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Two Approaches To Creating Plots: Dominoes, and Water

Today I am going to describe two ways of structuring your plots. One of these methods is bad and the other is good, but you need to understand both in order to see the value of one over the other.

plot: Also called storyline. the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story. (As defined by Dictionary.Reference.com. [1])

All RPGs have a plot, in that all RPGs are telling a story of some type. Even your basic dungeon crawl is a story. You can have intricate and detailed plots, simple and bland plots, and any other type of plot that you can imagine. Every group will have their preference, and all of them are fine.

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.

With this shared ownership model in mind let us look at a bad method for creating plots.

The Domino Plot

Some plots are like dominoes. One by one a domino is tipped over and it in turn tips over the next domino. If you have enough dominoes and the time to stack them you can create some pretty interesting patterns [2]. A plot where one scene is dependent upon the outcome of the previous scene is a domino plot.

The problem with a domino plot is that sometimes the previous scene does not launch the next scene properly [3].

The PCs kill the villain who is supposed to have lived. A PC uses the magical one of a kind McGuffin when they were not supposed to and destroys it by accident. The PCs sink the boat that was supposedly unsinkable.

And what happens when a domino plot fails to work? The GM has to intervene and initiate the next scene anyhow. This is when the railroading begins. The villain did not die after all. There is another magical one of a kind McGuffin that just happens to be available to the PCs. The boat didn’t sink.

When the PCs foil the domino plot the GM might negate what the players did in order to initiate that next scene. This is not only bad GMing, but it is selfish GMing as well. Remember that the GM does not have sole ownership of the plot, but instead shares the plot with the group.

How can we avoid this sort of plot in our games?

The Water Plot

Tip over a glass of water and it spills everywhere. Pour a glass of water and you have some control of where the water will go. Apply enough pressure to the water and it can make you fly [4].

Water can do all of these things because water is fluid. Water has many forms, and it is versatile in its applications. Water can be both life giving and dangerous. As a GM your job with a water plot is not to pre-determine the outcome of a scene, but instead you judge how the players have influenced the plot and then describe the most likely outcome based upon their actions.

If the PCs killed the villain then let it stand. Congratulate the players move on. If the magical one of a kind McGuffin is destroyed then let it go, and simply wait for the PCs to discover their predicament. Maybe they can go on a quest later to replace it by discovering the McGuffin’s secret origin. If the PCs sink the unsinkable boat then break out the life jackets.

But unlike dominoes water will eventually move onto another form. Given time and the right conditions it will evaporate, or break through rocks, or freeze into ice. The water plot does the same thing. It does not need the GM to initiate the next scene as planned. The water plot just changes form according to how the players influenced it and the story goes on.

When the PCs killed the villain the local Lord took over, and he is even worse. Not only is he pursuing the same dastardly scheme, but he has the law on his side because he is the law! If that magical McGuffin was needed to stop the apocalypse well it looks life as we know it is now over. The dreaded event occurs and now the PCs must focus on combatting it instead of preventing it. When the PCs sank that unsinkable boat the villain got into the uncrashable jet business.

And don’t forget, you can always just end the campaign. There is nothing wrong with declaring the PCs the victors, or telling them that the other guys won. If what the players did with the plot results in either of these outcomes then just let it happen. It is nothing personal. That is just how the game went. Do not try to force a different outcome just because you feel like more should take place or that the PCs should succeed. The better thing to do is to just end the campaign or adventure and start pitching ideas to the group for the next one.

Share The Plot

The most important lesson to be learned here is that in the end you do not own the plot. You might own the story elements to a point, but the plot is not and never was the GM’s. So do not try to control it. Open it up to the group and let everyone influence it in their own unique ways. The worst thing that can happen is that the campaign ends. You can always start another campaign.

This is why the water plot is superior. The water plot allows for sharing of the plot, because it changes according to the influence it receives from any source. A domino plot can only work when one person controls it. Cutting the players off from control of the plot is wrong. The players are not an audience who have assembled to hear the GM’s story. They are just as much storytellers in their own right. Listen to their story and accept it, then build upon it. Keep the plot and your approach fluid like water.

What do you think? How do you develop your plots? Who owns the plot in an RPG? Leave a comment below and let everyone know how you feel.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Two Approaches To Creating Plots: Dominoes, and Water"

#1 Comment By Alias On May 24, 2011 @ 1:17 am

Brilliant! It’s an excellent analogy for a concept that I had a hunch about for quite a while (I called it “adaptative storylines”, which is definitely much less sexy).

#2 Comment By Razjah On May 24, 2011 @ 8:04 am

This is interesting. I’m glad to see that I have used the waterplot in the past.

I think that ownership is like the stock market. The GM has the majority of the plot. The players are share holders with large stock. The players may have a vote on then plot’s directions. But it is the GM who really controls it.

When things go awry how often do the players turn on each other? Or do they turn to the GM and ask what the hell just happened? Why did the demon just show up and assault the capitol city?!?

I like the waterplot, but I think that the GM has a lot of control over the story. The trick is to use that control to help the PCs actions matter. They don’t prevent the end of the world? Then there should be a way for them to combat the coming darkness.

I think the last two lines are very important, “Listen to their story, accept it, then build upon it. Keep the plot and your approach fluid like water.” The big thing is to build off what the players do. When stuff goes wrong for your plot you should run with the players. They have a cool idea in their head and they won’t know you lost 2 weeks of work in 5 minutes. They’ll think you had this all planned out.

