I was watching a video by Noah Antwiler, also known as Spoony, where he did an interview with Richard Garriott, and I watched to see what they had to talk about as both can be quite critical when it comes to the games… And then they revealed something that made me have to pick my jaw up off the flor because of how brilliant the idea is.
Go here to see the video queued up to the whole thing I am talking about. Go and watch it, and then come back. I’ll still be here. It’s only about five minutes.
What he proposes there is so amazing for me to think of as a GM, as a way to let the players directly explore your world and still make all your areas relevant. I know a lot of GMs who will drop in the NPC you need to talk to in some location that you’re in, so that you can meet them and get the plot point you need at that time. The Alexandrian introduced me to the Three Clue Rule where a player could fail sufficiently enough that they may never find, or understand the significance of, the clue you are presenting them with. They then go to discuss ways around this problem.
Before thinking of it in the Three Clue Rule, I would sometimes twist fate and have something happen to try and provide the PCs with the information they needed. Maybe you’re trying to find the thieves’ guild so you can question some thief about the murder they witnessed while stealing from some high muckymuck and is now in hiding as the muckymuck is trying to cover up their involvement in the murder and maybe pin it on someone else (the movie Absolute Power, for example, and this isn’t a spoiler as it happens at the beginning of the movie). You expected your PCs to find the guy’s tracks and trail him back, but they didn’t roll high enough. So, while they’re in the bar relaxing, all of a sudden a thief moment happens. Maybe someone steals the gold from a PC, or maybe two thieves are bragging about their big score and the party overhears, or whatever. Now they have a new hook into this plot, rather than me wasting hours because my players hit a wall and I have no means of working them back in.
This happens a lot with plot centralized characters, so much so that in Oblivion in the Elder Scrolls series, NPCs that had important story bits to do could not die, they would fall unconscious, get up and keep going. Other times, video games would be a bit more creative, where in the Blade Runner computer game by Westwood, they would have other cops bring in the clues you missed so it isn’t some CSI Pixel Hunt to find the correct combination of actions to figure out the murderer by some clue. But not always. Sometimes, you’ll have the chokepoints or the one way storyline highway where you would miss out on a side quest because the story had progressed to the point where the relevant NPC or location is no longer accessible.
What I loved about the idea of the Spoony video is you can see exactly what the story you want to tell is, and then you can see how everything weaves together into a flowchart sort of thing where you may have to weave back and forth through areas of the world to get to the people you need to meet to talk about important things. To some people, that may not sound like it is a good thing, as we’re saying you have to backtrack to get going forward in your game but let me give you a couple of example scenarios that I feel will illustrate my point:
1) Players are given a task by the plot hook to achieve freeing a town from monsters sieging it regularly. They go free the town, get rewarded, then get given a quest by that town to go rescue some kidnapped girl from a group of monsters. Bringing the girl back, they are then told about a church in another town who is looking for adventurers to recover a religious artifact that was stolen, and when they retun it, they’re told about a king in a castle who is a target of assassins from a warmongering ruler who wants his lands.
2) Players are given a task by the plot hook to achieve freeing a town from monsters sieging it regularly. They go free the town, get rewarded, then they hearing something about a warmongering ruler in another land who is coveting more lands and a religious man who has come to town from agar bringing with him a religious icon and there is a girl who is kidnapped by monsters. They go and free the girl and come back to town to find that the religious icon was stolen and that there is talk of a war beginning, and oh, there’s also this refugee who came from the kingdom where the war is breaking out fearing for his life but his family was left behind. They go and recover the religious artifact and hear about an attempt on a ruler by an assassin who is now asking for adventurers to protect him. Going to the town, you find that the assassins are of the same culture as the refugee who came to the last town you were in. Maybe they know something or are an assassin?
I know I left the first one kinda dry and the second embellished way too much without a clear direction, but as a starting adventure, it can be hard to have all the plothooks and plot arcs be revealed in simple terms. But by having reasons to go back to towns you have already come from, it is not a backdrop of the week type of adventure, where one week they’ll be in one town on the sea and the next week they’ll be in a town on the mountains because the GM had story ideas for each. Instead, there are important people, like the head sage at the library in the capital city that you need to consult with regarding the problem that your current plot hook is having. While in town, you meet a person on a pilgrimage to prove their worthiness in the eyes of their goddess, and a bard who is learning new songs with dreams of making it big some day. You go back to the plot hook with his solution and you find that someone has fallen ill and they need a powerful healer to help them, but it must be someone of a pure soul, someone who has proven themselves to their god. Well, now you have to find the pilgrim. Later, you re-encounter the bard who is working at some castle and so forth.
Now, as a GM, you may not have it all written up ahead of time for the entire adventure, but at least for the plot arcs you currently have, do it and you’ll be able to get some important consistency and realism that can give your story a more epic feel, at least that’s my take. Make notes of NPCs that you meet that are more than just ‘Random Person 1’ who gives them directions to the blacksmith or ‘Man in the Hat’ who tells them the king is looking for them. But if they have a favorite watering hole, note the bartender and servers, note the patrons as I’ve done a few Cheers! type scenes in my plots to cleanse the palate when there were long adventures with returns to a home base. Do they go to the church for healing regularly? Note the cleric who they deal with. You can then also weave these NPCs even if they were just a minor part at first into something bigger. There are a lot of shows out there where a character that was supposed to be a throwaway or a minor character comes a fan favorite and you need more of them in stories. I love the character Garak from Deep Space Nine and he was initially supposed to appear for only a single episode, but he was a hit with the producers and they wanted him to come back. Sometimes, you may just find such a character that you liked or the players liked and just needs a reason to make a reappearance.