hD1DE63AB I just finished a major project the other night and celebrated by taking most of the next day off and watching old cartoons from my childhood. I’m not talking just watching a few episodes, more waking up at noon and watching a full season in one sitting. I get pretty analytical about the composition of visual media and how it affects the story being told. I used to work in the TV industry, this is what I got paid for. So, as I was watching the characters, all possessed of incredible powers that they have used to trounce multiple alien bad guys many times before, I started to notice the places near the climax where things would happen ‘Because Plot’. The heroes would let the bad guys get away, seemingly caught off guard by their escape, despite having their powers at the ready and past episodes showing that blocking the car doors would have been as easy as that time they cut a building in half.

The story being told made it necessary that the bad guys escaped, and so the writers decided that the heroes got caught off guard. Ok, cool. It’s a kids cartoon and I don’t expect much, but seeing this happen over and over, I realized that ‘Because Plot’ is never a good enough reason when it comes to gaming.

There are certain concessions that we, who self identify as nerds and geeks, will make to get a good story. The heroes’ powers can go on the fritz at the climactic moment in a comic book or a big budget movie and we get that it is just part of the story, but the more interactive the medium, like gaming, the more we balk when we see our agency being taken away. Sure, sometimes the plot is going to trump the players and the bad guys will need to get away so that they can make it to the final encounter. As players, we get this. We see it as the audience for movies, novels,TV shows, and video games all the time. But, as players who have lovingly crafted characters and have interesting ideas (at least to us) about how to affect that bit of the game, then ‘Because Plot’ is not enough.

Games and supplements have gotten better about not reigning in player choices and sticking to a linear path, and Gamemasters are pretty good about making sure we run enjoyable games that focus on the players. Sometimes certain events in our games have to occur to keep things moving or we can get a bit myopic trying to make sure the game stays on course. If an event absolutely has to occur in a certain way, a player will understand so long as a little care is taken to give some reasoning for it or show that the time and energy they just spent wasn’t wasted and fated to be trumped ‘Because Plot’. That is good enough for TV shows and movies, and often it’s fine in video games. But at the gaming table, we can change things on the fly or come up with reasons that will still make our players feel like their actions matter. So we, as Gamemasters, should always strive to have a better reason at our disposal when we have to reign things in a bit. ‘Because Plot’ just doesn’t cut it when you have to tell a player sorry.

Do you find yourself having to reel your games in to realign with the plot? How do you do it without taking away the players’ agency in affecting the game? Do you just say damn the pants and modify your plots to fit the players? How do you make the best game possible without sacrificing the overarching plot?

20 replies
  1. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    I haven’t really dealt with this as a GM because I was running games in college for a single semester at time.

    As a player, I am mostly okay with “Because Plot” as long as there is a justifiable reason. However, I greatly dislike using Plot to stop the players and PCs from accomplishing something awesome that would remove an enemy NPC early. Ruining the PCs victory is no fun for the players and I find it builds an adversarial attitude.

  2. Christian Strauss
    Christian Strauss says:

    I sacrifice the immediate plot.

    When confronted with a suitable foe my players turn into pit bulls. They figuratively sink their teeth firmly into his rear end and never let go.

    There are four solution for this problem:
    1. Distract the characters. If they are in a fight, they can’t follow the thive how stole their Macguffin.
    2. The villain is invincible at this time. The Dark Mage can only be harmed by wepons, washed in the water of the fountain of youth (Oh there you have another adventure!). In my opinion it is importend for the characters to know why they can not defeat the bad guy now.
    3. This is not the villain you are looking for. They only meet a henchman, who they can capture or kill without endangering the overarching plot.
    4. Let the players have a real chance. Why does the bad guy need to escape? ‘Because Plot’ is the wrong answer here.

    • Razjah
      Razjah says:

      I like you solutions, but I think number 3 can be abused. It is the stereotypical “true villain in the shadows” escalation that can only be taken so far.

      I am a huge fan of number 4. I would rather have to make a new adventure because my players did something awesome than have them frustrated because I did something by GM Fiat.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I remember that the 3rd season of buffy did #2. The big bad did some ritual to make him invincible until his big ritual to call a dark god. It was kind of cheesy, and definitely ‘Because Plot’, but it was explained and the waiting and filler episodes until the end of the season didn’t feel as idiotic as they usually do in some series.

      • Christian Strauss
        Christian Strauss says:

        That is a good example. It also shows that the characters need cleer goals. So they can degrade the villain.

  3. callin
    callin says:

    I think a lot of gaming groups allow for and expect “Because Plot” simply because they are used to it from movies and television. One feeds into the other. It is the “norm”.
    However, it doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be.

