ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Crisscrossing Players and Plots and Not Losing Your Mind

After West Marches I ran a long-term superhero game, New Century City. Unlike West Marches it followed the more traditional “the GM creates a situation and the players have fun with it” model, which was fitting because superhero games are one of the most reactive genres you can play: villains hatch schemes, heroes react to stop them and re-establish the status quo.

Also unlike West Marches, the game was plot-heavy. Absolutely thick with plot. There was a big, over-arching thread that ran through the whole thing (Worlds In Collision), a bunch of individual threads that were part of that main arc (Queen of the Jungle, Emerald of Aktios, I am Maximus) as well as assorted unrelated adventure arcs (the lives and deaths of Dr. Null, the Echelon conspiracy). Then there were individual “rise & fall” character arcs for NPCs (Can we cure the Man-Beast? Is Nighthawk a villain or an undercover hero?). And then on top of all that, there were multiple personal threads for every player character (Captain Danger’s relationship with her sister, Moon Man finding out what really happened to him in those missing decades in space, the secret origin of the Eclipse, the dating life of the Eclipse, and so on, and so on).

In keeping with the comic book style, I wanted every session to be a self-contained episode with it’s own arc, complete with an episode title announced at the start of the game. So if you played any one game, it would be a complete adventure (or part of a few session mini-series at most). No bridging sessions, no filler sessions.

But coming right off of West Marches we had a big pool of great players. We wanted to keep playing with everyone, but ten people at the table is way too crowded for anything close to meaningful roleplaying. So again I opted for the mixed roster method: we’d float a date and see who could play, keeping each game at about 3-5 players.

We rarely had the same combination of players at two sessions in a row, which was great for the stand-alone episode part but a potential nightmare for plot threads. Each player is only seeing a fraction of the sessions, so how do you make sure what they’re seeing makes any sense? You say, “surprise! Nighthawk is really a good guy after all” and the players at this session look at you and say, “uh, who’s Nighthawk?” because they’ve never been in a game with him before, or they missed the last bit that set up this bit. Oops.

The cheap answer is to just let the players sort it out. Confused why that guy did that thing? Maybe you better chat with the other players if you want to keep up. While that was glorious in West Marches, where the whole theme was sandbox exploration, it seemed completely inappropriate in a character-centric game like this. The superheroes are the center of the story, the axis around which the plot wheel turns. Just hitting a player with plot X because I wanted to advance that plot and they happened to be there seemed aesthetically tragic.

So I took the harder approach: customizing every single session so it was lovingly hand-crafted to the characters that would be there. And advanced the plots. And made sense.

To keep track of all that, to understand the perspective of each character and figure out what plots they were involved in, I need a tool. I needed a plot grid.

Everything goes in the Plot Grid

The grid was a list of every important thing I wanted to put in the game: plots, events, episodes, characters, scenes, revelations, the works.

Every single item had its own line on the grid. Every revelation, every confrontation, every snippet that I thought needed to come out had its own line (Captain Danger’s sister has powers too! Felicity is really Cathy Grant!). Every thing that needed to come back in response to something that happened in the game had its own line (Maelstrom attacked those army choppers so the Feds are going to come after him, Captain Danger doesn’t know she has that thing in her jacket pocket). Every idea for a random situation, flashy encounter, or set piece had a line (Speed Demon tries to set a record for banks robbed in a day, a sorcerer transforms part of downtown to ancient Aegypt). It all went into the big hopper.

To the right I made columns for every single player character in the game (24+ characters). For each line I would mark the box to show how relevant each item was to that character, how important it was to have that character there when that thing happened.

Characters were marked essential if they had to be there (I can’t reveal the thing about Felicity being Cathy Grant without both Captain Danger and Guardian being there), or marked optional if they had some previous contact with this thread or had shown curiosity but weren’t required (Eclipse and the Shadow would be interested to find out the truth about Mr. Midnight’s background, but it’s only essential to Moon Man since their origins are secretly intertwined). For other characters that line was blank, meaning there was no special connection that character. Some lines had no marks at all, meaning they weren’t attached to anyone in particular, and I could use them whenever I wanted — a lot of generic “action” encounters were this way.

