Game Mastery

Counterintuition – save time planning by writing more plots!

by on Aug.04, 2010, under dnd, game theory, GM, observations, organization

An odd thing happened in the shower today. I had an interesting realization about the way I run my games. That wasn’t the odd part. The odd part is that I remembered it. Showers are not conducive to notebooks or iPhones, so most of my hygiene related epiphanies go down the drain.

Anyway, what I realized was that my style of writing complex games with lots and lots of subplots may actually be easier to write than the simplistic one plot at a time approach.

Whenever other GMs complain about having to write out all the possible paths their PCs could take, I silently scoff at them.  I’d never write out a branching path of where the game could go.  That’s just so below me.  P’shah!  Those GMs struggle with a single plot line, while I, master plot tapestry weaver, handle 6-12 concurrent plots in any given game session.  How dare they assume that one plot at a time is hard work?
Well.  It is.

A plot run in serial is going to progress a lot farther in a game session than four parallel plots.  The farther that plot goes, the more decisions the PCs will reach.  More planning simply becomes necessary.
Look at it this way.  Let’s say that every hour of plot results in a decision that branches.  Let’s also say you’re running a four hour game session.  A serial plot would split into two, then four, then eight, then sixteen possibilities in a single session.  Four plots on the other hand, each getting an equal amount of play time, would each split once.  Those four would double and you’d have eight possible plot lines.
Here’s a plot splitting into two paths at each hour mark:

Each dot is a decision.  Each of the line segments is an hour of game time.  Lots of possibilities to plan for.

On the other hand, if after each major plot decision, you switch to another plot, you end up with far less material to write.

Consider that at each branch, if the PCs choose right, the left side is wasted planning.  On the multi plot chart, that’s 4 segments total.  On the serial chart, that’s 15 segments lost after the first decision!

What I’m getting at with this isn’t that I should show some respect for people who branch out whole campaigns at a time.  Quite the opposite!  Those people should try running more plots at once.  It saves time and it makes your game look more complex.  It’s a win-win!

Essentially what’s happening is that the more sections you divide your game session into, the less you have to look into the future to figure out where your PCs may go.  Any plot advanced 4 hours is going to have some decisions.  But any plot advanced 1 hour will have fewer decisions, and thus fewer contingencies for you to plan.  This method also has the benefit that if the players go in a direction you didn’t see coming and could never have planned for, you don’t have to improvise for quite so long.  Go on a tangent for an hour and then recover by the next session.

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2 comments for this entry:
  1. herodarwin

    Hi I’m about to start a new game and this is exactly how I have been wanting to run a game but didn’t know it so I was wondering as I still a bit in the dark how to change smoothly from one plot to enough if you could give some advice on running games like this.

  2. sagotsky

    Gladly. My trick to changing smoothly between plots is that I don’t. If it’s time for a new plot to happen, the NPCs involved in that plot will show up and ask the PCs what’s up. I treat plot as something that belongs to a given NPC. If the people he hired to do a job haven’t shown any sides of doing it, he’ll inquire as to what they’ve been doing instead. Maybe he’ll send the players a threat, or maybe he’ll show up in person. If they really neglect their plots, the NPC will hire some other adventurers to do it instead, and those NPCs will bump into the players. Basically I make other plots show up while the players are trying to focus on just one. No transition is necessary.

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