Static vs. Dynamic Worlds

April 24, 2013 at 9:03 pm (Admin Posts) (, , , )

Another nice post by Oratorio on LJ on the difference between a Static gaming environment and a Dynamic one, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each.

http://oratorio.livejournal.com/30265.html

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A Great Post on GMing from Another MUSHer

January 31, 2013 at 1:58 am (Plots) (, , )

My friend Damon posted a very nice post on the subject of GMing for MUSHes on his personal LJ. There’s some lively discussion in the comments, too, so check it out.

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Plots: Predictive Plotting

April 27, 2009 at 3:35 am (Plots) (, , )

Predictive Tinyplotting

In earlier articles we discussed what a tinyplot is: a specific situation presented to the players for them to solve. Now we discuss some of the nitty gritty theories of execution that I use. This method works for delivering megaplots with 165 plus players. It works equally well for small plots with 5 players.

What predictive tinyplotting is not:

-It is not scripting

-It is not railroading

-There is nothing mystical or difficult about it.

What predictive tinyplotting is:

-It is understanding the most likely paths or the only possible paths.

-It is watching the consequences of previous RP to build events, challenges, and involvement.

-It is making use of player suggestions and questions that you never thought of before writing up the initial tinyplot situation summary.

-It is a way to manage large, multipart plots without ever growing bored, because you yourself don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.

-It is managing likely consequences and in-game solutions so well that you never have to worry about “breaking” your game, screwing players over unintentionally, or any of the other nasty consequences that can come about when a GM doesn’t think things through.

The Methods and Means of Predictive Tinyplotting:

#1) Boil character choices down to the basics.

Yeah, players are going to come up with all sorts of crazy ways to handle what you throw at them that you’ll never be able to predict. But at its basic, ALL situations have three outcomes.

a) Avoidance. The characters will utterly miss the clue. The characters will walk away from the impending battle. The characters will be given a lead point blank that they refuse to investigate for whatever reason. The characters will be unable to solve the puzzle and thus miss the resources within.

b) Success. The characters will fight the battle and win. The characters will thoroughly research every angle and follow the trail to its foregone conclusion. The characters will pursue the lead, spot the hint, solve the puzzle.

c) Partial Success/Failure. The characters pursue the lead, but they don’t do a very good job at it. The characters fight the battle, but they lose the battle and are injured/lose something/cause undue amounts of collateral damage. The characters get the puzzle about half right but miss the rest.

That’s it. Those are the only ways any situation can go. They can avoid it, they can succeed, or they can blow it somehow. Which characters and which side they’re on don’t matter. What strange things they come up with to achieve one of these three ends does not matter. The only thing to keep in mind is that there are only three ways for anything to really go, no matter what it is, and to have some idea, in the back of your head, of what might come about as a result of all three.

For example. Lets say that you toss out a lead about a Ghost Truck on Highway 56. Characters are either going to say, “Don’t ever go near that Highway 56,” and then don’t. Well, then you can’t introduce all the things you were wanting to introduce at Highway 56 or the ghost truck, at least not right away. The players themselves have now determined that this is not a major element of the plot — or that you’re going to have to work harder to allow them to get there. That’s the avoidance option. (Handling avoidance comes later).

Or, the characters go to the library. They research the hell out of ghost vehicles, the Flying Dutchman, ghost ships, ghost trains, and find out that if they can lure the truck back to the site of the evil event that birthed it and make it drive through that site, they will get rid of the ghost truck forever. The characters track down everyone they need to talk to that allows them to isolate that event. This isn’t scripting, mind. If you know that Sally, Sue, and George have the information, you are not making choices for the characters when they seek out Sally, Sue, and George and get the information. You’re merely allowing them to work the situation that you have created for them. Once they talk to those people, they bust out a topographical map, a GPS, assign their bait, and decide who is going to be on the cell phone directing the show. You as the GM schedule the night to do this RP, and they go through their plan. If there are no further complications to the plot, the plan goes down without a hitch. If there are, they are successful, but the next plot twist or problem — or a hint thereof — is then handed to them to follow. That is the success option.

But perhaps what happens is the characters go to the library, and they sort of half-ass research ghost vehicles, and determine what they need to do is go salt the ground where the evil act happened. They never try to lure the ghost truck, they STILL encounter the plot twist or problem, the ghost truck is still out there — and now they’ve made it worse by strengthhening the ghost truck with salt now turned into an unholy agent that is spreading a blight of entropy and death slowly out through the land, using the site as its point of origin. That is the partial success-failure option.

In no case did you ever mess with the players. You simply knew:

* That they may decide not to go (do nothing for now).

* That three of your NPCs had certain answers that they needed, so those answers were available.

* The properties of ghost trucks, salt, and the evil site.

* The villain who is using the ghost truck for his own nefarious purposes and his motivations.

* What you’d need to schedule if they took any action other than avoidance (i.e., a night and time set aside for them to attempt to deal with the ghost truck).

