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.)
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. A plot where one scene is dependent upon the outcome of the previous scene is a domino plot.
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.
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.