Help me understand: GM writes the plot

2

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  • Posted By: HituroI 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.
    The more I go back and read this, the more I think it isn't true.

    Or at least, not any more true than it would be in a hippie shared-narration game: the same skills that would make someone bring the awesome in a GM-less shared-narration game are applicable to bringing the awesome in a game they're running as a GM. The only real difference between the two situations is that as a GM they have the option to do more preparation in advance, because they don't have to fit in anyone else's suggestions unless they really want to. Yeah, for a lot of people doing the preparation in advance makes sense and produces a better result (for exactly the same reason that a tightly-scripted comedy sketch is typically funnier than 90% of improv), but that just makes it something you want to do, not something you absolutely need to do.
  • Posted By: HituroThere are players who feel their point of entry into the world is, and should only be, their character.
    Yeah, quite a few in fact. And it's a perfectly valid point of view and people have a great time with it every day.

    But if you want to play games which work differently, you'll need to not play with those people.
  • edited October 2007
    There, I found the post by Iago that sums pretty much what bangs vs illusionism means

    Bangs vs Illusionism
  • I think that Malcolm has a point here, after a fashion. Which is that when we in story-games talk about plot, we're talking about the sort of player agency that we're looking for in play. Terminology like plot aside, the question comes down to several styles of play. Yes, they're all ways to move the narrative forward. But you can't ignore that different versions will appeal to different players differently.

    I think this is why John is doing this thread, to see what actual play looks like that people are associating with the term plot, where people feel that the GM is controlling the plot. Even better, it's about when the player feels that they have control of their character's destiny to some extent. Note that the question of players having "Narration powers" or such is ancillary to the question here, one can be satisfied or disappointed simply by how much agency they have over their own character.

    The examples can be boiled down into four categories, roughly. The examples below are all ones I've experienced, and I'll give examples of each to stay in the spirit of the thread:

    - Railroading - or what many people would call railroading for certain, because it's at a level of GM control where the player has very little agency. This is the point at which there is not even an appearance of player control of their characters. As an extreme example, I once played in a game where the GM actually did the dialog for everybody's character. The player's role was, as far as I could tell, to just answer "yes" when he asked questions like, "Do you follow him?" I've never heard anyone say that they enjoy this sort of play, but I suppose it's not impossible. After all, one can enjoy somebody telling them a story. It's just that the expectation for RPGs is that they are somewhat more interactive than this.

    - Illusionism - I played this way for years. Basically the players are made to feel like they have agency over all of their character's actions, but the results of those actions are manipulated behind the scenes so that the outcomes are always the same. The classic example is a technique that I used a lot called the magician's force, where you say, "Do you go right or left?" and no matter which way they choose, you have the encounter you want at the end of that road. More practically, when the plot "goes off the rails" as is sometimes said, the GM can get it back on by manipulating the world such that the player decisions lead to the same effect.

    For instance, I once had this scenario where the idea was that the PCs would eventually discover that this lord of a castle was a demon in disguise (based off something I downloaded off the net). But the players smelled something funny right off the bat, and stated that their characters were going to go straight to him to confront him and force him to tell them what was up - skipping all of the clever challenges and such that I'd set up along the rout to discovery. So I simply said that the lord had left to go on some errand by a magical portal that could only be used once a day. So they couldn't follow him to ask, and were left to do the investigation in the manner that I had planned for them to do so.

    So it appears to the players that their choices are meaningful... if only the lord had not left, they would have been able to confront him. But what's really going on is that I as GM was using my authority to create facts to control the outcomes of the PCs actions to cause the plot I want to occur.

    To some extent Illusionism is usually understood by the players to be occuring. In the case above, in fact, after playing one of the players asked just how much I was shifting facts behind the scenes to make things work out the way they worked out. And I lied and said that it was only a little. When, in fact, it was pretty much 100%. The only time I wasn't controlling the outcomes of what the players did, was when they were following the cues that were laid out for them to follow.

    But from other comments from the same group at other times, I could tell that, basically, the player's felt that their participation in the game was mostly about overcoming the combat challenges presented. And that, while they weren't feeling "railroaded" in the rest of play, they felt pretty much as though it was just their role to "go through the motions" of the plot I had devised. Put it this way: they weren't disappointed with their level of control of character, but it wasn't why they were coming to play, either.

    - Mixed - Nothing is 100%. That is, like one poster above, I would have multiple scenarii prepared, to allow the selection of the scenario to actually be something that the players controlled. Provide them with three plot hooks, and let them decide which one to take. Not that this is what anyone would consider plot control per se, but it's plot selection, at least. Also there might be scenes in these which are more "freeformy" in that there is no specific goal for the scene at all, except to "see what happens." Like in one case where I had just a court ball going on, with loads of NPCs, and the PCs were free to persue whatever agenda suited them. Of course in this case, the scene ended with one character turning into a werewolf, which put the plot firmly right back on track. Making much of what happened in the scene itself somewhat pointless, because we'd never get back to any of it in any substantial way.

    - Open - The term "plot" has, unfortunately, two pertinent meanings. One is "the plan of the villain" or that sort of thing. As in "he was hatching a plot." So some people think of plot in terms of the "facts" of the situation which remain to be discovered. This is an entirely different sort of set-up, however. Just as the dungeon situations of olde, they simply set the stage for the PCs, who are then allowed to roam it at will, and deal with what they find there as they wish. In this case, there is complete player agency. This is how I've played almost exclusively for the past 4 years.

    As an example, recently I had a player decide that his character was going to remove her mind from her body, and put it into this dome of mental power, and then make an automaton of her body. This was quite out of the blue, and I hadn't imagined that it would happen at all. Since then, play of that game has revolved around the effort to make these two magic experiments work. The first stage is complete, but the second has involved going far off to the character's father in a goblin stronghold, the other players' characters' stories revolving around this trek as background (one is, for example, considering that he may want to deal with the goblins committing slavery, as he is militantly against it).

    Basically I have no plot, just the evolving situation, and how everybody reacts to it.

    Continued...
  • ...from above.


    Now, being that most play is mixed in some way, everybody is going to point to specific examples of where the GM controlled where the action went next, and in other cases to where the players did. Full railroading is actually pretty rare (mostly because I think those GMs don't get to run again). Illusionism as a technique is pretty darn common. Open play is too, as we're seeing from the examples.

    So to the extent that these things are mixed, you have, at best, a spectrum of GM control of events. Ranging from complete, constant control, down to control only of the elements that give players situations in which to make their decisions.

    Down to where there's no GM, I suppose. What I've never seen is a GM who did not have the power to control events that was equivalent to that of the players, via the agency of "everything else." It's not ever about one side or the other having all of the power. It's about how to share the power to control outcomes through character agency, in order that the result of play be a collaboration in which every participant has gotten to add a part to play that has engaged them creatively.

    Mike
  • Posted By: HituroPosted 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.

    Also, my vegan daughter refuses to eat my awesome baby back ribs, despite my best efforts to sway her.

    I kid, I kid. The point of view you're coming from, however, is one of "but what does an existing player who really likes type of game X think about this stuff?!?"

    Which is fine in itself, but understand that you're doing the same thing as offering a vegan some babyback ribs, then perhaps reading outtward from that a bit too much.

    Which isn't really shocking. I mean most rpgs designed for the first couple of decades of the existence of rpgs had no formal procedures for shared world-(or anything else) building.

    I've also had people try gaming, and decide they really didn't like it, at least partly based on the fact that there wasn't more shared effort.

    Have you ever experienced that, Hituro? You'll generally know it. It's the player that's constantly haring off, offering suggestions for what could happen or what might be there. They just can't seem to stay in their character's skin only.

    I've had folks like that. They don't seem to do particularly well with traditional rpg set-ups. IME, they also don't tend to keep playing rpgs, regardless of how clever or imaginative they are unless they either become a GM or severley modify and limit their behavior.

    Oh sure, on a local , ad-hoc basis, people did that sort of thing. Some books might even have had stuff in the advice section on getting players more involved with that stuff. I know I had players in my very traditional games years ago doing stuff like that, or suggesting stakes, or offering scene-framing, etc, etc. It just wasn't formal.
  • edited October 2007

    - Open - The term "plot" has, unfortunately, two pertinent meanings. One is "the plan of the villain" or that sort of thing. As in "he was hatching a plot." So some people think of plot in terms of the "facts" of the situation which remain to be discovered. This is an entirely different sort of set-up, however. Just as the dungeon situations of olde, they simply set the stage for the PCs, who are then allowed to roam it at will, and deal with what they find there as they wish. In this case, there is complete player agency. This is how I've played almost exclusively for the past 4 years.
    This is a great way of putting it.

    Most of my games are "mixed" in this sense. There are a few scenes out there that the characters will get to, but they're very loosely constructed. My Star Wars Saga game is currently a 1 page summary of these along with relevant aspects of the global situation (this is, incidentally, really easy when the setting is well-developed). The scenes are very loose and could go down in a number of ways. In fact, much of my adventure writing professionally comes from analyzing these scenes after the fact (since players expect more support than a bunch of point form notes and in many cases, benefit from detail even as a springboard for taking a different approach).
  • Yeah a key to all of this is in the difficult skill of determining what it is that the player wants to control.

