Fermat, Huygens-Fresnel, plot structure, and roleplaying

Certainly – I’ll name names here, because I’ve said it before in public – I think that the Robin Laws’ approach exemplified in Hamlet’s Hit Points (which, I’ve recently realised, was done before by Mike Pondsmith in Dream Park) is misguided for the sort of RPGs I like.

What it will produce is RPGs that work like other forms of storytelling, in the sense that you get the story shapes which occur there. If I were designing an RPG for Firefly or Star Wars or anything else reasonably well-known, I might well include something like that, because people are presumably picking up that RPG because they like the original, and it will get you the sort of story that occurs in the original.

(Side note: to what extent is “we all go down a dungeon, get hurt and rich, then spend the money on magic and ale and do it again next week” now a defined story shape that people expect to happen in a dungeon-bash game?)

But my version of @Agemegos’ original question is: what is a story shape that is native to RPGs?

I think @JGD’s nested resolutions may be a part of it. It certainly involves focus on the small; a game may pull back from boring bits like uneventful travel, but a fantasy novel will rarely describe each sword blow in minor battles, and even a film will generally not show you whether each shot hits or misses. (Some games do pull back, but nobody will be surprised if it doesn’t.) Playing the mechanics to stay alive in a fight is an enjoyable activity in itself, while not being the only thing one wants to do or (for me) even the main thing; one might regard it as the equivalent of a mini-game.

RPGs typically have a band of heroes, but in other story forms almost always there are one or two leads. There are exceptions, but they’re noteworthy. The 2003 remake of The Italian Job (which, yes, absolutely didn’t need to be remade, but was quite enjoyable even so) managed this by employing the rather dull (if pretty to look at) Mark Wahlberg in the lead, under-writing both his and Charlize Theron’s parts, and getting much more interesting actors in the secondary roles. But consider something like Leverage, which is a great deal more like RPGs than most linear media: it very definitely has two leads and three supporters. The supporters get their own storylines and important moments, sure, but the focus is on the leader. Similarly, Mission Impossible (another show conceptually close to the sort of RPG I like) has the guy in charge and the people working for him. Some games have characters who end up being more interesting than others, but that’s certainly not something that one sets out to do.

(In my 1960s psionics game, the telepath and clairvoyant ended up having much more to do than the others, in part because my usual style of game is largely about information-gathering.)

It is possible, of course, to run an RPG with one player and one protagonist. I’ve done it a few times, though not any time lately. But I agree that that’s not the center of gravity of RPGs as a literary form.

Sure. But my standard of comparison isn’t mass market forgettable entertainment; it’s skilled work in a given form.

I think that’s what I mean by “thrashing around.”

In a Fermat approach, you see the exact least-time path, and everything points at it. But in an H-F apprach, as I experience that in gaming, you have some guns on mantels that will never be fired. There’s kind of a statistical hunting round the final path, with tentative movements that will be abandoned, and negotiations over what the actual “story” is, all of which are visible to the audience because they’re participants in those negotiations. It’s as if you don’t see only the real photon but a haze of virtual photons.

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I think these differences point to why game session recordings are a minority form of entertainment compared with other linear media. When I’m watching or listening to a recording I’m engaging my gaming skills: here’s how the GM is getting this effect, how the players are failing to spot that, how each side is reacting to the other’s hints about what they want, and so on. To a non-gamer I suspect it would feel like amateur drama.

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Perhaps I err in that, for me, “thrashing around” suggests a person in a grand mal seizure.

I think have run at least four one-shot games and a least one adventure in a long campaign in which there were no guns not fired, no tentative movements. Perhaps it is the golden haze of memory, perhaps they all date from my most manipulative period as a GM. But I think improv can be deft and sure, and dare aspire. There are sometimes jams in which nobody fluffs. They are rare perhaps, but it’s worth trying each time not to fluff this time.

Ah, we have a terminology problem. “Thrashing around,” to me in an RPG context, implies something very disorderly, with different people trying to work on quite different stories, or none at all.

If we’re talking about single sessions, I’ve had those too. I remember, for example, my Buffyverse campaign where the Slayer of Alta California in 1810, her half-demon best friend, and the handsome army lieutenant both of them were interested in, making a journey back from San Francisco to Boca del Infierno, stayed overnight in a grove of trees where the Roman god Cupid had taken up residence, and all got zapped with his enchanted arrows. It was a brilliant comedic storyline, about 90% of which was due to the acting of the three players.

But I was thinking more in terms of lasting campaigns, and of some episodes in such campaigns being less perfect than others. When I ran the episode above, it was in one of the campaigns of my best cycle ever: Boca del Infierno (vampire slaying in Alta California, or “Buffy meets Zorro”), Manse (an isolated castle in the midst of a magically chaotic wilderness, controlled by five clans of aristocratic sorcerers), and Whispers (my first Transhuman Space campaign, focused on a private investigative firm). Seriously, looking back, I think that was the high point of my GMing. But all three campaigns had things that I would have edited out if I were turning them into a book or a television series. I don’t think that was because I was an inept GM; I think it was because RPGs are collaborative storytelling, and there are likely to be coordination problems.