And then you presented that information to the players as they encountered it.

#2) Allow Any Reasonable Solution To Work. Allow Any Questionable Solution to Fail.

As a tinyplotter, all you’re doing is paving a road with NPCs and their motives, items of interest and what they do, places of interest and what they’re like, etc. It’s the player’s job to pick what car to zoom down your trusty highway on. So if you were thinking of a fight scene, but the players solve the whole thing with Mission Impossible style thievery, you don’t get to whine about that. You don’t get to prevent that. You figure out how to make it work and you shut up and schedule the date and time for it. That’s allowing any reasonable solution to work. It’s like trying to get to Downtown Houston from the West Side. The Great GM in the sky knows that I can take Westheimer Road, Richmond Road, the Memorial Road, 59, 10…but I get to pick the car and the route both, and as long as I head in the right direction and don’t disobey too many safety rules along the way, I’m probably going to get there. Whether it takes me 25 minutes or an hour and a half is up to the conditions on the road (determined by the GM), my skill at driving, and my ability to find cool short cuts (which is equivalent to your players whipping up that brilliant solution you couldn’t have thought of if you tried). So be prepared to sit back, evaluate whatever they put forth, and let it work if it has a chance in hell in succeeding.

Conversely, if their method is doomed to failure, know that too. If they think they’re going to blast lightning at the wet floor to fry all the bad guys, don’t let them get away with it if there’s no wet floor. Or if they can’t blast lightning in the first place. Or if they can and there is and they’re standing in it, don’t let them get away with not thinking that they’re going to get electrocuted for it. If I try to get to Downtown from Westchase but take 6 instead of one of the routes above, all I’m going to do is go way to the north or way to the south of where I want to be. If I also go 90 miles per hour, cut off every driver, and run every stoplight, I’m likely to be dead, or in jail, long before I get to Downtown. The same holds true here.

Still, this is the number one way to ensure no scripting, to ensure no railroading, and to guarantee higher involvement.

#3) Be An Expert.

You must be an expert in your theme. If you are not, how can you possibly evaluate which plans are reasonable and which are not? How can you extrapolate consequences, good and bad, that allow you to continue to grow and forward the RP? If I am running Houston MUSH, and I don’t know where 6 goes, or 10, or 45, or 8, or 59, or Memorial…if I don’t know where the Westchase District is vs. Downtown vs. Cypress vs. Spring vs. Sugar Land — then any road at all will do. You can tell me that you’re going to get on 45 south from the Beltway and go to Downtown, and I’m going to believe you. (You won’t, you’ll go to Galveston). If I think that Houston gets blizzards when it really gets thunderstorms, then when you try to get on the road I might hit you with a freak snow storm, and you’re going to think I’m crazy.

Not everyone agrees on the finer points of theme, as sometimes one is extrapolating material from the source to fuel this plot. You must then be an expert in your extrapolation. Be ready to explain it. The player who inevitably comes to question you about it may not agree, but you must at least be ready to show them that you at least had an explanation that made sense and was reasonable enough.

Also, if you are not an expert in your own tinyplot — if you don’t know which NPCs have the information (or, if you don’t plan that far ahead, don’t have a rough idea of how many might or what sort of person might so that you can make them up on the fly when the characters seek them out) or if you don’t realize they’re going to need/want the information, you either need to get adept at making it up VERY quickly or you’re going to be sunk, sunk, sunk. This is absolutely key. If you don’t know for a fact what the villain really wants then you are never going to figure out why he shows up at the ghost truck resolution to create another nuisance. If you let a solution work or it’s only a partial success and you don’t have an iron clad reason why that you believe in your own mind, your players will sense it. Like sharks smelling a drop of blood in the water. The inevitable reaction will be similar.

If you are an expert, when a player comes up with an explanation for a sort of “loose end” event that you’ve dropped without bothering to explain it yet, you are free to let it be true. Because you can seamlessly integrate their ideas into what you are already doing. Once you’ve made that decision you have to stick with it to its bitter end, but you can add layer after layer after layer to your plot by simply being able to asses what is possible and what is not by being an expert. In Houston MUSH, if the characters run into a traffic jam, they might postulate an overturned semi. Perhaps you’d only gotten as far as knowing there was a traffic jam — and the semi is plausible. You’re free to let it be right (but ONLY if you didn’t already expertly decide it was road construction, because if you did you’ve already dropped subtle hints to that. Or perhaps the semi is overturned BECAUSE of the road construction. Now you’re really cooking).

An expert doesn’t have to plan more than 2 or 3 plot scenes ahead for themselves, because an expert knows the entire map and is waiting to see where the characters will travel on it before bothering to make more than a few things on that map crucial. If the players go to the Westchase district in the course of their RP I can swing them by Pang Tai’s, but if they go up 290 instead they might end up with Red Onion — and the experiences they will have there will be utterly different, even though both of them involve the bare bones basics of being “at a restaurant.”

