Deep Sea's Guide to Setting Up a Story
First, the three cardinal rules of creativity that you should always keep in mind as you're sitting down to draw up a plot.
One: Originality lies in execution, not content.
I see a lot of people who stress over having a unique setting or plot. The truth is, nothing under the sun is unique, so stop trying to do the impossible! Take a breath and think of the storytelling tropes that you personally enjoy. Mash them together in ways you think are fun. What’s truly unique is your voice as a storyteller.
Two: Perfection is the enemy of completion.
Perfection, to some people, is a noun. It is a state to be achieved. This is a bold, fat lie! As a game master, you need to see perfection is a verb. By its nature it will always be at odds with completion, for you can never complete that which is a perpetually on-going process. Embrace mediocrity if that’s what it takes to get you to finish your project.
Three: Players are spanners in the works.
A spanner is another name for a wrench – the phrase “spanner in the works” is a metaphor about throwing a wrench in a machine to break the machine and prevent it from working. Your players are spanners. They will fall into your machine, your story, and prevent it from working like how you expected. Thus, you can either pour millions of man-hours into an iron-clad system… or lower your expectations accordingly.
In my experience as a game master, the moment you set up a rule in your story, your players will take delight in finding any and all loopholes. This is not out of malice, but out of an ancient, deep-seated desire to win the game and solve the shiny puzzle. The best way to “fix” this is partly to set up consequences for breaking the laws of nature within your game… and also to roll with the insanity and think of your players less as spanners and more as a delightful randomized assortment of additional gears that you’re sure will make your story’s transmission do something… interesting.
The Actual Guide
And now for the actual guide to setting up a story, which is more of a checklist. Sorry to disappoint!
Let’s use the Pokémon series as an example, and pretend we’re setting up a Pokémon roleplay. Do you remember the 5 Ws from grade school? Because that's honestly all this is, and yet I see a lot of new GMs overlook this part.
Who are your characters?
Our characters would be Pokémon trainers, and by extension, their Pokémon.
What will they be doing?
They will be traveling across the land, searching far and wide, for Pokémon.
Why are they doing this?
To understand that power that’s inside! Or more specifically throughout the series – they may be traveling to becoming professional Pokémon trainers akin to professional athletes. They might simply be going on a journey of self-exploration, or they may be working for a professor to collect field data on these magical creatures.
Where are the characters doing this?
This could be any pre-existing region of the series, or it could be a new region that we deigned. It could be a large-scale story that happens across the entire region (or multiple regions!) or we might decide on a small-scale story that takes place in a single town.
When are they doing it?
Most Pokémon series take place in a modern or near-future age. Maybe we want to do a historical Pokémon roleplay set in the age of samurai? This question can also be interpreted as “When in your character’s life are they taking these actions” in which case we would then have to decide if we’re doing a classic ten-years-old coming of age journey or focusing on older characters.
This is your elevator pitch, or something similar. I try to make my introductions fairly short, no more than a few hundred words. My goal is to set up the basic gist of my story and hook people into wanting to read more. Ideally, the introduction contains the 5 Ws from above, and leave the reader wondering what will happen next… or knowing exactly what will happen next and wanting to leave their creative pawprints all over it.
Here’s an example of an introduction of mine lifted from another site.
“There is an old, shitty MMO that is going out of business. As a last hurrah, the developer has created one final event before the server shuts down for good in two months. It's a stupidly difficult, buggy, game-breaking raid boss. Honestly, players are just throwing themselves at this boss for shits and giggles, and to get sweet karma by posting funny glitches to Reddit.
A few people have won, though! As their prize, the developer is emailing these players a letter of appreciation, and a $500 Visa gift card that they can redeem just by clicking this totally-not-suspicious link in their email that definitely is not glitched in such a way that it resembles a summoning seal.
Turns out being dragged across dimensions is itchy as fuck.”
Now, do I have my 5 Ws?
