A Guide to creating plot
And some helpful hints on running a successful game.
The dictionary defines plot in the following ways.
- A secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially a hostile, unlawful, or evil purpose: a plot to overthrow the government.
- Also called a storyline. The plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story.
- To devise or construct the plot of (a play, novel, etc…)
- To prepare a list, timetable, or scheme of (production arrangements), as for a play or motion picture.
Most Storytellers would define a plot in the following ways.
- Something you spent many hours working on.
- Something that falls apart or goes pear shaped the moment the players interact with it.
To help make sure that your many hours of work do not fall apart upon contact with players I’ve written this guide of helpful tips. It covers many important topics that can often get over looked which will no doubt lead to frustration from both player and storyteller alike.
Plot ideas can spawn from just about anywhere inspiration from watching a movie, listening to music, or a random idea during a mid-afternoon walk. Wherever they come from you need to get them written down. Even the more experienced ST will not be able to keep all the details of their story straight, so while running on the fly might seem to be the easier choice, in the end it will almost always lead to problems.
Plots usually have a basic theme behind them that can sum up the overall feeling of the story you’re trying to tell in a single word or sentence. The theme can be anything from simple revenge or love to more elaborate like people are afraid of change or even good people do bad things. By keeping your theme in mind while writing the details of your plot and the details of your NPCs will help keep everything glued together.
Plots need to be introduced and not simply spring out of nowhere. The introduction phase of your plot is where you introduce the basic idea and/or NPCs that will help to drive the plot. Plots can be introduced in countless ways, perhaps the key NPC simply enters the game to tell his story, rumours of a new NPC in town could circulate through backgrounds (contacts, allies, etc…), or players could encounter some item related to the plot through other means without fully knowing what it is they have found.
The method used to introduce the plot will often be the base for how quickly things move. Introducing a revenge plot by having the NPC attack a character right off the bat will result in the PCs moving quickly to deal with the NPC in a harsh way, leaving little time to reveal the story behind things. Where as having that same NPC stalk the players and take subtle actions will allow players to not feel as threatened and look into the situation to find more answers as to why these events are happening to them.
We must also be careful when introducing plot to maintain continuity of the world we are in, which can often be hard. A plot about a large evil company will take player by surprise and break the reality we are attempting to create if the players have never heard of this huge company prior to the start of the plot. It is unreasonable to simply force players to accept that such a company always existed as presented, as they may have attempted to interact with it before this point. Sometimes the introduction of a plot must be almost painfully slow taking a few months to build up the knowledge that such a company is growing or months planting an NPC in the game to gain the trust of the players before betraying them. Having such an NPC enter game only to betray them after a few short sessions will have little impact if the proper time to build up relationships has not been given.
The build up phase of your plot is where things will escalate and the motives of why things are happening start to become more clear. The NPC seeking revenge will start to take more drastic actions, brining more attention to himself, but at the same time his subtle actions should have lead the players to some answers as to why things are happening. The evil mega company might start to take actions towards its goals now that it is firmly established as part of the setting, giving players opportunity to investigate why these events are taking place.
This phase is where a lot of the action takes place and much of the story is revealed. It is very important for the motives of the plot to become known during this phase to avoid players feeling the events are simply random encounters. This is also the phase where things have the largest potential to go wrong. If players do thing you don’t expect do not panic, simply time a moment to analyze what you’ve done thus far and think about how the NPC would react given the knowledge the NPC has, not the knowledge you as an ST have. Whatever you do, do not simply tell players their actions fail without reason. Blocking players in such a way will drive them away from the plot leaving them with the feeling the story is being forced on them, instead of them being part of the story. This might mean the plot you’ve written to last 6 months comes to a conclusion 4 months early, which is alright. Do not get frustrated and think you have wasted your time. Be proud that your players were involved and thoughtful enough to enjoy the story you were telling. Also think of it as an opportunity to launch the countless other plots you have in store.
This is the point in your story when everything comes to a head. The PCs might have the big confrontation with the NPC seeking revenge; the big evil company could feel the weight of a collective of PCs using their backgrounds to shut them down; whatever the case this will often be the final event where the plot is in the spotlight.