#4) Handle IC problems ICly, including unwanted/undeserved ICC.

You realize sometime during the whole ghost truck incident that George the NPC is the local sheriff, and he was maybe a bad choice for the NPC to use, because now he would reasonably, like any person (remember you should play your NPCs just like you’d play your own PCs) want to know who these freak ghost hunters in town are. Ghost Hunter #3 has a serious criminal record, and there’s no way he wouldn’t end up finding it in his background check. The Sheriff is all ready to kick all of them out of town after arresting #3. This is ICC that you didn’t plan or even want.

There’s a few ways to handle this. One, and the best way if you can figure out a way to get Character #3 eventually out of it, is to let him go ahead and do it. It makes for a sub plot. It makes for more tinyplot events and involvement (did the ghost hunter need the lawyer character before? She does now…). You don’t want any player permanently screwed because of tinyplot RP you offered them. (Them pulling something stupid is different, but bringing out their background rap sheet and coming to a conclusion where their character spends all subsequent tinyplots in jail is not cool). But say you let it happen. Well, you’re back at avoidance, success, and partial success. Perhaps the characters do leave town and leave their friend in jail. That’s avoidance — but its only temporary avoidance, and it’s also pretty unlikely for any other reason than showing up at the nearest hotel to plot and plan and scheme. Or perhaps they talk the sheriff into letting them stay in town without too much harassment, but their buddy is still in jail. That’s partial success. Perhaps they talk George down completely — full success.

And if they only get partial success, perhaps the Sheriff’s daughter goes out to that lonely highway, and becomes a victim of the ghost truck just in time for him to witness it. Perhaps now he believes, and he tells the ghost hunter that he’ll release him and give him amnesty in the town — if and only if the ghost hunter and his friends are successful in avenging his daughter’s death and ending this evil forever. This creates a situation that minimizes the avoidance motivation (which will be addressed in point 10) and keeps the tinyplot even more layered and interesting, all for failure to panic.

Sometimes you will unwittingly create something that doesn’t make sense on the surface. Be ready to brainstorm and find reasonable explanations for why it did make sense (the characters just didn’t know everything yet) and then be ready to use that to close that hole for good, whether it is a thematic hole or a plot hole. For example if Joe Wizard shows up in Harry Potter Britain on a flying carpet and the Ministry doesn’t say anything, and later you are reminded that those things are illegal in wizarding Britain, you can decide that Joe had a special dispensation permit, or there’s some sublaw which says that you can have a magic carpet in Britain if using it to do (whatever he was doing, if specialized enough), or that Joe is very rich and has already paid off his fine…you see the possibilities here. Only be honest about how much you flailed for that to your closest friends. 😉 To everyone else, act like you knew it all along. Just calmly explain that you’d already forseen that (then panic and scramble where they can’t see you). Don’t try this tactic with staffers — they’re too good a resource and too practiced at this not to use them to help you figure it out. Stuff happens, and any good staffer recognizes that and this technique alike. Or at least, any good experienced staffer does.

#5) Be Flexible — Always Be On The Lookout for Additional Involvement Opportunities.

80% of solving any problem is to show up, and you as a tinyplotter haven’t the faintest idea who will. Oh, you have a vague idea of who your active people are, you know which characters are likely to find out what first by profession or proximity or relational ties (ha! I see another article coming). But you don’t know who is going to log in on the night of your big introductory event, and you don’t know who is going to actually end up trying to tackle your problem. In the ghost truck example, your three ghost hunters might never have logged on, leaving the problem to someone you might never expect, like the local antique art dealer, because the local antique art dealer sees it and can’t get it off his mind, so is all over it in the library the next day.

Sometimes when someone you don’t expect arrives, they bring different ideas, character capabilities, and story needs to the table. In the case of the art dealer, if there are combat solutions, you must tone them down. Step them up just enough to force the art dealer to ask for help with someone who can defend him, but not enough to kill the art dealer the first time he encounters them. That is what we call an additional involvement opportunity. You could have stuck to the art dealer and had a valid plot, but now you’ve also given the rookie cop a chance. (It could have been the veteran cop, but today it was the rookie cop who logged in. Or perhaps the rookie cop was the one who was the art dealer’s friend. Or maybe it’s the local martial arts instructor).

What if the art dealer brings in a priest? Should you allow it when he blesses vials of holy water for them to keep themselves safe from ghost trucks? Hell yes. After all, if you’ve got your villain, he’s not affected by holy water anyway, and the holy water is all part and parcel of coming to a “success” close on the ghost truck problem. Did you have any initial plan for holy water amulets whatsoever? No. But if you didn’t at least consider it when they were proposed, then you have lost an opportunity for the priest to take a moment of spotlight in your plot. That is not a smart thing to do.

