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lunes, 4 de marzo de 2013

My Final Five #2: On the Fly Plots for Narrators!



This is the second article in my final five series for Gnome Stew, and I have chosen this comment from reader Iomythica as the inspiration for today’s article:
Sorry to see you go Patrick. You will be missed.
I always found your methods of GMing interesting, and particularly well suited to narrative heavy games. I would like to see an article on “the top five things that make a great narrative style GM”.
I would also love to see a final article on improvisational plotting. I know improv is one of those oft feared things by many GMs (myself included). I know the topic has been written about in the past, but I hope for some last nugget of wisdom written through the lens of the Patrick Benson GMing philosophy.
Lastly, good luck in your future endeavors!
Some might read this comment and think “That is two articles being requested.”, but there is so much synergy there I decided to combine Iomythica’s requests into a single article. Here are my five guidelines for improvising a plot when using a narrative style:

#1 – Know the Basics

We are not reinventing the wheel here. Plots have been developed and studied for thousands of years, and narrators are often the medium through which plots have been shared with the audience.
The basics of a plot for a GM are as follows:
  1. Introduction: We establish who the main characters of the story are.
  2. The Conflict: We introduce an element that aligns the characters into opposing groups.
  3. The Rising Action: We keep ratcheting up the tension until the conflict is resolved which is the climax of the story.
  4. Conclusion: We acknowledge the results of the conflict having been resolved (which can result in the cycle starting over again with a new conflict).
You as a narrator fulfill the following needs at each point of the plot’s development:
  1. Introduction: You introduce the NPCs, and you let the PCs introduce themselves.
  2. The Conflict: You introduce the element and align the NPCs. The PCs choose their own alignment for themselves (possibly creating their own independent faction).
  3. The Rising Action: Every action that the PCs take has a negative and positive consequence that adds to the tension.
  4. Conclusion: You show the PCs the results of their actions through the NPCs.
Note that the narrator never dictates an action to the PCs. You simply set the stage.

#2 – The Introduction

Keep it simple. Introduce an NPC that is an obvious ally, an NPC that is an obvious schemer, and an NPC that is an obvious rival. Any one of them can turn out to be the “villain” by the end of the plot, but for the introduction we just want to establish paths for the PCs to go down.
If the PCs want a fight then let them get into fights with the rival. He or she is the bad guy and there is no mystery about it. If the PCs want something more dramatic with lots of social interaction, the schemer is the villain of the story. He or she has been manipulating everyone from the beginning. If the PCs trust no one then in the end the ally is the real threat, and of course only the PCs could have figured this out.
Do not worry about how things will end. Just have an idea of how things might develop based upon the PCs reactions to meeting the NPCs. You do not create the noise when improvising the plot as a narrative GM. You provide the echo.
Most important of all is not to dismiss how the PCs introduce themselves. If they all act like they are the greatest thing since sliced bread, then they are. It is just a game, so let the player’s have their moment of glory.

#3 – Enter the Conflict

As a narrative GM improvising a plot you are a fisherman. You can either choose to have one baited plot hook and hope that the PCs bite on it, or you can cast a net that will encircle the PCs if they choose to do nothing. A plot hook is one static location that requires the PCs’ focus and interest in order for it to develop. A plot net is a series of developments that take place across the entire setting with a common root cause.
You might have a great idea for a plot hook. Choose the net. Always choose the net.
Examples of a plot net:
  • Children start talking in tongues, which is a prelude to an alien craft appearing and scorching the land to ashes.
  • People are falling ill with a new strain of influenza that appears to be spreading at an alarming rate with no discernable carrier.
  • Water elementals spring up out of the ground at random and destroy local crops.
Note how all of the above can happen anywhere at any time with or without the PCs being present. If any of these plot nets are ignored they will simply continue to happen more and more frequently. If the PCs do nothing each of the above plot nets will catch them and cause them to suffer. No one said that you owed the PCs a happy ending.