Now Build An Episode

So let’s say we’ve scheduled a game, and I’ve found out who can play and which of their characters they want to play. I take my big grid, and sort the lines so that all the items important to those particular characters will pop to the top. That’s my starting point for brainstorming what to put in the episode. I mix and match, see what goes together and what emerges. Ideally something jumps out as the main plot for the session: some items are big and clearly need to be the centerpiece of an episode, others are just supporting encounters or scenes (it was a personal rule that each episode had a strong core concept, not just a mix of “this week on…” but that’s just me).

Sometimes the unexpected combinations of characters led to surprising but cool plot cross-overs. I didn’t foresee Dr. Daedalus returning with Moon Man to ancient Atlantis because he was only peripherally attached to that thread, but because his player was available and others weren’t that’s what happened and it turned out to be a perfect match. If you asked the players they would probably guess I planned it.

It was also nice because I could be flexible and follow my whims. I could let threads simmer for ten, twenty games without being afraid that I would lose track of them. I didn’t have to keep the game on tight rails.

Side Effects: It’s All About Me

There’s a counter-intuitive side effect: the less you play, the more the game is about you when you do play.

Yes, crazy, I know. But if there’s a plot that requires you (and just about everyone in the superhero game had a background or origin plot — the genre demands it), then the less you play, the fewer opportunities there are to move that plot. So if you’re going to be in a game, I’m more likely to push that thread up the stack. Guardian is showing up for a game? Gotta move that “Trials of Torvok” plot while I have the chance! Dr. Daedalus is in? Time for the “Armor Wars.”

Suffice to say, players did not mind this one bit. The less frequent players got the spotlight, and the more frequent players didn’t mind because they already had the spotlight in a lot of games.

Information is addictive and columns are cheap

As the game went on I added more and more columns to track things like the scale of the adventure (saving the world, saving the city, back alley brawling) or the style of the game (investigation, slugfest, personal issues), so I could sort and scan and see what kinds of games we’d had, and even break down what kind of games each individual player had been in (yeah, Mike hadn’t played in the last six games, but I don’t necessary want the next game he plays in be just like the game he played two months ago).

I had columns for all the major plot arcs, so I could mark which plot each item belonged to. I could track how long it had been (either in-game or real days) since a particular thread had moved. I could flag items as “important, do it soon!” or “maybe.”

As items got used, I put the episode number in the far left column: that thing had happened, so it was cemented in place. I’d change the boxes to checks to show which characters were in that episode, editing the description to reflect what actually happened, morphing my adventure seeds neatly into game records.

Run the Numbers

If you’re wondering how extensively this method was tested, or if you’re wondering if it was overkill, I used it for 119 New Century City games, with nine players running 24 different characters (after factoring out anyone who played fewer than ten games). There were an average of 3.4 players per game, plus GM. Yep, once again the average player only sees about a third of the games.

And no, I don’t think you have to run such a big game to make it worthwhile. It’s potentially a useful technique for any sized game.

Treasure Tells A Story

If you’ve played in any of the basic dungeon crawling analogs, you’ve experienced that magical post-combat moment: treasure anticipation.

There’s loot — you know there’s loot — but you don’t know what it is yet. Your brain is awash with the endless possibilities, visions of the shiny wonders that could be stashed in the ogre’s cave. What could it be? Something wonderful! It’s Xmas morning and you’re a kid again (unless you are a kid, in which case carry on).

And then the GM opens his mouth and ruins it: 200 gp and +1 leather armor.

So dies the magic and the mystery.

The Bad News: The Legacy of Smaug

Treasure is a GM’s curse. It’s our terrible, spiny cross to bear.

