We’ve all seen those thread-bare plots used in games and movies, tv shows and novels. But how to connect your “plot threads” into something strong enough to pull your story along is not so easy in a Tabletop Game where other people’s imaginations are involved in the creation of your story. Hopefully I can help shine some light on how to weave together your plot and keep your players from getting lost.
All Art From: PearlPencil
Your Plot Either Bends or Breaks
Listen, your plot has to move and shift and evolve around with your players and their characters. Your plot might be “They go into the castle and interrogate the sorceress who has been buying unwanted children,” but your party might roll up guns blazing and murder her entire staff, her, the children’s robotic bodies, and burn the castle down then ask “Wait, why did we come here?”
If your plot is hard for them to move and shape, your players will, for lack of a better word, revolt. They will try to buck that plot and do “their own thing.” Even if you do not put the entire thing on rails, they will feel that their action or inaction is no concern for the story – your plot is the star and not the player characters!
Let the plot evolve and change, let it move with the party. In the above instance, which actually did happen to me (I’m looking right at you, Brandon), the plot was no longer the sick children and what the sorceress was doing to stop the plague that was consuming them. Instead the plot shifted with their actions – they were arrested and tried for murder, one of them was sentenced to death. While inside, they tried to escape and ended up joining a brigand by the name of Glamma ‘Stone Smile’ who sold his daughter to that witch who promised to try and save her.
I did not throw away my idea for the story, I shifted it onto the back burner to address my PC’s actions first.
Who, What, Why – Repeat
The biggest issue I’ve seen from these “confusing” plots in online games is this: there is no common thread between the who, the what, and the why.
The Epoch has come to you all from 100 years in the future and says “You’re not what you need to be. You’re not ready,” and places before you a metallic syringe full of blue-green liquid. “Take it, and unlock your true power.”
Nice, we have the Who (Epoch) and potentially the What (Growing the hero’s power). Good starter to a campaign or session. But without a Why the Players do not actively engage in the plot, at this point, they instead are witnesses and have to wait for something else to happen. Be mindful of this. Let’s skip forward in this example by a few sessions:
You look down on the ruined stadium from above, when you hear a voice come from beside you: “You think you can stop my plans? Think again.” Epoch opens a portal beneath your feet and you fall through time and space! You land outside of the very stadium you and your companions just destroyed, but it’s brand new – like it was just built. Looking around, you see men wearing clean, pressed suits, women in simple dresses, and a guy selling newspapers. His cigar falls out of his mouth at the sight of you – a look at the paper in his hand tells you it’s 1924!
Wait, we’ve taken a step backwards from where we were, right? We still have the Who (Epoch) but we’ve lost the What (Stopping the heroes? Helping them grow?) and the Why is still a mystery. You’ve sparked hundreds of questions from your players, which is always good, but you’ve given them no answers. Let’s keep going through this thread and see the biggest pitfall of them all –
After investigating the stadium, you find a laboratory underneath it, in the belly of the city. Inside is a scientist, seemingly operating on a human – Epoch! But his organs are mechanical, sand pours out where blood should be. The Scientist turns to you all – and his face is exactly the same as Epochs.
“I think our game has come to an end, Heroes.” Ten more Epochs step from the nooks and crannies of the laboratory, and all at once, they rush you and your companions!
Do you see the problem here? Despite it being a really cool idea and a very interesting development, the plot doesn’t support what’s happening. Time travel is tricky on its own, but with a weak starting plot, your players will be sent reeling from what’s going on now. Instead of being invested in the fight or the mystery, they’re just reacting to your prompt to fight these Epochs.
As the final Epoch is smashed against the large pipes that snake through the laboratory, the old scientist begins to wither away. “No, no! You can’t… this isn’t what was supposed… to… happen…” and he desiccates into a mummy-like shell. All at once, time seems to boil around you, and you’re flung back into your present. You’re hundreds of yards beneath the stadium, in the hollowed our remains of the laboratory. Well done!
We’ve answered zero questions, we lost the who, what, and never even found the why. This plot, while thematically cool and situationally memorable, is a disaster. How can things like this be avoided without turning your games into massive exposition tracks?
Ask and Answer Questions – Constantly
Put yourself as an observer for a moment when thinking about your plot. Never assume what the party will do or ask. Position yourself in their shoes and make a list of questions you’d have.
- Who is Epoch?
- What is his goal?
- Why did he come back in time to interact with us?
- How do we help/stop him?
- What can I do to change things?
In general, these are my go-tos (filling in the blanks, obviously, to fit your antagonist or your plot). Notice that none of them are character specific to your party? It’s because to tie your plot together and make it work – pretend your PCs do not exist.
- Epoch is a simulacrum that can travel through time, the first created by a scientist who wants to change the world – for better or worse, so long as he goes down in history.
- What his creator doesn’t know, is that Epoch learned that his Creator was an incredibly evil individual, responsible for many travesties – and Epoch wants to stop him.
- This particular Epoch went into the far future and learned that the PCs were incredibly successful heroes, but only has enough power to pull all of them so far into the past – he needs them to be ready on their own. So he wants to help them along as much as he can before then.
- The party could help him by heeding his advice and trusting him and destroying any other Epochs they encounter. They could stop him by actively refusing to take part in his plan.
