I have seen two very divergent styles of role play in my text-based RPGs. One of them is driven by plot, the other driven by strong characters. I prefer the latter. I also write character-driven stories. The reasons I do so are myriad. However, today, I'm thinking about collaborative writing, especially as shown in RP.
Firstly, plot-based role play can lead to very fluid personalities and limited understanding of how a character will react. If the plot drives the story, the players have to stick to the plots, even if the character would not do things that way. It can lead to recreation of characters' personalities on the fly, confusing everyone. People can change, it is true, but it is usually through life experiences, conflict, or deep meditation that they make big changes. For a character to be bright and happy one day and dark and upset the next is unrealistic*, unless we learn the reason behind the change.
Secondly, plot-based role play is extremely restrictive. If a player does not have a clear 'starring role' or a hand in creating and tweaking the plot, she has no space to allow her character to grow, or to affect the world around her. Often, the ability to change the world is a reason for a player to come into the game in the first place. She wants to be able to control the situation her characters are in. Creating a character and playing it in the world is work, but it is a creative effort – one that is intended to help the player find a communal experience, and for everyone's mutual enjoyment. If everyone is not involved in making the plots and situations happen, it is no longer enjoyable, and players will find reasons not to log on. One of the greatest joys of a text RP for many players is the element of discovery. With a preplanned, pre-staged plot, that joy is completely eliminated. Even if the plot writers keep the end details a secret until later, enough will probably trickle down for most players to figure it out. It becomes less like a character in a world, and more like an actor on a stage. There is a clear difference: scripts.
Thirdly, conflict can happen in unexpected ways in a character-based story, creating richer, fuller histories that the player can allow her character to work through. By setting up the setting first, the character second and the plot (maybe) third, the player is able to allow her character to react to situations in the way that seems appropriate to her at the time. This may not – probably will not – match up with perceived notions of how that character should act, perhaps even those of the player. After a time of playing the role, the responses will come almost immediately, even if the character has changed since the beginning. Since it's been a gradual change, it's been something the player can work through. It becomes more cathartic for everyone involved in the process. The players are able, through a character, to say things to a hurting friend they may not be able to in real life. One character may need to express strong negative emotions, allowing the player to do so in a controlled, safe environment. Conversely, the character may cheer the player up by achieving something he was not able to do before, or perhaps he has a heartache that allows his player to experience the deep pathos of a good story. When the outcome is known, this is nearly impossible. The character-based route also offers one other advantage: complete flexibility. If players do not plan three weeks ahead of time, then there is still room and space for a rich, fulfilling role play when one of the main players is suddenly, inexplicably absent from the game. This is not to say that no planning is required. However, a game flourishes best when there is a general idea of where the plot is going, but grand, gaping holes in the specifics of who does what, and exactly how it gets done (or even when it gets done).
When a player gets too attached to the plot, rather than the characters, she will feel extremely out of control when things don't go as they were planned to. If the characters are the focus, then she can become quite attached to them without breaking that nearly-visible fourth wall between the story and the players. We can laugh, cry, yell, or dance with our characters, but when we plan their lives out to the moment, we cannot separate ourselves from them, and we will, of a certainty, experience disappointment.
This applies also to single-author stories. The way to achieve the best mixture of pathos, plot and personality is to get to know your characters. Often, many writers may begin writing with known characters, either those of already published works, or characters based heavily on people they know, like family members. The reason this happens is because they know those characters best. They can write their reactions easily. When they begin to create their own characters completely, they often borrow pieces from other places. This is often done subconsciously, and is a good thing. Without some relation to something familiar, the reader will show no interest, because it is too foreign. Even if those things are single traits, the reader can identify either with a clear, “Oh, I'm like that,” or the equally common, “I know a guy who does that...” Such identification is a healthy response to the story. The author, like the role player, will find that her characters will react in unexpected ways. She will be able to walk from Point A to Point B and stumble upon something beautiful between. Perhaps it is a response to the clearly designated plot points, perhaps it is a subplot that appears because of an offhanded remark. If the scenes are mapped out too much, that beauty may not appear.
That beauty is the soul of my creativity. I write, cooperatively and singly, because I need to. There are often emotions and feelings inside my head that I cannot express any other way than to put fingers to keyboard. I see a scene from a show, or read a scene in a book, and I am moved. I hear music, or see something outside, and I feel strongly. Life acts upon me, and I need to react. I must express it somehow. Sometimes, that ends up with a plot involved, sometimes, it's merely a conversation or poetry. In my specific instance, when I get to know a character well enough, I will hear him in my head explaining how he will react to this situation. It's not a mystical experience, it is more like a movie playing in my head in which my character is the star.
I will not say that a plot-based story or role play cannot succeed, or cannot fill the needs of a player or reader, however, for me and many others, it is indeed the much tougher path.
*There is always an element of 'fantasy' in the role play, which is the reason why we do it in the first place. However, like in a story, we are drawn to the characters, the setting, THEN the plot. If we don't believe that the characters are worth following, we won't give a damn what happens to them.