Don’t get me wrong: I love crafting cool treasure. But treasure has a lousy prep vs play ratio: creating truly interesting treasure is a lot of work for a very brief splash of game time. It literally fills as much play time as it takes you to read the text, plus a little extra for fighting over who gets the magic ring. I can spend all afternoon honing the description of a “basket-hilted cutlass, with a grip of cracked red leather wrapped in gold wire and a single deep notch low on the heavy blade” but that’s 12 seconds of game time (party treasurer: “cutlass, check”). Compare that to the pay-off for picking a few critters to fight: hours of potential play.

Players crave treasure, not just because they want the literal loot, but because they want that magic moment, the fulfillment and vindication of their real victory, i.e. what they did to get to the treasure. You defeated the dragon and the pretty treasure is the proof that it was a mighty deed. It’s recognition of a job well done, the validation that you done good. It’s the victory lap, the trophy for winning the race.

So when you cough up lame or boring treasure, it deflates that victory a little bit. Even if you try your best it can be difficult to come up with a worthy bounty that doesn’t cause instant game inflation. We’re tainted by our childhood visions of Smaug sleeping on that mountain of gold. We want the treasure to live up to the same mythic standard as the monsters or else the victory is hollow, the picture incomplete.

The Good News: The Legacy of Sting

Dilemma, huh? Sounds like you’re doomed to disappoint or saddled with lots of work to give players a little pat on the head. A little good news is that detail substitutes for raw value. A carefully described small treasure with cunning jewelry and artifacts feels more valuable than a huge but generic “um, ten thousand gold pieces,” so detail helps you reward the players without wrecking the game economy. It’s not just a +1 sword, it’s an elvish weapon fashioned in elder days before the great wars.

Which leads us to the secret weapon most GMs overlook: players pay attention when you describe treasure. Treasure is (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a golden opportunity to reveal information.

There are lots of times during a game when players are half-listening, or thinking about other things, or maybe just wandering into the kitchen to get a soda. But in the magical post-combat pre-treasure window, everyone’s attention is high, their curiosity is piqued, and they are clamoring to hear what you will say next.

You want to show the players something? Put it in the form of treasure. Want to tell them about the history of the elves? Tell it through treasure. Want to tell them about the cult in the area? Tell it through treasure. Want them to give them a clue about the dangers that are three doors down? Tell it through treasure.

Why is the bugbear’s rusted breastplate engraved with dwarven symbols of an anvil and thunderbolt? What is a pilgrim’s reliquary doing here in the middle of the wilderness? Why is the hidden strongbox painted with crude wolf symbols?

You can describe some detail about a room they search, or lecture them about history and lore when they talk to random NPCs, and sometimes they’ll listen and sometimes they won’t. But when you drop clues as treasure details you can be certain they will hear you and wonder what it means. They will be curious. Sure it’s just a handful of gold coins, but that faded portrait on them looks a lot different from any coins of the realm. What ancient emperor’s motto is graven in those strange runes? Are they just a stray remnant of an empire lost and better forgotten or the clue to a hidden city..?

And tell me, what’s more interesting: having some old guy in the bar say “hey, here’s a map, go find this not-so-lost city” or having the heroes inadvertently stumble across a few gold coins that lead them to a hidden kingdom? Getting lectured about elven history or finding an ancient elven sword that’s part of that history?

Backdrop Plots: May You Live In Interesting Times

Detectives investigate a string of grisly murders around the city.

That’s a fine plot for a game. It covers the basics by providing a clear problem, a potential for action, and a motivation for the players to get involved (they could be the detectives, the vengeful bereaved, or someone who may be next on the list).

Now take that same foreground plot, but let’s provide some context by adding a backdrop plot:

Detectives investigate a string of grisly murders on the eve of a tightly fought Mayoral election.

That’s more like it. Now we’ve got a world that feels more real because things are going on outside the PCs and their mission. It feels less like the whole world just exists to give the players a place to investigate murders. We know what cabbies are talking about, what the news is covering, and what the buzz on the street is like.

