Help me understand: GM writes the plot

EDIT: Best Of'd by Andy

I hear people talk about this all the time. "The GM writes the plot for the game," and variations thereof. I've played every RPG there is, for decades, but I have yet to do this, or play in a game where it happened. My curiosity has been piqued by the recent Ars Magica thread.

So, what's it like? What does the GM do? What do the players do? Please share your experiences.

There are three rules for this thread:
1. No passing judgment on others! Judge your own experiences if you want to, but lay off other folks.
2. Say whatever you want about whatever games you want. There are no debates about games allowed here. Take them to other threads. If you are tempted to say, "You don't understand game X," cram it.
3. No debating what "plot" really means. Just answer based on whatever you think it means.
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Comments

  • My take (based on how I used to think about the job of the GM):

    The GM sets a few plot points beforehand: be it a few encounters, combats, events does not really matter that much. They will be linked by some kind of plot, leading to a revealing (if there is a mistery) and/or to a climatic end battle (if there is a BBEG).

    So, for example:

    1 - The party meets in a tavern (well, duh)
    2 - A mysterious stranger hands them the hook for the adventure
    3 - Following the hints, the party will (not always in this order):
    • Investigate about the seneshal daughter's secret love affair
    • Discover a secret chaos cult lead by the secret lover
    • Do something about the cult, generally leading, whatever they do, to...
    • Having a showdown in the secret cult temple
    • See the Cult Leader escape through a secret passage.
    4 - Having blocked the evil cult, they will receive honor (or scorn, if there is some deep misunderstanding).
    5 - they will be ambushed by the cult leader and his top minions/beasties
    6 - Showdown!

    What matters to this discussion is that typically all of these points will require a slew of npc concept writing, npc statting, creature planning, maybe location mapping and treasure placing (if relevant to the game at hand), and so on. So, the plot WILL revolve around discovering the cult, and dealing with it. Otherwise, all your work will be wasted.

    Some GMs are very good at improvising stats and stuff, and just roll with it.
    Some GMs are not that good at it, or use a system working actively against it (on the fly statting a high level d20 character, yeah, right), or are simply very attached to their plot and WANT to use it.

    It's also worth noting that many players find playing inside someone else's plot as featured characters is not only desirable, but THE way to do it.
  • In my experience, this means something like, "The player characters are audience-or-extras to a play put on by GM characters."

  • My experience is very close to Renato's. The GM starts with a skeleton of a story: a general idea of what kinds of things will happen, who the major NPCs are and what they want, maybe a few "set pieces" (scenes/locations/events to put into the game at appropriate moments). Things get tweaked to fit in better with what the players and/or their PCs want to do, and to anticipate the most likely actions they're going to take.

    During play, the GM is the final arbiter of what's significant to the plot and what isn't: the players say what they want their PCs to attempt and float their own theories about what's going on, but what happens in the game world as a result of those actions/theories is the main way for the GM to keep the plot moving. Information, allies, opponents, and setbacks will be strewn in the path of the PCs by the GM, typically in a way which is both entertaining and gets the game closer to a final conclusion. And part of the "entertaining" half of that involves getting the players invested in what happens next and have their PCs actively pursue interesting goals (of which the results are, again, largely provided by the GM). Sometimes during the course of the game the GM feels compelled to abandon, rewrite, or otherwise reconfigure the plot-as-written in order to better accomplish the goal of being entertaining for everyone. Sometimes the players feel compelled to abandon, rewrite, or otherwise adjust their characters in order to better fit the plot the GM has prepared, so that the game is more entertaining for everyone.


    (I've been in a few games that were like Shreyas's description, and they sucked, but thankfully those experiences were few and far between. I've been in more shared-narration games that sucked, actually.)
  • When I first started GM'ing (many many years ago) all my games were dungeon crawls of some sort. Sometimes they would have some sort of "town bit" before the dungeon (this was an innovation for me and my teenage friends), sometimes not. What 'writing the plot' meant for these games was drawing a huge and complex map of the dungeon, with page and pages of detailed notes on what was in each room, traps, monsters, treasure and the like, with a brief paragraph somewhere on what the whole thing was 'about'

    A little later I started to elaborate these with notes that were based on my expectations of player action. So I might write "This room contains two sleeping orcs, unless the PCs set off the alarm in room 11, in which case five or six orcs are getting ready for battle, putting on armour and the like". Previously I might have done that on the fly ... or not.

    Over time this evolved into less specified sorts of dungeons, things where I drew the map but then wrote that there were ten monsters living here, rather than specifing where they were exactly.

    As I moved away from linear dungeon adventures I stuck with this concept of lots of detail. I would now describe various locations and encounters with a paragraph or two each, which still added up to many pages per adventure. There would be an opening scene and then many optional scenes (as above, in no particular order), depending on player choice, sort of like a choose your own adventure book. So I would write things like "If the players choose to investigate the old pier they will find many crumbling buildings and abandoned concession stalls. In the last is, at night, a squamous fish man ...". This style, of course, was very much influenced by the style of published adventures, which tend to have many pre-defined scenes and routes through them that the players can follow.

    Over time I got better at winging things that I hadn't written into the plots, and what I needed to write down in advance decreased as I grew more confidant in making it up when needed, and more importantly, at making sure that things I made up on the fly didn't run out of control on me (my first attempts at improvised scenes always ended up with super powerful monsters and character death). I would say that 15 years ago I needed to write 3-4 page of preparation for a single night's 4 hour session, now I make do with a page of notes for 3 or 4 sessions.

    I still write stuff down in advance, but they now tend to be very abbreviated notes. There is still usually a map because I tend to think in spacial terms, and there will be a brief paragraph to myself about what this particular story would be about like "The PC's are offered work ridding a village of a gang of bandits that have been stealing cattle. The lord's men are tied up in the Duke's recent war and the bandits are running wild. They will be paid 2000 silver pieces and any of the bandit's equipment they can carry away."

