ST 391: Dealing With Player-Generated Plot

In any group of gamers, there are individuals who stand out.  Rather than sitting and waiting for things to happen, they actively go out and cause things to happen.  No matter which genre they’re playing in, and no matter which character they play, other players take note when they enter the room—because something interesting is going to happen.  They always seem to be at the center of events, because they make those events happen themselves.

These proactive players are not merely passive consumers of plot, but active producers of plot.  If a Storyteller knows how to support and cultivate such players, they can be a tremendous asset to the game.  If the Storyteller does not know how to smoothly incorporate player-driven plot, however, miscommunications and conflicts can result, which in turn detract from the overall enjoyment of the game for everyone.

What is a P4?

First and foremost, it’s important to be able to identify the proactive producers of player driven plot (PPPP, or P4 for short) in the game.  Generally, if the group consists of old friends who know each other well, this will be quite easy to do; however, new or unfamiliar players may take a little more investigation.

A P4 is a player who actively seeks to add to the story.  He or she is not the person sitting in Elysium waiting for something to happen; indeed, if the P4 sees people sitting in Elysium waiting for something to happen, he or she is quite likely to gather them up and make something happen.   A P4 is probably the player with a detailed background with lots of potential roleplaying hooks and ideas upon which the ST can build; frequently, he or she will also be the player who invariably has outstanding and eye-catching costumes for each character.

It’s also pretty easy to judge which players are P4s by the way other players treat them.  If the player is always eagerly recruited into packs or coteries, if he or she is the subject of many “war stories” (“Hey, remember the time Bob’s character Drakkus did this?”) then there’s a good chance that the player is a P4.

The best indicator of a P4, though, lies in his or her interactions with STs.  Rather than wait for STs to introduce a plot, the P4 will frequently come to them with plot ideas.  These might be related to personal goals (“I want to run for mayor,”) or they might be suggestions for plots the STs could introduce.  (“Hey, did you know that there’s a whole underground cavern complex just south of town?  Wouldn’t that be a great place for the local Black Spiral Dancers to set up shop?”)

On the care and feeding of P4s

Once the Storyteller has a solid idea of who his active, plot-generating players are, it’s important to cultivate those players and encourage their initiative.  The best way to do this is to understand what sorts of plots they like to produce.  All P4s are not created equal, and they’re certainly not created identical.

Some P4s are builders.  They’re primarily concerned with advancing their own character’s storyline, but they want to do it in a way that leaves a lasting legacy.  For example: Jen, a Garou player, wishes to create a fetish.  Rather than simply going through the basic steps and making the tests, though, she comes to the ST and asks if it’s okay for her to receive a vision guiding her to create this fetish.  The ST agrees, and together, they work to come up with the vision.  Over the next several months, she gathers the components for her fetish.  Some of these are in dangerous and challenging locations; consequently, she recruits the aid of other characters.  The end result is the same…her character has a new fetish…but along the way, she’s created a great deal of enjoyable and exciting RP for herself and for other players.

A good Storyteller should always be ready to listen to such ideas.  It may not always be possible to fully accommodate them—for example, if a player says “I want to be President of the United States,” that’s obviously a plotline that’s far outside of a VST’s authority to pursue.  Rather than say “No” to such ideas, though, it’s more productive to say “Yes, but…”  “Yes, I can see that eventually becoming President is important to your character…but what steps will he take to get there?  It’s very difficult to get elected without any kind of political track record; maybe he should run for a local office first?”  This could lead to all sorts of RP and plot opportunities—campaign speeches, election rallies, back-room wheeling and dealing with local bigwigs…and, of course, any good politician will need a campaign staff and bodyguards.  Whereas a “no” would simply end the idea then and there, a “Yes, but…” can lead to fun and exciting plot twists.

Other P4s are STs in the making.  Perhaps they’re aspiring writers, or perhaps former STs who are now players.  They’re the ones who will fill the ST’s mailbox with plotkit submissions, and who compulsively come up with new NPCs.  “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?” seems to be their catchphrase.  Again, the ST should take note of such players and do everything in his or her power to encourage their creativity.  The worst thing an ST can possibly do with such players is nothing; if repeated plotkit submissions meet with no response, if none of the ideas they offer ever turn up in the game, even the most enthusiastic and creative players will eventually become discouraged and stop trying.  Try to always make time to give feedback to such players; even if a particular idea is not workable or appropriate, it’s a good idea to explain why it’s not workable or appropriate.  Such feedback shows that the Storyteller values the player’s contributions, and also helps the player refine those contributions to make them more useful and more valuable.  A pat on the back also never hurts; while rewards of prestige are both appropriate and a good idea, there are other ways a Storyteller can reward the players who go above and beyond to generate plot.  Public thanks in the Domain newsletter, or an invitation to an “ST-only” lunch to discuss plot ideas, can go a long way towards keeping such a player motivated and engaged.

