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Gnomey
Lead Developer
19 May 2006

Location: In your garden.

In preparation for the next Skype meeting, which will be about quests, I want to put out my ideas on narrative structure in our major storylines. This will involve a lot of words, but hopefully I'll manage to keep things relatively simple. I don't think we need to do anything especially complex or artful here; just to look at what stories we are trying to tell and how best to tell them.
To start with, it seems like a good idea to sum up the current dominant narrative structure as I see it, used both in vanilla Morrowind and to varying degrees in the faction questlines TR has designed so far:

1. PC is a stranger. 'Faction' leader controls 'faction'. PC joins 'faction'.
2. PC completes miscellaneous tasks for 'faction'.
3. A common thread starts to emerge from the seemingly miscellaneous tasks; they start to converge into a single storyline.
4. PC, for example through having to secure a 'patron', is enrolled into the 'progressive' wing of the 'faction', which opposes an established 'conservative' wing often headed by the 'faction' leader.
5. PC, through completing tasks for the 'progressive' wing, strengthens it, and perhaps undermines the 'conservative' wing.
6. PC secures the support/quells opposition of high-level 'faction' members, opening the path to 'faction' leader.
7. 'Faction' leader is removed and PC takes his place.

Examples to drive the point home:

The structure applies pretty directly to the great Houses:
1. PC joins great House. Venim/Orvas/Gothren control Redoran/Hlaalu/Telvanni.
2. PC completes miscellaneous duties/business/chores for Redoran/Hlaalu/Telvanni.
3. This one's difficult; there's probably more to be discovered here, but it's been too long since I played the questlines. Examples/wild guesses: the Morag Tong assassins who attack Sarethi, (sent by Venim?), the death of Ralen Hlaalo (killed by Camonna Tong possibly under orders?), the coded message from Aryon to Divayth Fyr requesting an alliance.
4. PC secures Sarethi/Curio/Aryon as a patron, becoming part of their progressive wing to counter Venim/Orvas/Gothren's conservative wing. (Rather indirect but present in the case of Curio).
5. PC completes quests for patron furthering their goals.
6. PC secures the support of the other councillors, opening path to faction leader. (The Hlaalu quest is also indirect here, as you only end up having to secure the support of Dram Bero and Vedam Dren, the Grandmaster).
7. Faction leader (in the case of Orvas Dren of the Camonna Tong and, to a degree, de facto of House Hlaalu) is removed and PC takes faction leader Venim/Gothren/Vedam Dren's place.

The Fighters Guild and Thieves Guild fit into the general scheme pretty well, though with some variation. Interestingly the Camonna Tong take the role of the conservative wing in both cases, as with House Hlaalu. In the Thieves Guild, the high-level faction members you need to convince are of the Fighters Guild, whereas in the Fighers Guild (assuming you haven't taken the alternate route through the Thieves Guild) you need to kill rather than convince them.
The Mages Guild is a good deal more of a stretch; one could make a case for either House Telvanni, Trebonious or both being the conservative wing, but it would be a very tenuous case. The same goes for the remaining factions. This shouldn't be forced.
The incomplete Indoril questline as outlined by Sload here on June 6 2014 does, however, fit into the general scheme, as far as it has been written out.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the structure largely carries over to the main quest:
1. PC comes to Morrowind a stranger, is sent to Caius Cosades and joins the Blades. Cosades, Tribunal and Dagoth Ur all control their respective 'factions'.
2. PC acts as a courrier for the Blades, gathering seemingly-random bits of information.
3. It rather quickly becomes apparant that the bits of information the PC is tasked to gather are related; the player starts to get an idea of the conflict at the heart of Morrowind and what role the PC is to play in it.
4. PC enrolled in the Nerevarine Cult, under 'patronage' of the Urshilaku tribe and the Blades. Though it's worth noting that the Blades cut off here, the player becoming effective leader of the Vvardenfell Blades at the rank of Operative, after Cosades leaves.
5. PC completes quests for the Urshilaku tribe in the form of the Seven Trials to gain recognition as Nerevarine. In doing so, directly combats the Sixth House and indirectly the Temple. (It's around here that the Temple 'persecutes' the PC).
6. PC secures the support of the Ashkhans, House councils and Vivec, being recognized as Nerevarine and Hortator, opening a path to Dagoth Ur.
7. PC cuts the Heart of Lorkhan free from its links to the mortal plain, including Dagoth Ur and the Tribunal, defeating them to differing degrees in turn. The dissident movement is no longer being suppressed, Vivec effectively handing over the reins to the PC.

