My co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club campaign and I work very hard to maintain player engagement even when the spotlight is not on that player’s character (which only makes it all the more obvious and painful when we fail in attempts to do so). While there is little that I regard as especially novel about the approach and techniques that we employ to do this, what seems obvious to me may not be so obvious to anyone else, and that makes it a topic worth exploring.
There are two distinct phases to the approach we employ; the first is to ground each of the PCs in a place of relevance at the start of the adventure through what I described in Part One as “Prologue Scenes”. These are incredibly useful for establishing context for the adventure to follow, for keeping the world dynamic, and for giving the PCs personal lives that can then be disrupted by the adventure, to name just a few of the potential benefits. The second phase kicks in when the main adventure starts and builds on the foundations laid in the prologues, and it’s this phase that I am placing under the microscope today.
Just as the PCs are individuals who come together for the main adventure, setting aside those personal independent lives for the achievement of common purpose, so the adventure itself should bring the characters together, whether that be in objective, in motivation, in mutual survival or benefit, or simply in mutual alliance. In other words, the prologues are all about the individual stories of each of the PCs, while the main adventure is something that is to be shared by all of them.
In considering the overall adventure and how it will be broken down into a coherent structure, there are nine things that we consider, and attempt to keep in mind.
- Rotating Spotlights
- Parts Of A Whole
- Can’t Be Everywhere
- Side-stories & Subtleties
- What’s My Motivation? (Continued)
- Making it Personal
- Everyone is somewhere doing something, all the time
- Partners make life easier
- Plot that eats itself
It’s important to realize what I mean by the term “overall structure” in this context. I mean what the major elements of the plot are, and which character or characters have a featured or dominant role in each of those elements.
Adventure Structures example 1
For example, consider the diagram to the right. It assumes that Prologues have been put in place for each character, and that Character A’s prologue leads to the main adventure by way of a second prologue for character D. But once the main adventure starts, look at what happens: Aside from one plot sequence dominated by Character A and one by character C, it’s all about D, all the time. Characters B and E don’t even get a look in – they may as well be generic NPCs.
Adventure Structures example 2
What this article, and especially the nine considerations above, are concerned with is turning that structure into the one shown to the left. D is still the central focus of the adventure, there’s no doubt, but everybody catches a bit of the spotlight, and they all make a contribution to the plot.
So let’s start by looking at those nine principles in detail.
1. Rotating Spotlights
This simply means that if this adventure revolves around character D, with arguably more substantial contributions in key scenes from A and C, the next adventure should revolve around someone else, and preferable characters B and/or E. After that, one of the others gets a feature, and so on.
It’s very rare for any one adventure to give equal prominence to everyone – and one of the ways of achieving equal prominence is for the adventure not to matter especially to any of them, which is not all that desirable. One or two characters will usually have a particularly string connection to the overall plot of any given adventure.
You can see how we implement this particular principle in our overall planning by reading Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited, an earlier article that looked specifically at how we order adventures, It’s a revisit on the overall subject because I employ a more complex process for plotting my superhero campaign, Zenith-Three, which I had described extensively in a still-earlier article series – you can find the link in the “Amazon Nazis” article.
2. Parts Of A Whole
It’s often said “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’”. Certainly, that’s the approach we take in plotting the main structure of any adventure – we View each essential step in the process of getting from start to finish of the adventure as parts of a whole, and a whole that furthermore is being undertaken by the team of PCs. By remaining aware of the abilities and experiences that make each player and each character unique – something I’ll talk about in more detail in a subsequent section of this article – we are constantly able to look for opportunities for each to play a key role even if they don’t dominate that part of the plot.
3. Can’t Be Everywhere
One of the key techniques we employ is to make sure that events requiring PC involvement pile up on the PCs so that no one character can do it all. This forces the dominant PC to delegate one of the others to handling part of his “spotlight time” as a surrogate. The more PCs you have, the more difficult this becomes, because you need more things happening simultaneously and it gets easy for the main plot to become muddled if you aren’t careful. So it’s not a complete solution in its own right.
