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Leads and Excuses

Two Basic Plot Devices

by Brett Evill

© 1988 All rights reserved

We have been having a lot of discussions about scenario structure recently, and we've all pretty much agreed that plot-driven scenarios are the way to go. There is a problem, though, in that plot-driven scenarios tend sometimes to jump off their rails, after which they wander aimlessly, bog down, or explode. This, in my opinion, is not because of some fundamental flaw in the concept of plot-driven scenarios, but because of a lack of technique among players (including GMs). This article is about two basic techniques, one each for GMs and character players, which will turn your plot-driven scen arios into all-terrain vehicles.

First, I would like to say something about the nature of scenarios. (This is analysis, not definition.) Role-playing adventures are like opera. In opera there are arias, duets, trios and the like, pieces of music which are themselves of interest, and then there is recitative, a sort of sung dialogue of little musical interest, but which serves the dramatically important purpose of guiding the action to a suitable point for the next aria. The action in a role-playing adventure can be similarly divided, into scenes and sequences which are themselves of interest, which I shall call good bits; and play which gets the characters into position for the next good bit, which I shall call infrastructural play. A scenario is something which holds together good bits and produces infrastructural play. Two types of scenario are recognised by most theorists.

Location-driven scenarios are the older form, and tend to cop a lot of flak from critics now adays. These are scenarios in which the good bits are provided by places, or by things in places. There is almost always a map. Infra structural play consists of PCs wander ing around the area shown on the map. When they stumble across key locations, good bits happen, or have a chance to happen. Well-designed location-driven scenarios can be fun, but the action tends to be incoherent, and the structure inherently limits the GMs ability to control the pace and course of the action.

Plot-driven scenarios are a more recent in novation, are becoming more common (even in the publications of old and hidebound companies), and are admired by critics. These are scenarios in which the good bits are pro vided, as in a story or movie, by something that is going on, an overall plot. The scenario is driven forward by conflict: something is happening that the PCs think is bad, or something that the PCs think would be good is not hap pening, and in their efforts to reorder the world they encounter good bits. Plot-driven scenarios are less work to design than location-driven scenarios. They have more variety. They are not confined to small areas. And they have a much more natural feel in play. On the other hand, they require more from the GM during play.

The secret of preventing plot-driven scenarios from derailing lies in careful infrastructural play, and the deliberate use of plot devices. { In the context of a role-playing game, a plot device is an object (event) which appears (occurs) or fails to appear (occur), other than as a natural consequence of the established nature of the game setting or of previous play, for the purpose of allowing a desired plot development, or to direct the plot in a desired direction.} The basic plot device for GMs is the lead. The basic plot device for other players is the excuse.

You see, some good bits can just happen, but only good bits in which the PCs roles are entirely reactive. Good bits which require the PCs to take the initiative, or to be doing some thing particular, or to be in a certain situation, or to have made special preparations, have to be set up by the players. Now the players cant know in advance that certain actions, perhaps quite elaborate or unobvious, are going to lead to good bits. Only the GM can know that. But if the GM suggests a course of action, part icularly an unobvious course of action, or, worse, takes over the actions of PCs, the players senses of participation will be damaged or destroyed. Players like nothing less than being told what to do by the GM.

The GM has to be more subtle. He or she has to give the PCs reasons within the game world to do the things that he or she would like to suggest to the players. In the first place, he or she has to give the PCs reasons for doing something rather than doing nothing. In the second place, if he or she wants a PC to do something in particular, he or she has to give the PC a reason to do that thing rather than, or as well as, any alternative. It is not enough that the player suspects that the next good bit will take place in Rio. If the PC does not have a better reason to go to Rio than to stay in Venice, or to go to Sydney, the story cannot proceed in a satisfying way. Either the PC goes to Rio, which is implausible, and leads to an incoherent and incredible story, or the good bit never happens.

The basic tool here for the GM is the lead. A lead is a plot device which pro vides a character with a compelling reason to do a particular thing which sets the scene for a particular good bit.

Leads can take many forms. Incomplete clues can be leads that suggest ways to get more evidence in a mystery. In action adventures such clues can be leads to confrontations with the bad guys. A PC can be led to do something by a piece of news, or by remem bering or overhearing something.