Again, having players involved means the climax / conclusion of your plot might not go as planned. Someone might unexpectedly aid the NPC seeking revenge so that he succeeds, a group of players might make a move to take over the big evil company, at this point anything could still happen. The key is to allow it to happen. If your plot has only one possible outcome, players probably won’t enjoy the story as they feel pigeon holed into doing what you want. The moment you take away the players ability to make choices is the moment the players stop being interested in the story.
The final phase of your plot is where the last details of why things happened can come out, characters will get rewarded or punished for their involvement, and things can start to return to normal for the characters involved. It is very important during this phase to find a way to ensure everything made sense to the players so they have a fulfilling ending to the story. If the reasoning for the NPC seeking revenge never comes out, the plot will feel as though a random guy attacked them and made their lives difficult for no reason. In the case of the big evil company, having such a company collapse will have effects throughout your city as people lose jobs, scandals become public, etc… While player may have no interest in getting involved in such events it is still important that the characters know these events are happening as it shows them the effects of their actions and gives the feeling that the world is more than the handful players and NPCs involved. Some players might choose to get more involved in this after events, which might lead to another plot based off their actions or simply a gratifying personal story for the players involved.
Characters are often what drive your plot. The NPCs storytellers create to introduce the plot, further it, be antagonists or even allies are one of the most important elements of your plot. From them all purpose and reason will stem. It is very important to ensure that NPCs are rich and do not feel like card board cut outs. Much like many of us can get stuck in the rut of playing a single character type (like combat Gumby, social diva, mental mastermind) so too can we get in a rut of having all of our NPCs seem like cut outs of each other. When this happens it can be frustrating for players as everyone they interact with comes across with the same attitude. Suddenly they can’t make any allies because everyone is a hard ass, or they can do no wrong because everyone in the world loves them. Your world needs to be filled with a good mix of personalities and the only way to ensure you don’t fall into this trap is to write your NPCs down as you would any character. This is a must when creating primary NPCs for a plot to ensure their motive, attitude, and goals stay consistent, having an NPC change its attitude towards a character that has spent time to forge a relationship is very frustrating and confusing to the players.
While you will make many NPCs not all need to have a full write up. During the course of a story arc, characters will no doubt encounter a number of setting NPC, things like police officers, reporters, doctors, etc… NPCs that either respond to characters actions, come to play through the use of backgrounds (allies, contacts), or are sought out by characters for minor interaction. Such characters usually do not require a history or even a character sheet; it is however important to keep these minor characters unique. Taking a police officer for example, not every cop is a dirty one. Some will be upstanding officers seeking to follow the letter of the law, others might be down on their luck and willing to take a bribe to overlook a minor infraction, but still have a limit as to what they will overlook. Don’t allow all your NPCs interactions to be the same.
For your primary NPCs a short history is a must. A couple of paragraphs about where the character came from, why they have become what they are, and why they act the way they do will help make a fully developed persona. Through the course of interaction with players it will allow you to draw on these history points to dictate the type of relationships the NPC will build. You may write a history for an NPC about abuse, only to find a PC that has a similar background, perhaps through that the NPCs interactions will more positive with that character, but still negative towards others who do not understand where the NPC is coming from.
NPCs must always have a clear cut motive for their actions. Whether they are there to help or hinder the PCs the question of “Why?” must always be asked. The motives of the NPC need not be clear to the PCs at all times, but they must be consistent. An NPC that shows up seeking revenge might seem like a random bad guy to the players at first but as the story unfolds they should find out the reason this NPC has shown up with a chip on his shoulder. Having NPCs show up and do things that are random or inconsistent will aggravate players. Players make characters with a background and story that gives reason for the way they act and react. If an NPC is inconsistent in its actions and reasoning players will be unable to keep continuity in how they deal with the NPC as they will feel as though they are interacting with a different person from week to week.
Through the course of the story players will often do something unexpected. They might attempt to help an NPC you assumed they would fight against or try to kill an NPC you’ve added to the mix to help them. How the NPC reacts to these unforeseen events is very important. Again, consistency is the key. The reaction to all events must be driven by the NPCs history and motives. Having an NPC that has thus far been a pacifist goes on a killing spree because the players have done something you did not expect makes little sense without a motive or history to explain its sudden and drastic change of personality.