4. Side-stories & Subtleties
Something we definitely look for are any side-issues from, or nuances of, the main plot that aren’t likely to get sufficient exposure due to the combination of PC abilities / personality and Player predilections / personality. Placing one of the other PCs (who is more likely to react) in a position to explore those aspects of the plot and then feed the results back into discussions / planning for the main plotline is usually a far better option than trying to force-feed that content to a player who’s uninterested or has a character without the capabilities for dealing with it. Sometimes, rather than dealing with those peripheral issues directly, it is better to employ a more metaphoric approach, on other occasions the direct approach is definitely the way to go. This depends on the exact nature of the additional content, the sensibilities of the player, and so on; it has to be tailored to each situation and each participant, both on a character and a metagame level.
An important sub-type of play content that falls into this category is the question of shaping, directing, or minimizing fall-out from the main plot. A second sub-type of no less significance is the gathering / recruiting of resources that the central character will need access to in order to resolve the main plotline. Both of these can provide an opportunity for other PCs to shine; it’s often simply a case of taking a scene that could be hand-waved or resolved with a single piece of roleplay and working it up into something a little more substantial.
One of the big side-benefits of this technique is that the PC takes ‘possession’ of the peripheral aspect of the main plot, providing a way for the character to invest in the main plot, resulting in a greater level of engagement in that plot on the part of that player.
5. What’s My Motivation? (Continued)
One of the sources / considerations that I listed for prologues was establishing or highlighting each PC’s expected motivation to helping resolve the main plot. Characters can often start with one motivation and discover personal relevance to the plotline as it unfolds, which is an obvious way of engaging them; but even when their motivation remains constant, it’s important to hit that beat every now and then.
Consider for a moment what’s wrong with the following outline: Before the main plot begins, we establish that character A’s motivation is his friendship with the PC who is central to the plotline. Once the main plot begins, the two do absolutely nothing together to demonstrate that friendship; they might as well be strangers thrown together by circumstance. Then the credits roll over a scene in which they are buddy-buddy again.
That’s right, the whole buddy-buddy thing seems tacked on, and you would seriously doubt how invested the character actually is in the main plot. And if the character isn’t invested in the plot, it’s a lot less likely (in an RPG) that the player is invested. While it might going too far to incorporate a scene whose sole purpose is to reinforce and reflect a PCs motivation, ensuring that there are opportunities built into scenes, that exist for other reasons, for those motivations to be touched on, goes a long way. And it gives those PCs the chance to roleplay a little, which is never a bad thing.
All that said, you need to be careful not to force behaviors onto a PC. Making it clear that PCs A and B are buddies as a result of past shared experiences, and providing an opportunity for that relationship to be roleplayed, is fine, and is as far as it should go – then let the relationship between the PCs evolve in it’s own direction.
6. Making it Personal
Unless it is becoming repetitive from one adventure to the next, you should always look for opportunities to make a main plot personal for each character if that hasn’t already been established. Every character has buttons that should evince strong reactions; look for ways to integrate “hot button” issues into the plot. A character might be ho-hum and by-the-numbers, doing it because it has to be done, about going after a corporate crook – until they discover that they are preying on old folks and orphans, or their actions have a secondary impact that is going to seriously hurt such folks. Even then, you don’t want it to be some abstraction; if the elderly are being victimized, include a couple of them (of various personality profiles) in a scene or two to put a personal face on the situation.
And if there’s nothing from a character perspective on which to hang personal motivation, consider the player. Where the player goes, the PC will follow. This is more subtle and complicated, because there needs to be a way of expressing that motivation within the parameters established for the PCs personality.
I once saw an NPC (in another GM’s game) break off the fight to help a little old lady cross the street, only to be struck down from behind as soon as “Grannie” was out of the way by one of the PCs. The other players, and one in particular, reacted quite strongly, motivating them for the first time to seriously consider the story the NPC had offered. When it subsequently transpired that the story was full of half-truths and spin doctoring for the NPC’s benefit, that one player in particular felt betrayed by the NPC, while the PC who had taken the cheap shot felt vindicated. They were both highly-motivated to play out the adventure from that point forward, though.
