When you strike plotting trouble, a fresh angle can pay unexpected dividends.
This article relates to the way in which plotting problems in an upcoming adventure were resolved. If some of the details seem a little vague, it’s because I don’t want to reveal those details before we play it. I’m going to try and get away with using generalities in the important spots. The fact that you’re able to read this now means that I think I’ve succeeded – otherwise I would have held this article back until after we ran the adventure :)
The situation in-game is this: there is going to be a mystery plotline with four possible suspects and matching lines of inquiry. The victim will be… a person of importance, let’s say. For various reasons, investigation of this situation is to be handed to the PCs – a Canadian, two Australians, and an American.
The First Time Around
This is an Adventurer’s Club plotline, so I was working with my co-referee for that campaign, Blair Ramage. We had a wonderful plotline mapped out in which each PC would take one of the four lines of inquiry and keep finding clues and leads to each other’s cases until eventually they had the opportunity to resolve each of the plotlines and discover the guilty party.
This plotline had evolved from an initial seed of an idea that I had put forward, with both of us throwing ideas into the pot, inspiring each of us to come up with new ideas as we bounced things off each other – the usual pattern when we collaborate.
It was written in a very non-linear manner; we would add something to the next stage of the plotline, go back and insert something into the initial set-up, let that lead to a new event in the plotline, go back and remove something from the initial setup and reveal it in a new scene if we thought of a way to have it happen in-game… There was a very organic growth of the plotline as we continually revised the initial setup and rearranged plot elements to keep the narrative coherent.
While working on a subsequent part of the adventure, about which I really can’t get specific, a computer crash in the middle of saving the document (an event to which I think I’ve referred in other articles) destroyed the. whole. darned. thing. Three months work vanished in an instant, and defied all attempts at recovery. It would have to be completely re-created.
The Second Time Around
Well, it’s very hard trying to capture lightning in the same bottle twice. The second time around, some of the plotting was easier. We were aware that we had already resolved every plot problem we were going to encounter (and so knew that there were solutions if we looked hard enough. We even remembered some of those solutions, but those memories served to get us only part-way in the recreation process, and from that point on, we were stuck.
We had obviously reached that sticking point the first time around as well, but had solved it almost instantly through a confluence of our prior discussions, our mindsets at that precise moment, and a flash of inspiration from one or both of us – and this time, one or more of those critical elements was missing-in-action.
Change Of Perspective Number 1
We then tried to map out each of the lines of inquiry individually as separate plotlines, planning to integrate each of them into the final plotline only once they were all complete. This enabled us to get a little further, but we were still a long way removed from a total reconstruction.
Change Of Perspective Number 2
The next thing that was tried was looking at the individual plotlines from the points of view of the PC we thought most likely to end up investigating that plotline. Once again, we made progress, but still fell short of a comprehensive reconstruction. Heck, we didn’t even get half-way there – and time was beginning to run out. We’re supposed to start running this adventure at the start of February, and that’s not far away.
Change Of Perspective Number 3
Over the Christmas break, I started to think that perhaps we should concentrate not on recreating what we had done before, but on creating a new adventure from the point that we had been able to get up to. To facilitate this, I started thinking about the circumstances within the adventure as they appeared from the point of view of the antagonists in each of these plotlines.
Right away, ideas started coming to me, and I realized that in the entire original version of the adventure, the NPCs had been completely static with respect to the overall evolving picture of events. Sure, they reacted to a PC whenever one involved themselves in their plotline, but suspects in Line Of Inquiry A never reacted to what was going on in Line Of Inquiry B. This was for two reasons:
- It was hard to predict exactly what the outcome of each scene was going to be. Quite often, we simply specified an encounter with someone and what that someone was doing at the time, and would want to do when the encounter took place. In some cases, there was evidence that would be produced by the encounter, whether the PC won or lost – and a lot of the encounters couldn’t even be assessed in terms of winners and losers.
- Because the original crime was a closely-held secret to most of the people involved in these unrelated plotlines, they would not react to the investigation of that crime; they would see only what was going on in their own little bubble of plotline. We made the mistake of generalizing that to mean that they would not react to events occurring in the other Lines Of Inquiry because these events were not directly impacting on them.
This completely ignored the fact that if an event occurred, even if it did not appear directly relevant to the confrontation between the suspect and the PCs, the NPCs would nevertheless examine it for possible connections to their own activities, possibly making assumptions of greater or lesser paranoia (depending on their personalities and the nature of their activities), and would then react accordingly.
The plotline that has started to unfold bears a reasonable resemblance to the original in parts, and is wildly different in others. Because of the new perspective that I describe above, it is also far better than the original in parts; more tightly integrated, and with far more plausible justification for one Line Of Inquiry giving a clue to another one.
Recreating the missing plotline was a bit like reconstructing a jigsaw with more than half the pieces missing. We had a fragment here and a fragment there, and had to try to reassemble them into a coherent plotline. We had various clues, in the form of game props and illustrations, which we had been gathering and creating as we went. (We also identified a player handout that had been overlooked in the writing process the first time around, the absence of which would have been a major hole in the plot).
While the narrative descriptions, and much of the notes regarding motivations and personalities, and a large hunk of the internal logic and flow, were all obliterated in the crash, and the recreated adventure (due to deadline pressures) was far less delineated than the original, what we have ended up with – so far`- is a stronger plotline. And a valuable lesson or two.
Aside from the obvious, like “save work more regularly” and “create regular backups”, the combination of which would have minimized the damage from the computer crash, there were three valuable lessons to emerge from this disaster.
- A change of perspective can help you get past difficult plot problems;
- Always consider how the antagonists will react to events that they become aware of, even if those events don’t directly involve them; and,
- Always consider how third parties of note will react to events that they become aware of, even if they are not involved in the events – especially if they might (erroneously) think that these events are directed at them.
It doesn’t matter if what an NPC does is directed at a PC. A rival will still consider the possibility that it’s aimed at him, and even if it is not, will ask themselves how they can turn it to their advantage. That makes every unrelated menace an information resource acting on behalf of the PCs, even if they don’t realize it.
And that’s worth thinking about. Plots don’t occur in tiny little bubbles; they are complicated, hairy, fuzzy things, that tend to get stuck to everything else that’s going on within the game, sometimes in very odd ways. Don’t make your plots too self-contained, and they will be far more interesting – and, perhaps, easier to recreate in a time of urgent need.