Sustained Storylines ~ Casting The Net
The term "plot hook" can actually be more diminishing to your campaign than supportive. It immediately and clearly defines a few points at which the PCs can engage with the setting and the loose storyline you have in mind for the campaign. It limits the points of engagement to those few you planned out and sets you up to have to "wing it" far more than you have to if you're the type to give the PCs the freedom to go "off the map" as it were. Stop baiting plot hooks and instead just cast a net.
Last time we talked about how important it is to do the groundwork of finding out what makes your player's engage with fiction in a way that resonates with them deeply as human beings before you can even consider being able to run a campaign with length and significance. Once you know which bells to ring there's still one more thing that has to be done before you can worry about how to sustain the storyline though. Next, you have to know how to get that campaign off the ground in a believable and immersive way.
It's not enough to just drop the plot hooks and let the PCs choose which one to bite at. Chances are good that you've already planned out a way to make them all end up in the same place anyway, so why bother giving them choices to begin with? It would actually be far more honest and far less manipulative to just tell them "the adventure lies in that direction" and to "just go for it, it'll be fun, trust me". There's nothing wrong with this approach either, I've seen it done and done it myself to great effect more than once. The only problem with it is that now the PCs are playing through *your* story, not their own. You've done all this work to see what resonates with them and now you're just pointing out the path and asking them to walk down it. You may as well just write that book and let them read it at their leisure.
There is plenty of gaming literature that talks about how to use plot hooks properly and most of it speaks very fluently about how well it works out in the end. What most of it fails to mention though is that none of this will really prove to bear hearty fruit on a long enough timeline. I'm not talking about six months, I'm not talking about one year...I'm talking about years and years of healthy hearty fruit here. It may seem at first that if you get something going strong enough that it will carry itself on its own momentum, but results prove otherwise. Moreover, it feels like the group is playing a roleplaying campaign…something I try to avoid at all costs.
Casting a net is different than baiting plot hooks. When a GM baits plot hooks he’s establishing the points at which the PCs can engage the overarching plot. It can be argued here that none of this is necessary and that a persistent world is all one needs; let the PCs loose in it and they’ll tell their own story. This is true, but I’ve found that over a long enough timeline it is also somewhat unfulfilling for all involved. On this long timeline I speak of it is far more rewarding to have some bigger story being told outside the whims of the players, though still tightly bound to the actions of their characters. While these large storylines sometimes develop on their own they almost always feel reactive and not planned or structured. Casting a plot net instead of setting up plot hooks is the key to avoiding this.
We’ll use this simple example to illustrate what we’re talking about today:
-The GM wants to tell a story about the escalating tension between two religious factions, one a god of magic, the other a god of war.
-The characters were made independent of this knowledge as the GM wants it to be “unsung”. He wants this to have the appearance of developing organically so the players feel they’ve charted their own course without rails
- His first preplanned event is a bit of foreshadowing; a fight breaks out between two laypeople during a religious observance involving all the gods, a priest of each faction attempts to step in and right the situation. The PCs see they aren’t helping matters and are indeed making it worse and a decision falls to them; who’s side to take?
The obvious thing that needs to be pointed out immediately is that the PCs might choose to just watch and to not assist. If this was a plot hook it would have just failed miserably and left the GM having to wing it on the fly as he tries to work his plot into the narrative. And this is the problem with plot hooks...in order to catch anything you need a lot of them dangling all around the PCs heads. You need to do a great deal of planning or be very good at improvisation. Improvisation is perhaps the most useful skill for a GM to develop and I’m not discounting its importance. However, by viewing the points of engagement as a net and not a number of separate hooks the need for this becomes less.