Like all PCs an NPC should always have a character sheet. The sheet should be built to suit the NPCs history and persona, not build to best counter the PCs. A sheet built to counter PCs is easily seen as such and players feel cheated when their ace in the hole that only the ST knows about does not work on an NPC because as storyteller you’ve accounted for it, even though the NPC would have no idea. PCs have a rule set to work within and so do NPCs, the addenda lists the amounts of XP they can have, as well as powers, associations, and other things they may or may not be allowed to have. Going outside these rules is cheating the same way a player using more XP then they have earned is. Always double check to ensure your NPCs are legal and any approvals needed are granted before the NPC enters play. Having a PC get killed due to the actions of an illegal NPC is a totally avoidable headache. Last, never add something to an NPC character sheet midsession simply because you did not account for something. This only cheats the players and is no different than a PC adding something midsession. Between sessions it is reasonable to think an NPC can grow in the same manner PCs do, but be careful not to go overboard. Often we have access to more XP for an NPC than a player will have access to. Don’t make the mistake of bringing in a low powered NPC, then dumping a ton of XP on it between sessions. It will ruin the continuity of the story and aggravate players.
Final Thoughts on NPCs
My final thoughts on NPCs are to treat them like you would a PC. Hold them to the same standards (or even higher) and keep track of their dealings. Jotting down positive and negative interactions with characters, their successes and failures in achieving their goals, and other important interactions will go a long way to ensuring a consistent portrayal of the NPC regardless of who plays the NPC or what ST controls it.
Keep in mind when making NPCs that they should always serve a purpose and have a point to them. NPCs should not be the spotlight of the story, but should rather be something to draw players into the spotlight. Don’t think plot about an NPC seeking revenge as simply that, but as a story about how players will deal with an NPC seeking revenge. While it can sometimes be tempting to focus on the cool NPC we have created keep in mind they are only temporary plot elements meant to bring story to the players, so don’t get too attached to them.
Most plots and NPCs will bring some sort of conflict to your game, which is often essential to telling a story. Conflict however can end up being a sore spot to your players if you are not careful about how your run the conflict. Upon taking the position of Storyteller you are assumed to be a trustworthy person looking to tell an entertaining story for your players; however this assumption can quickly turn ugly if players feel picked on or cheated. Even if you are doing everything by the rules if players feel you are picking on them, even though it is a random set of events that has caused them misfortune, then you are picking on them. Perception is reality. That is why we must always make things as transparent as possible. Having character sheets for NPCs on hand, sticking to the motives and established history of NPCs, and most of all being able and willing to explain things to your players. Simply saying something happens and they will have to trust you sometimes are not enough to make the player feel better about his crummy situation. Always keep in mind that the feelings of the real life player are more important than any story, so a quick sidebar with a player to explain why things are playing out as they are can do wonders in keeping your player base happy. Often you will find players have issues but refuse to mention it to the storyteller directly. If you hear of an issue, through the grapevine or other means, address it in a positive manner. Do not get insulted or mad that the player is not enjoying themselves or talking about the situation behind your back, it will only make the matter worse. Take a few moments before your next session to meet with the player and discuss the issue. Explain that you’ve heard they are unhappy and offer an explanation for things; you do not have to undo the situation or give the player whatever they might be looking for as repayment for their inconvenience. Offering some back story as to why things are happening the way they are and how the player can take advantage of his bad situation to get good story will do wonders in making the offended player feel better.
The Devil is in the details
When thinking of plots to run and how to introduce them keep your audience in mind. While a plot centered on the occult might seem like a good idea, it will fall flat if you have no characters in your game that have an interest or knowledge of the occult. Remember the stories you are telling are there to further the stories of each and every character in your game so it is best to create stories that allow a large number of players to be involved. Faction specific plots are always good to have too, but keep in mind they will target the minority of your players, so it’s best to have something bigger brewing when running audience specific plot.
Many players spend a great deal of time submitting downtime to show what their character does during the many nights when the persona is not be portrayed. Keep these actions in mind when writing or introducing plots. You don’t want to introduce a plot about something a character should have already been aware of due to his downtime actions. Doing so will make the player feel as though his efforts are wasted, similarly what backgrounds / skills players have should be kept in mind to avoid frustration from the player. There is nothing worse than a player with lots of XP invested in backgrounds that should give a player a leg up getting overlooked because the ST did not think of it or ignored the dots in favour of what they want to do with the story.
