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Author Topic: The Quest for Plot  (Read 436 times)

Neoplatonist1

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The Quest for Plot
« on: January 21, 2023, 10:02:35 AM »
Historically I've preferred being the GM, but plotting has proven difficult for me. I gravitate towards wasteland settings where everything is blown up and the PCs meet random monsters. How do YOU go about arranging a plot-generating web of NPCs, given that writing an outright fixed plot is impossible? Inquiring minds wanna know!

S'mon

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #1 on: January 21, 2023, 10:26:09 AM »
Historically I've preferred being the GM, but plotting has proven difficult for me. I gravitate towards wasteland settings where everything is blown up and the PCs meet random monsters. How do YOU go about arranging a plot-generating web of NPCs, given that writing an outright fixed plot is impossible? Inquiring minds wanna know!

Hmm. IME the trick is just to create a whole bunch of NPCs with their own motivations/desires. The web emerges naturally from that. And for quickly generating NPCs I typically Google a phrase, go to Images, and use the best images as the NPC. I think a picture tells a thousand words.

Eg googling "fat old knight" the third image result I get is

- looks like a good NPC to me!

Edit: I think the very fact that you're asking how to create a plot-generating web of NPCs, rather than "how do I write a plot", indicates you were 99% of the way there already.  8)

Chris24601

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #2 on: January 21, 2023, 10:26:33 AM »
Historically I've preferred being the GM, but plotting has proven difficult for me. I gravitate towards wasteland settings where everything is blown up and the PCs meet random monsters. How do YOU go about arranging a plot-generating web of NPCs, given that writing an outright fixed plot is impossible? Inquiring minds wanna know!
Plot is literally “what happens” so instead of worrying about specific NPCs at first, start with figuring out the events that brought about the current situation in your setting. Why is it a destroyed wasteland filled with monsters? What caused the destruction? Was it always a wasteland or was it something else? Where did the monsters come from?

Answer those and you’ve got a framework to then add things to it that make sense.

Finally, decide upon a specific event that the players will become involved that causes a change in the status quo of either the setting or the party. In writing this is what they call an inciting incident and it basically serves as a push out of the comfort zone and provides some clear goal for the party to work towards.

Once you have that, what NPCs you’ll need should become more clear.

rytrasmi

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #3 on: January 21, 2023, 10:32:19 AM »
I decide on leaders, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses for the factions.

Then I write a chronology that would occur without any PC meddling.

Add to that a list of random events to roll on from time to time.

As the PCs do what they do, I update the chronology because the factions might alter their plans. If things stall or need a kick, I roll an random event.

I basically stole this format from Twilight 2000 the new edition by Free League.
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Steven Mitchell

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #4 on: January 21, 2023, 10:32:23 AM »
What I do is try not to get fixated on one level or area, but jump around.  Now, I'm a very abstract thinker.  So it helps me to think in abstractions, then generalities, then details.  No matter how you think about it, though, you need to separate your goals from how you achieve them.

For example, my goal might be to have about 3 major factions in the area, largely in a stalemate, but sniping at each other, and maybe several more minor factions or capable NPCs complicating matters.  (Note that we aren't set on 3 major factions or the exact mix or numbers of the minor entities.)  Or more accurately, my goal is to have an area where a lot is going on, and the PCs going there is almost assuredly going to stir things up, which they can try to manipulate when so inclined, interact with otherwise, and occasionally suffer fallout from even if they try to stay out of it.  I just know from past experience that 2 major factions isn't enough and you need some complications to make it come to life.  If I happen to develop a 4th or even 5th major faction when I get started on the details, so much the better.

From there, with the goal set and the abstractions already started, it's easy to start drilling down.  Faction 1 is perhaps the powers that be, has a lot of overt control, operates mainly in plain view, and has considerable traditional resources (money, guards, etc.).  OK, fine, once you state it that way, just throw some NPCs and whatever other mundane and fantastical things you want to include.  A lot of it is easy:  Faction 1 has competent but not spectacular soldiers, supported by common militia, and with a typical NCO/officer hierarchy.  Stat appropriately, even if just reskinning something out of your favorite source.  Details are about naming things, giving numbers to it, locations, and most importantly, personal goals and motivations to some key individuals.