    GM: "Does your character take a bathroom break on the way there?"

    Player: "Huh? Whatever. Sure. Why are you asking?"

    The GM acting to limit player participation is usually doing the player a favor. The player doesn't want to have to decide whether or not his character has made a stop at the rest room, it's just not important to anyone. So if the GM frames a scene to where the character is going, and skips how he got there, this is more than acceptable, it's usually considered the GM's duty.

    The question of whether or not the GM is controlling things in a way that the player likes, has to do with whether or not it's facilitating him getting to make the sort of decisions he wants to make, or if it's making those decisions for the player.

    So what you're describing Malcolm, is pretty open really. The limitation in question, these wide-open scenes, just constrains the players in a way that gives them opportunities to make choices that are fun to make. I'm assuming.


    I think this is the key. Don't worry about "plot" and control of it, you will have some control of it, and need to (should be required to). The questions you need to ask yourself is these:
    - Am I giving my players decisions to make?
    - Are these decisions ones that the player is going to enjoy?
    - Am I making them "real" in that I won't take away the effect of those decisions, in order that the player doesn't feel cheated?

    Be proactive about it, not reactive. Worry less about whether or not you're taking away something from the player and worry more about whether or not you're giving the player something to do. See the GM role in the positive light of not what mistakes you might make, but what you're adding to the game for everyone. If you do that, I think you can't mess up.

    Mike
  • Malcolm's post about having a loose set of ideas for scenes and when Mike said:
    Posted By: Mike Holmes
    I think this is the key. Don't worry about "plot" and control of it, you will have some control of it, and need to (should be required to). The questions you need to ask yourself is these:
    - Am I giving my players decisions to make?
    - Are these decisions ones that the player is going to enjoy?
    - Am I making them "real" in that I won't take away the effect of those decisions, in order that the player doesn't feel cheated?

    Be proactive about it...
    Both resonated with me and how I tend to GM and when I look back, that is when I GMed when it went well.
  • Posted By: Mike Holmes- Am I giving my players decisions to make?
    - Are these decisions ones that the player is going to enjoy?
    - Am I making them "real" in that I won't take away the effect of those decisions, in order that the player doesn't feel cheated?
    *applauds*
  • I think Mike has nailed it. My experience, very likely similar to many other folks here, started with DnD where you couldn't really grace the sequence of play events as "plot," inasmuch as we pretty much went from room to room in a series of plundering, scorched-earth micro-raids. Later I graduated to railroading plots (always with mixed success as player actions were inherently unpredictable), and then to illusionism. Player actions still lent an air of unpredictability to the game, but rarely disturbed the larger plot arc.

    My turning point came when I ran a Vampire chronicle back in the mid-90's where I had a definite plot arc in mind and was running preludes with an eye toward setting up characters to fit into that plot. In the Nosferatu's prelude, I tossed off some color point about a prophecy of Gehenna. I didn't mean it as anything more than atmosphere, but the player seized on it and made dealing with that prophecy his character's mission. His decisions totally broke my plot. In essence, he took (unwittingly) a slew of Keys, including Key of the Prophecy, Key of Compassion, etc. and drove the plot into emergent territory. I was never able to recover any sense of structured, locked-in plot, and the game events unfurled a three-ring circus tent of Awesome.

    Nowadays when I GM, I try to set up story elements, set pieces, and relationship maps around the players and their flags in a way that establishes a modicum of dramatic tension at the outset. Basically I poise the various pieces so that they are ready to tip in interesting ways, but I don't care which way they go, and I always remain open for the players to change anything. Some world elements have their own agendas and momentum, but they basically change in response to the players' actions. I try not to approach conflicts with any notion of a set outcome, though I'll drop a few Bangs in the pond to stir things up. I may also nail down some big looming events in the future, though with the caveat that the player actions might change them or prevent their occurrence.

    That's the ideal, anyway. Doesn't always work. I recently ran an Ars Magica game with the prototypical vis hunt. I hadn't run one in awhile, and it turned out to offer a pretty linear set of encounters. I realized I'd reverted to 1992 in terms of prep style. Next time the challenge will be to make a vis hunt nonlinear while still offering the basic objective. When I ran a mystery in the same Ars group, I set it up with an R-map and let the players blunder through it. Interestingly, they didn't really solve anything, just disrupted the hell out of the village they were there to help. They emerged mostly clueless about what was really going on, but the body count was high enough to give them a sense of accomplishment. IOW, they *thought* they'd resolved the problem. They were wrong, so the dark forces in that little village will continue to tick away for another time.
  • edited October 2007
    Thanks for all the great responses. There are so many! Some replies and further questions below...

    Rich:
    Thanks for talking about Shadowrun. That matches my experience of the game. That is, we always just took the jobs and did Shadowruns, but for some reason the illusion that we could "do anything" was always there. From my POV here and now in 2007, the Shadowrun set up (as well as the Dungeon set up) looks a lot more attractive when I think of it like a Dogs town.

    That's a sign of my changing preferences more than anything, I bet.

    Graham:
    I read Gumshoe. I'm with Rich. Most disappointing game of the year. Not because it's a bad design (it's not) but because it was so exactly the opposite of the game I wanted to play. A GM-authored crime that the PCs uncover is not what I think when I hear "GM writes the plot," but if that fits the bill for you, that's cool.

    Dave:
    Great post. I see a description of how you run games... are you saying that's "GM writes the plot"? Do you identify that phrase as matching what you're doing now, or just the first bit with D&D and CoC?

    Jukka (Merten):
    Your #1 is very interesting to me. That matches what I've heard when people talk about GM-plotted games. The murky bits for me are phrases like, "The GM advances the plot," and "the plot strolls onward." Can you expand on that? What is the GM doing when she advances the plot? What role do the players have?

    Clinton:
    Cool. That's exactly how I ran Talislanta. So your end of the GM-plotted spectrum is the part I know.

    Rob (Valvorik):
    Great stuff! I see a distinction in my own play between creating a dungeon to be explored and creating a storyline and events ahead of time. What do you think? To me, those aren't quite on the same part of the spectrum. Same with adventure hooks followed by bangs. Your "A good GM..." paragraph matches a lot of play I've had, which I would not have characterized as GM-plotted. But I'm realizing that some people use that phrase to refer to that style of play, which is really helpful to know.

    Matt:
    That's part of what was in my head when I hear people talk about GM-plotted games. Which matches my experience with pre-written modules. The other part has something to do with a "bigger" storyline -- authored by the GM only -- that serves as background or foreground to what the PCs do, depending. Did you have that "bigger and better" storyline hanging around somewhere in your pre-scripted games?

    Mike:
    You are 100% right about why I am doing this thread. Great post!

    I'm afraid we're wandering a bit into "how to be a good GM" territory, but that was probably inevitable for a thread like this. But maybe let's keep focused on actual play and reflection on what we've seen and done, rather than blueprints for how people should do X, Y, and Z.
  • Not really what I'd call "plotting" an adventure, but a standard technique I'd use would be to look at the PCs, then make an initial scene. I'd think about what might the PCs reasonably do in that scene.

    1. If I could only think of one reasonable response for the PCs, I'd scrap the scene. No "meaningful" choice.
    2. If I could think of a bazillion reasonable responses quickly, I might scrap the scene, because it would be hard to know what would come next.
    3. If I could come up with 2 or 3 reasonable responses, I'd keep the scene, and then sketch out follow up scenes for each of those responses

    I'd repeat the process for follow up scenes, with the exception of the "last" set of scenes, which would be ok (in fact preferable) to have an infinite number of reasonable responses - I'd ask the players what they planned to do next, end the game, and then repeat the process for the next game with the first scene being the reaction to their action to the last sessions last scene.

    On the off chance players did not choose one of the "reasonable" options I'd planned for, I'd try to improvise and either go with the flow if I could, or force the game back on track if I was stumped for ideas.

    ----

    I've seen other GMs use what I'd call "failed illusionism" - They are trying to make it seem like players have choices, but I see right through what they are doing and see a pure railroad. Being a cynical, old GM makes me pretty much immune to illusionism. To the point that even in open games I see railroading sometimes.

    So how do I have fun? I ignore the "plot" and focus on what I do have control over: the reaction and feelings of the PC I control. I know in the back of mind as a player that I'm on a GM railroad, but I ignore that and just try to make believe I'm the character and feel what she feels, make ("meaningless") choices because she doesn't know those choices are meaningless, and so forth. With enough practice in "make believe" and separating "in game" (You are in a fight for your life against the orc hordes) from "out of game" (The GM is going to fudge the combat results so you can't lose or can't win) it doesn't matter whether I "really" have control.
  • This is how I'd do this sort of thing.

    1) Play a session of a game.
    2) Come up with great grand schemes for all the major events in a five year campaign.
    3) Totally fail to advance towards these events, or indeed anything at all.
    4) Abandon game.