- The players can change things a great deal by leveraging the fact that Epoch needs them for something. Easy way to get answers and an easy way to alter the arrangement.
So you can see the holes our plot has left pretty easily right? The party had no idea that the first Epoch was “special” or “different” – they only know that he arrived and offered help. They had no idea why he came from the future only to send them into the past.
By asking and answering your own questions before the game starts/continues, you can better prepare yourself to present the plot in a more direct and meaningful way by adding key points of exposition or leaving clues for your players.
Note: Your players will never ever see the plot as clearly as you do without explanation. It’s better to be too heavy-handed than to be too vague!
The “Agency” Factor
Okay, we’ve looked at a sample plot, and how to find the holes missing in it. You’re honestly most of the way to having a self contained story that makes sense. Here’s the thing though – your players’ characters have their own plots. They should always, always, be first and foremost and the plot you’ve cooked up should be a distant second.
Let’s say you want one of your PCs to be involved in the plot of a cunning Naga – but they’re more interested in wooing the nobleman they’ve come to like and start a story of intrigue/romance. This may not track so well with your idea of having a 50 foot serpent-like monster.
You could shoe-horn it in there “Your noble lover is a naga in disguise!” or you could drag her along kicking and screaming “You’re abducted by cultists and taken to the forest of a naga!” – hell, I’ve even had DMs destroy my backstory to put me in a plot they liked but I didn’t: “You’re really a Naga Priestess! You just forgot because of a Curse put on you by a witch!”
Please, refrain from all that nonsense. Unless you know, 100%, that your player would be game for such things, don’t do it. Why? Characters like to keep their agency.
No matter how cool your plot could be, if Frodo doesn’t want to take the ring to Mordor, you’re going to have a bad day.
Instead, give your player the information needed to make the choice for their character. Have word reach the Noble that his sister has gone missing, abducted by a Naga, and he asks the character for help. Have the character’s boon companion already be plagued by this Naga business, whatever it is, and sadly be incapable of dealing with it on their own.
Put the character in a position to choose to get involved or not. Down the road, introduce the plot again, this time a little more stacked against them: the Naga now has worshipers who are demanding ransom for the sister – but when she comes back, she has been indoctrinated by the cult and tries to harm her brother/steal/etc. The naga’s plans should grow and grow until the Character is either dragged into it from their own desire to be involved, or until the point is made your player has no interest in that plot – at which point you should drop it and move onto another one – either way you win.
Tying Plot-Thread Knots
Part of what makes plots unravel is that there’s no set, immovable, insurmountable fact that links them all. You absolutely have to have them to make any lengthy plot work.
You have one plot thread that “No one ventures into the Unreached Lands,” and another that says “Orcs who live in the Unreached Lands are savage and deadly.” Tie them together into something you’re willing to set in stone – “Orcs attack people who come to the Unreached Lands.” Now you can play with your original plot threads as much as you like so long as your “anchor point” (or knot) remains unchanged.
You can now bend and flex the plot threads:
- Chart an Expedition to the Unreached Lands.
- There’s a band of Goblins there that want to trade and learn about the outside world.
- There are humans who hide from the law in the Unreached Lands
- An ancient city lies in ruins within the Unreached Lands
So long as your knot does not falter, these plot threads make perfect sense. But the moment your Half-Orc Barbarian PC walks into an Orc Camp and proclaims he is a friend – those Orcs better attack him. It’s what ties the threads together! If the orcs dont’ mind him being there, and there are people in those lands, and civilization once lived here – then why in the hell would it be UNREACHED now?
Likewise, when your characters have a plot thread find a place to tie it in with the rest, make a firm knot and do not untie it. Not only does it make the character invested in that plot thread, it makes removing themselves from it very difficult – so difficult in fact, that they must “cut the rope” and remove themselves from it completely. This is the “no turning back” moment when a PC exits the game, dies, or the story moves on to never return – because the moment they pick up that thread again, they’ll get tied right back to it.
These knots tend to ground the plot in certain places so the players can understand it more easily. Just like climbing a knotted rope, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get to the top with a few handholds.
I know this is more “free form” than most of my advice articles, and for that you have my sympathies, but if you made it this far – good on you!
All Art From: PearlPencil
Plot is second to Characters in these games. Its hard to realize and remember sometimes, but it’s very important. Your plot cannot undercut itself, or your players will be so goddamn lost that they pull out their phones and google better games to play. As a player, you too can ask questions – tons of them. In game, out of game, just keep asking them. Every single question paints a single stroke, and when enough are asked and answered, you and your DM will realize what the hell you’re both looking at.
If you (or if your DM) slip up and misrepresent your plot idea – please don’t hide it or make some convoluted ploy to cover it up – just say “I fucked up, guys, that Naga’s not supposed to have the Noble, it’s the Noble’s SISTER – that changes thing, so let’s pick up where that bomb was dropped.”
Your players will understand – you’re not reading a well polished novel to them, you’re helping them tell an amazing story. Stories sometimes have hiccups. But hopefully what you’ve read here has helped point out some areas that might be best to focus on, hiccups or no.
I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
Review by JB Little, Follow me on twitter for more “useful” information.