These leads just mentioned are all pieces of information which lead a character to act in certain way. Changes of situation can also be leads. The acquisition, loss, destruction, or malfunction of equipment can be a lead. An action by, or something that happens to, a friend, enemy, associate, or acquaintance can be a lead. If PCs see something happening, that can be a lead. Anything that can affect the behaviour of a character in a predictable way can be a lead.

Key words for the use of leads are obvious, cogent, plausible, extemporaneous, and false.

Not all leads should be glaringly obvious, because glaringly obvious leads, particularly glaringly obvious clues, make players feel as though they are being treated like idiots. On the other hand, the idea is to get to the good bit, so impenetrable obscurity is pointless. The idea of a lead is to get the characters into a good bit, not to make the players scratch their heads. If you want to delay the good bit, to build up suspense or a feeling of frustration, withhold the lead, don't use an obscure one, and certainly dont wait for the infinite monkey effect to make to players take the next step.

A cogent lead is one which gives a character a good reason for doing what needs to be done to get to the next good bit. The opposite of cogent is feeble. Never give feeble leads when you can give cogent leads. Always give the PCs good reasons to do the things you want them to do, the best and most compelling reasons possible. There is no conceivable advantage in PCs doing things for stupid, implausible, weak reasons when you can get to the same good bit by having the same characters do the same things for better reasons.

When I say that a lead should be obvious, I mean that it should make some course of action the obvious thing to do, not that it should be obviously important at the time, nor that it should be obviously a plot device. Obvious plot devices should be avoided, because they threaten to make the game setting and the events of the game incredible. This is why leads have to be plausible, things that reasonably might take place.

Don't unnecessarily commit yourself to using particular leads. If you decide that you are definitely going to use a particular lead at some juncture, you may exclude yourself from using another lead which might become available at a more appropriate time. You have to allow for extemporisation. Of course, you dont want the PCs always to find a clue in the first place they look, but neither do you want your adventure to flounder helplessly because the players are thinking of all the wrong things. If the PCs are looking in the wrong places, consider putting a clue in one of the wrong places. If they stumble across a clue too early, you can always use another clue in a different place. Dont despair, and cancel an adventure, because one crucial lead fails. You can always try another.

False leads are another important gimmick. These are leads which draw characters either to blank walls, or to good bits which are not cent ral to the plot, and require the PCs to retrace their steps afterwards and try another lead. False leads can be used to elaborate the plot structure, or to pro duce the illusion that the players have important choices to make.

The big danger of using leads too freely is that you can turn any adventure into a tunnel-of-fun. Once players realise that their actions actually make no difference to the course or outcome of an adventure they will begin to feel just as pissed off as if you told them what their characters were doing at every point. In the long run it is impossible to maintain an illusion of free will, and the only way that PCs actions can seem to make a difference is if they really do make a difference. You cant just steer your players along predetermined courses, toward predetermined good bits. You can, however, use leads to guide them in the general direction of major resolutions, and, continuing the analogy, to control the angle at which they run into good bits in their path. Nothing is ever going to replace the necessity to think up good bits on your feet. Judicious use of leads can, however, make it much easier to place them squarely across the course of a party of PCs.

The basic technique of play in plot-driven scenarios is the excuse. There are good bits out there, which the GM is trying to give you a lead to. A useful, and indeed crucial, thing to do is to give the GM an excuse to give you a lead to, or simply to begin, the next good bit.

There are a lot of different types of excuse. The most basic type consists of exposing yourself to as many potential leads and good bits as possible. Look for clues. Talk to wit nesses. Talk to expert NPCs. Search places, even ones which are only peripherally connected to the matter at hand. Do things that will annoy or inconveni ence the opposition, to provoke them into revealing themselves, or set traps for them. If all else fails, pick on some randomly-selected baddie on the chance that he or she may have connections with the major villain. The possibilities are too numerous to contemplate.

The examples I gave in the preceding paragraph are of excuses which would be good play in under a hostile GM. But there is also a special type of excuse called a mistake, in which a character makes an oversight or error, leaving an opportunity for some plot develop ment. If the GM just punishes such as though they were blunders, rather than using them as excuses for good bits, there is, of course, no point in making them. But after years of pragmatic play, it is astonishingly refreshing to have ones male-lead character make the heroic mistakes for which the typical hero is so justly famous, and to have them lead to exactly the plot developments one would expect in a book or movie.

