The Fallacy of Plot in RPGs
Every GM knows that the second his campaign hits the table his players are going to dismantle the plot like a bunch of Ugnaughts at a ‘Droid junkyard.
If Tolkien where running The Lord of the Rings as an RPG he would plot an adventure where his halfling player volunteers to take the One Ring to Mordor. Meanwhile, at the table, the player controlling Frodo decides he’s going to steal the ring and use it to clear out the rest of the loot in the Barrow-downs and then kill Tom Bombadil.
There are many ways a GM handles this reality. This is my favorite.
A plot is the sequence of events that occurs in the story. Most good stories rely on the protagonist making the choices which drive the plot forward. Frodo decides to take the ring to Mordor. Boromir decides to take the ring for himself. Frodo decides that he can’t risk remaining with the rest of the Fellowship. The rest of the Fellowship decide to distract Sauron by fighting him to help Frodo sneak in. All of these choices move the plot forward.
The problem with plotting an RPG campaign is that every time the players can make a choice it becomes more difficult and time consuming to predict where the plot will go. Instead of risking wasted time and frustration it would be better to find more effective ways to prep for an RPG campaign.
It’s true, a GM could map a branching plot, examining potential paths the party could follow and creating material for each. The issue is that you either have an exponentially expanding plot tree or that you tie branches back to the main path which reduces the impact of the choices that the players made. While I remember a time where the common wisdom was to not railroad players by giving them the illusion of choice but that isn’t even as fun as it sounds.
If you aren’t allowed to write plots, how do you prep for a campaign? Instead of trying to come up with a plot, which is the job for your players, come up with a situation. Ask questions. Start with the plot question. When EVENT will PROTAGONIST OUTCOME? For example, in my current campaign my plot question is: When The Diabolist attempts to create a rift between The Emporer and The Great Gold Wyrm, will the PCs be able to stop her?
As the campaign unfolds keep asking more and more detailed questions but always leave the answer to the question for the player’s to answer. Sometimes it will feel like the only one who can answer the question is the GM. If this is the case, try a different question. For example, a GM may want to know how the party first learns about The Diabolist’s plot. The players could answer that but first the GM has to know where they could possibly hear about it which means the GM has to come up with potential answers. Instead as “what do the player’s do when they hear about the plot?”
Let The Players Answer
When creating an adventure based on these questions the encounters will naturally become opportunities for the players to answer questions. Continuing with my example campaign I created my first encounter to introduce them to one of The Diabolist’s objectives. The encounter was simply this: What will the PCs do when they find a wounded man along the side of the road? It is possible that they pass the man and do nothing. They may rob him of his burden, heal him and send him on his way, lay in an ambush for his pursuers or escort him to his destination.
Ever since reading Dungeon World by Adam Koeble and Sage LaTorra I have embraced their concepts of play to find out what happens. No matter what system I play I keep this as my golden rule. Strangely, I find this more useful in games which focus on rules for combat over rules for story.
I almost went wildly off point as I wrote this post. I wanted to explain why normal plot construction doesn’t work for RPGs and started delving into how best to create encounters. I was tempted to do this because I think it’s a natural next step. If you are not creating a plot outline to follow for the campaign how do you translate that to actual encounters at the table? I think I’ll explore that in a future article. If you are interested in seeing it, subscribe and leave me a comment below or reach out to me on Google+ or Twitter.
Vincent Baker, creator of Apocalypse World is who should be credited with “play to find out what happens.”
Thanks for the clarification. Dungeon World comes from Apocalypse World but since I’ve not played the first I don’t know which ideas come from which authors. Reminds me of Rick Priestly’s interview on the D6G about Beyond the Gates of Antares. They kept asking him how he came up with mechanics that were from the game he based GOA on. Well, those were Alessio’s rules, he’d say.
Good article. I sort of handle things by having very detailed NPC’s and some important location descriptions, know generally what needs to be achieved, then simply add an agent to get it all moving. I run an open sandpit style world, when the old railroad scenario flavour is dumped, some amazing things happen…serendipity can take over.
Sound advice Glock. I have trouble making NPCs in advance but when I do it’s nice to have the information at hand. What details do you create? Maybe I’m spending time on the wrong things.
“If this is the case, try a different question. For example, a GM may want to know how the party first learns about The Diabolist’s plot. The players could answer that but first the GM has to know where they could possibly hear about it.
To be honest, where and when the players get involved isn’t as important as whether or not they will get involved, and even worse, it assumes the answer to that question is “yes” without giving the players a chance to answer it.”
This last sentence is very interesting, but I think it could be reworded, I’m not sure what you mean. Or an example given?
It could be re-written as I am referring to the story idea of plot and plot as in conspiracy. It could only be more confusing if the plot was related to a plot of land to which the party had to plot a course. I’ll change it to conspiracy where appropriate.
If the question is “how do the players hear about the conspiracy?” it assumes that the players will hear about the conspiracy. If you already know this it isn’t as interesting as the question “What do the players do when they hear about the conspiracy?”
Now, if the players knew that there was a conspiracy but not the details than the question “how do they learn the details” becomes a good one.
Thanks for your comment