This is the second article in my final five series for Gnome Stew, and I have chosen this comment from reader Iomythica as the inspiration for today’s article:
Sorry to see you go Patrick. You will be missed.
I always found your methods of GMing interesting, and particularly well suited to narrative heavy games. I would like to see an article on “the top five things that make a great narrative style GM”.
I would also love to see a final article on improvisational plotting. I know improv is one of those oft feared things by many GMs (myself included). I know the topic has been written about in the past, but I hope for some last nugget of wisdom written through the lens of the Patrick Benson GMing philosophy.
Lastly, good luck in your future endeavors!
Some might read this comment and think “That is two articles being requested.”, but there is so much synergy there I decided to combine Iomythica’s requests into a single article. Here are my five guidelines for improvising a plot when using a narrative style:
#1 — Know the Basics
We are not reinventing the wheel here. Plots have been developed and studied for thousands of years, and narrators are often the medium through which plots have been shared with the audience.
The basics of a plot for a GM are as follows:
- Introduction: We establish who the main characters of the story are.
- The Conflict: We introduce an element that aligns the characters into opposing groups.
- The Rising Action: We keep ratcheting up the tension until the conflict is resolved which is the climax of the story.
- Conclusion: We acknowledge the results of the conflict having been resolved (which can result in the cycle starting over again with a new conflict).
You as a narrator fulfill the following needs at each point of the plot’s development:
- Introduction: You introduce the NPCs, and you let the PCs introduce themselves.
- The Conflict: You introduce the element and align the NPCs. The PCs choose their own alignment for themselves (possibly creating their own independent faction).
- The Rising Action: Every action that the PCs take has a negative and positive consequence that adds to the tension.
- Conclusion: You show the PCs the results of their actions through the NPCs.
Note that the narrator never dictates an action to the PCs. You simply set the stage.
#2 — The Introduction
Keep it simple. Introduce an NPC that is an obvious ally, an NPC that is an obvious schemer, and an NPC that is an obvious rival. Any one of them can turn out to be the “villain” by the end of the plot, but for the introduction we just want to establish paths for the PCs to go down.
If the PCs want a fight then let them get into fights with the rival. He or she is the bad guy and there is no mystery about it. If the PCs want something more dramatic with lots of social interaction, the schemer is the villain of the story. He or she has been manipulating everyone from the beginning. If the PCs trust no one then in the end the ally is the real threat, and of course only the PCs could have figured this out.
Do not worry about how things will end. Just have an idea of how things might develop based upon the PCs reactions to meeting the NPCs. You do not create the noise when improvising the plot as a narrative GM. You provide the echo.
Most important of all is not to dismiss how the PCs introduce themselves. If they all act like they are the greatest thing since sliced bread, then they are. It is just a game, so let the player’s have their moment of glory.
#3 — Enter the Conflict
As a narrative GM improvising a plot you are a fisherman. You can either choose to have one baited plot hook and hope that the PCs bite on it, or you can cast a net that will encircle the PCs if they choose to do nothing. A plot hook is one static location that requires the PCs’ focus and interest in order for it to develop. A plot net is a series of developments that take place across the entire setting with a common root cause.
You might have a great idea for a plot hook. Choose the net. Always choose the net.
Examples of a plot net:
- Children start talking in tongues, which is a prelude to an alien craft appearing and scorching the land to ashes.
- People are falling ill with a new strain of influenza that appears to be spreading at an alarming rate with no discernable carrier.
- Water elementals spring up out of the ground at random and destroy local crops.
Note how all of the above can happen anywhere at any time with or without the PCs being present. If any of these plot nets are ignored they will simply continue to happen more and more frequently. If the PCs do nothing each of the above plot nets will catch them and cause them to suffer. No one said that you owed the PCs a happy ending.
#4 — Let It Rise
By now you should have the PCs doing most of the work of plot development for you. They decide what direction the story will take and they start feeding you ideas. They propose ways to investigate the plot net, or perhaps they have an idea as to how to resolve the conflict altogether. Regardless, they will be right. They are always right.
They are not all knowing though, and that is where the fun starts. Take any idea that the PCs have and run with it in two directions:
- It accomplishes that which the PCs predicted it would accomplish.
- It comes with an unintended consequence.
- The PCs believe that the aliens are using some kind of measurable and detectable radio wave to channel instructions to the brains of children that forces them to speak in the language of the aliens. The PCs then devise a way to use that transmission to send a message back to the aliens. It works! Suddenly the PCs are transported onto one of the alien craft.
