Plot, Setting or Premise?

A couple of days ago, I got tangentially involved in a conversation on Twitter, on the subject of RPGs based on licensed properties, and how common they are these days; what really got to me during that chat was Steve Kenson pointing out that an overwhelming number of people seemed to be looking for some sort of licensed title. That got me thinking about my game group, and the games we’ve played in or had proposed recently that haven’t been mine, all of which have had something to do with an existing book/tv show/webcomic/whatever holds still long enough.

The most popular of these, of course, is gaming in the world of. It’s certainly what gets a majority of the systems I’ve heard of onto the shelves; I can think of very few I’ve run into in the last year or two that aren’t in the world of something or other (if nothing else, an older existing system), even the one that I picked up having no idea whatsoever that it had that sort of source material. And there are bloggers who’ve practically made hobbies of taking x setting and converting it to y system. Nice thing about that is that you can run as close to or as far from the original plotlines as you like.

And then there’s borrowing the plot, and we’ve all seen that somewhere. There are no new stories, after all, only new ways of telling old ones. At the same time, though, we all know how people react when we borrow a plot too strictly, or even just brush up too closely to an existing plot—particularly those of us who were following the critiques of that Cameron movie last year.

But those aren’t the only elements that one can borrow from an existing work. There is a third, and I think that it might be why people ask so often for licensed property RPGs but don’t necessarily jump to them while they appear—and that’s the premise of a work of fiction, the concept that the rest of the story essentially implements. It’s not setting, because it’s not a specific set of features that when taken together must be peculiar to the backdrop of that particular story, but at the same time it influences setting, in that some premises just don’t work in some particular settings. But it’s not plot, either, because the premise just serves as a springboard.

For an example, let’s go with something nice and accessible. Take Harry Potter. Premise: magic exists, wizards are trained in schools. Plot: big scary dark wizard slowly regaining power and then needing to be dealt with, all the while trying to kill the protagonist. Setting: England, sort of, spotted with areas that are practically an alternate world. Note that it’s not entirely setting-dependent: wizard academies are a time-honored tradition, like in Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall or Unseen University in Pratchett’s Discworld; if you’re willing to stretch the premise to “individuals with powers are trained in schools”, now you can even jump genres (though you’re not too likely to see a wizarding school in, say, a real-world Western). And while the premise influences the plot (there’s a lot in those stories that wouldn’t work without this whole schooling thing), it isn’t the plot (see, again, the prior two wizard academy examples, one of which involved a fabric-themed monster and the importance of naming magic, the other of which… varies, but was last seen in a plot based entirely around the rise and encroachment on its territory of college sports).

So one thing I find myself asking myself now, when I come up for breath at the end of a really good book or movie and think “I would so play a game in that”, is what I’m actually looking for. Do I want, as the manufacturers would assume, the setting? Was it the plot that did it for me? Or is what I really want to play with the premise?


  1. UZ says:

    Ravyn: “There are no new stories, after all, only new ways of telling old ones.”

    It fascinates me that nearly every writer I’ve ever spoken with has said this at one time or another. Whether it’s about archetypes or inescapable derivation or Odin the Allfather (and I only wish I was kidding about that last one), most serious authors are convinced that legitimate invention is impossible.


    You talked earlier about the internal stories that drive characters, and the implication is that we think of real people in somewhat the same way, guided by a set of experiences. Well, what do we say of a person who behaves badly, is ignorant of an concept, or doesn’t have the mental tools to deal with an important situation? There is a story that’s missing, one that you have and they don’t, if we want to be reductive. And right there is a failure and an opportunity.

    So my question to you is – is the world perfect? Is everyone happy, balanced and capable? If not, those people still need stories that they haven’t heard. And if there is a problem that is so big that everybody has it, then that’s almost by definition a story that hasn’t been told yet.

  2. Shinali says:

    UZ, let me have a go at your question. The 5-stories-theory or no-new-stories-theory is not a matter of “Well, X event affected so many people in these specific ways” having happened before and being/not being unique (or that X work is/isn’t derivative). Unique or drastically different events happen all the time (take for example the Sumatra Quake/Indian Ocean Tsunami). The theory centers on the notion that all plots boil down to a few elements that repeat time and time again throughout history and before it (and after it, if you are in a post-literary sci-fi world where everyone has telepathy). Yes the SQ/IOT was a major and very distinctive event, but it’s not a new story, it’s just one we hadn’t heard in a while. The same type of quake occurred in 1700 in the northwestern US. We know because a tsunami hit Japan. Different place, different population densities, different information transmittal abilities, but the same basic story.
    Now take Lord of the Rings. Ignoring allusions to myth and legend and the like, the basic plot is a hero quest subtype b: destroy (as opposed to subtype a: acquire). Sure you say “that is way too much of a simplification!” but honestly, if I like LotR, I’ll look for other books with a well-developed setting and a hero quest. There is little fundamentally different between the tales of Hercules or Psyche and the tale of LotR, or a videogame quest to find the world-saving sword.
    How about romance? Person meets person, figure out they like each other, fall in love, someone or something makes it difficult, but love either prevails or it doesn’t.
    Coming of age tales? Outsider/outcast trying to fit in? Important event and something gets botched? Horribe tragedy pulls community together or causes it to turn against each other? Corrupt/evil person seizes power and must be overthrown? Person has a life-changing event and has to reevaluate their very self?
    Look at mystery, romance, historical fiction, literary fiction, myth, legend, speculative fiction, even non-fiction and poetry and real life, no matter the trappings, they all use the same basic stories in new-ish ways. Name a basic story and it’s been done time and time again for time immemorial.
    And on the main topic, the best thing about a good derivative game i that you only need to learn the system, not the setting/plot/premise, and if someone has managed to use a system you know, it’s even better. Admittedly, though, the chances for going ” What the…flying squid?!” are sadly diminished in a derivative or licensed game.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Heh, thanks, Shinali.

