Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

The Adventures of Heisenberg’s Cat

Jerry Stratton, January 13, 2011

Sacrifice to the Plot Queen

The player characters arrive at the crossroads of dead Rome beyond the Vale of the Azure Sun. Behind one of the doors is the land of Barcelas. A tyrant is rising to crush the land beneath his spider minions. His armies are at the gates of Hamokera. If the player characters enter this land, they will turn the tide against this villain. If the player characters don’t enter the land… what? the tyrant takes over? Who cares? No one ever saw, no one will see it. If they arrive at Hamokera later, the plot’s not going to be “a tyrant attempts to take over the world”. It will be “the player characters try to overthrow the evil tyrant”, or “the player characters try to evade the evil tyrant as they continue their mission”, or whatever the player characters try to do.

The plot is what the characters see and interact with, and no more. If you start making the plot be what you know rather than what they do, you’re writing a novel. You don’t need the players for that. Plot is a word used to describe stories and narratives. If the players don’t get caught up on them, they’re not plot points.

So if they ignore the massing army and go west to find their fortune, does that mean the army takes over their hometown? Sure, why not? But that’s not part of the plot. The plot doesn’t start until the player characters decide to do something about it, to take notice in some way. If they do decide to get involved later, then the plot would be something like “hometown sons do well abroad, return to save hometown”.

You can argue about whether plot is more important than character in fiction; but there is no argument in a game such as Gods & Monsters that has definite player characters. In a novel, the author makes the plot. In Gods & Monsters, player characters are the narrative, and the plot is whatever they follow.

To the extent that games like these have plots, the plot doesn’t start until the players are involved. Everything before that is just backstory. Not even backstory, just potential backstory—like the cat whose death Schrödinger tried to pin on Heisenberg, it’s neither there nor not there until the player characters take an interest.

Update: an anonymous commenter wrote:

While Shroedinger might (or might not) quibble with the ownership of the cat, leaving the cat half-quibbled, I really like your take on the way plot is developed in different contexts. Some writers say that their characters constantly surprise them, as if they were DM’s (or whatever the kids call them these days) and their characters were running amok in the environment they created. Other writers take a much more structural approach where characters fill necessary roles.

I note this because (a) I enjoy the term “half-quibbled”, and (b) I had not yet clarified the indeterminate nature of the cat’s ownership in the final paragraph when they wrote that.

March 12, 2011: Spilling sand in the sandbox: tying up loose ends

“Bwian” commented on The Adventures of Heisenberg’s Cat:

The PCs are the centre of the universe! Yay!

I agree with this very strongly. The game can’t help being what the participants together make it. This includes the players—therefore their characters actions are key—as well as the GM—whose input is also key, in a different way. The whole enterprise works better if the GM responds to what the players have their characters do. But also in reverse—it helps if the players take account of what the GM just introduced when deciding what their characters do.

The other side of this is that if what the GM is trying to do is make the world seem ‘world like’ to the players, then using 1) ‘secret plans’ (or introducing pre-planned situations, if you prefer) can be helpful sometimes; and 2) as you so remarked, the situation when the players return to the city better be different than it was when they left. This tends to introduce a need for the GM to silently ‘keep track’ of what is ‘happening’ off-screen. That can be at a small scale (what are the orcs in the other rooms doing while the PCs batter down the door), or on a large scale (so what happened to that city, after the PCs left?).

As a GM I often end up with a lot of loose-ends dangling that require a lot of work (or brain-space) on my part to maintain consistency. Any ideas about how to make this less work to handle, while building/ unfolding a sand-box style environment?

First, I really don’t “silently keep track of what is happening off-screen” once the characters leave the area. What “the area” is will depend on what the adventure was, but if it’s not going to affect them, they’re out of the area. At that point, I don’t bother with what’s happening in that area. I tried to find a picture of Harold and the Purple Crayon for the article, because that’s pretty much the way I treat the game: it follows the player characters.

I really did mean it when I said “the plot doesn’t start until the players are involved” and “everything before that is just… potential backstory.” Of course I do keep notes when something occurs to me about a place they might go, or if something interesting occurs to me about a place they’ve already been. But that’s all they are until the player characters actually go there—scattered notes.

I also write a short summary after each session. If the players return to an area, I go back over these summaries and extrapolate what’s happened since. And if I need to introduce something new later, I’ll do a search for something similar in their previous adventures. This allows me to tie in any old incidents they’ve forgotten about with new incidents they’re meeting—i.e., potentially tie up loose threads.

This way, when they suddenly take an interest in the world tree, the adventure will include the druid they just met two adventures ago. Their current adventure didn’t originally include her, and she was just a throwaway character in the old adventure. But now they’re biting on the world tree myths they’ve been hearing? No problem, I’ll pull in the fatherless young druid they rescued earlier.

  1. <- Yuma Dungeon
  2. The tablets of Enki ->