Written by Rachel Beck
Personally, it took me exactly three sessions to work out that my attempt to adapt the plot line of Les Miserable to a tabletop game wasn’t working. Had my players known what I was up to, they probably could have told me that by the end of the first session. Part of the trick of telling a story cooperatively is that you have to throw out many of the conventions of normal plot-building, or at least adjust them to the medium. Three strategies to bear in mind as you plan your session:
Know What You Have to Work With
Just like when you set about building your world, pick a genre of story and stick to it. Even though you want to conceal the ultimate plot from your players, it’s good to be on the same page. If one side of the table thinks “hijinks ensue” and the other side looks to perfect their method acting, you’re going to have a difficult game.
Similarly, the genre of the game will dictate a key component of your plot building. Namely, can the players survive? For instance, “Tomb of Horrors” is a popular D&D adventure that is specifically designed to kill off the player’s characters. The fun lies not in saving the day heroically, but in seeing how long your party can survive the truly bizarre dangers that await. Conversely, a high-adventure style game should to be “won” by the players, though perhaps at great cost.
Chekov’s Gun and the Devil
If you’re unfamiliar with the dramatic principle of “Chekov’s Gun,” Anton Chekhov does a pretty good job of explaining it concisely: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Culturally, most of us are genre savvy enough to intuitively recognize this principle. Make liberal use of it. They say “the devil’s in the details” and this is particularly true when it comes to making your plot run smoothly. Players will forget minute details and passing comments from months to weeks, but when they see a plot device that looks suspiciously like Chekov’s gun, they’re much more likely to remember it. Some genres of storytelling lend themselves to more subtly, such as film or literature, but in tabletop gaming, you want to avoid players feeling as though they’re being punished for forgetting a detail from a session that happened a month ago.
Think In Actions Blocks
In novels and films, the goal is often to avoid your story having an episodic feel. The exact opposite is true for tabletop RPGs. You want each session to have a mini-adventure feel, even if it ends on a cliffhanger. It helps players know they are making progress through the story and helps the narrator control pacing.
Another handy facet of this style of plot design is that it’s easier to redirect players when they wander off course. Instead of one event leading inextricably to the next in your plot, having blocks of plot lets you mix them about if necessary. For example, if the mayor, the street urchin and the baker’s daughter all have information that will lead the adventures to the final encounter with the villain, then it doesn’t really matter too much which of them the party helps first.
A lot more can be said on the topic of plot building for tabletop games; got any tips of your own? Leave them in the comments section below!
If you’re new to tabletop games, you might appreciate an outsider’s view of the game.