It’s time for me to get my hands dirty and start talking more directly about plot. This first article talks about the different ways that you can take plot and insert it into the game’s continuity. The plot hook takes a certain amount of finesse, since it’s very too easy to either over or understate your effort and have it either unignorable or too easily ignored. A properly inserted plot hook allows your players to address your story with the correct level of urgency, and ultimately allow them to enjoy them more.
The easiest way to introduce a plot is to walk it into the middle of the room. This could be an object, a character or the location itself. If it’s an object, give it to a player and tell them how they got it, or just have it already at the location (but make sure there’s an explanation for how it’s got there, your players will ask). It’s perfectly acceptable to use a storyteller character to introduce a new plot, but try not to waltz your mustache twirling villains into your regular in game locations (these almost always seem contrived, and worse, can cast doubt over the continued safety of those locations). Instead, since many settings have political structures that exist beyond the confines of the city use dignitaries and guests to do double-duty educating your players about your world and reminding them that that world is larger than just them. Also consider attaching a storyteller character to the backgrounds of other characters in the game so that they perform double duty as personal plots as well.
I’ve always been partial to stories where the environment that characters have been in for years turn out to be far more interesting than they thought. Sometimes something as innocuous as a door that no one has ever bothered to open, or a discovered secret compartment can be a great way to get a plot rolling. These seem to do really well because they add an element to the location that could continue to have value to the story and does not compromise the security of the in game site.
Downtime is an excellent way to introduce a new plot. It’s actually my preferred way to do it, because it doesn’t feel as force fed into the game as more direct attempts and because, as I’ve argued before, the purpose of downtime is to push action into the sessions. When you think about it, only a small portion of your characters’ actual time is spent in game, the far larger chunk of time is spent out of game, presumably when they are interacting with the rest of your world. Use the environment and the interests of your characters to pick and choose moments where you can insert a piece of information, a rumour or a physical discovery into your downtimes. If you have a plot that involves mysterious disappearances then glance through your submitted downtime and see who might receive this information. If you’ve got an ancient artifact that needs to be found look for which character is where and plant that artifact somewhere where it will be discovered. If there’s a new power structure rolling into town look at what ripples that may have, and pass a rumour along to a character.
Who to give your plot to warrants some discussion, too. Here are the considerations I consider when choosing who to introduce a story:
- Is it relevant to their character?
- Would it interest the player?
- Has the player been engaged lately?
- Will the player use it to engage others?
- Does it make sense for this character to introduce it?
- Would the player want it?
If a player meets these criteria they’re far more likely to run into a story. Players generally like story, so in a way giving stories to players that match these behaviours encourages these behaviours.
In my mind the best stories are the ones that players opt into, rather than ones they are forced to involve themselves in (though the full extent of a chronicle requires a wide variety of story types where this won’t always be possible). Sometimes, for instance, I’ll introduce a story through more of a landmine style approach. I will seed stories into the pre-history of the game and whenever a character stumbles across the trigger I start the story in motion with them, regardless of the above questions. Now when I say landmine that makes it sound like it has to be a bad thing, but as I’ve warned against in the past, if every story you run is punitive you’re going to make your players afraid to engage with them. In my last LARP most of the plotmines were actually rewards left over from a previous era (yes… loot, even though I dislike that word).
Often a story begins because of a dangling thread from a previous storyline. Your characters may have defeated the bad guy and saved the day, but there will always be unresolved questions that can spark new intrigues. No matter how neat of a bow you as a storyteller think you’ve tied the story into there will always be one player who punches a hole in your plans.
Here’s the trick… sometimes when a player punches a hole in your story’s conclusion it’s an opportunity. A ‘why didn’t I think of that, that’s so cool!’ opportunity that deserves it’s brand new spin off plot. Run with it, and make it awesome. Nothing satisfies a player’s ego more than to be right about something, and nothing is easier for a storyteller than to take the right kind of cues and make hay with them.
Sometimes you’re going to plan for a thread to dangle from a plot, but if you want it to succeed it had better stand out like a thumb because your players are likely to miss it. If you’re planning on doing something like this I recommend going to a character or two who would be the most likely to notice and tell their player flat out before hand, with instructions to only reveal it if it looks like others aren’t going to figure it out. If you don’t your attempt at subtlety is likely to go unnoticed.
There are some games where characters are expected to hold what they know a little bit closer to their chest. This social convention can hinder stories from developing at the pace that a storyteller wants, so often it’s of benefit to use multiple paths involving multiple players when performing a plot hook. Often a plot needs to have three touches before it becomes exposed, so I’ll preplan to have three different entry points. These three entry points don’t necessarily have to happen at the same time, in fact a trickle is probably preferred.
Introducing plot is an art form. If you introduce it too gingerly it is often forgotten, and if it’s inserted too abruptly it can jar and dominate your game. The difference between a well introduced plot and a suspect one has to do with who you offer the plot to, how you introduce it, thinking quickly when opportunities present themselves and taking precautions to ensure that even if one plot source doesn’t pass information along you have a second source able to fulfill that need.