Techniques for Genre Plotting, Part 1

by John Kim

         This is one of a series of essays on techniques for emulating common genre conventions in RPGs. My assumption here is that you have a given genre -- such as "superhero comic book" or "period martial arts movie" -- and you want to adapt it from its original medium into the medium of RPGs. This is similar to the problem of adapting a novel into a film, or any other change of medium. For more on the meaning of genre in RPGs, see my essay on "Understanding Genre in Roleplaying".

         The central issue here is techniques for making the plots of RPGs more like the plots in other media. RPGs traditionally are strong at a central challenge for a group of characters. The GM defines a mystery to be investigated, opponents to be defeated, or areas to be explored. However, there are other aspects of genre plots, two of which I will go into here:

Note that these aspects might not be true for any particular genre. For example, modern actions films tend to have synchronicity with character -- but most events are centered on the plot. In contrast, situation comedies have a lot of unusual events but not much synchonicity with character.

Synchronicity with Character

         A common feature of many genres is that aspects of the character will peculiarly match with the plot, even if seemingly by accident. At the most trivial level, an example would be James Bond having an unusual gadget which just happens to be the thing needed to save him from some unforeseen trouble. At a deeper level, the external plot may reflect some hidden inner side to the protagonist even if there is no logical connection.

         While there are some things which can be done spontaneously in play, I think the main solution is in adventure design. Adventures should be designed with the specific PCs in mind. A good parallel for the GM is a screenwriter who is hired to write episodes for an existing television series. Other people created the main characters, and other people portray them. The GM, like the episode writer, is called on to invent plots which are custom-designed to fit with these pre-existing characters.

Unusual Events

         A number of genres will be punctuated by unusual events, like meeting a friend in a strange place, natural disasters, and so forth. Such events are rarely generated by standard task resolution rolls, which only say whether a result is successful or unsuccessful. However, some groups also have problems with such results arbitrarily being determined by the GM -- especially if they cause problems for the PCs. There are a few techniques which can be used for this:

         The trick here is not making unusual events show up in game, but how to get them without making the players feeling unduly manipulated or disempowered.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Mon Apr 21 00:35:06 2003