Now perhaps you’ve already laid down clues that the holy water won’t work, or if you let it work entirely this is going to derail an event you’ve already scheduled, and cut a whole lot of people out of involvement in favor of skyrocketing Father Dude to the star of the show. This is where creativity and flexibility has to come in. Perhaps Father Dude goes ahead and makes the thing (he gets RP out of it one way or another, right?) and the party goes out to the site. While they’re there, you let him know that as he’s going through some old occult books like every priest has in some creepy vault in the movies, he finds out that his holy water is ineffective and the characters are about to make a terrible mistake. You can send him rushing out to the site at a dramatic moment with help or information. Or perhaps you let it sort of work — the holy water responds, but it responds because the vials shatter dramatically, allowing someone to scream that there’s too much spirit energy. The Padre has still affected events and is still participating in a meaningful way, but you have not sacrificed everything that you have worked on to date. Your own circumstances will help you determine the best solutions.

#6) Use Partial Success As A Tool When The Latest Idea Will Derail Your SuperMegaInvolvementTP Event — And Why This is STILL Not Railroading

As mentioned above, sometimes you need to use partial success as a carrot to involve more people in a way that doesn’t cut them all out of the loop. You’ll always get to a certain point in the plot where the next big event that needs to happen becomes clear. Not necessarily the outcome of the event (though sometimes you’ve got a pretty good idea of how things are going to go; by the final event the characters have either gathered resources or they have not, and it is what they have gathered that determines how the endplot goes) — but the fact that you need one.

In one example on Hogwarts Express MUSH, around September 15th or so I pretty much knew who would have what and had designed an event around it meant to involve, basically, every character on the MUSH. There was an RP planned for the Aurors and Death Eaters. There was an RP planned for civilians in London with a spotlight focus on the Magical Accidents and Catastrophes department as they dealt with a bomb threat on a scale higher than they’d ever seen. There was a Mysteries and mysterious angle that swept up and held every child that was in Hogsmead at that point. For the littlest kid characters, there was even some creepy angles going on up at Hogwarts, though I delegated the handling of that one.

I’d estimated at least 55 participants for the night, we got about 70. People were informing me they were taking off work, calling in sick, making arrangements to take personal days, even, to do this. I was deeply flattered and very nervous.

Enter the Seer. The Seer came to me with an idea that could have worked very, very well at sealing off an entire third of that plot before the event ever arrived. Basically she wanted to put together a ritual that would tackle one of the villains, an evil spirit intent on shaking free of a binding and who had been causing misfortune, accidents, and difficulties all over the game. It was currently killing one of the Seer’s friends via a severe wasting sickness that not even the wizards could cure.

At first my thought was that it was not a reasonable suggestion. The Seer was not necessarily ritual specialist enough to just make up an appropriate ritual whole cloth. I was prepared to tell her that she could certainly gather up her friends and RP the attempt but that it wasn’t going to help. Then I thought about it and decided that non-combat opportunities to do a great deal of good are hard to come by in an adventure game. Maybe that’s a weakness of my GMing, or maybe it’s just true — often it’s hard to break out of that mold. I was raised on a steady diet of adventure movies, swordfight books and traditional D&D. The point being that the opportunity was too good to waste. But if I let her completely succeed at it, I knew that the entire Hogsmead angle would have to be dropped, and the Hogwarts angle too. That would cut down 55 projected participants to a mere 25, and all to spotlight one character with a dubious idea that was all set to bring in exactly 2 other participants before IC events basically forced her to scoop up a few more. Total players in the actual scene ended up being 7 or 8. So ok. An opportunity for 7 or 8 heroes to do something that would be secret to the rest of the playerbase, or to keep things like they were and let 25 kids get into trouble, knowing there’d be far more heroics to emerge out of that one (I can think of about 16 right now, plus everyone who enjoyed playing victim or terrified kid or what have you).

In the end I decided to let her go forward with the ritual, and I even let her character create a damn good one. But I warned her from the start that having already posted about the event I couldn’t just turn around and let this succeed all the way. So instead, I was going to provide a massively good reason for my own character to sort of foul the ritual up by panicking and leaving the ritual circle, even though normally she’s an extremely reliable woman. The ritual would be a partial success, reversing her friend’s disease down to its earliest stages and putting the evil spirit into temporary stasis to prevent any more misfortune until the events on October 16 resolved this for good. I pointed out that her own character’s efforts were going to come across as absolutely solid and she’d still get the heroic spotlight of knowing it could have been a full success: and, well, if she had to be livid at my character for a rare moment of fouling up, at least a compromise was reached.

Now there are some absolutely die hard GMs who might have felt that was railroading. I should have, they might say, either not let the ritual work if it wasn’t going to work or let the ritual work, revise the event, and cut all those people out. But the fact of the matter is, really good tinyplotting on a MUSH means, to me, finding every reason to involve the maximum number of people. Once I had posted about that event, once I had committed — and I needed to, a month in advance, for an event that would span so much area and require me to open 7 windows to run and do — the ability for me to practically derail that event had passed. Shutting her down completely though would have ruined a perfectly good and valid way to pass an evening, ruined a way to spotlight and involve some non-combat characters whom were feeling frustrated. So the balance had to be achieved in a way that gave everyone something interesting to do — partial success was the best way it could be achieved.

