Gamemaster’s Guidepost: A Novel Approach to GMing, Part 1: The Plot Thickens

Guest Post by Scott “Rocketman” Rochat

“You’re a GM, not an author. Don’t railroad!”

Sound familiar? Sooner or later, it seems every guide to gamemastering includes that little gem, a reminder that this is a collaborative hobby, where everyone’s imagination counts. Don’t lock the players into a restrictive plot, we’re told, don’t predetermine your ending, and never, ever assume the story will go the way you expect it.
All of that’s good advice. But there’s another side to it. Because deep down, the tools of an author can be very useful to a GM.

This is the first of a series looking at the points where an author’s world and a GM’s collide. If that sounds like an unholy crossroads, it’s one that’s been well-traveled. Authors of the strange like China Miéville (The City & the City), painfully realistic playwrights like David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), and even Game of Thronesauthor/executioner George R.R. Martin all have roleplaying in their past, and often their present. Crossovers between these fields of the imagination are almost inevitable – Martin’s Wild Cardsanthology series was born from his old Superworldcampaign, while mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb put her D&D and convention experience to good use in writing the Edgar-winning  Bimbos of the Death Sun.

So, yes, the pen can be mightier than the +2 Vorpal Sword, or at least give it plenty to do. And it starts with a writer’s asset and a gamer’s dread – plot.

No railroad, but plenty of timetables
When I  first started roleplaying in grade school, most of my adventures had a strict plot. Most of the time, this was provided for me, in the form of a handy module with dialogue boxes and carefully-guided action. Sometimes this resulted from my desire to replay the action of a favorite movie, like Goldfinger or Raiders of the Lost Ark, both of which had handy-dandy game systems available for their particular worlds.
It’s not a bad way to learn roleplaying. But it can create bad habits for a GM, who can be tempted to follow his story come hell or high water. The webcomic GM of the Rings captures the tunnel vision perfectly:

GM: After many hard days of travel, you reach Weathertop.

Aragorn: You know what, guys? I’m thinking … screw that.
GM: You are too weary to go on tonight. You must rest, and there is nowhere else around to make camp.
Frodo: Forget it. No way am I climbing that thing.
GM: You’re so tired that the ground around here is not restful enough. You need to rest in the more comfortable area on TOP of the hill.

Do this too often and you may as well write the script and open a theatre company. But there is a way to keep some structure in your game while preserving player freedom: timetables.
The idea is a familiar one to mystery and thriller writers, where the precise timing of events can be very important. Take the bad guy’s plan and plot it out from first step to last, giving each step a day, time and description. Assuming no interference from the heroes, this is what will happen.
Of course, it’s the heroes’ job to interfere! And this is where a timetable shows its beauty. When the PCs investigate, you already know where the bad guys will be and when. This means you can:

  • Lay intelligent clues. (The PCs check out a cafe where a crooked PI was just two hours before. The waitress is still on duty and can give a decent description of him and his lousy tip.)
  • Provide research results. (The team’s hacker tries to track a kidnapper’s credit-card charges, to see where he’s been buying gas and food. The GM checks the “schedule” and can show that by now, he’s let Wisconsin and is into Iowa.)
  • Enjoy points of collision, when the trails cross. (The PCs prepare to investigate an adult video store. Checking times, the GM realizes their quarry is just leaving it after meeting a contact. A dramatic confrontation results!)

As the PCs interact with the story, make notes, especially of areas where the players are forcing the NPCs to change their plans on the fly. In between sessions, rewrite the timetables, showing what the new chain of events looks like. If several plot elements are in play, it’s a good idea to indicate them with different colors for your own sanity. I’ve included samples below from an In Nomine  campaign I ran, in which one PC had been abducted and the others were trying to ride to the rescue … unaware that she had already escaped and was fleeing from both sides!

A plot structured in this manner gives authors a useful framework while still leaving room for creativity, and it can do the same for your campaign. It’s a useful tool.
Which is why next time we’ll be talking about throwing your plot out the window and rewriting on the fly.
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