Monday, June 13, 2005

Plotting and Planning:A Gm's Guide to global domination/destruction/whatever.

At times I have the opportunity to play. (I know you don't believe that, but it's true.) I have found that it is a good place to learn about how to game master by the simple expedient of watching someone else work. It can be good to learn from being on the bench (as it were) so you don't make the same kind of mistakes in the game yourself.

One of the hardest balances to strike as a GM is the happy medium between off-the-cuff,seat-of-the-pants,kind of game mastering which is fun but can become unbalanced very quickly and the Anal retentive,this-book-is-law,every detail planned kind of gaming which is balanced and controlled but is dull hard work. Here are a few tips,hopefully helpful, to give Game masters the best way to strike that balance for themselves.

1) Relax; You are *going* to fuck up.

Yes that's right. You are not going to become a legendary GM overnight. Some have gifts and skills in this arena before taking up this mantle (...Or screen, or whatever.) but nobody does it right the first time and nobody does it right every time either. I still screw up. But I NEVER screw up the same way twice. I've gotten past the definitive need to be right in all things (which can end campaigns and friendships) and I've gotten past the need for the slavish affection of my gamers (which can lead to Monty Haulism,Alco-haulism,and a loss of player respect) I no longer to have everything on paper before I proceed,(which is impossible to keep up with anyway and is even more impossible to do in the first place.) and I no longer fear improvising. (Which really only takes guts,energy, and careful notes afterwards to make it work.)

Once you relax. You will actually be able to enjoy game mastering occasionally instead of looking at it like some sort of civic duty you've been pressed into. If you relax and have fun, others will do as you do.It is contagious.

2) Linear plots suck.

An anecdote: Once upon a time I was playing AD&D with some friends. We were doing the first module of the Dragonlance series of modules. We were having a good time at some inn until some Draconians came in and started some shit with us. We thrashed them mightily. Then 8 more came in and we beat them handily too.(the dice were kind) then 8 more came in and with a bit of sweat and some ingenious tactics we spanked them like the monkeys they were.

Then 8 more came in. Finally I got pissed. "How many damn Draconians are there?"

The D.M. said only, "You don't know, they are blocking the only door out of this joint."

This of course dictated my next response, which was throw a chair through a window and cast a featherfall spell, thus floating gently to the ground.

The rest of the team rushed to the window and jumped or scrambled down at which point the game master said that we were surrounded by the Draconians. Not quite willing to give up, we asked how many.

At this point, the DM pulled a face and said, " You guys are supposed to get captured...Like in the book. According to the module there are an unlimited number of Draconians necessary to beat you into submission."

I fucking hate this. I don't know a single gamer who *enjoys* the thought of being railroaded into a single course of action. We like to keep our options open which is why it seems to take forever to decide on pizza or movies or anything else for that matter. Plots that depend on players going from point A to point B to point C and performing actions X,Y,and Z are doomed to failure. Especially if they twig to this lack of flexibility. Players always want to explore the part of the dungeon that hasn't been written yet.

The best example of a Non-linear plot I've ever seen is Ravenloft. (the original module) The Deus ex machina happens, stranding the characters in the environs of Barovia and no matter which way you go you will eventually bump into this Strahd Von Zarovich guy. Is it a mystery to be solved? Is Strahd a supernatural menace? Will someone protect the frightened townsfolk? Dozens of good motives for going up to Castle Ravenloft and investigating and not one of them is "The module said so!"

I personally like the threaded approach. In each game I like to have 2 or 3 plots going on at once which may or may not be related and which may or may not reach fruition at the same time. In some games, I'll deal with 2 plot lines and plant the seeds for a 3rd, maybe re-water an old plot line and let the players deal with their very complicated lives.

3) Plan events, not reactions:

In this same artery,never have a plot that hinges on how the players are going to react to a given situation. The archetypical problem in this way is the inevitable difficulty with getting a troupe to go along to the adventure in the first place.

Here's something you might try: The players are sitting around the inn quaffing a bit of ale, when a man come into the place, and seeing the band of brave adventurers, ambles over and offers them a job. The players, who have decided to be dicks this evening, tell the man that they want 3 times the amount of gold that he's willing to pay and verbally abuse him for being a cheapskate. In the old days, I would have folded up my screen and said ,through gritted teeth, "I really can't continue until someone takes the job."