#7) Use Lots of Mini Plots and Quests to help determine the Overall Outline (or, Getting “The Good Ending”)

If you build an event whereby everyone has to get one single magical thing and the world is saved and you don’t know what you’re doing, you really can end up with a very simple, straightforward event. It’s harder to run something that requires you to find one thing than it is to run something that requires you to find several. If there are ten Necessary Things to be found, then those are 10 Events, 10 quests, that you can pull people into and involve them. 10 opportunities to succeed, fail, or partially succeed. If you’ve got 10 opportunities open, then you don’t have to railroad to an ending, ever. No matter what, characters will win some, lose some, and draw some, and which of those they do each on is completely up to them. Which of those they do each on then determines how the plot is resolved.

Subplots, in the same way, can provide or remove resources from the players. If you get into a resource based, lots of building blocks mindset, then you don’t ever have to push them to a plot point. Its much like video game design, where video game people now program in a bunch of endings depending on whether you did the sidequests or just barreled through, and whether you solved the game by killing Mr. Magoo, helping him achieve international stardom or finding his magic ring. Some of those endings are fair, some are sort of bittersweet even though by the end of the game your hero has solved the main problem, and then there’s usually one OMG happy ending that those video gamers refer to as, “the good ending.” They’ll actually go play these things over and over again in the hopes of achieving said good ending.

You don’t want to run your tinyplot over and over again of course, but if you take a few pages from the video game designer you never have to railroad. You can have a few potential endings (you don’t even really plan them, you just always keep the ending in the back of your head as you watch events unfold. You really don’t plan more than 2-3 scenes ahead if you can help it). One may be the A++ Hero of the Hour ending in which everything went absolutely right. One may be the C- much more likely ending which still keeps your Co-Goddess off your back because you did not permanently break the MUSH. There’s even an F ending which is not an ending at all — if they’ve F’d, then the plot is probably still unresolved, still ongoing, and you simply keep running it till they get up to a D at least. For example if the plot is the ghost truck, and they get the F ending, the ghost truck is still running around so it wasn’t even an ending. It was just a point where an ending could have happened and you’d have been happy as a plot coordinator to let it do so. Since it didn’t, you are going to be obliged to run more RPs around the problem until they get to another potential ending and do well enough to effectively resolve the plot.

#8) Know Your Leader Types

It stems a lot of complaints about the “same people starring in the plot over and over again,” but the fact is it is unavoidable. Take any 10 MUSHers. You’re going to have, in that 10, one really die hard gamer who is really into it. That person tends to be a leader type, the person who really wants to resolve the problem. Then you’re going to have some almost-as-effective betas, about 2-3 of those. They will trail the main guy around, who always looks like the hero because he or she fits the heroic description of a person who gets off his ass and does something about a problem. Then you’re going to have 3-5 follower types, who are happy to go do whatever the first 3 say but are just not going to do anything proactive. They’ll show up at the events. They’ll RP research or whatever else if you nudge them to. But they’re not going to be the gasoline in the engine. The rest are mostly around the MUSH casually, don’t tend to really have a good idea of what’s going on, and may even spend most of their time idling or chatting. The bulk of the whiners come out of this group, though occasionally you’ll get a follower type who just doesn’t understand how to step up into leader types. This ratio will stay the same — if you’ve got 20 regular players you’re looking at 2 leader types, 30 will garner you 3, 40 will garner you 4, 50 will garner you 5, and so forth.

You tend to hope, as a tinyplotter, that different people will try on that leader hat from time to time, but what tends to happen is that if one does, it’s one of those 2-3 beta types who then drag the leader in to help. So on a MUSH with an average nightly log in of 60 people it’s going to look, roughly, like the same 6-10 guys are always getting the core roles.

Meanwhile, you’re desperately passing out handouts to the others, because you’re hoping one of them will be interested or skilled enough to step up to the plate. Sometimes one will surprise you — you’ll finally hit on his plot, his motivation, his point of character growth that allows a former follower to start shining as a star. You always pass out those handouts or drop those RP hints in those hopes. But you usually toss threads to your leaders automatically, because you know they’ll do something with it, and in doing so, draw in the betas and the followers and even a casual or two. You just have to effectively identify your leaders and potential leaders, while remaining fair and making sure that as often as possible, you are at least attempting to toss threads, where appropriate, to the others. Obviously you don’t give a cop’s lead to a high school kid character. You do have to tailor the leads to what’s appropriate. Yet if you find all your plots have nothing but cop leads over and over (for awhile I did, whoops) to start off with, you have to take a hard look at what you are doing and try to decide who else might stumble upon things for other reasons (family history, other relevant jobs, whatever) so you can throw leads out at them.

