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The Deeper Well

A Trio Of Techniques

by James Bierly
Dec 23,2004


The Deeper Well

A Trio Of Techniques

By James Bierly

Welcome to the third installment of The Deeper Well, the column designed to help you create better stories with your RPGs. First I focused on two literary elements, theme and foreshadowing, and their possible applications to an RPG campaign. This month I will do a tour de force of a few ideas for providing a strong narrative structure without railroading.

Time Limit

At 12:00 tonight, the Joker will execute Robin. Within 24 hours the ritual will be complete and Morgosh the Hideous shall walk the earth again. You have sixteen minutes to find a cure before Mindy dies.

Time limits are great for RPGs because they force the players to act, and act quickly. The presence of a deadline keeps the story moving forward to its inevitable triumphant or horrific conclusion.

Make sure you keep the pressure on. If the players are wasting time (Wait! Maybe I can bargain him down another couple bucks on this sword repair...) calmly tell them that there are now X number of minutes/hours/days until the climax. However, make sure you set the time limit for long enough that the fun of the game is not eliminated. Characters and players need a little elbow room to make a few wrong moves and a few jokes. I recommend reminding the players of the game time about once every twenty minutes of real time. As the final moment gets closer, update them in closer and closer intervals. In the final minutes, you might want to actually set a timer in the real world, with an extra ten-twenty minutes calculated in to allow for the fact that things that would be instantaneous in the real world take a bit longer in the game world (especially if you don't want to cut out all flavor text and dialogue).

Use this plot device sparingly, or the players might get sick of it.


Subplots in RPGs tend to be player initiated affairs. Although a GM can establish as complex a web of intrigue in his world as he wants, the players will more often be confused than interested if there are more than one or two GM initiated subplots. A good RPG subplot would be 'Joe the PC wants to find a book of Necromancy spells', and 'Justin the PC wants to reconcile with his father' would both be good subplots for an RPG.

Feel free to allow subplots to take over as the main plot as often as possible, since they will often be stories the players care about far more than whatever you've provided. Just make sure that character centered subplots are given somewhat equal time. In a novel no one would care that Jessica got a chapter to herself and Billy didn't, but in an RPG you can be sure Billy would feel slighted.

The Plot Twist

When it comes to plot twists, those clever little whims of fate that change the nature of the story, there are several things to keep in mind.

Plan many twists, and listen to the players. Plan lots of possible twists, including several completely generic ones. You never know where the story is going for certain. Listen to the players when they talk about what they think is going to happen, and design twists that are counter to their expectations.

The best plot twists are those that don't feel like twists, but rather like revelations that someone who was paying close attentions should have been able to pick up on. The greatest stories that contain elements of mystery in movies, books, and T.V. make you say "Of course! Why didn't I see it before! What brilliant plotting!" when the murderer/father/The One is revealed. Make sure to plant clues (some of the foreshadowing techniques in my previous column may be helpful) before any plot twist occurs. Otherwise, plot twists can be viewed by players as an abuse of GM fiat.

Like the time clock, plot twists should be used sparingly.

Here's hoping you all have a great game this week,

James Bierly

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