- Who: MMO players who just beat a game
- What: Trying to get home
- Why: They were effectively kidnapped from their desk
- Where: In a fantasy world like the video game
- When: Modern age, shortly after reaching the end of the video game and clicking a link
I do! This time. You might not always have your 5 Ws. That’s fine, don’t sweat it. Just take a moment to figure out which ones you’re missing and why. It might be because you forgot to consider that aspect of the roleplay, or it might be because you did consider it and decided it wasn’t relevant. I don’t care which one it is, so long as you have an acceptable explanation for your players!
Now, don’t personally recommend going into a lot of lore or explaining why things are happening – players can discover that in-character after joining the roleplay, or just read up on whatever lore you write in another post.
What kind of people are going to be in your story? Who are your players going to be playing? Are there antagonists that will be preventing our characters from reaching their goal, and if so, who are they?
Most of my players will be playing nerds, because the premise of my roleplay rests on people getting into this mess because they finished a video game and clicked a suspicious link. So, no matter what, all their characters will have a similar experience of having interacted with this link. Their motives might not be the same, though. Someone might have played the game for enjoyment, another person might be playing it only because their boyfriend really likes it, and they weren’t expecting to win anything.
Using some sort of common or shared backstory is a great tool for making sure that most player characters all have some sort of experience or motivation in common. I have my roleplays set up so that most characters end up involved in the plotline because they were somewhere specific when something happened, did a certain action at a certain time, or are working toward a goal, or had a motivation that was acted upon. Generally, as a GM, you can predetermine one of those things for your players – but only one.
Example from Borderlands: The protagonists of the first game all have the same goal of finding a vault of alien treasure. The protagonists of the second game are betrayed by an evil CEO. They have a shared motivation of revenge (and loot).
These characters don’t necessarily have to be evil to be antagonists in the roleplay. They just have to be standing between the player characters and their goals.
Example from Skyrim: There are two main factions in the civil war storyline, the Imperials and the Stormcloaks. Which faction ends up being the antagonist depends on who you join early in the game. The Stormcloaks want to separate from the empire to give Skyrim the best chance against the Thalmor and insulate it from the inevitable collapse of the empire. The Imperials want to keep Skyrim in the empire to maintain order protect it from the Thalmor, and to prevent the empire from collapsing. Each side has its own philosophy that’s fairly sympathetic, and so who you consider the antagonist largely comes down to how you decide to play your character.
As a game master, you’ll have to decide if you want your players to play antagonists or not. In a setting like Skyrim, I’d think you would – players have fun opposing each other, and everyone’s got their own idea of what’s best for their country. In a roleplay that’s more of a traditional good vs evil plot, you might find that playing the villains that your characters get to wail on works better for your group. It honestly depends on how you prefer to set up your story.
Most GMs are going to want to group their characters into factions, typically by similar motivation and ideals. This might be the good guys and bad guys of a dungeon crawler roleplay, or it could be the social cliques that show up in real-life settings, especially those that take place in schools.
If you have factions – the cheerleaders, the adventurer’s guild, a band of hackers – you’re going to want to list them out and describe each group in a sentence or two. Your players might not ever see that list, but it will help you keep track of which group does what, especially once you get into larger plots that have lots of backstabbing and Xanatos gambits.
Because honestly? I’ve GM’d myself into corners multiple times by having a group do something out of character with the initial description. It kinda sucks, and having a definitive mission statement for each faction really will go a long way in keeping your shit together.
Oh my gosh, I’m a whore for worldbuilding, and I bet a lot of you are too. It’s so easy to go on and on about lore! But, when it comes to setting up a roleplay, succinct is typically better – at least, until you fill out the outline! Then you can go back and fill in more details later.
Consider the scope of your setting and where you anticipate most of the events of your roleplay taking place. In the Pokémon example from earlier, I mentioned that the series typically features entire regions. This is a large-scale setting, with multiple biomes and typically upwards of two dozen notable locations such as towns, parks, and landmarks.
In a smaller setting, you might still have two dozen or so notable locations, but they’re more likely to be in a single city or encampment. The smallest settings I regularly encounter in the roleplay world are tavern roleplays, where a large cast of characters hang out at a bar.