    That would be followed by a sketch map, and then notes on the major NPCs they might meet, the bandit leader, the local lord or his factor, the village headman, and the combat stats (if its that sort of game) for the typical bandits. The most important part of this other than the map would be the names of the NPCs because I suck at making up names on the fly. My players can always tell when they are outside what little passes for prepared notes these days when I struggle to think of a name for someone when they ask :)

    I've got more to say on this, but this is a long post already so I'll come back later :)
  • Posted By: Accounting for TasteInformation, allies, opponents, and setbacks will be strewn in the path of the PCs by the GM, typically in a way which is both entertaining and gets the game closer to a final conclusion. And part of the "entertaining" half of that involves getting the players invested in what happens next and have their PCs actively pursue interesting goals (of which the results are, again, largely provided by the GM).
    I'm very interested in this mention of 'GM as entertainer' though it may warrant a thread of its own. I think the more the GM is seen as 'entertaining the players' or 'presenting a story to the players' the more preparation they need to do in advance. Some people here are obviously very much not into the idea of Gm as entertainer, but I've been having some discussions with my GURPS players recently that have revealed that they really do want this. They *want* to be entertained, they don't want to share narration, they don't want to step back from the characters and shape the story. i.e. they very much *want* the GM to write the plot.

    Anyway ... I'm off to start a thread on that :)
  • Hey, John. Have you ever read a published adventure or module for D&D? I'm not talking about, like, a setting book. I mean a published adventure where it says something like "For 5 characters of levels 1-3" on the front.

    That's what I think of when I think of the GM making the plot. What's in that book is what the story is and deviations from that written material become a balancing act between giving the players what they want (plus a sense of freedom) and getting them back to the written material.

    In my experience, it's as simple as the GM saying "...and then, the characters will..." and the players going along with it, either out of a sense of cooperation, a sense of obligation, accident, or manipulation.

    I've played RPGs for around 15 years, now. Unlike you, the majority of my experiences have been of the GM creates the plot sort. That is, until the last couple of years. Now that I've gotten away from it, I can't understand how or why I'd ever want to go back. Additionally, and perhaps of interest to you, before the past couple of years, I always found the idea of GMing to be a great deal more fun than the act of it. Now, I'm the opposite. I think the reason is that the plot and the role of the characters in it always seemed much more interesting in my head (when I was writing it) than it did at the table (when we were playing it).

    Let me know if there's anything more specific you'd like to hear about.

    Regards,
    Daniel
  • Renato pretty much has it. There's another, slightly more "Story" orientated way of looking at it though:

    The players create and own their characters. They have complete control over what their characters do. They make their character's motivations clear to the GM.

    The GM, using his knowledge of the players and their characters, creates a story in which the PCs (either individually, or as a group) have a role to play, but he's pretty confident that he knows almost exactly what the PCs will do at any time.

    For example, in the classic Shadowrun game, 95% of character motivation usually comes from money. By having Mr Johnson offer the players a suitable sum to take a reasonable job, the GM can be pretty certain that the PCs will accept.

    So now the PCs are going to break into building X and steal McGuffin Y. The GM doesn't care how they do that. Whatever the PCs come up with will probably be fun to play and it'll either succeed or fail. Assuming that the PCs succeed, they'll had the McGuffin over the Mr Johnson and get their cash. In Story terms, there's really only one plot: the PCs are hired by Mr Johnson to steal the McGuffin and they steal it. This plot if created by the GM, and the players (essentially) follow it.

    In a more "story" oriented game things are slightly more complicated. Vampire, for example, quite often works in a way where the GM spends a lot of time second guessing what the players will want to do based of their character's motivations. So a character who'd loyal to person X can be made to follow plot Y by fictional forces putting pressure on character X. "The Anarchs are threatening to make your herd inaccessible because they no longer feel safe in the park." The GM knows that the player will therefore look into why the Gangrel are not feeling safe in the park. He expects the character to ask around or go to the park, and has clues prepared. He knows that the player will follow these clues to the showdown with his hated ex-wife, who's now a werewolf (or whatever) killing vampires in the park. The GM doesn't so much force the players down a path as wave a big carrot in front of them in the form of an easy way for the players to follow their character's motivations.
  • In my experience the "GM writes the plot" idea is supposed to mean that the GM comes up with situations for the characters to face (like he would in most other games), but then also determines how the various situations are linked to one another or lead from one to the other.

    It's the last part that can cause problems. Especially when pivotal Situation #2 hinges upon a specific outcome of Situation #1. If the GM can avoid that and is otherwise able to build on the player's actions and still introduce his pre-planned situations to the game, the game plays the same way as it would with any other type of GM-ing.
  • Wonderful responses so far, everyone.

    Daniel: Yep, I've read published adventures. I played through one of the WotC ones for D&D3... I forget the name. It actually had a dragon at the end, and we fought it and everything. That was the first time I played multi-session D&D, round about 2001 or so. It was super fun. I never thought of a dungeon crawl as a pre-written plot, though. But I don't say that to challenge what you said! That's just my take. I totally dig what you're saying.

    Hmmm... come to think of it, we also played the "Mercurial" published adventure for Shadowrun, in the 90s. THAT was a pre-made plot, completely! So I lied. I have had one bit of experience with this thing, by way of a published module. It very much matched Renato's numbered breakdown, above.
  • edited October 2007
    Hey Rich:
    Can you talk more about Shadowrun? "Go on this Shadowrun for money" seems like "Go judge this town, Dog." Are they different?

