Ziggy Zaggy Plots

Several Wizards of Adventure have recently expressed frustration over their players not taking enough initiative, their characters lacking backgrounds or goals, and the GMs feeling tired of being the only one pushing the game forward.

I hear you. I used to be a linear plot kind of guy. I created the storyline of what the players were supposed to do. Or, if using a published adventure with a linear plot, I followed the storyline as presented.

During sessions, I’d be frustrated because players were wandering off the storyline. Between sessions, I’d be stressing over why my players weren’t biting my hooks or driving gameplay forward.

However, think of it from their point of view. At some time, in your campaign or someone else’s, they tried to exercise some agency. They wanted to take that left at Albuquerque. And the GM forced them back into the storyline.

Maybe the player wanted to rob the beetlefolk’s treasure stash to buy that shiny plate suit hanging in the seamere’s window. But the GM told them that the dungeon entrance was in the other direction.

Or maybe the player didn’t find the villain that interesting, and instead took a dislike to the innkeeper. “Something’s up with that guy. We should investigate.” However, the GM required the party’s objective to focus on defeating the BBEG, as all their preparation had been geared towards this.

I’m not saying don’t prep, or don’t try to plan ahead. However, I suspect many players who don’t seem to care about driving things forward — making you do that heavy lifting instead — could be afflicted with learned helplessness from previous gaming or life experiences.

Why bother trying if it doesn’t matter? Why bother creating a background that gets ignored or GM hobo’d? Why bother taking the initiative if it won’t actually change the world or the story?

One reason some GMs might create this learned helplessness is from trying too hard to impose their plotline or keep the story on a certain path. And they feel the need to do that because that’s how authors and Hollywood do it.

Writers set up impossible expectations GMs might not even realize they’ve taken upon themselves to emulate. Writers of scripts and books fabricate tight plots with efficient scenes, clever twists, and a driving pace.

However, writers boast two things we GMs do not: a passive audience and the ability to edit.

We have players who lean forward to make choices, not viewers who sit back and just consume. And we only get one shot at each encounter; we cannot edit and re-edit until each scene’s played out in a perfect spectacle.

I contend that movies, books, and many published adventures have taught us to follow linear storylines. Instead, we should let our plots get messy.

Consider the Star Wars Episode IV plotline:

  1. Luke finds Leia’s message
  2. Luke gets captured by the Sand People
  3. Luke meets Obi-Wan
  4. Luke and Obi-Wan convince Han and Chewie to help
  5. The party evades stormtroopers and escape Tatooine
  6. The Death Star’s tractor beam captures the Millennium Falcon
  7. The party rescues Princess Leia
  8. Luke uses the Force to make a precise shot that destroys the Death Star
  9. Victory celebration on Yavin 4 with medals all around!

That’s a nice, tight plot there. Very exciting. Tense pace. Epic scifi.

We watch that film and think, “That’s what I’ve got to do. Plot something linear and epic-feeling like that!”

However, when players meet storyline, things always do take a left at Albuquerque. We’re caught off-guard, taken aback, and feeling a step behind.

When players want to stick around and make a mint with a moisture mine hack the Technician thought of so they can buy better blasters and a landspeeder from the Sand People, we panic.

When players decide to avoid Yavin 4 and destroy the Death Star another way, cutting out swaths of prep, plot, and world building, we get frustrated.

And at some point, in past or present groups, players get the message, perhaps not even consciously. Don’t put effort in taking initiative. Don’t draw up great character backgrounds. Don’t try to pursue a personal interest. This might not even have happened at the game table. Could’ve been at school or at work.

In practice, I find plots get messy. Embrace this. I think of it as ziggy zaggy gameplay. I’m not trying to GM a tight story. Nor am I trying to keep the players on a certain path.

GMing this way shows players they really do have agency. They start to drive gameplay forward on their own, because I’m responding to them, not corralling them.

When players learn they can change the world, they become very motivated.

Have more fun at every game!

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