#9) Stalling For Fun And Profit

One thing I like to do when running plots is to introduce elements because I like the image they make, or create deliberate loose ends so that I can tie them in later, whenever I choose. Sometimes players get ahead of me, for example, they get an artifact that I drop some hint is screwed up and needs to be fixed later. Suddenly I’ve forgotten all about it, and six months later they’ve gone to see the world’s greatest wizard. They toss the artifact down and say, “While we’re here, what about that?” Oh man. It’s been in their pocket all this time.

No problem. The wizard simply says yes, he can handle it, but he does want to study it a little more before coming back to them to let them know what he’ll need from them to get it fixed. This gives you a few nights to decide what that thing is, what needs to be done about it, and what sort of adventure you’re going to create around it if you haven’t already. This sort of thing is great because it really does allow players to essentially write their own plots in game. They follow up on the elements you’ve presented, but only the ones that interest them. There can be no freer form than that.

#10) Dealing With Avoidance

There’s a few different ways to handle avoidance. You can either let the avoidance pass. Not all plot threads are for all people. Not all people are going to have the time commitment to devote to your plot threads. You want to leave avoidance alone when the avoidance is intentional on the part of the players in that they don’t want anything to do with the plot.

Perhaps, though, you’ve just scared them. Perhaps your characters can think of no IC reason why they’d risk route 56 when they already know people are dying out there. Yet you’d like to get them involved — and they’d like, OOCly, to be involved. Don’t you agree that it would be easy enough to find them a reason to be involved? I can think of three right off the bat.

1) Its late at night and construction is happening on the road she usually takes home. There’s one alternate route. Route 56. Now where is she going to go? If she’s like most people, she’s not going to just decide to turn around and pay for a hotel for the night, particularly if the character does not have the economic means to do so. Most people are going to want to go home. They might have kids to pick up from daycare or someone waiting as well. Most people are going to drive down that road as quickly as they can and hope for the best, which of course, they won’t get.

2) Someone the person knows and loves, whether it’s another PC you recruit (best) or an NPC (workable) goes out to route 56. They get stuck there — perhaps they need you to come to change a tire or put gas in their car or whatever, or perhaps they just wander that way. Maybe it’s a missing child and that’s where the tracks lead.

3) They chase, or someone chases them to, Route 56…

Etc. Basically, it may be as simple as identifying the need for an IC reason.

When the Avoidant just miss the clue, its sometimes alright to just let that happen to. Just figure out what’s going to happen now without the Heroic Interference factor. Let that happen and let the characters see and RP around the fall out. If they figure out later it’s because they didn’t go investigate the shrunken head of eternal darkness, that simply lends verisimilitude to you and assures them that their actions or inactions are important to you. Sometimes they will feel guilty.

It’s okay to help them along. If you’ve got an earnest bunch of players who are just not seeing it, the problem could lie in you. Sometimes the things we GMs think is very obvious is not at all obvious. We always need to remember that the landscape looks vastly different from our side of the table. Nudging someone OOCly who would have the appropriate character knowledge or background to draw the connection you want them to draw and giving them the hint, or even, “Your character would know,” is valid. So is, if you have one of your own PCs in the scene, having one of your PCs point out, not the whole answer, but some valid observation that gets them thinking in the right direction. They still may miss the boat, but at least then you know that you’ve given them every opportunity.

You have to use your discretion in knowing when to employ these different tricks and tools of course. But over time I think you’ll find that you start to understand the ebb and flow of a plot as it swirls around the players you work with. Happy gaming.

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Plots: On the Art of Storytelling (Kind of Ranty)

April 27, 2009 at 3:25 am (Plots) (, , )

These are my thoughts on how storytelling (or GMing, or Tinyplotting) should be on a MUSH. And my thoughts on how it is.  Hogwarts Express has since closed and I’ve moved on to new things–but the principles are the same.

A Plot Begins With A Situation, Not A Script.

The Storyteller’s job is to present that situation, then sit back and see what the players do with it. A good outline works out what the backstory of the situation is, who the major NPC players are and what they want out of the situation, and a good deal about why this is happening. That way, when players start digging into the situation, your notes are directly at hand. The situation will inevitably change depending on who sits up and takes notice and who decides to try to do something about the situation. A good plot almost never dictates who that has to be. I say almost, because there are always exceptions.

The Storyteller watches. The Storyteller looks to see how Our Hero brings in Other Heroes and Party Members. The Storyteller takes note of how Our Hero has conversations with people who might help. If there are PC villains on the game, the Storyteller takes notes of what the Villain notices about the situation and how they might want to take advantage of it. The Storyteller does this by staying in play through their characters. The Storyteller then follows these actions to their reasonable and natural conclusion.

A true Storyteller can take player ideas and “wouldn’t it be cools” and strange, off the wall, “that could work” ideas and uses them to craft an even richer story, without getting derailed at all. The Storyteller is not afraid to have conversations OOCly about her plot, because she knows she might get the brainstorm she needs to make it truly awesome and satisfy the players the best. She changes up her outline accordingly, while staying always in control of the situation, and working the situation towards its inevitable conclusion.

