The Whats and Whys of Plots
When talking about using short term or long term plots, we first need to understand why we use either one (or any plot at all). First, plot matters. It need not be the only thing going on. Some games lend themselves really well to PCs manipulating, evading, and combating one another. While this is plot, it is not the type of plot we are talking about. The plot we are talking about is designed and run by the Storyteller. As the arbiter of the world beyond the PC’s it’s important to run plots for many reasons.
Plot reminds the players that they do not exist in a bubble. Most games set in the MES make use of some sort of silence or masquerade in order to keep the actions of PCs secret. Plots can remind the PCs that this world exists. Plot also creates consequences for actions, even if only in theory. Knowing that there is a world beyond the room(s) game takes place in reminds the PCs that their actions can have consequences that reach beyond the scope of just this one session. Lastly, plot creates a sense of short or long term accomplishment and creates a narrative for the PCs. Looking back at the story of a city is almost as rewarding as playing through it.
So we have a rough idea of why we bother running plot at all, we’ll look at the differences between short and long plots. The differences are not hard.
A short plot is usually resolved in anywhere from one to three sessions. It has a small scope and, in general, should not be very complicated. If you are not quite sure how this works, take a look at some episodic television shows that are in the same general genre (Supernatural, Buffy, X-Files, etc) Each episode usually has 1 short plot attached to it. Sometimes they span 2 episodes, but rarely does it go beyond that. The plot is introduced, it is expounded upon and gets complicated, and then it’s resolved. Often this short plot ties into longer plot (say the overarching season or series) but we will talk more on that later. For now just note that this is the idea for a short plot. It involves only a few NPC’s if any, it has only a few twists and turns (usually one big turn if you want to twist the ending in some way) and it is eventually resolved.
If there is one part of this that is the most important, it’s the resolution. Rarely do television programs or short stories leave the ending too open. Usually you will want to tie these things up nicely. The antagonist is killed, defeated, bound, or flees the area. The item is found, destroyed, or taken by high ups. The goal is accomplished or the goal is missed by such a large margin that the opportunity is wasted. This matters because part of the goal of a short plot is to make the players feel as if they have accomplished something. If they never see the resolution they never feel accomplished, so make sure that they see the fruits of their labor. This is positive reinforcement.
A long plot is more akin (using the TV example) to an overarching story for a season or a series. It might be months or years before this plot culminates and information about it is released very slowly. A good rule of thumb is to release one piece of information every session for a long term plot, though if that plot is intended to be very long running (the whole of your campaign or over the course of years) then you should tone that back even further. We’ll talk later about some tips for this, but for now take a look at some fiction you like and see how often they hit on the main plot of a season or series or work of fiction.
A longer plot can be very rewarding for players, especially when they see hints of it coming that doesn’t match up with the plot they see. it also makes it seem (whether it’s true or not) that you had a plan all along, so dropping stray hints can really enforce your role as a storyteller. This can be very helpful at times. Your players likely know you as a person and maybe even as a storyteller, but each game you run is new and you benefit from creating the sense that you have a control over the world. It helps the players trust you with much greater depth, letting them tell stories that are much deeper and emotional. It help your players open up to you with their characters. This may sound hokey, but most players are very protective of their characters in some ways and they will want to know that they are in good hands.
Using Short Plots to Create Longer Stories
Because it occurs in regular sessions once every week or two (or once a month) your game will need to be somewhat episodic in nature. You can, of course, choose to try to work against this, but many storytellers find it easier to work with that format rather than pushing upstream.
Short plots will typically fall into one of three categories: world building, plot advancement, or character building. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but one is usually dominant. Mixing and matching themes of each is typical of more nuanced, full plots.
A world building plot sets the tone and background for your setting. It might talk about local history, introduce important NPCs, or highlight an antagonist you intend to use (the fact that most games use some of the same antagonists doesn’t mean you don’t need to introduce them to your characters and players … your ghosts will not be run the same as my ghosts or anyone else’s ghosts, so introducing your players to them and your expectations for them is important).
A plot advancement plot forwards your long-term, overarching plots using a shorter plot. For example: if you are running a long plot about a serial killer who is targeting the mob, then you might run a shorter story about a local gangster who is behaving strangely and trying to cash in all his favors so he can leave town and avoid the killer. Perhaps at the end of the session, the players find him dead with a calling card left behind. They have had a brush with the killer and know how he works now.
A character advancement plot focuses on a smaller number of PCs as the focus and tells a story about them. The overbearing parents of a younger PC show up in town and expect great things from them. An old lover begins to behave strangely. The house of a dead PC is suddenly alive with activity again. These plots focus on the growth and development of your PCs, though they are not exclusive to just being a one trick pony. Maybe the old lover is behaving strangely because she has ties to the mob now. This ties the plot together, serving two purposes.
