Welcome to the plots and scope article in the Schrödinger's Gun GMing series!
Let's get something straight right now: Story is not just awesome things happening. Story is how people react to the awesome things happening around them. If a tree falls in the wood and there's nobody there to witness it, then by our Schrödinger's Gun definition of reality it hasn't happened until someone either sees it happen or discovers the fallen tree. By the same token if you have a pile of really cool things that happen in your game and nobody really cares, chances are you've missed a connection to the people involved, either the player characters or someone close to the player characters. In this case awesome things happening don't mean much without a context that matters to the player characters.
Plot is subtly different. It's not Story by itself, but Plot provides the underpinnings or plan for the Story to build from. Uncoincidentally, the verb "to plot" means to plan secretly, or to map out, or to determine and make points as on plotting paper. All of these definitions have a place in gaming, especially as we start talking about Plot Points which are nothing more than scenes or ideas or things that happen to cause the Story.
Thinking About Plot Points
You create Plot Points to guide the action of your in-game Story. I like to think of Plot Points like dominos, one falls and causes waves of future dominos to fall. But here's the thing: with Schrödinger's Gun GMing all dominos that haven't fallen yet remain in your hand waiting to be placed in a Grand Pattern. This gives us tremendous flexibility at the cost of more work keeping everything straight. We'll get back to organization techniques in a bit.
So each Plot Point is a single idea, but not all ideas carry the same weight. To treat "Discover someone knows who killed Joven's family" the same way as "War breaks out" may make perfect sense since they're both Plot Points, but they're tremendously different in terms of Scope. War will plunge two nations into bloodshed, while finding a bit of information may only interest one person. A Plot Point's Scope informs us about where it belongs in terms of different areas of influence. Scopes will tend to get larger as the party gathers more influence and power, but it's useful to think about all Scopes at all levels starting at the very beginning of the game to provide a more realistic setting, especially since a single Plot Point can operate on several different levels of Scope simultaneously.
Let's nail down Scope a bit here. Scopes can be as simple as differing social groups, but for gaming purposes I think of wider and wider groups of people who have a generally unified opinion about something. With that in mind, I think of Scopes at different levels: Personal, Group, Town, Country, and World/Reality. Each Scope in this list can contain many Scopes of a smaller level, and if you really want to go insane you can think of Personal Scope as a collection of individual desires or moods, or keep extending the larger end and building a Multiverse Scope. I'll stick with these five scopes and leave extensions as an exercise for the reader.
Why Bother With Scope?
Working with Scope gives you depth of story. If Story comes from people reacting to events, then considering reactions across several Scopes will help your world come alive. Very few events have a unified universal reaction. Even invasion by Things Man Was Not Meant To Know was caused by a cell of cultists who wanted to open the portal for whatever misguided reason. Evil does not spontaneously pop into existence, it flows from the hearts and minds of sentient beings, and thinking about scope can help you show this to your players.
Since there are five Scopes in our working model, we can think of Scope as a third dimension in the 5x5 Design Method created by DaveTheGame to give us a framework for thinking about Plot Point Scopes. The 5x5 method tells us to take 5 Plots or Quests and give them each 5 Plot Points with different locations, then shuffle as needed to give the player characters something relevant to do when they start travelling the world. For purposes of Schrödinger's Gun GMing, we can actually ignore location of most Plot Points since in many cases the location doesn't matter and we want the flexibility to change location as needed for those Plot Points that haven't happened yet. Now let's add the Scope dimension into the mix and start thinking about how each Plot Point will cause a reaction at each Scope level. In the next article, we'll take the opposite temporal view and look at how to bait your adventure hooks using this same approach.
Let's take an example from the 5x5 Design Method article. Let's say the party meets Elrond and retrieves Narsil. What are the ramifications of that Plot Point in each Scope? I'm going to spin beyond Tolkien here, so bear with me. Personally, Elrond will form an opinion of the party, for good or for ill, which he may share with others. If there's a Group that wants Narsil for themselves, the party just picked up an adversary who may come after them. A City's leadership may get nervous about revolution when someone swaggers into town with Narsil sheathed at his hip, though the opposition Group may reach out and try to draft the party into leading a revolution. At a Country level, maybe different states are excitedly waiting for the wielder to return and unify the land. World-wide the party have just become big players on the international stage since Elrond has entrusted them with Narsil.
