Sep 25

Plot vs. Story, Part 2: Losing the Plot


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmLast week I began a discussion of the competing terms “plot” and “story”.


For my long essay this week, I return to this discussion. The topic for today is what happens if the Players simply ignore a GM’s carefully crafted plot. There can be many reasons for this, both Player-focused and plot-focused.


The temptation for some GMs might be to railroad the story back to their chosen plot. This essay outlines some alternate approaches to this problem, hopefully avoiding the need for any heavy-handed intervention by the GM.


Basic Terms

But first, let us recap the definitions I am using.


My basic thesis is that PLOT means the storytelling part of a GM’s game preparation. This includes the plans of GMCs, natural disasters and any random event which appears in the path of the Heroes. These plans may vary in scope from the campaign-spanning plot to control the Cosmos, to the likely tactics of a warrior in combat.


All of these plots are intended to have an impact on the story, but they do not form the story. Plots do not control the narrative, for what plan survives contact with the enemy? However, every plot is intended to drive the narrative, to present a problem to the Heroes. Plot is the GM’s input into a roleplaying game.


STORY, in contrast, is what happens during a roleplaying game. This means the events at your table, the sum of the Player and GM contributions. Ours is a collaborative hobby, and the story is the product of this joint creation.


The ongoing story at the table is strongly influenced by whatever plot the GM introduces. However, this plot is only the starting point, the recipe for the session. What actually happens at the table is the story: game events, the banter, awesome stunts and swings of fortune. The story is the narrative created by everyone playing the game together.


Losing the Plot

So, plot is the GM’s prep, while story is what happens at the table. My preference is for the story to be led by the Players. This can result in a situation where the GM presents her carefully crafted plot, only for the Players to ignore it completely and head off to do something completely different.


What should a GM do?


Firstly, an RPG is not a vehicle for the GM’s carefully scripted story, where the Players are merely the awed witnesses. If this is the type of story you want to tell, then consider writing a novel. A writer legitimately has the level of authorial control required for this sort of tightly scripted story.


Possible Causes

Assuming you are not this type of GM, then I have some possible options for dealing with the problem of Players who refuse to engage with the presented plot. Your options are:

  • Re-engage the Players
  • Explain the Tropes
  • Keep the Wheels Turning
  • Bait and Switch
  • Run with the Ball


The first two options are Player-focused, while the last three are GM tactics.


Re-engage the Players

The first reason the Players may not want to follow the plot proposed by the GM is simply that they are not interested in it. If the Players are not engaged with the game, then you have a serious problem. Once you realise this might be your situation, then stop the game and ask the Players what they want from the game.


A campaign should have a premise, one that is clear to the Players. For example, the current cycle in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign is Sigil PD. The premise of this is a police procedural game set in the classic City of Doors. The Players knew the sort of game they were playing right from the start, and thus are happy to be assigned cases to investigate.


Present your campaign premise to the Players, and ensure everyone is happy. This process may involve some negotiation, primarily about the content of the premise. This is probably worthy of an essay of its own, but the short version is to find themes Players will agree upon. Once the Players have agreed the style of game they are playing, then they are more likely to follow an appropriate plot hook.


Explain the Tropes

In a similar manner to problems with the premise, it is possible that Players ignore a plot hook because they are not playing along with the tropes of the genre. The classic example of this is where the Players in a horror game refuse to enter the haunted house, because it would be “too dangerous”.


If you think you have this problem in your game, then the answer is once again to discuss the matter with the Players. By agreeing to play a horror RPG, then the Players are signing up to the conventions of the genre. Thus, the characters need to be willing to investigate all manner of mysteries in the expectation of finding horror within. This is how the genre works.


Of course, if the GM is trying to surprise the Players with a genre twist, then this is a different issue. For example, suppose you are running a hard SF game of travelling merchants in a starship. Problems may arise if the GM wants to switch the genre to emulate Alien, while the Players think they are playing Firefly.


Yes, this might be a cool switch of tone, but unsuspecting Players may not take the bait. The Players may simply ignore the spooky abandoned ship. The GM cannot be aggrieved if the Players just want to carry on with their interstellar trading, as they believe this is a trope of the current game.


