I have played in more failed tabletop roleplaying games than I have completed ones. (Many, many more. I think we all have. I’ve run my fair share, too.) What I mean by “failed” is not that we didn’t have fun or tell great stories, but more that the events brought up in the game weren’t resolved. There wasn’t a satisfying narrative arc. The game didn’t end. It just… petered out.
Just petering out is the default endstate for roleplaying games, and that’s a shame. How many campaigns stopped short before the end? How many players drifted away? How many stories were left untold? How many games are on permanent hiatus? I’m in three games run by one guy that have, at time of writing, no immediate plans for another session. I’m in another two that never got past character creation.
Not that I don’t enjoy sprawling games, mind – I’ve had some great groups where we’d just turn up every week and the GM would pretend that he had some big over-arching plot in mind and roll up a random encounter and we’d piss about until it was time to go home. But I prefer games that give us a story structure to work from, a narrative rhythm. For all the problems with Vampire: The Masquerade et al, the Chronicle structure of campaigns was at least a step – a terrible, faltering step – in the right direction.1
I’m no expert on making games happen, but I’ve got an idea that I’d like to share with you to help avoid the dreaded sensation of watching your game fall apart in your hands.
Quite often, the envisioned length of time for a campaign is “as long as it takes to tell the story” or “about six months” or, even worse, “forever.”
When you put together a new group, it’s like you’re putting together a band; don’t jump into a world tour before you’ve even played a song together. (A lot of the advice that follows is useful not only for new groups but for any GM who, like me, has problems becoming part of a regular group thanks to time constraints, travel problems, and general abrasiveness.)
You CAN run games that go on for years. You CAN run open-ended campaigns with a loose end-state in mind. But DON’T make that the first thing you do with a new group. DON’T make that the first thing you do as a new GM.
Plan out three games instead. Here’s six reasons why:
It’s a hard sell to get people to come along to a game every week – or every month, or every fortnight – forever. Or even for the forseeable future. You’re asking people (some of whom might not even be close friends of yours) to reprogram their social lives for you, and stuff’s going to get in the way. Groups are going to fall apart, even with a strong leader at the helm. Missing a game is no big deal if the group’s going to carry on forever.
Be up-front with your plan: tell your players that you’re running three games and then stopping – and you can continue afterwards if it works, of course, but you’re not locked in to participating once the three games are done. This is a great way to relax new or awkward players who are nervous about taking part, or to get people with busy social or family lives to play.
Anyone can come to three games. If they can’t do one week, they can generally tell you beforehand and you can reschedule or postpone. If they can’t commit to three games, odds are they wouldn’t be of much use in a longer campaign.
On the other side of the screen, it’s a damn sight easier for you to plan out three good sessions than it is to plan out an entire campaign to the same standard, so you’ve no excuse not to give it your all.
Playing three games gives you the classic three-act structure to work with; the first game is your setup, complete with inciting incident, the second game is your conflict, and the third gives you resolution. It works; there’s a reason that most films use this model. It’s flexible enough to allow your players leeway, and structured enough that it feels rewarding to progress through.
It’s easy to write stories that fit this model, especially in the conflict-heavy, investigative model that most roleplaying games use. Hell, you don’t even have to decide what the plot is way in advance; you only have to stay two fights ahead of the party. Pick out an inciting incident and spitball it from there; or, if you’re like me, plot and scheme and refine your ideas to make a story you’re really happy with.
FORCES YOUR HAND
You’ve got no room for flabby storytelling. You need to establish what’s going on fast and react to your players in a timely fashion. You can’t afford to, say, have one session where not much happens because you’ve only got three sessions to do everything.
The Three Game Plot is a challenge, especially for a new GM. It’ll do you good. It’ll force you to think in storytelling mode, to piece together a plot and steer the players through it. You don’t have to railroad players (although railroading is a difficult word and we really need to take a look at its usage) – you have to plan and react to them, take their decisions and give them some meaning in a narrative sense.
(Are they convinced that vampires are behind the murders, despite the fact that you’ve planned out for it to be… I dunno, werewolves? No problem. You’ve only got to plan out three sessions. You’re not rewriting an entire campaign. Stick some vampires in there. Whack in a corpse with no blood. Are the vamps being controlled by the werewolves? Are they manipulating the ‘wolves? That’s game two, now, all of a sudden. Be flexible. Don’t be too precious about your ideas.)
