Situations not Plots

A sorcerer-wight has awakened in his barrow after his ancestral necklace was filched by a hobbit thief, and he has sent undead minions forth to sack the countryside and find it.

That’s a plot. You (the GM) know it’s a cool idea, but the players aren’t going to see that until they put all the pieces together. Will that happen this game session, or four sessions down the road? What are you going to show them, now? You need a situation.

The heroes spend the night at a cheery road-side inn, but awaken in the middle of the night to find it besieged by hordes of zombies. Travelers and tavern wenches scream and run around in a panic. Perimeter defense and window-boarding ensues.

That’s a situation. Players see situations immediately. It’s part of the same plot above, but it’s the part the players actually get to deal with, now. From their point of view it’s the meat of the game. In fact it is the game, because it is what happens, not the subtext you (the GM) have in mind but haven’t fully revealed yet. Ask a player about a game that happened a long time ago — the parts they remember are probably situations they were in (or really good dice rolls). They will remember defending the tavern from zombies, not the wight’s stolen necklace.

GMs are very keen on plots. Nothing wrong with plots, but most plots involve finding things out over time, so players can go through game after game before they see the entire plot and understand what is going on.

All plot and no situation is player hell (and player hell is GM hell, sooner or later). That’s the game where the players know something is going on, but can’t really put their finger on what they are supposed to be doing. Aimless wandering ensues. On the other hand, all situation and no plot can play quite nicely for a few games, but sooner or later the players may start to wonder how it all is going to tie together.

But that’s later on. To run a game, right now, you need situations, not plots:

– Your hovercraft breaks down in the deep desert, and it’s a long walk to the nearest outpost.

– The sleepy coastal village where the travelers bed down turns out to be full of evil cultists.

– The superhero PCs are swarmed by reporters after false rumors surface that they have become corporate sponsors.

Those are good situations. Why is any of that happening? What does it lead to? What happens next? We’ll find out later. Good situations keep the players involved, which makes them curious about the plot, even if takes a while to unfold.

If you have a situation (preferably several), you are ready to run the game. You have something to show the players, something for them to deal with. If you don’t have a situation ready to go, well, it’s improv time.

    Ben Robbins | December 24th, 2006 | , | hide comments
  1. #11 Andrew says:

    I have been reading a lot of these articles latley, a LOT.
    I don’t think I am doing this right since it is so overwhelming, both the learning and the trying to create my world in a well built fashion based on what I have learned, which is not so much.

    My situation now is that I am making a world as a first time DM/GM. I had my friend draw a world map for me and basically I had a simple idea of what I wanted where and a generic plot of a Necromancer who is trying to assassinate rulers to revive them and have them rule under his will with no one knowing. My problem is getting started. I have a good idea of what is around certian areas and what is going on but I have no idea of how to put in a beginning ‘situation’ the players can play through that can introduce them to my story-line but still keep them in the dark a little about who is all behind it. Along with this I also have to somehow shove a Dragonwrought Kobold into the party.

    Isn’t there some easy-to-use formula of situation making where I can make something interesting that goes along with my plot?

  2. #10 Lindel says:

    This actually reflects almost perfectly my GM’ing strategy, I just never had the words to describe it with: There’s an overarching story that the players are looking to piece together, but at every stop along the way they get involved in something else. When you combine it with the soiciopathic personalities a lot of my players have… you get soemthing magical.

  3. #9 Krodar says:

    I have to agree with Milander, there shouldn’t be an distinction between the two; if the plot gives the players relevant situtations to play. I am due to start a Battletech/Mechwarrior game, the plot came first; then the ‘situtations’ that will lead up to the plot ending. If, as you say the players end up ‘flailing around, looking for the plot’; that is the fault of the GM for not allowing the players opportunites to find the clues.

    Frankly, having a situation game as you describe it, would be one long string of mini adventures each session. Might as well do a dungeon crawl and be done with it.

  4. #8 cr0m says:

    @Milander I think you’re right, situations are derived from plots. The problem is that plots don’t necessarily produce situations.

    For example your “you slowly awaken” is the beginning of a plot, where the players wander around and try to discover what happened to them the previous night. Most likely that’s not a situation. As Ben mentions, a situation is something that players get to see right away, something they can deal with.

    Not remembering last night isn’t something to deal with. There’s nothing for the players to *do*, other than start digging for clues. That can lead to players flailing around, looking for the plot.

  5. #7 Milander says:

    As a DM/GM of more than 20 years I can say that situations are derived from plots. You have to devise a plot first and then thrust it upon the players as a situation or collection of situations. Maybe it’s just me but I cannot see how you can make a clear distinction between the two unless you play to the plot rather than allowing the players to have a full range of decision making abilities.

    I have never started a gaming session with – “You are in a 7″ by 9″ room, the walls are stone and there is a door to the north”. I’d start that scenario as – “You slowly awaken, you have little memory of the last night, looking around see dark walls and dark shadows in the corners”.

    That is plot cast as situation and works much better as an introduction, players should be only given the information that is necessary. I think of role playing as writing a book, except I’m not writing it they are and therefore they have to ask questions not be fed it. Of course I’m old school….

  6. […] also seems like a way to let the GM focus on plot (as they often want to), instead of situation, at least at […]

  7. #5 Andre says:

    I’m running a Vampires campaign and have decided to shift the focus of my game away from overall plot and instead focus on smaller “chapters” or situations as you call them.

    I occasionally like to flip on Tarantino movies like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs to give me a bit of inspiration on how to keep the game focused on the smaller scene rather than the whole plot.

  8. #4 Ben says:

    “Every time I read one of your articles, I amazed at the way you are able to articulate aspects of gaming that most of us never notice or understand.”

    It’s the happy by-product of making years and years of GM’ing mistakes ;)

  9. #3 Cullen says:

    Every time I read one of your articles, I amazed at the way you are able to articulate aspects of gaming that most of us never notice or understand. At least, we don’t until you articulate them for us.

    This is a great way to think about DMing, thanks.

  10. #2 'gene cloud says:

    Situations are a really good concept. They help focus the game to the player’s perspective, but are still guided by the plot as a backdrop.
    Thinking of the game as a sequence of situations, and tackling them as such, helps break you out of a writer’s block or spiral of trying to write the whole thing in one hit. Divide and conquer.

  11. #1 Ping says:

    I thought about this article, “Situations not Plots” again when I read Treasure Table’s recent post, “Overused Plots in RPGs”<;. I have to say that as a total newbie GM, I have found so far that focusing too much on the originality or intricacy of the plot of my game is not a good use of my GMing time. Situations are a more useful concept for me. I spent weeks before my first game fretting that I didn’t have enough plot and world politics and personal history of all NPCs and descriptions of all the worlds in the universe figured out. I then started off with a “plot” game, and that was a bad idea. All I really needed was to set up an easy or obvious situation and they would have been off to the races and into their characters.

    So, I’m switching gears to situations, and I think it’s going to work better. I won’t know until I run a few more games, but I can already say that conceptually breaking down the games into situations has made it easier for me to think about and prepare to actually run them. This alone has made life better for me as a new GM. The same plot, original or not, may still be there, but I don’t feel overwhelmed by it nor do I focus on it so much that I forget that the players want to play the game, not discover plot they haven’t been given a chance to care about.

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