The World Is Bigger Than You Are

What makes a backdrop plot? First of all it has to encompass or surround the characters — if it’s something that has no impact on the here and now it’s just interesting detail, not plot.

Second, it should be clear to the players that their characters are not expected to resolve or even try to resolve the backdrop plot. They couldn’t make a dent in it. It’s literally bigger than the PCs, either because they’re not powerful enough, it’s an unaddressable issue like a social trend, or it’s just outside their jurisdiction or they’re otherwise barred from dealing with it — the superheroes could bust into the courtroom and interfere in the Trial of Dr Null, but it’s understood that such blatant disregard for the law would end their careers. They may interact with it but not fix it.

A backdrop plot can make the world feel more real and establish the tone, the spirit of the times. In addition to adding detail it shows that the PCs are not necessarily the center of the universe — there are things happening that may have nothing to do with the PCs and their adventures.

A good backdrop plot can also add gravity and meaning to even the most mundane foreground plot. Smuggling a package from point A to point B is one thing, but sneaking across the border of two great nations poised for war is another. Do the armies ever even have to show up? No, but the tension is there, and the players feel their characters are part of a larger world.

Agents try to stop extremists from shattering a landmark world peace agreement (foreground) even while shocking news leaks out that probes have found alien microbes in the sands of Mars, the first evidence of extraterrestrial life (backdrop).

Feuding rogues settle scores in the grimy streets of the city of thieves (foreground) but there are rumors that the conquering army of a barbarian king is only a few days away from the city walls (backdrop).

Villagers need protection from raiding goblins (foreground) but they fear their prayers will go unanswered because the prophesied End of Days may now be upon the world (backdrop).

A backdrop plot can also encourage roleplaying and discussion specifically because it isn’t part of the action — the players _can’t_ cure the plague, so all they can do is talk about it and the issues around it as they scurry through the blighted lands. Pick your backdrop plots to emphasize issues or themes you want the players to think about or that highlight or contrast the foreground plot. Normally a plot with all talk could make a boring game, but the foreground plot provides concrete action so the players are not floating adrift in a sea of chat. Like Father, Like Son (Trial of Dr Null) uses this approach to juxtapose the big role-playing issues of the trial of the century and its ramifications on justice and society with the hands-on ‘smack the bad guy’ action of the foreground plot.

“There must be a connection!” (or, Players shave with Occam’s Razor)

Players have a nasty habit of assuming that all things are related: if it’s a detail in the game, it must have something to do with the plot. Does the election have something to do with the murders? It must! Why else would the GM have mentioned it? Put the mirror in your pocket, you’ll need it to get past the bat in the maze of twisty caves, etc.

You may find some players are unnaturally certain the backdrop plot is connected to the foreground plot, no matter how little sense it makes. You know the kind of players I’m talking about. If you want to deflate the insanity here’s a simple solution: put them in situations where they get to explain to NPCs in-character how they think the plots connect. They may settle down once they hear how much they sound like crazed conspiracy theorists (unless of course you are playing a crazed conspiracy theorist character, in which case carry on).

When Not To Use It

The more personal and climactic the foreground plot, the less you should emphasize backdrop plots. If you are about to finally corner the man who murdered your father, local current events are going to be more distracting than interesting. There’s already plenty of gravity to go around, and the players are probably already heavily invested in the game. A little backdrop can add color (a holy festival spreading cheer through the village even while the characters engage in deadly hunt for their prey), but you don’t need more plot.

More plot stuff: Situations not Plots and Plot vs Premise

Plot vs Premise: Running Crime Games

Crimes are a villain staple. Bank robbery, arson, kidnapping, and the ever-popular holding the city for ransom – it’s what villains do.

But in games there are really only two kinds of crimes: those where the specific crime matters (plot), and those where the crime is just a setting for the action (premise).