    Georgios:
    VERY interesting insight. "[The GM] also determines how the various situations ... lead from one to the other." That sounds a lot like what people describe as their experience with this. I think most of my play has been "GM creates situations" without that second part added on.
  • Another thought:

    This is also very common in investigative games and one of the reasons I fucking hate them.

    I'm not a massive fan of most TV. But I saw an episode of CSI: Miami the other day which I quite enjoyed. Some guys were stealing stuff and someone got shot during the robbery and the Carusobot turns up and gets his gang of cops to figure out who the robbers are and to stop them. And there was this really cool plot involving the robbers stealing stuff as a cover and the whole point was to kill the guy they shot and make it look random because he was a DA investigating some drug kingpin or something.

    But the point is that the cool plot about the drug kingpin and the motivations for the crime and all that stuff all happened before the Carusobot got involved. And in the typical investigation game, the players are the Carusobot and his gang. They turn up after the plot has happened. That plot was created by the GM, and if the players ask the right questions and make the right die rolls (or, if you're using Gumshoe you don't even roll the dice) they get this pre-written plot which has already happened revealed to them.
  • It's just folk terminology for designing starting points for scenes and the relationships between them. I think a lot of unnecessary rhetoric has been fueled by confusing this for "plot" in the sense of what writers create for linear media, and a lot of bad games have been created via the same confusion.

    The relationships between scenes are sticky points. All games feature customs or design elements intended to restrict player choice and make their connections. Dungeon based design uses a physically embodied flowchart. Social-site games like Vampire are based on social relationships and customs. Some games allow player scene design but provide strictures within the rules that players may employ.
  • Posted By: Rich StokesAnother thought:

    This is also very common in investigative games and one of the reasons I fucking hate them.
    That's because solipsism is the opposite of investigation. A typical investigative game isn't just about creating a narrative whole cloth, but about integrating the unknown into that narrative.
  • Malcolm, "Please share your experiences," is what it says in the OP. Care to share any? So far, your posts are noise.
  • Posted By: John Harper
    VERY interesting insight. "[The GM] also determines how the various situations ... lead from one to the other." That sounds a lot like what people describe as their experience with this. I think most of my play has been "GM creates situations" without that second part added on.
    I think this is a very murky area. In most games it's the job of the GM to get the group from one situation to the other. He's usually the person to frame scenes, establish opposition and provide the players with something their characters can aim for. You have to tie it to what's come before in some way, obviously. Otherwise it's just a random collection of events - like a really crude dungeoncrawl. Seguing from one situation to the another takes quite a bit of practice.

    It gets murky when there's some disagreement about how far the GM is allowed to go to do this. Accusations of railroading, illusionism, etc. often follow, when the players feel that he has crossed some 'obvious' and 'self-evident' line. I've met a few GMs who were actually very reluctanct to frame scenes, wrap up scenes or even give the players something to play towards in fear of railroading the group. Unless the players were able and willing to take over those jobs, the game would slow down to a never-ending agonizing crawl.

    "GM writes the plot" can be read as an attempt to encourage GMs to hold on to their reins. Although it can just as easily lead to GMs actually sidelining the players to playing-by-numbers while the plot and the story keeps going. Which I've also experienced in some games. As I said, it's murky.
  • Yeah, that makes good sense, Georgios. I expect there is a wide spectrum of murkiness here, which is why I'm keen to hear everyone's personal take.
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: John HarperCan you talk more about Shadowrun? "Go on this Shadowrun for money" seems like "Go judge this town, Dog." Are they different?
    Given Shadowrun's age and that it's a product of it's era, the answer isn't really as simple as all that but here we go:

    With Dogs, the text presents exactly one way to play. You are Dogs, you go from town to town doing what Dogs do. There's no attempt to make it a setting to play whatever in: You wouldn't be playing the Steward of a town or a trader from back east for example, and you wouldn't set the game in that setting's Germany.

    In the default Shadowrun campaign, the PCs are runners motivated by cold hard cash. While there's nothing explicit in the game's text which says players have to accept jobs, that's implicit. There's this great illusion that the PCs don't have to accept the job. This suits some players, because they want to play a social character with a good negotiation skill and they can try to get more money from Mr Johnson. But in reality, every game of Shadowrun starts with an opening scene in which, at the end, the players take the job the GM's prepped. I started running adventures which started with characters already staking out the target building when I ran SR recently (2004, I think), because everyone decided that the initial "you go to a nightclub and meet Mr Johnson" scene is a total fucking waste of time.

    (Some GMs will prep 2 or 3 jobs and the players will genuinely get to choose which one the PCs accept. This is rare and a bit hatstand from my POV, but hey, if you've got time to do 3 times as much prep as you have to for a Shadowrun game and enjoy it, that's well wicked.)

    On the other hand, I've run games of Shadowrun where the players weren't just typical runners motivated by cash alone. I ran a game where the payers were cops in the Lone Star Department Of Paranormal Investigation. There the players didn't have any illusion that they had a choice over what jobs to take. I ran a game where the players were a street gang, trying to drag themselves up from the street and carve out some turf. The players really did pretty much do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted with the motivation to make their gang more powerful and richer. Another game had the players as veteran runners caught up in a massive conspiracy where they were fighting for their lives and those of their families and friends. Again, the players had to make some pretty tough choices about things (do I go hell-for-leather to defeat this thing, and if so, what do I do about my sister who's thrown in with the Atlantean Council?). I had players as freedom fighters in central America in another game, Mafia Enforcers in another and a pirate TV crew in another.

    So, as a very open, sprawling and expansive setting you can see there are a lot of different ways to run the game. This was pretty common for games of that time, late 80s/early 90s. But there's a default campaign structure, and that one's "you want money, this is how you're going to get it this week".
  • edited October 2007
    John, it’s worth looking at the various Gumshoe games. They’ve pretty much converted me to the idea that GM-prepared plots can work well.

