Use This Clever Tool To Herd Your Cats – Plot Factories

From JohnnFour

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #11731

A Brief Word From Johnn

Today’s tips are about one of my favourite GM techniques.

But before I share my ideas on Plot Factories, I wanted to let you know about a Kickstarter my friend Mike Shea of Sly Flourish fame is running.

He loves clever GM techniques too, and has an upcoming book full of them.

And like me, he’s also trying to fulfill his dream of working full-time as an independent in the industry.

So if you love reading about GMing and getting help and ideas on how to run smoother games, check out his Kickstarter for The Lazy DM’s Companion here.

If you are reading this Mike, best of luck with the Kickstarter!

Plot Factory Tips

When something automagically generates valuable plot hooks within your System, Story, or Setting, I call that a Plot Factory.

Plot Factories have been mentioned before here and here.

And to help you worry less about your plot hooks and adventure seeds, I want to show you today how to craft Plot Factories and use them in your game.

What’s a Plot Factory?

Imagine something in your rules, plot, or world that spews out awesome adventure seeds and encounter hooks like a jackpot slot machine.

This would save you a lot of time and energy coming up with your own ideas.

And you’d have less stress about creating things for your players to do in your game — they’d always have a menu of options.

You can also use Plot Factories to get players back on your Critical Story Path.

Next time players catch you off-guard, spin up a quick encounter or 5 Room Dungeon to honour their Choice based on a Plot Factory development. Then use that to point the group back to your Plotline.

Or better yet, get a hook or seed from your Plot Factory and tie it directly to your Plotline. This way, it will be like your players never left your Critical Story Path!

Dungeon World’s Fronts kind of work like this, if you’re familiar with that game.

Here’s a quick example.

Let’s say a villain in my campaign wants to spread their demonplague throughout the world so they can harvest enough souls to become a Demon Prince.

As the characters adventure throughout your campaign, the villain can deploy minions and create havoc for the party, infect communities to distract the party, or kidnap important NPCs to lure the party into traps.

This is a Plot Factory because all you need to do is have the villain perform a diabolical act in the background and you’ve got an instant adventure or encounter hook.

And your villain can do this again and again, whenever you need.

A final killer benefit is all this action uses your fiction or game logic.

What a huge boon.

You never need to create something new or introduce something incongruous to drop hooks into play.

This seamless fiction integration makes your setting feel dynamic and deep.

Your players will assume you had it planned all along!

So how do we create Plot Factories? What are its essential parts? Let’s dig into that now.

3 Key Parts of a Plot Factory

At minimum, we want to prep the following ingredients so we can run our Plot Factories without effort before or during play.

Key #1: Source

Imagine a Plot Factory like a spawn point for bad guys in a video game.

Until the players destroy the spawn point, bad things keep happening.

You need something similar in your campaign.

I call this the Source.

A Source can be an NPC, Location, or Object. And sometimes you’ll have two or all three elements.

For example, the demonplague villain is an NPC.

But they dwell in their secret lair and emit disease from there.

So we’ve got both an NPC and Location tied to our Source.

Perhaps your source is:

  • An ancient gate
  • A magic crown
  • An army or general
  • A thieves’ guild
  • A necromancer
  • A volcano
  • A broken ley line

Key #2: Agency

You need a dynamic Source in your campaign so you can spawn conflicts and obstacles for your characters.

This gives you Agency to make bad stuff happen.

Your Plot Factory will feel natural and reasonable as part of your Setting, Story, or System.

Your players won’t feel like you’re being punitive or arbitrary. You’re just following your campaign’s logic, after all.

Here’s an example of a bad Plot Factory because it has no Agency….

The petty god Juniper was imprisoned in an impenetrable magic bubble at the bottom of the ocean 1,000 years ago. Every moment of the day Juniper sits and stews, plotting revenge on those who did this.

Our NPC cannot act upon the world. They are buried without any tools, resources, or agents.

As a Plot Factory, this is useless.

To give Juniper Agency, we might have sea creatures worship them as a god. Now Juniper can deploy those creatures to engineer an escape in ways that interfere with the party.

Or perhaps we give Juniper the ability to cause earthquakes on the ocean floor by spending great amounts of personal energy that need a while to recharge.

On land, the characters face dangers from tsunamis and great sea monsters distrurbed by the shock waves.

Now we’ve got a Plot Factory!

Next time the party goes off-plot, trigger an earthquake to shake things up (haha!), make flooding restrict movement or paths, or have a sea monster threat draw players to a location important to your plot.

Key #3: GM Moves

When you need to intervene in play for any reason, you no longer must think up some disconnected adventure hook or crude NPC interaction.

The only thing you need to consider is how your Plot Factory will affect your session with an adventure seed, 5 Room Dungeon, or encounter.

The great news is you’ve got the answer already.

Just ask how the Plot Factory has Agency.

What actions can the Plot Factory take?

What events can it cause?

What situations can it trigger?

Here are some Plot Factory method examples:

  • Minions and allies – individuals, groups, hordes
  • Supernatural power
  • Social influence
  • Economic influence
  • Disasters and calamities

With our demon of plagues, we already know their methods.

They deploy disease, have minions cause problems, and kidnap as frequent modi operandi.

The next step is to detail our methods just enough so they can be dragged and dropped into play at any moment.

This means we don’t have to worry about anything at the game table.

We don’t even need to fret about the mechanics of our Source.

We need only remember the short list of methods, such as disease, minions, and kidnapping (or kidnapping attempts).

I call these GM Moves, inspired by Dungeon World’s mechanics of the same name.

  • GM Move #1: Infect
  • GM Move #2: Demon Attack
  • GM Move #3: Kidnap

For Infect, I’d grab a disease from my GM’s guide, reskin, and tweak it.

For Demon Attack, I’d use a demon and a few minions from my Cast of Characters or bestiary.

For Kidnap, I’d create an encounter template that defines who does the kidnapping and how the kidnapping occurs. Then wait to see the gameplay context to fill in the final details to execute the GM Move.

3 Plot Factory Examples

We use Plot Factories like video game spawn points to teleport threats and dangers into gameplay whenever we like.

We can use Plot Factories to herd our players, liven things up, increase challenge levels, and make our world dynamic any time we need.

Give each of your Plot Factories a Source, Agency, and one or more GM Moves.

Detail things so you feel prepped to play.

Use Plot Factories to trigger encounters, situations, and 5 Room Dungeons.

And that’s it!

You now have an amazing and clever tool in your campaign that gives you plot hooks and encounter seeds at the drop of a dice.

Next week, I’ll share with you three GM techniques I’ve spoken about in the past — so you might already be using them in your games — and how you can turn them into Plot Factories.

This approach means even faster Plot Factory creation and a steady stream of hooks in your campaign.

See you soon.

Johnn Four
Have more fun at every game!

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