A classic bank robbery scenario is just an excuse to let the heroes go after the villains. You could easily substitute a jewelry store robbery, a scheme to steal mint plates, a kidnapping, etc. Either way, the bad guys are trying to do something and that brings the heroes running: trouble ensues. The crime is a premise for the action.

On the other hand, the specifics of the crime are important if they affect future events. It matters that the villains are trying to steal a prototype laser if they are going to use it to knock out a satellite in the next scene. Heroes still rush to the scene of the crime and pound the villains, but whether the heroes know it or not, the crime is a key point of the plot, not just an excuse for the action.

- Robbing a bank for money? Premise for action. Robbing a bank because there is something hidden in a safe deposit box you want? Plot.

- Kidnapping the mayor and holding him for ransom? Premise for action. Kidnapping the mayor because you want to replace him with a synthoid replicant? Plot.

- Setting fire to the tenements so you can watch this city burn, burn! Premise for action. Setting fire to the tenements to create a fiery gateway for your demonic overlord? Plot.

Here’s a simple test: in a later scene, will there be a moment when the heroes should look back and say, “a ha! That’s why they did that crime! It all makes sense now”? If yes, it’s plot. If not, it’s a premise for action.

Just committing a crime to get money is not specific enough to be plot. There are lots of different crimes that result in profit but are basically interchangeable, even if the heroes later realize the villains wanted all that cash to put a down payment on a really big group house.

A crime that’s a premise for the action is not better or worse than one that is part of the plot. They’re just different building blocks of a scenario, but it is important to understand which you are using when you are running a game.

–excerpt from Evil Genius #2: Crime & Punishment

(And yes, plot vs premise for action is really a much bigger idea that applies to just about everything that happens in your game. Everything is plot or premise. Crime scenarios are just one easy example.)

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.

Anatomy of an Action Scene

As we've already confessed, you are not going to remember GM tips at the table, in the heat of the moment. Things happen fast during a game, and it will come down to your personality and instincts (your GM reflexes) not pages of advice you read somewhere.

Designing the game is another matter entirely. There you have all the time in the world, to ponder, revise, rethink and question every little thing (sometimes too much time), so you might as well put it to good work. By following good design tips ahead of time, you can make it more likely that your game will play well. That's where Anatomy of an Action Scene comes in.

Structure, then Relax

As a GM if you figure out your structure before a game, it helps you understand what can happen during the scene, and why the scene is happening in the first place. Armed with that knowledge you can remain relaxed during play and go along with things the players come up with. It may seem counter-intuitive, but done correctly more structure during design let's you be more flexible during play.

Here's the framework I use to describe action scenes in all the Lame Mage adventures. Not only does it help me think through the dynamic of the scene (it's step zero of playtesting), it also lays out the information very clearly for GMs running it:

1) Premise — the situation before the PCs arrive
2) Enter the Heroes — how and why the PCs become involved
3) Revelations — pivotal things the PCs find out during the scene
4) Action — what happens during the scene
5) Action Shticks — optional sub-challenges that may come up
6) Finale — what concludes the scene – there may or may not be a climactic moment, depending on the scenario
7) Aftermath — any post-action wrap-up or consequences

Revelations and Action Shticks have been covered in other posts, but the other sections should be pretty self-explanatory.

I write down each section header and then fill in the blanks. If you can't think of what to put in a section (for example, Enter the Heroes), than you need to take another look at how the scene is going to work in play — you may be overlooking something.

I created this framework for superhero adventures, but it works for any genre where the PCs are responding to or entering a situation (a very broad condition). You could literally define each room or encounter of a dungeon as an “action scene” and follow this same structure. Likewise, action does not have to be action per se – a fancy dinner party or an interrogation scene fit the same pattern as rescuing people from a burning building (situation/arrival/challenge/resolution).

For a good example of the Anatomy in use, take a look at Dr Null: Battle on the Bay Bridge (free download).