Watch out for the plot hole!

I received 2 votes in my last poll, so I will do 2 posts to honor them.  First, Plotting!  Although this is NOT how to write an adventure, it is the REQUIRED precursor to doing so.  When running a game, you have basically two options: Run preprinted adventures/modules or create your own.  It is BY FAR easier to run preprinted stories…it just takes reading and studying them enough so you know where each encounter is going.  Please note that the only issue with running a published adventure is that your players may have read or even played it before.  But, you can still run it, just change a few significant points and its brand new.  On the other hand, making your own is satisfying, AND the players have never played it before, AND you need to do much less studying because you know exactly where and why everything is already!  In upcoming posts I will offer some advice on running preprinted adventures and on how to write specific game adventure, but this is much more wide scope.

Like many of these posts, they have forced me to look at how I ref games.  That includes how I set up games.  The last posts were about how to tie the characters into a story that I am currently in the process of playing out.  The regular reader will know that is a Shadowrun game.  The technique discusses here are generic and can be used in any setting.  I will offer examples to make sure the points are clear.  I have been working with my No. 1 son as a sounding board for this recently, so we can blame him if it makes no sense! (Well, not really, but if you really want to…) Before I start into the meat and potatoes of this discussion, there are a few things I need to make clear; the most important of which is: Your plot will be derivative.  Second: Keep in mind how long you want your plot.  And lastly: This is fun!  If you do not have fun doing this, Play published adventures!  They are usually quite High quality!.  Why do I say these things?  First of all, there are only so many ways to tell a story.  Depending on what reference you look at there are the 7 plots of Arthur Quller-Couch, or the 36 “Dramatic situations” of George Polti.  (I’m sure there are other ways of looking and you could find other numbers, but that is not what I am doing).  So, whether there are 7 or 7000 different plots…your tale will be similar to a story already told, because there have been a few more than 7000 stories told in mankind’s history.  Don’t despair about that;  Embrace it!  The Second piece means that this system can create stories as big or as small as you want.  If you want to have a story that takes your characters from brand new heroes to venerable advisers, that can be done, but if you just want to get them ready for a more difficult unrelated story, this will work, but if you don’t keep this in mind, your story is likely to be either too short, or spiral way out of control.  With those caveats in mind, let’s plot!

When coming up with a story arc you need 2 things:  An impetus, and a goal.  In most games, the impetus will be the Bad guy, but it can also be the McGuffin or the Good Guy.  The goal is what is the impetus is trying to accomplish. I know you are looking at that sentence and trying to make sense of it, so here you go. The Impetus is what is going to drive your story forward.  Such as: The BB (Big Bad) is trying to take over the kingdom.  The Good Guy (GG) is trying to destroy the evil artifact that will give the bb (yes this is a big bad, but he is part of the story, not the impetus) power over all living things.  The McGuffin is unique.  (If you don’t know the term it is the thing that is the goal) in that it is the impetus and the goal.  It may be the thing that must be kept from the bb, or must be possessed by the gg to ensure the safety of all.  Really, once you have those things you have your plot.  We are not finished with the plot prep for a game…but…well, let me offer examples:  The BB is a powerful sorcerer-king, but he is not uncontested, so, he desires to defeat the rebel scum, and bring the rest of the realm under his boot heel.  OR, the GG has been the Cities protector for years, but he is now old and the city is beginning to suffer.  He wants to find new protectors for the realm.  The McGuffin keeps the gates closed, so the invaders cannot enter.  But it has gone missing, and the invaders are learning to exploit its absence…recovering it will once again protect the denizens.  Notice that any one of those three plots could easily switch your impetus.  The GG must defeat the bb to protect the kingdom.  The BB has learned of the absence of a relic and can breach the protections of vast riches…Too generic?  OK:

  • The Emperor wishes to defeat the rebels and their Mage Knight allies to secure his place in the far, far away galaxy.
  • The Guardian is suffering from Kryptarian poison and his awesome powers are failing.  He seeks out young   agents with new but incredible powers, and they must be trained to work as a team, and learn the value of sacrifice for their weaker fellows.
  • A vast armada arrives at the land demanding “The Stars Heart” or they will destroy the defilers who hold it…but no one knows what or where it is…

Any of those sound vaguely familiar?  I’d bet that those three plots will remind a dozen people of probably 20 different stories…but with that plot arc, you know where the story is going, and depending on your impetus, it can also pretty much lay out the theme of your stories.  A story of destroying the BB and his lieutenants will be quite a different feel than one that is about protecting the innocents and even sacrificing part of yourself to do so.

