3 Tips for Plotting Your Game Like a Writer

From Jinx Strange

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0559

3 Tips for Plotting Your Game Like a Writer

Over the years as a fiction writer and game master, I’ve picked up quite a few tricks in each area and my experience is that tips that benefit one endeavor often benefit the other. After all, what are roleplaying games if not interactive, social storytelling?

My games, like my stories, tended to meander early on. They had unnecessary characters thrown in, unclear motivations and ambling detours.

While those meanderings were fun, I know I could have made them richer and more interesting by intelligently planning them to flow well with the story.

And that’s what today’s tip is about: planning for clear plot and easy flow using fiction writing techniques.

Spell It Out With 3 Questions

When a story becomes confusing or I’ve hit a snag in plot progress, I always return to three basic questions. The problem is I usually haven’t answered one of them clearly, and when I do, the fog lifts and the story flows.

You can apply these questions to PCs, villains, organizations, and everyone and everything in your game that has a goal (and that’s almost everyone, right?).

Answer these three questions to spell out in clear terms the motivations and stakes of any characters. This will make decisions concerning them easier.

  1. What does your protagonist/character/organization want?
  2. What does she or he have to do to get it?
  3. What happens if she or he fails to get what they want?

These may seem like intuitive, basic questions and you may already know the answers. Writing them down, however, gives you a motivational anchor when the seas of running a game turn rough and you have to make on-the-spot decisions about what a character might do.

We all know that as a practical matter, peoples’ motives change, subplots weave in and out and unexpected turns happen. Keeping track of them and providing your players with consistency on the part of NPCs will be easier with this foundation.

Consider Your Archetypes

The role of the protagonist(s) is probably filled for you by your players. But did you know they can fill other roles for each other?

The player behind the aged wizard might also play the role of Guardian over a seemingly weaker character, or Sage Advisor to the party leader, whether the player realizes it or not.

Be aware of dramatic roles and how they interact to give you a sense of what roles your players fill already and what roles are still open to cast. (Double-casting roles that PCs are playing and redundant NPCs can make for a bogged down, unfun game.)

Without delving too much into dramatic theory, here are examples of character archetypes and how they might interact with players or each other:

  • Contagonists provide constant temptation, trying to pull a character from her path, while a Guardian’s role is to keep that character true to her ideals and walking the straight and narrow.
  • A Reason character will often butt heads with an Emotion character, creating enjoyable tension.
  • A Sidekick always supports the Protagonist(s) no matter what, while a Skeptic (while not necessarily antagonistic) is always casting doubt and disbelief.

There are many more roles you can paired in dozens of combinations. The best part is your players probably won’t realize why their interactions are so engaging.

Characters have been paired this way in our favorite fiction since the advent of creative writing.

Use this technique for balance, use it to develop strong relationships, and put new twists on old pairs to keep your players hooked.

[Johnn: links with dramatic role types:
Archetypal Character ]

Use Flowcharts

When you have to account not only for your own decisions, but the decisions of others, you can soon end up with a plot that threatens to sprawl at random.

Some GMs counter this by railroading – forcing the characters in one direction – to preserve flow and continuity. This works, but sometimes at the expense of fun and a feeling of freedom for the players.

Man, oh man, did I get tired of writing up five pages of notes and stat blocks for Blackrock Keep, only to have the PCs decide “Nah. That place looks dangerous.” and pass it by for the safer (!?) looking Bog of Huge Bugs and Smelly Carnivorous Trees. Which of course I hadn’t planned at all. Or named. Hence the name.

So instead of making exhaustive notes about things I wasn’t even sure if the PCs would do (even after pulling out all the bait in my tackle box), I started making lighter notes for three options at a time. They never knew I’d only planned for three options, because they inevitably chose one on their own.

When planning, I’d start in the middle of the page with where they were: “Camped Out at Murder Creek” and circle it.

Then I thought about the three most likely things they would do next and wrote them in a triangle around the starting place.

  • Investigate the old castle on the hill
  • Keep travelling to Boohodge’s Vainglorious Temple
  • Turn around and go back to town

For each of those outcomes, I branched off a few more consequences and options. Sometimes branches led to other parts of the chart.

The end result was that no matter what the players decided to do, I had some idea of what would happen and where they would end up.

I’d make stat blocks for the monsters in the old castle in case they decided to go there, but would wing the layout and descriptions. I’d MUCH rather wing the flavor than have to come up with the entire scenario on the spot.

[Johnn: Justin Alexander sums this up nicely as well: “Trust your own voice as a GM.”

Then I’d plan the next session based on where we left off: “Taking a Treasure Bath in the Old Castle’s Hidden Vault.” What three ways could they go from here? And so on.

This method helps keep your players feeling like they live in a sandbox world – and to a point, they do – but leaves you prepared and still able to direct story.

It requires a bit of freestyle GMing, but it lets you play to your strengths. Plot out the parts you struggle to improvise and improvise the parts you do best.

Graphic of section divider

Beyond rules, tables and dice rolls, GMing is a pursuit in storytelling.

Good flow and engaging relationships keep your players coming back. And with some thought to the literary elements of your game, you can ensure you’ll be creating a story your players will tell for a long time.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

(Win a Prize): Initiative Tips

What initiative tips, systems and props do you use?

For a future article, I’m looking to offer you different ways and ideas on how to handle the age-old question, who goes first?

Gordon Vincent’s excellent suggestion in RPT#557 about using index cards is a good example.

And two sessions ago, I started testing out the clothespin tip: Combat and Clothespins – DnD 4e Combat Speed Tips

I’m looking for ideas and tips like that.

Send your tips to [email protected]


Graphic of section divider

Win A Prize

Also, Mark Clover from Creative Mountain Games recently offered me three copies of his great ebook, 30 Things Can Happen.

“Never be at a loss again with these thirty tables of random Medieval Fantasy events and findings in urban, rural, and underground locations.”

Thanks Mark. I’ll offer three tipsters who write in with interesting initiative systems, ideas or props a copy of 30 Things Can Happen.

GMs, send your tips in by September 3 for a chance to win!