|I got 99 problems and they form an interlocking network of pistons in a vast adventure-generating engine|
There are more scripts than business cards in Los Angeles, so finding writing advice so simple that millions of people who will never ever get a movie made will understand it or at least think they do is big business.
Here's a simple one you'll hear on day one in any screenwriting class:
"There are two kinds of scripts: plot-driven and character-driven".
A plot-driven story is one where, essentially, you could replace Batman with Robin (i.e. a character of roughly the same kinds of abilities but a different personality) and the central conflict of the story would remain the same.*
For an example of these words being used by someone who knows what they're talking about, here's Jenette Kahn, ex-publisher of DC Comics:
In the mid-seventies at DC, most stories were driven by plot not character. We tried to reverse this equation across the board so that our comics dealt more with human complexities than they did with mechanistic ones.(You can, of course, have both at once. Don't even think of writing a boring comment in my comments extolling the overlooked virtues of having both at once. Sure great, lovely, let's move on...)
Let's say Norgulon shrinks the population of Zor'Clactica so they're all 2 inches tall and then rules them like a cruel god.
A) If the story is mostly about the hero, Gnastimus Prodd, realizing that, despite his anomie and alienation, all Zor'Clacticans are fundamentally one and, thus inspired, manages to rally the population for an all-out Zerg Swarm assault on Norgulon and defeats him and so grows the Zor'Claacticans back to normal size, that part of the story is what a screenwriter would call Character-Driven.
B) If the story is mostly about the hero, Gnastimus Prodd, realizing that, although there is no antidote to the shrink ray, he can use the shrink ray on Norgulon so that the cruel tyrant is once more the same size as everybody else that part of the story is what a screenwriter would call Plot-Driven. Even though, note, Gnastimus, a character, is still the agent of action.
...and check this:
C) If the story is mostly about life under the heavy fist of Norgulon but then Norgulon is crushed by a random asteroid, that part of the story is what a screenwriter would also call Plot-Driven.
Now anybody into role-playing games will notice a vast gulf between B and C. In B, a hero solves a problem with one of a set of solutions. In C, fate does, inexorably, with no decision points. In movies this isn't as vast a difference because both asteroids and heroes' skillsets are under the control of the screenwriter--in games, the heroes and the random asteroids are typically under control of different people.
This is one reason this plot-driven/character-driven dichotomy hasn't caught on that much in talking about games--it doesn't quite apply in the same way.
However, the fact that we don't use it much does obscure one thing: a lot of the work people like Vincent B and Luke W are doing over in the more motivation-obsessed indie games is, essentially, trying to find a way for RPGs to make character-driven stories. That is: stories where what happens is all about a problem latent in the characters.
Well, why is that hard? Because most traditional RPGs are set up to be what a screenwriter would ham-fistedly and misleadingly call "Plot Driven".
Because those words suggest railroading or a pre-packaged plot (i.e. they conflate the shrink ray solution and the asteroid), people who want to talk about RPGs need another term.
In a Solution-Driven adventure the characters are presented with a problem or (better) a complex set of interlocking problems. Exterior problems.
The conflict and story arise from any set of characters attempting to solve the problems, mostly in a mechanical way.
It's not Character-Driven because you could replace the characters with other characters and there'd still be a conflict (presuming the new characters still crave experience points, gold pieces, basic survival or some other low-common-denominator motivator) though that conflict might take a different form.
It's not a Railroad (or Participationist--which is when you're ok with being railroaded) because in a Situation-Driven adventure if you changed your choices you'd get a different story.
A Solution-Driven story isn't just one where the players are given a pile of problems to solve, it's where they choose problems and different solutions lead to radically different plots.
In a Character-Driven story you change the character and you've changed the story completely. In a Solution-Driven one you change the details of the method of solving the problem and you've changed the story completely.
Like yesterday me and Stokely chose to get drunk in the middle of an adventure Kirin was running.
My elf, Gorgut the Weasel, got tossed in jail.
Stokely hooked up with a witch who then turned her leg into a tentacle.
Though these could be framed as natural consequences of our characters' respective alcohol problems, the game mechanics frame these problems as external. You gotta roll to get bonus xp--this isn't a Hard Choice--you deal with the problem you get.