    UZ: I actually treat the “no new stories” adage as a way of keeping from limiting myself. If I assume that every basic plot archetype has been done, probably with a couple variations but mostly sticking to the bare basics, that means that no matter what I do, it’s going to remind someone of something; it’ll share a plot, it’ll share a premise, and that’s all right. What that means is that I don’t have to avoid “adrenaline junkie social monster gets more power than they could probably do with by a combination of accident and wits” (which both describes the early parts of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and the rise of one of my favorite characters to play–in fact, that’s how I got the books recommended to me in the first place). Likewise I don’t have to panic because Secret of Kells crossed the Pond at about the same time that I came up with a story half of which involved an apprentice calligrapher working on an illuminated manuscript meant in large part to serve as a way of dealing with, if not directly opposing, invaders (whether I actually keep that plot thread as originally planned or not), nor avoid writing a GV story about the search for a perfect friendly enemy because the pattern’s been hanging itself off of romances for time immemorial. Yes, something that looks very much like this story at first glance has been done. I look at things as meta, so I see the plots and the archetypes as stories for purposes of this discussion. You’re seeing the specific instances, and there’s a lot more room for variation there. I’m something of a perfectionist, so if I didn’t think this way, I’d spend half my time poking apart everything I write to cast out everything that even remotely resembled something that had already been written.

    Or, I guess, what Shinali said.

  4. UZ says:

    Shinali: Thank you for responding!

    In reply I say: you dismiss the simplification, but it’s important. Most stories can be normalized to a formula if the process is reductive *enough*. This is the point of the Hero of a Thousand Faces method as it is popularly used – it names elements of the story, then relates them to elements of an existing framework (Jungian archetypes, curse you Karl) and then unsubtly alters relation to equation. This *is* the old man, this *is* the cave.

    I understand doing this for comparison’s sake, but the effect on the story is about as good as a literal genie’s effect on a wish. The reason why it troubles me is that this is the domain where people often say all stories are the same… when all the major parts have been replaced with psychological templates, and all the non-template-matching events have been written off as filler with no real narrative content. It worries me to think that people might actually be *reading* stories within this domain, because as a writer I don’t have many means of breaking through a reader’s deliberate self-sabotage.

    I have read any number of stories whose single point was to provide a final reinterpretation for their own imagery, something whose value is generally ignored by reductive analysis…

  5. UZ says:

    Ravyn: I still disagree :) We work in *parts* of things that we’ve experienced. The way we put them together isn’t determined by where we got them. What we think of as “ours” is an emergent property of the arrangement.

    There is an old Disney film which shows the making of Peter and the Wolf. In the film Sergei Prokofiev is shown playing some of the parts from the composition. If you ever get a chance, watch this, because it shows the guy’s level of mastery with the piano. He puts his hand there and I swear it sounds like a piccolo.

    I play the piano, and I can’t do that. I can make a piano sound like a lot of things, but that is beyond me. That’s the emergent property.

  6. Ravyn says:


    Yeah, the phrasing is a bit off. Shall we take it to “there are no new plot patterns, only new nifty chains of events and motivations and synergies between them” and leave it at that?

  7. UZ says:

    Well and good.

  8. UZ says:

    Hey, here’s the Seven Basic Plots from TVTropes:

    A good example of why I tend to rail against this kind of idea. Generally even a Rupert Bear comic doesn’t conform very well to any of the “basic plots”, and with stories out there like “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” or “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”, one wonders whether the effort being spent here is going in the wrong direction.

    Also, Karl Jung! Go figure!

  9. Ravyn says:

    Okay, yeah, I’d start chewing on the furniture if someone tried telling me everything was one of those, too. Like I said, for me “there are no new plots” is more an attempt to keep myself from being paralyzed by something like Shakespeare Did It First.

    *hastily closes TVTropes to prevent from losing another week of her life*

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