ST 312: Adaptability

“The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft a-gley” –Robert Burns

In war, no plan survives contact with the enemy.  In a roleplaying game, be it tabletop or LARP, no plan survives contact with the PCs.  Players have a tendency to do the most unexpected, ingenious, or downright insane things imaginable—things which catch even the most prepared ST completely flat-footed and take what was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill scene off in a completely unanticipated direction.

Every Storyteller has been there, and every Storyteller reacts differently when it happens.  Some tear their hair out, some try to force the scene back “on track.”  Sometimes, it can be hard to let go of a carefully-thought-out plotline.  After all, they don’t just fall off of trees; a good plotline requires a lot of hard work and planning!

The best Storytellers, though, see such unexpected changes of direction not as obstacles or hardships, but as opportunities to make the game better by tapping into the wellspring of player creativity.  A LARP is not a story written by one person, but a collaboration between many authors.  By maintaining scene flexibility, a canny Storyteller can tap into the creativity of the players, and quite often, discover an unexpected resolution to a scene which is more satisfying than what they originally envisioned.

Many Roads to the Same Place: Plotting the Adaptable Scene

The key to being adaptable is to remain flexible.  When taking a long trip, there are generally many routes one can take to reach a destination.  Some will be more direct, others more roundabout, but they all go to the same destination.  In fact, it may be better to take a more roundabout route—the scenery might be more interesting, or you might discover new places to visit.  The same applies to scenes.  Think in terms of destination, not in terms of the specific route that will be taken to reach that destination.  That way, if a particular route becomes closed off due to unforeseen circumstances, alternate routes are readily available.

When planning out a scene, the adaptable Storyteller should think in broad strokes.  It’s important to have a clear idea of what HAS to happen in the scene, and be prepared to treat everything else as negotiable.  Likewise, even if the ST has a clear solution to a problem in mind, he or she should be prepared to entertain the possibility of alternate solutions.

Suppose, for example, that Bob the VST is running an encounter in the Umbra, where players are being tested by a spirit.  One of the puzzles involves a room with a closed door and three switches outside.  The spirit explains that inside the room is a single lightbulb.  One of the switches turns on the bulb.  It is up to the players to figure out which switch activates the bulb.  The characters may throw any number of switches, but may only enter the room once.

Bob has a specific solution to the problem in mind: players should throw Switch A, wait several minutes, then quickly turn it off, throw Switch B, and enter the room.  If the light is on, Switch B controls it.  If the light is off, but warm, then Switch A controls it.  If the light is off and cold, Switch C controls it.  Bob is prepared to allow Enigmas chops to get clues to the solution, and he thinks he’s covered all the bases.

Then one of the players points out that the spirit never said they couldn’t simply open the door, stand outside, and see which switch turns on the light before entering.

There are a couple of ways Bob could handle this situation.  He could say, “Oh, no, obviously the spirit would have told you that you can’t do that.”  This is not an optimal solution.  It seems slapdash and sends a clear message that Bob, as the ST, didn’t think things through fully, and it is likely to leave the PCs unhappy at having their solution shot down by an after-the-fact rules change.

On the other hand, Bob could go with the flow.  Yes, the PCs found a loophole in his riddle…good for them!  It shows that they’re thinking on their feet.  They open the door and flip the switch, and the light goes on.  The spirit praises them for being alert, telling them, “It’s important not to overcomplicate things.  Sometimes, the simple solution is the right solution.”  The players are happy, because they feel like they solved the puzzle correctly.  To an outside observer, it looks like that was the solution Bob had in mind all along.  He appears calm, cool, and collected, his Storyteller credibility still firmly in place.  It’s a win-win situation.

Thinking on you Feet: NPCS in the Adaptable Scene

One critical element to an adaptable scene is NPCs who are similarly adaptable.  This requires a certain amount of preparation and work, both on the part of the ST and the NPC.

In order to have flexible NPCs, the Storyteller needs to extend a good deal of trust to the people running those NPCs.  Thus, it’s important to select people who can take the ball and run with it, thinking on their feet while staying true to the characterization and motivation of the NPCs in question.

Once NPCs are recruited, again, the emphasis should be on broad strokes, not micromanagement.  The Storyteller should equip them with broad motivations and goals, not line-by-line scripts.  Above all, the adaptable ST needs to accept that NPCs are expendable, and that means all NPCs.  While NPCs are important to the story, it’s crucial to remember that the story is ultimately about the PCs.  Whenever possible, it should be PCs initiating solutions to problems, not NPCs.  Never make one NPC absolutely indispensable; if a given NPC with key information dies unexpectedly, for instance, the Storyteller should be prepared to introduce the information through another source.  That’s not to say that the alternate source may not be less reliable or more difficult to find; after all, actions have consequences.  If the players gun down the helpful vampire informant who was going to tell them how to stop the Dark Ritual of the Midnight Storm, it may very well be that they’ll have to get that information out of a different informant who will make them pay dearly for it.

Prophecies  and Plot Devices: Using the Mcguffin

Scene adaptability can also be used proactively, rather than reactively.  Sometimes, it’s all right to introduce a plot question without knowing the answer in advance.  A wise Storyteller will listen to the players, and listen to their speculations and proposed answers.  If those proposals make sense, he or she can then incorporate them into the “correct” answer.

This can be particularly effective with prophecies and visions.  Many characters in Werewolf: the Apocalypse have talents and gifts which give them prophetic capabilities, and it’s always difficult to ensure that such prophetic visions come true.  When presented with a prophecy rife with symbolism and portents, players will invariably start trying to figure out what it means.  It’s relatively simple to take their best ideas and retroactively make them correct, or at least partially correct.   This gives the players the satisfaction of “solving the mystery,” and also means that they’re helping write the story…resulting in less work for the (probably overworked) Storytellers!

Conclusion

No Storyteller can think of everything, and no Storyteller can anticipate everything players are going to try.  Ultimately, that’s a good thing; otherwise, there would be no surprises at all, and running the game would be a very dull experience.  By listening to player ideas, the Storyteller gains the benefit of their perspectives and ideas.  Keep track of when these adaptations occur so you can work with the storyline and players. Many heads are better than one; players will invariably think of things the Storyteller overlooked.  By incorporating their ideas and the things they hope to see, the ST gives them a greater feeling of investment in the game, and the feeling that they’re doing well and making a difference in the world.  Ultimately, the game is more fun…and having fun, after all, is what the game is about!