Examples From Plots on Hogwarts Express:

  • During the Dementor’s Castle, Selene and Dolph decided that talking to the centaurs about the movements in the stars might be a good idea. This worked in an entire centaur angle, wherein I borrowed Hagrid so they could speak to Firenze. This was born, not out of my outline, but out of their response to the IC situation I had already tossed their way. I had never actively planned for centaurs to be at all central to the plot.
  • During the Odyssey Plot, Jabari told me very frankly he was losing touch with Jabari as a character. He wanted to do something to build off of, and we discussed his father as an angle. The entire Sulmahn angle of the plot was built around that, worked in, flowing naturally off the other situations.
  • During the Realm Plot, Oceania told me it might be interesting if the players had to fix the Ivory Gate on the other side. I looked around and noticed all these continuing story dream subsets, including some I was running — and glomped them together into the Realm so that the angle could be added.

Telling A Good Story Goes Beyond Entertainment

This is not a new idea. It’s just that roleplay is a new medium and MUSHing even newer. But a really ambitious story can create things which the players take with them forever. It can present a new way of looking at the world. It can present a new way of understanding things, or a way of delving into real issues. It can even point the way to God. It can be so much more than a game of Cops and Robbers played out on a computer screen.

It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. If you can create a theme for your plot, if you can breathe some life into it, or some larger questions, then you’re ahead of the game in making your plot more memorable. It also helps you to make things less about looking cool (for you and the players) and more about finding one’s way through the story to see what happens on the other side. Everyone will come away with something different. Everybody will see it from their own perspective. But that’s one of the joys, one of the magical things, about this interactive storytelling forum.

If you’re aware of this, if you respect it, you can make your evening’s entertainment literally take someone’s breath away. You’ll unconsciously start repeating images and symbolism and choosing words which ask those questions and set those moods. You won’t get up on a soap box. Maybe you won’t even consciously choose your theme. But it will all come if you stay aware of the fact that a story is more than a story.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water…

And so forth, and so on. Your job as a Storyteller is to be fair to everyone. Inevitably, though, there is going to be one player that shows up again, and again, and again. And you’re going to get yelled at on account of that player, especially if that player doesn’t like someone’s character and doesn’t invite them to the Valley of the Shrieking Stars.

Thing is, these players involve themselves. They’re easy to run for. They are the ones paging you about the creepy NPC, wanting to find out more at the library, asking you questions. Your job is to provide the answers. Your job may be to train players who don’t know they can do these things into doing them. Don’t ever write a plot that revolves around one person, cause that’s the person who is going to have RL explode. That said, don’t be afraid to reward the players who stay proactive.

A good Storyteller DOES try for what I call “concentric circles of involvement.” That is taking advantage of opportunities to involve more people when you see them, not being afraid to follow the muse or a weird plothook when the urge strikes, and providing reasons for why one player has to go seek out another PC who has a different specialty than they do, forcing that PC to involve still more PCs, and so forth and so on until you have the widest possible circle of people playing in your plot. And because you don’t always know who will step up to the plate or show up, you can’t script your story. It just doesn’t work.

You Can Use Your Chars. It’s OK.

I’ve found if I don’t let myself play at least a little I get really, really tired and bored. It is not fun to be nobody but the NPCs all the time, no matter how much I love running the game. So you have to provide yourself those little breaks. However, you can’t make yourself the hero for the most part. There is, however, a smart way to do this.

Make them a good source of information, or allow them to contribute information that would be a pain in the ass for other PCs to go mess with.

Examples from Hogwarts Express Plots

  • In the Dementor’s Castle, I wanted to make sure people understood what the Dementor’s Ring could do. I didn’t want any of my characters to figure it out, but I knew my character Donelle had some knowledge that could help. I kept having her say, over and over again, “Well onyx in artificing is only used from some specific types of things…” until someone caught on. I was able to get her involved and bring her expertise to bear, without making her the hero. Similarly, I had Adelaide go ahead and notice and bring together all the people who were talking about the Castle. Not to spotlight her. But because as plot coordinator she had a natural role and character to do this (a very observant, passionate older trainee who was more than willing to stick her neck out to do this).
  • In several of my plots, I’ve had the need to make financial realities of a situation clear. Clearly, no PC really wanted to sit down and go through financial records as RP. But having Adelaide do that, and then report her findings to the other PCs, proved very useful.
  • In the Dream Plot, I went ahead and let Donelle get a position that gave her, as part of the position’s abilities, a great deal of the history, rules, and protocol of the Dreaming, so she could pass it on to other PCs. And her current position made it very easy for me to send people out on scenes and quests. Between “Go do this for me,” “Help save me,” and “Info-Dumps,” she was very involved, but she was not the hero of the plot.