    So it had a lot more to do with what was in my head than what actually happened in play.
  • edited October 2007
    Great stuff! I see a distinction in my own play between creating a dungeon to be explored and creating a storyline and events ahead of time. What do you think? To me, those aren't quite on the same part of the spectrum. Same with adventure hooks followed by bangs. Your "A good GM..." paragraph matches a lot of play I've had, which I would not have characterized as GM-plotted. But I'm realizing that some people use that phrase to refer to that style of play, which is really helpful to know.
    I agree that Prepped Dungeon and Prepped Storyline are indeed different. Though many published "outside dungeon" scenarios are qued up very much like a dungeon and I was bundling those together.

    To me GM plotted mostly means "most scenes were in the GM's mind as at least a sketch before play started on the first scene" and the GM has a "this is the way it's going to go by default" set up. Heavy GM plotted is the dungeon with a bit of story in it where every scene is mapped and the combinations are 80% known to GM though play can still surprise even the GM. Low GM plotted means the situation is put out there and the Players say, "okay, we go to the docks and question dockworkers" because that makes sense to them even though the situation didn't mention docks or dockworkers - and that is as useful a scene and as much a part of "story" as a scene the GM throws at players or one they call for following up on clear GM-presented-threads.

    I probably see storyline as being capable of being just like dungeon because of an early and horrible "outside dungeon" experience I with a GM who did a wonderful job of evoking his homebrew setting (really wonderful, 10 years later I was still stealing images he had painted with words) but had as rigorous an idea of how our group of PCs was going to react and come down in the story as if there was a dungeon with only one room after one room and one door between them. There was more choice in most maps than in his "out of dungeon" adventure. At one point we were clearly thinking about coming down on a different side of a conflict and he just spontaneously had it break out including us on the other because clearly "his story" had us on that side.

    That said, I think once you leave the dungeon with its walls, giving players the idea of "more choice" you're either going to be a clear railroader, a very inventive illusionist or you will actually start letting those choices matter and the differences will be clearer to everyone ~ even though they were present in dungeon too to some extent. The "call for papers" thread link to the nordic theory sites leads to a great "historical view" of RPG play that starts with dungeon and then the highly structured "plotted story" outside dungeon and moving on from there.

    Rob
  • Posted By: komradebob
    Have you ever experienced that, Hituro? You'll generally know it. It's the player that's constantly haring off, offering suggestions for what could happen or what might be there. They just can't seem to stay in their character's skin only.

    I've had folks like that. They don't seem to do particularly well with traditional rpg set-ups. IME, they also don't tend to keep playing rpgs, regardless of how clever or imaginative they are unless they either become a GM or severley modify and limit their behavior.

    Oh sure, on a local , ad-hoc basis, people did that sort of thing. Some books might even have had stuff in the advice section on getting players more involved with that stuff. I know I had players in my very traditional games years ago doing stuff like that, or suggesting stakes, or offering scene-framing, etc, etc. It just wasn't formal.
    Oh indeed I've encountered such things, and sometimes they do get turned off the whole concept of roleplaying by those restrictions, but not often. Most people, if they like roleplaying at all, get hooked by the exact concept of taking over one character and immersing themselves in that character, and interacting with the game in only that way.
  • I see this as having two meanings, one good and one bad:

    Good: The GM has the "story arc" taken care of, all you have to do is show up, play your character, follow the trail of bread crumbs and you'll get to some cool scenes which are sort of story-like.

    Bad: The GM has written a fantasy novel in his head. "It will act out the GM's story in minute detail, or it gets the hose again."
  • I ran Das Schwarze Auge for many years, several times a week. The proposed way of playing was to run through prepared adventure modules. Contrary to D&D modules, however, DSA modules are not mainly dungeon crawls. They are basically pre-written stories in which the PCs get to act along certain lines. This includes advice on how to railroad them into particular places, deal with players who don't follow along properly, and so on. The core idea is this:

    They are participating in the forming of the current history of the realm.

    As such, history needs to be consistent. The outcome of a module was most of the time predetermined. They participated in a race by ship, through four modules IIRC, and their ship was going to win. That's official canon, reinforced through the publisher's "in-game" newsletter and future modules. Sometimes there was a chance for things to turn out differently, but it was emphasized that that would break canon and that you a) would have to modify some future adventures and b) wouldn't be part of the DSA community whose characters can identify with the official history as it unfolded.

    Not all modules played into this. Some were just adventures in unimportant locations. Others made sure that, no matter what the outcome, the perception within the "world" would still be a certain way.

    We ran through 25 or so modules, and we made up some stories of our own. But when we made up our own, we couldn't infringe on the important NPCs or events in the realm, because that again would mess up the continuity. We could have tossed all that aside and said, "Fuck this, we're doing our own thing," but that wasn't what the game told us, and we felt it had a certain amount of authority. We simply started running other games that allowed us more freedom.

    So that's what prepared plot looked like for me; not exactly GM-prepared, but prepared nevertheless.
  • Oh, let me add some specifics:

    In the ship race, the main character of the story was the captain. He will be referenced in the history books. The PCs get to be along for the ride.

    In a module about a chariot race, they got to ride along with the Prince of the realm, supporting him. You can guess who was written about in the newsletter.

    There was a module about a sorcerer in the desert. The PCs accompanied this amnesiac guy. Turns out the guy was a dragon in human form, and the key to solving the adventure (i.e., the main character).

    And these are all official modules. They are meant to put the PCs alongside the realm's important characters and allow them to co-experience the important moments. Sometimes they can bring them about, but mostly along predetermined lines.
  • I'm a bit confused by those who were disappointed with GUMSHOE. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Did you think you were getting something else? That said, I'm currently writing the rules for narrativist GUMSHOE.

    This is how I ran my AD&D campaign for two years, twice over, once in France and once in the UK:

    1) Design the world and populate it with potential interesting stuff, plot hooks, treasures and monsters
    2) Have the players design PCs and start them off in a way appropriate to those PCs
    3) Each week have the PCs attempt to accomplish their goals whilst I play NPCs, monsters and give them credible opposition.

    This is how 99.9% of roleplaying is done, and it's pretty fun too.
  • A friend of mine is big into DnD, and she's a novice GM. Recently she recounted how she'd tried to anticipate which way the players would go at a particular juncture, such that she prepped two alternative scenarios for the next session. To her surprise and frustration, the players chose neither A nor B, but H. This kind of experience seems pretty symptomatic of the traditional GM role. I can't count the number of times something similar has happened to me. The best game experiences as a GM seemed to come when story happened as an emergent result of focusing on character relationships, drives, and issues.

    Example of emergent story: In that Vampire game I mentioned earlier, the Nosferatu prophet guy had True Faith as a Virtue. It almost never came into play for flashy, Beeg Angel scenes. Only after the chronicle wrapped did we realize in the post-mortem that the key story element for that character was that he always achieved--through his faith--some sort of lasting positive change, even in small, personal ways, that added up to have a significant cumulative impact at the end. No way I was smart enough to have engineered that, even if I'd wanted to.

    On the other hand, the perceived default appears to be mission-based play, which is difficult, I think, to avoid structuring as a railroad.

    Another "plot point" I'm curious about concerns what I'll call Sadistic Adversarial DM Syndrome. Once upon a time, I went through a phase where I rode characters hard, not to the point where the player wasn't having fun (at least in the case of my particular players), but certainly enough that to say "hosing" happens would not be an unfair description. Permanent loss of powerz, loss of favored NPCs, shifts in NPC relationships, imposition of permanent disabilities, etc., some of which strayed perilously close to treading on personal player issues. We didn't need safewords, but the level of character adversity players had to face in my games was certainly high, to the point where in retrospect I think it verged on deprotagonizing. In most cases, it was definitely a GM-plotful strategy since I wasn't giving players the option to buy into deep adversity. I just slammed 'em with it. In the end, the players usually found a way to overcome or adapt to their circumstances, and it lent a certain "no holds barred" flavor to the game, but I'm pretty sure if I were in the player seat, I'd have found it intensely frustrating to be subject to such an agenda.
  • Posted By: John HarperI 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.
    Ok, I'm intentionally posting a reply before reading the thread, I'll see afterwards if my answer would change on reading.

    To make sense I have to define plot for this post, that's no comment on any other definitions, it's just to help folk make sense of what I'm saying here.

    Ok, plot in this particular post means either of two things. An existing situation the PCs will encounter and interact with OR a preplanned sequence of events the PCs will experience. I'll call them for the sake of clarity in this post situational plots and prescripted plots. Those are fundamentally different, hopefully how will become clear.

    Drawing on my own experience.

    When I GM I usually in a new game draw up a situational plot (I never use prescripted plots). How do I do that? Let's take an example from actual play.

    It's a Roman investigative game, the characters are not yet created but I know they will be of the Equestrian class and that as it is an investigative game the players expect a more mission based approach (I tend not to use mission based approachs outside of investigative games, but it's one example not all my gaming). That's easy, as Rome has a patronage system.