  4. Philmagpie
    Philmagpie says:

    Hi John,

    There can be scope for “because plot” events, as callin said, if the group are playing in the style of some films or television shows. However, this would need to be made clear by the GM, agreed upon by the Players, consistent with the source material and used in moderation.

    That is quite a series of caveats, but the plot twist can enhance the game experience for the right group.

    This topic was discussed at length by Monte Cook in Numenera, where the system of Intrusions allows for the GM to intrude into the story “because plot” and hands out mechanical benefits at the same time.

    I posted about this tool at Tales of a GM We all need Intrusions.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Numenera does a lot of awesome things like that. I love the idea of GM intrusion, and the element that gives the players a reward for going along with it, even if it is ‘Because Plot’, is an awesome thing to drift to other games.

  5. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    I agree with John 100 percent.

    In fact, I don’t really use plots in the conventional sense.

    Player choice/agency and player impact on the game is my number one priority as a GM.

    I have a framework to build upon. Player choices and actions are largely responsible for building a collaborative story that unfolds.

    I typically have an opening carrot. Some ideas on how things might develop. A few possible outcomes sketched out for what might be the end game. But the actions and inactions of PCs will be paramount to the developing arc.

    To me, stringent plots with events written in stone are for books, movies, and tv shows. Gaming is a much more flexible and dynamic medium and thus can be done so that just about anything can happen.

    This may be why linear one-shot events are the hardest for me to GM and play in. I can do it and have some fun, but it really isn’t my preferred method of play.

  6. Lucas Curell
    Lucas Curell says:

    I have been pretty successful in running entire campaigns that were both engaging and provided the players near-total control over where the story went. Instead of preparing specific adventures and stories (as I might normally) I spent a great deal of time working on the game world and surrounding environs and let the PCs set the course.

    • Razjah
      Razjah says:

      This sounds like a well-run and well played (by the players) sandbox game. The players drive all of the plot. If they sat around doing nothing, or waiting for the carrot- the game can grind to a halt.

      Instead it sounds like your players went for it and made the game awesome.

  7. 77IM
    77IM says:

    As GM, I don’t create plots at all. I find that if you create interesting interactive elements (NPCs, locations, magic items, etc., but especially NPCs) and make user the PCs have sutable motivations to interact with them, that some sort of satisfying plot will emerge.

    To me the harder question is one of pacing. If the big bad villain dies too quickly and easily, it’s anticlimactic; if an obstacle is too easy to overcome, it’s a speedbump. But if you drag things out, it can become boring, especially if there are no new developments (“Wait, we have to fight this thing AGAIN?”). I’ve realized lately that I don’t have a good sense for how to pace these things, and that most RPGs don’t have good rules for controlling that pacing or encouraging good pacing. It’s closely related to “Because Plot” because having an interactive element on-screen for JUST the right amount of time denies player agency (specifically, the ability to affect that amount of time, usually by killing the interesting NPC).

    • Scott Martin
      Scott Martin says:

      Good point. Pacing is often dumped in the GM’s lap–and how much “cutting to the excitement” very much varies between groups and individuals. Phil’s Cut to the Chase, yesterday, touched on how important good pacing can be–and has some measures to get more buy in from your players.

  8. Silveressa
    Silveressa says:

    Mostly I use the Cortex gaming system for rpg’s these days, which has a built in “plot point mechanic” where in the GM can hand a player a plot point when something is forced to happen that keeps the plot functioning.

    While I’ve used it in the past to prevent implosion of key plot points with success I usually try to have alternatives in play that allow the bad guy an “out” as it were.

    Usually if a bad guy needs to escape for plot reasons I throw in the classical “tough choice” where in a large number of innocent NPC’s (or single NPC that is cared about by the party) winds up immediately imperiled, and the characters can either save the innocent/s from certain doom or pursue the bad guy.

    In nearly every case the players have heroically chosen to save the innocents while letting the villain escape, and one time chose to split their forces in an attempt to accomplish both goals. (Which didn’t work out as planned for them.)

    The other option I’ve often used to ensure escapes is the wall of disposable mooks to delay the party long enough for the villain to escape.

    Usually though the only time I run into plot issues is when confronting the big bad too early in the campaign, with other plot developments generally being loose enough I can quickly rearrange things to prevent the need for a plot dictated outcome.

    I once also allowed the heroines to successfully eliminate the big bad villain in a super heroes game, only to have his otherwise incompetent second in command to rise to power and lead the evil organization on a more reckless and less effective, but equally threatening rampage that still used most of the elements form my original plot line.

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