I've been playing a lot of Avadon: The Black Fortress lately. I'll be saving my full review for another time, as I haven't yet finished the game, but it's gotten me thinking about the kinds of plotlines and stories that drive scenes within games, and games as a whole. Before I get into this, I want to point out that I may use terms incorrectly, even though I am an English major. It's kind of amazing how little time my high school and undergraduate classes spent on defining high-level terms and talking about their interplay. I'm sure these are all things I'll need to learn if I ever decide to get a graduate degree in English. Moving along...
I think that there are five kinds of plotlines that we really see in games, and I'll try to point out parallels in genre fiction. I invite commenters to point out categories within this system of definitions that I've overlooked. Unsurprisingly, there are areas where these categories bleed together, making classification more disputable. To a certain extent, this relates to the classic seven basic conflicts, but a lot of those get lumped together here because of how they are applied in gaming and genre fiction. There are also categories of plot at stake here that just don't matter in literature (because everyone is under authorial control), but matter hugely in games.
Main plot is the story the GM has shown up to tell, in a lot of cases. It's the one where the dark lord needs to be thrown down, where the dragon needs to be slain, where the secrets of who's behind the attacks on the village need to be uncovered. This is conflict driven by people who are off-camera until the last few minutes of their lives, or (if the GM/story gives them a way to get away) only occasionally. Maniacal laughter is often involved. It seems that the existence of main plot is central to why genre fiction will never be truly literary. Failing to accept this is part of why I am a bad English major, as Real Literature Is Strictly Character Driven. Main plot is essentially the same from one game medium to the next, and its parallels in genre fiction are entirely obvious.
Character plot is the story that the players have brought in on their own: their personal drama, baggage, and connections. If you want to see character plot at its most pure, go into a chat- or forum-based roleplay environment in which the characters don't have any greater concerns to discuss or roleplay about. For want of interesting conflict, they will start telling each other their character histories and devising personal relationships. Don't get me wrong, though: character plot isn't a bad thing. Character plot is most recognizable by its exclusively personal scale; in games, you see this as a single NPC showing up to talk to a single PC, typically a relative or NPC romantic partner. Some of the most gut-wrenching plot in all of King's Gate was character plot for my team (hi, Pipistrella!). The conflict of character plot is chiefly conflict between protagonists, since most gaming has multiple protagonists of equal stature. I would venture to state that a lot of people mean character plot when they talk about roleplaying as a concept.
Character plot is hugely useful for LARP plot committees, because it gets the players to entertain themselves while the plot committee works on doing its next thing. Conversely, there's almost nothing categorical that plot committees can do to facilitate or drive engaging character plot, so it's hard to teach a committee to do this well. The best I can say is to create an interesting, conflict-filled setting and subject the playerbase to a high degree of external pressure; they'll probably take care of the rest. On the downside, this is where Drama Llamas come from in gaming.
Tabletop gaming sees a significantly different style of character plot, if it's there at all. Our Pendragon campaign had a lot of it, probably more than I've seen in any other tabletop game I've been in. This did a lot to give the game the emotional weight that made it archetypal. I can't make blanket statements about gamer chicks causing character plot, but in the case of this campaign, the women players were the ones pulling the campaign's emphasis onto character plot. It is certainly possible to run a tabletop campaign that has no character plot at all and have it be just fine, but in general I find that a modest degree of conflict within the party does more good than harm. (It's not hard to go over that mark and into Bad News, though.)
Personal Mechanical Plot
This is a kind of plot that is a little more unique to games, though it's modeling literature in a way. Personal mechanical plot is what happens when a character strives for teaching or self-improvement. It's usually Man vs. Self conflict, sometimes given allegorical form to become Man vs. Supernatural. Some examples include spell research, circle tests to advance within a practice of magic, or training for ranks within warrior orders. This is common in CI/RBP LARPs.
In literary terms, this is the Bildungsroman. It's different in gaming than in literature, though; in literature, the climax of the story is when the hero defeats his antagonist and proves that he has grown, allowing him to return home or continue his wandering. In gaming, the main antagonist is part of the Main Plot, often not even faintly related to the Personal Mechanical Plot that the character experiences. Theoretically, the protagonists want the mechanical results of these powers so that they can defeat the villains of the (probably multiple) Main Plots; in practice, the protagonists want the mechanical results of these powers because they are self-aggrandizing and hungry for power.
