The Plot, the Story and the Players – some thoughts on running rpgs

I write about many different subjects on this my personal blog, but it is possible that some readers are not aware that one of my great passions is roleplaying games. Not the kinky “you be a naughty nun and I’ll be a Cabinet Minister” kind of thing; I mean the kind of games which are about exploring a story, solving puzzles, and developing a narrative between the players and the referee. The classic game of this type, the grandaddy of them all if D&D, that is Dungeons and Dragons. I have not played D&D for many years, but at least most people recognize the name of that game, and know the kind of thing I mean. There are nowadays a lot of CRPG’s, Computer rpgs, and some are very enjoyable — I am playing Skyrim at the moment – but my main love has always been the tabletop variety, played with pencil, paper, funny shaped dice and most of all, played with friends. 🙂

Now if you are not interested in such things, skip this post — it will be very dull indeed! If you are, I’m going to talk about hints for running games, for Gamemasters. (I prefer GM to the D&D term ‘Dungeonmaster’ — telling my friends I am off to be a dungeon-master before vanishing in to my basement for hours with middle aged men gives rather the wrong impression I find! )

Tonight I have been playing a game set in the English Civil War, with some “clockworkpunk” and real alchemy.  The characters are Robert Gently-Benevolent (owner of a chain manufactory); Lord Hugo, a villain straight out of a bodice -ripper, spy and seducer (played of course by Luke);  Sir Thomas Lavington, an alchemist, and last but not least Henry, a manufacturer of clockwork devices.  The game is Clockwork and Chivalry, and we are on the last chapter or two of the adventure The Alchemist’s Wife. They have trekked across England from Oxford to Cambridge, bodies strewn in their path by their nemesis. Now because this is a published adventure and some people reading the blog may one one day wish to play it (and you should, it’s great fun!)

We have been playing this game weekly for a couple of months now, and the characters have grown as the tale is told. Unfortunately the players are rather clever, and worked out the identity of their nemesis, the murderer if you like, in the very first session. That surprised me, but armed with those suspicions they were able to confirm it pretty much in their mind very quickly, and even work out the motive, about half way through. I won’t explain here so as not to give away the plot, but the story became not so much a whodunnit with a quest for a missing woman also motivating them, but a pursuit of the chief villain across England.

Now the problem. In the story as written the character’s can’t get horses, and are unable to catch up with the Nemesis till the last chapter. In our game they actually had a chance to capture a mechanical device, damaged, but by some with Henry’s skill’s salvageable. Henry had wanted Henry Ireton (Parliamentarian leader and general) as a contact, and armed with letters from him and the Royalist Sir Reginald Perkinson once he had fixed the thing it made sense he could keep it at least as far as the New Model Army HQ in Cambridge. I could have had it mysteriously breakdown, be seized by roundhead patrols, become mired in the mud – but what the hell – I thought it was entertaining that he had captured it!

So I let them keep it, and inevitably they came up with a clever way to use it to catch up with the Nemesis. He managed to escape, and they tracked him dowmn, and captured him, two whole chapters early. Now is this not a bad thing?

Years ago I would have probably thought yes. I have bought a scenario book, and I would have probably intended to use as much of it as possible. Nowadays – nah, they were having fun. The plot is basically a road trip, and they already have clues which will lead them to the final chapter and the twist — having two climaxes to the story not one works just fine for me. When the players are clever, and come up with a way to outsmart the carefully plotted scenario — I just let them. There is nothing more annoying than having to come up with reasons to stop the players short circuiting the whole plot, and thwarting their every move.  I t would be like running  a session without protective fathers and innocent young maidens for Hugo to seduce, or without any opportunity for David who knows about such things to tell us about domestic life and architecture or alchemy or history of the period.  Actually Clockworkers and Alchemists do NOT shine in this game – I think it would work just as well without either, and so letting Kevin’s character grab the “ironhorse” and eventually use it to outrun the Nemesius, was the right thing to do dramatically.

The scenario is basically a “road trip” across England, and players can feel “railroaded”, denied opportunity to go their own way and having to stay on predefined tracks  in such scenarios. I don’t think any of the things that have happened outside of the guidelines of the scenario actually break the plot as regards the next supplement Thou Shalt Not Suffer, and I want the game to not just give the illusion of Free Will to the players, I want to be prepared to allow them to be clever and solve the problem however they want. What if they had made straight for Cambridge, via a different route, and sort a political solution to they problem they were faced with at the start of the game?

I’d have let them. If your players trust you to let them significantly shape how the game develops, and believe rightly they have significant influence over the plot, then sometimes you need to throw away the scenario entirely, and think on your feet, but most of the time they accept that the plot lies that way, and when the old man offers them three silver pieces to go in to the gloomy dungeon at midnight to recover the Runespoon of the Volemage or whatever, they play along.  If they think however you are forcing them to follow your tightly scripted plot, and resisting all their efforts to be clever, then they will grow tired of your game, and resist by every means they can, even opening a shoe shop and giving up the adventuring life.

Hey just a few thoughts, Any alternative opinions?

cj x




About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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2 Responses to The Plot, the Story and the Players – some thoughts on running rpgs

  1. I have an alternative opinion….it is that you are an evil gentleman for running it on a tuesday, but not to worry, this allows you time to perfect it for when you lend the whole thing to Mr Smith.

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