I don't do that anymore. When players turn the job down and treat the man doing the hiring like shit on their shoes, I simply state : " One week later, you hear about a group of adventurers that went up into the hills and slew some fearsome beast, came back down again very rich, and were promptly knighted by the king and given small parcels of land. Rumor has it that they use to sit around and drink at the bar up the street from this one...You would have heard more but times have been hard. Apparently, somebody has been spreading rumors that your group is extremely difficult to work with and adventuring hasn't exactly been paying the bills or your enormous bar tab. In fact it's gotten to the point where you've actually been told not to come back to the bar until you can pay it."

I let the gamers stew in the morass of bankruptcy,incipient DT's,anger and greed for a while by offering them suck-like odd jobs and then I hire them at about half of what they would have been paid. It is at this point, I break my dungeon notes back out and proceed to run the adventure I would have run in the first place.

Things happen and people will always react to them in different ways. You can't plan which way the players will jump but you can plan what the world will do. Often times it is best to let the players do as they will do and let the consequences be your guide. Sometimes it can be a lot of fun. At times players get the attitude that the world doesn't turn without them. Disabuse them of this notion at every chance you get.

4) Have *something* in mind:

One of the most deathly dull games I was involved in happened as the result of a game master who had no plot at all. This Game Master,(who shall remain nameless) actually had this idea that the players would spend the entire evening bouncing off one another until a plot became evident. This does not work.

Actually it does, but not like this. There have been a few times when I have said to my gamers " I really don't have much in the way of plot tonight so is there anything you guys would like to do?" At times they have taken the ball and run with it and at other times they didn't know what to do and dithered around for hours.

Plots are simple: X happens and at some point,maybe Y happens, and if the bad people aren't stopped, Z happens.

Z is generally something that the players don't want. You need at least this much for a game. This is the minimum requirement, Because I guarantee that if you don't have at least that...Your players will sense it. And will become apathetic or restless.

Possibly the best way to deal with a lack of plot material is to ask the players after the game session; "Guys I don't really have a plot for next week. Is there anything you'd like to explore or something you'd like to do?" Often times, their suggestions will spur ideas and has the added bonus of filling your player's in-character needs.

The only down side to this is as soon as they give a bunch of suggestions, you will immediately come up with an irresistible plot that is completely unrelated to them. It happens every time. Table it and resist the temptation. Bait and switch is just cruelty. Give the players what they ask for and then spring the new plot on them later or even plant the seeds during the game you are running.

5) Make a list:

planning indicates forethought which means you've got to think about things ahead of time.(duh) Sometimes it is as simple as making a list of the plot elements you'd like to work in. ( too many is always better than not enough because it is better to have things you don't need but can recycle, than it is to have to pull plot and NPC's out of your ass at a moments notice.

6) Phrases you should retire from your vocabulary:

- "You guys are going the wrong way."

-"Why don't you talk to the old guy you completely ignored 3 hours ago."

-"What do you do." (leave it unspoken but hanging in the air.)

-"Sorry guys, I didn't mean to kill you."

- "You guys were supposed to..." ( predicate nothing on what the players are supposed to do but what they do do.)

7) Win/ Lose /or Draw:

One thing that is sadly neglected in most planning stages of adventure creation is the Combat. Combat is and always will be a variable and as such can change the equation. How many times have you run a game where the players were supposed to lose a particular fight and triumphed gloriously, How many times have you run a game where the players were supposed to slam dunk an antagonist and got their asses handed to them? How many times was the Bad guy supposed to get away and didn't manage to make it?

As in all things, do not plan in a straight line. Plan what to do when the heroes win,lose, and draw. If the players win when they aren't supposed to, the consequences can make them wish they hadn't. If the players execute the bad guy before he can bargain for his life, have him be the only one with the code to stop the nukes from going off. If the players get whipped by the orcs, have the orcs take them prisoner for questioning and then maybe give them the opportunity to escape later.(Have your characters tortured a lot of orcs in the past? The boot is on the other foot I guess...) Did they kill the bad guy before he was going to get away? O.K.... But now his friends,family and henchmen are going to come looking for you. A better solution for the problem above would have been to allow us to beat the snot out the Draconians and go on only to discover that that little fight was reported to the garrison and now hundreds of draconian in groups of 20 are combing the country side. Also the Draconians have threatened to execute 20 people in the town every day until the group turns themselves in. (thus turning the townsfolk against us too.)

It is a bad idea to say to yourself that the troupe will win or lose a particular fight. Players can sense this shit and the dice can sense it too. Both of them will screw you every time.

Sono Finito.


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