How To Use Plotto For Plot Conflicts
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0875
I like it when you let me know about cool tools that aren’t in the typical RPG section.
Today, Roleplaying Tips GM Jim B has a great GMing resource for us based on an old book published in the 1920s called Plotto:
Since you asked about other resource books on my bookshelf:
Plotto – A New Method of Plot Suggestion For Writers of Creative Fiction, William Wallace Cook, 1928.
It’s available in printed form and online.
It was written for writers of popular fiction. While it’s oriented toward stories that would have held appeal in the 1920s, I find that it’s still pretty general, or at least not hard to transform for other settings.
There’s also a “Plotto Instruction Booklet” by the same author, because the original Plotto book can be hard to fathom.
However, I don’t use Plotto as it was originally intended for constructing a plot. Instead, I use a stripped-down approach that I find easier to adapt for RPG adventure creation.
The core of Plotto, as far as I’m concerned, is the list of 1,462 plot conflicts. They’re grouped into general themes. And each conflict is linked to other conflicts that might work as great prequels or sequels.
An Example Plotto Entry
Each entry can seem cryptic at first. Here’s conflict #999:
(611a ch A to NW) (1024 ch A to NW)
A’s nephew and ward, NW, is wild and reckless and A is unable to manage him * A passes his unmanageable nephew and ward, NW, along to a friend in the West, A-2, who declares that he will either kill NW or tame him ** (793a tr A & A-2) (982a tr A & A-2)
The book uses a few standard symbols for various characters: A for a male protagonist, B for a female protagonist, A-2 for a male friend of A, A-3 for a male rival of A, and so on.
The parenthesized material at the beginning of each entry suggests other plot elements that might precede this one. For entry 999, he’s suggesting that entries 611a and 1024 might be good, if you change A in those entries to NW (“ch A to NW”).
Similarly, the parenthesized material at the end of each entry suggests plot elements that might follow this one. 793a and 982a might be good, if you transpose A and A-2 (“tr A & A-2”).
Asterisks (if they’re present) break the entry down into pieces for reference by other conflicts. For example, another entry might cite (999 -*), which means entry 999, but only up to the first asterisk. An entry might cite (999 *-**), which refers to entry 999, but only the part between the single asterisk and the double asterisk.
How To Use Plotto For RPG
How do I use Plotto’s conflicts for adventure creation?
First, if I’m looking for inspiration, I generate a random conflict number with the following themes in mind:
1-39: Love and Courtship, Love’s Beginnings
40-181: Love and Courtship, Love’s Misadventures
182-204: Love and Courtship, Marriage Proposal
205-341: Love and Courtship, Love’s Rejection
342-368: Love and Courtship, Marriage
369-594: Married Life
595-746: Enterprise, Misfortune
747-803: Enterprise, Mistaken Judgment
804-850: Enterprise, Helpfulness
851-896: Enterprise, Deliverance
897-978: Enterprise, Idealism
979-1022: Enterprise, Obligation
1023-1033: Enterprise, Necessity
1034-1056: Enterprise, Chance
1057-1140: Enterprise, Personal Limitations
1141-1208: Enterprise, Simulation
1209-1289: Enterprise, Craftiness
1290-1309: Enterprise, Transgression
1310-1329: Enterprise, Revenge
1330-1446: Enterprise, Mystery
1447-1462: Enterprise, Revelation
If I’m not currently looking for a love story, for example, I’ll use Excel =randbetween(595,1462) to skip the romantic themes.
With the entry in hand, I decide which of the character symbols represents one or more of the PCs.
Let’s say Excel gave me 999. “A” has a difficult nephew, and he passes him off to his friend A-2. In this case, A-2 looks like a good candidate to represent one of the PCs, which makes A a friend (or other associate) of the PC. The friend saddles the PC with a difficult relative, and things get complicated as a result.
Plotto For 5RDs
If that’s enough inspiration for me to run with, I’m done with Plotto. If I want more inspiration for how they got here, I’ll look at the prequels. If I want some inspiration for what happens next, I’ll look at the sequels. One might even work backward and forward in this manner to assign particular conflicts to particular scenes (“rooms”) in a five-room dungeon.
One of the prequels is “611a ch A to NW.” With that substitution, entry 611a says:
(249) (623) (695a) NW’s youthful escapades, committed thoughtlessly and not with malice, constitute the wrong which has given him a bad name among the people of his native place (864) (1275).
This tells us that the nephew is chaotic, not evil, but he still has a bad reputation in his hometown. As with entry 999, I can decide that’s enough for me to work with, or I could pursue the prequels further.
Now let’s look at sequels to 999. Let’s say I go with 793a. Transposing A and A-2, it becomes:
(599) (603c) A-2 is persuaded by his friend, A, to engage in an enterprise * A-2 is persuaded by his friend, A, to undertake an enterprise which A-2 knows to be extremely difficult and which his judgment warns him to let alone ** (653) (761a).
This has possibilities, but I want more inspiration, so I go to one of the sequels. I’ll carry forward the transposition of A & A-2. 761a becomes:
(1126; 779) (793a) (836) A-2, through the influence of a reckless friend, A, comes to his death (601; 705) (793a: 603d tr A & A-2)
Wow, harsh, someone dies. Strictly speaking, it’s asking me to kill off a PC, because I decided that A-2 would be a PC. But I can always tweak it.
There are a few ways to run with this. It’s all just for inspiration, so I can use it any way I want. Maybe the presence of the nephew is the adventure itself. A friend shows up, says “Can I leave my nephew with you? Great, gotta run. Bye!” The nephew wreaks havoc, and the PCs have to clean up the mess.
Maybe the adventure starts with the arrival of the friend and the annoying (but adult) nephew, and the friend asks for the PC’s help as the two of them undertake a dangerous mission. The friend might or might not die in the process, but his life will be in danger.
Another interpretation: The nephew was dropped off previously, and the adventure starts with the news that the friend has died during a dangerous undertaking. Or maybe the news is just that the friend is missing. Now it’s up to the PC party to do something about the situation — delivering the nephew to a safe place, retrieving the friend, completing the friend’s mission, or whatever.
If I’m looking for further inspiration, I could start inspecting the sequels to 761a, and keep following more sequels until I feel like I’ve got enough to work with.
Plotto For NPCs
Another way to use Plotto is to start with some characters you want to use.
The latter portion of the book lists various combinations of characters.
Let’s say you want to use a certain female NPC the PCs already know, and you want to involve a mysterious stranger. You find that the combination “B & AX” (a female protagonist and a man of mystery) takes you to page 285, which lists 9 or so conflicts featuring that combination of characters.
Or maybe you go with “A, B & AX” (the PC party, a female protagonist, and a man of mystery), which leads you to page 279, where you find a couple of conflicts with that combination.
As with entry 999 above, once you pick a conflict, you start following a chain of prequels and sequels until you feel like you have enough to work with.
Thanks for this complex but cool resource, Jim.
I’ve had Plotto on my bookshelf for ages and have not made heads nor tails of the thing. But with your patient description, it makes more sense now.
The crazy thing is, if one is a fan of Plotto, Campaign Logger is the perfect tool for it. The auto-linking, tagging, and autocomplete would make short work and easy navigation of entries if I were to plug ones used in my campaign into the app.
Cool beans. Thanks again, Jim.