- The PCs suspect that the influenza is being spread not by people but by a food product that is being distributed by an evil corporation focused on world domination. The PCs trace the influenza’s source back to Corn Nuts (no surprises there) and decide to investigate the nearby Planters production facility. Here they discover Mr. Peanut’s evil plot, and that the influenza is only phase one of his scheme. Suddenly red lights start flashing and an alarm screeches that there has been a security breach (probably the PCs). Mr. Peanut demands that phase two of his plot be launched prematurely — distribute the “cure” for the influenza immediately which turns those who ingest it into mindless zombies with a protective armor similar to a salted peanut shell. Way to go PCs! You just launched the snack food apocalypse!
- Let’s go with a worst case scenario: The PCs just do not care about the water elementals, and they decide to go dungeon crawling instead. Fine. Sell them ten foot poles and grab your favorite adventure module off of the shelf. Once the PCs are finished with that if they decide to return to the village they discover that the villagers are weak with hunger, and that no one cares that the PCs now have gold to spend. Do the PCs have any food? That is all that matters now. Without food to nourish the local militia the village will not stand a chance against the invading goblin forces who used some form of trickery to convince the water elementals to attack the village’s crops.
Once you feel that the timing is right have all of this tension bubble up into the climax of the story where the PCs will resolve the conflict.
- Perhaps the PCs learn that there are two aliens at play here: One species has been trying to transmit a warning about the invading species, and upon receiving a response they decided to take a more direct approach and make contact with the PCs. Eventually the PCs convince the good aliens to help them, and the climax of the story is a huge battle in space against the invading aliens with the PCs leading the good aliens forces.
- The PCs come to their own conclusion that large amounts of chocolate will stop the peanut zombies (two great tastes that taste great together and all that jazz). Roll with it. Somehow the PCs develop rifles that fire Hershey’s Kisses at a high velocity, and it is now time for Mr. Peanut to face his sweet cocoa bean powered demise.
- The PCs still do no care about the village. No problem. The PCs must now fight their way through the invading goblin forces to reach a nearby port where a ship can take them to safety. Along the way they discover that the “ally” PC in the village was actually behind the invasion. PCs that tend not to care about helping others may care about revenge. Go figure. Just let the PCs decide if they want to escape or extract brutal vengeance. It is always their call.
#5 — Conclude the Story
The PCs will determine what action actually resolves the conflict of the story. If they believe that destroying the invading alien flagship will render the invaders powerless it does. If they believe that capturing Mr. Peanut will bring about the end of his zombie army it will, even if you have to have the U.S. Army show up with choco-munitions to just wrap up the loose ends. If the PCs believe that once they are on the ship that the goblins cannot attack them, they are right.
Once the conflict is resolved you now narrate the results to the PCs. Explain how their valiant actions result in a new alliance with the alien species that was trying to warn of the invasion. Have the Director of the Food & Drug Administration give them medals and perhaps extend an invitation to help the FDA put an end to Ronald McDonald’s mad reign of fast food terror. Describe how the PCs can see the goblin army celebrating their victory as the ship moves further away from the shoreline in search of a safe port.
The conclusion is your time to shine. You get to dictate how the world has changed, but you do have an obligation to give credit to how the PCs shaped these results. Whether good or bad, the setting has been forever changed and the PCs were a key part of this transformation
5 Steps to Narrate a Plot
Again, it all comes back to step one: Know the basics. Write up a reminder on an index card that has the steps of the plot and a definition of what a narrator does so that you can reference it if you ever feel stuck. Where are you in the plot? What should you as a narrator do to move this plot forward? Look at that index card and take a moment to think. As long as you have a basic plan to follow and let the PCs’ actions determine the story you will be fine improvising the game.
That is all for now. Share your own ideas for improvising a narrative style game with us by leaving your comments below, and if you have an idea for my last three articles be sure to leave a comment here.
How obvious are you about the underlying pattern (that the players are… usually right, even if their understanding is twisted)? Do you introduce red herrings, or use player proposed solutions as false paths, particularly early in the session? Or has everyone bought into a style, like TV shows, where the dead ends don’t get camera time?
Great question! The answer is that it depends on the time that we have for gaming in relationship to the consensus that the idea is a good one by the group. If you do not have much time and only a couple of players at the table like the idea you can run with it, because the negative consequence will “justify” others having issues with the idea. This is what happens with convention one shot games a lot.
But if you are playing a weekly game you need more players to buy-in (at least half).