Wednesday, 11 March 2009

railroads and museums

A little musing on plot types. If you're working out an interactive plot (say in an alternate reality or role-playing game) you have two clear options.
  1. A linear plot with individual stations where protagonists can do things. The plot can continue when the protagonists decide to get back on the train and travel to the next station. Events at each station provide incentives to continue the journey from beginning to end. Let's call this plot structure a railroad. ARG authors may see stations as breadcrumbs but the principle is the same. Just don't invite Pac-Man.

    Railroads are great because you get from point A to point B to point C in a linear framework. Sometimes, the journey is a rollercoaster ride, other times it's a sedate journey where you get to take in the scenery along the way. Everyone is on the journey and you travel in the same direction (possibly at different speeds and different classes of carriage) aimed for the same ultimate destination.

    Railroads may challenge participants since they are clearly on a journey and the structure is mostly linear. What happens between the stops may not be quite as thrilling as what happens when you get to a station and you may have to insert a random element to maintain excitement or a scripted element to induce momentum. Writers do this all the time and people don't get indignant unless it's an interactive plot.

  2. An open structure with showcased areas of interest which can attract the attention of protagonists. There may be guides to steer people into following particular tours or to direct focus away from storage rooms or backstage spaces (dusty places with stuff that may interest or broken pottery). Let's call this plot structure a museum; some may see a matrix or bead collection in parataxis. Just don't invite Adam Sandler over for the night.

    Museums are great because you get to wander around, taking in things that interest you. Some exhibits may be interesting to a number of protagonists, others to a select few. The option to be guided along particular directions is available as is the option to split up and wander off and pursue what interests you. This latter seems to draw people to it like moths to a flyzapper.

    Museums may challenge participants since not everyone is interested in the same thing. Social cohesion of a group can be eroded by individual agendas and break the shared space that participants inhabit. If people have to wait their turn then the pacing needs to be really good or items of interest need to link into an overall framework (Time to break out the cable ties again!) to retain their interest.
Some prefer to compromise, to create a museum with a mesh of railroads with museums at key points in the mesh to ensure plot arcs aren't derailed. Of course this last option means a lot of work for the organiser/writer/game master and it helps to have a clear road map of what is wanted and where the protagonists need to be to connect the disparate plot elements.

Let me know if you prefer railroads, museums or the compromise. Also, how easy or hard do you find it to use these?

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