In the “plot net” model this encounter does what it sets out to do no matter what the PCs choose to do (or not to do). It is after all merely a bit of foreshadowing, stealing from the toolkit of a writer instead of a gamemaster. PCs being what they are and doing what they do they’ll most likely get involved in one way or another; they take the reins from you and set the tone of the whole campaign in their own minds. There’s no right answer provided the do *something*. Doing nothing is still doing something on a story construction level. It’s still an action within the plot. Whichever side they take they have departed down one or the other path. Perhaps they’ve decided without knowing it which side they’ll take in the troubles to come. Perhaps they’ve laid the groundwork for showing they are egalitarian and won’t take a side but instead will seek to see to the sides reconcile their differences. Perhaps they’ve made a bitter enemy; one priest and thus eventually his whole order, the other priest and his order, the layperson on one side or the other, the townsfolk themselves because the PCs could have stepped in and done something, the officials of the town because of *how* the PCs handled the situation if they *did* step in…etc.
Where all this is leading is plot functions. Commonly a GM may plan things out so that Orik, Inceptor of the Magic God, is the antagonist…Plethis, Soldier of the War God is the ally…the Mayor of Townsville is the supplicant…the townsfolk are the victims. This type of plot structure requires these pieces to work; antagonist, ally, supplicant, victim. If you’re writing a book that’s good enough, all you need is a feel for the story you want to tell and then you write it. The reader doesn’t have a choice, they’re taken on the ride as you dictate. This doesn’t work in a roleplaying game though. A GM might plan things out so that these parts are interchangeable but that still doesn’t allow the freedom he’s seeking for his players…it only allows the illusion of freedom. The roles are interchangeable, but they’re still just plot hooks. Outside of winging it, they require the Gm to already know pretty much how each NPC will act depending on what role they are taking. That’s a lot of work…it’s like writing four very complex stories all at once. This is a noble goal, one that anyone should be applauded for attempting to undertake, but there’s a reason authors don’t do this…why should *we* be expected to do it?
The Portuguese have a word that doesn’t translate very well into the English language: desenrascanco. It means roughly the ability to "disentangle" yourself from a problem by making up a solution on the fly with limited to no resources at your immediate disposal. The Portuguese value this skill so greatly, that they teach it in their universities and military. And that's just it: it's a skill. One that must be learned over time. It is not the same as “improvise”, and it certainly isn’t “winging it”. The same thing can be achieved over time as a GM if you make sure your net is woven tightly so that it catches the PCs no matter what they do.
In our overly simple example we can apply this theory of desenrascanco. If, instead of planning out for all the possible NPC reactions, we simply plan out the NPCs to an almost disturbing degree of *lack* of detail, then we only need to apply that plot function as a modifier to their personality. Instead of being intimately familiar with all the possibilities, we plan for only one; that *something* is going to happen. If our plot requires the antagonist to be belligerent and the ally to be misunderstood, the supplicant to be aggressive and the victim to be offended, then we apply those traits to the NPCs who fill that role regardless of which NPC is in which role *after* the critical moment of the PCs becoming involved in the situation. If the PCs don’t yet know these people then the fact that we applied their traits after the fact is invisible.
Of course…if the PCs *do* know these people then none of this matters. You already know how each will respond and you already have hints as to what the PCs are going to do based on their relationships with those NPCs. That isn’t the topic of this article though; we’re talking about beginnings here. How to cast a net at the very start to make damn sure that the plot you have in mind for your campaign is engaged at any point the PCs might decide to touch it in a believable way that doesn’t leave them feeling like “we just took the bait”. Verisimilitude is achieved simply at this level of design, and it is achieved almost effortlessly. Much has been written about “keeping it loose to allow for player unpredictability”, but that isn’t what we’re talking about either. We aren’t keeping it loose; we’re actually keeping it very tight. Tighter than many might at first think is wise.
