Thursday, July 14, 2011

Understanding Plot Tone

One of the most difficult things to gauge whenever you're working with a new plot team is what kind of tone your team is going to use on their plot lines.

There are many different kinds of plots, and I'm not going to say that one kind is unequivocally better (even if I have my own opinions), because the opinions of the players at that game is what matters.

Some tones work well together, while some actively detract from one another. The trick is to find the tones that you and your team can work with, and run the ones that your player base enjoys. Sounds simple, right?

So here are the various tones of plot.

Serious Tone:
This is the tone of plot that would be considered 'realistic' or 'gritty'. People are dying, moments are tense, and nobody cracks a smile. Many main plot lines end up trying to go the route of serious, but this can be hard to pull off if you're not wired for it. I, myself, have a hard time writing a mod in serious tone, but usually can pull it off with the help of a plot member strong in running this kind of plot (like Karin).

Humorous Tone:
This is the opposite of the serious tone, where everything is light and fluffy. There might be jokes here or there, wild and crazy stuff going on, and you're getting a lot of laughs from your players. I'm particularly strong on this tone, but this tone often makes for a poor main plot line. However, interspersed humorous plot lines help a game run in the serious tone seem less emo.

Fantastical Tone:
This is the type of plot where the sky's the limit. Players can try and do whatever they want to do, and they're also given the opportunity to change the world in broad brush strokes. This is a very difficult tone to pull off, especially if you're not looking to run a narrative style game. But it can be done, and the plot members who can do it are worth their weight in gold.

Action Tone:
This can sometimes be a play off the serious tone, but often involves less emotion and more fighting. Grit like this is what it's like in a lot of action/western movies, hence the name. Easy to pull off and most people can get behind the action tone, even if it's not their favorite. Very safe.

Satire Tone:
This is my least favorite tone, but it's worth mentioning because it does come up from time to time. I know you like pokemon. I know you like WoW. I know you know all the lines to The Holy Grail. But while bringing those things into game through a thin veil of satire might seem like humorous tone, the people who figure it out are often snapped right out of immersion. However, this might also be the draw of some games (heavy satire, light on serious), so YMMV. But make sure this is what your players want before stepping into this tone.

Are there any other tones that people can think of? What tones do you enjoy? What tones are you strong at running?


  1. Aww, thanks Bill! Personally I like doing funny stuff too and sometimes have trouble keeping myself from cracking jokes the entire time I NPC, so keep me on target. :)

    I am thinking of 2 others but I may not be able to explain them very well. For one, I might say that "Descriptive" is a better term than "Fantastical" at least so far as what I think you said. Or maybe it could be separate. Anyway, I'd say this is where the plot is more of a narrative, and it's usually best for individuals or small groups who don't mind not having combat or physical actions. You can use dialogue and the players' choices to affect the outcome. This might be what you already meant and I'm just not awake yet :).

    Then, like the Action one, I'd say another one is Emotional plot tone which could be said to come out of the above. This is plot that's heavy on role-play and personal interaction, and is meant to make players dig deep into their role-play banks and feel something and react as their characters. Personal plot is a good example of this, but any plot that tugs on the ol' heart strings is possible (lost love, children in danger, sad ghosts, and yes, even romance :) ). I've seen these and they're usually still not main plotlines, but they can involve more action and combat than a purely Descriptive tone.

    I've heard some people call the last one "girl plot" but I'd like to point out that it can be done in ways that won't offend manly sensitivities :) Then again, you DO have girls at LARP, and secretly some of us enjoy a bit of that sometimes, so it's not bad to put it in for those that do :)

    Some thoughts!

  2. @Cralyssse

    You make some good points. I had originally melded some points together, like fantastical and narrative, and serious an emotional. But if I were to break it out further, it would probably look like this.

    Narrative <-> Active
    Combat <-> Roleplay
    Gritty <-> Fantastical
    Serious <-> Humorous
    Satire is a subset of humorous
    Emotional is a subset of Roleplay and Serious

  3. Sweet post! I think tone preferences is something most larpers could definitely dedicate more thought to. Here are my additions:

    Casual<-->Formal (you can really emphasize this with NPC word choice)
    Mundane<-->Dramatic (I think some of what people term "emotional plot" is really dramatic, where as 'the same thing we do every night, Pinky, kill some kobolds and take their loot' is more mundane)

    And then you can mix and match, for encounter tones that sound like your Netflix preferences categories:
    Casual, Darkly Humorous, Gritty Action
    Optimistic, Fantastical Heroic Dramedy

    And, that conversation about tone shift is totally relevant here, too. Do what you like to do, but don't be a 1-trick plot member :/

  4. I trend towards more serious stuff myself, but toss in some humor from time to time. But there's a note I want to make about LARP humor which Bill essentially made in his original post but it bears reiteration.

    Basically, there are two kinds of humorous moments in a LARP. One kind pulls you into the game more and the other snaps you out of it. Humor that relies on an awareness of out of game elements is the latter and drives me kind of nuts. For example (and these are *real* examples), the Barney monster that makes you sing when near him or the Keebler elves that turn people into cookies. Yes, I am not kidding. Now, I have been guilty of making a joke like this while running, but I have seen entire plotlines based on this kind of humor and it really just destroys immersion.

    The other kind of humor relies on in game elements. While you, as a player, may also find it funny, it's making your character laugh first and foremost. It's creating in game bonds and camaraderie and shared experiences through in game humor. Last Madrigal event we had a singer come into game and sing a song to make fun of the Princess' suitors. 100% in game, very funny, and much better for a LARP than if the song also tried to reference the fact that the NPC who plays the Princess is real-life engaged.