#4 – Let It Rise

By now you should have the PCs doing most of the work of plot development for you. They decide what direction the story will take and they start feeding you ideas. They propose ways to investigate the plot net, or perhaps they have an idea as to how to resolve the conflict altogether. Regardless, they will be right. They are always right.
They are not all knowing though, and that is where the fun starts. Take any idea that the PCs have and run with it in two directions:
  • It accomplishes that which the PCs predicted it would accomplish.
  • It comes with an unintended consequence.
For example:
  • The PCs believe that the aliens are using some kind of measurable and detectable radio wave to channel instructions to the brains of children that forces them to speak in the language of the aliens. The PCs then devise a way to use that transmission to send a message back to the aliens. It works! Suddenly the PCs are transported onto one of the alien craft.
  • The PCs suspect that the influenza is being spread not by people but by a food product that is being distributed by an evil corporation focused on world domination. The PCs trace the influenza’s source back to Corn Nuts (no surprises there) and decide to investigate the nearby Planters production facility. Here they discover Mr. Peanut’s evil plot, and that the influenza is only phase one of his scheme. Suddenly red lights start flashing and an alarm screeches that there has been a security breach (probably the PCs). Mr. Peanut demands that phase two of his plot be launched prematurely – distribute the “cure” for the influenza immediately which turns those who ingest it into mindless zombies with a protective armor similar to a salted peanut shell. Way to go PCs! You just launched the snack food apocalypse!
  • Let’s go with a worst case scenario: The PCs just do not care about the water elementals, and they decide to go dungeon crawling instead. Fine. Sell them ten foot poles and grab your favorite adventure module off of the shelf. Once the PCs are finished with that if they decide to return to the village they discover that the villagers are weak with hunger, and that no one cares that the PCs now have gold to spend. Do the PCs have any food? That is all that matters now. Without food to nourish the local militia the village will not stand a chance against the invading goblin forces who used some form of trickery to convince the water elementals to attack the village’s crops.
Once you feel that the timing is right have all of this tension bubble up into the climax of the story where the PCs will resolve the conflict.
  • Perhaps the PCs learn that there are two aliens at play here: One species has been trying to transmit a warning about the invading species, and upon receiving a response they decided to take a more direct approach and make contact with the PCs. Eventually the PCs convince the good aliens to help them, and the climax of the story is a huge battle in space against the invading aliens with the PCs leading the good aliens forces.
  • The PCs come to their own conclusion that large amounts of chocolate will stop the peanut zombies (two great tastes that taste great together and all that jazz). Roll with it. Somehow the PCs develop rifles that fire Hershey’s Kisses at a high velocity, and it is now time for Mr. Peanut to face his sweet cocoa bean powered demise.
  • The PCs still do no care about the village. No problem. The PCs must now fight their way through the invading goblin forces to reach a nearby port where a ship can take them to safety. Along the way they discover that the “ally” PC in the village was actually behind the invasion. PCs that tend not to care about helping others may care about revenge. Go figure. Just let the PCs decide if they want to escape or extract brutal vengeance. It is always their call.

#5 – Conclude the Story

The PCs will determine what action actually resolves the conflict of the story. If they believe that destroying the invading alien flagship will render the invaders powerless it does. If they believe that capturing Mr. Peanut will bring about the end of his zombie army it will, even if you have to have the U.S. Army show up with choco-munitions to just wrap up the loose ends. If the PCs believe that once they are on the ship that the goblins cannot attack them, they are right.
Once the conflict is resolved you now narrate the results to the PCs. Explain how their valiant actions result in a new alliance with the alien species that was trying to warn of the invasion. Have the Director of the Food & Drug Administration give them medals and perhaps extend an invitation to help the FDA put an end to Ronald McDonald’s mad reign of fast food terror. Describe how the PCs can see the goblin army celebrating their victory as the ship moves further away from the shoreline in search of a safe port.
The conclusion is your time to shine. You get to dictate how the world has changed, but you do have an obligation to give credit to how the PCs shaped these results. Whether good or bad, the setting has been forever changed and the PCs were a key part of this transformation

5 Steps to Narrate a Plot

Again, it all comes back to step one: Know the basics. Write up a reminder on an index card that has the steps of the plot and a definition of what a narrator does so that you can reference it if you ever feel stuck. Where are you in the plot? What should you as a narrator do to move this plot forward? Look at that index card and take a moment to think. As long as you have a basic plan to follow and let the PCs’ actions determine the story you will be fine improvising the game.
That is all for now. Share your own ideas for improvising a narrative style game with us by leaving your comments below, and if you have an idea for my last three articles be sure to leave a comment here.

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?