Here’s another example, building on the previous. If after this initial encounter we want to let that bit simmer on the back burner for now (it was foreshadowing after all) and proceed to something else not related to the main structure we envision, then we do so. We want to keep making little touchpoints to the main structure however so that later, well after the fact, the players look back and say “damn, this has been building the whole time right under our noses.” One way this is commonly handled is for the GM to have another NPC tucked away that he is going to pull out and enact his little bit of “here’s the plot again” roleplaying. He can insert this NPC anywhere and at any time. However, what this approach gains in expedience it loses in pacing. It’s an obvious plot hook. It looks like a plot hook, bobs up and down like a plot hook, and it sure as hell tastes like a plot hook once it’s in their mouths. If an author does this it’s fine; when a gamemaster does this it’s nowhere near as elegant or subtle as he thinks it is. From the other side of the screen it’s…obvious. Obvious and typical.
Using the notion of disentanglement inherent in the concept of desenrascanco...this can be part of the net. If, pacing wise, this needs to be the sixth encounter after the initial spark in the square described above, how do you insert this NPC believably when the PCs are doing what PCs do and wandering all around doing their own thing? It’s simple really. You just make it the sixth encounter. Don’t insert the NPC you came up with…insert the plot function. It happens no matter what, and you don’t have to wing it and find a way to insert that NPC. Many times a GM will just think to himself “well, it’s not believable for this NPC to show up at this time so next time they’re in town this will happen.” That isn’t good enough; it hurts pacing in a major way. Instead of plotting out this interaction in the form of a specific NPC, and modifying where it lies on the timeline of the narrative top allow PC freedom, you simply insert it as a plot *function* during the sixth encounter. You attach it to whoever the sixth major NPC they speak to is.
This way they can be in a dungeon dealing with evil cultists, they can be in the woods dealing with bandits, they can be at court dealing with the duke’s sycophants…it doesn’t matter where they are and who they‘re talking to. It is merely a part of the net, not an NPC designed as a plot hook. It is applied on the fly to whoever the PCs *choose* to be speaking to or interacting with. Traditional story design in roleplaying games usually has things about this NPC designed ahead of time. This does the opposite. We’ve all been in the situation where the way players interact with an NPC can cause problems for the long term story we had in mind due to their unpredictable reactions to certain elements; we pause, plan, and then wing it. After the session we deconstruct our notes and restructure what we had in mind based on their actions. We liberally apply retroactive continuity. We rewrite certain parts wholecloth.
Developing desenrascanco frees us of this.
Traditional “plot hook” structure might look like this:
-The NPC is a priest of the war god
-He has heard of what happened in the square a week ago and wants to the PCs to undertake a task for him in service to his god; a bit of spying on the Mayor to make sure he is on their side and not just serving his own political interests
-He provides aid and information in the form of some bit of religious lore and an artifact
-He offers to remain in contact with them and serve as an ongoing ally, he can be found at the temple near the guard barracks
The hook is in their cheek and they are drawn inexorably back to what you wrote down. He is shoehorned in to make what you wanted to happen take place. No matter how well detailed and realized this NPC is he is a two dimensional construct inserted to further the storyline. Worse, the players see this and think “oh, here’s the plot of the campaign again”.
“Plot net” structure would look like this:
-The NPC is sympathetic to the cause of the “ally” plot function
- He has heard what happened a week ago in the square a week ago and wants the PCs to undertake a task for him in service to the “ally” plot function; a bit of spying on the “supplicant” plot function to make sure they are really on their side and not just serving their own selfish interests
- He provides aid and information in the form of some bit of knowledge that is faction related, and some item that is likewise faction related
-He offers to remain in contact with them and serve as an ongoing ally. He can be found at a place related to the “ally” plot finction.