With should a multitude of player types you will often have to be on your toes to keep up with them. Some players prefer to simply throw challenges to get clues, beat the bad guy, etc… Which is fine, that is the reason we have a system of mechanics for such things. Do not however let the player use nothing but challenges to resolve everything, we run a role playing game not a roll playing game. When you have players that take the route of not wanting to do challenges but instead role play their situations and perhaps use unique outside the box approaches to things give them a little extra to encourage others to take the same route. Keep in mind what the character is able to do on their sheet while they role play to ensure they are within the realm of what their character is capable of but give small rewards and encouragement to those that add to the story, rather than use challenges to take away from it.
There are a number of plot templates you can find online or by asking another ST often we take one that was handed down to us and modify it a little to suit our own needs. For those that have never had such a thing handed down to them I’ve included a sample of the template I use. In italics I’ll explain what goes in each section.
Camarilla Canada Masquerade Metaplot – Do Not Share
I use a header and footer like the above to ensure there is no mistaking what the document is.
Plot title, something short that covers the idea of the plot.
Title: Plot Title
Purpose: A quick sentence that covers the theme and function of the plot.
Contact: The name and e-mail address of the person who wrote the plot.
Pre-release: The date the introduction phase or pre-release phase will start.
Release date: The date the actual plot will start.
Distribution: The people or group who should have access to the plotkit.
Written by: A full list of people who helped write the plot. Always give credit where credit is due.
DO NOT SHARE THIS KIT WITH ANYONE NOT SPECIFICALLY LISTED.
DO NOT SEND THIS KIT OVER EMAIL LISTS.
In this section you can write up the back story of the plot, a brief summary of how it will come into play, and the direction you expect it to go.
Should your plot have any pre-release methods, such as dreams, rumours or other subtle methods they can be listed here along with target groups that should receive the pre-release info.
This section will detail how the plot will start as discussed in the Intro section above.
Build up / Phase 2, 3…
This section(s) can will have details on how you plan to have the plot evolve. Sometimes you will only have one section here, but feel free to break your plot up into as many phases as you need as discussed in the Build up section above.
This can often be the hardest section to write as you never know how players will bring the plot to a conclusion. It’s best to write this section from the angle of what the plot/npc is trying to accomplish while listing possible outcomes you do forsee. Such as the NPC seeking revenge is successful and leaves town, the PC find a way to atone to the NPC and he no longer seeks revenge, the PCs kill the NPC, etc… Keep in mind that these should not be the only way PCs can bring things to an end.
Again, a hard section to write without knowing how things will unfold but do your best to write a few possible resolutions based on your Climax section. In the end you will have to base the fall out effects of the story on how things actually play out.
This section should have all the details on whatever primary NPCs you intend to use.
Background: This section should have a 2 or 3 paragraph write up of where the NPC has come from, why they are doing what they are and other things discussed in the history and motives sections above.
Image: A few lines to give a description of what the NPC looks like. Ideas for costuming should be included as well.
Role Play Hints: An overview of the general demeanour and attitude of the NPC should be written up in a paragraph or two. This will help keep the NPC acting the same way regardless of who plays it.
Objective: A paragraph or two giving the details of what the NPC hopes to accomplish and how they will go about it. It should also be noted how far the NPC is willing to go to achieve their goals. Are they willing to die for their cause?
Resolution: A write up of ways the NPC can be dealt with. This should not be a set in stone list of ways but a few possible ways the NPC could be dealt with. It should include what the NPC might do if he is successful, what can derail him from his goals, and anything else you can think of that might cause the NPCs story to come to completion.
You should repeat the above format for each primary NPC and give this section to the player who will be playing the NPC along with a complete character sheet. It is always best to try to find someone to play an NPC ahead of time so they have time to costume and get into the character instead of rushing to read the write up and missing and important detail.
In your monthly ST report you should have a paragraph or two describing the plots you are running. Usually something similar to the Introduction section, which allows higher up STs to see what your running and STs from other domains to see your plots and perhaps attempt to link into them.
After each month, simply add another couple of lines updating how the plot is progressing and what month the actions occurred in. This will give a record of how things played out so you can easily go back and see the stories you’ve told.