Friday, October 25, 2013

Solution-Driven Adventures

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.

So: Solution-Driven.

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.


  1. So what is it if there is no real discernible plot except the characters fleeing from one thing or another, while meeting interesting people, till we discover it didn't matter anyways? I guess I'm asking is Vineland really plot driven in the manner of an asteroid killing an FBI agent?

    1. Pynchon novels are always a mix of both, though the character parts are generally "obscure compulsions" that we're not really asked as readers to empathize with all that much. We kinda take the obscure compulsion for granted and are asked to go on a basically plot-driven ride.
      Pynchon writes picaresques.

  2. Even though railroads strive to be plot-driven, and some indie games strive to be character driven, I feel like the dichotomy doesn't really apply to the most defining aspect of tabletop RPG: that it's a complex, reactive situation driven by player agency.

    Which I suppose is partially what you are saying.

    I would take it a step further, and say that DnD's stories are necessarily driven by anything, because sometimes they aren't stories at all, just complex situations and short-lived characters. Or maybe not. Is real life solution-driven?

    1. then you get into defining what a "story" in one of 2 ways and I don't particularly think that matters since it doesn't helps anybody design an adventure.
      Enough to say: giving someone interesting problems is one way to get a certain kind of interesting gaming happening. Whether you want to call the result a "story" or not is a rhetorical war with no spoils at the end.

    2. How about this: whatever DnD is, its most unique appeal (compared to scripts/books) is that it can produce results that surprise everyone at the table. The best way to encourage that is to move away from the ideas of plot- and character-driven, and into DnD's strong suite: lots of problems, a few tools, and player interest. There might not even be a goal or a destination when you start, but there is always a situation.

      That sounds completely different from a book or a film. Maybe after the sessions are finished, it feels like we wrote a good book, but playing is a completely different type of enjoyment. So I put my DnD books on a completely different shelf than the others, and judge them by completely different standards. Good settings in novels might be shitty settings in a module, good characters in a Dostoyevsky book might make really shitty NPCs, etc.

      So instead of coming from the direction of "how is the driving force behind my DnD campaign related to the driving force behind a script?", I've started with the assumption of "it totally isn't."

    3. Ok, kinda, but you talk with the language you _have_ not the language you _wish_ you had.

      Plus:the "character driven" idea really does explain the aspirations (and difficulties) of a lotta indie games. And they are part of any larger conversation about games.
      So there's a need to place the language we need in relation to an old, semi-useful language that people are going to be using whether we like it or not.

  3. I think you're over-thinking this. What you're describing already has a name: role-playing. What plot-driven and character-driven stories are is story-telling and that's a different, and very old, beast. The difference is a bit blurred when dealing with off-the-shelf modules and adventures because then the DM is saying "I have a situation/plot here" but, ideally, the players can completely ignore or subvert that in so many ways that it really isn't the same sort of beast as a movie of any kind. Once you get to, say, running a campaign in a city where the players are the driving force of where the focus is, then the concept "plot" is, I think, pretty well redundant.

    That's not to say that traditional plot isn't what indie games are trying to re-create, but to me they're missing the point of role-playing which is specifically to allow stories to grow in retrospect instead of the normal ways that books and movies had done in the past. If I want that, I can get great examples of it elsewhere; what I want from role-playing is very specifically not plot.

    1. Skipping past the distinction I'm making on the grounds that you've deciding what some indie games are trying to do "isn't roleplaying" or "misses the point of role-playing" is, again, picking a rhetorical fight with no spoils on the other end of it.

      You gain absolutely _zero_ insight by saying "When you design an adventure, make sure it's amenable to _role-playing_"
      ...whereas it can be helpful to say
      "When you design an adventure, think of it as a set of problems you are trying to make interesting"
      So: no.

    2. All right, try this instead: when you design an adventure think of it as a list of NPCs with motivations which will meet a bunch of PCs with their own motivations from the interaction of which a set of relevant problems will emerge. (Some of the NPCs will be represented by things they left behind, such as traps etc.)

      Setting up problems before hand is presumptive of what the players' priorities will be.

      The essence of role-playing is taking on a role and answering the question "what would you do if you were this person?" That's completely the opposite of plotting which asks the question "what needs to happen for this situation to transform from state A to state B?" and then arranging the required events or perhaps providing various pathways to that state to pick from.

      In your solution-driven analysis you're still saying that (as designer) that there is some desirable state-B which it to be arrived at. Tomb of Horrors is a classic, and very simple (structurally) scenario. Yet even in that I have seen players approach it with a completely different mind-set than "how do we get the gold?". Some want to kill all the monsters, some want to solve the puzzles (which is a metagame issue as they have heard of the module) and some want to take on the "big boss" monster. Some even want to use it to kill other PCs.

      The important thing is that none of these are problems/goals that the designer set up; the problems are selected and even invented by the players choosing the goals - the motives I mentioned - which they feel are right for their role.

