So, you want to be a GM? (Part 2) – The Fluff

So, you’ve got your players, your game, your first session where they fight spiders in  a sewer…But what on Earth are you going to do when they’ve killed all the spiders? What’s the story, and where do you begin?

The Overarching Plot

Never fear – It’s not as hard as it seems! As strange as it may seem, meticulously planning the story in advance can actually be detrimental, and cause a lot of problems. In fact, it’s often best to only have a general idea of where the story is going right now.

Why? Because of players and dice. Players are incredibly unpredictable, capable of both the greatest feats of intellect and heroism as well as the most unbelievable idiocy at the same time. To make matters worse, players have dice. I guarantee your world-class thief NPC, who was meant to steal the Sword of Plot-Hook from them, will be detected when the half-orc Barbarian rolls a natural 20 for his Spot, and the thief rolls a 1 for his Hide. When one of these things happen, it will probably throw the entire story off the rails and send it hurtling down a completely new path.

All is not lost, however, if you only had a vague idea of the story. Now, instead of having to throw out your entire Thieves Guild map you had prepared for five sessions time, the dice have given you a new story. Simple improvisation is key here, as is considering character motives. Who sent the thief? Why did he want the Sword of Plot-Hook, and is he willing to go further to get it when his burglar doesn’t come back after getting a half-Orc Barbarian to the face? I’ve lost count of the number of times major villains have been created this way in my games. Most importantly, you don’t need to give the players all the information, and it’s better if you don’t! “I didn’t ask his name, and he kept his face hidden – but he gave me a big sack of gold up-front, so I didn’t ask no questions” may just be GM code for “Oh crap I haven’t thought of a villain yet”, but the players don’t know that! Furthermore, isn’t a mysterious antagonist who could strike at any time far more exciting than “His name is Mr. Scofflaw and he lives at 426 Magister’s Rise in Waterdeep – also he’s a Lich”?

The point is, rambling aside, that a larger plot is best served by knowing the motivation of the relevant antagonist, even if that antagonist is completely unknown to both the players and yourself! If you know that “Someone” wants the Sword of Plot-Hook due to it being the final component to a magical ritual that does *Insert something evil/bad here*, it becomes a lot easier to deal with the unknown, chaotic factors like players and dice.

So, you all meet in a tavern…

With that in mind, something that does need planning is the very beginning. Simply put, your characters need a reason to adventure together! It’s very rare that four random strangers who have never met before meet in a tavern and suddenly decide to go and risk their lives in the Tomb of Horrors together, after all!

The best thing to do here is ask your players to come up with a connection between their characters that exists before the game starts. Maybe they all served in the City Guard together, or perhaps Celevin Sen’Viren The Third apprenticed under the very same wizard that used to adventure with Sir Pwnage! Whatever you decide, make it at least feasible that the characters would have good reason to like the others, or at least trust each other starting out.

…and they all lived happily ever after

This may just be me, but I find it helps to plan the final, climactic scene of your story first. Whether it’s an exciting battle on a rain-lashed hillside or a tense negotiation with a powerful rival, this is the moment that everyone will remember, and it’s where you need to work hardest to make the moment come alive.

The other advantage of focusing on this scene so much is that it helps answer several big questions in terms of the story. This is the villain’s big scene – They may be present personally or impersonally, but the final climactic encounter is, in any case, representative of their character. Are they the sort of person who taunts the heroes through a radio as they try to figure out how to defuse the ticking bomb they found, at great length, buried deep under the financial district, confident that he’s obviously so much smarter than them? Is your villain the silent, stoic type that doesn’t so much as grimace when your Fighter slashes him across the leg with a two-handed sword? Or perhaps your villain is not even present or interested in gloating when the group, battered and bruised from their last encounter with his plans, comes home to see that they’re too late – The city has fallen, chaos reigns, and they lose.

Obviously, this scene will change, and change a lot, depending on what the players do prior to it. To use the above examples, maybe, through luck or skill, they find the bomb early and the final encounter becomes the incredulous self-proclaimed super genius throwing everything he’s got at them and exposing himself to harm in the process, incensed that they beat him so handily. Perhaps your stoic villain suffered a particularly nasty emotional blow at the heroes hands previously, and he fights with a terrifying fury that makes him easier to strike, but also stronger in battle. Perhaps your players evaded that last trap meant to slow them down, and come back right in the middle of the villain’s takeover of the city, catching them completely unaware.

Antagonists are fascinating to write – I could write an entire series of posts about them, and may do so in the future – but understanding their motivation is key to being able to keep the plot moving in the face of surprises.

In summation, don’t feel pressured to write everything in advance, keep it vague until you’re happy with the details, and most of all, know your antagonist’s motivations!

Tomorrow, the final post in this series – How to bring it all together, and make it look like you planned it all along!


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