The options are limitless from your own imagination, and doubly so when your players get involved. If someone at your table happens to say, "I hope the Ringwraiths don't get their hands on Narsil," then you should be thinking of ways for that to happen and what the outcome would be. It might not work, but if your players are thinking along those lines then half your work is done since you've already got their buy-in on that particular Plot Point. Maybe Narsil will burn the Ringwraiths if they try to use it. Maybe they steal it and try to destroy it in a mirror image of the ringbearer's quest. What happens in your game is up to you and your group.
Scopes for NPC Depth
Every NPC should have Personal goals, but they may be involved in Plots at any level. That innkeper may just want to get rich, but she may be a leader in the Merchant's Guild, or she may be a spy for a rival country, or she may be looking for the hero of the prophecy, or all 3 of these may be true at once. If you think about yourself, you're not just what you do for a living. You have secret personal goals.You may be involved in a far-ranging group of online RPGers who can call on each other for random props or get-togethers. You may feel strongly about your country and want to enact some changes at the highest levels of government. You may want to explore the stars and prevent the cataclysm that will propel mankind back to the stone age. All of these are present in you all the time. By expending the little effort it takes to think in terms of Scope, you can add the same depth to your NPCs during play.
Ray Winninger's Dungeoncraft column from Dragon magazine in the late '90s (Read The Whole Dungeoncraft Series Right Now if you haven't - it contains some great campaign creation tips), and just this week as an article in Dungeon's Save My Game column.
If you run a game regularly, chances are you already have a primary Plot in place for the game. That's great! Now what about filling in everything that's not the primary Plot? Where do those ideas come from?
First and foremost, rely on your players. If they've thought about the background of their characters at all, at minimum you can mine a Personal Plot from that work. Village burned when Joven was young? Great! Drop a hint that someone may know who did it and see if they bite. Was Luwanda abandoned by her parents? Have her spot her mother in passing the next time she's in a market. Spin it out into possible Plots and pick the coolest part to bring to your game.
Take all of these answers and see where the opportunity exists for adventure and getting your characters involved. Does the king need some intelligence from a deniable freelance resource like an adventuring party? Can the party make a little extra money by reporting to a rival merchant on how well something sells from the caravan they're guarding? Boom, there's your next Plot Point. Even if you don't have the full plot right now, adding "loose" Plot Points can let you bring them together into something great later on. Sometimes your players will have better answers for why things happened than you can ever imagine on your own. Steal those answers and make them real in your game. It's what we GMs do.
Technoir, I suggest you do so now. Jeremy Keller has done a great job with the system in general, but I want to call out Transmissions. Transmissions provide the skeleton of a setting, a collection of Plot-relevant things such as people, places, groups, items, events, etc. which are waiting for the Story to create the relationships between them. Create 6 entries in each of the 6 categories, then you roll 2d6 and see what element you should forge a relationship with or otherwise use during play. If you're stuck on what to do for a Plot, working on a Transmission for your game is a great place to start. As the ideas flow about things that exist in your game world, you may become inspired to follow a connection and see what potential Story it tells you. Then you can adapt those ideas into your game's Story during play.
The Plot Point Stack
Most GMs have so many ideas they can't keep up. I try to keep a few Plots in my head and bring their Plot Points into the Story at the table. When it becomes too much to keep straight in my head, I fall back on my Plot Point Stack. It's nothing more than a collection of Plot Points and other Story-relevant ideas that I can shuffle and order as needed. Sometimes I'm uninspired and I draw a few Plot Points at random to see what the world will inflict on the party this time.
Once you have a pile of ideas, organize them in a Plot Point Stack. I write mine on 3x5 cards and shuffle through them because I like the tactile experience, but you can use an index card app or wiki or spreadsheet or database or whatever. Before every game go through your Plot Point Stack and pull out a few that you might use during the game. If nothing speaks to you, draw a few Plot Points at random. Have the selected Plot Points handy as you play, and add them to the Story as needed. If you're stuck on If you need to add some depth to an NPC, pull out a card and figure out how they're involved with that Plot Point and in what Scope they're operating.
Questions to Ponder
What is your main Plot's primary Scope? How do other Plots at different Scope levels feed into this? What Plots involve your characters right now? What Plots are waiting in the wings for the characters to discover? What adventure hooks are baited and ready to draw your characters into those Plots? How do you offer the PCs entry in whatever's coming up next in your game? Answers to these questions lead us into the next article about how to bait your adventure hooks.
Thanks for reading!
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Note: This article feels somewhat less coherent than I think it should be, but I wanted to keep the ideas in this series flowing. I'm planning on going back and editing the whole series, possibly for publication. If these articles are useful to you, please comment and let me know what would help you digest and use this information more effectively and I'll take your notes into consideration during editing. Thank you!