Sure, but on the other hand TV series and even miniseries without dud episodes, comic series without dud issues, and so on are a lot rarer than movies and short stories without plot defects.

When I was at the top of my game as a GM¹ I used to reckon that I GMed at about one third the speed of AV storytelling. One of my 4–5 hour sessions was had just a little less happen in it than in a 90–110-minute movie in the same genre. And movies go at about a minute per page of text. So a 170-page Vance novel like City of the Chasch is about two sessions of play. The “Demon Princes” series is material for only a semester of weekly sessions.

I love The Three Musketeers. It is great, a classic. I love the “Sherlock Holmes” canon too. But you can bet your arse there are bits I’d take a blue pencil to.

¹ And, not to hog the credit, when I had a group of pretty damned good players.

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.

I’ve heard the core novel plot described roughly as “something bad happens to a good person; they do something about it”.

I think there’s been a shift in role-playing style over the decades. A lot of players who got into it in the early days (which just about includes me) have a tendency to think of the GM as the enemy: any sign of weakness will be pounced on. Oh, your character likes kittens? There’s a kitten over there. You go to pick it up? Har har har five hundred ton weight.

Or the first example in John Wick’s Play Dirty: the superhero character had got points for having an aged grandmother, so the GM set things up to expose her dirty secret in front of said grandmother, who promptly had a heart attack and died. Har har.

So the tendency is to smooth off anything distinctive about the character, to avoid having vulnerabilities; if “nobody could have survived that” then you can shout at the GM, but if you were caught by something specific that counts as a fair kill, or something. But as one makes the transition to the GM and players as storytelling partners, that shifts: as far as I’m concerned, many disadvantages are useful as a tool for explaining PC motivation and adding some sort of personal stake in the adventure, whether that’s because of your Dependent, your Duty, your Hunted, or simply your Greed; they’re hooks by which I can involve the character in the plot, and I’m going to use them to do that, not simply to make your character less fun to play.

Yep. I got onto the idea of disadvantages with the Hero System, before there was a GURPS. I’ve long thought that they were mischaracterised as a balancing consideration and mispriced when valued in proportion to their inconvenience to the character and considered as a compensation. Rather, they ought to be valued in proportion to their usefulness to the GM and contribution to the enjoyment of the game for the other players and considered as an incentive.

Motivation is a problem in Call of Cthulhu: if the world is doomed anyway, I could destroy myself to push that doom back a few years, or I could have a good life in the time that’s left. People who come into mythos-hunting because their uncle left them a haunted house may well choose option B, which is fine for the character but less good for the game. Trail tries to solve this by requiring an explicit “why you do this” motivation, which is all right; I’d rather agree with the players that their characters are going to be the sort of people to whom it matters. (My character in @Lordof1’s Masks game is basically out to shut down fraudsters who use occult trappings, on the basis that messing with this stuff is dangerous and tends to spill over onto the innocent.)

One of the advantages of @whswhs’ campaign-choice system is that players who easily get bored have, at least, chosen this campaign and so have a basic level of investment in it, rather than just going along with the group. The kind of pre-game agreement I’m talking about produces a similar small involvement, a sense of collusion between player and GM.

But I’m drifting far from the topic. In a campaign I ran some years ago, the players put in a lot of work to make sure their assault on an enemy base would go smoothly. In linear media, the work would be elided, and the assault would have had complications and drama. Instead, the work was the focus, and the assault itself was elided; the lack of peril was the reward for the preparation. It’s not that linear media can’t do that, but it’s almost always designed for a larger audience than just the people helping to create it, and most of them will want the conventional shape of story. Being involved in making it happen makes it more fun, to the extent that one can get away with less conventional shapes.

It’s interesting that you bring this up, because I’ve been pondering motivation in my prep for the game; as you say, it’s one of the few genuine problems I feel the system suffers from, and that problem will loom large in Masks - the campaign strongly relies on the characters actively investigating events, and there will definitely come a point where any realistic character would say to him/herself ‘Ths is ridiculous - my life is seriously at risk here.’
Given that (quite reasonable) player motivation issues very nearly derailed the prologue scenario, I’ve decided to be up front about the problem with the upcoming campaign, and I’m going to request that the players somewhat metagame this, or we won’t have a game to play. To be specific, I’m asking the players to come up with a strong motivational reason to pursue the investigation as far as they can. This isn’t the same as a death wish - I won’t be expecting players to throw their lives away cheaply, or to avoid calling in authorities, but I will need each of them to have a strong reason for pursuing and avenging the death of their friend (oh, spoiler, sorry) - one that works for their character and that they can play without ruining the rest of the character concept.
This isn’t something I’ve tried in any game before, but with Masks particularly, with no motivation, there’s no game, so as my game approaches I’ll be asking for this one prenuptial out-of-character agreement. Let’s see if it works!