3 Responses to My Final Five #2: On the Fly Plots for Narrators!

  1. How obvious are you about the underlying pattern (that the players are… usually right, even if their understanding is twisted)? Do you introduce red herrings, or use player proposed solutions as false paths, particularly early in the session? Or has everyone bought into a style, like TV shows, where the dead ends don’t get camera time?
    • Great question! The answer is that it depends on the time that we have for gaming in relationship to the consensus that the idea is a good one by the group. If you do not have much time and only a couple of players at the table like the idea you can run with it, because the negative consequence will “justify” others having issues with the idea. This is what happens with convention one shot games a lot.
      But if you are playing a weekly game you need more players to buy-in (at least half).

My Final Five: #1 Keep ‘Em On Schedule




For the first of my final five articles, I decided to go with the very first comment which is from reader Leon Morrison:
How about an article with tips on making what I call “busy worlds”? Meaning bringing your weird fantasy land to life by giving its denizens something to do rather than just hang about? Kind of like the world of Spirited Away vs. the emptiness of Asgard in Thor (the movie). I ran a game once where the PCs went to the fae realm and they basically went from the “forest with weird plants and animals” to the fae court because I couldn’t for the life of me think about what the regular fae folk do all day.
A lot of game worlds are pretty dull when you stop to think about it. There is the place of authority such as a palace, police station, or whatever. There is a place for meeting which almost always is a variation of a tavern. Finally there is a place where the action occurs, which unfortunately is what most GMs put their time and effort into because that is what they have been taught to do.
The rest of the game world? It just appears when needed. The PCs find the blacksmith and get their new weapons without delay after having found some gold. There is always a place to go to get some food and drink when needed. It just sort of conveniently works all of the time in the PCs’ favor.
And if the GM has no idea what to do with the rest of the game world? Suddenly there is a reason for the PCs to go to the castle, or police station. Conveniently there is an NPC that the PCs are told to meet at the tavern. Dungeons hidden from the rest of civilization for centuries are discovered and they are always a mere day’s travel from wherever the PCs are.

Why Have a Village Anyhow?

This is not a sarcastic comment. This is the first question that you need to answer in order to create a more dynamic world. Why is there a village in this particular location? Why do the fae inhabit a different realm? What is it about the location that supports the population?
For example:
The village was built because the royal family wanted a wall from which to protect their Northern border against the creatures of the dark forest. A suitable quarry was discovered nearby, and the village began as a camp for the stone masons who were building the wall. As families began to emerge and the wall was finished but still in need of maintenance, farmers plowed the surrounding fields and planted crops. Now the village is still mainly populated by stone masons who still work in the quarry to produce building materials for other projects.
Now we know why the village came into existence. We also have ideas for what surrounds the village and who populates it. There is a quarry, some farms, families which require certain institutions (schools, mills, temples, etc.), and since this wall was built to protect the kingdom from the dark forest there are probably warriors standing guard on the wall against evil beasties. Not to mention a thriving stone masonry economy which is of value to the royal family.

Create a Calendar and Daily Routine

Once you know why the village exists, start figuring out what the schedule is for what it does. Go buy a simple day planner, use a spreadsheet, or write it out on the back of a napkin if that works best for you. Start thinking of events that occur every hour, day, week, month, or year. You can create some exotic calendar or just stick with the good old 365 day routine of the real world. Just start brainstorming and writing it down into a resource that you can easily reference.
Maybe our village of stone masons would have the following schedule:
  • every 6 hours the guards on the wall rotate the quarry operates beginning at sunrise and the work ends 3 hours before sunset so that the workers have enough light to return safely to the village taxes are collected on the first day of the week except for the yearly festival at the end of the first harvest all of the inns offer no rooms to strangers on the night of a full moon due to a fear of lycanthropes once every season a royal family member visits to make sure that the quarry is operating smoothly during the winter months the farmers raise a local type of potato which is all that will grow and everyone is sick of eating these potatos by spring

