Generally, the plot is up to the players. It’s up to you to set the scene.
There are quite a few techniques that can be used to move the plot ahead. Most of these are stolen from script writing or comic book writing. In developing your own style, take a look at movies and books, and watch how the story is developed and told. When you see something interesting, think about whether or not you can incorporate it into your games. For example, look at the many ways good comics open their stories. You don’t always have to start your adventure in a bar. You can start it at the end of a fight. You can start it in the middle of a public appearance by the characters. You can start it in the middle of an argument over who dirtied the last clean fork. It’s up to you.
Just don’t overuse that kind of thing. Dream sequences can flush the players’ hard work down the drain.
You might also try different plot devices. A real dream sequence (as opposed to a dream caused by mind control or psychic impressions) can give you the opportunity to run a completely different adventure, while the players think it’s still the same.
I recommend running your campaign from one to four weeks behind. This way you know what has happened in the world, and you can use real world events in the adventures you create. It is highly unlikely that the players will have detailed knowledge about the specific events, from one or more weeks previous, that you choose to use.
DC has been notable in experimenting along these lines. See, for example, Suicide Squadª Annual #1.
Do not attempt to make it the player characters’ fault that the event happened. This can be cute once or twice, but detracts from the sense that what is happening could be real, especially when the true reason is known. When using real-world events as bases for adventures, the line between realistic and silly can be a very thin one.
For an example of this kind of egocentrism, see Superman: Miracle Mondayª, by Elliot S! Maggin. Superman worries that his presence causes more harm than good. If he didn’t exist, would we still allow tankers filled with LNG into populated areas?
As it is, players will often have an inflated view of their characters’ influence anyway. I once ran an adventure where a United States Government clandestine organization used the bombing of Libya as an opportunity to sneak some super heroes into Libya to recover a certain object. The players actually came to the conclusion that in this world, the bombing was designed simply as a cover for them.
You can use this tendency in your plots--other people in the campaign world may well believe the same thing.
Remember that just as science in comics is comic-book science, research is comic-book research. If a player contradicts your facts, you’ve got two choices: Use the information, or explain that things are different in this world.
You don’t want to do to much research--this is supposed to be fun, not work. Still, there are a couple of things you can use to do quick and dirty research. World Almanacs are pretty good. They often have time lines, as well as detail on many things that happened during the year the Almanac is for. Specialized encyclopedias can be useful when you are creating an adventure with a special hook. If the hook is baseball, use a baseball encyclopedia. If the hook is the European witch madness, use the Encyclopedia of Demonology and Witchcraft.
Think of your adventure as a version of black-box theater.
Props can make your game much more fun and interesting. When using props, sparseness is the key word. Use a few simple props to stimulate your players’ imaginations. I like to use one or two pencil drawings of the areas where the adventure takes place, just to give the players an idea of the layout. This will show mountains in the background, hills, large buildings and trees, but nothing elaborate. I also try to limit myself to using only one or two props per adventure.
News articles or broadcasts are nice. If you have access to a computer, printer, and page layout program, you can actually write up the newspaper article or classified ad you normally would simply recite to the players. Find a real newspaper from the day you want, choose a place to locate the article, and type it in with the surrounding articles. Then, print it out and you have a newspaper fragment to hand the players.
For news broadcasts, write up the broadcast and have a friend read it into a tape recorder. If you have some skills with recording, you might try to surround it with a real broadcast, and/or some real (or game world) advertisements.
Journal fragments are very useful. Start the journal a couple of weeks (game time) before the ‘important’ date, and end it whenever you feel like. Instead of telling the players “you find a journal; the handwriting is very bad, but you can make out...”, you can hand them the fragment.
You can also use mood-building props. For example, if the characters are adventuring during the day, turn all the lights on. If it is overcast or dusk, turn the lights down. Make sure you still have enough light to read by. If someone in the background (game world) is blaring music, put something appropriate in your stereo and play it. You might even tape a radio station and add some game world advertisements and news reports. Don’t get elaborate. A guideline I like to use is simply whether or not using the prop wastes time. If I think it takes more time to play the scene with the prop than without it, I usually won’t use it. Obviously, how much the prop enhances the scene will mediate this.
