From everything I’ve read – starting with early issues of The Dungeon, continuing with “Through Dungeons Deep”, and running all the way through to numerous blog posts – a lot of GMs have trouble connecting the desire to “make the loot part of the plot” with techniques for actually achieving this goal.
It’s my impression that a lot of this trouble derives from the way those GMs think about the rewards that they provide to the characters within the game. Because the rules specify the inclusion of a reward, the mindset seems to be to think of it as just that – a reward. That carries certain subconscious connotations, most of which revolve around a sense that the players (and/or their characters) are entitled to receive it.
This mindset permeates conversations on this subject, so deeply that it can be hard to identify all the places and aspects that it touches. It has even reached out to shape the structure of this Blog, as a quick glance at the categories list will reveal (hint: look under “R”). Before a GM can fully exploit the potentials of rewards for the embellishment and furtherance of his plots, he has to shed this mindset and its restrictions.
Well, if we can’t call it loot, and we can’t call it a reward, what can we call it that is going to engender a more useful mindset? I struggled with this question for quite a while – the first draft of this post was written in place of the shopping list of subjects that I offered last week – before I realized that the one obvious right answer was right in front of me the whole time. Why not put the cart before the horse, and let the objective define the terminology? Why not call the loot a Plot Mechanic?
Loot As A Plot Mechanic
When a GM does this for the first time, they experience a profound paradigm shift. Thinking about the different types of rewards that can be offered in a game no longer takes place in isolation, or with any sense of entitlement; instead, every possible reward comes with the associated questions to the GM, “How can I use this reward to enhance or further the plot? Is there an alternative that achieves the objectives more completely, or more compellingly?”
Instead of being a tacked-on derivative of the gaming process, rewards immediately become an integral part of the plot. As such, like any other plot element, they are subject to relocation to the position within the storyline that is most felicitous to the telling of that story – instead of coming at the end of the story, they can be placed at the beginning, or the middle, or wherever else they are most logical.
Loot ceases to be a reward and becomes a resource.
Even the most traditional of reward types, experience points, can be viewed in this manner. Instead of being a burden to be accommodated by the GM, or a necessary evil, they are a resource that serves to prepare the characters for the next stage of their grand adventure. XP, and their concomitant measure, character levels, are no longer a reflection of what has happened to date, but on what the character’s capacities are to be in the next adventure.
Like energy, loot – when viewed as a resource or plot device – can be converted from one form to another, interchangeably; only the exchange rate and difficulty of achieving the conversion vary. The process of conversion can itself form the basis of a plotline, especially if the GM has not succumbed to the temptation to populate his cities with magic emporia; these facilitate the conversion of cash into magic items and vice versa at the cost of killing virtually all story potential inherent in the desire to achieve such conversion.
Finishing The Job: Educating Players
Once the GM has achieved the personal breakthrough in his mental state, he might be forgiven for thinking that the process of converting from plotless loot to plot-rich goodies is complete; but there is one final step that may be required, without which the process will remain incomplete and frustrating: educating the players.
It’s not enough for the GM to perceive the rewards he hands out as resources; until the players see them the same way, they will not take full advantage of the roads to adventure that the GM is opening before them, and the campaign will remain restricted in scope to something less than it could be.
It is unusual for players to make the transition in mindset based solely on prompting by the GM; they have to learn how locate and identify the means of conversion of the resource they have been given into whatever they need to continue the adventure. Sometimes, that is easy; players are used to spending money for things, so they would adapt to that mechanism quickly and easily. A lot of the time, it won’t be so easy, and may even require some house rules and background information from the GM.
For example, I once played in a campaign in which the GM never handed out magic items. Instead, he handed out the components of magic items, leaving it up to the players to decide what they were going to craft (or have crafted) out of the resources. For the first adventure or two, the players weren’t up to speed on what was going on, and complained bitterly about the ‘garbage treasure’ that was being handed out. The next couple of sessions were spent grumbling but taking advantage of the reward structure to craft a few items the party wanted; after about half-a-dozen sessions, some of the players were beginning to grasp some of the possibilities in the idea, and after as long again, one of those became a convert, openly preferring the idea to the notion of having someone else’s magic item design foisted onto him.
