Basic Tips To Create & Run A Good RP Plot
Trying to design a campaign for your game? Are things in your RP chat getting a bit dull? Here's some advice for making and managing fun and interesting plots for your players!
Table of Contents
- Elements of a good RP plot
- Common mistakes to avoid when designing a plot
- Tips for running your plot
- If your game doesn't have a GM, consider a plotrunner
Elements of a good RP plot
A good plot presents the players with something to do that will require at least some meaningful effort on their and their characters' parts, and cannot be quickly and easily accomplished with a straightforward application of their characters' abilities or powers. If you're dealing with characters who are fairly close to baseline humans, this isn't usually too hard - for example, throwing in a few well-placed guards with decent weapons can force them to have to think about how they're going to get past.
If you're dealing with more powerful characters, then making a challenge can require a little more thought and effort, but there are two basic ways to go about challenging powered characters. One way is to up the difficulty of the challenges - for example, rather than using ordinary guards, you might instead use guards who are themselves powered and capable of going toe-to-toe with the powered PCs. Another way is to figure out challenges that cannot be easily or immediately solved with the PCs' powers - for example, super strength might easily solve the problem of a half-dozen regular mooks, but it doesn't immediately reveal the culprit of a whodunit - that takes good old-fashioned detective work.
Good plots should appeal to the PCs' assorted motives. Does the party have a mercenary type who's only in it for the money? Not a bad idea to include a money reward somewhere. Maybe you have a character who lives for the fight - in which case, you might have the quest promise that kind of challenge. Maybe you have a character who is in it for the sake of collecting knowledge in some area - maybe the quest promises something new to learn or discover. (If it happens that you have PCs who don't seem to be motivated by anything, then the players probably haven't done a very good job designing or choosing their characters.)
Good plots can include all of the players. Every player can fully participate and contribute; none of them are forced to bench their characters or have their characters reduced to tagalong/sidekick status. (Note that if your players have legitimately useless characters, that's not your fault. You may wish to encourage them to adjust their characters, or to create new characters.)
Good plots are designed to be flexible. For example, rather than keeping a list of exact clues for the players to find along with the exact locations of where they are, you might keep a list of potential clues for them to find, along with where they might be found - maybe an object used in the murder could be left in the back garden or under the stairwell. Or you might have a potential clue take several forms - for example, players might stand a chance of coming across a pertinent clue in someone's diary or up on a pinboard. This way, it's easier to prevent the problem of having your players scrabbling around for hours trying to find some little thing they missed somewhere so they can advance the plot. Another way to make a plot flexible is to allow multiple solutions to the same problem - for example, if you have a magically-locked door, perhaps the mage could remove the enchantment, or the guy with the explosives could just blow it up.
Good plots are designed so that the PCs can solve them with minimal intervention from the GM. The PCs should not need to rely on the GM's characters to take out the bad guys or solve the mysteries for them; they should be able to do that on their own.
Good plots create and build suspense. And the soul of suspense is not knowing, but wanting to find out. Check out On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense for tips and information.
Good plots contain dramatic choices. A dramatic choice is one that will have meaningful consequences for the setting and/or the character making it. Optimally, the characters will understand the potential risks and consequences of their choices, both positive and negative, and will have to decide for themselves which risks and consequences they're most willing to take.
Good plots are rewarding. They make the players feel as if something of value has been accomplished or that something worthwhile has been earned. (But a caveat! If you reward the PCs with too much stuff or information, then they may have no motivation to get involved in further adventures. If they are rewarded with too much power, then it may be difficult, even impossible to challenge them in the future.) Conversely, a couple of the worst things you can do are reveal that everything the PCs have done has all been for nothing, or that everything they've done has played right into the enemy's hands and there's nothing they can do about it.
Common mistakes to avoid when designing a plot
Confusing action with plot. It happens sometimes that when people want "plot" in an RP, someone will throw some random villain in to come and try to attack everyone. Or someone might reveal the discovery of some enemy base for everyone to go and attack - which they all do. Either way, the action is then resolved - and then it's back to business at home base as usual. But while this can provide momentary excitement, it's not actually plot. Genuine plot involves characters facing actual challenge, making important discoveries, and making dramatic choices while in the pursuit of a goal. Action is merely one potential aspect of that.
Using the wrong villains in the wrong places. Or what I call, "Lex Luthor Stole Forty Cakes" Syndrome. This one often happens in fandom RPs, where those in charge of the plot have villains up to shenanigans that make no real sense for them. Perhaps they're up to something that's completely irrelevant to their canon desires or goals. Maybe they have no good reason to use illegal means for what they're doing. Or maybe they're personally handling jobs that they really ought to delegate to someone else. If you're playing in an original world where you design pretty much everything, put some thought into who is behind your plot - make sure you have the right kind of people for the right acts of evil. If you're in a fandom RP, remember - you can always create OC villains. (And you don't have to feel bad about letting the PCs kill them off!)
