Disclaimer (Move your mouse to the spoiler area to reveal the content) As per the usual with my guides, I am informing you as per the particular conditions under which I am writing this guide. I've got around a decade's worth of writing experience on my belt, and have repeatedly studied—at length—the mechanics of storytelling. I actually do know what it is I am talking about here. I'm still by no means anywhere near on par to the likes of Tolkien, or Asimov, or other legendary writers—I am, naturally, still learning and adapting new skills into my own repertoire on a regular basis. These are, however, a rather basic, and yet integral set of skills to possess if you want to create any sensible, coherent, long-term story. I have a solid grasp of it and can thus say without much doubt that I can reasonably teach you what it is you need to know to consistently create long-term RP's. The objective of this guide is to teach you how to write long-term RP's. At the very least, to give you a grasp of all the concepts you'll need to understand for any long-term RP to be remotely coherent, or functional. Understand that for a long term RP to work, a lot of it is going to involve how plots work, and how integral characters are to plots. Ready? Definitions & Myths Tools Part 1: Definitions & Myths After having read a lot of different RP's prior to starting this guide (especially with a group of other people in my Discord server) I've noticed that there are a significant number of myths and wrong definitions of various storytelling devices floating around. So, before we can get into the juicy meat of “how the long-term story do” I think it's appropriate to play a mythbusting/definitions Q&A section first. If you have your own questions, feel free to ask them in this thread, and I will be glad to answer them to the best of my ability. Q. What is a plot? A. A plot is a series of events, actions, and scenes, connected together in a single story. It is, essentially, the spine of a story. Without it, scenes occur in a disjointed, jarring manner, often without point or purpose, and always to the detriment of the pacing of the story. Q. Isn't a plot an idea? A. No. That's the premise. A premise is the central set of themes or ideas that make up the reasoning for why a story exists. So a premise is, for example: “A knight rides out to save a damsel from a dragon.” A plot is the series of events and actions and scenes that a character partook in which explains how they saved the damsel from the dragon. Chapters in a book are an expression of “points” in a plot. The same goes for chapters on a DVD or Blu-Ray release of a movie. Q. I don't need a plot. A. Yes you do. This is like saying “I don't need time.” Because a plot is really a time line of events. Q. Sandbox RP's don't have a plot! A. Wrong. All stories, no matter how badly written, if they have a perceivable “start” point or which in any manner progress characters or conflicts, possess a plot. Whether or not one acknowledges that plot, invests any time or effort into that plot, or makes the plot sensible and coherent is irrelevant. The advice in this guide still pertains to sandbox RP's in its entirety. The only perceivable difference between a sandbox RP and a linear RP is that a sandbox RP has no defined end point. That is, it's just a series of subplots that never really end, which go in on perpetuity. That's fine, there's plenty of stories that function like this, like episodic TV shows. That being said, understand that each episode, that each narrative conflict or piece of character growth, is still a plotline. You can clearly trace a beginning, growth, journey, and end point. Even if the story doesn't end, that doesn't mean that there is no plot—it just, in fact, means you have several plot lines, starting and ending as is necessary. People who claim otherwise have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, and believing this will irrevocably damage your ability to construct stories properly. If you believe that sandbox RP's have no plots, and your stories constantly die, this is probably why. Q. Only one person can control the plot at any given time. (Dominant partners in 1x1's, or GM's in group RP's.) A. Nope! Role plays are group activities. That can include group brainstorming, creating, and editing a plot together. Most sandbox RP's end up actually doing this—where a group of people create characters, NPC's, conflicts, so on, and play them out. When two players in a 1x1 create a romance premise with the equal intention of playing it out to a romantic conclusion, they're both creating the plot line. That being said, each person has their own style. I'll go into more detail about centralized authority vs decentralized group-consensus and the pros and cons of both later. Q. Plots and characters are different. A. Not really. At least, not if we're talking about Western Storytelling. (The East can get a bit confusing and we won't go over that in this guide in particular. I might make an expansion guide detailing the differences between East & West if asked for.) The most widely known plot there is, is called the Hero's Journey. This plot details the beginning, rise, and eventual success or failure of a specific person or group of