For the first adventure or two that the campaign is operating under the new regime, the GM might have to lead the players by the hand a little, ensuring that there is a known objective for each reward type that they are to obtain before they receive it. For example, a mission to retrieve objective ‘x’, which their employer then converts into resource ‘y’, which gives him the vital requirements for the next mission, for which he again employs the PCs. After a while, someone will ask, “if he can do what he’s doing with that stuff we got for him, why can’t we?” The GM replies ‘no reason you can’t’ and matters proceed from there.
Types Of Loot
Some time back, Johnn and I collaborated on a list of types of reward, for a planned project that never materialized. I’m going to conclude this article with that list, with some crib notes on using each type as a plot device.
- XP: This was covered in the text above.
- Character Authority, Command, and Leadership: “Draw the sword from this stone and ye shall be king” – but what do you have to achieve in order to be able to draw the sword? “Slay the dragon and the hand of the fair princess is yours” – a variation on the same notion. Authority and Command are age-old rewards for success and achievement. And just as often come with the sting of responsibility in the tail; this type of reward is one of the most obviously plot-device capable.
- Mundane Knickknacks & Collectables: An object’s value as a plot device is a function of the emotional investment in the object or in the activity associated with the object as well as its monetary worth. The key to using these as a plot device is in determining who feels strongly about the subject and why. It could be a collector, or a reminder of a dark secret, or evidence of some past wrongdoing, or sentiment, or appreciation of beauty or artistic merit, or the indulgence of some desire (whole or perverse), or greed, or jealousy/envy of the person who has it – in fact, just about the entire gamut of human emotional responses can be at play, in whole or in part. One (or more) of the PCs may share the passion, giving grounds for a friendship or a rivalry, or the PCs might simply possess the item and consider the price – or risk, if the subject is illegal – too high. Or they might be hired to obtain it, or interrupt someone else’s attempt to take it – by fair means or foul. The possibilities, which seemed limited when I started writing this entry, are effectively unbounded. Sooner or later, in all my campaigns, I place a tapestry which has a plot function – either providing a vital clue, or posing an unusual difficulty, or containing a long-forgotten spell (the world’s biggest scroll), or, well something.
- Macguffins: There is, it follows, some relationship between the previous category and this one. A tome of knowledge Man Was Not Meant To Know, or a potential weapon, or the physical expression of a secret – the equivalent to the components of a nuclear weapon or new missile design in the modern world – these are mundane knickknacks that exist for no other reason than to be the subjects of a contest, chase, hunt, or mission. There is even an implication that the players can’t or won’t want to keep the subject object at the end of the mission, so it’s not even especially game-unbalancing (provided the PCs succeed)!
- NPCs & Followers including Servants, Apprentices, etc: Indirect access to resources, servitude and assistance are another reward that bears contemplating, and by their nature, they carry a whole world of plot hooks. Every character has a story, and the lives of one or more PCs have just become entwined with that story. Decide what the NPCs story is, and you have a plotline.
- Perks, Rights & Privileges: These often make the best rewards because they are intangible and hence make the smallest difference to the capabilities of the PCs – and at the same time, provided they have an impact in play they can be amongst the most appreciated rewards by the recipients. That alone makes them desirable by all concerned; but each is also an ongoing plot thread because each brings with it a new avenue of interaction between the PCs and one or more NPCs. When offering this type of reward, the GM should construct a network – something like a family tree – describing the new relationships. Some of these will be positive, some will be negative, and some will be neutral in tone – if all the relationships you describe belong to only one of these stripes, think again!