7. Everyone is somewhere doing something, all the time
In any plot sequence that revolves around one PC, it’s essential to always remember that the other PCs are still somewhere, doing something. They can be with the central PC, and able to react to the central PCs reaction to the plot sequence; or they can be somewhere else, where they can’t interfere. It’s always important to manage these situations carefully; you don’t want to force decisions onto the PCs, but there is absolutely no reason to arrange circumstances so that their characters want to make the decision you want.
If you don’t want a PC to be present for a particular scene, or if they don’t have a particular reason to be involved in that scene, it’s always worth asking what else they can be doing, even engineering a complication or plot wrinkle for the sole purpose of giving them something to do away from the main encounter.
Note that it’s VERY easy for this sort of planning to go astray. Contingency plans should always be in the back of your mind.
8. Partners make life easier
…well, sometimes they do. Let’s say you have a party of six PCs – it’s a lot easier to keep three pairs of PCs busy than it is to handle six isolated individuals. That’s all well and good, but the PCs themselves will usually allocate their manpower as they see fit, and this allocation will often be at variance with what you had in mind. Occasionally, you can arrange circumstances so that who should be assigned to what will be fairly obvious, but this is very easy to overdo, and it’s very conducive to plot trains. It’s one thing to tell the players how the switches on the track should be set, and quite another to set those switches on their behalf.
Or, to put it another way, the choices should result naturally from the confluence of personalities, abilities, interests, and circumstances.
A fun little exercise that can be employed occasionally is to allocate minor NPCs to players who aren’t involved in a scene. Name, basic personality, objective, and motivation, should be written as a single paragraph (as minimally as possible) and handed to such players, together with instructions to “have fun” with the role. These characters should be unimportant in terms of plot, so that you don’t have to give away any secrets to them; they are incidental extras.
Some players won’t like this, because it breaks their focus on their PC, which is the primary role they are playing; others will go too far over the top; and still others will take your “have fun” literally. Next time, leave out anyone who really objects, but most will go along just to have something to do while their characters are busy elsewhere, doing something that they will get to roleplay. In general, it’s a lot better than having players sit around waiting for the spotlight to get back to them, but it can’t be used all the time; it becomes too blatantly artificial.
The last time I can remember doing this, the PCs were visiting a nursing home for the geriatric. One player decided his “NPC” thought he was an ex-jewel thief and a born teller of tall-tales that made him seem more important than he was, another was a would-be Lothario, one was vague about just what the date was, and one did nothing but sleep – while mumbling “interesting” things between snores! Throw in two PCs trying to get witness statements, and a couple of NPCs run by the GM (who actually saw something) but who were more interested in other things – one thought the staff were stealing his money, and the other was just grumpy, cantankerous, and uncooperative.
9. Plot that eats itself
It can be the height of artistry in RPG plotting to have seemingly-unrelated plot threads in an adventure that come together at the end to reveal an unrecognized relevance that was always there, beneath the surface. Failed attempts at achieving this are also highly artificial in nature, and can be catastrophically bad gaming, fun for no-one. It’s an approach that doesn’t work if the supposedly-unrelated plot threads are too obvious in their connection to the main plot, and doesn’t work if they are too subtle, too.
Nevertheless, there is always value in having prologues and subplots relate to the main plot, however obliquely, so long as they are organic outgrowths of the personalities and “lives” of the PCs featured and the circumstances that obtain at that time in the wider world.
At one point in the pulp campaign, for example, we produced a series of front-pages to “newspapers” of the day, having determined which press sources were most appropriate to the personalities of the PCs. Each contained at least one headline that advanced the main plot and another that was designed to be of interest to the PC reading that newspaper. Note that we didn’t actually write more than a lead paragraph of each “story”, using Greeked Text (Lorum Ipsum) for the remainder. These headlines were entirely fictional and were derived using a variant of the “Chinese Whispers” method of Rumor Generation, which I described in Issue #322 of Roleplaying Tips. In this case, the process was “generalize/speculate, add bias, react, and spin the result”; repeat for each successive story while ensuring that the bias and spin were different each time. Some were alarmist, some pro-establishment, some conservative, some radical, some pro-Nazi, others pro-intervention, and some were just a vehicle for an axe to grind, but they were all peripherally related to both everyday events going on in the character’s lives at that point AND to each paper’s jaundiced views of developments in the main plot (before the PCs even became embroiled in it).