persons, against a specific obstacle or series of obstacles. In essence: Without protagonists—without characters—pretty well every type of western conflict or western plot line does not function. I'll also be going into more detail about this later, but I'll summarize the thought as such: Player characters without motivation or direction to resolve the conflict at hand, are doomed to tank the entire story no matter how much world building or detail you invest into it. Motivation is love, motivation is life. Q. I don't want a plot because it means there's no surprises. A. You may not want to engage in storytelling as a general rule then. The very notion of storytelling requires that you know much of the story—or at least a particular scene—in advance of writing it. That being said, you don't have to be the storyteller. What you're probably looking for is to be a player in a traditional GM's game, where they control the world, the NPC's, the story, the conflicts, and what happens to your character. In this way, you can be made unaware of the plot, while your partner (or the GM) plans out the entire thing for you, and then presents situations where you have to make choices. Otherwise, uh, man, this is not the best medium for spontaneous surprises. You may want to try procedurally generated video games instead. Because if you want freedom over a story, you also have to take the burden of responsibility of at least knowing about the story. Which means removing the tension and the suspense of... Not knowing. You can't have it all, I'm afraid. Q. If my plot ends, then my story ends. A. Not necessarily! If you wish, then yes: The main plot ends, the story ends. However, you can always simply make another plot and continue the story. Maybe when you defeat the big bad, a bigger bad appears. Maybe you need to rebuild the kingdom you just saved, and fight against criminal organizations that are popping up to stop you. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Also keep in mind, even if a story ends, the universe itself doesn't necessarily end. The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings are separate, distinct stories, but they have characters cross over between both, and occur in the same universe! You can do the same! Q. I have to perfectly plan out a plot in its entirety. A. Nope. You don't. Again: A plot is just a series of events, actions, and scenes, connected together. A sandbox RP is a plot without a clearly defined ending. You can just create subplots out of the blue, out of interesting character interactions, which you hadn't expected. Many TV shows and Video Games and even books—especially novel series—will end up going different directions than what was originally envisioned, or contain character interactions not originally thought about. If role players are comparable to actors, then realize that these are actors who have the ability to act unexpectedly and contribute ideas you might have never thought of before, forcing you to change your intended ending. So long as you have a general idea or objective, you'll never feel entirely lost for what you need to do. Q. Objective? A. Every scene in a well written novel, or TV show, or movie, or otherwise, has an objective. It has a goal to accomplish. These goals can be pretty well anything you can imagine, from two characters being introduced, to the culmination of a relationship, to a comedic relief scene, to a character ending up dead, to the characters discovering something happening in the world like a new war or plague, so on and so on and so on. These objectives manifest themselves in two different ways. If you are... Playing A Character: Then you need to ensure your character has a motivation in any and every given scene they're in. Without a motivation, your character has no reason for being there—and you will find it brutally difficult to come up with responses. GM/Dominant Player/In Control Of Scene: Ensure that the scene you've created has an objective, whether it be a dramatic progression of the story or a simple interaction between two characters. When you think “how can I progress the story?” Ask yourself “what is the next scene going to be about?” In the next tab (Tools), you'll learn greater details about the difference between centralized and decentralized control of a plot, character motivation, objectively useful scene construction, and the basis of premise within plot/subplots and main plots. Not necessarily in this order. Part 2: Tools #1: Premise/Conflict. Alright, so the first thing you need to determine, before your characters, or really anything else, is what the conflict of your story is, and what sort of premise it has. Often, a premise comes packed with a conflict, but not always. “Why is a conflict important?” One might ask. A conflict is the core thesis to why a story should even be explored. It's the obstacle that a character has to overcome. Now a conflict, doesn't have to be violent—violence is just one of the easiest and most readily understandable ways to produce conflict. A conflict is anything that is in the way of the characters achieving their objectives. So for example: A romantic conflict might be something like Romeo and Juliet, where their families hate each other and thus