The other week my archetypal pulp hero, Biff Davis, was walking through the dark, with his .45 in one hand and the main romantic interests hand in his other. Some way off, another PC (Lord Harrington, the eccentric scholar) was attacked by Tong members, and managed to get off a shot. Biff rushed to his rescue, and when he got back the main romantic interest had been kidnapped. It was wonderful!

Classic mistakes include failing to guard a crucial NPC or item, or being distracted from guard duty, succumbing to the charms of the beautiful/handsome villain or foil, letting pity stay ones hand, trusting people one ought not to trust, underestimating the opposition, and allowing oneself to be captured.

Of course, this is powerful medicine, and, like out-of-game knowledge, must be used with care. If you know that a course of action is a mistake, your character probably does too, or at least would work it out on reflection. Use mistakes carefully. Don't rely on making colossal blunders. Most mistakes should be in spur-of-the-moment decisions, not in consid ered and deliberate courses of action.

It is important to make the right mistakes. Make mis takes of the type suitable to your character, not other characters. (For instance, Vila from 'Blakes Seven' would not act as Biff did in the example above, nor would Avon. Blake should make this mistake.)

Mistakes should also be used sparingly. The GM should only need to use a few excuses per adventure, and conventional, good-play excuses are usually adequate. The plot can safely be littered with these, but if your character keeps making mistakes he or she will look like a blithering idiot, and without the comedy that accompanies Inspector Clouseau. You must develop a sense of plot structure, so that you can tell when a lead is due, guess what forms it could properly take, and provide an appropriate excuse.

The technique of using excuses has applications beyond the immediate exigencies of furthering the plot. It greatly improves adven tures if the PCs are involved for a reason, and so it is helpful for a player to provide excuses for his or her character to get involved in adven tures, grommets for the GMs scenario hooks, so to speak.

A good start is for the PCs to be linked to one another in some way that will automatically draw in the whole group once one member gets caught up in an adventure. It is slicker, per haps, if this link can of itself provide excuses for the whole group to be drawn in together, which is why there are so many firms of PC private detectives or effectuators, teams of reporters or secret agents, and groups that share spacecraft, ships, and aircraft. The problem with such arrangements is that all the adventures that a party goes on tend to have the same scenario hook, which can get monotonous.

Whether or not such a plot device is used, every PC needs to have at least one reason to go on adventures, and a reason to hang around with the other PCs in the party. These scenario grommets should be firmly anchored in the characters nature, and should be designed to withstand repeated use.

PCs should be involved, that is, they should be the kind of person who takes up other peoples problems, and they should engage in activities which bring them into contact with people with appropriate troubles or with evid ence that people have such troubles. If they are not characters of the type that gets into trouble, could perhaps have NPCs attached to them who attract trouble, and whom they will help.

The technique of using excuses also has implications outside play, stretching back to character generation. A character should be conceived and designed to provide excuses. From the example from 'Blakes Seven' given above, one sees how characters personalities can provide excuses. In my opinion, this is the primary purpose of character quirks, and the problem with the personality feature systems of most games is that the features they produce do not achieve this purpose.

If the game you are playing randomly assigns personality features, ignore them. Design a personality for your character which will make it reasonable for the character to provide excuses of a characteristic type. Select skills and bodies of knowledge which will give the GM excuses to give you leads. (Your characters know ledge of any particular subject need not be deep, but the more subjects the party covers, the more excuses the GM has for a PC to recall some thing.) Skills that give the character information, and whatever it is that you roll against to notice or remember details, or to have ideas, are every bit as important for getting into the good bits as athletic and combat skills are for getting through them.

Then, of course, there are a characters relationships with things in the game environment. Friends, enemies, and possessions of a player character can all provide the GM with opportunities to advance the plot.

Friends, for instance, can provide help, or information, or bring news. They can offend major villains, and thus draw them into the open. They can do things that interfere with the PCs plans, causing things to go wrong and turning a cakewalk into a good bit. And of course they can get into trouble and need to be helped.

