They say that the wisest man is the man who knows he knows nothing. And in a small sense, that’s true. But in a much larger sense, that’s actually complete and utter bulls$&%. I mean, think about it. Wise people are people who possesses information – factual information – about the world. By definition, a wise person is one that knows true things, not one that believes false things. So, the wisest person in the world must necessarily know lots of true things and hold almost no false beliefs. Thus, it’d be ridiculous to say the wisest person is someone who knows NOTHING. So, if a person who knows lots of things knows that they know nothing, they possess at least one false belief. Now, consider two equally wise people, one of whom believes he knows nothing and one of whom knows exactly what he does and does not know. Which of the two is wiser? My point is, I’m a really smart guy and I know it. But that doesn’t mean I know EVERYTHING. I know lots of things and I know what I know, but sometimes I discover something that I’d never really thought about before.
Recently, I found myself in a conversation with two fellow game masters and I found myself explaining something that I’d never really given a whole lot of thought to before. But, as I started talking through it, I realized it’s actually a really useful and important concept for designing RPG adventures (and campaigns). So, I started rolling the whole thing around in my head. And THEN, as luck would have it, I started running an occasional game for some real life human beings who consider me a friend. The game was Robert J. Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord, a dark fantasy adventure game set somewhere between the fantasy and Victorian milieu with some interesting, but not overwhelming, horror elements. Honestly, it strikes me more than a little like Bloodborne the RPG. And I am currently super addicted to Bloodborne for the PS4. Holy f$&% do I love that game.
Anyway, Schwalb is one of the people who aren’t me that I really respect and admire. He’s a really great game designer and I was a huge fan of his blog before it kind of just went away. I think. I haven’t checked. But it sort of vanished now that he’s running his own game publishing company and supporting his flagship product and stuff. And Shadow of the Demon Lord is a pretty neat game even if it’s a little outside my normal genres of interest. But what’s most impressive about it is its section on game mastering. In fact, it reminds me a less sweary, less loquacious version of all of my adventure writing crap. I mean, the guy talks about the structure of RPG adventures using very similar terms to the ones I used. He calls the pyramid structure a well and he calls the obstacle course a gauntlet, but for someone who isn’t me, he’s really impressive. Long story short, I heartily recommend giving the whole game a read. It does a lot of neat things, and despite being hampered by a traditional RPG book structure, is an excellent resource for GMs.
And IT very briefly mentions the same thing that I happened to find myself explaining to two other GMs. And so, in a sense, I kind of learned something from someone who isn’t me. I mean, a little. Because Schwalb doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail. And I’m about to. Because I’ve never met a new idea I wasn’t willing to tie down and flog the motherloving f$&% out of. And so, enjoy a few thousand words about a thing I am choosing to call Plot Dynamics.
The Dynamics of Plot
I’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink describing the structure of role-playing adventures. I’ve talked about how every adventure is just a way of joining up a bunch of scenes and then providing a motivation to push the players and their characters to navigate the scenes until they reach a resolution. Right? That’s pretty much a barebones definition of an adventure. Motivation, structure, scenes, resolution.
I’ve also mentioned that GMs can plan scenes in advance, which include encounters and non-encounter scenes and those scenes can serve all sorts of different purposes and fill different needs within the adventure. And I’ve mentioned how the players will also sometimes create scenes of their very own by doing things the GM either didn’t think to plan for or didn’t bother planning for. And then, the GM will have to improvise a scene.
But something I just sort of took for granted was the Plot Dynamic.
Here’s the thing: lots of GMs who are very good at GMing just sort of do things by accident. They have an unconscious understanding of things like story structure and game mechanics and balance and all of that other crap. They run good games, and they can feel the difference between a good game and a bad game in their gut, but if you asked them to explain WHAT they were doing or WHY, they’d have trouble answering. Now, I pride myself on thinking long and hard through the things I do at the table so that I can write down thousands of words to help you understand all the crap that I – and other good GMs – have muddled through and stumbled upon over the years – but I occasionally fall into the same trap of taking s$&% for granted or not giving things conscious thought. It’s rare, but happens. And THAT’S what I came to understand from the conversation I alluded to in my Long and Rambling Intro™ and the concept that Schwalb touched on.
Basically, there are two different Dynamics that can drive any RPG adventure. And while most adventures switch back and forth between the two a little bit, they mostly focus on one or the other. But the thing is, different groups function better with different Plot Dynamics. And the Plot Dynamics created different engagements, so different players prefer different Dynamics. And different GMs also function better designing and running around different Dynamics. Long story short, if you understand the Plot Dynamic you’re trying to create in your adventure, and in each scene, you’ll understand what you need to create and plan and what you need to be ready to improvise.