The general issue was Civil Rights, and agitation in various ports by Black Workers and Unions – a subject that was broad enough in a 1930s setting to permit all sorts of facets to come to light, and it was part of an insidious plot by a radical faction of the KKK to persuade the Authorities that they needed to clamp down, and to propel our fictitious Grand Dragon (and mastermind) into the White House. The plot, and the social issue, were eventually laid to rest, but – in the latter case – seeds were sewn that would eventually give birth to the historic civil rights movement. But, in the meantime, just look at all the tangents that this touches on – Nazism, Communism, War readiness, Social Policy, Organized Crime and the Unions, North-South tensions, Welfare, the New Deal, Democrats, Republicans, even questions about minority participation in national sports, advertising, sweat-shops, worker’s rights – the list just goes on and on – and that’s before we look at “pro” and “anti” positions on the issues. If you can’t find something of relevance to any period character in that list, you aren’t trying hard enough.
None of this was forced; we weren’t telling the PCs what to think. If anything, we were playing on the modern-day attitudes towards multiculturalism and equality of the players, setting them up for the plot twist in which the noble sentiments expressed before their time were being subverted by a power-hungry bigot as a road to power. But the point is this: it made the plot relevant to, and important to, each of the characters.
Everyone shares the spotlight: PCs
Item 2, above, points at individualism as a contribution to the collective pluracy of group participation. At the time, I promised to go into more detail in a subsequent section; in fact, there are two such sections. This, the first, deals with the PC and what the individual brings to the group; the next deals with the Player who controls the PC.
You can think of the PCs as a single organism with the combined abilities, knowledge, skills, and personality traits of its constituent parts, capable of doing multiple things simultaneously – within limits – as well as possessing some qualities and attributes that result from the collective group.
In terms of outlining the overall course of a plot, such a perspective can be very useful, but in reality this is a theoretical construct; because you have individuals deciding the actions of each participant member, once the main plot and the prepared paths through to an opportunity for resolution are determined as a broad outline, it is necessary to examine the plot in detail from the perspective of each individual PC. You want your plot to make use of some unique aspect of each individual as their contribution to the collective effort, and to reflect their individual personalities, presenting an opportunity for their uniqueness to be highlighted. In other words, each needs his share of the spotlight.
Each character can be broken down into six ways in which they are distinct to a greater or lesser extent. Knowing how each PC is different from the others in those respects allows you to present circumstances in which the exercising of that distinctiveness can or will advance or enhance the plot. Not all these opportunities will actually present themselves in play, because the players may choose a different allocation of resources or even an entirely different plan to the one you anticipate; and not all the opportunities presented will be taken up by the player in question. First, they have to recognize than an opportunity exists, for example, and second they have to decide to avail themselves of it, and third they have to succeed in doing so.
That suggests that having two, three, or even four more times as many such opportunities as you think will be needed to give each PC his share of the spotlight can be needed. Practical experience has shown that this is usually too many, because whatever a PC does he will reflect his own unique attributes and aspects in what he chooses to do and how he chooses to do it.
Providing such opportunities can be viewed as an insurance policy and a way of fostering engagement, i.e. encouraging that sort of participation on the part of the PC. In other words, looking for such opportunities and even building one or two each into your adventures is never wasted effort, but you should never lock your thinking in stone on the subject and view it as “enough”. Sometimes it will be more than enough, and sometimes you will need to leave it to the player to carve out his own spotlight time. Aiming for a better batting average than would result simply from a straight interpretation of the plot is generally enough – especially if you make a point of trying not to get in the way when a PC steps up (unless they are stealing another PC’s spotlight moment, of course).
A better approach is generally to view each stage of the plot as a problem that needs to be solved and asking how each PC can contribute to that solution. If there is no obvious answer on the part of one or more PCs, that’s when you should consider a supplementary scene or subplot for those PCs.
