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Do You Need a Plan?

Recently I watched the season opener of Arrow and while I found it enjoyable one of the things that bugged me was the final scene, which involved the foreshadowing of a future death. That in and of itself didn’t bother me (beyond the usual “great, which of my favorite characters is going to die?”); what did bother me was the official commentary afterward that indicated that even the show writers don’t know who is going to die.

Say what?

I’ve had similar issues with other TV shows in the past: Enterprise’s Future Guy and what was really happening on the island in Lost, just to name a couple. It just burns me up when I’m trying to make connections and piece clues together only to find out that the writers are just throwing spaghetti against a wall and running with what sticks.

But then again, mea culpa.

In the past, this was exactly my GMing style. I’d set up interesting hooks and situations without a strong sense of where things were going; I just made it up as I went along based on what the players were doing. For the most part I kept this to myself and the players were often amazed at how things turned out, but if they looked too closely at what went before they’d find plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.

I once made the mistake of sharing this with a player and I was taken aback by her reaction. She loved investigative adventures, but knowing that I was “making it up as I go” ruined them for her. From that point forward, I tried to run “pure” mysteries with everything worked out in advance. I found this a bit constraining, especially when I’d made things a bit too easy and the players jumped to the end. That made for a satisfying Sherlock Holmes short story, but when I hoped that the mystery would last a whole session or three it was taxing to have it wrapped up in two hours.

As time went on I settled on a compromise. I work my plot threads out in advance but leave enough room to change details as I go along. If I do decide to change things (usually because I’ve figured out how to shore up a shaky plot element or – more often – the players come up with a better idea), I make sure that nothing I change invalidates what’s already occurred at the table.

So how about you? Are you a spaghetti GM or do you set things in stone? Are you somewhere in the middle? Has something ever gone terribly because of your mystery style? If you tend to swing one way, would you consider swinging towards the other?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Do You Need a Plan?"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On October 19, 2015 @ 6:33 am

Two observations:

All prime time broadcast TV written to that formula because the prize on which all the writers eyes must be on is the value alloted to the commercial slots. It is why I no longer watch TV shows with long story arcs unless I can binge watch on Netflix, where I can check the show is going somewhere and is on the rails all the time before I commit hours of my time to it.

Second: tall GMs are close up magicians in a way, and should adhere firmly the the magician’s code – “never tell the audience how the trick was done”. The urge can be overpowering at times, but telling breaks the spell. Try to remember that the way a GM knows he/she is being clever is when the players talk about the game after a session, not talk about the GM. If the playpers notice you, you are doing it wrong.

#2 Comment By Angela Murray On October 19, 2015 @ 10:35 am

I firmly disagree with ‘never tell the audience how the trick was done’. Otherwise, a blog like this wouldn’t exist. 🙂

While you may not want to divulge to your players all of your tricks on how you keep a game running smooth, sharing those same ideas is the best way to help create new GMs. It can make the process seem less daunting to a potential GM who doesn’t think they could possibly run a game like that, or helps a newish GM add some more tools to their toolbox.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On October 21, 2015 @ 10:33 am

This blog is the equivalent of The Magic Castle, where magicians can swap trade secrets without giving away the game.

Showing your players How The Trick Was Done will end *every time* the way it ended for Walt.

Sorry, but with respect in this I feel you are 100% wrong, and the evidence for it is writ large in Walt’s article.

My shared secret for the new magicians is that if you tell the audience how it works you will only ruin the fun for them and cheapen their experience you just worked so hard to create.

My insight to the new magician is that the urge to tell is rooted mostly in a desire to be recognized as the skillful magician you are. The problem is that if you explain it all, you aren’t a magician any more, just a cheesy conman.

Share your cleverness with other GMs, not your players.

Or don’t. But don’t be surprised when telling all results in a reprise of Walt’s experience.

And in case there is any confusion: When I write “Magician” you should take that metaphorically and read “GM”.

#4 Comment By Angela Murray On October 21, 2015 @ 7:51 pm

I’ve already shared ‘secrets’ with my players. We often swap who has the GM hat and everyone learns from the process of talking about HOW to GM. Everyone’s expected to try their hand running and no one gets good in a vacuum. Keeping it some sacred secret does no one any favors.

I’d never tell a group while a game was going on, but afterwards? Sure, why not? We talk about how a game functions on many levels.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On October 26, 2015 @ 7:19 am

Our difference of opinion is rooted in your next post, and the exact situation in Walt’s illustrative example. People can deal with stream-of-consciousness in a general adventure scenario. A mystery to be solved needs to maintain the illusion that there is something concrete and immutable to be investigated and made clear.

I can’t speak for anyone else of course, but I run pretty much nothing but mystery-driven games and making-it-up-on-the-fly is not something I’m going to tell my players about because the next time they will simply shrug and say “what does it matter. It will all turn out anyway”?

Besides, when we feel like that sort of storyteller game we play Fiasco!!! So everyone can join in.

#6 Comment By Angela Murray On October 19, 2015 @ 10:36 am

I can run as a ‘see what sticks’ GM, but I do better when I do some minimal planning. I haven’t quite mastered doing a mystery really well yet, but I’m hoping some noodling around with the Gumshoe system might help that.

#7 Comment By black campbell On October 19, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

For mystery or investigative based games, I think it’s essential to have a firm idea of what happened, who did it, timelines, etc. Winging it can be done, but you don’t tell the folks you’re doing it regularly. If they’re moving too quickly through it or not quickly enough — Raymond Chandler is your guy: have someone start shooting.

