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Plot-free RPG - a welcome change?

A few thoughts - feel free to chip in!

For some time, the trend in RPGs seems to have been for lengthy, even epic plots. Whether it's City of the Spider Queen for D&D, or The Enemy Within for WFRP, or my own adaption of The Red Hand of Doom for Legends of Corwyn, the default - and assumed gold standard - is definitely to have an adventure with a strong, well-defined plot.

While the upside of this is that the players get to enjoy a strong, well-written story, there is also a downside. Role-playing games are not novels or movies, no matter how much we writers of RPGs are really frustrated authors and screenwriters! The original joy of RPGs was the freedom that the players had to make their own adventures. The problem with a rigid plot in an RPG campaign, is that - by definition - you have to move the PCs from one scene or act of the plot to the next, all the way to the final confrontation.

And the problem with that is - the freedom of the players to determine what their characters do is - in reality - largely an illusion, or at least severely curtailed. Now, a good GamesMaster can take a number of approaches to work around that problem. He or she can add their own elements to give the players a lot more freedom away from the main plot (my preferred approach). Equally, a skilled GM can let the players do as they wish, and then improvise quickly to get them back on track. But at some point, ultimately the GM's skill will come down to how well they can disguise the cold, hard truth that the PCs are being railroaded along a pre-determined track.

What's the alternative? Do we really want to chuck out 40 years of painfully hard-won understanding of scenario design, and go back to the earliest days of RPGs, where the DungeonMaster draws a dungeon on graph paper, populates it with some monsters and treasures, and lets the players do as they will?

I have to admit, this is how I started GM'ing my earliest games in the early 1980s. I invented dungeons and adventures on the hoof, and the players more-or-less created the memorable events out of their own actions, the most memorable and hilarious being the cock-ups and disasters. As we went along, a home-brew fantasy world grew up around these dungeons. The longer we went on, the more complex and interconnected this world became. Eventually, by some organic process, the PCs left the dungeons behind and became fully occupied with the politics and wars of this world we had created between us. That campaign went on, in one form or another, for 15 years.

However, I think there is a third way between epic plot-heavy railroads and the chaos of the full 'old-school' experience...

(see next post for Part Two)

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.” Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Part Two:


As some of you may remember, I have run a couple of campaigns at the club using AEG's Spycraft rules. Spycraft contains a rule mechanism called "Backgrounds". Now, for those of us who habitually write a thousand-word essay on their PC's previous life (wait - doesn't everyone do that?) this may seem a rather over-elaborate, rules-bound way to get players to give their characters a backstory.


However, what the Backgrounds mechanism does in Spycraft is allow the players to choose from a number of loosely defined types of background, and gives the GM a mechanism both for throwing appropriate menaces and spanners in the works for the player in question, and also for rewarding this in the form of Experience Points, etc.  A 'Background' in the Spycraft sense, is a PC-specific sub-plot that can be activated at the GM's whim. The level of threat and the level of reward are connected by the rules mechanism. This works very well for a game based on espionage thrillers, where having a terrible secret suddenly come up that you need to hide, or a revenge-seeking KGB cyborg suddenly attack, actually fit the spy-fi atmosphere well.


So, how does that help?


Confession time. And apologies to those who played in my second Spycraft campaign a few years back. This was Spycraft: Deniables, and I was experimenting with a different way of running a game.


Normally, an espionage game will have a really strong plot, which the PCs have to uncover and (frequently) race against time to defeat. Yeah... not so much in the case of Spycraft: Deniables. I raised the rewards for taking backgrounds, and more-or-less insisted that every PC had to have one. I then started the campaign off, with no actual plot at all!


I apologise to the players concerned, because I never actually told them this.


Instead, what I did, each week, was activate one of the PC's backgrounds. In each week's session we'd resolve that PC's problems from their background/sub-plot. Then, in the next session we'd move onto to someone else's background. In between each session, I'd do a moderate amount of improvisation to work out a post-hoc connection between the backgrounds, to provide the illusion that they were all part of a meta-plot. I think, I believe, I  hope we all had fun.


I plan to do something similar with the Tunnels & Trolls short game I will be running for the next couple of weeks. T&T is a genuine old-school RPG, and very rules-light, so it lends itself well to my natural light-touch story-telling style. Indeed, it is where that style was originally formed.


So, I have provided a number of pre-generated backgrounds. These are pre-generated – rather than letting the players write their own – merely to save time, as we only have a two week slot. Plus also, it means I can make sure they’ll allow me maximum opportunity to torture the poor PCs involved!  😉


Anyway, what will happen is that I’ll provide a ‘sandbox’ setting, by using a combination of old T&T solos and GM dungeons, then let the players loose and see what they do. If they play up to the character backgrounds, the results will be (a) completely unpredictable, and (b) more than enough chaos to fill two weeks game time!


So, what’s your view on ‘scripted’ vs ‘unscripted’ gaming? Do you want epic plots? Or do you like a bit of old-school random weirdness? What do you think of my third way? Let me know in comments and replies!

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.” Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)