    I work out a murder, I work out who did it, why they did it, and how they did it. I work out each stage of the process, who was involved, who might have seen stuff and what they might know. I work out who the accomplices were and if they knew they were accomplices, I work out a pretty full account of what happened prior to play. I also prepare brief notes (ie a line) on each of the NPCs, who they are, some traits, what they look like, what their motivations are (and that is the single most important thing about them). As I know the murderer has resources to get thugs to take out the PCs should that be necessary, I stat up a couple of NPC thugs, but it's not a combat game so generally statting stuff is not important.

    At this point I have a situation, I know what has happened prior to play commencing. I have no idea what will happen once play starts, but given it's an investigative game and that's what the players are there to play I know that at the very least they will investigate and as I am good at running investigative games I don't need to worry about using illusionist techniques or the game bogging down on a single roll.

    Hm, possibly too easy an example so let's take a second, on this one I will not know what the players will do.

    1770s Naples, the PCs are a motley band of chancers looking to make their fortune in a rich and at the time quite important city. How do I prep the first situational plot?

    Firstly, I create a hook to help the players out, so that if they're struggling to come up with their own plans on the night there's something to do still. So, we have a contact of one of the PCs, an Irishman who poses as a French noble and gambles for a living, he will contact the PCs in fear of his life.

    Why so? Ok, I work out what he's done, who wants him dead and how they plan to do it. However, this is not an investigative game, this plot is only there to help out if the players have no agendas of their own. On the night, they take the plot, but they also bring their own agendas. One wishes to obtain a ship for himself and present himself as a successful trading captain (a lie, but it's a game of lies), one seeks a sinecure within the Church, one wishes introductions to society to sell patent cures and the like. I have in advance worked out who the key movers and shakers in town were before the PCs arrived, what they are like and what they want in life. The PCs meet some of them, not others, but I in no way prejudge how they will interact with them. It's a situation, nothing more. Carlos Fuentes, a dangerous duellist the PCs encounter I had envisaged most likely becoming a foe, but he terrifies them so they befriend him instead and he becomes a close ally. This is different to the Roman game because in the Roman game I knew roughly what they'd do, I knew they'd investigate a murder. In the Naples game I have no idea what they'll do, but I have prepared the situation in the city in advance so whatever they do I can work out how the other important folk in town will react and then the game drives itself.

    I'll post a second post on prescripted plots.
  • Right, prescripted plots, I don't run these as for a variety of reasons I do not like them (with occasional exceptions in play at cons), but I have experienced them as a player.

    Let's take another actual play example.

    It's a supers game, the GM has worked out in advance who the baddies are and what their fiendish plot is. So far no different from my style, the difference comes next. I don't work out what will happen once play starts, the GM here has. He has three or four (I forget) scenes and locations. We have to go to each location to experience each scene, and we have to do so in a certain order. If we do not for any reason, he intervenes either through illusionism or blatant railroading to make us do so. He has the game already written out in his head, not every detail, but the broad story, it's the impossible thing before breakfast, he has written a story and we are experiencing it. As he is not a skilled illusionist it feels like we are essentially contributing nothing, the plot advances regardless of our acts, the chief villian escapes regardless of our efforts, the plot demanded it so our actions didn't stop it.

    Another one, same style but this worked. The setting is modern day Bilbao, we are angels, demons and mortals united to prevent an apocalypse which will undo creation. The GM sent me his notes afterwards, he had also written down every location and every scene, and we had to go to each location in a certain order to experience the scenes in that order. He had the whole game, in surprising detail, written down in those notes. Where we would go, what we would do, how we would fare.

    But, the game rocked, I played the sequel at another con, it was great stuff. Why so different? Partly just better GMing, but partly because it was a tightly written prescripted plot, in each situation what he had written was what made sense in game for us to do, and we did it not realising it was already anticipated. I don't think illusionism was used, just a tight control of situation and scene framing to ensure that he could accurately predict what we would do and prepare the game accordingly. More work than I would do myself, but we all have our own styles. The point for this thread was literally the game was plotted out in advance, each scene, each location, the NPCs, the outcomes. We then played it through, it was I suppose again the impossible thing before breakfast, but this time tasty rather than some godawful marmite pancake concoction somebody made for you while hungover.

    Feel free to ask any questions, the key difference for me is in preparing the plot does the GM prepare what happened prior to play commencing or what happens once play has commenced? The latter necessarily involves constraints on player actions, the former not.
  • Picking up on some of Merten's excellent stuff, in my first category of plot (which again was just for the purposes of my posts, I'm not claiming they're exhaustive or anything) the concept of advancing the plot is largely meaningless, the players do stuff, the NPCs react, the NPCs do stuff and so it goes on. Advancing the plot is not in my gift as I have no view of where things will go, that's for the players.

    In my second category advancing the plot generally means getting it back on track, which if done well may result in a more fun game ("man, I'm glad we met that hermit with the map, I felt we were just wandering around aimlessly there") and done badly may make a less fun game ("man, we take a moment to kibitz and check out the scenery and suddenly hermits are showing up with fucking maps, oh well, back to the quest I guess").
  • BTW, adventure write-ups have a lot of influence on all of this. Back in the 90's my method of prep was to steal adventure write-ups off the internet... this is how I had so many available. One place I often went was this site (or it's predecessor?): http://www.rpgarchive.com/

    It's filled with adventures like this (I picked this randomly off the front page, and, lo, it's typical): http://www.rpgarchive.com/pdf/ArcticStation2293.pdf

    You'll note how there's an "Optional Encounter" in the first "Chapter" that's designed specifically to get rid of equipment that the GM doesn't want the characters to have. That's right, those decisions that you made about your equipment? We're making those null, by taking it away from you, because some of it might make the adventure not go like it's supposed to go.

    Classic. First one I picked at random. Didn't even have to look at two.

    Now, of course you don't have to play it this way, or even read in the subtext that I did... from a very gamism POV, it's just another part of the challenge (they can actually win the encounter in theory, I think, and not lose their equipment). There are methods by which you can use such a text, and not follow it's implications or suggestions, of course. You can even get to the end of the scenario, if you're creative enough, without what I'm implying.

    But I didn't. If I'd had that scenario as one of mine, I'd have thought "Hmm, to make it so that we can play to the end, I'll use this encounter." That is, in that mode of play, it seemed like a good way to play at the time. Even if, overall, my play was sucking, and I couldn't figure out why. Turned out it was lack of player engagement, because I wasn't giving them stuff to do. 20 mins of fun packed into 8 hour sessions.

    Because that's how these texts taught me to play. You can say that I ought to have known better, or that you did know better, and never played this way. But there it is, some of us made the mistake. Thing is, with a different text, you can avoid the problem 100%.

    So, John, if you want to know how I was playing when I controlled the plot, look at the archive, read the adventures there, and you'll quickly get the idea of how I was playing. The texts do a lot of "Then this happens to the PCs." Or even "When the PCs do this..." Leaving the GM to figure out how to make it happen.

    Just sayin.

    Mike
  • Posted By: John HarperDave:
    Great post. I see a description of how you run games... are you saying that's "GM writes the plot"? Do you identify that phrase as matching what you're doing now, or just the first bit with D&D and CoC?
    I think "GM writes the plot" actually covers quite a lot of possibilities, as the thread has revealed. I'd say it's the thing that I do now that corresponds most nearly to "GM writes the plot". It's what I think of when you say that to me. It's particularly my approach to investigative Lovecraftian horror, which I won't call CoC, because I'm using FATE, not BRP, to run it.

    But it's not how I run everything. It's not how I run DitV (by the book, as far as I can). It's not how I used to run Jorune (much more of a sandbox, with lots of possible things the players could get involved in, but no assurance that they would do any of it) (not always 100% effective, as it's difficult for Jorune players to be proactive until they get to grips with the setting, which takes time). And it's not how I will run DRYH, when I finally get some going! I like games where I feel well prepared, and able to insert details with confidence when needed. But I also enjoy running it fast and loose and improvised, so long as it doesn't get too handwavy where it seems like it should be solid. Depends very much on the game in question.
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: John HarperGraham:
    I read Gumshoe. I'm with Rich. Most disappointing game of the year. Not because it's a bad design (it's not) but because it was so exactly the opposite of the game I wanted to play. A GM-authored crime that the PCs uncover is not what I think when I hear "GM writes the plot," but if that fits the bill for you, that's cool.
    Did you play it? If not, seriously, play it. It's not really just a GM-authored crime that the PCs uncover. I've seen lots of criticism from people who haven't played it, but it plays really well.

    And also, of course, I'm mentioning all this because I think it relates to the original point: it's GM-prepared plot that nevertheless gives players room to play.