    So, the GM prepares a mystery to be uncovered. There’s no doubt that the players will uncover the bare bones of the mystery (perhaps where the monster that killed the original victim), but they can uncover that mystery in various ways, and find out about different details and subplots.

    Usually, there’s be an initial location (e.g. a murder scene), which will contain various clues. That might suggest various other locations (the victim’s flat, the home of the victim’s parents, the pub he drank in). All of these are prepared by the GM, but might not be used. They’ll each contain chunks of the mystery to be uncovered.

    Often, these various possible routes will converge on the same final location.

    It’s great to play. Not for Rich, he'd hate it. But, for me, it's great.

    Graham
  • Posted By: Graham WNot for Rich, he'd hate it.
    With a firey passion. I found Esoterrorists to be the most disappointing game of 2006.
  • Many years ago, I formulated the problem for myself thus: I must somehow write a plot that leaves the main characters out.

    I was never able to solve this problem in a way that satisfied me completely, and I reckon I've tried every variation mentioned in this thread and then some.
  • Posted By: Rich Stokes(Some GMs will prep 2 or 3 jobs and the players will genuinely get to choose which one the PCs accept. This is rare and a bit hatstand from my POV, but hey, if you've got time to do 3 times as much prep as you have to for a Shadowrun gameand enjoy it, that's well wicked.)
    Call me stupid but doesn't any GM worthy of the name do this? I always have multiple plots sitting waiting, because I never assume that the players are going to do what I expect. In one campaign I had literally hundreds of mini-plots sitting in a folder waiting for the players if they chose to go to a certain place or do a certain thing. At the very minimum I have two or three plot ideas for things they might encounter in places near to them. Anything else is railroading (there is just one adventure and you must do it) and in a campaign I would strive desperatley to avoid it.
  • Posted By: GeorgiosIt gets murky when there's some disagreement about how far the GM is allowed to go to do this.
    Very true. In most games I've known the GM can either follow the player's actions (acting like a "world simulating machine"), never EVER framing a single scene besides the very first (which will be "you all meet in a tavern", often).

    Or he can frame very aggressively and say things like "and then, after 3 days of walk through the forest, you reach Whateverburg; it's drizzling, and the guards at the door look fiercely at you". Or, he could add "...you go inside the gate and enter the backsmith shop". But there are no guidelines as far as "how far is too far", and while the first framing will be acceptable to most groups (the decision to travel across the forest came from the group), the second can be viewed as railroady ("who told you we would go in the shop?")... or not.

    The group may well think that the prepped plot requires them to meet the blacksmith, and be cool with that.

    The very act of scene framing CAN be felt as the gm pushing the group in a direction.

    And the very concept of scene framing is something I felt as completely new in the newfangled story/hippy games: classic games never mention it, they just imply it.
  • Posted By: HituroAnything else is railroading (there is just one adventure and you must do it) and in a campaign I would strive desperatley to avoid it.
    It's better than a single road railroad, but it's still a three way railroad :)

    What you are looking for, I think, is the so-called "bang based" games: there was a very interesting and enlightening thread here on SG some time ago about this... does some of the older sg-ers have some link? It was the thread where Fred Hicks (or maybe Rob) posted a very nice "visual" distinction between railroading and bangs.

    Basically, you frame a scene where something that's relevant to one or more players/characters happens (bang!). He has to do something about this (even inaction can be something). But no outcome is planned, and there is no "wrong" path to take: whatever path the players will take is interesting, and moves the story forward.

    I think I need someone with more experience than me to explain it in english readable text :-D
  • As I've posted in a different thread (on the GM as entertainer) I have players who don't want me to just do Bangs, they want me to offer a story and drive things. They like investigation, and they seem to want games where things can happen in the background without them knowing, or where they can fail because they didn't do something ... in other words the GM is not just a world simulator for the scenes the players are in, but for the rest of the world too.
  • Posted By: HituroAs I've posted in a different thread (on the GM as entertainer) I have players who don't want me to just do Bangs, they want me to offer a story and drive things.
    Uhm... if they don't know there is no predetermined plot, a bang based game is no different, from their POV, is it?

    You say "The Duke's Daughter, which is also your cousin, has been murdered brutally, what do you do?" that can be a valid bang (as long as it's compatible with the characters of your group).

    Now, if you reveal your cards and say "do whatever you want, I don't have a plot in mind" they will know.

    But if you simply propose them the bang, see where they go, and propose another bang ("you discovered that the killer is probably a serial murderer named THE SHADOW, and he will strike again at next full moon what do you do?"), and so on... they will have a mistery. They will eventually find the murderer. Or not. It's not like a world in a bang based game is static without the player's interactions.
    They like investigation, and they seem to want games where things can happen in the background without them knowing, or where they can fail because they didn't do something ... in other words the GM is not just a world simulator for the scenes the players are in, but for the rest of the world too.
    Oh, but the background WILL move. Moreso than a plotted adventure, if you do it right... and this leads to another tool, I guess: relationship maps.

    You as a gm don't NEED a predetermined plot if you have a network of NPCs (linked in some way to the PCs), each with their own motives, desires, and interests.

    Whatever they choose at each bang-step of the story will have fallout on that map.

    Did they investigate the murder? The Duke will probably look at them as good persons, and will have expectations. Maybe the evil mustache twirling Vizier will not be happy to have a bunch of freelances nosing around.

    Did they ignore it? The Duke will consider those who he is related most to be insensible, or even rude about the issue. Maybe he will suspect of some of them, also. Oh, and next full moon the old Palace Guard's captain wife will be murdered. How the captain will react?