Best basic framework, Angela, I’ve found over 30 years of doing espionage games: plan it like a James Bond movie ’til you get comfortable with the genre: pick three action or important set pieces for things to happen. At each point, there’s a clue that will lead them to the next set piece/clue. Denouement with the big bad. Credits. If you allow yourself a little wiggle room and the players go off script, you provide them with the next clue at an alternate location/time/set piece.

Be looser with the “must happens” at the start, and tighten it up as they go. As they toss off the red herrings, or compile the clues, the plot/bad guy should become apparent.

In real investigations — you usually figure out who done it really quickly; there’s a limited pool of suspects. The goal is getting the evidence, or breaking down their story until a few inconsistencies can be used to blow their lies apart. Usually it’s money, love/sex, or revenge for something that are the motivations for crimes; the doer is usually the person closest to the victim in relation to the motive. (Victim was screwing around? It’s the spouse or lover, or their spouse/lover. Is it over drugs or money? Business partner or best friend. Guy’s a spy for the other side? They were turned by their favorite college prof, or a lover…)

#8 Comment By Jan Malspöler On October 20, 2015 @ 5:48 am

I’m sort of throwing stony spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. I do have hooks and things happening in my worlds that have their basic frame set (like “who did it?” and “why did he do it?”). Mostly those are small things, like the wizard mentor of one pc was able to figure out what the pcs were actually doing (instead of what they told him). So that did stick and I carefully laid the spaghetti aside. Later one I found it pretty usefull and incorporated it into the plot. When my I’ve cooked enough of my noodles to be in need of some frehs ones, I take a look at what did stick, what other open ends of the main plot ideas are and what the pcs brought up. With that I get a new load of spaghetti to throw at the players. Rinse and repeat. Surely I do have abasic idea what the setting is about, you might call it metaplot or tomato sauce, but it veeery lose. But that’s what I need to mix with my spaghettis to get acutal adventure. I also take good care that the things that did happen in game and the causes and persons assigned to it will remain true. I never change those retroactively. I’d rather leave those things out or have less dramatic plot than doing such things. I’m more of a sandbox guy and a sandbox can’t exist if the setting keeps changing. Also I’m a bad liar and I also tell my players what happens behind the curtains. Why not? We’re all grown up and it works very good.

#9 Comment By oliver@ojogames On October 20, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

Interesting article, thanks for writing it. I can certainly empathize with struggling between planning too much, and too little. In my own games, the way I strike a compromise is to plan ahead a little at a time. I usually only have a really structured sense of what might happen one session in advance. Once that session plays out, I re-evaluate and adjust based on what the players did. The problem with planning too far out is that you can never tell what the players will want to do, or what they will fixate on as being important. Re-evaluating things between sessions gives me time to align my plot devices with their overall direction and expectations.

It isn’t a perfect system, but it keeps things in the sweet-spot between in control and out of control!

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On October 21, 2015 @ 11:03 am

I run a Delta Green game once a month that is five years up and counting. Every scenario is essentially a mystery, and because of the paucity of published stuff for the milieu I wrote most of the ones I’ve presented (all but two very short ones in fact). One had a complex arc involving an historic atrocity that took a year and a half to play out. Here is how I did it.

I wrote the story of what had happened. I added detail until I was happy that the story-in-the-past was well-formed (aka hung together) and was compelling from what I knew of the players but left things well short of fine detail. I figured out how the players could engage in the long-finished story and made the best quality clues from these hooks I could (or scheduled them to be made as the investigation progressed). “Clues” here included people with knowledge who could be found and interviewed as well as photographs of crime scenes, signs from abandoned military establishments, memos and letters and so forth.

And then I made a large whiteboard for the players to brainstorm ideas on.

And the players took my story and began to have their own ideas. If those ideas changed small details that would only really matter in the far future of the scenario and were better than mine, I made notes to incorporate them but did not try and fit them in on-the-fly. The wilder idiocies I let be argued out of existence as their knowledge of what “really” happened grew.

Most importantly I made as much effort as possible to make sure that modern-day time-crunch was as reduced as much as possible without destroying the players’ suspension of disbelief. I did this by making the experiential relationships between people and things the key that tied them together rather than geographical proximity or timing (as much as possible). I credit playing Fiasco!!! (another Gnome Stew steer) with this valuable insight. It made the story elements very well buffered against the introduction of newer, better player ideas which became “mere” details.

We had a ball.

And no, I never told the players I was incorporating their ideas when I did because it is a bigger kick for them even today that they were “ahead of the game” than their idea about so-and-so was more interesting then mine. Contrary to popular wisdom, even a well-versed player gets a kick out of occasionally putting one over the GM in-game.

Best of all I had that whiteboard on which the players were writing their own version of the story. I was able to take it between games and study it to see what was working and what wasn’t, story-wise, without the distraction of the game-in-progress.

As I say, a great success. I was physically exhausted after each session and mentally a wreck after the entire thing was done.

It was absolutely worth it to see the looks on the players’ faces at each milestone.

It goes without saying that the players’ buy-in and dedication was what made the game *work* of course. Everything I did was just a framework for their energy and smarts to run around in. This was and is the best RPG group I’ve ever run for and their efforts to figure out my fiendish plots is what drives me to make the next one bigger, better and more immersive.

It’s exhausting. I play D&D to relax, a fighter who just has to hit things until they stop arguing with no thinking involved. 8o)