Or, the GM should revisit the campaign premise to make it clear what style of game is being run. With the premise clearly established, the Players know what tropes apply, and thus the behaviours expected of them.


Keep the Wheels Turning

The other set of options for dealing with an ignored plot hook focus upon the GM. These are more subtle options, rather than simply stopping the game in its tracks and discussing the issue with the Players.


The first of these techniques is possibly the most realistic. Suppose the plot hook is a map leading to the dungeon of a necromancer. The Players are offered the map, but are not interested. Rather than push the issue, the GM decides to simply let the plot keep working away on its own.


Thus, without any intervention from the Heroes, the necromancer is able to work in peace and perfect his rituals. Now the necromancer is gathering an army. A new set of rumours are presented to the Heroes. If the Players still refuse to bite, then just keep upping the ante until the situation is so serious they cannot ignore it. By the time the undead hordes are besieging the city, you will have the Players’ attention.


By keeping the wheels of the plot turning in the background, the GM creates a sense of a living world, where events happen independent of the Heroes. This technique also creates an interesting dilemma for the Players if you present them with several hooks. The Players will weigh their decisions carefully in the knowledge that whatever threat they ignore now, it will turn into a greater one at a later date. This is an excellent way to run a campaign, involving some important decisions for the Players.


Bait and Switch

Another option for the GM is to bait and switch. By this I mean, use whatever hook the Players follow to lead back to the original plot. Thus, suppose the Players ignore the necromancer’s dungeon, and decide to solve the mystery of some stolen cows. Simply make the trail lead to bandits supplying meat to the necromancer’s dungeon.


This method is a little more interventionist by the GM, and needs careful handling. There is real choice here, as the Players are choosing how to interact with the main plot. Ensure there are benefits from this choice, such as additional information about the dungeon from the bandits, or the gratitude of the peasants.


The risk here is that Players see the GM controlling the story, guiding it ever back to her chosen plot. Be subtle about the connections, and this can work for you. If you are too overt in bringing the story back to the favoured plot, then it can affect the Player’s trust in you. So, handle with care.


Run with the Ball

The last option is for the GM to simply play along with what the Players want to do. Unless you have a strong attachment to your plot, there is a fair chance that whatever the Players come up with will be just as much fun. Indeed, I have found the Player-led plots to be more fun than my own, as there is greater Player engagement with the story.


This approach melds well with the idea of Heroes as nexus of change, as discussed in my first Trollbabe essay.


This technique does require a lot more improvisation on the part of the GM, which may not suit everyone. I am lucky enough to use a mechanically simple set of rules, so it is easy enough to improvise abilities at the table. Other rules sets may not accommodate this approach quite so well.


Let me tell you again how much I love HeroQuest 2.



So, if your Players reject the plot you offer them, then you have several ways of dealing with the issue. The best route are the latter options, where the GM weaves the plot back into the story, or simply runs with the Players’ suggestions. However, in extreme cases, a plot rejection may indicate some disconnect between the game the GM intends and what the Players want to do.


How do you deal with Players ignoring your plot? Have you ever tried following a Player-led story? How did that work out for you? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.


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Happy Gaming



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2 pings

    • Adam on September 29, 2015 at 6:04 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for your essay on plot and story.

    In my years of playing, I’ve consistently moved towards more rules light and improv friendly games. When the Players don’t bite on the situation I prepared, I go back to look at the characters backstory for hints on what they are interested in, and rework my situation to more focused on those elements. Then I will continue to do a mix of Run with the ball, and Wheels turning.

      • Phil on September 30, 2015 at 7:57 am
      • Reply

      Hi Adam,

      My experience with gaming is the same. I am not sure whether this is a natural evolution, or a reflection on my lack of time for the methods I first learnt as a GM.

      So glad you liked the essay, and thanks for sharing

  1. […] Something for the Weekend next week: Where’s my Plot? […]

  2. […] Plot vs. Story, Part 2: Losing the Plot […]

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