    Graham
  • Posted By: John HarperI 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.
    FWIW, I'm running the D&D mega-adventure Eyes of the Lich Queen right now, and it definitely has a plot. The best way I can put it is that there are sequences of scenes where there is no interesting failure option. Literally, sequences where the text says, "Have the players make Gather Information checks to get the following info. If they fail the check, have their patron give them the info." I.e., set pieces that are going to happen and info that is going to be delivered no matter what, because not having them means that the adventure cannot continue. Sure, how the PCs overcome the challenges can vary, but the fact they must overcome them, and usually in a specific sequence, is a given. The real challenge is how many PCs will have to die in order to make the finish. :)

    This has not been a big deal for my group, though, as I've been actively pointing out the "rails" as we go along. We're all here for the fights, so we're cool with it.
  • To take it from the player side for a moment, here's how it can look when you have a GM who, although he has things in mind that he's planning and knows the agendas of NPCs while you don't, is nevertheless highly responsive to player-introduced elements.

    This is from an email I wrote this morning to one of my fellow players on Vaxalon's Amber Wiki game, who felt she was floundering round a bit and was asking "Should I be more proactive?"

    A fun thing I've been doing which leads to more complication for your character is what we call "making the GM smile" - relatively early on, Fred quoted a principle "when the GM smiles, it's already too late". In other words, just as he feeds us things to react to, feed him things he can run with. Latest example - the update I just did to the Chaos scene. "Oh, dear, I do hope the Amberites won't find out that I have Oberon's body before I get a chance to explain! That would really complicate things! Oh, noes!" [Broad wink in Fred's direction]

    This is probably because I hang out at the Story-Games site a lot and have picked up the vibe. I realized I'd become a really Story-Gamer when I was exerting considerable effort to have Garan not gain the power of Trump because I wanted to use the slot for "obsessed with getting Benedict's approval".

    Your mileage, in terms of what you find fun, may vary. But that's what I do.
  • Posted By: John HarperYour #1 is very interesting to me. That matches what I've heard when people talk about GM-plotted games. The murky bits for me are phrases like, "The GM advances the plot," and "the plot strolls onward." Can you expand on that? What is the GM doing when she advances the plot? What role do the players have?
    Well, let's think about, for example, campaign set in Second World War, or pretty much any "realistic" military campaign with grunts as player characters. The overall plot would be what ever happens to the character's company (platoon, team, whatever the scale is) - they move from battle to battle, town to town. The characters (and thus, players) have no say about the plot, it's very fixed, especially if the plot follows historical details. The GM moves the military unit forward, towards the next objective, roughly following historical data.

    I also ran a campaign some years ago, one that had very fixed plotline (kind of by accident; I ran a one-shot with minimal preparation time and it was extended to a campaign as things just clicked), which was advanced as a kind of a breadcrumb -trail. Characters investigated their way through a set of places and the silent agreement was that I'd push the plot forward when ever I felt like it. I basically introduced a new place or a setting in every session.

    What is left to the players is, well, everything else. The actual plot-forwarding action in sessions is quite minimal; most of the time is taken up by players just interacting with each other and in lesser extent, NPC's and world in general. When I started the mentioned one-shot, I had predicted that characters, FBI agents, would be out from their briefing in FBI HQ and in the place of their investigation, some few hundred kilometers away, in matter of hour. The first stop and Yer Local Roadside Diner took three hours of playing time as the players just expanded and added depth to their characters and relationships. Same trend continued; a scene which, if played just to move on the plot, would take an hour, usually took about four hours. Of that four hours, roughly 80 percent is dialogue and interaction between the characters (and possible NPCs), in which the players establish their characters into the fiction and act in the fiction. Granted, the tone of the game was slightly humorous and gave plenty of opportunities to play on stereotypes, but that's about the average spread on player activities we have.

    The plot there, in both cases, is a pacing tool and a loose framework of mostly pre-determined story. You move along with it when the group has exhausted the momentum of the current scene - and with momentum I mean, for example, conflicts in character-to-character relationships which slowly build up as the scenes go forward, until at some point they flare up.
  • It seems relevant to mention Piratecat, a mod over at ENworld, who's considered the greatest DM who ever lived on those boards. He talks about some of his techniques in this post about running great con events, and mentions the following about plot:
    Design narrow-wide=narrow. I write my games to be linear at the beginning, moderately linear at the end (in that they usually lead to an anticipated big climax), and totally open to different strategies in the middle. It seems to work pretty well; it allows free choice for most of the game, and still delivers a cool finish.
    This seems to be basically what Malcolm and Mike, etc have been talking about as a common, GM-driven style of play.
  • That's basically what I meant by the flow chart that has branches out from the start (like a dungeon entrance) but narrows at end to the planned climax (boss monster chamber). The key scene has been planned by the GM. If the GM will abandon that for any logical-in-narrative climax the players can engineer that they think is cool, I don't consider things "heavily GM plotted" only "back up plan made". If the GM is steering things towards their chosen scene, then it's heavily plotted.
  • edited October 2007
    In my latest two long-running campaigns, I (as the GM) have been in control of the plot both times, but did it two different ways. The first time, I went completely 'No Myth'. I had an immediate situation for the characters to react to, and a general sense of stuff the main bad guy was doing in the background. Then as the players reacted to the initial situation and moved forward, I did a lot of just-in-time plotting, laying down things for the players to discover just before they got there. Somewhere about halfway through the campaign, I finally had a sense of what the 'big picture' was and what the players were likely to do as a result, and from then on I didn't do as much plotting in the nick of time as much as I just let things play out to their natural conclusion.

    For the second campaign, I had a much more specific idea of what the big picture was from the start. There were things that were going to happen, big juicy plot hooks for the players to pick up, and at least a vague sense of where things would end up. And the game proceeded generally how I envisioned it might. But there were several side plots and plot enhancements that came as much as a surprise to me as to the players, though again I would be the one to think of them first, and then present them to the players next. But these additions were responses to player actions, if not player input-into-the-plot.

    To be a bit more specific:

    In the first campaign, the characters all had their own reasons for following this NPC, who I knew was up to no good, but exactly what that nogoodness was, I didn't know. As they explored in certain directions, they found out certain things--he had bought climbing equipment before he left; he knew about this other imprisoned NPC and probably wanted to free him. Thinking about the plot between episodes, I came up with the reason why--he was going to sneak up a cliff to a castle to assassinate the queen, and sister to the imprisoned NPC, to install him as king in her place. The players didn't decide anything to do with that, but at one point they said, "I check around to see what he bought before he left!" and I said, "Uh, climbing equipment!" thinking of one thing he could do with that, and then later thinking of something even better. I didn't know how, when, or even if they'd be able to thwart these plans, but I figured they'd probably be able to, and after I had the idea of scaling a cliff, I thought a cliff would be a great place to have a big climactic battle. And indeed, it was so.

    In the second campaign, at one point the characters asked an NPC if he had any stories from the area, so I had the guy tell them a story about the 'snow maidens and snow youths'--monsters from the setting that held dances in the woods where they would try to entice humans to join them only to freeze to death. At that point, it was just setting detail they hadn't come across yet, so I was just tossing things out there. Then later that session they were investigating something out on a mountain, things were drawing to a close, and I thought, "Hmm, things are slow--I should push them back to the village so we can wrap this up," and had them hear the sound of drums, thinking they'd connect this to the tale of the monsters from earlier, say 'yikes' and head back. But, of course, they were feeling invulnerable and decided to go investigate. And what followed was probably the most fun scene we had the entire campaign. There was dancing and information exchanges and seduction and a final dancing competition and the whole thing was just a riot. And from then on, I started looking for ways to incorporate the 'snow people' into the plot, gave them a whole culture and history of their own, and even fostered a budding romance between a player and the snow maiden who had tried to seduce and kill him in that first encounter.

    My basic premise is that players who play 'through their characters' (which is our group's preferred mode of play) want two things that the GM can provide: they want to make a difference in the game world, and they want to put their personal stamp on the game world. These do not have to be the same things. The 'making a difference' bit is the plot, but they're fine with the GM making that part up--that doesn't have to be the bit they put their personal stamp on. But as the GM, it's part of my job to watch for ways the PCs can personalize the world through their actions, too, in ways that may or may not have anything to do with the 'plot' per se. And if I *can* put their personal stamp on the plot, so much the better.
  • Back in the day, I ran a psuedo-Dark Ages German-Celtic game (accent on psuedo) in which the PCs were all kids from the same village. I was definitely the source of plot, but I didn't rail road or use too much illusionism. I created maps of the village and surrounding areas and a ruined tower with an orc hole in the bottom of it. I pregenned some PCs for the players to pick from so that they'd have an interesting mix. One PC was 'touched by the otherworld', so he had visions and hidden magical talents, but also might go into an epileptic fit during times of stress. Another was destined to be high king (yeah, a touch of The Belgeriad). They picked characters and then I set the opening scene with them out in the fields fetching hay and mud to make repairs to their long houses, when they see flames from their village. A band of raiders had swept in, killed some menfolk and stolen some of their women. They fought a few stragglers as the main group left in longboats. The PCs took off after them in some corracles that they used to catch fish. They track these folks to their HQ, free the women and find a box holding a letter about invasion plans and a map and the head of some hideous creature (its an orc, but they don't know from orcs) and off they went following where the map led and taking on the orc outpost.

