Revealing More Information Is Like Making A Peanut Butter Sandwich

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1058

I was lucky in school back in my day when we had to roll dice uphill. Both ways. At the bottom of a lake.

In one class I learned about algorithms. Simple procedures or recipes for doing things.

For example, how do you make a peanut butter sandwich? Two slices of bread and some peanut butter, right?

In a recipe sense, it would actually take several steps:

  • Open the drawer
  • Grab the knife
  • Open the pantry
  • Get the peanut butter
  • Open the bread box and get the bread
  • Open the bread bag
  • Take two slices of bread out
  • Lay bread flat on counter
  • Open the peanut butter jar lid
  • Stab the knife into the butter
  • Raise the knife and lick one side off
  • Spread the other side on the bread
  • Mash the bread together, butter side in
  • Chew

While pedantic, such a recipe helps you go through all the actions and decisions for completing a task.

In my recent email Three Dumb GM Habits I Need To Break I said how I needed to give up my secrets more often. Holding details close to my screen just keeps players in the dark for longer, and it’s not as fun.

I actually playtested this last Barbossa game, and was reminded once again that sharing plot points, twists, and secrets is better than hoarding them.

The Barbossa game was awesome with three big plot reveals. With my miserly habit, I expose one plot point every session or two. But three in a single session made a huge difference to table energy and the game experience.

Lesson learned.

So I spent the weekend musing on how to get such great details out more often.

I have a target now: 3 plot reveals each session.

That’s a lot of plot reveals to cook up over the course of the campaign!

Or is it?

My approach with Barbossa was to create a recipe of details for various Loopy Plans and plot arcs I’ve got spinning.

I wrote d12 facts about two plot arcs as a test.

For example, one plot arc or Loopy Plan surrounds the leader of the Cursed Keep, Castillo.

Here’s what I wrote about Castillo:

  1. His daughter is the necromancer living out in the Caves of Chaos.
  2. His daughter seemed to worshipped Pantheon while growing up, but she was actually a follower of the evil god Mago.
  3. She leads a cult that meets in secret inside Cursed Keep.
  4. Castillo is heartbroken that he had to exile his daughter for being a necromancer.
  5. Castillo is supposed to feed the monster in the secret dungeon beneath Cursed Keep, but he’s greedy and is keeping the gems for himself.
  6. Castillo is a coward and won’t fight unless it’s life or death.
  7. Castillo’s wife died giving birth to their daughter Mallanna, the necromancer.
  8. Castillo blames high priestess Yuca for not saving his wife.
  9. The monster in the dungeon beneath the keep is an agent of Mago and is responsible for putting Mallanna on the Dark Path.
  10. Some Cursed Keep folk believe the keep is haunted (ala the secret monster in the dungeon), but that they are cursed to live their days inside the stone walls.
  11. Cursed Keep folk never reveal the haunting to others, hoping not to scare away potential new community members
  12. Castillo has the key to open the dungeon’s secret door strung on his keychain that he keeps in a secret compartment in his rooms when not in use.

A couple of notes about this list.

First, it contains a lot of hooks to other things that I’ve been noodling on while driving to and from work. So I didn’t make up all those other plot elements in one sitting.

Second, some of those lines contain big opportunities!

For example, a dungeon key idea became a key ring idea I wrote down. But then later it occurred to me that there’s more keys on the ring — so where do they lead to?

Also, there’s a dungeon beneath Cursed Keep now? And a monster. A monster that can send evil thoughts through dreams.

So this exercise really cracked open the secrets pile.

During the session I kept the list handy in Campaign Logger and waited for good reveal moments.

The players chose to visit the Caves of Chaos to deliver their master to a meeting with Mallanna.

This gave me opportunities to reveal secrets that she’s a necromancer, she’s the Castellan’s daughter, and she believes Cursed Keep is haunted.

The algorithm is one tool I use to generate these ideas.

Every idea can have a logical downstream effect. Like the connection of key to ring to multiple keys. To spread the peanut butter, you need a knife. Where’s the knife? Where’s the peanut butter? What else do you need? Oh, bread. And so on.

Mallanna was corrupted by an agent of Mago. Is Mago corrupting more people? Yes — it’s a cult. Does the cult connect with Mallanna? Yes, she’s actually their leader.

So I write a fact out. Like I did at the start of my list. His daughter is the necromancer living out in the Caves of Chaos. A simple detail. Then I started interrogating that idea by asking questions. How did she become a necromancer? What is she doing in the caves now? How does she feel about her father? How does Castillo feel about here? And so on.

Try it yourself.

Take five minutes and go to a quiet place.

Write out one meaty fact for your plot.

Be curious about the fact. What’s its origin? Who else does it effect? What locations are involved? Ask silly or serious questions until your mind starts making connections.

At the end of your five minutes, keep this list in a safe place and use it for prep inspiration or session reveals.

Next session, aim to reveal three items from your list.

Spend five minutes a day for one week doing this. That will get you seven lists!

I had two d12 lists and one d6 list for my Barbossa session and I felt like I was swimming in possible plot reveals.

It was a ton of fun having these lists in my back pocket. It gave me a lot of confidence to not be so stingy with plot details.

Try this yourself and let me know how it goes.