#3 Comment By Knight of Roses On May 24, 2011 @ 10:24 am

Good article. The secret to good games mastering is to be flexible and work with the players to make a game that everyone enjoys.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 24, 2011 @ 11:26 am

[5] [6] – Making sexy GMing analogies is what I am all about. 😉

[5] – I understand your point, but I disagree with it. The GM has a lot of control over several story elements, but story elements are not what make a plot. The plot is what happens to the story elements. The plot is composed of the actions taken by characters (which are just another form of story elements), and by non-character story elements.

In this regard the GM does not have as much control as one might suspect. A good GM will actually have less control of the plot as the PCs begin to interact with the story elements.

So a GM having the majority of control over the bulk of the story elements I would agree with. But the plot? No. Players have more input on the plot than a GM does. After all, it is the PCs that should be taking the cool actions during the game. With the exception of key adversaries, the NPCs should be the norm that when compared to the PCs demonstrates why the PCs are amazing.

[7] – Good point. The GM and the players are only adversaries in the way that a football team divides itself to be its own adversary during practice. The purpose being to improve the whole team, and not to win the practice games.

#5 Comment By LisaJane On May 25, 2011 @ 12:57 am

Great article. I completely agree that games run this way are much more fun to play, but my question (as a new GM) is how do you prepare & plan water plots? I’ve really only ever played in one good water plot game & the GM is an absolute genius with 15 + years experience. All the other games I’ve played have been domino plots or failures. How do you make the change as a GM from domino to water & is their anything you can do to make the whole thing less daunting?

#6 Comment By Alias On May 25, 2011 @ 1:36 am

[8] – For my part, it boils down to three things: context, context and more context. Four if you count (not context) but “not losing your cool”.

The main point is to know your backstory, characters, shakers and movers, etc. If you have a good grasp of the context in which your game is moving, you stand a much better chance to rearrange things in such a way that it still makes sense without adding too much handwavium.

The last point is pretty much as crucial, for a different reason. “Not losing your cool” means not throwing a tantrum when your PCs wreck your carefully written plot as much as ot making them realize that your improvising like crazy. Some players sense this like sharks smell blood in the water and tend to react accordingly. And even if you have decent players, it still pays to move along smoothly.

To me, the bottom line is, nobody is going to double-check your notes to see if this is how the game should have turned out, so as long as you can maintain a believable storyline and everybody enjoys the game, you win.

#7 Comment By E-l337 On May 25, 2011 @ 9:34 am

One time, I ran a future game that was based off a single choice made at the very start of the game: A group of mercenaries are hired to rescue a young girl kidnapped by a group of space pirates. They bust into the ship, find the girl, and then they discover the catch:

She wasn’t kidnapped, she ran away, and she desperately begs them to not take her back.

Obviously, these mercs wound up having a heart of gold, and so the rest of the game snowballed from there. They went a lot of cool places, did a lot of cool things, but the highlight of the game, without doubt, was when my players decided to hold a surprise birthday party for the girl. They spent an entire session running around looking for presents (including a puppy), and then sprang it all on the unsuspecting young woman.

It was not something I ever could have planned for, and yet at the same time, it was also something incredible that I have never been able to see since. If I hadn’t allowed my players the freedom to go where they wanted and do what they wished, I don’t think this would ever have happened.

That’s why I prefer the ‘water’ method. You can use it to basically shape the idea of the thing, but over time it is capable of being so much more than the thing you started with, unlike dominoes which can only hope to replicate the pre-determined pattern.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 26, 2011 @ 10:18 am

[8] – Sorry that I didn’t respond to you sooner. For me the secret is to have multiple villains. Not multiple stories but multiple villains, and these villains should oppose each other in the one story as well as the PCs. Now if the PCs focus on one particular villain that is fine. You don’t need to pull in the other villains, but once the PCs have done something to eliminate their current villain of choice (imprison the villain, kill or cripple the villain, convert the villain somehow, etc.) you just move the focus onto what the other villains have been doing and take it from there. By the time the PCs get down to the last villain you should be ready to have a big finale.

Does that help?

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 26, 2011 @ 10:21 am

[9] – That is a great example of how the water plot is superior to the domino plot. Thanks for sharing it!

#10 Comment By LisaJane On May 26, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

@Alias & Patrick Benson
Thanks heaps, to both of you. This is very helpful.

#11 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday TEN: 2011-05-27 On May 27, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

[…] Two Approaches To Creating Plots: Dominoes, and Water […]

#12 Comment By Katana_Geldar On May 31, 2011 @ 3:48 am

I prefer to think of roleplaying plots as like a series of stepping stones, the players use these to move through the plot and there are alternatives.
But always, I have in my mind the distance “place” where I want the plot to be at the end. And my players trust me enough for me to take them there, even if a few random things happen on the way.

#13 Pingback By Plot, and how not to panic about it « Level 1 GM On May 31, 2011 @ 5:22 am

[…] 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 […]

#14 Comment By capt.pantsless On May 31, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

Depending on how your gaming group likes to role-play, I’d go one step further and say that you shouldn’t be creating a plot at all. Create a situation and a background/back-story, then throw the PC’s into the middle of it and see what happens. Let the PC’s do what they want to do, and you react to it.

Mind you, some player-groups will completely dead-end if not given a nice push down the train-tracks, but if you’re blessed with a group that can think on their own, try not to prepare a whole plot. You’ll need to exercise your improvisational muscles, but I always have WAY more fun when letting go of my usual control-everything impulses.

This was written-up nicely in The Alexandrian: