ST 381: Creating a Plotkit

What is a Plotkit For?

The Mind’s Eye Society’s storytellers use “plotkits” to communicate intentions or plans for games. A plotkit might cover as little as a single session – or even a single scene – or outline months of play. Plotkits are most commonly used when communicating with storytellers at different levels of the organization. A venue storyteller might write a plotkit to obtain approval for some restricted item from their regional storyteller, or a national storyteller might write a plotkit for every venue in the nation to run. Other plotkits are written by a single storyteller as a brainstorming or planning tool, or to ensure that records of their plans are available to their successors.

The focus of a plotkit is the expectations of the author regarding some episode of actual play. This remains true whether you’re writing a generic kit for wide distribution, a specific scenario focused around a single PC, or a plan for a night of horror and madcap capers at a convention. The map is not the territory, nor is the plotkit the gameplay. Play will always entail some measure of improvisation, but the expectations communicated by a good plotkit ensure that the implementing storyteller and the approving storyteller are on the same page about what improvisation is appropriate.

Equally important to the initial – and ongoing – expectations set by a plotkit is the reporting of its results. Just as the plotkit sets out the storyteller’s intentions going in to play, the report outlines the results of play and the contributions of players and PCs to the evolution of the story. Supervising storytellers or successors can then take this outcome into consideration in further planning and development, assisting them in weaving the illusion of a grand, integrated chronicle.

Generally a plotkit will only require reporting at its conclusion, but ongoing or complicated plotkits might require more frequent reports. These could be monthly, or even after every game session. If you are a point of contact for a plotkit that requires frequent check-ins, do your best to make them useful for the other side. Show that you are reading the reports you receive, and try to provide support and value to the reporting storyteller. Running a LARP is a tough job, as is supervising other storytellers, but working together can make it easier for everyone.

What Should a Plotkit Contain?

When writing your plotkit, you will generally want to start from the MES plotkit template. The template is a standard used for plotkits throughout the organization. Plotkits are not required to adhere to it, but many storytellers will be used to it. Deviate from it when your plotkit’s development has been frustrated by its limitation, but still consider it a firm outline of the ground you must cover.

1. Concept / summary

The initial concept / summary is your first – and, in many cases, only – opportunity to sell your plotkit to your fellow storytellers. Within a few short sentences, you need to explain to them what your plotkit is, why they’re reading it, and why they want to take the time to understand it and incorporate it into their game. Focus on the highlights: why is this awesome? What will it add for them and their players?

2. Setting and Mood

While not the next section in the outline, Setting and Mood likely follows on most directly. While it has other objectives, the chief purpose of this setting is to establish background and continuity for the plotkit. Consider: what has occurred before the curtain opens? What events have lead to the scenario the plotkit embodies? This context is essential for the storytellers running your plotkit, as it is the basis they will have to employ when improvising new situations and outcomes within the broader framework. But in World of Darkness games, there is a secondary, practical benefit: many supernatural abilities allow characters direct access to information about the past. Storytellers running your plotkit will need this information to deal with these powers; consider, also, factors that might prevent characters from using these powers.

The mood portion of this section is your opportunity to communicate vital thematic, stylistic, and genre information. As with continuity, the purpose is to provide storytellers with a basis they can draw upon when improvising. While each storyteller who runs your plotkit will have their own distinct style, with their own preferred themes and generic twists, ideally a short description of the mood you want your plotkit to invoke will create some commonality. In turn, you are relying on the storytellers reading – and running – your plotkit to communicate this mood to players, which will set their expectations for events to follow. Be certain that your described mood matches the contents of the scenario you design; while it is difficult to communicate, few things upset players more than radical swings of mood, genre mismatch, or bait-and-switch storytelling.

3. NPCs

The NPCs section is possibly the most variable part of any plotkit. For a plotkit designed for a single venue or an individual player, this section might be incredibly detailed, going so far as to present names, personalities, backgrounds, and even character sheets for significant NPCs. This might also be used in a plotkit for wider distribution – for an NPC with an excessively multiple nature, for example, or an extremely potent NPC capable of rapid travel and unlikely to be permanently killed – but this is unusual and unlikely. More typically, these kits will contain archetypes – models or categories of NPCs that storytellers can draw on to quickly develop a cast for their instance of your plotkit. Writing a good archetype is hard. They need to be generic, adaptable to any region, venue style, and power level, but also specific to the role they play in your plotkit.

4. Phases

Finally, the Phases section is the meat of your plotkit. It’s here that you plot out the narrative arc(s) you expect storytellers running the kit to follow, and provide them with the tools they’ll need to do so. Often, you won’t want this information to be more detailed than session (or “chapter”) level, but you might go as far as detailing individual scenes of import or zoom out to cover several months of play.

