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Developing a Storyline

by Wes Platt

I will talk about one of the keys to player retention in this article: the extended story line, or story arc.

Now, you may have an excellent original theme or perhaps you have built a game based on a popular established theme, and thus you think that all you must do now is open the doors, throw up a web site, and watch the hordes come in.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Galloping Girdy the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Sorry, no.

You are going to need a story to keep them engaged. And that story can not just end cleanly someday - it should be perpetual, encouraging your players to keep coming back to find out what is going to happen next. And you are going to need to make sure the players feel like they have an impact on the story as it evolves, and that they are more than just rats in a maze. And you are going to have to roll with the twists and turns they throw at you just as much as you expect them to roll with your own.

Many of you are probably familiar with the concept of a TinyPlot, or TP. These are often short-term events and often self-contained. A story arc is nothing more, in the simplest context, than a series of related TinyPlots woven together to form a cohesive story line - a role playing tapestry. You provide the pattern for the tapestry, but the actions of the players shape and color it.

Each story arc should consist of a series of major arc-related activities, interspersed with tangential activities - do not train players to just come around when you have specific arc activities; encourage them to be around as often as possible. One good way of thinking of a story arc is as a bridge, taking you over a river to your destination. The major events are the support pylons. The tangential events are guide wires and other structures that keep the bridge standing, keep the traffic moving, and keep everyone going toward that destination. Or, another way: Think of story arcs as a house, with major events as bricks, and tangential events as mortar holding those bricks together.

And once you have crossed that bridge, or built that house, you need to keep pointing toward the horizon, toward what comes next. Keep them guessing. Keep them interested.

Now let us backtrack a little and talk about designing a single story line.

Many players are resistant to "scripted" activities. Do not mistake the concept of a story arc as a script. It is not. It is an outline. It is a blueprint.

So, before embarking on your ambitious epic story line, start with the most important thing: How do you expect it to end? You need to know the general idea of how you want things to wrap up, and that does not absolutely mean you are planning precisely how it will end, down to the last detail. Extremely detailed plans are often foiled by resourceful and clever players, who may provide new twists and turns of their own that lead you to adjust your plans.

Let us think of an example of a basic story line: Two feudal houses are vying to acquire a powerful artifact that gives the holder control over the weather in the rival valleys. How will it most likely end? One of the houses - or neither, for some reason - will get the artifact. Now that you know the likely outcome, how you want the house to look when you are done building it, go back and start working on the foundation.

The series of events leading to the arc finale could include: A mysterious character shows up in both of the rival houses, speaking of the artifact and its powers; the players will probably begin rushing to find out all they can about it - as time goes by, drop information to them that they might find, perhaps let them explore several potential hiding places for the artifact; knowing that both these houses are in a race to find the artifact, perhaps a third house - more powerful, and thus not all that threatened by the artifact, but concerned about the rise to power of either of these houses - decides to foment trouble between the two rival houses to throw them into disarray; and, ultimately, reveal to one or both of these houses that the artifact can be found in an underground cavern, where it is guarded by a dragon. These are the bridge supports; the bricks of the house.

Now, in the midst of all the oh-so-serious arc activities, you should sprinkle less angsty events: Hold a seasonal festival, introduce a new jester to the court, have a banquet, take new measurements for the palace guards who have been putting on weight, and deal with other day to day activities in the feudal houses. These are the guide wires; the mortar.

The finale might include all these elements coming to a head, with parties from both houses seeking to claim the artifact for their own, while the mysterious third house seeks to destroy both houses through conflict.

When someone comes up with the artifact, perhaps they discover that the mysterious character fooled them - the artifact is a fake, has no powers. All the conflict and struggle, it seems, has been for nothing. Or has it?

Here, your planned story line ends, but it leaves open plenty of questions to be resolved in the future: Will the third house take advantage of the turmoil? Will the two houses, furious that so much trouble was caused by a fairy tale, unite in a cause and seek vengeance against the perpetrators of this fraud? Or will both houses carry on, convinced that there is such an artifact out there, and that the other house has it, and simply switched the fake? Will one blame the other for bad weather in the future?

Brody (Wes Platt) is the creator and chief storyteller at OtherSpace MUSH. He has been MUSHing for about six years (four as a player and two as the top staffer at OtherSpace). Although he is part of the OS staff, Brody continues to stay involved in role playing.