I just finished a major project the other night and celebrated by taking most of the next day off and watching old cartoons from my childhood. I’m not talking just watching a few episodes, more waking up at noon and watching a full season in one sitting. I get pretty analytical about the composition of visual media and how it affects the story being told. I used to work in the TV industry, this is what I got paid for. So, as I was watching the characters, all possessed of incredible powers that they have used to trounce multiple alien bad guys many times before, I started to notice the places near the climax where things would happen ‘Because Plot’. The heroes would let the bad guys get away, seemingly caught off guard by their escape, despite having their powers at the ready and past episodes showing that blocking the car doors would have been as easy as that time they cut a building in half.
The story being told made it necessary that the bad guys escaped, and so the writers decided that the heroes got caught off guard. Ok, cool. It’s a kids cartoon and I don’t expect much, but seeing this happen over and over, I realized that ‘Because Plot’ is never a good enough reason when it comes to gaming.
There are certain concessions that we, who self identify as nerds and geeks, will make to get a good story. The heroes’ powers can go on the fritz at the climactic moment in a comic book or a big budget movie and we get that it is just part of the story, but the more interactive the medium, like gaming, the more we balk when we see our agency being taken away. Sure, sometimes the plot is going to trump the players and the bad guys will need to get away so that they can make it to the final encounter. As players, we get this. We see it as the audience for movies, novels,TV shows, and video games all the time. But, as players who have lovingly crafted characters and have interesting ideas (at least to us) about how to affect that bit of the game, then ‘Because Plot’ is not enough.
Games and supplements have gotten better about not reigning in player choices and sticking to a linear path, and Gamemasters are pretty good about making sure we run enjoyable games that focus on the players. Sometimes certain events in our games have to occur to keep things moving or we can get a bit myopic trying to make sure the game stays on course. If an event absolutely has to occur in a certain way, a player will understand so long as a little care is taken to give some reasoning for it or show that the time and energy they just spent wasn’t wasted and fated to be trumped ‘Because Plot’. That is good enough for TV shows and movies, and often it’s fine in video games. But at the gaming table, we can change things on the fly or come up with reasons that will still make our players feel like their actions matter. So we, as Gamemasters, should always strive to have a better reason at our disposal when we have to reign things in a bit. ‘Because Plot’ just doesn’t cut it when you have to tell a player sorry.
Do you find yourself having to reel your games in to realign with the plot? How do you do it without taking away the players’ agency in affecting the game? Do you just say damn the pants and modify your plots to fit the players? How do you make the best game possible without sacrificing the overarching plot?