VCRs are useful if you have access to one. You can use it like a tape recorder for background TV shows, or even white noise--the characters walk into an apartment at 2 in the morning, and find a dead body and the TV still on. As the players say ‘We enter the room’, you turn down the lights and hit the remote control to turn the white noise videotape on. Then, you describe the scene.
Telephone calls can really add to your game. You’ll need an accomplice to call while you are playing--and ask for one of the player characters. The accomplice pretends to be a non-player character. Make sure that your accomplice is familiar with what the NPC is supposed to say, and how the NPC is supposed to act. And be very clear that the accomplice must stay in character, since the player will probably, at first, think it’s all a joke, and even be embarrassed to play along.
If you’re really feeling ambitious, set up a costume night. During this game session, players should wear something that evokes the image of their character. Obviously, a human player can’t easily look like an alien serpent. But that player can bring a toy laser, or use green facial dye. Players should be encouraged to use their imagination.
These can also be thought of as game world props. They add flavor to an adventure, and link the campaign to the real world. Characters in Hollywood might run across a shoot for a film that is actually being filmed, or might be caught in an earthquake that actually happened. There are four basic types of real-world links--things, events, places, and people. These generally only work in games set in the modern world.
Things can involve anything that has a reputation in the real world. The Mona Lisa, the Hope Diamond, the Declaration of Independence, Johnny’s Hot Truck, or a Billy Bones T-Shirt. Anything that involves the characters with something that actually exists in the real world can provide links to enhance the feel of the game.
Events are useful to place the characters in time, and add an extra dimension to your descriptions. If the characters are in the same area as a major fire, or earthquake, or parade that actually happened, give them a brief description. This enhances the feeling of being there--of being in a world that exists. Events can also be used more directly within the adventure. A current war can become the setting for an adventure.
If a mistake is important to the adventure, don’t change it. Explain why it’s different in the campaign world.
Places add mood to an adventure, and add realism to the campaign. The occasional Las Vegas or Hollywood adventure is fun. You might also try an adventure or two in the players’ home town, or at least the town where you are playing. Feel free to use your imagination when describing areas you are not familiar with. If somebody who does know the place corrects you, just say “Oh, yeah, I forgot”, or be honest and say “Thanks.” Depending on how much the corrections bother you, you can always surreptitiously move the action elsewhere.
When you use real people in your adventure, this is called a Cameo, or a Walk-In part.
People can be a little harder to deal with. When you put real people in an adventure, you have to be careful of a couple of things. Cameos require motivation and realism.
Cameos require motivation for being there. You can use real people randomly if just in passing, but if there is interaction with the players, there must be a reason for the person to be there. Don’t just bring famous people in out of the blue, or your campaign will start to look like a sitcom. Also, try bringing some not so famous people in, such as a classmate, a professor you know, or maybe a local bartender. These add real and lasting flavor to your campaign.
Use some objectivity when presenting the real person. Try to keep both the situation and the person realistic. Characters are not likely to have an extended meeting with the President. Such a meeting will probably be five minutes or less in length, and strictly controlled. If the President is appearing with the characters as a public relations event, there is likely to be even less interaction. And don’t let your own personal opinions cause you to make a person seem silly or ridiculous. This makes your campaign silly and ridiculous, even if only for a moment.
This isn’t stealing, it’s borrowing. It’s like a classical musician taking a flamenco piece and incorporating it into a sonata.
Explicably link the adventure involving the stolen plot to something in your world. Don’t just force it into your campaign like a square peg in a round hole. Instead of using completely new non-player characters, find some non-player characters who already exist who fit the requirements for the adventure. If there were some events in the past that lead up to the adventure, see if you can use some events the players were involved in. This is much better than simply saying, you weren’t around, but this happened, and it led to this, now let’s start the adventure... It is a good idea in any adventure to include links to the player characters’ pasts and futures.
Also, allow some time to pass between deciding that it’s a great idea and using the great idea. Do this for two reasons. First, it allows the idea to percolate in your brain for a while. You’ll start thinking about how it will affect your campaign, what is needed for the idea to work, and how the characters will react to it. It will also give some time for the novelty of the idea to wear off, so that you will be able to make a more unbiased judgment on whether it will work for you.