Points Of Distinction: Abilities
Each character is able to do certain things better than others. One might be faster, another stronger, a third might be armed against the supernatural, and so on. When you are dealing with a Fantasy Campaign, there tend to be even more variations within this category.
These are the most obvious point of distinction that separates one character from another, and therefore they yield the most predictable plots when relied upon. Nevertheless, ignoring these is usually a bad idea. Starting with the generic approach and then applying some element of differentiation between this PC and other representatives of the generic character archetype to customize the opportunity is usually a better solution.
However, skill-based abilities – characters who know how to do something specific – are often a viable point of distinction without elaboration – it depends how unique that knowledge is amongst the party. But see also my comments below.
The fact that another character was`a successful officer in the Royal Navy is enough for us to presume that he knows how to give orders in a tone of voice that makes others likely to obey, especially if accustomed to obeying such orders. This is an way in which an ability can impact a plotline by altering how an NPC will react. Other characters could issue the same instruction and the NPC will think it over; and still others could do so and be ignored.
One of the PCs in the Pulp Campaign is good at cutting through the fog and getting to the heart of a situation; another is good for legal issues; a third has morals and morality and questions of “what is right?” covered; and a fourth is great for issues of ethics and responsibility. The fifth hasn’t been with the campaign long enough to have demonstrated a particular aspect for which he is predisposed, beyond the obvious.
Points Of Distinction: Knowledge
We use this all the time. It works with the Hero System because there are enough skills that no-one can be qualified in every field, or even in the majority of subjects. It doesn’t work anywhere near as well in systems like D&D and Pathfinder because the skill points characters get are high enough that some ability in the majority of subjects is usually accessible by any given character.
Points Of Distinction: Life Experience
Not everything that a character has been through in their “lives” is always reflected in their skills and knowledge. We partially address this situation with Everyman Skills, many of which need to be defined and customized to match the individual’s background, but even these are incomplete. The knowledge that a character has spent time in the Middle East is sufficient basis to reasonably conclude that he has a tourist’s knowledge of Ancient Egypt, Pharaohs, Mummification, etc. If any of those subjects happen to be relevant, it pushes that character forward.
Even if the knowledge isn’t relevant, the appearance of relevance can be just as effective. It can shape the allocation of responsibilities by the PCs, and still provide a character with a slice of the available spotlight time.
Points Of Distinction: Attitudes & Opinions
Definitely ingredients that rarely appear on character sheets, these can nevertheless be just as influential as anything in writing. Again, the Hero System is better in this respect than some other game systems, but doesn’t offer the capacity for more than the most dominant characteristics of personality. The better you know the PC in question as the player expresses his personality in play, the more effectively you can write to that character.
Points Of Distinction: Circumstances
Not so much the circumstances within the adventure as the broader circumstances of the PC’s current status. Father O’Malley lives in a Vestry attached to a Church, the 54th Street Mission. He shares these accommodations with another Priest, who appears regularly on an interfaith radio show that discusses various subjects social, religious, and topical. He acts as a “relief priest” for the surrounding parishes. He does charity work one day a week when not otherwise engaged. He has a reputation for being fairly progressive and moderate in his social values. He has been professionally trained to be diplomatic when necessary. These are all circumstances that can be used as the foundation of a prologue, but they can also play a significant role in individual scenes within an adventure – when you need to question the nuns at a religious school, or persuade the head of a charity to give you the time of day, or simply need a connection to a friend of such a charity director, to name just a few.
He is also the shortest member of the PCs – which is something that we haven’t yet been able to make a significant factor, but you never know…
Points Of Distinction: Flaws & Limitations
Almost as important as determinant individualizing factors are the flaws and limitations of characters. Captain Ferguson is protective of his crew almost as much, if not more than, he is of his ship. He has the privilege of berating and (when necessary) browbeating them, but would be the first to interpose himself between them and anyone else giving them attitude, or worse. The relationship is very paternal.