    Not all of these actions and reactions will happen in front of the characters. But they will probably build up new bang-ideas for you, while the map evolves and changes in response to the characters actions.

    Hope this all makes sense... and still hope someone more experienced will add something :)
  • Posted By: HituroCall me stupid but doesn't any GM worthy of the name do this?
    When you're running Dogs In The Vineyard, do you need to prep 3 towns and then ask the players which town they'll visit? Nope.

    How the PCs complete the mission is totally up to them. Giving them an objective (the goal if you like) and no choice in what that objective is isn't a bad thing, it's part of playing Shadowrun. That's just how the game* is supposed to be played. If you sit down to play that type of campaign you're accepting that that's how it's going to be.

    On the other hand, if you're told to get the McGuffin and there's only one way to get it (by taking this exact route through the building, bypassing this security device, climbing this elevator shaft while the decker diverts all the lift carriages etc etc), then that's very much not part of what's agreed. If the players want to come up with some crazy scheme involving a helicopter, a bribed security consultant and 3 tons of bacon fat, let that play out and see what happens. If you've designed your mission right, there are probably 30 possible routes to the McGuffin that you never thought of. I'm not saying "whatever the players try, no matter how crazy, let it succeed." I'm saying "Don't design missions so that there's only one true way of completing them and all other paths lead to failure."

    * by which I mean, the "default campaign" where all the players are runners out for cash.
  • Posted By: HituroAs I've posted in a different thread (on the GM as entertainer) I have players who don't want me to just do Bangs, they want me to offer a story and drive things.
    Story Games are not for everyone. There are a lot of players who're just along for the ride: They actually want the GM to tell them a story, or to reveal bits of a story to them as a reward for something. These players will not feel comfortable taking more control or being part of a game which doesn't work like that.

    Which is totally fine. They just want to play a different type of game to you. So play different games.

    I had to cut a player loose from my gaming space because he wasn't into that type of thing. Great guy and a good friend, but he really doesn't want to play the types of game I want to, so we just don't game together any more. Well, not regularly anyway, we still play Savage Worlds occasionally.
  • Posted By: John HarperMalcolm, "Please share your experiences," is what it says in the OP. Care to share any? So far, your posts are noise.
    Take what I wrote and add "In my experience" then. After that, feel free to lecture me on their value further.
  • Posted By: Rich StokesWhich is totally fine. They just want to play a different type of game to you. So play different games.
    I'm not sure they do :) I'm just dipping my toes in indie water so far, I've never actually played one (so I know how they feel), though I suspect, as renatoram says above that in many cases the difference is not so big as it seems, its just less overt. If someone wants to come over and let me join in a game of MLWM or Best Friends or PTA then they are very welcome :)

    As it happens I like to tell stories, and I like to design backgrounds, so what they want suits me, but I have suspicions I'd like the other way too.
  • edited October 2007
    My approach has varied a good deal down the years, but started out like most peoples with dungeon construction (which can be considered as the branching plot given physical form).

    Later, when I had moved on to games like CoC, where the plot structure has to be less physical in nature, I often wrote an initial setup, a bunch of cool scenes that might happen in various ways, some of them rather scripted, others less so, and then some trigger to unleash the final conflict when the GM judged it to be time.

    Nowadays my approach is more akin to town building in Dogs in some ways - I look at it as a series of questions to be answered. The first one is what is going to motivate the PCs to do anything at all. This is often best couched as a single issue or question that they can't ignore. In LotR, it would be "Sauron is going to take over Middle Earth unless someone stops him". In horror, some sort of plot to save the world is common, but things such as the PCs exposing themselves to curses, etc. also work well. Or someone they care about going missing, etc.

    Next, I write a backstory of what has happened so far, to the extent that understanding it will help the PCs resolve their issue. This may be subject to alterations later, especially if the players think of things that seem more fun than my ideas. This is a timeline leading up to the start of the game, basically. This tail must not be allowed to wag the dog. If there is more action and drama in the backstory than in the game, something is wrong!

    Then I find some fun locations that the PCs are likely to end up while trying to resolve their issue, and write down who might be found there, what their motivations are and what resources they have available. I don't script scenes. I try to establish links between these locations, and connections to the backstory (clues, if you will). I avoid single points of failure like the plague. If it's important that the PCs read a certain book, I try to think of as many places where it might be (and how it might have got there) as I can. And where else the information might be found, such as talking to someone who has read it. A common theme in these locations is to have some kind of conflict in progress where the PCs arrival and/or intervention will make a difference.

    Hopefully it's clear that there is one location where things will have to end up eventually if the situation is to be resolved. In LotR this would be Mount Doom, but I try to avoid having a clear single solution that must be used, only a place where things will come to a head. I will try to put potentially useful stuff both here and in the other locations, and insert elements that can be used to dramatic effect, like a volcano that can erupt, a tornado that can sweep in, a monster the size of a house that can be let loose, etc. Then I wing it, and hope that the players come up with some way of resolving things that we all find plausible and entertaining.

    Lastly, there may be a "sting in the tail", if the story we eventually produce warrants it. This will not generally be a conflict, just a piece of evidence that puts part of the story in a different light. Lovecraft fans will have seen plenty of these!

    The relationship between the "plot" and the PCs is a shifting one. Typically these days I get the basic idea down without much detail. Then I get the players to create characters, once I have enough to see what PCs will work well or badly with the sort of thing I have in mind. Then I start tailoring the game to the characters so that it ties in better to their personal issues, maybe links to their history in various ways, and isn't quite so "one size fits all".