get in the way of true love. Simply ensure that whatever premise you're crafting into a plot possesses a conflict, a clearly understood conflict. That way, when you're looking for a partner, or if you're a GM looking for players, your partner/players will understand what you're looking for out of their characters. If you have to blatantly tell your partner/players what you're looking for, do it: That's perfectly okay! Because the conflict is what your partner/players will use to derive a motivation for their characters to explore your worlds, ideas, themes, relationships, and so on. #2: Characters. The most important part of any plot is the characters involved. So, let's go over the most important mechanical function of a character in a story: Motivations. Yes, motivations. Not personality, not biography—you can derive these things and tie these things to their motivation, but their #1, most important trait... Is why they're doing what they do. If a character exists in a scene, but has no reason to be there... Congratulations: You have written either a scene where the character will do what they should (nothing at all), or you will have to create a plot hole for them to suddenly give a shit. Either way, this is bad writing. How you ensure your character has a motivation is to simply tie them to the premise of a story. If the story is about slaying a dragon, ensure your character has a reason to want to slay a dragon. If the story is about high school, give your character a reason to want to pass high school. If the story is all about romance, give your character a reason to want to find true love. Et cetera. If the story in question does not have any premise or conflict which you can latch your character onto, you're in one of two situations. A. The story is decentralized, in which case you'll need to work with the person to build up their world. This is common for 1x1 RP's, where a person gives a brief snippet of an idea, but wants to build their idea into something more fleshed out with a partner, rather than by themselves. This can also be a thing in group sandbox RP's. In this case, simply ask them questions and offer your own suggestions until you have a conflict you can latch onto. B. The person who wrote the story has no idea how stories work and the entire thing is doomed to fail unless the players manage to save it from its own mistakes through endless ass pulling. Avoid joining these, they're pretty well guaranteed to fail. A motivation ensures you always know what your character wants to do, which in turn always ensures you know what to write. Keep in mind you can also have your character possess more than one motivation, and conflicting motivations can serve as a way to create inner conflict in your character, in a manner that is connected to the world, story, and other characters around you. All with really rather not a whole lot of effort on your part. #3: Centralization vs Decentralization. This won't take long, because this is basically the difference between a linear or sandbox RP. A linear RP has one central authoritative voice that controls the world and the conflict and so on. This is a classical RP structure, which you can trace all the way back to the original Dungeons & Dragons with the Dungeon Master having complete authoritative control. A sandbox RP ordinarily has no centralized authoritative voice, in which anyone may pull in any particular batch of characters or world building or so on. This is akin to a writing team, like in games or TV shows. While centralization vs decentralization is a sliding scale—that is, you can have sandbox RP's with a centralized structure—as a rule of thumb, these are the strengths and weaknesses of both. As you slide more or less toward centralization or decentralization, these strengths and weaknesses intensify or weaken each respectively. Centralization Pro: A single person in charge has the ability to resolve disputes in a way that no decentralized RP can. Players are arguing? Step in and resolve it in a single post. Done. Pro: Whatever series of scenes are going to be composed, are likely going to be more readily coherent. The reason being that a single author will have a single vision, which he can unify all together with a little bit of forethought, note taking, and editing. A group of players has a much harder time having a unified vision of a single project, and thus they usually turn out more schizophrenic. Pro: Those without power can engage in a story where they don't know the outcome of any particular situation. That is, you can genuinely catch players off guard, or surprise them, or otherwise give them emotional trips that decentralized RP's struggle far more to deliver. Atop this, because of the mystery, you can give a genuine sense of tension for potential failure in a scene—because one person decides who wins and who loses. Con: This puts a lot of effort onto a single person to keep the entire story going. If the GM falls down, the entire thing falls apart, with very few exceptions. Con: If the person in charge has no idea what they're doing, all the skills in the world on the part of the players involved will not be able to save the role play from the numerous, massive, hemorrhaging amount of errors that will