It follows that if a crew member is seriously threatened in any manner, Ferguson will take the spotlight, and relinquish it only if specialist expertise is necessary – and even then will hover unless forced not to. So long as this “handle” is not abused too frequently, it can be used to steer involvement in an adventure. (Hmmmm – a thought – we haven’t yet done anything much with the families of those crew members…)
Points Of Distinction: Incapacities
Finally, it can sometimes be useful, entertaining, and realistic to put a PC into a situation in which he is as a fish out of water, having to cope and improvise his way to some sort of solution. It’s reasonable to assume that the PCs will hand tasks to the person(s) who combine availability with being apparently best-fitted to performing that task, given free choice; but those are a huge number of caveats. Remember the principle of “Can’t Be Everywhere”!
Everyone shares the spotlight: Players
It’s not enough to take only the PCs as played and their documented capabilities and restrictions into account. Behind the mask of every PC there is a player – one who may have vastly different strengths and weaknesses to those of the personality they are simulating; and, ultimately, it is this person behind the persona that we are seeking to engage in our plots. Who cares how much the PC enjoys the adventure, so long as they achieve victory in the end? In fact, every method of engaging and enmeshing the PC into the plot is simply a mechanism by which the person behind that character can vicariously participate in the shared activity of the game.
It can’t be disputed that such vicarious participation can be a powerful instrument in facilitating engagement, and it’s a lot easier to achieve than directly targeting the characteristics of the player. It is also prone to placing a barrier between the manipulations of plot and the player, making it less likely that the GM will tread on toes; tabletop gaming is a social activity, when all is said and done, and that’s hardly an appropriate venue for probing a friend’s moral values, politics, or other sensibilities.
Nevertheless, since it is the person behind the character who we seek to engage, it would be foolhardy to ignore the points of distinction that separate one player from another. These are inevitably going to be fuzzier and less-defined than those deriving from the game-mechanics and their clinical specificity; nevertheless, general points of distinction can be assessed and utilized to produce a better game.
Side-note: The inability to do this is one of the biggest handicaps of tournament gaming and of published modules in general; this is why most such need to be interpreted, if not overhauled completely, by GMs before usage, in order to get the best out of them (I addressed this aspect of the differences between “Canned” and “original” adventures in To Module Or Not?: A legacy article, which may be of value to anyone who wants to look more deeply at the subject).
I have divided the points of distinctiveness between players into six categories (several of which will look very familiar) and intend to look at them in what I consider the order of importance.
Points Of Distinction: Preferences
Preferences come in two divisions: what the player likes to do in his gaming and what the player doesn’t like to do, or doesn’t do very well – frustration and fun don’t often brew up very satisfyingly.
While it’s important to satisfy the gaming desires of each player, it is even more important to avoid handing them the sort of play they dislike, at least as much as is practicable. Ian M, one of our players (and the one whose comment sparked this entire 2-part article), likes to swash-buckle, and dislikes playing detective – it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy reading detective stories, it’s just that he doesn’t solve mysteries very well, in his own opinion. He prefers his games to be fairly straightforward, in other words.
For that reason, when there’s detective work involved, we will either arrange things so that the other players can assist him (even if their characters aren’t present), or find a way to present the mysteries to other PCs, or – at the very least – provide a straight-ahead path for Captain Ferguson to follow while others grapple with the puzzles presented.
Ian is the player I know best, having gamed with him since the early 80s; I don’t have quite as deep an understanding of the others. But for all of them, there are tentatively-identified “no go” areas and even-more-tentatively-identified positive preferences. Sometimes these are in opposition, and have to be balanced one against the other; but in general we’ve been able to keep our core group happy.
Points Of Distinction: Abilities
Equally, each player has his own abilities that he brings to the table, which we can take shameless advantage of, when it’s necessary. In some cases, the characters reflect those abilities by virtue of the PC having been created by the player; in others the characters abilities are actually the product of the PC-player gestalt, i.e. derive at least as much from the intelligence behind the character as they do from any game mechanics.
Points Of Distinction: Knowledge
One of the players has extensive knowledge of Occultism in World War II. Another has knowledge of maritime lore and history. A third is an expert in Anime and Manga: and so on. Each player has knowledge of various topics, with some overlap, but also with many unique corners. Any scene or adventure that touches on the transferable knowledge of the player will generally be of interest to that player, even if his character doesn’t have the knowledge that the player does.