    Was that helpful?
  • Posted By: John HarperSo, what's it like?What does the GM do? What do the players do? Please share your experiences.
    Some variations I've encountered (and liked):

    1. Plot is a background, not on the foreground

    The GM-written plot is something that strolls onward and the players are fine with this. It advances on it's own pace and ties things together - players concentrate on characters interacting with each other and with the world. The plot and characters part in it has to be believeable, though. The GM advances the plot when the play needs momentum or when he feels like it, but mostly concentrates on supporting whatever the players are doing at the moment.

    2. The plot is very simple (like a situation, or a drastic change to it)

    The GM creates an intresting starting situtation and possibly characters. Play proceeds pretty much like described above, except that there's really no plot to advance. At some point, GM might step in and drastically change the situtation (like, suddenly the characters who are participants in a reality-tv show and cut off from the rest of the world, notice that the rest of the world has been run over by zombies) and players react to that. More plotless and player-driven play ensues. The players role is to lead the play towards whatever they want; the GM's role is to support the players and only step in when needed. Needs much more improvisation than the previous example, unless the starting situtation itself is very constrained (like being in a reality-tv show).

    3. Add enough fuel, wait for the explosion (not really a plot as such)

    The GM prepares the characters and the starting situtation and perhaps anticipates what might happen based on those, and prepares some content for it. The concent might come into use or not. What happens is again player-driven play; the has injected enough stuff into the characters and starting situtations for players to grasp and then steamroll onwards. If play goes to direction he anticipated, then cool - he can use some of the prepared stuff. If not, he needs to improvise, unless they players happily do that by themselves. A GM with too much time in his hands might prepare a lot of stuff (like mapping out a lot of NPC's, their motivations and whatever) and just adjust it based on player iniative.

    All these share approaches, I think, a certain degree of downgrading the importance of the "plot". It can exist, it can be really simple or straightforward, but it's rarely on the foreground as some kind of dotted red line that players are eagerly expected to follow.
  • I've remembered that I have an adventure I've written online (Saving New Sunnich) this is a very simple thing, for the Pokethulhu game, but it is typicalish of the kind of preparation I'd do for a Convention game or the like, and similar (if, say, three times as long and twice as specific) as what I might note down for an average GURPS session. Please note ... it is railroaded, which suits the game perfectly.
  • John, and everyone else,

    I've just gone back to the idea of making a plot as the GM after several years of inventing hooks as the GM and then improvising. I'm running a D&D 3.5 game for a bunch of cool guys. There's a lot of ways to GM a D&D game, but I'm definitely going with the idea that I create a plotted story for the player characters to discover and interact with.

    For me, this means that I create strong NPCs with motivations, and at the top of the story, I create their actions. It also means that I'm not above doing stuff with no PCs present, which is super-different for me. Since the plot is separate from the player characters, I have the freedom to make it not about them. As an example: in our first game, the big adventure was a mine cave-in that the PCs had to rescue guys from. The mine cave-in was orchestrated by the big bad guy; he wanted to get all the heroes out of town so he could steal something. Now, I did give them several clues and chances to run back to town, but I expected them to do what did happen: they stayed at the mine, and the guy stole something, so next session, they have a reason to chase him into the wilderness. Even if they'd gone back, he's 4th level and they're 1st, so he would have beat them silly.

    I would never, ever do this in, say, The Shadow of Yesterday. In that, I'm not making a plot separate from the PCs. It's a given that the PCs are the plot, and it revolves around them. One's not really better than the other, and I'm finding it super-refreshing to play with my NPCs ahead of time, deciding that they're going to do this, then that, then the other. In any game like this, unless you take super-tight control, the PCs and plot will collide and both will change because of it. I expect in session 2 or 3, I'll have to start changing the plot based on what happens with the PCs.
  • Posted By: Malcolm SheppardThat's because solipsism is the opposite of investigation. A typical investigative game isn't just about creating a narrative whole cloth, but about integrating the unknown into that narrative.
    Please explain this. I'm failing to grok it. It's like you're throwing some kind of dismissive statement out there to the effect of "You don't get it, you aren't doing it right!" and then not actually explaining why or what I should be looking for and doing. This is probably what has John so riled. I don't think this is necessarily your intention, but it's how terse statements like that one come off.

    I know full well you aren't an idiot, you've probably got something to say. Please say it, don't just hint that you have answers, because that's what you're doing right now. I want to know. You didn't get where you are today by chance (well, that seems pretty unlikely to me) you must have learned a thing or two.
  • edited October 2007
    Clinton,

    That's really neat. Are the players used to hippy gaming or are they used to regular, GM lead (and dare I say, Traditional) gaming?
  • Frankly, I'm just trying to compress what I have to say into something portable.

    What I mean is that a traditional investigative game is about searching for something beyond the players' perspective -- the unknown. The plot is constructed from encounters with that unknown, which exists outside of the players creative frame of reference. When you have that, the investigation has verisimilitude that extends beyond how the narrative hangs together. The GM doesn't have a plot; she just has the facts. Players manipulate their access to and interpretation of the facts. The facts are not the plot. I find the gun and the act of discovery -- that I find that gun in that way -- is what matters.

    By contrast, when you generate the discoveries yourself you can fine tune the narrative flow to a great degree, but you sacrifice that verisimilitude. The tension occurs based on your ability to direct the narrative instead of the facts you can pull into the narrative. I make the gun appear and what matters is how well I make that appearance make sense.