Second, if you got the idea from one of the more popular mediums (hit movies, comics, etc.), your players may have seen the movie or read the book also. Waiting gives them time to forget it. This is important. If they pick up immediately that a movie plot is being used, that takes away a bit of the feeling of reality you are trying to create.
Sometimes you will want to involve real issues in your campaign, whether it be hunger, abortion, or the right to die. This is good. To do it well, however, takes some work and objectivity.
You can’t be completely objective. Nobody can. So don’t worry. But don’t use the moral as if it were a baseball bat in a street fight.
So, know your facts. This goes along very heavily with being objective. If you’re going to use an issue you feel strongly about, build the adventure from facts, not from your own opinion. Especially take a good look at the opinions you want to get across, and make sure they are based on facts. Write these facts, and the opinions, and the reasoning connecting the two down. If you do not write them down you will make jumps of logic that will not stand up under the scrutiny the players will give, whether your conclusions are correct or not.
And, let the characters form their own opinions. This does not mean that non-player characters will not try to convince or even force an opinion on the characters, but never say, as game master, that something is stupid, no matter how stupid it is! Keep the player and the character separate in your mind. If you wish to argue with a player, wait until the game is finished. Be ready to accept that the characters (and even players) may come to different conclusions than you, no matter how obvious things seem. If you can’t accept this, do not use the issue in the adventure. Period. This is a game, not a war.
Be careful of disputes arising between players. If it looks like an argument is developing between two players or between a player and a character, remind the players to keep players’ actions and characters’ actions separate. Do not take sides. Ever. No matter how ridiculous one side is.
Be subtle. This goes along with letting the characters form their own opinions. Do not use the game equivalent of a 16 ton brick to mark the ‘correct’ opinions. Do not shove the facts in the characters’ faces. It is almost always unrealistic and will probably result in unrealistic reactions from the characters. Give the characters just as much of an option to ignore the problem as the players have in real life.
Be ready when the characters ignore the issue. Some will. It happens all the time in real life. That is their right. If you want all the characters to do things your way, write a book. This is role-playing.
A good adventure is like a well crafted sonata. They exist in infinite variety. One composer can use the same ideas as another--and create a beautiful piece where the first was mediocre. All, however, are basically the same--Allegro, Adagio, Scherzo, Allegro. All music is like this, whether it’s the I-IV-V progression, the twelve-bar blues, or the AABA verse form. Everything within the genre is a variation on the pattern, but the pattern is always evident.
Game mastering is the same. Most groups find a pattern they like, and stick with it. The pattern will be varied across adventures, but the pattern will remain evident. Here are some ways to add variations to your sonata, while retaining the integrity of the theme. Most of these ideas are taken from movies, television, novels, and comics--not plots, but ideas on presentation and direction.
Un-adventures are often called Slice of Life adventures.
Take the cola out of a cola, and what do you have? Well, most people still call it a cola. It might be flavored differently, but the definition of ‘cola’ has been modified over the years to include most carbonated, flavored beverages. The same is true of adventures. Take all the adventure out of an adventure, and what do you have? A different flavor of adventure, and one that can occasionally refresh.
We’re here to have fun, not simulate reality. In So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams shows why we usually ignore the mundane aspects of life.
An un-adventure is a game in which very little actual adventure occurs. Characters are allowed to do mundane things, such as wash their laundry, see a movie, and order out for pizza. Loose ends from previous adventures can also be cleared up. The un-adventure should never be forced on the players. You should have another adventure ready in case some players get bored.
After saving the world three times in a row, you definitely need to clean your underwear.
I have found that the best un-adventures are not planned at all. The players all decide in unison that it is time for a break. Characters will quickly move to do things on their own, until everyone is off in pairs or alone, half of them doing things of little or no consequence. This most often happens after a series of major adventures. The players realize, consciously or subconsciously, that their characters need a night of completely mundane action to balance out the world-shaking events of the previous night. When this occurs, just let it happen. Your job is to keep it interesting. Add a few simple spices, such as a traffic jam or an annoying salesperson.
Uncle John burns the turkey, so the player characters must find a turkey and cook it before the rest of the family gets unruly.
Or, during a commercial break while watching the Rose Bowl, a PC’s nephew confides that his girlfriend missed her period, and asks for some advice.