This is a big thing that lots of GMs spend time on! And, you should, because it’s pretty important. Visualize your story on a time line. What are the events happening when the roleplay starts and the players come in? What are the events that caused the situation? You don’t have to go back all the way to ancient history, but you should be able to give your players a fairly logical explanation of how things got to be the way they are in the current story.
In my roleplay example with the MMO, the story starts when the game is won. But to understand why the game was created, I have to establish some sort of historical narrative. I decided to go with a very typical “demons are invading” story, so the history of my world runs more or less like: “There is a fantasy world with different races and lots of magic. The demon race uses up all the resources in their country and start a war to steal more resources. A wizard from another country escapes using a portal to another world, which dumps him on present-day Earth. He creates the MMO to find worthy warriors to send back to him home. Shenanigans ensue.”
It’s not nearly as detailed or as interesting as what a lot of you will come up with for your roleplay boards, but it works – and working is the most important part. If you’re really hard-pressed for ideas, pretend the blank canvas in intentional and encourage your players to make stuff up so that you don’t have to.
The level of technology in your roleplay’s setting is probably going to mirror what time period it’s set in. Most typical Western high fantasy roleplays, even through they are their own world, have a time period analogous to anywhere from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. Of course, you don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy writing about different time periods. But you should have a general idea of what era your roleplay is set in, relative to real life. Or, if you have a “kitchen sink” sort of roleplay, you should make sure that your players are aware that you’re aware that conventional linear time is not required.
I personally find it helpful to think of the technology level in my roleplays in terms of “-punk” genres. There are the four I use the most often:
Clockpunk: Technology is powered with gears and simple machines. This is my go-to for most of my fantasy roleplays, since they usually take place before any sort of Industrial Revolution. Guns might exist, but they are more like cannons and muskets, and are difficult to manufacture and maintain.
Steampunk: Machines are powered by steam engines. This is typically associated with the Victorian and Edwardian eras but encompasses pretty much anything from the 1700s to World War 1. A lot of people tend to forget that India and China had some cool stuff going on in this period as well.
Dieselpunk: This typically represents 1920s to the 1950s. Think giant industrial gas-guzzling machines. If your setting has combustion engines but no internet, then tell your players that it’s “sort of a dieselpunk setting”. They will hopefully wander off, momentarily sated in their quest for knowledge.
Modernpunk: “Modernpunk” doesn’t actually exist, but halfway through writing this section I realized that I didn’t have a fancy name for roleplay settings that are just the regular modern world. So, I’m making it up and I’m calling it modernpunk. You can quote me on this.
Cyberpunk: My catch-all category for anything futuristic with robots and whatnot, regardless of whether the story is actually about cyberpunk themes. Space travel? Cyberpunk. Superheroes and mad scientists in the year 2060? Cyberpunk.
Okay, you know how we roleplayers always complain about inconsistent descriptions of interior spaces? Things like “That’s not where I said the table was!” and stuff like that? Inconsistent descriptions of the environment are one of my top pet peeves as a GM, so I always try to throw climate on my checklist of setting details.
Ask yourself – what’s the weather like in your roleplay right now? Is it raining? Sunny? Is the weather going to be like that tomorrow? What kind of climate do we expect in certain genres? I’ve rarely seen a post-apocalyptic story that wasn’t set in a typical hot desert with sand and rocks. I rarely see a magical boarding school outside of the mountains and a temperate or boreal forest.
You know who does climates and biomes right? Minecraft. If you’re stuck on what it looks like outside in your roleplay, take a cue from them. Make an alignment chart and plot hot to cold on one side, and dry to wet on the other.
A hot, dry climate is going to be a desert or a savanna. A hot, wet climate is going to be a rainforest or jungle. A cold, dry climate could be tundra or taiga. Cold and wet doesn’t really exist due to the triangle shape of a proper Whittaker diagram, but you’re pretty much looking at temperate forests like in northern USA and the British Isles.
Honestly, that's about all there is to my process of working on a story for a roleplay campaign. I could segue into things like determining character sheet contents and magic systems, but that's too much for one guide. Hopefully this is enough to help any of you stuck in the early plotting stages power through!