    I never said you have to do x, or you can't do y. But I would have been surprised if they went off somewhere else, mostly because I knew who I was playing with. Had they wanted to sideline the game, it would have made things harder and potentially unfun, but they could have done it.

    John, I'm curious how you avoided GM Makes the Plot type gaming as that was basically what a GM did during play when I started out. I really didn't know there was anything else until I stumbled into a local convention a couple years ago just to see if gaming was still as fun as I remembered (it was Orccon in Los Angeles and it was a conversation with Paul Tevis about some weird game about gunslingers where you escalate from talking to fighting to gunplay and there's this fallout thing that leads to experience...).
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: noclueJohn, I'm curious how you avoided GM Makes the Plot type gaming as that was basically what a GM did during play when I started out.
    I just stumbled into it. I tried to pre-plan a game, back when I first started GMing in the 80s. I had a whole big campaign planned. It wasn't scripted, exactly (the way Matt Snyder described), but I definitely had a plan in my head for how it would go.

    Then, after I dumped the big hook in front of the players, they just looked at it and said, "Yeah... we don't really want to do that. We leave. Oh! Let's go south. There's a cool jungle nation down there." And they did. They just ran off to pursue their own agendas. I didn't know I even had the option to railroad them back into my story, so I ran after them, trying to catch up.

    I played with those guys exclusively for a long time, so I never had the opportunity to do it any other way. The games were Player-driven, with the dial at 11, pretty much from day one of my GMing career. I am so, so glad it went down that way.
  • Posted By: GB SteveI'm a bit confused by those who were disappointed with GUMSHOE. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Did you think you were getting something else?
    The pitch I was given: A totally different approach to investigative games!

    The game I read: Functionally the same as Delta Green, but instead of rolling to find clues, you find them automatically.

    I appreciate that a lot of people like the game and that's great. Steve, you obviously like it a lot because you run demos for the publisher and are working on material for them. Graham's comments suggest that it suffers from the "designer not included" problem that some games have, which is possible. But the book I read didn't make me want to play the game, it made me want to give the book away*. My discussions with Scott (Dorward) about his experiences playing and running the game tie up with how I imagine the game would play out after reading it.

    * I actually did.
  • Posted By: buzzIt seems relevant to mention Piratecat, a mod over at ENworld, who's considered the greatest DM who ever lived on those boards. He talks about some of his techniquesin this post about running great con events, and mentions the following about plot:
    Design narrow-wide=narrow. I write my games to be linear at the beginning, moderately linear at the end (in that they usually lead to an anticipated big climax), and totally open to different strategies in the middle. It seems to work pretty well; it allows free choice for most of the game, and still delivers a cool finish.
    This seems to be basically what Malcolm and Mike, etc have been talking about as a common, GM-driven style of play.

    Well, the trouble is that it's neither "GM-driven" nor has the attributes Piratecat's talking about, as far as it relates to my experience. Part of this is that I run multi-session, episodes/chapters for the most part and not convention games, so I don't have any particular conclusion in mind when I sketch out things for the group. I improvise based on the world. What is common is that the players themselves identify a structure and I support that.

    For instance, my last Star Wars session bean with the traditional, in media res thing were the PCs' ship was being chased over Coruscant. The starting structure was that, barring something extremely clever, they had to stick around Coruscant as they were low on fuel and navigable points were blockaded by the brand-spanking new Empire. They set down and explored various options:

    * Going to the Jedi Temple. They decided against this after finding out Jocasta Nu was dead and it was likely occupied.
    * Finding passage out. This was practical if they did a bit of work but ultimately the smuggler didn't want to leave the ship behind.
    * Refuel and find a way out of the system. This is what they decided on. I introduced an underground community I'd sketched out that could help them out, but who wanted some help in return. I knew they'd need a hideout at some point, so I designed that community to serve for any such scenes. They wanted that kind of scene off the bat.

    Now there's some stuff going on. Luke and Leia died in childbirth and the Emperor is pumping out evil clones of them to serve as his enforcers. There's a holocron hidden in the Jedi Temple that has the location of the true Sith homeworld, where the Sith species were put into stasis thousands of years ago. Aliens and other refugee groups are hiding in Coruscant's lower depths to hide and are being preyed upon by the crime lords who originally set up there. In general, there's all the stuff that happened between Eps III and IV. That last point allows me to tell one of the Jedi that the Force tells him Jocasta Nu is dead. It was part of the set of facts about the world floating around. It is not a plot because the events that led to that aren't something we explored in play, nor do I have any specific vision about how she died. She's just dead.

    There *might* by a Force-mindwiped true Sith, sent by Yoda to help the PCs. There *might* be former ARCs hiding in regular clone units who the ARC PC can contact. There *might* be a rogue Skywalker clone. There might be a lot of guys.

    At this point I am nowhere *near* linearity. I do have some scenarios in my head. I think it might be cool to have an epic where it's Vader leading clones of his dead children against a reformed true Sith army commanded by the PCs. No idea how we might get there, though. It's a daydream. Maybe the PCs will find a way to awaken the human characteristics of the Skywalker clones and redeem Vader. Dunno. I don't know if Vader even *knows* where the clones come from.

    I'm confident that the vague waveforms of this stuff will collapse into a plot depending on the PCs decisions. I certainly have a lot of influence because I determine the global response to those decisions, but very few of them are meaningless or have discrete plot coupons attached. There's no set ending. A set start, certainly, and a place where my sketches run out, but I figure I'll have new stuff by then. There are some practical strictures on decisions. They're not ready for Vader yet and can't casually leave Coruscant.

    Now SWSaga is very helpful in two ways. There's a huge background, and prefab stat blocks in the book and online. If you want to know why anybody would go for metaplot and descriptions of other people's cool characters, now you know.
  • Graham's comments suggest that it suffers from the "designer not included" problem that some games have, which is possible.
    Yeah. I haven't read the Scenario Advice section for Esoterrorists, but I've read the one for Fear Itself. It makes the game look much more linear and railroady than it is (or can be).

    Tell you what, I'll start a thread on this in due course.

    Graham
  • Well now the problem is that we don't have any data on how "common" these methods are. But what I can say, Malcolm, is that the methodology that you describe is rare in my experience. It's usually the purview of GMs who have a lot of experience and really good instincts. Enough so that it's been vanishingly rare in my experience, outside using RPGs that actually instruct you to use these techniques. To whit, repeating my experience, I personally never used them through 25 years of play.

    I *was* that illusionist guy who was always making my plot play out. And so was everybody else I played with. That's not saying that folks like you didn't exist out there. But, as somebody else said, I probably assumed that if I was playing in a game that they ran, that they were using illusionist technique to hit a designated end. I would have been flabbergasted to learn that any cool ending to a game had come about just through interactive play. Wouldn't have though that possible.

    Which is not a particularly sound assumption, but it's what I and most people were taught.

    Consider what Buzz is talking about. If ever I didn't railroad folks secretly, it was during early D&D. The first generation of modules for D&D were not at all plotted. The only "Force" being used by the GM was basically proposing playing the module in question. "Want to play the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief?" I'd ask, and then we'd start at the entrance with location #1. And from then on it was open play constrained to the limits of the module only.

    It's only later that Buzz's module shows up, with it's embedded illusionism. Why? Well, we get AD&D1E, and there's Gygax filling our heads with ideas that the game can be about actually playing characters. I recall it actually dawning on me one day reading some Dragon Magazine article that some people actually paid attention to their characters' desires and such, and "role-played" (as opposed to "roll-playing")!

    Wow, new vistas open. Let's try to play this way. And we try, using those first generation modules. And it's clearly not working, people are stil "roll-playing." What could we be doing wrong? Ah, clearly the scenario is all about killing stuff. All we have to do is change the module so that it's about things are more like a story. Because if it's like that, then the players will actuall have their characters act in a believable fashion, too.

    OK, that was a really bad assumption, but it's the one that absolutely everyone made. The systems that came out at that time were functionally identical to D&D in this respect, and the way that people sought to fix the problem was through moving from "modules" (which were clearly wargaming scenarii), to "Adventures." I can recall the resistance to that paradigm shift.

    But what do you put in a module? Well, what sort of story do we want to make to have the PCs be role-played inside? Something Tolkienesque... after all that's what we've been after all these years. How do I get that to happen. Well, I have a dark lord with a plot, and then I have the characters given a chance to thwart him and...

    Wait, can't we just let the players create the action? Why have adventures at all? We try this, but it fails miserably. Why? Because players are idiots (we assume, incorrectly), whenever presented with baby kobolds they kill them and then tell us "Well they weren't worth any EXP alive." They must be mentally deficient. We have to program the "adventure" to ensure that the action produces something like a "Story."

    How did it work in the modules? Oh, yes, there's a chain of "encounters"... let's do away with that and call them "scenes" since many of them won't be about combat. And then all we have to do is to explain how it is that the PCs get from scene to scene, and... Viola!

    Role-playing!