SO, now you’ve got a plot arc. Now you need to break the plot down into goals.  This is where the adventure is made!  This is where having a firm grip on your setting details will pay dividends.  If you already have major NPCs that could be drafted into the plot, use them!  No need to add extra characters just because it is a new story.  On the other hand, don’t be afraid to make up a character that fits your setting out of whole cloth to start this new story.  Remember that your plot can be the final epic battle between the player characters and the minions of the BB with the fate of the world in the balance…or…it can be nearly every step along the way.  When you are thinking about the steps to the goal, think about how many goals you want the game to be.  Remember that each goal will be a set piece…a chapter end in your tapestry of a story.  And many (or maybe all) of these steps the characters can be involved keeping the BB from achieving his ends, or Furthering the ends of the GG…or making one step closer to the McGuffin.  Lets look at a short example of this.

The BB Emperor needs to find out where the rebels camp, he needs to convince them to lay down arms or scatter them to the winds, and he needs to destroy all of the mage knights.  So, he puts a bounty on all of the Knights, sends his LT to capture one of the rebel authorities.  To convince them of his resolve, he obliterates an encampment with his new City of Death automata, and once he discovers the main base, he will send the City of Death to deal with them once and for all, striking fear in any who would stand against him.

OK.  Now we see what he wants to do, and how he plans to do it.  Where can we get the characters involved?  In this case, at each step.  One of them finds out about this bounty, but he has a friend who used to be one of these knights…They go speak to him to start them on the story.  There, they find out that the Lord Redav, the chief LT of the Emperor, has captured a young princess for reasons unknown…they go to rescue her, but hear that her town has been completely destroyed…In rescuing her, they find out about the plan…as you can see, the story kind of tells itself!  When building these story stepping-stones, keep in mind that none of the steps will completely derail the goal of the Impetus.  They will hinder or aid its accomplishment, and the results of each one will echo down the story line to the final scene.  Will Lord Redav be converted to the side of the good?  Will he be killed?  Will he escape and be by the side of the Emperor in the final confrontation?  If the City of Death is left to rampage, will there be enough forces to breach the stronghold of the emperor? All of these must be considered…Unlike a novel, it is unlikely each scene will turn out perfect to carry on the story.

From there, it is a matter of detail.  You may be able to have a brand new game in the time it takes your players to make appropriate characters.  Set down with your players, talk about what they want.  Be vague or explicit and get from them what they want to do, and how they want to do it…Right there, you have a decent idea of the impetus, and how its phrased might very well lead you to the theme.  At that point, add a little flesh to your impetus, look where the story should go, and come up with a way that the characters can get involved.  Use hooks to tie them in…Of course, this is worst case, but you should still have a game to play that fast!  If you are at a complete loss, then think about a movie or TV show you like or that you know all of your players are familiar with.  Choose a BB or a GG or even a McGuffin and go from there.  Like I said in the last post…You could use “The Ring Bearer” as a McGuffin/GG…the players support the impetus (the imp?) to allow him to destroy this great evil artifact…no way he could make it without them, and there are several stages he needs to be protected through to accomplish his mission…Never be afraid of taking a plot idea, or even telling the same story in a different setting!  You know your story will be derivative…How closely or distantly it cleaves to an original is up to you!  Think about Star Wars.  A classic fantasy tale, but told with spaceships and robots.  Could you tell the Ali Baba story in space?  Disney has already told Treasure Island in space!  Even if your players realize it, then tell them that you are just so good because it took them so long to see the story…or…if they guess from the opening scene, tell them it’s because you wanted to tell a story they would be familiar with!

For those of you familiar with them, I take my hat off to the Plot Point style stories in most savage world settings.  These are a great version of how to run this sort of plot. Basically it tells a major story in a couple dozen paragraphs of short info and maybe a few NPCs.  You can play other adventures between the points, or just press through them to the end.  If you are not familiar, pick up one of their setting books.  If you are, then you have seen a very good implementation of this idea.  However, out of this succulent info, I offer one caveat.  This plot method does not work well for the self-run adventure.  That is an adventure with no real impetus but the players wanting to do something.  It CAN work if the hooks are well-built and drag them kicking and screaming to gain/complete/foil the ultimate goal, OR when the players are basically hirelings.  For instance, in my SR game, this whole plot device can’t be used, because the BB has already obtained his goal, and it becomes a matter of the players making him meet his comeuppance.  Well, I did give them pretty good hooks, but it would cause them to really be just wandering around…BUT, because a typical shadowrunner is hired to accomplish a goal…well, then I just throw goals that either step closer to bringing him down, or give them a bit more ammunition, or even more reason, to do so!

OK…This is long and I am done with the post, but, I will walk through the first part of this tool in a concrete example, if you want to see it in use, or I didn’t explain something very well.