Stokely decided to try to charm a goofy local apprentice wizard into Cure Disease-ing her, but he (die roll...) took her to his mom's basement and had some stolen wizard's library book and he was all weird and clueless and she was thinking this wasn't gonna take and there'd be some horrible diceroll in the future so she tricked him and took off with his spellbook.
The spells turned out to be too high-level for anybody in the party to handle, so she asked around about how much it'd cost for a professional--3000gp.
At this point I'm like "Look, don't bail me out of jail--let me go to the arena, let my third level ass fight a giant crab with all the other doomed prisoners. Bet on me: I'll win at insane odds against, I get out of prison, we get enough gold to cure Stokes, all is right in the world."
And, weirdly, that worked.
Point is: all that adventure came from attempts to solve basically mechanical problems ("I've got a monster leg.""I'm in jail.") and player choices, not presumed plots.
So a Solution-Driven adventure is a thing.
Some other things about Solution-Driven adventures:
In Solution-Driven adventures, the characters are treated like tools to enact solutions.
Characters' personalities affect the style of solution, the atmosphere, and the choice of which problems to solve but that moment of choice is not a drawn out main event, the complexities of the solution are the main event.
Almost all location-based modules are gonna give you Solution-Driven adventures. The location is a problem--it has gold in it, it is guarded in one way or another, there are billions of ways to extract it, some good, some bad. However, not all Solution-Driven adventures are location-based.
For example: murder mysteries can be Solution-Driven adventures. Assuming you can make a suitably complex web of clues and have a suitably wide variety of avenues of inquiry, the way the players choose to solve the problem of discovering and then confronting a culprit can be written in a Solution-Driven way. For example.
Superhero adventures are easy to write as Solution-Driven. There's Dr Doom: he lives in Latveria which is here and he has these powers and he just made an army of cannibal sloth men. Do something about that.
Just because there's one Big Bad doesn't mean it has to be a railroad. Cthulhu can be banished in a thousand ways after a thousand different series' of events. Or he can even win.
When a game company sells you a module, they are selling you a set of problems. The characters that your players bring are tools to find solutions. The story is the interaction of these two parts.
Designing this kind of adventure is, therefore, about designing interesting problems.
Some systems want to give you different consequences based on the plausibility of your solution (GURPS) and so are all about the problem of concocting the best solution for the situation, some want to give radically different solutions basically equal chances of success (Dread) and so the precise decision is less important than the camera pan across the tension of the act of enacting the chosen solution.
In Dread, breaking the window or dropping the TV on the guy will both work equally well--either way you gotta pull a brick from the Jenga tower--in GURPS, whichever is easier to do is easier to do. Thinking of the best solution is an important drama in GURPS, whereas in Dread the important drama is Will you tip over the Jenga tower after you've picked a solution?
For that reason, I'm not sure I'd go "x,y,z systems are solution-based"--this is more about what a session or adventure is like than what system itself is like.
The very last part of that Jenette Kahn quote up there ends
"...We tried to reverse this equation across the board so that our comics dealt more with human complexities than they did with mechanistic ones. This was a much more modern approach and also a more adult one."...and begs the question of whether Character-Driven stories really are more grown-up than Solution-Driven ones. They are in the sense that they engage the empathic rather than the inventive imagination. On the other hand, as anyone at DC should know, there's something a little childish about a fear of being childish especially in a game.
Personally I wonder why it is that Character-Driven movies and books interest me very much (or as much as anybody else), but games that seem to want to be Character Driven fall flat for me. I think it may be because the use of characters as pawns by real and interesting and independent players means a layer of character interest is automatic in any game I play and far more subtle than the schematically simple moral and emotional conundra games seem to ask for (Kill the girl in Bioshock? Who cares?) Every good Solution-Driven game asks: Will they cooperate and think and live or will they react and squabble and die like ugly pigs?
Which is the only real human question anyway.
*Yes, which conflict is central in a given story can be a topic of debate, as can all of the terms, like "character". Like if we decide HAL is a character in 2001 then it's Character-Driven and if HAL isn't then it's Plot-Driven. Despite whatever TED talk you saw, writing isn't an exact science. Or a science.