A PCs personal enemy is something that his or her player should cherish. An enemy can be a great asset. For instance, an enemys efforts to harm a PC can interfere with a major villains schemes; an enemys actions can complicate an otherwise trivial situation, forestalling the dreaded cakewalk. Pursuit of, retaliation against, and precautions taken against personal enemies can lead to a PC stumbling across something big. Truly, an enemy can be a good thing.

Possessions can be stolen, or destroyed, or can malfunction, dropping the PCs in the soup, or forcing the PCs to recover or replace them. Any of these possibilities can lead PCs to a place they might otherwise have had no reason to go. In addition, equipment can be used to gather information, and can draw attention to a PC. Favourite possessions, like Jack Burton's truck in 'Big Trouble in Little China', can be powerful tools for the GM to lead characters around. When equipping a character, think of getting him or her into situations as well as getting him or her out.

In my experience it has been a mistake to design attached NPCs with specific adventures in mind. These are obvious plot devices, which are either wasted by GMs on minor points, or hang around unused like Chekovs gun. Nor should the relationships between PCs and their attached NPCs be complicated, nor other wise unusual, because the GM is unlikely to understand what one has in mind, or to spare the effort necessary to detail complicated bits not having to do with his or her adventures. Attached NPCs should stand in simple, easily understood and specified relationships to the PC. In other words they should be two-dimensional characters in cliched roles. Such characters can be used by the GM in a variety of ways, in hooks, in leads, and in good bits. Complicated, unusual, original NPCs are less useful, as their unusual properties can get in the way of some uses.

A more useful device is for PCs to be spec ified as standing in particular relations to certain groups or categories of NPCs. For instance, Dirty Harry is disliked but respected by San Francisco policemen, feared by San Francisco criminals, loathed by the San Francisco Police Department administration, detested by San Francisco judges, and disapproved of by the San Francisco television audience (most of whom wouldnt recognise him, though). These details cant be ignored, because they are con sequences of the characters nature. They are also more useful to a GM than single, individual NPCs, because they tell him or her something about the way his or her NPCs should act. Better still, they are suitable for repeated use without requiring that careful track be kept of shifting and developing attitudes, because these NPCs can be used up (not necessarily killed they might simply have their attitudes changed) without this eliminating any possibilities for future situations. Best of all, they can be ignored without looking like conspicuous irrelevancies, and they can be used without looking like plot devices, because they are natural consequences of the character and his or her environment, and only their appearance in a certain place at a certain time can be unex pected.

A characters history, his or her life before character generation, need not, indeed should not, be featureless, but it should be simple. The characters history is detailed to define clearly the relationships between him or her and NPCs, and to let the GM know what NPCs should remember. Anything too long or complicated for the GM to understand quickly and remember accurately will be wasted at best. More likely it will be a source of misunderstanding between the player and the GM.

The last thing a player wants (whatever the character might desire) is for his or her character to lead a quiet life and win easy victories. PCs lives should be complicated by interesting attach ments. They should cultivate, or fail to throw off, interesting NPCs as friends, enem ies, and professional associates. They should live in places, own things, and have habits that can form excuses.

As is true of leads, it is possible to go overboard with excuses. Only give out excus es when you feel that a lead is imminent, and remember that just because you give an excuse, that doesn't give you a right to a lead.

Don't burden your characters life with scores of bizarre acquaintances. They are unlikely to be useful to your GM, and a suggestion, without details, that bizarre acquaintances exist is more useful, and less likely to seem superfluous if not used. Relatively normal friends and relatives have the same attractions. Dont produce reams of history. Enough to explain and define your characters relationships with NPCs is all that you need, and no-one cares about the rest.

Leads and excuses are essential tools for co-operative, extemporising role-players. They are not sufficient equipment, other plot devices are also important, and the ability to extemporise good bits is essential (for players as well as GMs), but unless the players are able manipulators of leads and excuses, any but the tightest of plot-driven scenarios is liable to be becalmed or blown off course.


Later comments (1997) by the author

Here is the text of an article I wrote for the ASGARD Bulletin (the journal of the Australian National University RP Association) back in 1988. It dates from my most manipulative period as a GM, and I no longer hold with some of its fundamental concepts. But you might find it interesting.

By the way, I no longer use some of its terminology. Now I would call a 'lead' a 'hook', and an 'excuse' a 'grommet'.


RPGnet wishes to thank Brett for providing this essay.

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