At the core of every sim is its story, the singular objective each member is working to achieve. Each sim has its own collaborative environment and quirks. Each writer must possess working knowledge of basic story structure in order to craft their piece of the narrative to fit within the overarching story. The Game Manager must help the sim’s writers to understand their place in the story, and keep the story moving, while throwing in plot twists and NPCs along the way.
Story Structure Basics
When planning a mission/story/quest, consider basic five-part narrative structure.
In a short story, this is the main character’s status quo when the story begins. In a roleplaying game, the main character is the team or crew of characters.
Something happens that causes the team to want a goal and leave their comfort zone to achieve it. In a roleplaying game, this is often when the team accepts a quest, or the captain conveys mission orders to the crew. It can be something that directly affects any number of players from one to everyone.
Rising Action/Plot Points:
The bulk of the story/mission. The team strives to overcome obstacles to reach their goal, and along the way experiences internal and/or external change. A short story often includes three try-fail cycles with rising stakes. In a roleplaying game, the characters overcome obstacles together, individually, and/or in subgroups to strive toward the goal as a team.
The crucial moment, the point at which the team achieves (or fails) their goal in a decisive way. This goal may have significantly changed since the Inciting Incident. The GM coordinates story/mission threads to bring this together for all characters.
Falling action and the consequences of achieving the goal (or not). The individual characters explore how they were impacted by the adventure, and how they are affected moving forward.
(Note that this five-part structure is one of numerous valid story structures. It’s also western-culture-centric.)
Story Structure Examples
The TV Procedural
- A crime is committed.
- The investigative team performs the first examination and gathers evidence.
- The team postulates a theory.
- The initial theory is tested and disproved.
- New data is gathered. The team meets obstacles and setbacks to their investigation, but rises to the challenge with greater determination to solve the crime.
- A new hypothesis is formed, and the investigation gains ground.
- False leads are pursued. Personal distractions interfere with investigation.
- The team considers a new way of solving the case.
- A new piece of evidence is introduced by an external source that helps the case. Old evidence considered unimportant is suddenly key.
- The team is threatened when they get too close to solving the case.
- The new evidence is challenged by external forces, investigators challenged, hope is lost.
- A discovery or action results in a breakthrough.
- The case is solved following a final battle and dramatic climax.
Scooby Doo – (also a TV procedural)
“Meddling kids” Fred, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne, and their talking great dane Scooby Doo solve mysteries.
- The team goes to a place
- The team finds a mystery/monster
- The team generally runs around uncovering the mystery. Shaggy and Scooby stumble upon clues and run away, Daphne gets captured, Fred and Velma actively search for clues.
- The team unmasks the monster, witch, alien, robot, werewolf, vampire, mummy, pirate, etc. who always turns out to be simply a man with a grudge hiding behind a mask. Velma explains the mystery.
Character Agency and Player/GM style
A character with agency wants something and proactively tries to get it. Agency is how a character actively contributes to the story in a meaningful way. A character with agency makes the story happen. A passive character reacts to events and waits while the story happens to them. Novels and short stories that find their way to publication usually feature a main character with agency. In text-based role playing games, agency is usually the key ingredient that engages players in a sim. But some players do prefer to roleplay passive characters.
If your players want to be actively engaged in your game – give their characters agency in the story. Let player characters make decisions. Allow players to incorporate their character’s backstory and personal motivations in their actions. Plan the story so that every character in the sim can contribute to the events and outcome in a meaningful way. Utilize the skills possessed by each character and incorporate what each character wants, to reach the story climax.
If your players prefer to remain passive – answer their tags but otherwise let the GM build the story for them – add GM-controlled NPCs and external events designed to guide your players along. Offer your players suggestions for how to proceed, try to give them a sense of ownership or control in the story or subplot as it progresses. If your players are stuck, present a selection of two or three solutions they can choose to move the story along.
Consider your players’ style – passive, active, in between, or even a mixture – when developing your plot. In many cases, this will not be revealed until after you’ve started writing with your players.
Consider your style as a GM – do you set up a challenge then give your players free rein to create whatever story they wish around it? Do you encourage players to develop personal subplots for their characters? Do you help them incorporate these subplots in the main plot? Or, do you as the GM control all aspects of your setting and how characters are allowed to interact with it? Do you specify limits around what players are permitted to contribute so they don’t impact your main story?
Like players, most GMs are a mixture. At some points you’ll be guiding, at other moments you’ll be leading or allowing your players to free-roam. However this is working during the project/mission, an awareness of your personal approach to Game Management as well as an understanding and appreciation of your players’ style of participation, will help a GM design a story that will be fun for everyone. Pay attention to the people you’re writing with, engage and ask questions. Checking in is a very simple thing to do and can make a big difference to the way your players both interact and react to you and each other.
Events and General Planning
There is no one true way to plan a text-based rpg story/mission, but here are a few things to think about. If you have a small group of motivated writers, an initial situation might be all you need. If you or your players tend to get stuck along the way, giving some thought to planning can help.