Thinking big: high-approval plots

Sometimes, players will think big–too big, in fact, for the VST’s authority to fully accommodate their ideas.  Some player-generated plots may take mid, high, or even national approval.  Obviously, in a situation like this, the ultimate approval of the idea is out of the VST’s hands.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the VST doesn’t have a role to play.  In fact, the VST’s role is a crucial one, because without it, such ideas may well wither on the vine.

First and foremost, the VST needs to be prepared to act as facilitator.  When the player first proposes the idea, the VST should explain that the idea will require approval.  If the player is unfamiliar with the approval process, the Storyteller should walk them through it, and be ready to let them know what level of approval they will require, and who they will need to work with to get that approval.  It’s always wise for the VST to have the contact information for the DST, RST, and NST available, should it become necessary–better to have it and not need it than to need it and have to hunt for it.

The VST’s role doesn’t end there, though.  Approval shouldn’t be just a matter of pointing the player in the right direction; the Storyteller should be an active participant in the process.  There’s a reason approvals require the VST to sign off on them before they move up the chain.  He or she should examine the proposal carefully and offer feedback and constructive criticism.  Rubber-stamping a poorly-thought-out or incomplete application does the player no favors.  Instead, the ST should work with the player to ensure that the plotline is solid, logical, and justifiable before submitting it for approval.

Likewise, the VST should be willing to talk to the officers on the other end of the approval process to make sure the proposal fits well into the overall storyline.   Does the player wish to build a giant theme park that will rival Disneyworld in the middle of New Jersey?  Great–but how will that impact games outside the immediate area?  Will it have an impact on other plots already in progress?  The local VST may not know these things, but the DST, RST, or NST will, and should be consulted accordingly.

When player-driven plot goes wrong

Sometimes, a player’s enthusiasm can work against the game.  If a player is intent on pursuing his or her own plots at the expense of the overarching plot of the game, it can result in conflicts and disruptions.  Perhaps even worse, players may be interested in pursuing a storyline that genuinely makes other players or STs uncomfortable.  Diplomacy and finesse are needed to turn such situations around and get the player working with the Storytellers, rather than at cross purposes.

Again, communication is the key here.  The Storyteller should make the time to sit down with the player and explain why his or her actions are an issue.   It’s important to keep it constructive: nobody wants to hear “Your plots are ruining the game!”  It’s far better to try to find ways in which the player can keep pursuing his or her plots, but in a way that won’t detract from other plotlines.

For instance:  Jason, a highly enthusiastic player, is playing Dr. Theopolis Blackmoor, a collector of antiquities.  He envisions his character as a crusading scholar who seeks out magical artifacts in order to understand them.  Unfortunately, in the course of his crusading, he has snatched away several artifacts important to other players’ goals and storylines.  Those players are now at a standstill, because the items they need to track down are locked away, and Dr. Blackmoor has no intention of letting them out of his sight.

Tammy, the VST, approaches Jason.  Rather than say, “Stop grabbing every magical artifact in the game, you’re wrecking our plotlines!” she compliments him on his enthusiasm and active play.  She points out, though, that he’s been a little too successful, and that some of the artifacts he’s obtained are critical to other storylines.  She asks him if he has any ideas on how he can continue to pursue his storyline, but also make it easier for other players to pursue theirs.  The two put their heads together, and come up with the idea of a spiritual advisor who guides Dr. Blackmoor’s activities, and helps him determine what should be done with the artifacts he finds.  Essentially, this gives Tammy an IC way to let Jason know that a particular item is related to another player’s plot, and put it into the proper hands.  He’s happy, because he’s able to continue doing what his character does best.  Tammy is happy, because she knows that he will now be helping further plots for other players.  The other players are happy, because their plots are back on track.

When dealing with sensitive or controversial issues–particularly those which may be trigger issues for other players–even more care is needed.    Storylines dealing with controversial topics can be powerful, but they also have the potential to bring up painful memories or make other participants genuinely uncomfortable.  To make matters worse, the offended players may be unwilling to openly talk about their discomfort.  When a player seeks to introduce a storyline that incorporates such elements, the VST should carefully consider the potential ramifications.  Are there members of the group who have indicated their discomfort with such topics in the past?  Is the potentially-offensive element really crucial to the plot?  Again, the best solution may be to openly discuss the potential problems with the player initiating the plot, and see what it is they really want out of it.  Perhaps the plotline can be modified to minimize the risk of genuinely offending other players, while at the same time retaining the elements which make it compelling in the first place.

Conclusion

With many hobbies, the more effort one puts into them, the more enjoyment one gets out of them.  A roleplaying game is slightly different: the more effort one puts into the game, the more enjoyment everyone gets out of it.  More effort by the Storyteller results in a better game for everyone.  Likewise, more effort by the players results in a better game for everyone.  Player-driven plots are a critical part of this.  By encouraging and facilitating player contributions, the ST can ensure that everyone in the game will reap the rewards.