However, don't get too caught up in finishing Faction 1--unless you are really rolling with it.  Slap out all the stuff that comes easy, note gaps to fill in later, and leave room to change it.  Then start on Faction 2 or minor complication X or whatever is readily at hand.

Let the feedback loop happen:  Why do you include a sour but capable mage who tries to stay aloof from all the the turmoil, but keeps getting dragged into things, and will both resent the PCs from dragging him in, but is also somewhat resigned to it from past experience?  Is it because you had the idea for the character and wanted to include him since you had it?  Is it because you thought that an NPC with those motivations filled a hole in your GM arsenal?  Is it because your mind jumped around when thinking about how Factions 2 and 3 have been clashing lately, and the NPC emerged out of that?  It doesn't matter!  The feedback is churning, your gut sent you in that direction, and now you've got something to work with.  Worst case, you'll put together the NPC, have some ideas for it, then decide not to use it or the players happen to never meet him.  That's OK.  You got him for almost free and a few minutes of note taking, and he might be handy later.

Again, this is how I do it, and how I think about it.  There's no plot.  There's creatures with motivations and goals and plans and details in a situation that is either unstable or likely to become that way as soon as the PCs start doing stuff in it.  Then when something happens, I think about what the creatures would do about it, and go from there.  I just had this happen fairly dramatically in a game I'm running.  The PCs managed to kill at lot of the nastier wandering monsters in the area, bloody the nose of the local goblins, and snipe at a tribe of strange creatures from the nearby swamp.  The area had been in a rough, low-combat stasis for some time, which is now disrupted.  I thought about it, assigned some odds and rolled.  The upshot is that the goblins are pulling in heavy reinforcements from their main base.  They are doubling down.  The swamp tribe is pulling back and observing, hoping to get some easy prisoners by stealth and picking off stragglers.  The tough wandering monsters being temporarily killed will allow more movement of the remaining wandering creatures.  The bandits in the area had already pulled back to their base, taking their treasure and captives with them.  Which is a problem for the PCs, since one of their main goals is to rescue those captives. :D






3catcircus

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #5 on: January 21, 2023, 10:39:42 AM »
Historically I've preferred being the GM, but plotting has proven difficult for me. I gravitate towards wasteland settings where everything is blown up and the PCs meet random monsters. How do YOU go about arranging a plot-generating web of NPCs, given that writing an outright fixed plot is impossible? Inquiring minds wanna know!

1st - use some tools to help organize. A mindmapper that you can use to show relationships between people, places, and objects.  For example, one node could be "Constable Smith, Corporal of the City Watch" and another node might be "Adriyal's Herbal Remedies" where the link between the two nodes is the thing that ties the two together. Do that for a few things to build up your spiderweb of plot hooks.  At some point, you'll see the potential to tie two nodes together and that will itself generate new plot hooks.

2nd - Never ignore an opportunity that may be introduced by your players' wonderings while trying to unravel your plot hooks.  They'll typically think a conspiracy exists where it didn't until they thought of it.

3rd, never pass up an opportunity to have some low-level mook be a continuous thorn in the side of your players' characters' machinations.  It could be the code inspector shaking them down while they're trying to run an armor shoppe, a city gate guard who is prejudiced against elves, or a local lord's manservant who tries to weasel out of paying adventurers hired by his master.

4th. It doesn't ask have to be logical - some plot points can peter out rather than be more developed. Key NPCs supporting the PCs can be killed off by the sweating sickness. The BBEG the PCs are chasing down can be thrown into the donjon of the neighboring kingdom because he pissed off someone of influence there and it has nothing to do with you.

As an example, I once ran a campaign where one of the PCs was a half-elf bastard who never knew his elf mother. The captain of the City Watch hated him and was just a complete dick to him - every time the PCs encountered a member of the watch, they were jammed up - harassing the PC when they were doing some risky things, questioning other PCs as to his whereabouts, putting him in "the usual suspects" lineups, etc... It wasn't until much later that the half-elf PC discovered that that guy was on the payroll of a shadowy group that tracks half-elves to ensure that any of royal blood are never in any danger of bodily harm. Very convoluted plot hook. Yet I used it to tie many random unrelated plots into the main campaign plot.