- Player Rewards: At first it might seem like this is the one type of reward that has no bearing on plot. Rewarding the players and not the characters is an often-overlooked manner of reward, but it can be an extremely valuable one; falling into this category are rewards such as an in-game justification that permits a player to take the class or ability or cast the spell that he really wants, for example. The reason that this reward type can serve as a plot device is that it establishes a new conduit of contact between the GM, the game system, the campaign background, and the player – and that can be exploited by the GM to funnel plot hooks to the PC that the party would otherwise be unable to receive. A long time ago, a passing acquaintance once told me about a campaign he had played in, in which the treasure was randomly generated, and by stint of improbable die rolls, no magic swords ever materialized on the treasure tables – except for two which turned out by cursed – in over five years of weekly play (plenty of other magic weapons, but no swords). After a couple of years of this, the GM decided that it was too unlikely for it to be a coincidence in the campaign world, and built a subplot into the backstory about a group methodolically destroying magical swords for some reason. This turned the PCs desire to obtain such a weapon into a plot point on its own; eventually, the GM deliberately ignored the random tables and salted rumors of the presence of a cache of such weapons in a dungeon some distance away as a reward to one of his players. The acquaintance was desperately waiting for the opportunity to go after the cache in their next game session, and discovering who or what had been destroying magic swords, and why, at the time of relating the tale. Every game has some analogous element (rarely used the same way as the example in the story) – it could be a ‘radiation accident’ to permit the player to redesign a character that isn’t quite right in a superhero campaign, or some unlikely magic item, or a unique character class that the character wouldn’t normally be permitted – one of my players in Shards Of Divinity is currently in the process of becoming a half-dragon by means of that exact logic.
- Recognizable Resources – Mines, Deeds, etc: For these to function as a plot device, they either have to be treated as material objects in the same way as the entry on Mundane Knickknacks, or there is something wrong with them – which is another way of making this a reward with one or more built-in plotlines. I once designed a castle (for a campaign that never got off the ground) which had thirty-two plot hooks embedded into its walls – everything from a secret passage, to a strange cult, to a caged monster that could free itself for a few hours once a month, to a sinister secret, to a ghost, to an unstable tear between this world and a demonic one (which occasionally became large enough to let something out), to a hidden treasure – the entire campaign (except the opening sequence) was to take place within its walls. Title to the castle clearly qualifies for this category, and this example amply demonstrates the story potential of this type of reward.
- Social Rewards – Reputation, Fame, Respect, Validation by NPCs: Another type of reward that is often overlooked by GMs, or underappreciated in terms of story potential. But if a character in one of your campaigns gains a rep for having the Wisdom Of Solomon, the most difficult and inscrutable puzzles should get dragged onto his doorstep. If a character becomes famous as a slayer of ghosts (whether it’s deserved or not), who you (or your NPCs) gonna call? I never permit an elevation of reputation or fame without carefully pairing both a positive benefit with a negative consequence – and they are both sources of plot hooks.
- Trade Concessions: Everything that I said with respect to Mines and Deeds applies to trade concessions. These can be problematic for some GMs, as they shift focus on the economics of your campaign – this is great if you have the answers to those difficult subjects nailed down, and a nightmare if not. I once played in a Traveller campaign that shut down because the players wanted to trade instead of becoming revolutionaries – the GM had visions of a Star Wars -style Rebellion and Empire conflict, and the players wanted to be Lando Calrissian (or maybe Han Solo), and he was unable to use the trading activity as a springboard into adventures. He kept dangling plot hooks in front of us, and we kept refusing the bait. It was that experience, in a way, that led to my becoming co-GM of the pulp campaign he created as a replacement for the Traveller game.
- Liquid Assets – Coinage & Currency, Stocks, Bonds, and Finances: Another type of reward whose story potential is often overlooked. Consider a collection of coins with a curse on them – gold will flow like water through the fingers of the possessor of one until they are all returned. Or they have a magic mark on them that permits the owner to scry on them. Or perhaps the dragon’s hoard consists of 63 extremely rare gold pieces – worth 1,250,000gp to a collector – imagine the player’s faces! Open almost any issue of the National Inquirer to determine the sort of nonsense that the very wealthy are exposed to.
