Plotting adventures (part one)

19 10 2009

One thing that the majority of adventure and campaign writers find most challenging about plotting is understanding the difference between a plot and a story

 So what is a plot?

 There is some (for ‘some’ read ‘far too much’) debate as to the difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot.’

Consider the following:

  • A sequence of events
  • A sequence of events that are given with an understanding of how they happened

The problem is that some call the first definition a plot and the second a story and others have it the opposite way around.

One view is that it’s all just semantics. We tend to interchange the words and I don’t see anyone changing that problem soon.

My first port of call in trying to resolve this issue was Wikipedia. Not because it’s always right, but because it tends to represent the mainstream view.

Hence my frustration in trying to come down firmly on one side of the fence or the other when I read:

“In fiction, a plot or storyline is all the events in a story, particularly towards the achievement of some particular artistic or emotional effect. In other words it’s what mostly happened in the story. Such as the mood, characters, setting, and conflicts occurring in a story.”

As that hasn’t exactly cleared it up beyond reason, I’m going to offer the following:

A plot is the structure that holds the adventure together.

That structure includes the actions and reactions, the composition of scenes, the focus on beginnings, middles and ends.

The way I have come to resolve it in my head is that, in general, the adventure designer will think about the plot and the players think about the story.

The ‘plot’ is the framework around which you, the writer, craft your adventure or campaign. The ‘story’ is the final product.

A great plot won’t guarantee a great adventure. Unless the characters, settings, combat etc. are good, the campaign will flounder. Similarly, the campaign needs a decent plot in order to succeed.

A good piece of advice is not to get too hung up with these definitions. As long as you understand what you are doing, it matters little what you call them.

You need to understand that a plot is not an idea

An idea is a thought you’ve had about an adventure. It’s a random thought about what you anticipate is going to happen.

You need to understand that a plot is not a story

The story is the overall web you will weave to ensure that the players don’t want to go off at a tangent as soon as you introduce your main plot hook.

You need to be 100% sure what a plot is before you put pen to paper.

To draw a line under the (partially sterile) debate, the plot is what happens as the story unfolds. It’s the connected (even if they don’t appear so at first) events that lead to the climax of the adventure.

For some players, the plot is everything. Some adventure writers live on their plot-writing abilities alone.

The fact is, these are in the minority and if you want to take adventure writing seriously, great plotting is just one aspect of creating a compelling game.

The best comparison I can muster is that the plot is the journey you’re going to take. It lists the roads, their respective lengths and how long each section will take to travel. It will list all the relevant sites en route e.g. petrol stations, key landmarks etc.

The story is a description of your journey. It includes the roads you travelled but also covers what you did en route, the scenery, the smells and the conversation.

Next time, I’ll leave the definitions alone and focus on how understanding plotting ensures your adventure has a good beginning.

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