ForgottenF

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #6 on: January 21, 2023, 02:57:46 PM »
Others have already mentioned the biggest point, which is having NPCs with their own conflicts, goals and agendas, and which pursue those agendas even when not interacting with the players. One thing which I'll add, because it often gets lost in the shuffle:

Work on improving the survival rate of your NPCs.

Pretty basic thought, but an NPC's usefulness to the story tapers off drastically when they die, and it's hard to build a living world if your players kill everyone in it. I make extensive use of reaction rolls, morale checks, and homebrewed rules to make escaping combat more viable than it often is in most RPGs. That way, even a monster the players encounter might elect not to fight them, or might escape even if defeated. More importantly, I work hard to populate my world with NPCs my players have no reason to fight, and to give them a reason to still interact with them.

As an example, my current campaign is in a fairly settled medieval country, so a large portion of my random encounter table is made up of peasants, monks, traveling knights, merchants, etc. (For a post-apocalyptic setting you could use traders, scavengers, survivors, wandering scientists or whatever. It just needs to be characters they have no reason to fight.) I also have a list of named NPCs, some of which are other adventurers; some are specialty merchants; some are even high-level monsters, and I sprinkle them into my random encounters as well. I've made it so that the chief way my players get new quests is through hearing rumors on their travels, and interacting with any random stranger can easily get them a roll on the rumor table or more information about a rumor they already have. That way they have a strong incentive to meet and re-meet characters as they wander around the country. The questing knight who unhorsed one of my PCs in a friendly joust on the road a few sessions ago might turn up in almost any capacity during a future adventure.

Another system I've talked about elsewhere, and swear by for an organic feeling campaign, is what I call "local legends". This is a table of short adventures or one-off encounters which could pop up anywhere within a given region. For a couple I've already used in my campaign: A troll needs someone to help him lift a curse the Elf-queen put on his wife, or a band of Hobgoblins keeps sabotaging a local church that's being built. These do a lot to give the impression of a world where things are always happening, and often act as organic seeds for more involved adventures down the road.

It's also fairly easy to manufacture relationships between your NPCs out of whole cloth. Say you've got a mercenary captain who leads a band of ruthless cutthroats. Well, turns out he sends money home to his family, and somewhere he's got a little sister who is trying to be a mercenary herself against his wishes. Blacksmith A has a bitter rivalry with Blacksmith B. You get the idea.

For a great example of this, I would point to the Dragon Warriors book Friend or Foes. At the base level, it's just a collection of pre-generated NPCs like you get in lots of games. What's great about it is that every NPC has pre-established prior relations with 3-5 of the other NPCs in the book. I would steal that idea, and in the profile for each of your named NPCs, include a little note on which other ones they know and why.
« Last Edit: January 21, 2023, 03:02:19 PM by ForgottenF »

ForgottenF

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #7 on: January 21, 2023, 03:03:59 PM »
Reputation systems can also be an extremely useful tool. You don't have to go all the way to a Fallout: New Vegas-style numbered system, but keeping track of where your PCs stand in relation to the various factions can provide a means of altering the way the world reacts to them based on their prior actions.

Steven Mitchell

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #8 on: January 21, 2023, 03:42:42 PM »
One of the main reasons to use factions instead of powerful individuals for many of your main pieces, and some of the minor ones, is that it's a lot harder to kill a faction than an individual.  It's also a lot easier to let a member of a faction die, when that's appropriate.  For example, faction is allied with the PCs but are tangling with something nasty.

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S'mon

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #10 on: January 22, 2023, 04:13:21 AM »
One of the main reasons to use factions instead of powerful individuals for many of your main pieces, and some of the minor ones, is that it's a lot harder to kill a faction than an individual.  It's also a lot easier to let a member of a faction die, when that's appropriate.  For example, faction is allied with the PCs but are tangling with something nasty.

It's good to have a mix of both, yes. Re enemies, factions are more durable, and it's good to have some things that take a long time to beat/affect, others like BBEG NPCs that are a single point of failure or schwerpunkt.

Neoplatonist1

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Re: The Quest for Plot
« Reply #11 on: January 25, 2023, 09:38:23 AM »
Thank you, everyone, for the good ideas--they should prove handy!