Now Use Your Reference

All of this work is worthless if you do not use your reference. Do not wait for the players to ask what is happening. Check with your reference at the beginning of a scene and start describing these events.
“Upon returning to the village you hear a group of stone masons grumbling about how the tax collector arrived even earlier this morning than usual wearing that stupid red hat of his with a large white feather bouncing around on top of it. It is rumored that the local blacksmith may be shutdown if he fails to pay this week again for the second time in a row.
It would help if the local militia actually paid the blacksmith for all of the work he has been doing on their behalf, and you see the village elders telling others that the Duke will know about the situation when he visits next week.
Not that the militia is abusing their power, as they have been encountering more ferocious monsters along the wall lately. There is tension in the air until finally the first of many warriors appears upon the trail from the wall. Another shift has returned from guard duty, but it is obvious that they were in battle recently. Seems that the current shift arrived just in time to help them.
You hear a child say “Blech!” as his mother offers him some winter tubers stew. What are the PCs going to do now?
By using your reference proactively you are not only creating a more dynamic world, but you are also providing the players with ways to engage the game world. Now they know about the tax collector, and how to spot him from a distance, or what to expect if cornered by him in a shop. They also know that the blacksmith may not be able to work on their armor and weapons if somehow his taxes are not paid. Not a bad way to gain an ally if the PCs are a bit heavy with treasure.
The PCs are also given clues and hooks for a possible adventure. Activity on the wall is increasing. What might be causing that? The Duke is arriving in a week. Will he need additional bodyguards? An ambitious group can certainly find a way to get into trouble with this sort of information.

Know Why & When, & Be Proactive

That is really all there is to it when you want to create a more dynamic and interesting world. Just think of why the current setting even exists in your game world to begin with, and then devise the routine that the game world operates upon. Use that routine proactively by describing what is going on in the game world before the players ask and you will not only create a more lively setting, but you will have a chance to scatter some hooks with which to catch the players’ attention.
That is all for now. If you have your own ideas on how to make a more dynamic game world leave a comment below, and if you have an idea for my last four articles be sure to leave a comment here.

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?

4 Responses to My Final Five: #1 Keep ‘Em On Schedule

  1. That is an amazing idea and really something that would make your game world come alive! Daily routines are also good puzzles for a plot. Like a rogue trying to sneak by the guards but he has to learn their daily patrol waypoints etc.
    And you can basicly expand it with as many routines as possible and you can make them change.
    Like if the heroes sticks around the village for long it might suddently change into winter, making the peasants change their daily routine and work.
    A thing I usually do in my campaigns which actually a lot of people think is too daring is to have the NPCs have meetings with the PCs there and let them take descisions etc. If you combined that with the dynamic routines of a village you could basicly have plots and puzzles revolving around changing the habbits of a village for a greater good.
  2. This is awesome, and it can allow the PCs and players to really get attached to a location.
    This village, for instance, when encountered by a party of Druid, Bard, Paladin, and Barbarian could have plenty of opportunity for small character focused goals. The druid could teach the farmers how to grow a local mushroom through the winter to provide more nutrition and change from potato everything. The paladin could lead an expedition over the wall. The bard could meet with the Duke and tax collector and help negotiate a better tax system for the people. While the barbarian works with the blacksmith, paying for an apprenticeship during the winter to learn how to better care for his gear and assisting the smith in his other tasks.
    I would love to be able to set up something like this so that during the adventuring “off season” the party could really make a difference and step away from the adventuring vagabond stereotype.
  3. From the video game world, compare Majora’s Mask to almost any other Zelda game ever made. In Majora’s Mask, every NPC has a daily schedule that you need to learn; and their schedules change over the three days of the game. It makes the city feel much more alive and vibrant than most other games, and it’s the reason that is one of my favorite Zelda games.
    Something else I’ve learned in my own campaign is to recognize opportunities to breath some life into the area. I knew I would present my players with the chance to explore some spooky old ruins, so I had a storm blow in just before they got back to town. When they went into the ruins, I started a youtube video of storm noise for ambiance (conveniently, an actual storm started at almost the same time so I didn’t really need that preparation.) Now, the players are tracking down a necromancer who’s been causing trouble. I realized I hadn’t used a certain halfling NPC (that one of the players introduced) in a while, and some major stuff just went down in town. I’ll use the halfling’s conspicuous absence to throw her under suspicion.
  4. Great article Patrick! I’ll try to use this on my current campaign. I’ll admit the 1st session in the town was rather flat, and maybe 30 minutes of in town time lead them to a near by ruin, that was you guessed it, a single day away. Getting away from these Trope like styles I think will help me build the world closer to how I see it conceptually. Which was one of my goals from the start.