This can all be easily misunderstood as “winging it”, but it isn’t. The GM in the “plot net” structure has something we don’t have in the discussion of these examples. He has the actions of the group in between the initial event and this one. He can plan ahead for what the things are that fill in the blanks above. All he doesn’t have is exactly who this person is because he doesn’t yet know who the sixth NPC the PCs will talk to during this session is until they do it. He could force the situation, but that’s what we’re trying to avoid. We’re trying to preserve pacing and foster verisimilitude through allowing the PCs to go where they will and engage with the plot where *they* choose to engage with it. I’ll cojncede the point that if you plot this all out ahead of time and just want this NPC to be a servant of the war god some rather interesting and unexpected things can happen if the PCs have decided they don’t like this war god or his servants…but on the other side of the coin it is precisely those unexpected bits and bobs that make it harder and harder over a long enough timeline to run a campaign with staying power. The GM is cast in a purely reactive role as the PCs do what they want when they want and with whom, and the only way to keep the action on track and preserve dramatic pacing elements is to ruthlessly force them back onto the rails at key points along the plot structure. If this is the direction a GM wants to take then I fully recommend that they instead simply keep the whole thing on the rails all the time. “Freedom except when the GM wants to do his thing” isn’t really freedom at all. It’s the illusion of freedom. “Freedom at all times, damn the plot” is closer to real freedom, but the campaign will almost inevitably become a muddy smudge of random actions and reactive GM solutions applied on the fly through rigorous (and often clumsy) use of improvisation and retroactive continuity.
“How did you know we were going to be here? How much of this is planned and how much are you making up on the fly?” is a common question I get asked by players because I use this technique pretty much exclusively. Because they are so lost in telling their own story they often forget that I’m telling one too. The two get so inextricably intertwined that they can no longer be pulled apart and the result is an unparalleled level of immersion. My plot functions are tied to the NPCs *they* choose to engage with and the whole thing takes on a life of its own.
This goes back to something I’ve spoken about on Gamegrene before; setting as campaign. Using the “plot net” instead of traditional plot hook methods requires something from the gamemaster that some aren’t willing to do; establish a living and breathing setting. Much of my planning time isn’t devoted to “what will happen next session”, but instead is devoted to “what’s happening in this city the PCs are currently in” or “what is happening behind the scenes in this little struggle between the war god and the magic god”. By knowing the answers to these questions in intimate detail I am prepared regardless of what the PCs do, where or with whom, to lever my plot functions onto NPCs as pacing demands. I suppose the same could be accomplished without the level of detail I apply; a less detailed setting wouldn’t necessarily provide a less detailed plotline, it would instead develop the setting as an extension of the campaign. Myself, I just prefer to do things the other way around; the campaign develops as an extension of the setting.
Indeed, the setting *is* the campaign in many ways. A campaign with depth, immersion, clear emphasis on choice over narrative imperative, and most importantly…a campaign with staying power.
Setting the trend for this sort of freedom while still maintaining the driving force and structure of an overarching storyline is crucial from the outset. It can be applied after the fact to an existing campaign but is far more effective when laid out right from the start. There is one other thing I do to make sure that, once buy in has been established during character creation and a net has been cast around the PCs from the first session, the momentum of a properly paced storyline with staying power never flags.
I spoke about how plot hooks suck. This isn’t entirely true; they do suck, but only in specific ways. They are terrible at setting the stage for a sustained storyline. They are terrible at giving the illusion of freedom. They are absolutely horrid when used to get a derailed storyline back on track (because you can clearly see the GM’s hand on the rod). What they *are* good at is setting up future events and twists. I don’t mean the classic “red herring” plot hook, nor am I referring to foreshadowing. What I’m referring to are what I call “dead hooks”. These are the things that just don’t make sense at the time when they happen and leave the PCs either scratching their heads then shrugging and soldiering onwards, or coming up with all kinds of explanations for the event in question.
These “dead hooks” are there on purpose. These are the things we come across in our everyday lives that we think mean something (when they likely don’t), that we wish meant something (and maybe they do), that we can’t figure out but we puzzle over anyways (with mixed results). I drop them down inside the net and then forget about them unless the players talk about them. I have a section in my notes labeled “Bike Rack” where I write them down and give each ample space to fill things in later. If the PCs have theories I write them there. If I have some future use for them, I write it there (it almost always changes). Sometimes they just sit there with nothing written about them because they didn’t get any nibbles. Far down the road though I can go back to them and weave them into the net if I want to. I don’t make a big deal about it when I do it either; I just quietly weave them in and wait to see if anyone notices. Almost *always* the players notice; many times I weave these things in precisely in the way the players speculated they might be involved in the first place, or a subtle twist on same.