Or Tribunal's mainquest:
1. PC comes to Mournhold a stranger, Alma and Helseth control their respective 'factions'.
2. PC does seemingly random quests for Alma or optionally Helseth.
3. Very clear thread: defeat goblin army to forestall Helseth, Shrine of the Dead quest provides access to Mazed Band Alma apparently needs, Dwemer stuff for Trueflame quest later, similar stuff for Helseth.
4. More complex; Alma and Helseth make PC their champion. They are effectively the two opposing sides.
5. This one's pretty direct; Helseth effectively sends PC to Alma, PC completes quests for Alma.
6. This one's shaky. I'd argue Almalexia opens up the path to (ostensibly) Sotha Sil/(actually) Almalexia, but it's not the strongest argument.
7. Player kills Almalexia, Sotha Sil and possibly Vivec are dead as well, and the Tribunal no longer present a barrier to the PC/Azura. Helseth is sitting pretty at the top as well.

Or Bloodmoon's (werewolves/Skaal as the opposing sides, Carius, Karstaag and Tharsten as high-ranking figures to be quelled, Hircine as 'faction' leader, the rest is straightforward). Or Oblivion's (Blades as 'progressive' wing, Mythic Dawn takes the role of 'conservative' wing, player (optionally) gets the support of the counts, Mehrunes Dagon/Martin Septim/Akatosh as 'faction' leaders the player effectively removes, player becomes Champion of Cyrodiil, the rest is straightforward). Or Skyrim's (Blades/Greybeards and dragons as opposing sides, player (optionally) quells the civil war leaders, defeats Alduin/optionally Paarthurnax and stands at the top as Dragonborn, the rest is straightforward).

Now in some ways, this is a very elegant structure; the faction appears stable, a conflict emerges as the PC gains ranks, then at the climax the two sides of the conflict switch places as the side that rose with the player ends up on top with the player while the other side falls away, and the faction once again appears stable.
In another way, though, the structure is very condensed: the plot rises to a climax, where the old order is overturned, and then promptly wraps itself up. It's the sort of structure that works very well for short stories or plays or the like, but not as well for longer stories. And, indeed, many longer stories continue a while after the climax; Bilbo and Frodo return to the Shire in their respective stories, for instance. It's basically an even more condensed version of the dramatic arc, lacking the falling action and denouement bits at the end.

I frankly think the structure is ill-suited for RPGs like Morrowind, and often leaves players somewhat dissatisfied. All the more apparent because the player can keep playing after completing the mainquest or individual faction questlines, while the associated stories just sort of stop at 'hey, you're the guild leader' or 'hey, you're the N-n-nerevarine'. It wouldn't surprise me if this was a large part of the reason why finishing the mainquest of Fallout 3 originally ended the game, though that would be an example of the solution being worse than the problem.
I'm also frankly unsure if the classic dramatic arc as linked above is the best solution either, for a similar reason: it strikes me as too final in nature. Rather than being the start or a continuation of the player's story, it brings it to an implied end.

Instead, I propose we adopt something similar to the ring structure; in its essence also a straightforward and simple narrative structure, but well-suited for longer and open-ended narratives. While broadly similar to the dramatic arc, it basically turns around when it reaches the climax and returns to the start.

If we do just that to our existing narrative structure, we end up with something like this:

1. PC is a stranger. 'Faction' leader controls 'faction'. PC joins 'faction'.
2. PC completes miscellaneous tasks for 'faction'.
3. A common thread starts to emerge from the seemingly miscellaneous tasks; they start to converge into a single storyline.
4. PC, for example through having to secure a 'patron', is enrolled into the 'progressive' wing of the 'faction', which opposes an established 'conservative' wing often headed by the 'faction' leader.
5. PC, through completing tasks for the 'progressive' wing, strengthens it, and perhaps undermines the 'conservative' wing.
6. PC secures the support/quells opposition of high-level 'faction' members, opening the path to 'faction' leader.
7. 'Faction' leader is removed and PC takes his place.
8. PC settles disputes within the council, securing its support in the long-term.
9. PC goes after remnants of the 'conservative' wing, further weakening it and further strengthening the dominant 'progressive' wing.
10. PC clears out the remnants of the 'conservative' wing, leaving the 'progressive' wing in complete control.
11. The individual threads which had converged once again separate, the main 'knot' of the conflict having been undone.
12. The individual tasks, now divorced from one another, can be resolved individually.
13. The PC stands unchallenged at the helm of the 'faction' while the 'faction' leader has been 'estranged' from the faction completely, and possibly from life altogether.

Now I'm not actually suggesting we adopt that structure so directly, as I feel it goes too far in the other direction, leading to a very end-heavy storyline in which the climax may play a literally pivotal role, but relatively speaking loses a lot of its original impact.
But I think the principal is sound, and beyond that it's merely a question of how we present the story and where we lay the narrative focus: rather than all threads leading directly to the climax, the climax is, as I put it above, just a knot which stands in the way of resolving the individual narratives. Rather than the story carrying the player to an implied end, it brings the player back to the beginning, closing off the story in a way that allows the player to move on. On the one hand, the player has brought about change, but on the other the initial balance has been restored.

