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View From The Big Chair

V: 'Plotting Sidewise: It Doesn't Always Have to Make Sense.'

by Matthew Webber
Oct 27,2004


View from the Big Chair

V: 'Plotting Sidewise: It Doesn't Always Have to Make Sense.'

There is an old adage in fiction writing; if you get stuck, kill someone, you can always figure out why later. This works in RPGs too, remarkably well if you just twist it a bit to: try and kill the PCs, you can always figure out why later. If you have under-planned that night, the characters have wandered off in some bizarre direction, or things are just slowing down, throw a fight at them. Any battle will do; wild animals, monsters, assassins, thieves, a convention of Avon ladies ... anything just so long as it keeps the players rolling dice while you have time to regroup.

In fact, the more bizarre the battle the better. There is nothing like sitting back and listening while the players discuss and debate amongst themselves as to why that Giant Purple People Eater just came out of nowhere and attacked them. 'Aren't they a desert animals, what are they doing here in Icevale? And besides there are no giant, purple people in the party.' It gives you a few more minutes to figure out where to go next, and you might even gleam some interesting ideas for side-quests or plot points from the player's conversation.

If you are particularly keen, you can put together a few of these extra battles in your spare time and keep them filed away somewhere. It is a good chance to flip through some of that lesser-used source material and pull out some of those critters, Cults, Assassin guilds and NPCs, you never found a use for in your campaign before. If you are going to do this, also make up a few of the basic Orc party and brigands (or equivalent) that populate ever game world. In a modern or sci-fi campaign the truckload of anonymous men-in-black is always handy for generating a proper mix of mystery and paranoia out of your players.

All this is building to something I slowly came to discovered about RPG campaigns ...

They don't have to make ANY sense!

Do any of the James Bond movies make any sense if looked at from a strictly dramatic point of view? All you need for a Bond plot is a few beautiful women, a giant killer satellite, some bald megalomanic with a pussy fetish, and shake, not stir. Yet it is the longest running franchise in movie history. The X-Files didn't have the faintest idea what the Truth was, let along where it was, who put it there or why it always seemed to involve invasive alien proctology, and yet it chugged along for nine years.

Any RPG campaign isn't that much different from a Bond film. The plot acts as nothing more than a glue to tie together the Action Sequences. How you get from A to B to C is not really all that important as long as A, B and C have the requisite amount of excitement and reward to drive the players on to point D. The plot point can literally be hanging off a tree so long as it makes a bit of internal sense.

We all want our campaigns to be as richly detailed and well plotted as Lord of the Rings or the Goonies, but they can't all be classics all the time. Do what you have to do to keep the players interested and the story moving on to point D, even if it means throwing out the most bizarre idea you can think of. The 'Why' can always come later.

This gives you some flexibility within the game itself if things start to get too far off track. There will always be those times when you haven't explained something properly, or the players have latched on to the wrong detail and all of a sudden they are planning an expedition into deepest darkest Faerune, when all you wanted was to move them on to the next town. If you feel up to following them on their expedition, by all means go for it, but if you aren't in the mood for running a whole new session on the fly, then, as one of my players so elegantly puts it, 'hit'em over the head with the plot fish.' A mysterious stranger in a pub gives them a not so-cryptic clue, they are attacked by 'brigands' who just happen to have sealed orders from a neighbouring town, they just happen to overhear the nefarious plotters plotting their nefarious plot, and so on.

As a GM, you are under NO compulsion to explain anything as long as you are sitting in the Big Chair. If the players start pestering you with a lot of questions, drop a few cryptic remarks like, 'it will all become clear later on', or 'what do you think happened?', or better yet, get them to start discussing it all in-character and eavesdrop for ideas. If you get a player who won't let it go or complains too much, shut them down as quickly as possible. I find throwing out some Xp or items out to the party works well to stop most complaints. They'll put up with more as long as they think they're getting something out of it.

If any of your mad-libbing comes up at the end of the adventure (and you'll be surprised at how often it doesn't) and you haven't come up with a more original way to plug the holes, throw out helpful wizard or benefactor, or blame it all on some evil sorcerer or an otherwise unknown third party. This is all pretty basic, deux ex machina kinda stuff and it is weak writing, but it gets the job done. Spin the next campaign out of it, and you'll look like you planned it all along.

Convenient plot points and random battles are just tools that a GM can use to hide the cracks and smooth out the flaws that crop up during any campaign. You can't plan for everything and every once and while you are going to have to delay, bluff and/or lie to keep things moving. Its all part of sitting in the Big Chair.

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What do you think?

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