PC fulfillment before NPC Showcasing

This really only comes up in MU*s with a heavy canon with powerful NPCs where one has to sit there and explain why they don’t show up and deal with the problem, even if they never did in the books, either. This further gets sticky when some player or admin has a favorite NPC, and they want to safeguard that NPC’s reactions or reputation.

Yeah, in a Harry Potter world, we’ve got Voldemort and Dumbledore, and yeah, they’d probably take an interest in what’s going on. But often in my opinion they are off distracting each other from the main action, because I want the PCs to solve the problem. Not for Big D, cool as he is, to come wave his magic wand of Bad Ass Hero and solve it for the players. So. V & D cancel each other out. If Player A and B need a situation to develop their characters or bring something about they’d really like to see happen (and SO many of my plots grow out of ‘it would be so cool, Rane, if my character got to ____) then this is more important to me than anything the NPCs can contribute.

So if someone needs to go kill the traitor to Voldemort, it is not necessary to bust out the Voldemort NPC to go do it. It’s necessary to have Voldemort dispatch the PC lieutenant and let THEM do it.

Be Respectful of Player Enjoyment

My greatest joy is when players page me and tell me what a good time they’re having. My biggest passion is providing them an experience. This is my passion. These players could be out doing anything. They could be reading. Watching a movie. They could be playing tennis or on a date or swimming or opening a small business. And instead they are on our games, looking for entertainment. So what a small thing, when they ask for something reasonable, to accommodate them. If they aren’t asking for something ridiculous, if they’re asking for something the story can accommodate and beautifully — as opposed to ha ha ha i’m a noob an’ i wanna be the werewolf couzin of harry potter and i want to kill voldemort — if it’s as reasonable as: “I really really want to be the one to nail that guy”…

I feel that can be done, and should be done. This is a cooperative effort, after all. A story told by not one, not two, but at times upwards of 30 or even 90 or 100 people.

Impressionist Canon

“IT WASN’T IN THE BOOKS!” or “THAT WAS IN THE BOOKS,” so you can’t possibly run it! “Canonically, yadayadayada…”

Spare me man. Yes, you want to keep it to cannon. You want people to be able to understand what the hell is going on when they log on. But lets not get so stifled that we can’t tell the story. My rule of thumb is that, if you take the source material and could sit down and from the source material, extrapolate that something COULD BE POSSIBLE then you can include it. Now I KNOW others have different opinions on that, but that’s where I’m coming from. There’s a whole world out there that JKR doesn’t have time to showcase.

And I feel cannon adjustments can be made when it fosters RP. Ok, so probably every Auror maybe didn’t have a mirror in canon. We’re not sure. I’ve heard arguments about it. And mirrors are POSSIBLY not the JKR equivalent to a cellphone, even though we play them that way. But BOY is it nice for getting lots of people involved when I can just whip out my mirror and Dial-A-Player. “In the books most of the Order of the Phoneix was slaughtered!” Whoopie, man. JKR doesn’t have to make anyone happy but her publisher and her multitude of fans, and she can slaughter a bunch of “NPCs” in the background history. Us, we have 18 OTP players who would probably enjoy keeping their characters, so we work with that. MUSHing is different than writing a book, and god alive someday someone’s going to freaking get that. “Realistically” and “canonically” Slytherin and Gryffindor are NOT FRIENDS. But if Sue Slytherine and Joe Gryffador log on and they’re the only two people on, having their characters meet at the Grand Hall, strike up a conversation, and become friends is a hell of a lot more productive to the MUSH than: “Why would Sue talk to YOU, you stupid Gryffindor?” And yeah, rivalries are fun, but look at Draco and Harry. Most of their interactions took less than 5 minutes — not always conducive to continuing RP. Realistically, the characters at Hogwarts wouldn’t have the kind of free time they’re always RPing having, to form friendships out of their House. But somehow we manage that with a minimum of whinging.

Mix ‘Em Up.

As a Storyteller, one of your major aims is to get characters to meet and form some kind of relationship that they would not have had before. Why? Because this is what will continue the RP and keep your game alive when you’re sitting there gasping for breath because you just can’t take it anymore. You want to do your own RP now, you’ve been providing heavy duty story for the past 7 months and if you have to GM one…more…thing…you’re going to lose it.

If your MUSH consists of character A, B, C, and D. And A lives in the North, B in the South, C in the East and D in the West, then my aim, as Admin E, is to provide them a situation that gets them to the centre of the compass —

So that while the center of the compass is being a Sitch, A and D become friends, C and A become lovers, D and B become rivals, B and C discover they’re cousins, and oh–they go recruit F, G, H, I and J to come play too, and go inhabit those previously inhabited by 1 character areas of the map.

So yeah. I’m TRYING to throw the barhop in with the Auror, the healer in with the student, the reporter in with the sleezeball, the dark wizard in with the Head of Human Resources. To see what will happen. Because it’s about the characters, and interpersonal and personal development ENDURES more than the ‘gun to the back of your head situations’ that I put forth.

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