You can plan an un-adventure around a specific event, such as Thanksgiving dinner or the Rose Bowl. The difference between this and the above type is that here, the players are pretty much all in the same place, and the game master should have some interesting sub-adventures planned. The players have to deal with something they hadn’t planned on dealing with.
This type of un-adventure can still be serious. In fact, un-adventures are often better for dealing with serious issues than ‘real’ adventures. There isn’t so much extraneous information to cloud the issue. If you do decide to inject that kind of seriousness into your adventures, un-adventure or not, let the players decide what their characters think and believe. Don’t make judgments on their decisions based on your personal beliefs. Certainly don’t criticize them for their characters’ actions.
As heroes and celebrities, the characters are likely to be asked to give interviews, both for news shows and talk shows. A talk show can be especially fun to play out--it’s only going to take about fifteen minutes (the length of time the host is likely to give the heroes), and gives the characters a chance to answer really mundane questions. The heroes may even meet other celebrities who are interviewed on that show.
You will sometimes want to run two or more groups of PCs in separate adventures, or in separate parts of the same adventure, at the same time. This is difficult. It takes concentration and skill.
Most often, concurrent adventures occur because the players split up. On the rare occasions when you are designing a concurrent adventure, think about these guidelines:
Suspense: Use it mainly for suspense. Concurrent adventures work best to raise tension, when two or more groups are rushing separately towards the same goal.
You should keep the groups apart for short periods of time, rather than long periods. If possible, don’t design the adventure so that both groups are separate for the whole game. Start with them separate and bring them together, or separate them for the final, dramatic rush towards the end goal. If you must keep them separate for the whole adventure, think about bringing some of them together for short periods and then separating them again--the groups, or perhaps individuals from the groups, can meet occasionally at crossroads in the adventure. Short periods of separation build tension more dramatically than long periods.
When running a concurrent adventure, keep three things in mind:
á Try not to get the various adventures mixed up.
á Try not to let the groups get out of sync.
á Don’t allow the dormant group to get bored while you are running the active group.
If you’ve tried running concurrent adventures before, you probably know what I’m talking about. When you have two, three, or even four separate groups going, it is very easy to forget which player characters and non-player characters are involved in each adventure. It is also easy to forget where you left off, and what happened. Events in one adventure have a tendency to slip over to the other(s).
There are two things you can do to minimize this. Keep notes, and do not allow players from one group to distract you while you are running another group. Other than that, it simply takes experience.
If, by the end of the night, one group has spent three months of game time, and the other group has spent only three days, you’ll know you’re in trouble. Know that you can’t keep the groups on exactly the same timetable, but use whatever chance you get to keep them close. If one group is getting behind, explain that you would rather not role-play the less important sections quite as much (such as buying equipment, finding a place to live, etc.) in order to catch up with the other group. Likewise, spend more time roleplaying these less important sections with the group that is getting ahead.
Actually, the worst is when they sit watching for five minutes, and then start ironing or doing laundry. It’s hard to accept that laundry is more interesting than gaming to some people.
Face it. How often has a friend asked to sit in‑ on a game, only to wander away towards the TV or stereo after five minutes? RPGs tend to be less exciting for observers than for participants.
When running concurrent adventures, you have to take turns with each group. This means that one or two groups are going to be observing either half or two-thirds of the time. I don’t recommend running more than three groups at a time.
There are two solutions to this. Neither is perfect. The best is to somehow involve the other groups in the adventure being run. When this is not possible, however, allot a specific amount of time per group, and stick with it. Use a timer, or tell one of the players in a ‘dormant’ group to keep time.
Try not to let any group wait longer than 12 minutes between playing times. With two groups, I recommend giving each group five to eight minutes. With three groups, try three to six minutes. When you decide on a time, stick with it. When the timer goes off, stop--even if you are in the middle of something. Write down what just happened and is happening, and switch to the next group. You will almost always be in the middle of something when the time is up. By breaking in the middle, you keep the players in anticipation, so that hopefully their attention won’t wander too far during their dormant period.
When training yourself to do this, think about some of the movies you’ve seen that switch between two or more groups working towards the same or different goals. Skillfully executed, it is very exciting. Note especially the use of cliff-hangers. Scenes rarely shift when nothing is happening. They shift when there is uncertainty about what is going to happen next. That’s what I mean when I say it is best to stop in the middle of something.