While the MES plotkit template implicitly advocates a linear series of phases, this is unlikely to adequately express the complexities of actual play. It’s possible to write a plotkit this way, but it tends to lead to linear, frustrating railroads, roller-coasters, or other theme park metaphors. A more robust design model is White Wolf’s Storytelling Adventure System, which establishes a network of scenes and a branching flow between them. This is an extremely powerful model, capable of capturing the essence of scenario designs both specific and general.

The phase subsections in the template are especially optional. Very rarely will you write a phase featuring every single one. Pick and choose the most relevant to a storyteller executing that particular phase.

Phase and Scenario Design

When writing the phases of your plotkit, keep in mind how your write-up will be used in play. Some storyteller – maybe even you! – will be running a live game and desperately need to reference some piece of information. The simplest principle is to keep related information together on a single page. Whether looking at a print-out, a tablet, or a computer monitor, your readers will often only see a whole page at a time. Add page breaks as needed to produce useful pagination.

Each phase will describe objectives and obstacles. Objectives are end-points desired by NPCs involved in the events of the plotkit, or likely to be desired by PCs. Early phases will be based on the described setting and mood, while later phases will follow on from preceding events. Obstacles prevent characters from realizing their objectives, providing the essential source of conflict from which the story arises. Two different groups of characters will often have opposed or mutually exclusive objectives, leading to the actions by each to fulfill their objectives becoming obstacles for the other group. This dynamic opposition naturally creates tension and drives play, while leaving open the overall direction of the story.

A common pitfall when writing a plotkit is to pre-determine events and outcomes. This is frustrating for players, who resent being shoehorned into a script and denied the ability to contribute. The extent of their involvement in play is the actions their characters take. If the results of these actions are not reflected in the world around them, their involvement becomes shallow. Don’t just allow PCs to take a scenario in unexpected directions, expect it and welcome it.

When developing your phase and considering likely PC objectives, be sure to consider the basic question of involvement: why are the PCs here at all? Walking away – or simply not coming to game – is always an option. Your scenario must be relevant to the PCs whose involvement you expect, with either some clear reward they are to pursue or obvious consequence they are to avert. These don’t always need to be rational, and emotional stakes are usually much more compelling, but they must be present, or characters will make the rational move when confronted with opposition and go somewhere else.

Given a desirable objective, the obstacles that prevent its realization form the meat of play, and revolve around two primary questions. The simplest is why the obstacle is an obstacle – what about it prevents the objective from being achieved? What is the difficulty? The trickier question is the cost of bypassing or surmounting the obstacle. This might be a character expending or risking some resource (Willpower, magical power, or mundane currency), it could be simple opportunity cost, or it could take the form of harm to something else the character cares about.

In order to be meaningful to players, there must be an element of choice to a cost. If the cost is mandatory to continue playing the game, it becomes a meaningless, rote gesture, like feeding quarters into an old-fashioned arcade machine. When writing a plotkit, ensure that any costs you describe are justified, and remain open to players substituting alternative costs that match your justification, or even being cunning enough to circumvent the cost entirely.

The Core Approaches

Another consideration when designing and describing obstacles is the core “five approaches” to problem-solving in roleplaying games:

  • Violence involves overpowering the obstacle. This can mean killing, but includes other ways of using power to brush an obstacle aside, such as intimidating a reporter into giving up on a story, torturing information out of a suspect, or driving a troublesome business under.
  • Diplomacy resolves an obstacle by finding common ground, or making enemies into friends. This usually means showing them some common procedural objective, but may also involve subtler emotional connection.
  • Negotiation removes an obstacle by trade or exchange, with a character paying a price to get closer to their objective. In addition to the obvious mercantile barter, this also includes the trading of favours or supernatural bargains.
  • Deceit resolves obstacles by trickery or subterfuge. This will almost always involve appearing to employ one of the other approaches to elicit a specific reaction that creates an opening or possibility that did not exist before.
  • Avoidance is the absence of the other approaches. Sneaking past an obstacle is avoidance, but so is finding a novel and unexpected approach to a problem that resolves it by doing something else entirely.

Consider what approaches seem to be obvious ways to resolve each obstacle present in a phase of your plotkit. If you can see how two or more approaches could conceivably resolve the obstacle, it’s probably a good obstacle, and flexible enough that players will find some satisfactory way to apply their preferred approach.

Consider the range of obvious approaches across an entire phase. A scenario with obstacles that demand a diversity of approaches encourages the involvement of multiple players, allowing PCs with different specializations to demonstrate their competency. This is important to the dramatic, political game as well, as it allows characters to bargain and haggle over the application of their specialty. This is to your advantage, since you – and storytellers running your plotkit – get much more mileage in play from the work you put in.

Bringing the Horror

As the games the Mind’s Eye Society runs are horror games, it behooves the authors of plotkits for our chronicles to consider how to incorporate horror elements into their scenarios. Shock horror and gruesome description are the obvious answer, but quickly lose their impact or descend into parody from overuse. To compensate for this, many World of Darkness games incorporate an element of internal horror, confronting characters with the possibility that they themselves could become – or might already be – something terrible and monstrous.