How does this story/mission end? A few possibilities:
- Decision – Your sim’s PCs must make a decision.
- Explanation – An unknown situation is explained.
- Discovery – Something previously hidden or unknown is revealed
- Who Done It – A crime is solved
- Rescue – an individual or group is saved.
Consider what each of your player-characters want, why each of them would be interested in achieving that goal, and how each will contribute.
Think about how you will introduce the story, what is the inciting incident? This could be a distress call. Or an old woman knocking on the clubhouse door asking for help. It could be presenting orders at a staff meeting. Something needs repairing. Someone gets attacked, lost or found.
Rising Action and Plot Points
List key plot points – the major events, discoveries, clues, battles, rescues, antagonists, NPCs, etc., your players’ characters will encounter as they move toward the goal. One way to do this is to ask yourself: What can go wrong?
For example: your crew encounters an empty derelict ship, and the goal is to unravel the mystery of what happened to the derelict ship’s crew. As the GM, you will determine what happened, then supply clues your crew can discover, making sure the clues are consistent and logical.
Keep asking what can go wrong. In this example, the first major plot point could be when the PCs put together a theory about what went wrong based on their investigation so far. Then the stakes are raised when it’s determined they are now threatened by the same problem.
Planning for the next major plot points might be open, ready for adjustment depending on what your players come up with. It’s useful to have a few ideas ready for what else can go wrong.
Plan the triggers that draw your team into the story. Try to connect story stakes to individual player backstory.
It is critical to understand that your players will not simply read your mind. Maintain open lines of communication at all times, and continue to communicate the goals (and in some cases, possible or desired outcomes) so that the story can continue to move forward. If a player can find an investment in the story, then they will be inclined more naturally to write than to answer the occasional tag.
Three Clue Rule – For any conclusion you want the players to make, provide at least three clues.
Plot Chokepoints – use with caution. Provide at least three solutions for each problem, and for each solution provide at least three clues
Plot Holes – Check your plot for logic and consistency errors. If the inciting incident involves ejecting the warp core, you’ve got no warp speed for a quick escape later.
The Rules of Magic and Science – Be clear about what magic, science-magic, or real-world science can be used and what the limits are. Players with a real-world science background may need reminding about certain Trek science-magic tropes.
Villains – Give villains relatable motivation to behave as they do. The best Villains believe they are the heroes of their story.
Heroes and anti-heroes – Take into consideration the kind of story your players want to write. Often, players expect their characters to be heroes, and will be unhappy and uncooperative if the plot puts them in the position of villains.
Content and Consideration
You may not know your players or their personal background at all. However, consideration and respect is a key factor in dealing with everyone, online or in person.
Players are people, with their own histories, emotions and backstory. People who confront oppression in their real lives rarely enjoy facing it in their text-based rpg hobby. As you may not know that this is the case, it is recommended that GMs be up-front with players about how committed they are (or are not) to creating a safe and inclusive sim environment for younger, female and/or marginalized players. State age limits and ratings clearly. Be respectful of others.
Some GMs still may feel that such limitations interfere with the dark story they want to tell. In that case, trigger warnings are recommended. State these on your site, clearly.
Otherwise, consider the following key factors:
Check your plot for sexism. One quick and easy check that often picks up sexism is to reverse the sex of every NPC you created for this mission/story – especially people in authority, cultural icons, etc., and marginalized people. Ask yourself if the plot still makes sense.
Check your plot for racism. There is no easy way to do this, but you can begin with the obvious and you can be respectful and sensitive to tropes from our own experiences on planet Earth. Be considerate of other people’s feelings if they raise a concern or a point for discussion. Think about it, ask questions.
For example – is your alien or fantasy culture copied from a real and marginalized culture on Earth? Does your alien culture utilize slave labor? Does it feature a population with significant economic or cultural disparities based on appearance or other aspects of a population’s identity beyond their control?
In the wider roleplaying community, consent issues are gaining wider concern. In the tabletop-rpg community, an RPG Consent Checklist is becoming standard practice because more GMs are aware of the impact certain clichés and tropes have on players.
For example – demonstrating that a villain is evil by having them commit acts of sexual violence, racial violence, homophobic violence, violence against children, etc., could traumatize players who have experienced these acts in real life. Many players regard such insensitivity as a reflection of the GM’s limited imagination and disdain for marginalized players. If you do use any of these options, as a minimum – be up-front clear about your use of said emotive issue, ensure clear consent with anyone involved in writing about said issue and mark any JP with an overt warning and an age restriction.
Roleplaying Tips, a blog about running tabletop rpgs with many tips that apply to text-based rpgs
Author K.M. Weiland’s Story Structure Database – hundreds of films and books broken down into their major plot points.
Many thanks to the Mentoring Committee and in particular AlphaJuliet and Greenfelt for their help in drafting this resource. ~ Sprite