Plot, and how not to panic about it
Browsing through Gnome Stew I found an article that really sympathised with my own knowledge of plot in a roleplaying game. And I found this particularly significant:
When you create a plot for your campaign though you must realize that as the GM you do not own the plot. You may give life to the plot, but it is the group that actually possesses the plot. The reason for this is because the GM and the players all influence the plot in some way. At some times a player will most likely have more control over the plot than the GM does. There is nothing wrong with this, and I for one prefer for players to have high control of the plot through their PC’s actions. – Gnome Stew Two Approaches To Creating Plots: Dominoes, and Water
I’ve said this before quite a few times. While the GM may be the storyteller for the game, the players are the characters are in the story. While a GM may want to tell a particular story, it is the desires and actions of the characters that need to drive it. Ask any writer, as a character in a story that they are not motivated to be in may end up wondering what they are doing there. Did they wander in from another story?
Of course, there needs to be some sort of middle between what the GM wishes to tell and what the players wish to possess. And when you have a campaign that satisfies both, there are fun times to be had.
But, this is not the point of my article today. What I’d like to explore is getting to this sort of plot, particularly from the perspective of new GMs.
Step 1 – The Genre
Even though I’m still a rather inexperience Level 1 GM, I’ve gotten to the stage in my D&D and my Star Wars Games where I can build my own plot and it can stand on it’s own, more or less. Of course, I’ve been able to do that with Star Wars for some time, but Star Wars was the system I started out with, so that’s to be expected.
Before you can even start to think about what sort of zany things you want your players to do, you need to work out whether it would be something your players are even willing to do. That means you need to assess the group, see the sorts of characters they create and what they do and what they find fun to do in the game. It was a very wise DM that once said that if you put hack and slash players into a “thinking person’s game” they will be unhappy. You might want to run a game of political intrigue, with very little combat, but if the players just wish to kill things you’ll just be playing with yourself.
If your willing, you can even ask the players what sort of game they want to play. While this might not be suitable for all game, it’s what I did with Star Wars. The players actually asked me if they could run a criminal organisation, so I threw out my original plans (and I can’t remember what they were, which proves how good they were) and made the game about that instead. It still meant I could control things, and the players had a much more sense of ownership of their own stories.
However, if you pitch a game like a module or a campaign you’ve had on ice and been waiting to run, this can be a little harder. This will require a little more negotiation, as I go into in the second part.
Step 2 – The Skeleton
Recently I lent the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 to a fellow DM in the group. He runs the 3.5 campaign. These two facts might seem contradictory, if it wasn’t for the fact that this book is a goldmine for GMs who wish to improve their storytelling abilities. Hell, most of what I said above and about to say below is summarised in this paragraph:
You can run a thrilling D&D campaign that keeps your players coming back for more even if you don’t give a
single thought to story structure, character motivations, cooperative world building, or any of the other concepts
described in this chapter. Using these ideas makes you a better DM only if doing so enhances the collective fun
of a receptive group. Before introducing the cooperative techniques discussed in this chapter, poll your players and confirm that they are interested. – Dungeon Master’s Guide 2
A campaign’s story needs the same elements as a conventional story, it just needs them in different amounts and it needs them to be mailable. The DMG 2 acknowledges this, as a campaign with a story need not be a great big railroad.
However, whether characters or plot are put into consideration first needs to be assessed in relation to your game. If you pitch a game like I said above, a lot of the structure has been mapped out for you (though this depends on the designers and how much they have invested in story themselves) and you are merely required to bring the characters to it. This is a plot-first outlook, and the characters require some degree of shoehorning to get them into it. And there are players who have agreed to play the game but disagree with the premise of your plot, seemingly contradictory but it happens.
In a perfect world, I like to meet (or at least correspond with) player before the game begins. They tell me about their character concept, and I try and help them fit in with as much plot and background I am willing to reveal. Yet this rarely happens, more than often I get a swathe of backstory from the player that is so fully-formed that’s it’s impossible to engage with (like fitting in an extra bed into a furnished bedroom), or the players are dropped in to the story more or less naked and we make up motivations as we go.
The compromise is to grab one player I know I can trust with plot and make them either the quest-giver or the lynchpin that holds the party together. But given the nature of characters, that’s not always possible.
If you approach it from the other way, from the motivations of the characters themselves, you need to keep your ears well and truly open. This is why I liked the part about interrelationships DMG2 describes, as it not only gives some cohesion to the players that they are a party before the game begins, it’s a great starting point for a DM who’s unsure where to go with a group. Even if the first quest is just to kill some kobolds that had been plaguing the village of Clodhump, what the players tell you in this does give you some indication of where they want to go next.
And this brings me to the third and final point, also described in DMG2.
Step 3 – Where it Goes
Satisfying D&D stories differ from other narrative forms in one major way: D&D stories don’t follow a single predetermined storyline through a series of turning points. Instead, each turning point presents the opportunity for the story to branch in an unexpected direction. By anticipating branches, you can ensure that the story keeps moving in an exciting and
A strong branch point engages players and can move the story in two or more directions. – Dungeon Master’s Guide 2
Plot can be defined in its simplest terms as “what happens next”, and sometimes that’s all you can determine. It’s generally not a good idea to clarify plot too far into the game, as by the time you get to that point things may have changed. The players may have taken an unexpected turn before then, which makes what you planned either irrelevant or a ripe target to build a railroad to.
Instead, try and look at the plot as a series of events, that may or may not happen and may also have more than one outcome. Allow me to elaborate with an analogy.
Players are asked by Ham the innkeeper to clear the rats from his basement, and in the process they find a few religious books which betrays Ham’s membership into a heretic sect of demon worshipers. Now, the logical thing to do would be to turn Ham the innkeeper to the local authorities. Problem is, you made him into a likable character. He gives the players free drinks, he has a hot barmaid. So they instead manage to convince him to change his ways, with quite a number of high Diplomacy checks, and you have no choice but to let them succeed.
The scene turns out different than expected, but if you are thinking of railroading the outcome you misunderstand the real issue. Ham the innkeeper was the vehicle for the players to learn about the plot, and possibly was some sort of dilemma when the players encounter him in a fight later on and have to choose whether to kill him or not. But there is no reason for him to stay that way. This happens in fiction as well, the plot can get away under the motivation of a character and has to be brought back to an outcome that can be seen, even if it’s glimpsed distantly on the horizon.
Instead of scripting the story, think in terms of events, people and locations. And events can mean combat encounters, remember. Get their purpose, the information they are meant to convey, and several notes on what possible outcomes will mean for these. The latter will start you thinking, at the very least, of the mentality of your vehicle, as I have found it is stupid beyond belief to assume the players will do as you expect them to.
And honestly, that’s the best part.