This is not to say that you should sit down at the start of every game and say something akin to, “Tonight I will run a character development plot.” Plots should develops organically. Bearing these categories in mind will help you to remember the impact each session will have on your game and help you develop greater control.
Conversely, something that looks like a short plot need not be. Let’s say you’re running the above mentioned serial killer game and one of the short plots you’re running has the PC’s investigating a crooked businessman. At the end of the session they discover that the man himself was innocent and the real criminal was his secretary who fled while they were chasing after the poor man. That alone can serve as a good stand-alone plot. But what if she is later revealed to be the serial killer? What if she is working with him? What if she shows up dead a few months later and the PCs find themselves investigating the death of a woman that once hunted? Just because there was no indication at the time that she was important is no reason to limit yourself.
How do you accomplish this? Well, the easiest way is to have a plotkit prepared for the plot. More information can be found in ST 381: Creating a Plotkit. The second important thing is to keep notes of everything that happens as you go. If you need a new NPC, it is quite possible to reintroduce an old NPC to bring your game full circle. This also creates the impression that you had planned it all along …. and there is no reason to dissuade your players of this notion.
Layering Long and Short Plots
The last thing to cover is the way in which plots interact. First we’ll talk about how and why to layer your plots and then we’ll build an imaginary campaign, working off what we have above, to help cement the idea.
First, the idea works like this: when layering plots you will typically have 1-2 long plots running. They may intersect or interact in some way, but it’s not required. Then you will run short plots. The purpose of this is to either reinforce/impact your existing plot, to enhance the themes you’re using, or to give you and your players a break from that plot. You can lay these out on paper and chart them if you are really interested in it, but be careful about planning things too tightly. It is an unofficial rule that anytime you plan things down to the last detail players will derail your plans and you will have to throw it out the window. It happens to all STs eventually. So leave yourself some wiggle room to begin with and you will thank yourself later. More information can be found in ST 312: Adaptability.
In theory, we might have one overarching long plot that is the story of your campaign. At the start of game or a few sessions in you might introduce a second long plot that is almost as long, but ends earlier. Along the way you use short plots to drop hints and clues, to enforce the setting, and to help the PC’s get to where they are going without burning out. Let’s lay this out to help you along using the game we’ve started talking about above, but now we’ll put all the pieces together. The title of our game will be The Tell-Tale Tabby Cat. It’s a noir style mob mystery with a supernatural angle.
The Long term plot is that of the Tabby Cat killer, so called because he leaves a small stuffed cat as a calling card. the game opens with the PCs being asked to look into the death of a friend or a friend of a friend. She was a girl-on-the-side for a local mob boss and she was hurled from the top of a building onto the stuffed cat below. What the PCs don’t know is that her ghost is eager for revenge against her killer and that it will be haunting them throughout the campaign until they find him. Later in the game one off the PC’s discovers that they are a medium after a series of terrible dreams and exposure to some sort of death-ritual. It’s a short plot in which the PCs defeat the cult, but the effects are lasting and they are both personal and tied to the overarching plot.
Later, when investigating the short plot about the crooked businessman that same PC is hounded by images of the first dead woman. She haunts their dreams (she may have been haunting a few of them, but this will be the first real solid run in they have with her). She can be heard weeping or screaming and she might hurl things about the PCs apartment if she thinks he’s getting lazy.
Now we have a medium and we introduce our second long term plot: ghosts and their world. This plot involves many ghosts around the city growing powerful as the gauntlet begins to lower. This is not natural, but is part of a plan laid by the rest of the death cult to show the world what life after death is like. The PCs investigate the death of the secretary and find that she is also a victim of the Tabby Cat killer and must learn why.
The mood is now dark and we are heading into the end of the game, so you throw the PCs a bone. There is a short plot in which a local media personality hires them to see if his wife is cheating on him. This plot is sort of a door slam type plot that helps remind the PCs that the whole world is not terrible and gives them a reason to struggle to improve the situation of the citizens.
Finally we see what the players think is the end of the game: they corner the Tabby Cat Killer. They discover that he’s the wayward bastard son of the local Mob Boss who hates his father and wants to punish him. He leaves a tabby cat calling card in memory of a pet that his father killed before his eyes when he was younger, a fact that his hardened father has entirely forgotten. Either the PC’s kill him or he kills himself rather than being taken by the police (or he is taken by the police and killed in prison by his father’s men). It looks like the end.
The PCs go home and find the dead woman even more distressed than before. The gauntlet gets very thin and she can be heard shouting in a panic that he is after her again.
The conclusion to this second long plot takes the Pc’s to the heart of the death cult ritual where they must stop the cult from completing their ritual and contend with the ghost of the Tabby Cat Killer, now a powerful specter in his own right. The true end of this story happens when he is defeated and the ghost of the first victim is able to pass on peacefully.
…. that is only one example (and it need not end there) but it is a good example of how a simple murder mystery can be made into a whole chronicle using this process and by incorporating short and long plots on top of one another.