On Plots

Response to Loquacious’ recent post – a response which, as usual, overran what is commonly deemed appropriate for a comment.

Plots are the least planned things in my games, or at least they start out that way.

The usual Von approach is to design a city or equivalent that’s full of NPCs, each of whom is connected to two others and to one PC, and each of whom has some sort of personal goal.  I brief the PCs on who they’re mates with, and then just chuck them in and see what happens.
What tends to result is the players picking someone they think is the antagonist, and that person ending up becoming either the antagonist or a secret ally depending on how confused I want them to feel.

Since all the NPCs have some sort of goal and some sort of link to each other, the players can pick more or less any one they like and a supporting cast will be tugged out with them, by the narrative threads that connect them to either the newly-confirmed primary antagonist or a PC.

Whenever I’ve scripted events in advance, things have gone ill, to some extent or another. Bits of the game have run like non-interactive cutscenes, or I’ve fudged events which could have been interesting in order to play out a scene that exists in my head.

For instance, in the Dark Heresy campaign I ran a while back, each session revolved around a particular Event – the first was the bringing-together of the Inquisitorial henchmen, the second a fact-finding mission, and so on and so forth. I didn’t design any areas or minor NPCs, which allowed the players to get a feel for major plot elements and then decide how they were going to approach them. Their decisions required me to create supporting cast and locations on the fly.

Example: two PCs are ordered to investigate a Redemptionist uprising. One decides to befriend a Redemptionist and seek information that way, another opts for the direct route and breaks into their HQ. One therefore gets introduced to another PC (a Redemptionist who will later be ordered to infiltrate the party, and end up betraying his increasingly crazed leader), and the other gets captured. The inevitable showdown and accidental escape of the captured PC took place in a run-down mansion on the outer limits of the city. I hadn’t planned any of this. All I’d planned for is that in the second session they’d meet the Redemptor Priest and find out that there was an event called the Chemical Wedding in the offing.

That’s a good plan-by-events.

However, I had the ending of the story in mind from the start. The party was going to confront the misguided tech-priest who was attempting to bring about the aforementioned Chemical Wedding using Necron technology, and his New Human, which would prove to be an almost-indestructible cosmic horror. They’d be saved by the arrival of their Inquisitor, who’d order them out and then call down an on-my-coordinates thermal lance strike – they’d escape, and then meet the real Inquisitor, who’d been hiding behind a layer of doppelgangers ever since he first recruited them.

I’d played this moment out a thousand times in my head, sketched out the dialogue, seen how it was going to go. If you’ve ever run an RPG, you’ll be nodding sagely at this point, because you know what I’m about to say next; I’d built a railroad.*

There was no way I was going to let the story end another way, and at that point I wasn’t running a roleplaying game any more – I was writing a novel and getting my friends to improvise the parts I couldn’t be arsed with.**

The campaign ended, rather unsatisfactorily to my mind, when the players called in their Inquisitor early, and he ended up crashing his drop pod into a tank they’d commandeered (don’t ask). I should have killed him there and then, thrown my plan out of the window and let them work out what they were going to do without him – but because I had a Plan, I decided to save him, and that led to a rather fudgy session which ended up being the last one, due to Circumstances Beyond Any Of Our Controls.

That’s what happens when I let myself get married to a concept, and that’s why I try (frequently fail, but often try) to put in enough cool stuff that I’ll want to play out whatever scenario ends up being engineered by the players. That’s why I base my plans on long-term character goals, and not on a defined series of events.

* – Technically, this is doubly sinful, as it features an NPC grandstanding the PCs out of relevance. I tend to do this quite often, and it shames me. In this case, I feel it’s valid, since I wanted the PCs to resent their master – they do all the work and he shows up with his shiny spaceship and his bells and his whistles and takes all the credit. It’s still not generally good practice, though. I think it arises from wanting the PCs to be answerable to somebody, that somebody generally having to be more seasoned and powerful than they are, and the inevitable “if you’re so good why don’t you do your own dirty work?” that arises from that. Maybe I should go with some clearly ineffective superiors… no, actually, if I know roleplayers at all their response to an ineffective king would be to depose him at the earliest opportunity. What IS it about RPGs that brings out the sociopath in people?

** – there’s an excellent academic piece on this topic over here on Electronic Book Review.  I really must engineer some sort of circumstances in which I can be paid to write like that about this sort of thing…

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