Points Of Distinction: Life Experience
One of the players has served in the Army. Another is a librarian. A third works in a call center, while a fourth is former civil servant. Some have been urban dwellers for most if not all their lives; others are from the country. At least one has been overseas, and so has experienced customs, and international air travel. These life experiences can all be tapped in the course of an adventure, simply by using our own general knowledge of the subjects to put the PCs in a position where the player knows what to look for, and what to expect. The Dewey-Decimal system has not yet played a key role in an adventure, but sooner or later it might (will?) happen.
Points Of Distinction: Attitudes & Opinions
If these are fuzzy on the part of PCs, they are even more-so on the parts of the players behind the characters. Nevertheless, some are known by us; this enables us to incorporate scenes that reinforce or reflect those attitudes or opinions, or that use them to make the adventure more interesting. See, for example, the earlier “KKK” plotline.
Points Of Distinction: Circumstances
The final point of distinction is the one that I regard as the most problematic and likely to step on toes, so I only use it in the negative, as in “there are situations that might hit too close to home” – so I’m cautious about NPCs in those situations, and even more cautious about putting PCs into those situations.
What’s In The Shadows>
Even with all this to draw upon, there will still be times when you need to complicate what is otherwise a nice, neat plot outline just to make sure that everyone can play an active role. Eliminating a red herring is a worthy expenditure of effort, or an unrelated plot point that (entirely coincidentally) puts a PC in the right place at the right time to discover something important – even if it doesn’t seem to be so at the time.
Presence In The Periphery
The other way to permit engagement within th main adventure when the plot itself doesn’t support it is for a PC’s or player’s knowledge to be pivotal to exposing an otherwise undetectable plot twist or in some other critical manner. This only works when the individual in question is the only person able to supply the information, something that’s very hard to guarantee, and only works when the individual is already engaged – so from the point of view of this article, it’s a decidedly moot point. I mention it here only for the purpose of being as complete as possible.
Of course, there are three primary parts to any adventure – the before, the middle, and the after. It’s not uncommon for the latter to be ignored or forgotten when people discuss plotting RPG adventures, and that’s a major mistake.
There are four general types of Epilogue.
- Individual Epilogue Stories
- Group Epilogues
- Springboard Epilogues
- Deferred Epilogues
Individual Epilogue Stories
One option is to give one or more characters brief epilogues on an individual basis. This brings the adventure structure full circle and is a great way of demonstrating the impact that the adventure has had on a character. Those impacts come in two varieties: Impacts on PC thinking, and Impacts on PC circumstances, which includes character health.
In general, epilogues should be short, even compared to prologues. It’s often sufficient to tease one with nothing more than a single sentence and tip of the hat, but when you go for the tease, you should revisit the epilogue and the impact that it’s meant to display in the prologue to the next adventure – and there will be times when the two are incompatible, or where you are foregoing a prologue in order to tip the PCs into the action in a hurry.
The rest of the time, we’re talking five minutes maximum per scene, and a two-minute or less target average. One, maybe two paragraphs, and one, maybe two responses of equal length, or a single paragraph and a conversation. Again, it’s often not necessary to play out the whole thing; if the player has already indicated that they are going to have a particular conversation, it can often be more effective to end on “Janey, we have to talk…” or equivalent – and then open the next adventure not with a continuation but with a sequel to the conversation. After all, a truly great actor might be able to improvise the dialogue in such a scene and keep it interesting – but fading to black and sparing the need is, 9 times out of 10, or better, going to be more effective because the dialogue you come up with in your head is never going to sound as good in reality, especially with someone on the other end of the conversation that hasn’t read the (non-existent) “script”.
Group epilogues are where the whole group shares an epilogue that ties up a loose end or two. Note that ending on a witticism is fraught with danger because they are rarely as witty to others. And – unless the length is very carefully controlled – stirring speeches tend to run on far too long and bore the players (even if it’s one of them delivering the speech. “The danger is past. Tomorrow, the rebuilding begins.” Job done, cue the music, and roll the credits.