What these “dead hooks” do is give me future material without the need for retroactive continuity. It’s important that, unless the PCs grab one of them and basically demand to be reeled in, you let them happen and then just slide away into memory (or forgetfulness). These are not big important events (unless the players make them so). They are just little things that mean absolutely nothing and are often inserted at random on a whim. They are the mundane daily events surrounding people who live in a persistent, living and breathing world. If you make too big a deal of them when you drop them in the water inside the net you did it wrong. They should, generally speaking, be completely insignificant until you weave them in later because you are expanding the existing plot net.
A good way to decide what to use as a dead hook and what not use is to not plan them out ahead of time. After each session look at the interactions the PCs had with the world and choose some random bits of nonsense that came up in conversation with NPCs. Out of ten things you should choose one or two. Put them in a separate section of your notes and just leave them there for awhile. If you plan them out ahead of time the players *will* pick up on the significance you place on them and the whole point of the exercise has been lost.
Of course, in order to make that sort of thing work you first have to have a persistent, living and breathing world. There needs to be thousands of other things going on that have nothing to do with the PCs and their actions. For me this is easy because I spend the majority of my planning time on developing what those things are. I don’t mean large scale either…I mean super fine detail. I don’t sit there jotting notes about “nation A does this, religion B does that, evil guy C is doing such and such”. Well, I do…but it only takes a small small amount of my time and energy. What I *do* do is look around the PCs and what they’re doing and see the extras in the background of the scene. I flesh them out even though I’m not likely to use them; because of course I can always apply the details to other NPCs in other places if they don’t come up as dead hooks or just random banter around the PCs.
I know that the bartender is cheating on his wife with one of the waitresses and that the waitress is setting him to blackmail him into setting up a brothel in the back even though he’s not the type to allow this. I know that the doorman of that same tavern once killed a man by accident after throwing him out of the tavern one night and hid the body in the alley so he could drag it to the river after closing. I know that reason the body wasn’t there later, causing the doorman to live in fear since, is that a disturbed individual drug it back to his house to do terrible and perverted things with it. I know that the necrophile in question left town last year and now lives in the next city over and that he rapes and kills women while dressed up as a vampire. I know that his sister knows this but keeps her mouth shut; she works at the tavern and has no idea the few degrees of separation between her and the doorman. I know that little Billy has chicken pox and his mother thinks it’s a fey curse because of the toadstools she harvest from the moon dappled glade six months ago, I know that the Mayor has erectile dysfunction, I know that the guard at the gate wishes he’d been a bard and often daydreams about all the might of beens and could have beens when he should be paying far more attention to the cart he’s supposed to be searching that allows the NPC badguys to get their golem into town in the first place. Etcetera.
By establishing during planning a series of “plot functions” that can be attached to anyone based on the necessities of pacing and dramatic tension, instead of “plot hooks” that lead to specific preplanned instances of gamemastery, any GM can ensure that he is starting and running a campaign that will be a unique and sustained experience for his players. A degree of minute detail in the setting, and a counter-intuitive *lack* of plot related detail in NPC design, is required to pull this off however. If buy in has been established through discovery of underlying psychology in *why* your players engage with the things they do, and then you see to it that they have the freedom to engage the storyline *how* they want to as opposed to where *you* need them to, you absolutely will be starting a campaign with the potential for length and deep emotional significance for all involved.
Having done all of that, all you have to do is not completely screw it up in the execution down the road when things are getting deeper.
Next time I’ll talk about how to make sure you aren’t losing the plot completely well down the road when it starts to get harder to tell the difference between two key facets of sustained storytelling; the story you’re telling…and the story they’re experiencing.