stack up over time until the entire thing comes crashing down. Con: Individual players have less ability to change the world, and more constricted circumstances under which they must create their characters. For instance, if a GM says “my world has no gunpowder” then that's it, your character cannot use anything gunpowder related. Decentralization Pro: If any one person leaves a decentralized story, the rest can easily simply take over their resources and continue as per the usual. Pro: No one person can abuse all others by going on a power trip. Decentralized stories are ordinarily democratic in nature, meaning that everyone's voice is equally heard, and equally considered. Pro: Everyone has equal vision over the project. That is, with sufficient planning and foresight, everyone always knows where they are going, and never does the question “GM what am I supposed to do now” ever come up. Because everyone is the GM. Con: Worlds are often incoherent and ridden with inconsistencies that take several dozen (if not several hundred or several thousand) edits in order to fix. As the RP progresses and more world building is done, the errors usually continue to stack up—as opposed to reducing. Con: If there are two distinct sides to an issue with a roughly equal number of players on each side, and no authoritative voice that can break the tie, then you can end up killing RP's entirely. Even if there is a tiebreaker, you can end up with disgruntled issues splitting player groups until significant chunks of players leave all at once, as opposed to a steady trickle like you would usually see in a centralized RP. Con: There is no mystery. There is no tension. Everyone has equal control over what happens, so whatever emotional expression people derive out of scenes will never be the result of surprises, but only from emotional investment—and that usually only applies to those who are working on the scenes in question, not on anyone else in the RP who is merely an observer. #4: Useful Scene Construction. (AKA: How plots work.) If you want useful scene progression, read this. The Action-Reaction wheel is how you progress scenes effectively, for as long as you wish between characters. So, how do we create a useful scene in the first place? Find a reason for that scene to exist. Once you have a reason, create your scene, play out the reason for its existence, then move onto the next scene. No, really, think about it. Let's go back over the previous things this guide has gone over. Characters need to have motivations, and every story requires a premise and conflict. This is where our good old friend, plot, comes in. Simply think of an objective for your scene. If it's the first scene in your RP, you probably want to have an introduction scene, where characters meet each others. Maybe you want to skip that, and get straight into the action—like maybe the town the player characters are in comes under attack and they all bump into each other by coincidence. Whatever it is, ensure you have an objective. A clear rationale for why that scene exists. When the objective is completed, wrap up that scene, and start the next scene. As you continue to create scenes, they will start to form a chain of events—which is your plot. One scene, leads to another scene, which leads to another scene. Therefore, it's a good idea to know what you're working up to. If the story has an end conclusion, go with that. If your story doesn't, create a conflict with an end resolution, get there, resolve it, and then find a new conflict. The objective of the scene can be whatever you want it to be, just be sure you have one. Otherwise, if you create scenes without an objective, you won't know when to move onto the next scene, because there was no reason for that scene to exist in the first place. As with everything else concerning writing, this is a skill that takes practice. At first it'll be difficult to think of objectives for scenes, or how to tie those scenes together, but the more you write, the more you'll refine this into your own style, and find your own sense of pacing. Beyond this, there is little more I can add to the subject, other than that practice makes perfect. The more you write, the better you'll get with what you know. The more you read, the more you'll learn, the more you'll be able to incorporate into your own writing. Just don't forget... Have an objective for every scene. Ensure characters have motivations for what they're doing. Ensure your plot has a coherent premise and conflict that characters can attach themselves to. Every story has a plot, whether you like it or not. Learn how they work. A plot is not a premise. A plot is not the entirety of a story either. Characters can have more than one motivation, and motivations are the most important aspect of any character. Learn whether you want to have a central authority figure or a democratic consensus for your RP. Whether that's 1x1 or group, learn your preference, and realize the strengths and weaknesses of both. It helps you. Ferrets are adorable. Thank you for reading this guide. Feel free to leave any comment you like or ask any questions or offer any suggestions you like too—the more input I get, the better I can make future guides. I hope it helped you!