    I think you could probably combine approaches with some kind of mystery generator (roll 13 or draw from the deck; you find a gun, but you determine its significance), but I think a lot of people find looking for random results kind of hollow.
  • I got exactly what you meant Malcolm, I didn't reply because I didn't want to make another post about my Solipsist playtest ... even though you used the word 'solipsist' and that makes it hard to resist! My exact problem, I think, was in running a game about solipsism and trying to use it for an investigation where I had a plot and a mystery ahead of time. The characters wanted everything to be about themselves, and from their world view, not something beyond it that they had accommodate. They had their own narratives and no room for mine.
  • Similar things happened in Mage once things hit Master/Archmaster levels of power. At those ranks, there are few things that can't be enfolded, altered and redone as a new narrative by the very broad range of magical powers available. The solution in that game is that subjective power outside of that wielded by PCs wrestles with the PCs' mojo for supremacy.
  • Rich,

    It's a combination. I'm playing with Story Games' own Andy K, who plays a good mix of more traditional games with his story games; Shane, who is in the same boat; James, whose game history I'm not completely clear on, but he's definitely exposed to all types; and Scott, who has never played D&D before, and is sort of new to RPGs, although he's played some indie stuff.

    They seem to be digging it. I am going to loosen the plot reins as soon as possible, because I know these guys, and I can see that they'll take it fun places. Even with that, though, I have about three different groups I think they'll find some interest in, and I've got mini-plots for those groups.
  • Right, I think I get what you're aiming at. You seem to be saying that David Caruso finding a gun in a ditch is what matters. I say I don't care who finds the gun or how they find it, I care how it got there. How did it get there? Who put it there? Why? What was it used for?

    Really, I think a lot of this might come down to semantics: One man's Plot is another man's Situation.
  • Clinton,

    I've had similar experiences games like that usually go just fine. One thing I'll be interested to see is how well D&D supports that loose reign. I've heard from a number of people that (certainly above a certain power level) the complexity involved in preparing a D&D game can make GMs (sorry, DMs) very reluctant to permit their players to deviate from planned events. Most groups seem to do fine though, but I'd be interested to hear about your experiences.
  • Posted By: Rich StokesI've heard from a number of people that (certainly above a certain power level) the complexity involved in preparing a D&D game can make GMs (sorry,DMs) very reluctant to permit their players to deviate from planned events. Most groups seem to do fine though, but I'd be interested to hear about your experiences.
    The same goes for GURPS, where even a quick sketch of an NPC requires notes on 10 or so stats and 5-6 skills. If you've done that for a few key players, and outlined the places they are in and so on, you hate to see it wasted by not being used ... but that is the price of preparation. The question is does preparation make it better than winging it? For me the answer is yes, for others it might not be.

    As described back in the Go anywhere, do anything thread I once tried to combine the two approaches by detailing little plot nuggets for everywhere it was possible for the PCs to go in advance, so there was a whole world full of adventures sitting there, pre-prepared but not forced. It was a load of hard work though, and I'm still not sure if it was worth it, but it was interesting.
  • Posted By: Malcolm SheppardI make the gun appear and what matters is how well I make that appearance make sense.
    That, right there, always gets me. Because, see, in a mystery, the finding of the weapon might just not make sense at first. And that's part of what makes the genre fly.

    ...I think I'm basically just agreeing with you, here.
  • Posted By: HituroAs described back in theGo anywhere, do anythingthread I once tried to combine the two approaches by detailing little plot nuggets for everywhere it was possible for the PCs to go in advance, so there was a whole world full of adventures sitting there, pre-prepared but not forced.
    The Savage Worlds Plot Point books do this. I'm a big fan. They're not unlike the setup in computer games like Oblivion or whatever: Here's a world, here are the main NPCs, here are the stats for generic bad guys, here are a bunch of small adventures which are triggered in certain places. Players start here, now off you go!
  • Posted By: Malcolm SheppardIt's just folk terminology for designing starting points for scenes and the relationships between them.
    This, plus, "the GM often just has the facts", is what I think.
  • Posted By: Rich StokesThere are a lot of players who're just along for the ride: They actually want the GM to tell them a story, or to reveal bits of a story to them as a reward for something.
    Or to phrase it in a less inflammatory way: there are a lot of players who prefer to interact with the game only through their character, and want someone else to tell them what the results of that interaction are. They're not sitting in the car and looking out the window as the scenery rolls by, they're using a very specific tool with very specific limitations to try and push a situation not of their own devising towards conclusions which they hope will be satisfying.

    If your only experience with GM-run plots is uninteresting railroads that never engage the players, you can be fooled into thinking that it's all "just along for the ride" gaming. If you've played in games with GM-run plots that really grabbed the players, you will never labor under that misconception again; just because the GM creates the plot and the players choose to only interact with and attempt to affect that plot through their characters is in no way similar to the players being "just along for the ride."
  • edited October 2007
    At high end of GM control, GM Plot = Hidden Story. There in the module or the GM notes is the story all written out. Players with their PC's will bring "their interpretation" to it and yes Mel Gibons or Lawrence Olivier as Hamlet may seem like a different play but what makes it different is their choices as actors, they are not the author of the story.

    At low end it's GM Plot = Conflict Web etc. (cf Chris Chinn's writing) of a situation that is a sandbox for the Players to have PC's play in.

    The major issue is not to be confused about style of play. If somebody thinks they have more choice than they do, they're going to be frustrated. If they think play is to advance without them choosing, they (and others) will be bored.

    In full on Predetermined Plot and Hidden Story, the GM scripts events (scenes and conflicts) to happen before they are played out. This might be a plot or adventure created before play, or a flowchart of possible events. The players’ choices are limited to fit within the predetermined constraints of the Hidden Story. This is the play-style assume by D&D etc. Dungeons are really massive flow charts (as others have said in other places).

    The key scripted events exist before play begins. These are then revealed as play progresses. Thus it is “Hidden Story”. Player choices lead down various branches but these branches generally reconverge around the core events the GM has prepared. All roads lead to Rome, and funnily enough all have an identical group of bandits on them and the same wandering seer with a cryptic prophecy.

