Digitally based roleplaying does not require graphics and in fact is often most effective when text based, allowing greater scope for the imagination. My experience has been that the more graphics a virtual world has, the more likely that world will lend itself primarily to socialising, unless the roleplaying situation is fairly basic such as blasting space aliens. Graphics at this stage still take too much away from players' spontaneity.
Though at first the plotting for online roleplaying games such as Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) may seem to have little to do with such things as my model of digital story shapes, upon closer examination they are indeed present and have been present since before the advent of interactive fiction within games such as Dungeons and DragonsTM [AG73]. On Olik's AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) Page is found an unattributed article titled "Combining Storylines and Character Freedom" [Unk96]. In this article are described three forms in which roleplaying games can be developed: The Railroad Campaign (which when I was a roleplaying gamer, we referred to as tunnel scenarios), The Open Ended Campaign and The Matrix Campaign.
The Railroad Campaign is described as "boil(ing) down to having set goals and linear plots with little room for alternative situations." This style works for casual and beginning game facilitators and players, and in fact is easily automated for online games. Players are allowed to minutely examine their surroundings, have simple and confined conversations with non-player characters and to follow the obvious leads until their participation in this story comes to a conclusion. This is basically the enhanced path story shape.
With the Open Ended Campaign, "The general idea is to set up a situation and go with the flow, without a set goal." Usually this works when characters already have well established personal goals, and the world and the given situation are rich enough to accommodate the players working out their own story. At its best the roleplaying game is a collaborative effort with all members contributing to the creative outcome. Not all players or game facilitators can or are even interested in managing this sort of scenario.
Since the facilitators must be on their toes for every eventuality their players throw at them, taking the situation this way or that as seems logical to the overall story, usually the facilitators are carrying several tentative possibilities in mind only a few steps ahead of the players' actions. This is a treebranching structure, though it is implicitly carried within the facilitators' heads rather than explicitly set forth somewhere such as on the computer. The computer can assist in this process by relieving the facilitators of having to describe surroundings or running all non-player characters.
The Matrix Campaign is described as, "A combination of the first two... The DM picks not one but several plot lines, intertwines them (hence the name matrix) and lets the players choose their own path through them...The key element is to have at least one plot line for each character, and have them cross over and meet as often as possible." This allows the game facilitators to pre-plan the experience for their players, so that all are assured of a clear plot and a complete, personalised story. Undoubtedly, the author is speaking of what I have called a braided multi-pathing story shape, though again it is usually implicit within the planning of the facilitator, rather than explicit within the medium.
Research and practice within the field of roleplaying games is excellent experience for writing for digital media. It is here that creators can fervently immerse themselves into a storied world of possibilities, getting a feeling for the fact that such storytelling is not all nuts and bolts, but a place that can engage both the head and the heart.
Copyright © 1997 Katherine Phelps