About a week ago I popped the bubble where it concerns what is most important in a role play. Now that I've put down that plot is not required for a role play to succeed, I'm going to do a little retcon and introduce plots for role plays, to prevent a polar opposite of hatred of plots instead of adoration of plots.
Plots deserve neither adoration or hatred. They're a tool in a role play, an optional one, and one I'm going to do my best to explain what they are, how to use one, and why you might want to use one in a concise manner.
Part A: What is a plot?
A plot is, simply, A fictional(ized) series of events that have some connection. (I love TVTropes.) It is comprised of cause and effect, emotional motivation, and reason. In a role play, a proper plot comes in two pieces. The first piece is potential plans, the second piece is character generated.
Cause and effect is, in essence, action and reaction. If I push a cow and it falls over, it'll moo in annoyance and get back up. (Green = action, red = target of action, orange = reaction) Since actions and reactions drive a role play forward, this is the most likely place you will see cause and effect put into play during a story in a role play. HOWEVER! This does not exempt a role play from having cause and effect occur independently of the players to drive a story forward, which can be useful if the players are stuck in a rut and need something to help get them motivated. It can also be abused and cause railroading. (Addressed below.)
Emotional motivation is, in essence, the reason characters find themselves fighting a dragon, exploring a cave, pursuing a romance, or otherwise. It is typically and almost notoriously the main reason actions occur at all in a role play. "Why did I knock over a cow? Because I wanted to." If a character has no emotional attachment to a scene, to a goal, to their fellow characters... It means they have no reason to be loyal towards them, and it can create significant issues later on. Now I'm not stating that every character needs to be drama queens--they just need to be human enough to feel emotions, or at least understand the concept of emotions.
Note, though, that emotional motivation can and does occur separately of a plot in the case of role playing. Two characters might pursue a romance that has nothing to do with the main goal of the story, for example. It can also be circumvented or subverted by an especially clever role player, like in the case of a robot programmed with Asimov's three laws.
Reason is, in essence, the logical and ethical reasons characters fight for or against something. Saving a princess from a tower guarded by a dragon could result in money (logic), it could be the right thing to do to save the damsel (ethics), etc. This is why a lot of stories across all mediums--novels, plays, movies, etc--either use down to earth tales centred around the simple life of a single person (often in the genre of romance or murder mystery), or an epic whose effects typically span across an entire kingdom, world, empire, or even the entire universe. It is fairly rare to find stories in the middle of these two extremes because it's much harder to write convincing reason for this while keeping it interesting.
Reason is typically where most plots in role plays fall. Hard. Typically because logical and ethical reasons are forgotten in the myriad of focus on biographies, or intense purple prose descriptions of the scenario or world the adventure is taking place in. Reasons should be ideally kept as simple and broad as possible. "Why are we saving anime characters from kidnappers? Because we're Otakus! (Ethics)" "Why are we helping a princess banish Gods? Because those Gods are evil meanies who kill people! (Ethics)" "Why are we fighting to destroy the enemy army? Because we're getting paid and we'll be executed if we desert the army. (Logical x2)" Etc.
Now, for the two parts of a plot.
Potential Plans: Plans set forth by a GM and/or player(s) concerning the future of their/other(s) character(s) in some manner. The simplest and most idealistic example one could think of is "Bob wants to romance Sally. Bob makes plans to bring Sally out near a pond one evening." Player controlling Bob informs the GM of their plan and asks if they can fit it in somewhere. GM works with player to set the scene up, the player controlling Sally is likely brought in to talk about it. Several posts later, Bob attempts to romance Sally by a pond.
This is more often used by GM's, trying to have some idea of where they are going with their players. Example: Bob, Sally, Joe, John, Jimmy, and Jah'vier are adventurers out to rescue the princess. They will need to travel through lands X, Y, and Z to reach where she slumbers in a tower, protected by a dragon. The GM can loosely plan what X, Y, and Z is like. Maybe X is a forest, Y is a small elven town, and Z is a swamp. Now the GM has at least some idea of where he is going, without having to use piles of exposition in the OOC which could drive away potential players or choke the plot with excessive information.
Most importantly, the reason these are "potential plans" is because at any point, the players can act outside of expectations. Sally might die before Bob can reach the romance scene with her. In the middle of a heated battle Joe might be injured badly in the forest, thus the players decide to take a detour to a "lake in the west with healing properties" instead to save their comrade (plot change: ethics), etc. This is one of the things that sets role playing apart from writing; a static, well-planned, intricate plot can be derailed and murdered by one character committing to one action that does not coincide with the plot the GM has in mind. Whereas a role play with open ended goals and areas with only potential, temporary plans in mind can easily be adjusted to suit the whims of the players.
Character Generated: This part comes in later in a role play, typically after a few months/several pages of play. A history of actions and reactions between characters with each other and their environment, that in some way, shape, or form creates a history of events that ends up affecting the present. Cause and effect. Actions, and consequences of those actions. This again differentiates from writing in that plots are not created ahead of time. Plots end up being created after the fact to explain and connect a series of actions by the characters.
Part B: How do you use it?
Create a story, fan fiction or original it doesn't really matter in the end. Lay out the conflict at the heart of the story. Be it something peaceful like students attempting to work together to pass a magical high school class, or adventurers out to slay a dragon and save a princess. Keep it simple--simple is good. Complexity comes later by natural cause.
(Required) Give the reason why characters would want to resolve the conflict. The high school one has it built in--"I want to pass in order to succeed at life!! (Logic)" The princess one? Either derive it from ethics--"I'm a good guy and I must do the moral thing!"--Or tie it into a logical reward, such as earning money, being granted positions of power in the kingdom, etc.
Do not give players their emotional motivations for them. They are the ones creating the characters. Characters are the ones to use emotional motivations. Therefore, it is on the heads of the players, not the GM to create emotional ties for their characters to the story.
Use potential plans to set up scenes which appeal to individual players, or to create drama and intensify the story's atmosphere with tension and/or excitement.
Do not be afraid of plot holes. If you notice one and it's slowing things down, mention it and find a way to navigate around it. Due to the nature of role playing, plot holes are as inevitable as death. That's being honest. My RP's have them, Kadaeux's RP's have them, HeySeuss' RP's have them, Shon Harris' RP's have them--no matter how hard you try to get away from them, they can, and will, appear.
Part C: Why would you use it?
To help create a logical, grounded sense of where the story is. To add themes. To give it a more novel-like atmosphere. Basically any reason you feel like using it, probably isn't invalid or wrong. It's personal taste whether you want to intentionally use it or discard it.
INDEX OF TERMS
Railroading: When a GM forces players to do what the plot dictates. Enslaving characters to the narrative, instead of having characters create and drive the narrative of their own whims. This is bad as it takes the choices out of the hands of the players, which defeats the purpose of role playing in the first place. It's also generally rude to force people to do as you say just because they didn't do as you told them to do earlier.
And that's all! I hope this helped and I invite discussion, commentary, criticism and more from all sources, so long as it remains civil. I'm not out to create a flame bait thread.