      I honestly can't see how saying that the essence of role-playing is playing a role and not a meta-level plot solver is just "picking a rhetorical fight"; it seems to me to a pretty clear distinction with what a lot of story-telling games are setting out to do.

    3. 1. No matter what problems the players _take it on themselves_ to solve (kill monsters, each other, solve puzzles) the fact is: A) _the sequence of events is a sequence of events that is primarily concerned with how they solve problems_ .
      and B) the module called Tomb of Horrors, no matter what _you_ do with it, is a series of interlocking problems. C) Not all sequences of events are about this, nor are all published modules

      2. Just because you can't see why people would be pissed off by what you're saying doesn't mean they won't be. And experience proves saying hippie games "aren't role playing" offends said hippies.

      3. And, again: there are no spoils to win from picking that fight. So unless you can describe some possible benefits of it, you aren't making any case to do it.

    4. 1 The key point is not that players decide which problems to solve, but that they create most of the problems themselves in reaction to what they find. That's what I mean by motivations interacting. It is a process.

      2 As to the terminology issue, if someone doesn't understand what the key insight which created role-playing was (playing the role of a character who is not bound by plot) that's not my problem and doesn't mean it didn't happen nor that trying to put the characters back into the plot is in fact the opposite of role-playing.

      3 Tomb of Horrors is a set of solutions to the problem "how do I kill people after my treasure" and I'm saying that a good way to design scenarios is to put yourself into the position of the NPCs involved and think about what their motivation is - ie, role-play the Litch or whatever. The benefit is, IMO, a more flexible and reactive scenario.

      Look at Vornheim: all the NPC stuff you put in there is about motivations. Problems spontaneously arise when PC motivations meet these; the result is as flexible as all get-out.

      It is harder to be quite that flexible for a scenario rather than a sourcebook, but I think a similar approach can give the GM a better set of tools to improvise with than simply thinking in terms of static problems or plots.

    5. 1. That in no way counters my point. What happens in front of the group is a series of solutions.

      2 & 3 : you are _still_ picking a fight with hippie gamers and




      failing to describe what you hope to gain from picking that fight.


      Your reductive "NPC motivation" model leaves out half of what's important in adventures: inorganic problems like how traps work, how weather works, where the walls are, etc etc. You can't necessarily (and do not need to) devise a puzzle door or wild magic zone table from motive alone.

    6. 1. I'm not exactly trying to counter your point so much as refine it. Actual play certainly consists of problem solving, but from the point of view of designing a scenario I think it's less productive to second-guess those problems than to lay the ground work to allow them to develop in play.

      2. I'm not picking a fight with anyone. It's a material fact that the invention of role-playing involved a novel step which was to free some characters from the "plot" and give them free-will. I don't know what's remotely controversial about that and I don't care much for irrational claims to the contrary. The "benefit" of talking truthfully and accurately about what it is we do seems self-evident.

      I'm not leaving out all the inorganic parts. For traps and walls etc the idea holds fine - the creators of these things had a reason for them. The other examples you give are fair enough and weather and wild-magic may really be random and may even be pure obstacles.

      But my main suggestion is that when writing down a scenario in preparation for play it is more fruitful to think of the notes as a snapshot of a dynamic system where the various intelligent actors (even the dead ones) have goals. That way, two different parties bringing their *own* goals to the table can find that the same scenario-goal becomes either a problem, an aid, or an irrelevance to them in a way that is very clear and natural to you as the DM of the run-through.

      What we're doing when we design a scenario is not what a screen-writer does. Look at your example of Gnastimus Prodd: in each case the situation is "solved", either by character-driven or plot-driven methods or a mix. In a game we generally want things to be open to the possibility that the characters will in fact not solve, or even want to solve the Zor'Clacticans' problem. But to do that we have to cast aside the notion of a plot in the sense of "at the end of this the Zor'Clactican will have their situation materially changed" and when we do that we have to throw out the notion of certain things being objectively classed as obstacles, because they were obstacles only in relation to the plot what has gone. Once the PCs arrive they may in fact be useful for them.

      The resulting stories, *in retrospect*, may take on the aspect of character-driven (the PCs did some stuff and left) or plot-driven (the random table resulted in the arrival of an asteroid), or a mix. And that story *is* constructed by identifying the problems during play and solving them, as you say, but the design process is completely different from developing a plot a priori..

    7. 1. Again: in your original comment you said I was "overthinking it"--That was wrong and a mistake you made.
      Then you said you could boil it all down to NPCs with motives: that was wrong and a mistake you made.
      So i don't know what refinement you're attempting to make.
      If you want to say that what I call "solution driven" adventures is what you call "role playing" that's fine, but it still means you got those things wrong.

      2. AGAIN
      "Just because you can't see why people would be pissed off by what you're saying doesn't mean they won't be. And experience proves saying hippie games "aren't role playing" offends said hippies."
      Please address this point and do not dodge it.

