Plot wagons do not drive themselves, somewhere between cracking the whip over the unstoppable iron rails of your game notes and the free-form storytelling of a plot-less LARP lies a sweet zone of good gaming. Although, as you may of guessed, how to keep the Players on track has always been a bit of a trick. Various GMs handle this various ways, some tend to fall back to the old AD&D way of doing things: Have you ever been reading a novel or playing a game when the Heroes walk into an establishment at the local town/garrison/starport, and suddenly the locals become oddly useful spewers of information–handing out quests and dolling out tidbits of trivia like a Chekov’s Gun on automatic. It seems forced doesn’t it? Rather unrealistic even? Suddenly you’re mentally playing an MMORPG where the game designers didn’t have the time to get the information across properly* or the game has no way of telling where in the story arc you are, so it just vomits out this information whenever you get close hoping to pull you in.
Novelists and Game Masters do not have this cop-out.
As a writer or storyteller, you should know exactly where your Players are in the plot-line you created. Even if they have jumped the rails so hard they can’t see the tracks, you have the ability to adjust right then and there how the people of the town/garrison/starport react to them to get them back to the plot. Get creative! Don’t have the barkeep blindly tell them about the 3:10 to Yuma on the tracks they so blatantly left behind, have the Saloon Girl saunter up to them and suggest a hot bath to weary travelers. Rooms are only a nickle and the food here is warm. Say, why don’t you take a seat? Put your feet up while we get you a drink and tell us what you’ve seen out there Stranger.
Is a conversation with an NPC better than an information spew? Of course it is, it flows. It feels natural. Sure you may be itching to get them back to something resembling your game notes, but you need to do it subtly. In the first example above, the GM gave the player no real reason to get in the cabbie. The character had no incentive to walk into a trap, and the only reason they were even following along at all was because it was obvious that the GM’s entire plot arc depended on it. It was, admittedly, hilarious though. In the second example, with the help of a friendly barmaid the GM lets the Player’s Characters settle in to the inn for a bit. They get to know the local colourful NPCs over the course of the conversation before someone, a scruffy Deputy Marshal or a Mysterious Stranger Eyeing the Hobbits Warily From The Shadows Of The Inn, steps in to lend a hand and push the story back in the direction the GM had originally intended all along.
Never underestimate the value of a useful NPC! If you have a Player that you know can’t resist a good Scooby-Doo mystery, then by all means have the sultry Femme Fatale Widow in the slinky black dress walk into their Private-Eye Detective Agency on a rainy night begging for help and offering the irresistible allure of Adventure. If it’s good enough for Film Noir, it’s good enough for you! As a GM, you get bonus points for getting the Players to think it was their idea. 😉 We’ll get into the art of crafting of believable NPCs in later posts.
*Despite GMing being a verbal art, an old adage still rings true: Show, Don’t Tell
Transcript of Comic:
GM: “A steam-powered black cab buggy pulls up in front of you, blocking your path to the train station. The logo on the side bears the mark of Hellstrome Industries. Do you want to get in?”
Player Me: “Why would I do that?!? No one but the bad guys suspect I’m alive, the town is littered with my Wanted posters, and the next train back to New York leaves Union Station within the hour.”
Player Josh: “Shut up and get in the plot cab!”
AD&D © TSR and Wizards of the Coast
Deadlands and Hellstrome © Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Strider and the Hobbits © J.R.R. Tolkien, may the Elves sing to him nightly from all the beautiful hills and vales of the Undying Lands