The players can sense the structure of the game, get a feel for the end of the plot, and make decisions appropriately. The very fact that the game is stopping soon will push players out of inaction and into action, and Doing Stuff is the core of good roleplaying. They’re excited.
And you’re excited, so plotting out the game isn’t a drag, because you only have to do it three times. Want to go all-out on handouts, or build some props, or make a playlist, or detail a climactic multi-stage finale? You don’t have to keep that level of quality for a year-long campaign – it’s just a month or so.
One-shots are good – I love me some one-shots – but they don’t always let you get a handle on your group with an eye to running repeat games. While you play, watch the others as they interact; maybe one player isn’t really suited to the group. Maybe the kind of story you’re telling isn’t going down right with most of the players. Maybe the group isn’t cut out for your style at all.
So what? It’s only three games. You can call it to a close at the end and no-one’s feelings will get hurt. Or you can change up the stories you’re telling. Or remake some characters. Or just walk away. You’re not letting anyone down, and they’re not stuck in some game they’re not really enjoying out of a sense of politeness to you. Everyone wins. Nip problems in the bud before they become serious.
Did the group have fun? Did you cement relationships, both in and out of character? Are they hungry for more? Great – do it again. Plan for five games. Or two. Or one. Carry on the story or tell a new one. Doesn’t matter. You’ve got ‘em hooked now. Even if you never play again, you told a story. You didn’t make characters and send them off into the void, leaving them trapped in the folds of your imagination, forever on hiatus.
Here, in no particular order, are some things that might help you run a Three-Game Plot.
BE FLEXIBLE, BE DEFINITE. Don’t leave a session saying “let’s play again soon” – leave a session saying “I’m free on these three dates. Which is good for you? When are we going to play again?” Email the group to cement a date.
HAVE A STORY IN MIND. As I said above, railroading is a difficult word. Say up front to the players that you’ve prepared a story about X and these three games will be them playing through this story, not farting around and doing whatever they want – be prepared to change it around if it suits, but don’t bend over backwards to accommodate their every whim.
THINK IN TERMS OF MOTIVATIONS, NOT ACTIONS. Work out what every important group wants, and why they want it, before you start writing masses of text; that way, if the players take the story in an unexpected direction, you’ve got the ability to work out how the other factions in the story would react.
DO MYSTERY PLOTS. Create a mystery and have the players solve it; threats should not be immediately clear, motivations should not be immediately obvious. Gumshoe from Pelgrane Press is great for this; it lets you get on with the meat of the adventure without faffing around with skill checks to find vital clues.
ATTACK THE PLAYERS. Don’t wait for the players to find trouble: throw it at them at every turn. Have them hunted in the streets, ambushed, burgled, tricked, trapped. Put them on the back foot; make them want revenge, or at the very least, to make it stop.
TRAP THE PLAYERS. Lots of horror films do this; don’t be ashamed to do it yourself. Making escape arduous, expensive, dangerous or impossible focuses the group on the task at hand.
END ON A CLIFFHANGER. Hard to do, but great if you can pull it off; giving the players an immediate problem to solve at the beginning of the next session rather than stopping at a lull in the action gives them a reason to return. Also you only have to do it twice, so it seems less contrived than normal.
1 “Oh, hey, you picked up a copy of Vampire: The Masquerade and you’re new to roleplaying? Okay, here’s how to play: First you should plan out a big story. No, bigger than that.
Make sure you have themes and motifs. Make sure you reflect the Gothic-Punk world. We haven’t given you any ideas of suitable encounters, because this isn’t a combat game. Most of the Disciplines focus around combat. This isn’t a combat game. This is a tragic tale of undead princes struggling to contain their beast within. Would you like to fire two Desert Eagles at once, because you can do that, that’s a thing.
Plan the END of a game before you start. Plan out ten games. Invite your players to take part. Get confused and scared when they leave your plan in this massively open-ended sandbox game where characters have no unifying motive. Have the chronicle crumble like wet sand. Give up.”