Getting ready for a game of House Pets, an RPG where all of the players take the role of well-loved house pets, but I am stuck on a game.  I ask my players what sort of story they would like to play.  The final consensus is that they want to play a heroic game, where their characters save either the neighborhood or all humans even.  OK…so, sounds confrontational, so I want a BB that threatens their homes, or even the world. OK…Thinking of many different stories, films, books, I decide that the BB is a spurned scientist…he hates animals, because he was bitten badly as a kid…so, he even has a hook (A hook, get it?). He wants to wipe out all domesticated pets, that is his ultimate goal, but I want to throw in a twist for him that threatens all of humanity…the serum he uses that attacks the nervous system of animals that have been domesticated also affects humans!  While the players don’t know about the twist, they know they will be facing a huge threat to all domestic animals.  While they make characters, I decide this is going o be short…three points, kind  of the three act play…So, he needs to get test subjects, run the tests, and release his serum.  To get the players involved, we start with the House Pets version of the Jail Cell…they have all been rounded up (yes, even those with collars and tags) and are in some facility.  They need to escape and deal with his dim-witted lab assistants.  But to keep them in the story, aside from hooks, they need to meet a pet that is suffering the effects…not strong enough to escape…an old dog tells them what he has been through, and dies at the end. They need to stop this from happening again! Second story:  They are successful in escaping, and even get the police somewhat interested in the goings on  (some really creative RPing).  Somewhere in here, I will throw in foreshadowing of the danger of the serum…  So now they need to foil his Distribution scheme…If they free all of the animals he still has some of the serum, so he collects more animals…and he begins deploying it…on brown rats.  The players are not quite so successful here, losing the sneaky rat and the wise cat…so, a lot of the serum is deployed…they need to stop anymore from being dispersed as they are now seeing the effect on people…So they need to stop the professor!  In the climactic scene, the cops arrive part way through, as they have been alerted to some shenanigans…And the white rat becomes friends with the scientist, who now sees the error of his ways…and works with the police to round-up the last of the brown rats, and create an antidote!…Very successful story outcome!

Some Common Ground

In an effort to make certain everyone knows what I am talking about, I want to start with a bit of a glossary.  This will probably be referenced a lot.  I will present the info in pairs of opposites.  Be aware that very few things fall all the way to one extreme or the other, but somewhere along the continuum   I don’t intend to get into the various merits or problems with these, as they will probably all be posts of their own.  My intention here is simply to explain some of the terms I use, so you can expect to see in these posts. The TSR – FGU Scale: Back in the early days of our hobby, there were two big companies.  TSR (Dungeons & Dragons (hats off), Top Secret, Boot Hill) and FGU (Space Opera, Chivalry & Sorcery, Bushido) who, in general approached the games from two different sides. TSR (Originally Tactical Studies Review, but became just TSR by the time RPGs were coming into fashion) tended to make games that were very easy to pick up and play, but they tended to make it very difficult to suspend the disbelief because of game play decisions that were made for the sole purpose of game balance.  FGU (aka Fantasy Games Unlimited) decided to more closely represent real life by making the game simpler to suspend disbelief, but made character creation and rules in general much more complicated. Epic – Episodic Game: Epic games cover from the start of the story to the end.  This includes the mundane as well as the fantastic.  The depth and length of these games tend to create very deep and detailed characters.  Episodic games are more like TV shows in that they go from important scene to important scene.  These tend to make highly specialized characters. Monty Hall – Pauper:Monty Hall (or haul) games (named after  the game show host: are games where the rewards (money, magic and/or experience) are very high, some might even say way out of proportion…1000GP for killing the rats in the cellar.  These games often end up with 50gp mugs of ale.  Pauper games have the characters scrimping to buy their next meal, and hoping to make enough to repair their second hand armor.  These games tend to have a more realistic economic model. Top Down – Bottom Up: World, town, universe design models.  Top down creates the Universe first, then the planets, then the terrain, then the empire boundaries  then the capital cities, then the small cities, then towns, hamlets, castles, dungeons…resulting in very rich tapestry, sometime light on local differentiation.  Bottom us is exactly opposite…start with the tavern, then the village and it’s inhabitants, then the haunted forest…can lead to patchwork worlds. Narrative – In Character: Play style.  In Character Players and NPCs speak as the character.  Great for adding accents or speech characteristics.  In Narrative, the actions and speech of the characters are described rather than word for word spoken.  Very handy when the player and the character have very different verbal (or knowledge) skills. Story – Character: Arc styles.  In Story arcs, The characters are involved, but do not have a great deal of influence on the overall outcome but specific pieces of the arc.  In Character arcs, the characters directly affect the story, and are not only main characters of the stories, but critical to it’s outcome.  Although this sounds perfect, it can present significant challenges to the ref, or leave characters with little to no guidance. Persona – Idealized- Munchkin: This triumvirate is broad stroke player styles.  They Persona player makes and plays characters to escape or explore.  These players usually have the most difficulty creating a character that fits (easily) with in the rules.  The Idealized player makes and plays characters to be the best at what they do.  They often find their character idea in the archetypes set forth by the rules as representative of their desires. The Muchkin, or min-maxer makes and plays characters to “Win,” to be better than everyone else.  They often are great during play-testing as they tend to push the rules to limits to see where they break, by taking as many advantages and as few disadvantages as possible. If there is anything that is not clear in this post, please let me know!  Remember, there are no stupid questions, just stupid people!