(Cover Photo: Credit to EPierce Photography.) I’m a perfectionist, this is no secret. Anal retentive, deadline and checklist oriented, I’m sure my story staff is already going half insane with my project managing habits in Dead Legends. This comes as little surprise, as my early creative endeavors were all as a director and actress in traditionally styled theater. On the regular stage, everything is planned, and rehearsed down to the last inch. You have cue-to-cues just to perfect how lights turn on and when music fades. Every actor memorizes their lines until they are able to say them in their sleep. There is no room left for error so, when the inevitable errors of live theater occur, you are ready to adapt to them. If three things go wrong during a show, generally it’s considered some sort of disaster and you wonder if someone mentioned the Scottish Play in the house.
This penchant for perfectionism hurt me early on as a storyteller. I was still stuck in the mode of plot being performance and that the players wanted intricate, woven storylines put out before them like some grand drama. I would write pages of plot down to the last NPC motivation and guesstimated player reaction. If the players didn’t react that way (trust me, they rarely did), I would consider it a failing on my part for not being a good enough director to help them see the way the story was “supposed” to go. I was still stuck in the headspace of all-controlling director, instead of coach and guide who can put things into the world but then give them space to grow organically. Needless to say, I learned better over the years of storytelling.
As I matured, I learned to build in more possibilities for how a plot should go. I’d lay out the groundwork, give the NPCs the over-all goal, their motivations, and a few possible options for the players. It turned into more of a choose your own adventure style, but there were still very set, boxed options that didn’t leave a lot of room open for player agency. I still think, back when I was writing like this, I didn’t actually have the terms ‘player agency’ in my vocabulary. Just being able to acknowledge that agency is a THING, much less an important THING, was a huge step in my plot-sculpting career. Yet, to this day, I see so many game runners struggling with this very thing. Hell, to be honest, I still tussle with it myself. There are times that I need to restrict agency in choices to get to the bigger choices at the end of the rainbow. Is that alright? In small pockets.
Does that an entire plot make? No. Not a satisfying one, at least.
Nowadays, the biggest lesson I can give people in plot writing (both short and long term) is to make it messy. Just get the plot out on the page in some vague details, with some vague goals, atmosphere, and understandable motivations to the NPCs that will be delivering that plot to the players. I still fall into bad habits of writing things which are too intricate to be fully realized in live time with dozens of people involved and several moving parts. When I over-write, it inevitably leads to little but disappointment on everyone’s part. I feel disappointed, because I know I wasn’t able to communicate every detail of this story as effectively as it was on paper. Players feel disappointed, because where they were searching for agency and to direct plot in their own way, the heavily written story left them little room for that ownership. So, when I sit down to write these days, the first mantra I keep in my head is: “Make. It. Messy!”
When a plot is a mix of fast notes, NPCs goals, and atmosphere, it empowers those people delivering the plot to the players to make their own agency-driven decisions on the ground, instead of freezing up when the players divert from what the storyteller wanted. The ‘atmosphere’ and ‘motivations’ part of plot writing is infinitely more important to get on paper (for me at least) than the plot arc itself. Let me give some quick definitions for clarity:
Atmosphere: The general feelings and style that this plot is meant to create. When I put atmosphere notes into a plot, it will say things like ‘Creepy horror,’ ‘Family drama,’ or ‘Political intrigue.’ That way, the NPCs delivering this plot will know what the general goal of STORY is, even if the players respond to the information in an expected way, and the NPCs can adapt on the ground to help steer in the direction of that atmosphere without boxing players into a railroaded plot.
Motivations: The NPCs delivering plot are the most essential things to write and coach for story to enter the world. They should have their own agency and motivations, so they can organically react to what the players give them in return and make plot decisions on the ground instead of waiting for a response from storytellers (who may be quite distant depending on the game.) Once you know what your plot is generally going to be,
developing the way it’s delivered to the world and explaining to those NPCs what their ultimate goals/motivations are is essential to that plot taking life in your setting with players. A good motivation could be anything from: “You need to get that medicine back to your mother and will do anything to get the money for it, including kill a man,” or “You are loyal to your country on the surface and give all the proper respects in polite conversation, but once someone looks beneath the surface, your wish to defect becomes more and more obvious. Try to find PCs who will bring out your defector side and then steer into the roleplay of them convincing you to desert your country.”
By building those clear things into your plot, even if the actual arc/end goal is messy, you let the plot organically develop in your player’s hands. The last and MOST IMPORTANT follow up, however, is that you need to get clear after-action reports from your NPCs. When you have those, you then build the next step of plot on those reports. Writing plot in this manner requires an excellent level of communication between NPCs and storytellers, so the writer can develop the next stage of plot from what happened live in the game instead of from whatever was planned next in the arc. It’s a bit more stressful on the ground, but leads to far more beautiful, player empowered story when you let go and let the mess take a life of its own.
Devil’s Advocate Footnote
But, Ericka, isn’t NPC theater sometimes necessary for exposition and more controlled plot can help players tell more epic stories? Yes. Sometimes. I trust any good/experienced plot writer to know when some limited use of NPC theater is necessary, but keep it limited at all points in time. I think that letting plot be messy and develop organically can lead to even MORE epic things than if you plan it all out, but I’m open to debating people if they wish to discuss civilly in the comments.
My devil’s advocate footnote will actually talk about plots built to not give players choices or agency, but elicit specific emotional reactions or character development. There is a small time and place for pre-planned endings. I never use them in my big, overarching plot, but in smaller side scenes that are generally there to help characters develop through reactions to the world. My favorite example of designing plot this way was the first hemophilia mod I wrote for Death Con at Dystopia Rising many years ago.
I sat down and said: “I’d like to write a mod that ends like one of those Grey’s Anatomy episodes where the doctors work on a patient for 20 minutes after death, desperately trying to beat the odds, but they eventually have to give up and leave the surgical room a bloody mess as everyone leaves in tears.” This was specifically geared to give doctors in this game a DIFFERENT experience than their normal one of ‘if we get to a patient, we can save their lives.’ To give them that experience, I had to do a lot of careful plot crafting and, basically, take away the mechanical agency of the plot, leaving them only emotional agency to react.
The patient came in with (as far as I’m aware) the first case of hemophilia in Dystopia Rising. No doctor had seen it before and, while she was walking and talking at the beginning of the mod, she just continued to bleed out through the whole thing. No matter what they tried, they were not able to patch her up and save her. There was simply too much bleeding in too many places. Half a dozen doctors worked over that NPC’s body for twenty minutes and then another ten minutes after she died. The puddle of fake blood spread feet around the scene. Everyone was covered in it (sorry for ruining your bra, Bliss!) The doctors kept working. It was to the point that I had to lean over and whisper to the NPC that her body could disappear at any point in time, they were so determined. While there was little-to-no player agency in this plot, they were so emotionally affected by it, several players went home and wrote fiction about it after the weekend.
Therefore, while I advocate for leaving it messy and growing organically, there is room for carefully, artistically sculpted plot in little pockets. As ever, your mileage may very. Everything in moderation, find what style works for you, but don’t be scared to loosen up and see where the fates might take your writing in the future.