    A Hidden Story uses on “adventure hooks” to show the way to a specific story. PC’s are expected to respond affirmatively to the plea for help or chance of pirate gold ~ or there’s no game tonight. A hook is usually not only the reason PCs get involved but also a description of what sort of story is going to follow subject to any plot twists. In Hidden Story, it’s the GM who authors plot twists and surprises both Players and PCs with them.

    A good GM tailors the adventure, starting with its hooks, to be multifaceted, appealing to all characters and thus avoiding stress on character concepts and in fact allowing those concepts to be demonstrated and fulfilled with the story. Story fits the characters because it draws on their past play and character/player interests to make the hook (and the adventure) responsive to their interests. The GM modifies the story and upcoming scenes to account for the effects of choices PCs have made and possibly the reactions of Players.

    Play tends to focus on Challenges because the range of choices and outcomes involved do not have to significantly change what sorts of scenes follow. If Players could suddenly go off to explore a different part of world or undergo a fundamental personal shift that changed their priorities, then the conditions for the Story would change and throw it into disarray. When the kind of Player choice play focuses on is the tactical/strategic choice involved in facing Challenges, the Players can make choices without changing the GM’s planned plot.

    Hidden Story also works well for Challenge-based Gamist play because it means there is time for a GM to prepare scenes to be “balanced Challenges to effectiveness” and present exciting action set pieces - time to think these out in advance and “calculate them” is useful.

    Hidden Story's approach to balance and “equal player time” though ensuring the planned scenes include opportunities to test each PC’s design and effectiveness, giving each a chance to show their particular abilities are useful and that the player is effective at using them (e.g., see the Challenge Design section). The Hidden Story may have “spot light” scenes built into it for different PC’s (rather than system economies etc. for such).

    A GM may revise the Hidden Story on an ongoing basis to give other Player choices meaning and impact (e.g., there was no scene with woodland fey planned but the players’ idea of getting their assistance is accepted as a valid strategy and the scene is created). The most “player denying” approach to player creativity is for the GM to deny hope of success to any pathway except the one the GM (or a module author) created before play began (opposite of Say Yes or Roll the Dice).

    A common flaw in “Hidden Story” is that much of the story is never revealed to anyone but the GM (e.g., the elaborate history of the situation that is presented in the opening text for the GM but which is never anywhere revealed to players). A newer generation of module (Goodman Games) tries hard to move away from this ~ there coming the time when every bit of background the GM had at the start also becomes known to Players.
  • In full on Predetermined Plot and Hidden Story, the GM scripts events (scenes and conflicts) to happen before they are played out. This might be a plot or adventure created before play, or a flowchart of possible events. The players’ choices are limited to fit within the predetermined constraints of the Hidden Story. This is the play-style assume by D&D etc. Dungeons are really massive flow charts (as others have said in other places).
    I think that this is really all games, ever. All games have mechanisms that restrict player choice. Sometimes they're informal and sometimes they're formal and rulesy. Nobody's ever going to resolve a Burning Empires plot with a noninfected human/Vaylen alliance to explore the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, except perhaps in response to me saying this. DitV games do not generally veer into "Fuck the townies, we're going to live apart as locust eaters to become pure." To take a page from my own gaming, my players like to get into a Sims-type thin managing their characters' budgets, furnishing apartments and so on. Our usual systems don't support it, so this isn't something that's especially sustainable.

    The flowchart is not a necessary structure, though. Games where play changes relationships instead of just causing movement along a path are pretty standard.
  • edited October 2007
    I used to run games with predetermined plot ALL THE TIME. It went something like this.

    I'd create a "campaign" which meant I had this setting (a place) and a bunch of NPCs. I'd explain to my players what the deal was, like it's D&D fantasy without all the weirdness or think X-Files (two actual examples).

    But, I'd already created the things they were "supposed to do." I'd create set pieces and determine their outcome. For example, they encounter a serial killer who gets away but not before leaving clues. Yes, they could fight him a little bit. No, it didn't really fucking matter. Yes, they went along for the ride.

    And, I built these things as rising stories that culminated in a climax. So, for example, one player had built a dragonslaying paladin and a fun backstory for how his ancestors had failed and he was cursed by a squire ghost to go kill this big bad black dragon. WHADDYA KNOW! They fought it and he won. Lots of that went down.

    So, some interesting things happened here. The players were protagonists in that they were the main characters of a building story. This wasn't me, as the GM, having them as sideline "helper" characters to the real NPC hero or something. BUT! They were not protagonists in that they really had very little input and choice in how things went down in the story of events. That was me, deciding everything for them. And, even more scary, I had many, many of the events decided long before we even started PLAY. It wasn't gonig "Hmm, well they screwed THAT up good. What should I have them do now." It was "Ok, they did Part A, now on to Part B, and after that they'll fight and win Part C."

    This was, of course, some pretty heavy-handed illusionism. It was fun at the time. The players enjoyed it. They still talk about those old campaigns fondly. While they may have rose colored glasses about much of those days, I don't see any regret or concern that they didn't have any real input on the story. And, they enjoyed the story, such as it was. (To be clear, they sure as hell liked the fighting set pieces and other situations. Looking back, that's the core of their fun, I think, and a big part of how people enjoy "GM writes the plot" kind of play.)

    I'll never do it again, I hope.
  • Posted By: Accounting for Taste
    Or to phrase it in a less inflammatory way: there are a lot of players who prefer to interact with the game only through their character, and want someone else to tell them what the results of that interaction are. They're not sitting in the car and looking out the window as the scenery rolls by, they're using a very specific tool with very specific limitations to try and push a situation not of their own devising towards conclusions which they hope will be satisfying.
    Exactly what I was saying in the "GM as Entertainer" thread. There are players who feel their point of entry into the world is, and should only be, their character.
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