Compelling Plot Verbs in Role-Playing Games

Matthew Colville put up a video a while ago on verbs and role-playing games. Or really verbs and fiction and narratives in general. Matthew Colville does a lot of videos on role-playing games (and Dungeons & Dragons in particular) and I greatly appreciate a lot of his work. But this video is probably the most useful one he's ever made for me personally. I am not well experienced in running role-playing games, and I've definitely encountered moments, even entire sessions, where the momentum of the game has ground to a halt, and the players get distracted or aimless about what to do next. The framework Colville details here perfectly diagnoses what's going on, and I encourage anyone interested to check out the video. The rest of this post amounts to little more than my notes on the video and further thoughts on the topic.

The Idea of Verbs in a Plot

The basic idea starts with the notion that, with narrative in general, drama consists (in Colville's words) of tension and resolution. Tension, at least for our purposes, consists in the audience wondering "will the hero...?" That is, there ought to be some particular task in front of the protagonist, and the audience should care whether and how he or she will accomplish it. Resolution, in this context, amounts to answering these questions. Examples might include:

  • Will the heroes kill the enemy?
  • Will the heroes sneak past the villain?
  • Will the heroes steal the McGuffin?

Even if it isn't expressed explicitly (and often it isn't), audiences and players are almost always framing their experience of the story in these terms; no hero of a novel or D&D party enters a dungeon without an expectation of what they're going to do in there, even if it's something as straightforward as simply looting it.

It is therefore crucially important that the verbs at the back (sometimes front) of an audience's mind are able to grab and hold their attention, whether it is in excitement, apprehension, or wonder. Whatever the hero is (or isn't) going to do, the audience should care whether (and how) they'll do it.

But role-playing game players are further unique as an audience, because it is they that must act upon these objectives. They are the ones who must translate these imperatives into the precise actions and steps the heroes take. In practice, this means the verbs need to be particularly unambiguous and actionable to a degree that isn't always necessary in fiction. For example, Colville identifies investigate or find as a problematic verb in RPGs that isn't much trouble in fiction generally.

It's easy to see why when you think about it. Investigations are complicated procedures—enough so that police inspectors and private eyes can make entire careers conducting them. This isn't an issue for novel protagonists whose authors can insure they always know what to do next at every step of the way. I read The Maltese Falcon recently, and all the while Sam Spade was deftly investigating the death of his partner and the disappearance of the titular statuette, I often didn't always know exactly how he doing so until it was explained after the fact. But RPG players can't offer this kind of guarantee that their characters will know what to do next. In a sense, the process itself of translating "investigate that thing" to a particular set of actions is tricky enough to be an employable skill.

Useful, Actionable, Strong Verbs

I think then that these verbs the players receive from game masters in a sense serve two purposes. The first, shared with other kinds of narrative, is to provide tension, facilitate drama, and otherwise engage the audience. The second, unique to role-playing games,[1] is to direct the players to the next plot point, and otherwise insure they feel confident in what to do next.[2]

As referenced above with find/investigate, there can be verbs that meet this first criteria while not as naturally fulfilling this second requirement. Colville points out that find is almost always paired with another verb; there's always something to be done once the objective is found. So, in Colville's words, "give me that second verb!" Pair it with something concrete the player's can act on. I think stop can also exhibit similar issues if it isn't paired with something more specific, and sometimes all it needs is a prepositional from... phrase. If stop the cultists isn't clear, maybe all you need instead is stop the cultists from setting fire to the abbey.

I've found it useful to actually write down the example verbs Colville offers to use for later reference. When I'm then at a loss planning an adventure, I can simply look at the list and see what I might throw in there as an story element. I'm going to list them here along with any others I can think of, and I'll update this list as I think of more. Feel free to suggest further examples in the comments!

Standard, Strong Verbs

  • Will the heroes kill the dragon?
  • Will the heroes assasinate the tyrant?
  • Will the heroes steal the magic scepter?
  • Will the heroes sneak past the guards?
  • Will the heroes save the local lord from the burning building?
  • Will the heroes rescue the abducted child?
  • Will the heroes arrest the burglar?
  • Will the heroes capture the rare monster?
  • Will the heroes destroy the magic ring?
  • Will the heroes escape the collapsing building?
  • Will the heroes talk to the mission liaison?
  • Will the heroes protect the ambassador?

Paired Verbs

  • Will the heroes find..
    • ..and kill the dragon?
    • ..and assasinate the tyrant?
    • ..and steal the magic scepter?
    • etc.
  • Will the heroes stop the..
    • ..poachers from killing the endangered dragon?
    • ..terrorists from assasinating the king?
    • ..criminals from stealing the magic scepter?
    • etc.

  1. Or at least interactive fiction, such as certain varieties of video games. ↩︎

  2. Colville specifically phrases this in the video as "a good verb...makes the player feel like they know what they're supposed to do." I honestly don't know just how he meant feel like in that description. Should good verbs make players know what to do next, or should they make players confident they know what to do next? I suspect Colville's intended meaning was the former, but I'm inclined towards the latter personally. Part of the beauty of traditional role-playing games is that it oftentimes doesn't matter if the players charge off in entirely the wrong direction, so long as they do it with confidence. ↩︎

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