Guest Post by Scott “Rocketman” Rochat
“…I do like to take a story and reorder it, put things in different places. This allows me to see things in a new and sometimes surprising way.”
–Carol Windley, Boston Globe interview
Revise. Revise. Revise again.
Few words are hated more by an author. And few might seem less necessary to a GM. After all, roleplaying is real-time. Once the players arrive and the dice hit the table, the time for changing your mind is over, right? The story’s there and it’s up to the players to grapple with it, uncover it and (for a truly epic tale) triumph over it.
Not so fast.
The truth is, there is almost always time for a rewrite. Done correctly, it can make for stronger stories – and better adventures.
Ask JRR Tolkien. His early drafts of The Lord of the Rings included a hero named Bingo Baggins and a Hobbit Ranger in wooden shoes.
Ask the creators of Back to the Future, who once had Marty McFly accidentally kill off rock-n-roll and come back home by means of a nuclear bomb.
Better yet, ask yourself any time your players come up with a better plot twist than you did. And then get ready to rip it off lock, stock and mithril-lined barrel.
The First Draft
To rewrite on the fly, of course, you first need something to rewrite! Something akin to the timetables mentioned in Part I: The Plot Thickens can be ideal – a rundown of what your major NPCs will be doing, and when and where they’ll be doing it – but if you don’t want that much structure, make sure you at least know:
· Who your intended major antagonist is.
· What the major “beats” of their intended plot are.
· Why they’re pursuing it.
· At least one source who could give a PC insight into what’s happening – especially if it ties into an existing ability, contact or plot hook.
But the first draft is never the final draft. Players are in the unique position of being your co-authors and editors … without being able to see any more of the “manuscript” than a reader would. That gives you the advantage of being able to listen to their speculations at the gaming table and quietly make the best of them true without any of them being the wiser.
Note that this is not the same as giving the PCs script immunity or guaranteeing that they always win. This is where the earlier outline comes into play. When an intriguing idea gets pitched, the GM should consider:
· Do I Like the Idea? “Art with contempt in it is always sour,” Lady Sally McGee once observed in the Callahan’s universe. If the thought raises lukewarm feelings – or even active loathing – leave it alone.
· Does the Idea Make Sense, Given the Antagonist?As an example, my “Hudson-verse” supers campaign doesn’t have any metahumans who were born before the mid-1970s. So if the PCs’ principal suspect in a metahuman crime is a church volunteer in her 60s, either the players are flat-out wrong or else something isn’t obvious – could she have duplicated the crime with normal abilities and technology? Is she working with a meta? Is she the survivor of a metavirus that worked a first-ever transformation in her genetics?
· Does the Idea Make Sense, Given What’s Already Happened – And What Needs To? Take a look at your “beats.” Which have already happened on-camera? Which have you already alluded to? If you change this particular element of your plot, what beats does that affect down the road?
· How Can the PCs Pursue It? The good news is, your players have already done some of this for you: if they have the idea, they’ll likely have a thought on how they can check it. But given your knowledge of the invisible machinery, you can do some hasty planning. If Elderly Volunteer is a once-in-a-generation metavillain, is there a genetic expert the PCs can check with? If she’s using a mundane drug, what information could a library or hospital give? (Google is your friend!) If she has a partner, does he have a record? What crimes has he pursued in the past and who would know of them?
· How Can I Twist It? If the players’ ideas are always 100% accurate, the campaign can risk becoming dull. But if you can put your own twist on it, you can leave players blinking at your genius. In the Hudsonverse, a player pursuing the crimes of a Beatles-themed villain realized that they also mirrored the Seven Deadly Sins. The act was coincidental. But because of the player’s interest, I was able to add a police chaplain who was secretly using the villain as his own instrument of revenge – and while the villain’s plans were aimed at the PC, the chaplain was playing a game of psychological (and eventually physical) warfare with a vulnerable and beloved NPC. Suddenly, there wasn’t one plot to solve, but two!
“Holmes, You’re A Genius!”
Using this approach makes it possible to recreate one of the most un-gameable tropes of mystery fiction: the genius detective whose mind picks apart a complicated plot as though it were a Rubik’s cube. With a firmly set plot, this can require either a hyper-observant player or a lot of atmosphere-shattering IQ rolls. But if a GM can intelligently roll with the punches, borrowing ideas without contradicting established facts or undermining the story, the revelations will be perfectly natural – and a lot of fun!
“It’s like driving at night,” the author Lawrence Block once wrote. “You can only see as far as the headlights reach, but you can go all the way across the country that way.”
Enjoy the trip.