To put that in less judgmental terms, part of our escapist fantasy is feeling awesome. The rewards of personal mechanical plot are a major source of individual might. It is not unreasonable to frame the role of the villain as "the characters that the protagonists defeat to demonstrate their awesomeness." Many games are up-front about this and have waves of nameless mooks that are all but acknowledged as punching bags. The desire to become awesome is the same as being power-hungry; racing against other players for degrees of power is the same as being self-aggrandizing.
I like this style of plot, in general. I like running it in games, because its promises of reward are clear and appealing, and because the mechanics involved are hooked into the setting. I like playing it because I'm good with being a power-hungry player - it's a survival skill. It's also All About Me, and I'm vain! Tabletop games have a hard time offering this kind of plot in a lot of cases; 3.x D&D's main examples are qualifying for prestige classes and spell research, unless the GM is willing to hand out statistical benefits in excess of what's granted through level progression. Because of the role of the Character Builder in 4e, it's damn near impossible to run it in that edition, though in the linked post you'll see some of my ideas for changing that. The question, I suppose, boils down to whether or not the game demands adventuring and table time for the sake of advancement in and of itself.
MMOs do this pretty well, because players have so much time to do their own thing. Though it strains the definition of "plot," all time and energy spent on crafting is Personal Mechanical Plot; so are any class-specific quests. For virtue of their scale, MMOs avoid the critical downside of this kind of plot that tabletop and live-action games suffer: the plot resources soaked up with focus on just one player. Even so, an MMO that put too much of its action into class-locked content would have problems.
World Mechanical Plot
This category of plot, like personal mechanical plot, has a lot of bleedover into other categories. What I'm talking about here is stories that turn on world laws, cosmology, obscure science facts, and the like. This covers everything from locked-room mysteries, where the antagonist is nearly irrelevant, to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics stories. (I know you know what these are; I link the article because it has a brief overview of how stories have tested some of the Laws.) I am an enthusiastic reader of stories presenting complex and compelling systems of magic or other rules systems that can be discussed in-character, and of speculative fiction.
World mechanical plot is blatantly not character driven; part of its popularity in genre fiction is that it presents a puzzle to the reader, and the reader is competing to figure out the answer before the protagonist does. This is why it's so crucial for the author to play by certain rules, giving the reader all of the clues to which the protagonist has access and doling out those clues over time. Rob Donoghue makes a solid argument here that capers are fundamentally similar to mysteries, and I can see how a caper can be a kind of world mechanical plot.
Since I just said that World Mechanical Plot isn't character driven, I'll counter my own statement by pointing out Time Traveler's Wife, a character-driven, Man vs. Supernatural/Destiny story with no clear antagonist other than Henry's own doom, that is a hands-down example of World Mechanical Plot. The author cares about the rules of time travel she has developed, and the way those unfold in Henry's and Clare's lives is the plot. She's field-testing the rules she's written just as directly as Asimov does with his Laws. I'm not saying that's the only plot at stake in TTW; Henry's emotional baggage and Gomez's... cut for spoilers are Character Plot, for sure.
I always felt that this was a kind of plot that 3.x did very well, because it had its own WotC-created cosmology but also adapted relatively well to homebrewed cosmologies. As I discussed in the same previous Harbinger post that I linked above, 4e doesn't present a strong cosmology, and it's very hard to find a real system of magic in its rules. In addition to losing elements on which to hang stories, it also removes a lot of the deductive reasoning that players can perform during encounters to predict enemy behavior. Conversely, in CI/RBP LARPs, there are certain knowable rules that apply to players and NPCs alike, and learning that someone has gotten around those rules is a big deal. For example, one of the main campaign antagonists of Eclipse, the Szghani, can develop multiple mutations within the same individual, unlike* PC humans. This is a Big Deal that would mean nothing without that clear rule.
*as far as we can prove, anyway
Several of the seven types of conflict might drive world mechanical plot - fantasy defaults to Man vs. Supernatural, unsurprisingly. Many fairy tales that deal with Man vs. Destiny at all become world mechanical plots, as the protagonists seek loopholes in cosmic laws so as to escape destiny or ill-made bargains. Man vs. Technology is one of my opening examples for this type of plot. Locked-room mysteries can be Man vs. Man or Man vs. Nature; I'm sure we've all seen locked-room mysteries that are revealed not to have been murders at all, but tragic accidents.