You should always try to involve the dormant players in the active group whenever possible. There are two ways to do this. The first is to have some NPCs that can be played. You might give two or more players control of one NPC if there aren’t enough to go around. Or, you might try the second means of getting the players involved. Simply allow and encourage them to offer advice and comments to the players who are running the PCs. Normally, this is considered bad role-playing, so you will need the consent of both groups before you allow this. Some players find that this detracts from their playing experience. Experiment to find the right feel for your players.
Mood Breaks are used to break up an ongoing game and enhance the mood of the adventure. They can also be used to give players special clues. There are three simple guidelines that you should follow while using these ideas:
á Make sure everyone has a part.
á Know what is going to happen.
á Keep it short.
If each player’s character is not present within the break, have some non-player characters ready for them to play. Make sure they are interesting non-player characters. Give the players a short description of the characters available, and hand them out, or allow the players to choose from a pool of available NPCs. When you design the break, be flexible as to which NPCs are the pivot characters, so that you can make the PC NPCs pivotal to the action.
These breaks usually are very integral to the adventure. Certain things must happen in order for the adventure to happen. Simply make sure you know what these things are, and don’t allow the players a chance to change them.
Because the players don’t have as much control as normal, they are going to get bored if the break takes too long. Keep it short and this won’t happen. Feel free at any time to call it to a halt or move it ahead with a summary of what happens next.
All of these techniques add excitement and direction to adventures, using simple techniques culled from movies, books, comics, and television. Gaming is a creative literary enterprise, and is closely related to video and print media. Much of our plot ideas come from there; why not flow ideas as well?
The Introduction is also sometimes known as the Prologue, or Opening Scene.
One of the best examples of this is in Psycho--Hitchcock used a long introduction (ending at the shower scene) to set the tone for the rest of the movie. The introduction works well for horror based games, because it is best not to give the players too much real information. Here is an example of how it can be used:
At the start of the game, hand out character sheets for a janitor, a professor, and two students, each working late in the biology lab. They notice odd noises throughout the evening. Suddenly, the power goes out. Take the janitor’s sheet. He’s dead, and never knew what hit him. One of the students goes downstairs for a coke, and sees the janitor’s mangled body. He hears something sloshing behind him, turns, and sees a huge shape in the darkness just before he dies. The other student goes to find the first, sees both mangled bodies, and runs back to the professor. They call the police, and the intro is over.
Interludes are very useful for Foreshadowing.
Interludes are great for setting up the next adventure, and whetting the players’ appetites for it. They can be used to set up adventures two, three, or more adventures later. The reasons behind most adventures do not begin with the player characters coming onto the scene. You can dispel the feeling that adventures come full-blown for the player characters by involving the players in the adventure’s build-up. Some comics have been known to build up storylines years before the storyline was actually used.
Here’s an example that might take 1 or 2 minutes to complete:
It takes two players, playing a husband and wife. It’s short, so let the other players watch. It is late in the evening, and they are cleaning up after dinner. There’s knock on the door. John goes to answer. Mary yells from the kitchen.
“Who is it?”
“An elf...” John replies... “ with a gun!”
And the Editor abruptly ends the interlude.
Interludes are also nice for playing out a character’s personal life. Allow the other players to play the character’s boss, mother, or boyfriend. The player’s character might or might not be involved in an interlude like this.
Epilogues are very similar to interludes. Because they are designed to bring the reader/viewer back for the next installment, epilogues are usually more dramatic than interludes. Try to leave the players with a strong desire to know what happens next. Epilogues usually occur at the end of a game session where the adventure also ends, to set up the next adventure.
The Cliffhanger: The cliffhanger is a very clichéd but useful epilogue. Cliffhangers usually occur at the end of a game session that does not end the adventure, leaving the players in anticipation of the next session. The players may even desire to continue playing ‘for just a few more minutes’ in order to resolve the cliffhanger. Do not overuse this device, however, or it will become as clichéd in your game as it has in other literary genres.
Flashbacks are very useful when Retconning characters.
The heroes have been captured by minions of the evil Green Hood. After being placed in a cell, they are met by Green Hood himself. Insults are exchanged. Green Hood turns to Major Ewing and snorts: “Don’t you recognize me, Private?” and unmasks himself. Major Ewing gasps. “Captain Stark!” he cries, and suddenly he is flooded with memories of that dark night in Vietnam...