I’ve deliberately not refreshed my very hazy memory of YSDC’s playthrough of Masks, but I understand there are cultists in it; what Rabbit’s Foot really cares about, after his time in the War and among London and Paris occultists afterwards, is preventing people from mucking around with magic, because they and other people get hurt. (That didn’t seem to be at issue in the prequel, which was why he wasn’t pushing at it as hard as he might have been.)

Motivating the PCs can seem like a problem, but your players agreed to an implicit contract and they’re there to play the game. In character doubts and discussions are fun, but even a half-baked justification to continue is all that’s needed.

As Nelson put it, “Never mind manoeuvres, always go at them.” He also said “…you must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil,” which I’m sure will be equally useful.


To look at things from another angle: linear media don’t need to be written in a linear way, while improvised media do.

(Incidentally I recommend that anyone interested in writing of any sort look at Pat Wrede’s blog https://www.pcwrede.com/blog/ - it’s a course on writing better than many you might pay for, and it’s free.)

Even if you are the sort of author who does write in a basically linear manner without much outline, you still have the option of getting to the end, thinking “that particular thing worked well”, and going back and putting in bits of foreshadowing to give it more build-up. As a GM or player, we’re back to @Agemegos’ description of laying down lots of traps and expanding on the ones that get tripped. Unless you’re going to say explicitly in advance that the characters have a particular destiny, I think this is unavoidable.

My approach broadly is to leave those traps out, but not to worry too much about it if someone comes up with something better. I’ve played with dirigiste GMs, and it wasn’t fun; if I want to write a novel, I’ll write a novel.

As a result of that, and considering the example of the assault on the base I mentioned above, I think that it’s OK not to have the tension level gradually rising towards the climactic events. If it happens, it’s fine; the basic pattern of a technical/procedural/action scene followed by a talky/character scene is not a bad one (any long-running TV series will give examples of this; I find CSI particularly easy to analyse). But neither is the pattern of giving each character a moment to shine in each session, and sticking rigidly to any of these patterns risks removing the basic enjoyment that comes with being involved in the interactive creation of a story. When the YSDC crew go off on a shopping or dining expedition, it would be death to linear drama, but it’s fun for them because they can delve through period catalogues and menus – and even though they were recording, “fun for them” should come before “makes a good linear drama later”.


The introduction of such elements, which may or may not ever be used, is part of which I mean by “thrashing around.”

I’m sensible of the delight of a session or an adventure where everything converges toward a single theme based on a single premise and leading up to a single resolution. But I think there’s a danger, in seeking such a result, of being tenpted precisely into what you call a dirigiste approach, one that deprives players of co-authorship and at a fundamental level of agency. And for that reason, I think the provision of mantel guns that may never be fired is not merely a liability of RPGs that we have to tolerate, but essential to good GMing practice.

We have the terminological contrast of “sandbox” and “railroad.” Personally, I consider both of those as unsatisfactory approaches in pure form, though my sympathies are more with the sandbox, and it’s the extreme I’m more likely to approach. But I like to think of myself as a GM as being like Gromit riding a toy train and frantically laying down track ahead of where the train is going. I think if you want to lay your story out in advance, you would probably do better to write a novel.

On the other hand, comparable episodes often play a role in some genres and media. The “bathhouse” episode is an old tradition in anime. Or there’s the somewhat comparable episode in Girls und Panzer where the protagonist is about to lead her school team in the final desperately important senshado (roughly, Tank Driving Sport) match against the rival team captained by her older sister, and the various tank crews take the final evening off to relax doing whatever they love best, from working on engines to watching classic movies. This is kind of like what I like to call a “shore leave” episode, but I think it has slightly different functions.

In this context, I have to mention Fixers, one of my GURPS campaigns of some years back. This was a “consulting criminals” campaign about a group of professional criminals who hired out to do jobs that ordinary criminal groups lacked the skills or resources to carry out. Most of the scenarios were more or less classic caper stories. But in the first scenario or two, the play consisted largely of researching the situation, and making intricate plans, and working out step by step what was supposed to happen, and having it come off without a hitch—and all but one of the players found this so boring that they were ready to call the campaign off.

What I ended up doing was greatly reducing the planning, and instead allowing the Tactics roll by the planner to give credits for “Fortunately, I planned for that”—and then playing out the actual execution, with things going wrong and being fixed. The players were a lot happier with that level of dramatic tension.

I think that’s a better example than the bathhouse / hot springs / beach episodes, which too often are just an excuse to show skimpy costumes. (Also, Girls und Panzer is great.) Even so, it serves the purpose of showing more about the characters’ personalities, where the RPG shopping sequence feels to me really more like an ab-procedural element (how can I get the gun with the best stats / look at this weird thing I, the player, found in a catalogue) than an ab-characterisation one.

There is the earlier episode where Miho and her friends are out scouting the school grounds for abandoned tanks. That’s notable in that it’s the episode that introduces Yukari, who is a total senshado geek, and in that all the different tanks have entirely different capabilities, which has very much a “shopping” feel.