There are two sub-types of Epilogue within the Springboard category. The first is designed to tease the players with what’s going to happen next, and implies that the next adventure will open with prologues as usual; the second is designed to create a cliffhanger situation that hits the players with some sort of revelation, and implies that the next adventure will pick up right at the moment where this one left off (the epilogue might be repeated as a prologue for that sequel adventure). Both have their places and their uses.
The final type of epilogue is the one that you deliver at the start of the next adventure, and represents something of a hybrid of the two springboard types. In effect, it fails to punctuate the adventure it is ending, and in the process, implies that something major is coming down the road at the PCs – but heaven help you if the next adventure fails to live up to the implied hype.
The Time-Slip Variant
A variant on the deferred epilogue that I have occasionally used – and to be honest, I don’t recall whether we’ve ever done this with the Adventurer’s Club Campaign – I describe as the Time-Slip Variant. You end the variant with a cliffhanger, but in such a way that it implies or states explicitly that time has passed between the end of the adventure and the delivery of this cliffhanger. At the start of the next game session, you deliver the epilogues as though they were prologues and have them lead to the opening scene of the next adventure as usual – which just happens to be a repeating of the cliffhanger.
This delivers the cliffhanger without context and then provides the context – and a slow buildup – at the start of the next adventure. It works because the cliffhanger teases the players and then builds up tension while they wait to catch up.
A variant on the variant opens the next adventure with the rehash of the cliffhanger and then time-slips backwards with the (imaginary but vocalized) caption, “[x] days earlier…” or it might be hours, or whatever. The big tricks to employing this sub-variant successfully are (1) making sure that the PCs don’t prepare for it by acting on knowledge that they have as players, but that their PCs don’t have, yet; (2) making sure that the time in between is properly filled; and (3) ensuring that you aren’t making decisions for the players, i.e. railroading them to the cliffhanger. As usual, you also have to make sure that it isn’t an anticlimax when the time comes, because you’ve given this cliffhanger “beginning” a lot of build-up.
The James Bond Teaser Variant
Occasionally, it can be useful to consider a deferred group epilogue to an adventure that you haven’t run and don’t intend to run. Instead, you use the ending of the not-played adventure as a James-Bond style teaser at the start of the next adventure, and then segue into the prologues for the next one.
This is my favorite trick to pull with adventures where there’s been a problem with the internal logic that will take more time to fix than you have available. You cut out the entire broken section of adventure and simply catapult the players into the dramatic finish, whether it makes a whole lot of sense or not.
Immersion vs Engagement
I wanted to take a moment to clarify the differences between these two phenomena and the relationship between them.
Immersion is what results when the world feels real enough to the players that they can almost reach out and touch it, when they start thinking in character. Engagement is when the players are hanging on every word, paying attention because they care about what is happening and want to know what is going to happen next – when they feel involved in the adventure and yet able to choose their own path, to, through, and out of whatever is to come next.
You can have Engagement without Immersion, which is a good thing because you have all these pesky game mechanics that drag players out of immersion, anyway. I am not entirely convinced that, in the real world, you can have Immersion without first achieving Engagement. In theory, it might be doable, but even that theory seems suspect to me.
Wandering Spotlights & The Wide-angle lens
I started the first article (after a brief prologue) with a metaphor about a wandering spotlight, and though it so apt that I named the articles for it. So I though it appropriate to end the same way.
When you’re the GM, pretend that you are directing, producing, writing, and photographing an entire movie with nothing but a wide-angle lens. No matter what you point it at, it will pick up everything else and put it on permanent display. The camera sees everything. To make certain things stand out from this flat-pack of moving images, you have a single spotlight. It can shine on one character, or on a small group at the same time – so long as they are not too far apart. But it’s only when the spotlight is shining that you create shadows deep enough for your other cast members to vanish from sight. Use of the spotlight can immensely improve your production but it also highlights any flaws and errors.
Employ your spotlight to enhance your adventures by shining it on whatever is most significant in any given scene – but don’t forget that you have an ensemble cast, and it’s up to you to make sure that everyone gets their fair share – and that they are all hanging around somewhere in every shot!