Sound familiar? Of course it does. The flashback has been used to death in countless movies and novels. When using a flashback, however, you must pay close attention to the second guideline--you must know what is going to happen. This is a flashback, not time travel. The player characters can’t win Vietnam for the United States, because the United States didn’t win in Vietnam. And Green Hood can’t be killed, because he’s looking at the characters in the present time. It can look like he died, but the death can’t be lasting. Whether or not you allow time travelers to change history, this isn’t time travel.
The Reminiscence: The reminiscence is a form of flashback which is much more narrative than active. In this case a character will tell a story about the past event. It is best to let the player make up the reminiscence on the spot, or talk to the player beforehand and give them a copy of the reminiscence to study. Reminiscences work best after the action, when tension is down. Standard role-played flashbacks work best in the middle of the action, when tension is up.
These are great breaks for you--you can have a player run the game, and you can make a character. You don’t have to worry about continuity.
For a real break, you can play an entirely different game using the same characters. Or almost the same characters. Take the normal characters and put them in a different world, modifying them for that world. Some characters might become non-powered; others might end up with different powers.
If you decide that this new story takes place in an alternate time line, then it really happened in the continuity. In this case, characters are likely to have similar powers, origins, and personalities.
The Kitty the Pirate stories from Clairemont’s X-Men were great examples of this.
If you decide to run an imaginary story, you can go wild. Characters can become completely different, even to the point of becoming a villain. You can create adventures that use the characters the players are familiar with, but set in a fantasy, romance, or cartoon style. These stories don’t exist anywhere in the continuity. They’re just a chance to break out and have fun in a new way.
One application for this: finding out what your players really want, without just coming out and asking them.
Don’t feel obliged to incorporate the story into your world. But if you can, by all means do so!
A comparison between gaming and writing is often made. We get together, the Editor has created a backdrop for adventure, and we use our characters to write an adventure. Why not--just once--make it a real writing session? Some night before starting a new adventure, give the players the option of writing an adventure instead. Make it a communal project--everybody’s characters are used, and each player has control over what their character does in the story. Let the players describe the non-player characters, as well. Let them deal with villain motivation for a change. Spend the entire session writing a story involving the players’ characters. Don’t worry too much about whether or not the story fits into the campaign. You can deal with that later.
Confine your role to that of an editor: encourage the players’ creativity and maintain continuity with the campaign.
Many times you’ve got a group together for one night and one night only. They’re in from out of town or you just don’t get together very often. For best results, you want to finish the adventure in one night. And not only that, you want the adventure to last the entire night. It’s Abraham Lincoln’s legs all over again.
The adventure needs to be as long as it takes to reach the night’s end. That’s going to mean that you’ll have to continually adjust its length. As the editor, you’ll have to keep track of the time, and keep track of how far the players have to go. And you’ll have to adjust the rest of the adventure depending on how much time has to be filled.
How can you do this?
1. Time everything. If you have time to work out an outline for the adventure before starting the game, mark off exactly when you expect the players to reach each major point. You will then know exactly when to start cutting the adventure down or start building it up.
2. Keep it simple. The ‘main story’ has to be simple, so that it will be flexible. No matter how many strange tangents you’ve gone off on, at any point you should be able to return to the main storyline when time is running short.
3. Have optional tangents. If you’ve already outlined the story, have a list of possible extra options at each of the major points. If you’re running ahead, you can include some of those extras. If you haven’t outlined the story, keep a couple of extras--villains, heroes, and normals--that you can use to liven up play if the players manage to move more quickly through the adventure than you thought they would.
4. Have alternate endings in mind. If you’ve managed to outline the adventure first, think about how the adventure could plausibly be completed at each of the plot developments in the latter part of the outline. You should also strive to make sure the players are the cause of the ending, not your non-player characters.
You might also keep a file of pre-created player characters for use on such nights. If players want to create their own character, you should encourage them to do so before they arrive. Use the optional rule, How to Make a Hero in Half an Hour from the rulebook, if you have to make the character on the night of play.
Sit back and relax! Don’t get too stressed out about the whole thing. Most of them probably aren’t there to game anyway, they’re there to have fun with their friends.