      You also have
      failed to say what you hope to gain from picking this fight.
      So address that and do not dodge it.

      "my main suggestion is that when writing down a scenario in preparation for play it is more fruitful to think of the notes as a snapshot of a dynamic system where the various intelligent actors (even the dead ones) have goals."

      That just seems like how it helps _you_ to think of them, not a statement about what is true and what is false.

      I am unconcerned with "what helps Nagora think" I'm concerned with facts.

      For example...

      "That way, two different parties bringing their *own* goals to the table can find that the same scenario-goal becomes either a problem, an aid, or an irrelevance to them in a way that is very clear and natural to you as the DM of the run-through."

      No: to you.

      Many of us intuitively grasp that already.

      "What we're doing when we design a scenario is not what a screen-writer does."

      This is so obvious I don't even know why you'd bring it up. You're not talking to babies, Nagora.

      "in retrospect...the design process is completely different from developing a plot a priori.."

      this is pathetically obvious. This in _no way_ contradicts anything I've said.

      You seem to be continuously typing with absolutely zero reference to what I've written either originally or in response.

  4. I generally think of the DMs job to be to create a plot driven story, & the Players job to create a character driven story. Like, I can't control how the characters will behave-- that's the fun of it-- so I make a complex plot driven story with enough spindly bits hanging off for them to jump in or derail it or alter it or...whatever.

    1. and that's kind of a confusing thing to say, so I', saying something a little more clear.

  5. When I was reading the post, I actually thought about character-driven adventures and how they work for me.

    I guess it's hard to assume whether an adventure module will be plot-driven or character-driven when you're only a GM or the module's author. At least half of the game depends on the players anyway.

    I can imagine playing Tomb of Horrors as a character-driven adventure, without the GM telling me to do so. For instance, I could play an unpopular noble, despised by other members of royal court for his lack of honour, cynicism and cold professionalism instead of knightly courage. I would enter the Tomb in an ultimate test of my skills - attempting to defeat the obstacles no one else could. Then the plot could develop into a story of the triumph of my skills and way of life, into one of my punished hubris, or even into one of me developing a sense of honour in face of danger - it would all depend on the events in the game, actions of other players, ideas coming to my mind.

    I got carried away, but simply, my idea is that as a player you can decide to what degree you want the emergent story to be character-driven. And probably the adventures that are best suited for character-driven play are these that feature no railroading (if GM tells me what my character has to think in the end, my actions as a player have little effect), and that provide plenty of events and situations which inspire the players to react to them in-character, and which inspire strong emotions.

    And these adventures would work pretty well for plot-driven (or solution-driven) play as well.

  6. Solution Driven, that is an excellent way to describe it. Many people try (way too hard) to directly apply literary theory/criticism to RPGs, despite the fact that they're different phenomenon. Until we have a unified lexicon/jargon for RPGs this will probably just keep happening (or at least recognize the need for a different lexicon).You've coined a term and a methodology for looking at the "story" in RPGs that actually matches the reality of playing the game. Well done.

    I know in my own campaign prep and adventure design I break things down into problems that will happen regardless of player action (hurricanes and invading forces), problems that the characters might or might not get involved in (go to location A, help person B), and other problems that might result from the characters' choices. So there's the problem (solution driven) and the choice to decide whether or not the characters view it as their problem (player agency).

  7. Your solution-driven part is what I've always called "character-driven sandbox". Because they have different approaches they can take, and a world for a background they can use or they can be hindered by. And they are required to be among those that are interested - in some games - in XP, loot, and exploring (or in some other games, simply into eldritch secrets). This means only a sub-set of the populace would be suitable protagonist.
    And you noted it yourself - other PCs, among the same sub-set, might result in different solutions. Therefore, it's the specific characters that matter in the end.

    1. They matter _to the result_ but they they do not have to be taken into account _when designing the adventure in the first place_
      And their motives can often be assumed rather than consulted.

  8. I've pointed out that D&D is a traditional, solve the game, game more than a turn taking storygame. In almost every finite game players are set up in either oppositional competitive designs, individual race designs (which end up being competitions usually anyways), and cooperative beat-the-game designs.

    These 3 modes of game play are the 3 alignments of D&D. Cooperate (lawful), Do your own thing (neutral), Compete (chaotic). By making D&D a cooperative game where players can ignore and compete against each other it makes the Alignment Question (which I track) core to the play of the game. And most central to the cleric class altogether.

    It was cool to read your maybe off-hand comment about how living with others or dying alone is the central question for humanity

  9. Oh good grief!

    Thank you for this! This is something I've been looking for a way to express in my own podcast ( for a long time now.

    Have you ever pointed out this distinction to Robin Laws? I think it might be a distinction he needs.

    1. I talk to Kenneth Hite a lot but have never spoken to Laws.