This is valuable when developing obstacles for a plotkit. Don’t be afraid to incorporate an easy out into an obstacle, but attach a cost to that easy out in terms of a Morality (or equivalent) check, Beast Trait accumulation, or Renown loss. While some characters may be able to eventually ignore the cost attached to specific acts, consider that many in-game organizations have social or political sanctions against indulging a monstrous nature. A reprehensible but easy course of action that must be taken publicly can have many of the same benefits, even if the character is unaffected by it mechanically.

Callbacks are also fair game. Having a terrible act that a character believes they got away with in secret resurface later in public is a staple of gothic horror. It’s perfectly appropriate if costs like this aren’t obvious upfront, but continue to resurface down the line to remind a character of the choice they made, and raise the spectre of social or political consequences. Like haggling over specialties, this lets you recoup many times over the effort invested in your plotkit.

Magics Diverse and Terrible

Practically every World of Darkness game has a variety of powerful supernatural abilities available to player characters. If you do not consider what inhuman abilities the target audience of your plotkit might bring to bear, obstacles you thought were daunting will become trivial. The sheer number of abilities available seems to make this an impossible task, but there are a few simple tricks that can aid you.

First, do not ever assume that your target audience will apply any particular power to resolve an obstacle. Even if you know that the target player for a plotkit has it on their character’s sheet, there’s no guarantee they will think to use it. Paradoxically, this simplifies your work, as you can think in broad strokes, and the answers you devise will generally remain useful even if you’ve missed something. Your plotkit will deliver a compelling experience to players who never touch their powers, and a different compelling experience to those that fling them around.

Consider, first, common 1-3 dot powers. These are available to practically any character, without significant investment or specialization. If they’re useful in resolving your obstacle, that’s good! If they allow a character to bypass an obstacle entirely – or, worse, a series of obstacles – that’s bad. These obstacles need something extra, some complication that arises out of easy resolution. Even if the power is successfully applied, what complications could ensue? If the power gathers information, reveal some other obstacle that is wrapped up with this one, rewarding the characters even as you stymie their progress. If the power has an external effect, if it changes the world somehow, incorporate some manner of secondary consequence, a new obstacle that arises from an incomplete solution to the first. In this way, clever and careful application of even these basic powers is rewarded.

At the opposite extreme, an obstacle that can be bypassed by an uncommon 4-5 dot power – one that requires specialization, effort, or considerable investment to acquire – is extremely solid. (As long as there’s some other way to deal with it as well) An obstacle like this offers specialized characters the opportunity to show off, and validates the decisions made by their players. Often, players will buy powers because they think using them will be cool. Give them an opportunity to do so.

This leaves a broad, grey middle ground – common 4-5 dot powers, and uncommon 1-3 dot powers. These powers require some effort or specialization to acquire, but little enough that any given character can be expected to have at least one, and probably several. Obstacles that can be bypassed by these powers might need something extra, as above, but shouldn’t always. Like specialization in a particular approach, being able to demonstrate the ability to easily bypass certain obstacles gives PCs political currency, driving play with little further investment by storytellers.

Results and Limitations Design

You don’t know what the results of a plotkit will be.

You can guess what the results of a plotkit might be. What actually happens is going to be the product of many creative inputs, yours among them. When writing a plotkit, you should still have an endgame in mind. In fact, you should have several – at least two, but even more, if you can keep them straight. The purpose of these endings is not to lock down how things will end, but to communicate your intentions. They’re the target you’re aiming for.

At the very least, the two outcomes you envision must be:

  1. The PCs achieve one or more of their objectives
  2. The PCs fail to achieve any of their objectives

Consider what each looks like. What happens? This is especially important for failure, as the looming spectre of their failure is often a major motivator for players and their characters. In order for this to work, though, the failure state of the plot needs to be visible and plausible. The MES generally does not sanction paradigm-changing events, so outcomes like “the world is destroyed”, “the city vanishes under a tidal wave of flaky puff pastry”, or “the city’s vampires become reality TV stars” are generally unworkable, and should be avoided. If players see these outcomes coming, they will often realize there is no serious chance of failure and check out.

Leave space for other, unexpected outcomes beyond the ones you envision, and provide some guidance for dealing with them – or communicate how you intend to deal with them. Whether you’re writing a plotkit that you will be running once it’s approved, or you’re writing a plotkit to hand over to someone else, unexpected outcomes must be reported. What do you need to know or say? Lay this out clearly.

Some outcomes or directions will be completely unacceptable. Fortunately, MES storytellers have almost unlimited power to say “no” to everything from character sheets to backgrounds to character actions within their jurisdictions. This power is most effective when used sparingly, so consider: what do you need to place out of bounds?

Be sure to justify these limitations. Tie them back, if you can, to the fundamentals of the plotkit – its setting, mood, and concept. If they feel more precautionary than proscriptive, that’s good!