    It's easy to see the pitfalls looking back on it, or how we should have known better. But there they were, the pros, producing these adventures that use a voice that says that "The PCs do this" and assume "When the PCs do that." So then there are a bejillion Dragon articles about what to do when the PCs go off of the rout of your planned adventure.

    Yes, that's right, don't pay any heed to what the players think is cool as a direction in which to go, you've spent time preparing the adventure, "winging it" is only for the most creative and talented of GMs, so don't even try it. Best to figure out how to get the PCs back onto the path to adventure so that you can ensure that your preparation doesn't go to waste.

    After all, it took hours to stat up those orcs... what, you're going to do it in the middle of the game and slow things down?


    It never occured to us that if you didn't have to stat up the orcs that you could "wing it" much more easily. The reason that play wasn't about role-playing is that the systems all had reward cycles that promoted killing things and taking their stuff. Oh, sure, D&D2E gives us the "role-playing" reward. But the rest of the entirity of the system is screaming "Your best and most interesting rout to EXP is via combat."

    The players weren't idiots, it turns out, they were playing the system that was presented to them. It turns out that there's no requirement to railroad players through a plot, with the right system players will create plot themselves. What we always wanted, but couldn't seem to get using those earlier systems.

    But few have seen that this can work. Most RPG players are blissfully unaware that systems exist that might actually promote this sort of play. Of those that are aware of the existence of such games, many are skeptical. They've tried allowing players to create plot, but it hasn't worked for them. System Doesn't Matter, they say, all RPGs play the same, and it's only the GM that matters. Only he can make the difference.

    And he'll do that by forcing the players to "role-play." Kicking and screaming if he has to do so. And he'll do that via an "adventure" that he's cleverly devised.

    The first text that I know of that actually says something advice-wise that matches the sort of play that you're talking about, Malcolm, would be Skarka's Underworld (with the concept of "Intuitive Continuity"). Yes, games like Over the Edge hint at this methodology earlier, but look at the published adventures! Everway too.

    Check out the conclusion of this article by John Kim, about the "fasion trends" for RPGs: http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/theory/fashions.html

    [quote]While the problem of "railroaded" adventures is old news to many role-players, it seems clear that the industry is still struggling with finding a solution to it. How do you provide effective support for running adventures without laying out a plot to follow?[/quote]


    This is so common, that for you to think that the way that you're describing play is "common" boggles my mind Malcolm. But, then, it could simply be that we play in different segments of the community or something (though you'd think that our convention experiences over dozens of GenCons would have some correlation).

    But one thing is incontrovertibly true. For me (and I don't think I'm rare), it was the discovery of systems that promote the method of play in general that lead me out of the wilderness to play that is, apparently, more like yours. "You could do it with other systems" just isn't true... I tried for 25 years. Sure, now I know he techniques, and could play D&D using them. But why would I want to have to fight the system to get what I want (considering that there's no baby in my bathwater)?

    I hope that some of this personal revelation can help create some understanding here between those of us who like games that promote player creation of plot more directly, versus those who do it with more traditional systems.

    Mike
  • Is it worth noting (unless it has been already) that the common "plotted" adventure model has a lot to do with the nature of game publishing? I mean, the very nature of a product like Eyes of the Lich Queen or the big adventure path products Paizo does assumes that the PCs somehow make it from the events in chapter 1 to the beginning of chapter 2. The alternative is to publish a really, really big dungeon, i.e., one very large situation.

    Otherwise, what kind of book can you publish? Something like The Gift for BWr? I.e., eight pages of notes and then a bunch of pregens that must be used for the scenario to work? Who's going to pay for that?

    (Some exceptions might exist. Some people have mentioned a 'Big Book of Towns" for DitV, which seems do-able.)

    So, if these products are the primary example GMs have to work from (since most RPGs until recently are typically devoid of good examples and practical procedures), why wouldn't gamers tend to think that this is how you do it?

    E.g., I'd argue that HERO works fine in "plotless" mode, especially as implemented in Champions. Armed with one of the many fat books of villains and maybe a setting book for the PCs home town, you can Bang and Kicker all night long. However, I don't think I've ever seen a published adventure for Champs do this, nor does the GM advice in the rulebook advocate anything of the kind. Quite the opposite, actually.
  • edited October 2007
    Scripted scenarios are, IMO as a guy who writes them, meant to be something the GM enters into a dialectic with. In OtE there are scripted adventures, but you're still in Al-Amarja and doing general stuff; the rest of the city doesn't dissolve. In a bigger campaign adaptation is important. Unfortunately, GMing advice is generally terrible. I've tried to change that in my recent work (see the upcoming Astral Realms for Mage), making it more about structured craft, but I haven't had a chance to apply it to an adventure.
  • This is my first post here, prompted by this fascinating thread.

    [quote]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.[/quote]

    I *think* I have a found a comfortable way of doing this. I write the "plot" of the opposition. The perfect plan if all goes accordingly. For the villain. Then count on the players to screw with that plan somehow, sometimes by merely showing up in town.

    So the prep work I do is primarily figuring out the resources, the personality of bad guy(s), and their relationships in a fairly sketchy web. Then I do give some thought to how to open the session, often by getting information into the hands of the PCs as fast as I possibly can. Or maybe the intersection of bad guy's plan and PCs is a better way of putting it.

    Certainly Hitchcock can point a easy way of doing this in "the Man Who Knew Too Much", where the mule/courier walks up to innocent american couple and dies in their arms, passing on the "macguffin". Now, the villain(s) have to react to this and start to harry Jimmie Stewart and Doris Day. This is Kicking in the door pretty hard... and it works... I've done it.

    Maybe because I just read Tarzan the Invincible (#14) on a lark, that I'm in a bit of a pulpy adventure mood... but how many times does some nubile princess come running out the jungle, looking all terrified, towards Conan or Tarzan? And this launches the adventure...as bad guys want princess back... or princess is the bad guy etc. etc. Funny, despite almost 3 decades of RPGIng, this cliche has never happened to one of my characters... sigh.

    So I see it as my job to delineate why that princess is running around in the jungle fearing for her life. It isn't so much plot... as it is background and framework for the PCs to create the plot as we go along in our session of play.

    My prep really varies from session to session by the way. Sometimes its just a show-up and play with some thoughts rattling in my head. Sometimes, like in a mystery-investigation storyline, I tend to put quite a bit of work in. I had a very successful, fantasy cops-pulp cult-murder mystery adventure a while back, because 90% of my prep was not creating a lot of clues, but coming up with several ways I could get those clues into the hands of the players AS FAST AS I COULD. The players still came up with additional ways of retrieving information by opening up a line of questioning of an NPC that I made up on the spot for them on their request, yet was perfectly reasonable NPC to have appear. So, here was a kinda melding of Traditional-Story Game in the very same session.

    But yeah, the above paragraph reinforces my feelings on the matter. I didn't write out the plot of that session. Sure, I had a murder, a cult smuggling illegal substances, a rich upper class society partaking of that substance and a lot of competing motivations by NPCs, and one red herring.... but that was the background frame work. THE Plot was my two cops, working in a city they were new to, unraveling this byzantine muddle. The drugs, in play, became a much bigger deal, than the murder. The murder they solved about 1/2 way through. The drug interdiction was the action set piece (although the location was made up organically through play... this wasn't predetermined by me).

    GMs don't write plot. They write structure. We are directors more than screen writers. We work from a LOOSE script to be sure, but that is filtered through actors, sets, and timing.
  • edited October 2007
    Following up on Storn's ideas, for a long time now, I've thought of preparation for play as "Situation Grabs PCs." It could be a villain's plot. It could be a relationship map. It could be some central conflict that's going on. A number of ways exist to construct situation.

    The key is how the PCs fit in. You don't want the PCs to end up outside of the action, just watchning it. Storn's example of "the Man Who Knew Too Much" is a good approach, that ensures that the PCs will be embroiled.

    What's usually used, however, is the "hook." And this is usually no good. Because a "hook" assumes a certain response by the player. It's seeming to give them a choice, but not really. Classic reduction of player agency. As with my example of playing a module, you're far, far better off just getting player buy-in out of character.

    "Tonight the game is going to be about this mystery, cool?" As opposed to, "This guy comes to you and asks you to solve a mystery for him." The latter is asking for a formality of the player saying yes, while presenting it as a potential question like "Do you want to work for this guy?" It makes an assumption about what the player will do, and hopes that plausibility will work to cause this. What hard-boiled detective could resist the man's offer of cash?

    Well, it turns out that even if the player would have played it this way, that a false offer of a choice still feels like GM control of character. The player feels, "Why did you force me to make this choice in this scene, if you already knew the outcome?" And it's force, to be sure, because the unstated result of the player saying no to the man is, "Well, then we don't have anything to play tonight."

    Better than both the negotiation to play the mystery, or the force, is the "Grab" (to paraphrase ol Ronnie and the idea of Grabbiness). In this case, you create a situation in which no matter what the player decides in impacting the situation, he's involved in a way he'll enjoy. For instance, the "Man Who Knew Too Much" is such a situation. In point of fact, in the movie Jimmy Stewart does "walk away" from the request for help. He's confused, and doesn't understand what's being asked of him, and decides quite realistically to just move on. In this case, however, this sets into motion other problems for the character. No matter what the player would do in a situation like this, he's involved with the plot now.