Trying to imitate Hollywood or an epic novel. Many elements that make for great cinema or great literature make for an awful roleplay - EG, such as how plots are structured, the size and scope of the plots, and how fights and climaxes play out. See Things Writers (And Everyone Else) Should Know About Running A Roleplay for more information.
Tips for running your plot
Let things happen. If you're constantly telling your players No, You Can't, or are constantly using your own characters to discourage theirs from trying to do things, or are constantly coming up with contrived in-game reasons why they can't try something or why something wouldn't work, you're doing it wrong. Majorly wrong. Try to figure out how to roll with whatever your players want to try and work it into your overall scheme. (For more help determining whether or not to allow something in your game, check out "Should I Add Or Allow This In My Game?" - Help For Game Masters & RP Admins.)
Don't be an ass to your players. For example, forcing a joke - IE, pushing a gag into the game at the expense of believability, or at the expense of what the PCs are trying to do - is just annoying. Making them put up with an NPC that grates on their nerves probably isn't going to endear you to them, either. And making the game needlessly hard by giving your players no absolutely sense of what they ought to be doing or where they ought to be going is just nasty.
If PCs are to get seriously hurt, it should be because they fairly failed an action they knew carried risk. For example, a PC getting hurt because an attempt to cross a clearly-damaged bridge failed, and the player had the chance to flip a coin, roll a die, etc.? Acceptable. Suddenly declaring that a solid-looking bridge a PC tried to cross collapses, and declaring that the PC gets hurt? Unacceptable.
Know when it's time to cut to the next scene. If all the characters seem to be hemming and hawing, and nobody has anything important to say or to do, it's probably time to transition to the next "chapter" in your RP. For example, once everyone's apparently finished discussing their quest plans at the local hangout, you can ask them if they're ready to transition or timeskip to when their characters are ready to start their trip.
If nothing dramatic or interesting is going to happen for awhile, you don't have to make your players play that time out. There's no need to make people play through, for example, long car trips if nothing important is going to happen. (Though if it happens that if the PCs end up on a car and the players are having a great time letting them chat, then let them do it.)
If something doesn't seem to be working out, troubleshoot and investigate. Check out Reasons Your Roleplay Might Not Be Working, and ask your players if there are any reasons they're having trouble with the game.
If your game doesn't have a GM, consider a plotrunner
Many RP communities don't use actual GMs - everyone just behaves like regular players. But for some types of plots (EG, mystery plots or plots that contain problem-solving elements), this doesn't always work out too well. So what you might do is allow someone to basically behave as a temporary GM - or as I call it, a plotrunner. The basic responsibilities of a plotrunner include:
- Having the who, what, when, where, and why of what's going on figured out.
- Playing necessary supporting characters/NPCs Plays necessary supporting characters, or NPCs (EG, witnesses, suspects, background characters, etc.).
- Letting players know what they see and find as they explore and poke around.
- Determining whether characters succeed at what they try to do, or declaring how to determine whether they succeed (such as by asking a player to flip a coin or roll a die).
- Playing their villains/antagonists fairly.
Plotrunners should also:
- Determine how far players are willing to let their characters take damage, and if so, what kind of damage (IE, severe injury vs. death, recoverable injury vs. permanent injury, etc.).
- Determine ahead of time if there's anything that might make players especially uncomfortable, that might ought to be avoided in their plots.
- Avoid creating plots designed primarily to develop or benefit their own characters.
- Avoid creating plots that set their own characters up as the stars.
- Make sure they don't have their own characters do everything, or very nearly everything. (A good attitude to take is that when it comes to getting things done, other people's characters have right of way.)
- Have the skills in Skills Every Good Roleplayer Should Have down.
- Be able to handle complaints and criticism gracefully.
- Be careful to avoid power-tripping.
Once the plot has run its course, the plotrunner no longer has authority over the game - it goes back to the way it was - at least, until a new plotrunner comes along!
More pages you might be interested in:
Tips For New & Beginning Game Masters/Roleplay Admins
Villains & Villainy Articles
Tips To Create & Write Better Non-Protagonist Characters (NPCs)
Starting & Running Roleplays & Bringing In New Players
Tips To Write Better & More Exciting Action & Fight Scenes Types Of Roleplayers You Don't Want In Your Game
Tips To Be A More Thoughtful & Considerate Roleplayer
Tips To Write Better Roleplay Prompts
Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It
Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding