Monday, November 14, 2005

Informational Management and Plot Structure

So, I was going on about the "ST as informational manager" and it occured to me that there isn't really a hard and fast method for structuring the release and dissemination of information.

Oops. Got all buzz-wordy there.
Okay, As i mentioned before, it's important to understand the Who,What,When,Where,Why, and How of the plot in order for the plot to be fully realized. But getting those seperate and discrte bits of intel into the hands of the players (Who can hopefully manipulate them into a coherent picture.) Is still an inexact science. Hopefully, by trying to figure out a framework for this sort of thing, it might get easier to break plotting a storyline into many tiny jobs, as opposed to one great big mammoth job.

A wise man once said, "If you must eat the elephant, take small bites."

The Inkling
The begining of any plot is the Inkling. This is that bit where the players first come into contact with the plot, have no real knowledge as to what the flying fuck is going on, and are hopefully going to start asking questions rather than just start shooting. Whether it's finding the first corpse, or hearing about a mass suicide in a small new england town 3 days after a meteor strike, or some other bit of craziness, It's imperative that you have all the information that the players are never going to know.
Okay, that's maybe a little opaque. You have to know the entire history of the plot whether it's something that the players are liable to bump into or not. Mainly because this will help you know the various avenues of finding things out about the plot proper. Remember you need more than one road to the truth.
While it's cetainly tempting to be as stingy as you can with information at this point, It may be frustrating to players if you are too parsimonius. In fact you can probably supply more information at the jump than you think you can. You could take one of the six elements above and give it out in it's entirety. You could tell Why something is happening but maybe not How or What. You could even give away nothing more than the When and let the players scramble before the date arrives trying to figure out what the portents mean.
Take a locked room mystery as an example. The What (dead guy in a locked room) is obvious.
As the mystery unfolds, the players peel away the other layers. In fact, it might be interesting to vary the last piece of the puzzle as the most important bit. In one case, finding out Whodunnit, is the most important bit. In another case, finding out who actually did the deed comes relatively easy, but finding the How and the Why, in order to establish opportunity and motive is the hard bit. It doesn't help matters to know who the killer is only to be unable to prove it in court.

The Lookaround
Hopefully, your players are the sort of folks who chomp at the bit for a nice juicy bit of plot. If wave a bit under their nose and then huck it into the middle distance, they are off like a shot. I hope that's the case for you. I do. If this is indeed the case, then your players will want to gather some intelligence. Whether it's onto the Net, Into the Library or out onto the streets, your plyaers will have entered the lookaround phase of the plot.
This part can be of a variable length. I council that it has no more than 3 actual phases of the total plot unless the plot is an extended hunt for intelligence with a discernable goal. (Like say, a hunt for pirate treasure with lots of weird clues and and strange locales.) In most antagonist driven plots, It's important that the lookaround NOT be some way to keep the players from contact with the antagonist.
The Lookaround cuts both ways. If the players are asking questions about Mr.X. in certain quarters, there is nothing stopping Mr. X from hearing about it, nor is there anything wrong with having Mr. X. put a price on their heads or looking into THEIR affairs.Just remember while you might be profiling the serial killer, he might be profiling YOU.
Sometimes, the Lookaround involves research. I've talked about the uses of trash-facts in the past as a way of signalling when the research has reached it's natural end, and the researchers have to get out of the library and gather intel in person.
But it's very important that the players gather some actual information from their work. Sometimes, the Why is the thing that is most hard to come by. Research can help with this. If a forensic investigation is the work in question, then the players are looking for the How,(The Why may come along with it, but the How is primary.)

Now, if things go according to plan, the players will figure a few things out, plan accordingly, and then with some skill and a bit of faith will find a way to confront the bad guy or the natural disaster or whatever head on and prevail. That is the plan right? It's very easy to get caught up in the whole idea of making the mystery hard for the players. Almost to the point of forgetting that the game is about your players, and not your super clever antagonist. The plan is to enable and allow the players to actually make it to the finish line. There is nothing wrong with making the mystery hard, but you also have to remember. YOU CONTROL THE FLOW OF INFORMATION.
Steve Darlington (Who is a genius by the way) came up with a term derived from the game Myst. It involved trying to find a teeny tiny clue in a room and being unable to move forward without locating this clue which was effectively a few pixel large.
This is called "Pixelbitching"
Now if your players are paying attention, taking notes, doing the proper research. making the proper moves in the Lookaround phase of the plot, then it's no problem if things come hard. They'll tease it out eventually, and they'll be happy they took the long route.
However, there are days when days when this is too much to ask. They might ignore a key witness. They might mis-hear a vital clue or forget a vital clue. They may have all the pieces and not be able to muscle them into a coherent picture. They might even be in the unenviable condition of being unable to catch a clue even if slathered with clue musk, and doing the clue mating dance, amidst a field of amorous clues in clue mating season.
These things happen. Don't sweat this. Only sweat things when the players figure your plot out in 2 minutes flat.
In the meantime, you might want to hold some means of getting a hint into your players hands. Have a contact visit them with new details, have the lab reports come back, Does the Antagonist have enemies? Wouldn't it be nice if they dropped by for tea and scones and told you how to jack his shit up? If no other means presents itself, you might use a dream sequence or a prophecy to reveal some element of the plot.
it's also a good idea to have an idea of how players are likely to go looking for information and to figure out way to make those points they worth the investment. If a character spends a lot of points on some prophetic gift, then it's going to frustrate him mightily if his gifts are all but useless because you don't want to give too much of the plot away. the only way to curb this tendency is to anticipate exactly what those gift will give him. Watch episodes of Dead Zone to give you an idea of how to make this work and mutilple complications of that kind of gift. They really go the extra mile in showing how Precognition can confuse more than illuminate.

Contact with the Enemy
This can be as slam bang as any comic book or as low key as the opening scene in Swordfish where Gabriel is in the coffee shop talking about films. But each time you have contact with enemy, you learn a bit more about him. Sometimes, a lot more.
And they in turn, learn more about the PC's. There are some bits of information that can only be gleaned by contact with the enemy. sometimes it's necessary to have contact multiple times before the information can be resolved. For instance, an enemy who seems unstoppable in combat, Or who always has an escape route planned.
Look at any good Kung Fu film, The bad guy always seems unstoppable and it takes a while for the protagonist to learn how to beat him. Follow this path.
It's important to remember that each contact with the enemy gives away a little more of the antagonists strength and mystery, but that this is necessary for the furtherance of plot. Heck, give the bad guy an opportunity to "Monologue" and he'll give away every piece of information that the players don't yet have.
And that is as it should be. At some point, the players should in fact have the whole ball of wax.

Sono Finito.


At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Acid Reign said...

.....It's not the end of the world if players don't pick up on things. You can heap a bit more misery on, and then maybe point out how they could have avoided it, if the story calls for that. Not much fear of that in my players, though. After burning them a few times early, I've got two that are constantly writing in their notebooks, and another with a laptop ticka-tacking away.

.....And one player regularly emails everyone a custom-made wiki on all the NPCs and their known relationships in my game, all cross-linked and organized. Sometimes I find myself consulting the wiki because I can't remember something I said about an old character. Sometimes I think the players know more about my world than I do!



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