In fact, it's quite common for an overarching story to be composed of several rings, either having smaller rings within a large ring or simply in sequence. Some examples:

Nerevar rises from obscurity, under guidance of Azura and his companions, to unite the tribes, clans and Dwemer against the Nords, ushering in a golden age, only for the alliance to fall apart with the discovery of Kagrenac's research, his companions to betray him for the power of Lorkhan's heart, and to become a bonewalker numbly stalking the halls of Necrom.
Nerevarine rises from obscurity, under guidance of Azura and the Blades, to unite the tribes, clans and -- effectively -- Empire against Dagoth Ur, supposedly ushering in a golden age, ...
Tribunal rise from (relative) obscurity as companions of also-rising Nerevar, steal the power of the Heart of Lorkhan, unite the Dunmer people below them, protect Morrowind from all invaders, ushering in a golden age, Dagoth Ur and the Dissident Priests start to break apart trust in the Temple, the Nerevarine delivers the final blow to their link with the Heart of Lorkhan under guidance of Azura, the Dunmer eventually abandon them and the moon comes crashing down.

Which brings me to the last point I want to make about the ring structure: if clearly structured in a way to point out the parallels on either side of the climax, the ring doesn't even need to be complete; players who connect the dots will be able to construct either the start or end of the ring using the end or start respectively. While the PC brings hope to the Dunmer as reincarnaton of Nerevar, the PC will also ultimately fail the Dunmer and disappear because he is the reincarnation of Nerevar, and a new society will be born, this time with the Daedra behind the wheel as they were before Nerevar: Aedra Veloth Daedra Nerevar Tribunal Nerevarine Daedra ???
The Tribunal construct Dunmer society out of the rubble of war (with the Dwemer), betrayal (of the Daedra and of Nerevar, by the Dunmer in general and his companions in particular) and a curse (their skin). Tribunal society ends with the rubble of war (with the Argonians), betrayal (of the Tribunal and (with Dagoth Ur) Nerevar's former companions, by the Dunmer in general and Nerevarine in particular) and a curse (the moon).
We do not need to include the events surrounding the War of the First Council or of the Oblivion Crisis and onward directly to imply their presence.

Edit: and perhaps it's worth reiterating here that, as with everything in our planning documents, I don't think we should follow this to the letter by any means. Just as some vanilla factions do not use the vanilla narrative structure, some of ours may do better without it as well. Or even if they use it, a lot of individual elements can be switched around to add a different dynamic, in the same way that Orvas Dren and Vedam Dren together share the role Venim and Gothren fill by themselves in their respective factions. This is intended as a tool, not dogma.
Post Thu Oct 22, 2015 1:10 am Send private message             Reply with quote                   up  
NathanJ
Member
30 Aug 2015



After reading this Ive been a little busy with that ring- structure-thing. It helps to split a long story into interesting while easy to digest pieces - because of more than one appereance of one element the player has the chance to think about it more than one time, giving him the ability to memorize it better and thereby giving him a better understanding of the whole story. That happens if a long story is divided into small rings. It gives also space to tell about the further circumstances and to deliver a deeper insight into a faction/character/questline.
We really should keep that in mind for making actual quests out of raw designs of questlines.

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Post Thu Oct 22, 2015 11:33 am Send private message             Reply with quote                   up  
EJRS
Developer
14 Aug 2013



My spontaneous reaction to the original post ,the way I read it, is that I think you're consistently taking for granted that the PC:s involvement with a faction serves the foremost function of furthering the story of the PC. I think this is a grave mistake of focus, something that will create a pretty shallow or superficial story, no matter how good the writing and structuring you put into it will be.

I think the focus should first and foremost be on telling the story of the faction and how it evolves under the specific circumstances during which the game is set, with the player joining the faction simply being the cue to tell this story.

The structure of storytelling should be designed with this as its central focus, with the path that the player takes through this being subject to the cicrumstances that this creates.
Post Thu Oct 22, 2015 11:54 am Send private message             Reply with quote                   up  
Gnomey
Lead Developer
19 May 2006

Location: In your garden.

That wasn't really the focus of my original post, but it is a separate question worth discussing.

Just in the hopes that things don't get too convoluted, though, that's basically a question of focus. Whether we tell the story of the PC through the faction or the faction through the PC, the narrative structure would work just as well, whether dramatic arc or ring structure or whatever.

I do think that ultimately Morrowind is a role-playing game. At its heart, the idea is still that the player creates a character and then roll-plays that character. Morrowind, by design and at this point by necessity through its mechanics, revolves squarely around the player character.
I personally think that the vanilla questlines do, though often subtly, (less subtly in the guild questlines), keep that focus. We may have a clear idea of Morrownd's storyline by now, but as it is presented in-game I think there's a conscious effort to at least allow the player a certain amount of interpretation; to allow them to characterize their character's precise roll in the story. As the Nerevarine, they are central to the story of Morrowind, and the story, to varying degrees, revolves around their actions and, in turn, characterizes the Nerevarine.
So in short, I do in fact think that our focus should be to tell the PC's story through the faction, and not vice-versa. I'm confident we can write compelling stories around the PC, but I do think we should ultimately write them around the PC.
Post Thu Oct 22, 2015 1:09 pm Send private message             Reply with quote                   up  
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