Plots in RPGs

In the Numenera Kickstarter, I had a backer level called On-line Gamer. The people backing at that level get to, among other things, request a specific article written by me, here on my blog. Backer Nick Finck asked me to write about plots in rpgs. Specifically,  the balance of structured plots and story arcs versus unstructured and more open-ended shoot from the hip style campaign development.

This is of course, a big topic. And an important one. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the term “structured” to mean any type of adventure or campaign that encourages the PCs to go from point A toward point B. The important word there is “toward” rather than “to,” the latter suggesting a railroaded plot. A structured plot doesn’t need to be a railroad. By railroaded, I mean something that essentially forces, or at least really pushes, the PCs from point A to point B and in fact proscribes the very path from point A to point B that they take. Structured doesn’t have to mean that.

And for the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the term “sandbox” to describe an adventure or campaign that provides areas, characters, and potential plot hooks at point A, but really provides no point B. In other words, the GM (or designer) creates a setting with stuff in it to do, but the players determine what they actually do.

There are strong (very strong) advocates for one of these styles over the other. I am not such an advocate. I see the benefits–and the drawbacks–of both. In my game design, I like to suggest both as options.

As a GM creating and running a plot of your own, the main benefit of designing a structured plot is that you can be a bit more prepared. If you’re running a D&D game and the plot you’ve created has to do with drow raiders who have stolen a holy relic, you know you have to prepare stuff about the relic, and the drow, and maybe places where the PCs might go to track them down. But you don’t have to worry about the orcs on the other side of the mountains that have nothing to do with that, or the island of dinosaurs off the coast. The other advantage is that it directs the PCs to places you really want them to go. There are lots of fun things for them to do, but you really want to trot out this drow villain you have created, and so you want the PCs to go after her. And if they do, you’ve got some nifty ideas that will perhaps give them a bit of a surprise. Lastly, the third big advantage is that your group might not like to be at loose ends–they might need a little direction. And a structured plot provides that.

The big drawback is that no matter how hard you try not to railroad the PCs, they might feel like you’re just leading them by the nose and making them do what you want them to do. Or you might do it without even meaning to. Maybe they don’t want to go up against drow. Maybe they try to follow the drow raiders but lose them and want to do something else. Or maybe they’re just sick of drow, and wonder what’s up with all your freakin’ campaigns being focused on the drow, already?

A sandbox campaign, of course, allows players to choose what the characters do. It’s certain that they’ll end up doing something they want to do, because they’ll have chosen it. And perhaps best of all, it encourages the PCs to be proactive. In a sandbox campaign, you might dangle a few plot hooks in front of them, and they might take one that looks interesting, or they might just look at your campaign map and say, “look at these mountains over there, let’s go see what’s going on beyond those.”  The main drawback, however, is that it’s a lot harder to prepare for that kind of game, because short of detailing your entire world (or at least the nearby places the PCs can reach) before the game even starts, you can’t really prepare everything. You have to go broad rather than deep. Sandbox campaigns also run the risk of being somewhat more flat than structured games because of this broad preparation. The GM ends up detailing places to explore but not really the interesting actions of the NPCs of the world. You end up with setting in lieu of plot, which some players might not find compelling.

Obviously, a good GM can avoid the pitfalls of either style. These are risks, not foregone conclusions.

From the point of view of a game designer publishing an adventure (or campaign), the issues are very similar, but there’s more to consider as well. First of all, there’s space limitations of the product you’re producing. If you’re creating a campaign setting, like Numenera’s Ninth World, you’re basically creating a sandbox campaign (if you’re doing it right).

The same is true with an adventure that is all location-based. For example, a big dungeon. Most dungeon (or similar) adventures have only a little plot at all. They’re often “explore this cool place.” A good dungeon adventure will almost always be sandbox in its approach–the PCs come to an intersection and can choose to go left or right. Or go back and open that door they passed by earlier. That’s a sandbox adventure (at its core). However, many published adventures will end up being structured, because most published adventures are about a single idea: the cult is trying to summon Hastur, we’ve lost communication with the space station orbiting Jupiter, or kobolds are kidnapping babies from the village. That single idea should be presented with all the most likely PC reactions to it (and not just a single proscribed one), but it’s still just a single core idea.

Of course, I’d be remiss in pointing out that some plots can be a little of both. It’s not black or white. For example, you might present the PCs with a single problem, and then let them have any of a number (ideally limitless) ways to deal with the problem. For example, the evil queen and her sorcerer lover are going to summon a horde of undead. The PCs could go to them and confront them. Or go to the hidden temple on the other side of the mountains to uncover the artifact that would stop them. Or go to all the nobles in the land to convince them to raise an army to defend against the horde. Or find the lair of the dreaded djinn assassin and negotiate a price for him slaying the queen. And so on.

I’m a fan of all of these approaches, both in what I run for fun and what I write for publication. For example, in the Numenera corebook, there are four adventures to get people started. Two are fairly structured plots, one is pretty sandbox-y (in that it’s an almost dungeon-like weird ruin to explore) and one is kind of in that latter category of being a little of both.

In the first adventure supplement, the Devil’s Spine, there are three (or four, depending on how you look at it) adventures. While they are all varying shades of structured plots (one gets pretty sandbox-y), the PCs can choose to take on the disparate (but linked) plots in whatever order and whatever way they wish.

In any event, it’s important to recognize that creating plots for rpgs isn’t like writing a story, or a script. Because it’s the group sitting around the table the creates the story. They script it as they go along. The “plot” doesn’t truly exist until both GM and players are involved. And because the PCs have free will, it can (and should) go in directions the GM never dreamed. It makes the rpg plot a sort of unique exercise in creativity, and one of my favorite things in the world.

Monte Cook
Monte Cook

Monte Cook has written hundreds of roleplaying game products, along with numerous short stories, novels, nonfiction titles, and comic books. He is probably best known for his work on such notable titles as Planescape, Ptolus, the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which he codesigned with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams), Arcana Evolved, and of course Numenera and the Cypher System. He is a cofounder of Monte Cook Games, and is our lead designer.

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