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Game Mastery: Plots vs. Plans

posted Mar 23, 2012, 3:29 PM by Good Idea Games
As a GM, how much of your "campaign" should be planned out in advance? How much Plot can you write without needing to put your players into a corridor of game play, devoid of meaningful choices?
In my experience, the less you write, the better your game can be.

"But Spam, how can that be? It's obvious that planning goes a long way to producing a better narrative game!" Well nameless inner-voice, you're absolutely correct. Also handsome. Planning can help you in a lot of ways, from vivid scene description to better understanding of your stable of NPCs. Planning is good. But don't Plot.

A GM is guilty of Plotting when he or she has a choice they want the players to make.
    Don't do this. Empower the players to make their own meaningful choices, otherwise it stops being their story. If this means that the players turn down a "quest" then so be it. I think appropriate prep for a game involves some detailed scene and character descriptions, and some sort of challenge opportunity, be it  combat, puzzle, or otherwise. Fill them with props, and be ready to improvise additional detail at the slightest provocation. Your NPCs should have enough detail for you to understand the distinct motivations that make it worth the players' time to talk to more than one NPC.

A GM is guilty of Plotting when he or she has scripted a dialogue tree.
    Don't do this. At most, script a single blurb or story told by an NPC, but most dialogue should be naturally improvised. This is crucial. If you are relying on scripted dialogue for a character, it can become obvious to the player when they've got "off script," and just being reminded that there was a script is enough to upset the flow of the discourse.

A GM is guilty of Plotting when he or she has a chosen resolution for a game session.
    Don't do this. This point is an interesting one. You can know before the game starts that the players will overcome adversity and move the story forward, but you shouldn't know the important details about how they do it, and at what cost. Narratively there are some events that need to happen for a story to move forward. These can be thought of as roadblocks. If your players are facing a roadblock, don't make it a story about whether or not they pass the road block, because obviously if they fail, the story ends. Make it a story about HOW they pass the roadblock. What choices and sacrifices they need to make to be successful. That's far more interesting than a victory that was never really in question.

    *Players are free to make choices, not have choices forced on them

    *give the players direction and goals, not a story. They are the story.

    *when planning an evening, build your sets and staff: descriptions of locations, bios of your NPCs. These are your tools to interact with players, to inject drama into their lives. The story will be what they make with these pieces.

By the way, Wings and Tails is egregiously pre-plotted. It's a travesty of dynamic game design, but it was an experiment in approachable story-telling for novice gamers.