- Fixed Assets – Land, Major Equipment, Vehicles, Furnishings, Satellites, Starships, etc: This category overlaps with the section on Deeds and Mines, and most of what was written in that section is also relevant. And who can forget the Armoire from KODT?) – check out The Bag Wars Saga if you don’t know what I’m talking about…
- Treasure – Magic & Tech Treasures: Too many GMs simply hand out the goodies. Every magic item should have a history, and may well have hidden capabilities. Sometimes these will be dull and un-extraordinary – but sometimes they will be more substantial. I hate the “Identify” spell because it voids half of this potential, if not more. Of course, the ultimate examples of this type of treasure are the Legacy Items created and featured in our forthcoming e-book (almost done now!) Assassin’s Amulet.
- Information: The category most GMs think of first when it comes to Loot as plot devices; information generally has no purpose OTHER than as a plot device. One of the major conceptual planks of my Shards Of Divinity campaign is an attempt to extend that – one player has information no-one else in the game world has concerning the origins and history of the game universe, and sometimes that has proven valuable – and at other times its gotten the players in over their heads. Either way, it’s a definite plot device.
- Knowledge: The same player also has received this type of award; in Shards, magic is running out and becoming unreliable, unless bolstered by the drawing of magic circles etc (beyond the requirements stated on the spell). As the campaign progresses, this effect will become even more pronounced; it started as a 1-in-20 failure rate and is now a 3-in-20 for spells of 5th level and higher. Because these reinforcements were discovered through empirical research and are not understood, even by practitioners of the art, when the character figured out why they work (using the information mentioned in the previous section), he was able to achieve the same benefits without losing a round or more per spell level drawing circles and symbols in the ground (or running the risk of spell failure). That renders the knowledge that he has obtained a definite and legitimate reward, reflected in game mechanics – but it is also a plot device, because sooner or later people will start to recognize his infallible spell casting. In order to make this type of reward effective, it will often need to be reflected in house rules, either conferring an additional benefit on the possessor or avoiding an additional penalty applied to the general populace.
- Maps: Another type of reward that obviously qualifies as a plot device, this category brings me to another tale from Shards Of Divinity. Because I knew that a major treasure cache was going to appear at a certain point in the plotline, I looked for dangers and difficulties to justify it (and to protect it). In order to justify a cache of the size that seemed reasonable, in game terms, I had to load in the treasure that the PCs expected to receive in a completely different set of encounters – so they loot a high-level dungeon (well, they survive it) and their reward is a map to the treasure cache, which is protected by an entirely different dungeon. The ultimate payoff was fair, and the amounts were rational and reasonable (nil and plenty, respectively) given the nature of the locations. Tale #2: There is an NPC in that campaign who is seeking a big payoff, which is protected by 1001 false maps to the location of the cache. Everyone else in the world has given up, but he thinks that if he can find ALL the false maps, he can identify the region they don’t point to – putting him closer to the treasure than anyone else. He has expended his fortune and health and friends and favors gathering in some 604 of these false maps, and now has to resort to stealing them when another is found. The PCs have never met this character, but eventually they will – shortly after coming into possession of just such a false map. That’s right, even false maps qualify as a reward under this paradigm!
- Adventure Hooks: Maps are an indirect way of packaging an adventure hook as a reward, but why not skip the middleman and simply give the players a new adventure hook as a reward for completing their last adventure? After all, the ultimate purpose of the game is for everyone to have fun – everything else is simple a watered-down reflection of this type of reward. Watered-down with verisimilitude, perhaps, but diluted nevertheless…
A lot of GMs report having trouble hooking the players into their plots from time-to-time. Making the loot a part of the plot, even if only occasionally, furnishes another avenue to involve the players in their surroundings, a new set of baited hooks. Time to go fishing….