidate a lot of previous game material. If your customers have already spent a few hundred dollars on books, they probably won’t be too happy to see those books made useless to the altered game. There are a couple of things you can do about this.

First, make sure that even after the world changes, much of that material will still be relevant and useful. Consider providing information that discusses how to make use of those materials in your altered world.

Second, try to make your world-altering changes not quite so world-altering. You can have some pretty wild and amazing plots without changing the entire face of your game world.

A third approach is to suggest amazing world-altering plots without actually taking your game world through them wholesale. You can detail them, suggest avenues of approach, and provide ideas for where the game world might go if these things happened. That way it’s up to individual GMs to decide which weird and wild things to introduce into their campaigns.

Since you can’t predict the actions of PCs, one popular tactic for making the arc-plot turn out the way you want it to is to make the actions of the PCs largely irrelevant. You make them passive. Their decisions don’t really affect things (or if they do the wrong things then they get overruled by the game world). This doesn’t tend to be a whole lot of fun for players, so try to avoid this approach to things. One of the great joys of a roleplaying game over a computer game is the ability to make decisions that can can have a real effect on things.

As you can see, there are a number of things it’s wise to take into account when you decide to play with arc-plot. Try to find ways to let the PCs influence the direction the plot takes. Make sure that you aren’t rendering previous game material largely obsolete. Don’t make your entire arc-plot one big tease; if you seem to be leading up to something earth-shaking, then be ready to deliver on that promise. Give the GM an idea of where you’re going and leave him some areas of the plot that he can determine for himself. Lastly, if you’re publishing discrete books, try to make sure that they aren’t too dependent on each other. Your customers and readers will thank you!

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