Plotting and Free Will in Roleplaying

If you haven’t read the other articles in this series, then here’s the short version: roleplaying games (RPGs) in which the player characters (PCs) aren’t allowed to make their own, voluntary decisions and choices don’t tend to be a whole lot of fun for the players. This style of gaming removes one of the defining elements from tabletop roleplaying: the ability to try pretty much anything, limited only by your imagination. How are you supposedto come up with plots for your game, however, without scripting at leasta little?

NOTE: Many issues having to do with improvisation have been given only a brief treatment here, or they’ve been left out entirely. They’ll be included in a follow-up article entirely on the subject of making improvisation easy on yourself.

Issues of Plotting

Obviously plots can be thorny things when free will is involved. You probably think of a plot as having a beginning, a middle, and a specified ending. It seems like a linear path. But when your players get hold of it, it turns into a muddled mess! What can you do about this?

Parts of Plots

An RPG plot is not a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead, think of plots as a beginning, and maybe a middle depending on where your PCs enter into the action. Don’t plan out whole long plots – plan out parts of plots. Plan beginnings. Plan cool backgrounds. Plan bits and pieces that you can work in here and there. (It’s a little like having a basket of “plot parts” next to you while you GM; you pick and choose from your selection at any given time, and work pieces in where appropriate, adapting them to fit the situation.) As long as you know the background and set-up of a plot, you can adapt the in-game plot based on what the PCs do.

In general, keep lots of cool things around to draw upon while you GM. This includes plot notes, non-player characters (NPCs), random things that inspire you (tarot cards? Song lyrics?), and so on. The back-story that you create, the relevant NPCs, and the bits of inspiration are the tools with which you and your players together create the rest of the plot.

Planning Things Out in Advance

You do need to plan a certain amount of material in advance, or you’re likely to sit there on game night having no idea where to start. (Some GMs are very good at totally winging it; most aren’t.) Do approach your gaming night with some idea of where you want to take things, or at least where you want to start them. As much as possible, create flexible material rather than fragile material when you’re preparing for your game.

More issues of plotting (including the matter of flexible & fragile material) will be discussed in the article on improvisation.

Beginning Your Campaign

When you’re first starting a campaign, try to keep your preparations fairly general until you have character sheets from your players. Don’t plan plots and events too far out in advance. This way you have the room to muck with things to accommodate unusual or otherwise unexpected character choices. Try to create plot backgrounds without making assumptions about the sorts of characters that would be needed to get involved with the plot.

It’s important to note that I said “get involved with” the plot, not “solve.” If you’re already planning how your plots need to be solved, then you’re also already making unstated assumptions about the sorts of characters that will be involved, what they’re like, and what they’ll be capable of doing. Instead, create NPCs and seed their backgrounds with plot hooks. Create interesting background for the location and seed it with mysteries. Encourage your players to give you characters on the early side, so you’ll be able to do some last-minute tailoring before you start the game.

Plots Keep Moving On

If the PCs ignore a plot hook for whatever reason (they feel their characters wouldn’t get involved; they fail to notice it; it didn’t interest them), and you can’t think of another way to involve them, don’t just wipe out the plot or keep trying to push the PCs into it. Have it move forward in the background of things, but without the party’s influence or participation. Maybe they’ll get involved at a later point in the plot. If they don’t then it makes cool background to the next plot. It also lends the feeling that the world exists beyond the party–it has a life of its own!

The Book Problem

I tend to use book analogies in some of my explanations because they’re a medium that all of you have experience with. Hopefully you’ve noticed, however, that every time I use a book analogy I also end up telling you about some way in which what you’re doing is different from the structure of a book. Be careful when comparing roleplaying adventures and plots to those in books. This can be deceptive, and it can lead you to think of your plots in unfortunate ways. After all, a book is written by its author. It usually has a fairly linear plot. The reader doesn’t have any effect on that plot; he’s just a passive observer. In addition, a writer will sometimes come up with a book idea by thinking of a clever way in which the plot might end rather than start, and you need to focus on plot beginnings.

When you find yourself comparing GMing to writing a book, be careful. Remember the differences as well as the similarities. Most of all, think of your players as your co-authors — not your readers!

Posted in Gaming

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