I can't think of a time I've seen an MMO get any significant mileage out of this kind of plot, just because I can't think of a mystery that calls for deductive reasoning or a matter of cosmology that players need to think about to any particular degree. In addition to the impossibility of a true mystery in current-generation MMOs, they also don't really present rigid laws of cosmology that protagonists or antagonists might exploit. Plot linearity is sort of the enemy of this whole category, I think. Even a heist is boring if there was only ever one way things could go (because that's how the missions got written). Sandbox MMOs (Shadowbane, EVE Online, SWG) get a pass here, if they elect(ed) to use it.
Plot within this category is particularly likely to belong in Main Plot (politics being a hurdle along the way) or Character Plot (if what you actually have is a lot of the game's protagonists bickering and forming factions). Still, there are some kinds of plot and encounters that carve out a space not otherwise defined, as Kainenchen was pointing out to me when I first presented this idea to her. The kinds of things I'm filing into this space are the guild-advancement quests in Oblivion, negotiation plotlines that present neither side as the villain (and, ideally, have PCs loyal to both sides), and the like. This kind of plot is challenging to write in the first place; where anyone can come up with a dark lord to smite (and so very many have), fewer have written compelling political dilemmas. Shattered Isles, King's Gate, and Eclipse all started with political plotlines; Arinth's ruling triumvirate (SI) and the Matter of Albonne (KG) notably used these as smokescreens for their serious villainy. It's such a popular move specifically because it introduces conflict without tapping a clear villain, leaving room for the story to reveal the villain in a shocking twist sometime around Season 2 (Emperor Salvatore and the Academy/Armand Miraval) and revealing the depths of their villainy sometime around Season 4.
So when I say that Babylon 5 is structured like a LARP, what I mean is that it too followed this structure. Oh, and (sorry for the spoilers) A Song of Ice and Fire is kind of headed in the same direction, except that it's on a longer story cycle than a LARP's five years. One of the important notes about political plot in books as well as games is that it won't carry a whole campaign or a whole novel, even though it may continue to be relevant plot all the way through. It's just wouldn't be satisfying if the Shadows never showed up to get blown to hell by the White Star. We do love to have villains to beat the bejesus out of in games, and if both sides are a little sympathetic... well, where's the fun in that?
On a model more like the guild advancement quests in Oblivion, I see some parallels in Brust's excellent Vlad Taltos novels. The Organization is a group of bad guys that our... hero... belongs to for the first several books of the series. Each novel of that span has a Main Plot and a clear Man vs. Man conflict for Vlad to puzzle his way through; these Main Plots are often World Mechanical Plot, because Brust primarily likes to write puzzles that his rather tarnished hero can solve with witchcraft, knives, and sarcasm. Along the way, though, there's a lot of maneuvering within the Jhereg to displace and/or dispose of the other members of the Organization who are in Vlad's way. They're bad people, but a lot of them aren't sufficient challenges to be called antagonists. If Vlad's adventures here were a video game, you'd say that he was filling up bars of faction reputation, because his influence within the Organization increases as he claims more territory and does work for the people in charge. Jhereg is a specific case in which his target, Mellar, is someone the reader doesn't care about one way or the other, except that he's causing a lot of problems for people that we like. He did at least screw over bad people... who happen to be Vlad's bosses. When Vlad unravels the mystery of Mellar's motivations, we discover that he is a lot more like a Main Plot villain, just in case we weren't completely on board with his brutal murder already.
D&D can accept political plot as fodder for roleplay and as a backdrop to thrilling heroics, but as no edition of D&D has done social conflict all that well, it may not be what the rules do best. Much as A Song of Ice and Fire (the novels) are a good example of political plot that is going to give way to thrilling heroics as we approach the climax, the ASoIaF rules published by Green Ronin are probably one of my personal preferences for running such a setup. This is the part where I plug Wombat Warlord's ongoing Birthright/ASoIaF mashup.
I'd like to hear in comments about categories of plot that I've overlooked, better classifications that apply well to gaming plot, and so on. I've tried to mention where a medium of roleplaying games or a particular roleplaying game handles a kind of plot well or poorly, with detailed examples from genre fiction and a wide variety of games. All of these kinds of plot can be done well or poorly, and all have their place in gaming.