    Tthe basic technique is to present a situation where no matter what the player does, the rest of the "plot" must respond in some way. There are more subtle ways to go, but they largely involve knowing the PCs before had (problematic for a published adventure). So, let's say that we want to run that mystery in the example. Well, we alter the situation such that if the player says no to the PC, he ends up dead the next day, in a manner that's suspicious in that it relates to what the NPC said in the PCs office the previous day... did the PC have anything to do with causing this man's death in not helping him? The PC can still walk away from this, so the situation then also has to entail the bad-guys who killed the man who asked for the PCs help not finding what they're looking for on the man they killed, so, of course, they come to the PC to find if he knows anything about it. If the PC walks from this, taking his beating, but denying everything straight up, then they go for somebody the PC cares about to force him.

    Yes, you may never get to the mystery. That's OK. Because, as Hitch would say, it's a MacGuffin. The mystery that is implied by the set-up situation is not, and can never be, what play is about. That's not to say that it won't get solved, perhaps it will (almost certainly, in fact). Simply that the important part is the contribution that the player makes through his character. How does the PC respond at each step, and where does that lead the story?

    That's what a grabby situation is all about, something that exists to allow the player to explore their character in the context of the situation. That's not to say that the situation can't be fascinating itself. Just that writing it so that the players serve it's ends, rather than it serving theirs, means that the GM will have to enter that dialectic again to find out how to tame the beast.

    Mike
  • edited October 2007
    I write the "plot" of the opposition. The perfect plan if all goes accordingly. For the villain. Then count on the players to screw with that plan somehow....
    Storn, this is a nice way of looking at what I have always thought of as "wind the world up, then add PC's."

    (Oops, sorry, is Graham on this thread?)
    Storn, this is AWESOME! :-)
  • Posted By: StornI *think* I have a found a comfortable way of doing this. I write the "plot" of the opposition. The perfect plan if all goes accordingly. For the villain. Then count on the players to screw with that plan somehow, sometimes by merely showing up in town.
    As a WotC staff member once put it, "Plot is what happens if the players do nothing."
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesF

    Better than both the negotiation to play the mystery, or the force, is the "Grab" (to paraphrase ol Ronnie and the idea of Grabbiness). In this case, you create a situation in which no matter what the player decides in impacting the situation, he's involved in a way he'll enjoy. For instance, the "Man Who Knew Too Much" is such a situation. In point of fact, in the movie Jimmy Stewart does "walk away" from the request for help. He's confused, and doesn't understand what's being asked of him, and decides quite realistically to just move on. In this case, however, this sets into motion other problems for the character. No matter what the player would do in a situation like this, he's involved with the plot now.

    Yes, you may never get to the mystery. That's OK. Because, as Hitch would say, it's a MacGuffin. The mystery that is implied by the set-up situation is not, and can never be, what play is about. That's not to say that it won't get solved, perhaps it will (almost certainly, in fact). Simply that the important part is the contribution that the player makes through his character. How does the PC respond at each step, and where does that lead the story?

    That's what a grabby situation is all about, something that exists to allow the player to explore their character in the context of the situation. That's not to say that the situation can't be fascinating itself. Just that writing it so that the players serve it's ends, rather than it serving theirs, means that the GM will have to enter that dialectic again to find out how to tame the beast.

    Mike
    The idea of walking away is very cool with me. It sets into motion all kinds of consequences. I didn't get into this in my first post because I was babbling away ad nauseum about stuff I only 1/2 internalize anyhow.

    But I want players to feel like they can do just about anything, but there will be consequences. Jimmy Stewart does walk away confused, but like you said, the villains now are trying to actively track him down... here is the consequence. As a GM, I can react to non-action as much as action. Of course, the reaction of the villains is going to be different in tone and execution, which is precisely why I game. I don't KNOW the plot. I only know some of its parameters. I don't know HOW the players/PCs are going to react. I don't want to know. I usually make some predictions, sometimes they are right, sometimes they are not. Either way is cool with me.

    But how to do this for Publication? Hmmmm... .that is a rub.

    My one suggestion is not the flowchart idea. And Savage Worlds Evernight/ 50 Fathoms plot points were brought up earlier. No, not flowcharts, rather more Plug -n- Play situation.

    Why stat up those 20 Orcs in a raiding party? Because they are there, out on the periphery, waiting to be used. The raiding party might happen in town, as the Orcs are trying to sell their ill-gotten gains, it could be on the road, it could be an attack on a small village (7 Samurai anyone?)... it doesn't have to be a violent oriented situation... maybe they could be recruited, maybe they are impromptu drinking buddies. My idea for publication is to make that Raiding Party interesting in so many different ways that it can be used my multiple GMs in multiple situations. Plug -n- Play.

    A suggested way of presentation...

    Orc Raiding Party
    lead by Ukog, fun loving, out for adventure, type (lets play against type here)
    2nd: Nendar: Grumpy, loyal to Ukog, cleans Ukog's messes up, perfect sarge.
    18 generics. {insert your game system stats}
    Sit 1: Orcs are flush and blowing cash in town/village/city. They are open to all kinds of suggestions, as long as it is fun.
    Sit 2: You need some combat in this long overland trek, Raiding party starts shadowing PCs for a couple of days before getting the courage to attack. Good psych warfare might forestall the raid entirely. A good 1/2 of them are pretty drunk during the attack, hoping for victory through superior numbers.
    Sit 3: Ukog doesn't want to widdle his people down through attrition, and tries to blackmail the PCs in hiring him as guards for the long trek. But really, he is going in the same direction anyhow, just wants to get home. If the PCs work the social angle long enough, Ukog will capitulate and do it for free.
    Sit 4: Ukog and Nendar are captured. PCs are asked to be on the jury. Will this be rough frontier justice? Do the Orcs deserve it? What is really going on?
    Sit 5: The Orcs have horses, weapons etc and have been successful for the last 6 months or so. But they need more "civilized" front men to convert horse, weapons, even slaves, into gold. They might go as far as to capture a favored NPC of the PCs to blackmail the PCs into doing this.

    I came up with those 5 situations in about 20 mins. What I think is cool about published stuff being like this is that someone can look at those 5 optional situations and get a sense not only of the raiding party, but of the designer's intent. In this case, I'm the designer. Orcs as generic wandering bad guys is pretty boring to me. It is my intent to show how a raiding party can be used in social conflict and not necessarily physical violent conflict. The reader might look at my 5 suggestions and come up with a BETTER one for THEIR TABLE in a heartbeat. And if the reader spends 3 minutes thinking about it, can probably come up with 3 BETTER situations than any of the ones I suggested.

    But by giving 5 different situational ideas, we prompt the reader into being flexible. Show by doing.

    Next, we are introducing the idea of Plug -n- Play... WHEN is this Raiding Party going to be used? Don't know. GM at Table A might use it early. Table B GM might use it to jumpstart the middle with some action after a lot of social interaction between players. WHERE does it happen within the game world... we don't know that either... but it can happen in lots of places.

    Just some thought-age.
  • edited October 2007
    I wouldn't mind seeing Sorcerer in action. I don't really get the system on my read throughs. So, i'm not sure of its abilities to handle it. But it seems to be really good at it. So, I'll take your word for it.

    I also think Shadow of Yesterday and how one refreshes pools is very much S&S.

    Ooops folks, that was supposed to be a whisper to Judd...
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: Storn
    Ooops folks, that was supposed to be a whisper to Judd...
    Damnit, there is a secret forum and it is all about Judd! I knew it!

    Here's the question that all this has brought to my mind: if you, as GM, have the characters "buy in" to a specific situation, does that do anything to make the subsequent game feel more or less controlled by the GM?

    To use specific game examples, if we sit down to play The Mountain Witch, we all know that eventually the Witch will come into play when the PC's reach the top of the mountain. When we sit down to play the Buffy RPG, we all know, or at least think we know, that the PC's will eventually uncover the machinations of the Big Bad and try to foil them. Is there a qualitative difference between these two kinds of constraints, or is it just a matter of style?
  • IDK if I can answer that question, but I will point out that earlier players buying into the situation was being discussed. Not sure if this is an intentional tangent to that conversation or not.
  • I started writing a post about the Enemy Within Campaign ... but it made no sense at all, so I gave up :)

    The substance is that I'm wondering if there is a difference in the quality of the story between something that emerges during play, as it tends to do in a story game (let me qualify that, one where you don't decide the story arc in advance), and something that actually has a direction and endpoint in advance. It would be, perhaps, the difference between the sort of story you tell in an improvisational drama (which can be cool) and in a novel (IMO cooler).

    Now roleplaying games are manifestly not novels, but that doesn't mean they can't gain something of narrative direction, coherence and drama from having a plot of some sort to follow. I'm not sure if they do, or what, just a suggestion
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