I can’t lay hands on my copy of Frey’s How to Write a Damned Good Novel. I think I lent it to my niece when she was studying English for her higher school certificate, which was five years ago. Anyway, I don’t have it to hand to refresh my memory, so the following is going to be a bit incomplete and haphazard.
Frey used a formulation of theme (which he called “premise”) that it should be X + Y ⇒ Z, where usually X and Y are something about the protagonist and something about the situation, and Z is the resolution of the novel. For example, the theme of Romeo & Juliet might be expressed as “love + family feud ⇒ disaster”. Bits that show that there is love and that there is a family feud, and showing their combination leading to a disaster are part of the story an are in. Bits that don’t shoe them leading there are not part of the story and are out. Anything that shows something else other than love and family feud causing the disaster undermine the theme and are faults. Now, I don’t think you can start out having settled on such a theme in an extemporary collaborative participative form. You might put it over on an audience. But when the writers are the audience they have to feel that X + Y is not really ⇒ing to Z, it is being forced at the Doylist level and not happening naturally at the Watsonian level and the “proof” doesn’t feel convincing. But what you can do is play to find out what happens. Start with X + Y and_make sure that everything that happens follows from X + Y_. Z emerges from the improv, and you have a theme. A theme, that is, that you discovered during play as an audience discovers the theme of a play while watching, of a book while reading. I refer to “X+Y” as a “half-plot”, but there has got to be a better term.
In a dramatic novel, Frey advises, it is best to establish the status quo before introducing the initiating incident. That’s so that the audience know the protagonist, know who this is happening to. This can be rather different in RPG. If character-players are going to develop-in-play then you need a bit of prefatory adventure-like material for those players to start knowing their characters, which is a form of Frey’s “establish the status quo”. If they do develop-at-start but each independently, I think you need a bit of such material for each player to present his or her character to the others. If your group does extensive “session zero” communication and collaboration on character design then I think that develops the status quo and the actual play ought to start with the initiating incident. Emulating the parts of work in another form in which the status quo is established in the eyes of the audience is not called for.
Like the characters of a dramatic (or procedural) novel, protagonists and antagonists need a strong core of consistency. If a character is inconsistent, and an unexplained aberration of behaviour determines the outcome of a scene, then the causal chain through the plot is broken at that point. Things happening afterwards are not caused by things happening before.
Now, a dramatic character will change at some point. That will be the crisis of the drama, and the change will be the “character development” that my English teachers wittered about without explaining it properly. Anyway, that change in behaviour will not be unexplained. It will be explained by the events of the plot and the pressure that the character is put under, and it will lead to the resolution of the conflict. It is not evidence against the need for a strong core of consistency.
Frey’s book is about writing dramatic novels, not procedurals. He was describing dynamic characters, not iconic characters. Procedurals are less acceptable to literary snobs, and perhaps the analysis wasn’t available then. Anyway, the strong core of consistency for an iconic character is his or her heroic ethos, or schtick. Unlike the dynamic character in a dramatic story, the iconic character in a procedural story doesn’t resolve the conflict by developing. She or he resolves it by demonstrating the power of her or his schtick to mend disorders in the universe.
Players have to know whether to expect drama or procedure. They have to generate characters with the appropriate core of consistency. And then they have to stick to it right up to breaking point.
Characters — meaning player characters and significant NPCs — have to avoid two opposite faults: anticlimax and jumping conflict. The conflict should rise steadily until it forces a resolution, in each scene, in each arc, in the plot overall. Jumping conflict is obviously an unmotivated action that breaks the continuity of cause. Anticlimax is less obviously so, but it is the chief cause in RPG of plots wavering and seeming loose and limp. Part of the craft of a collaborative improv storyteller is to keep upping the conflict until it forces a change in the situation. One of Robin Laws’ dramatic scenes may end with the whatsit granting the petition, refusing the petition, or setting a condition for granting the petition, but it never ends in indecision with someone walking away.
One of the important things that prevents characters from just walking away from teh conflict is what Frey calls a “crucible”. The GM has to make sure there is one.
So a few of the techniques that I recommend for generating plot without planning are:
- generate a character with a strong core of consistency
- establish an expectation amongst the
audience other players about what this character will do
- react to the situation as is justified by the circumstances, the level of tension, and your character’s appropriate maximum capacity
- until the conflict in a scene/arc/plot gets resolved, step the tension up, not down, but don’t jump. If you feel that you can’t go higher, break off in a way that resolves the conflict
- stay consistent to your core of consistency; if in a drama until character development will resolve the conflict.