First of all, Plot is a narrative term. The Plot of a story is the sequence of events that happen in the story. For example, the plot of the Hobbit runs like this. First, Gandalf comes to visit Bilbo and invites him on an adventure. Then, Gandalf tricks Bilbo into hosting a dinner party for a bunch of cartoon dwarves who sing and dance about destroying his cutlery like it’s a f$&%ing Disney movie but without the charm. Then, Bilbo decides to go on the adventure. Then the bulls$&% happens with the stupid trolls. Then the f$&%ing rabbit sled and the wizard with bird crap on his head shows up. And then the police dragged me off the theater manager’s unconscious body because the a$&hole wouldn’t give me a refund. That’s the plot. It’s the things that happen in the story, one after the other.
Now, in The Hobbit: An Unexpectedly Awful Movie and also in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Cinema and in The Hobbit: I Can’t Think of Another Pun but this One Sucked Too, as in all movies and TV shows and other passive forms of entertainment, the author of the work basically decides everything about how the plot moves forward. And that’s what we mean when we say “Plot Dynamic.” How does the story move from one scene to the next? But, in an RPG, things get very weird because the protagonists have a mind of their own and the author is really more of a custodian and referee and moronic kitten wrangler. So Plot Dynamics are very complicated.
Well, not really, because we can basically put Plot Dynamics on a spectrum based on who is actually driving the plot. We can say that the plot is Player Driven or we can say the Plot is GM Driven. Now, Schwalb describes these as Proactive and Reactive Plots, but I like Player Driven vs. GM Driven because most plots are a push and pull between the GM and the Players, so when one is being proactive, the other is forced to be reactive.
Who’s Driving the Plot
The concept of Driving the Plot is actually a complicated one and we can get down into a lot of semantic garbage, especially if we assume that the idea is a binary rather than a spectrum. And it isn’t. It IS a spectrum. Like just about everything in RPGs. So, as we examine the endpoints, remember most RPG adventures have elements of both Player Driven plots and GM Driven plots.
In a purely GM Driven plot, the players have no control over the sequence of events in the adventure. As they move from scene to scene, they don’t have any freedom to choose which scenes to move to. The simplest example is the obstacle course or gauntlet adventure. The heroes in such an adventure simple deal with each obstacle in turn. Many event-based games are also GM Driven. In those adventures, certain things will happen at prescribed times or under prescribed conditions and the heroes have to deal with or prevent them.
That said, GM Driven plots aren’t automatically linear. And this is a really fine distinction, but an important one. Imagine, for example, a plot which branches based on whether the heroes kill the goblin chief or whether the goblin escapes in scene 31-A. The adventure will change based on the characters’ actions, it’ll changed based on their choices, but that doesn’t mean the players are driving the plot. The players are still taking a reactionary role to the events in the adventure.
Just because the players and their characters are changing the outcome, that doesn’t mean the players are driving the plot. If the players are basically just reacting to events and outcomes, the GM is driving the plot.
On the other hand, in a purely Player Driven plot, the players have complete control over the sequence of events. The simplest example is the heist adventure. The protagonists are trying to pull off some kind of caper, like infiltrating an enemy stronghold or assassinating someone or robbing a casino. They have a motivation and there is a resolution, but the players are free to gather information, plan the operation, and execute the plan however they see fit. In such an adventure, the sequence of events and the progression of scenes are determined purely by the players. They might decide to scout the site, kidnap the security guard for interrogation, hire the expert burglar, buy a getaway horse-and-carriage, buy black powder from the dwarf to blow open the wall, and so on.
Many Player Driven plots are thus exercises in creative problem solving and the players are free to investigate the problem, determine what resources they need, acquire those resources, and execute their plan.
What’s interesting though is that Player Driven plots are not necessarily any more open ended or branching than GM Driven plots. The distinction, again, is just that the GM is in a position of reacting to everything the players decide. The GM has no idea what’s going to happen from one scene to the next. The GM is stuck improvising. Well, sort of.
No Pure Dynamics
That said, it is almost impossible to create an adventure that is PURELY Player Driven or Purely GM Driven. By the very nature of RPGs, players can almost always seize control of the plot dynamic just by making a single unexpected choice. And most GMs understand that. Likewise, it’d be very difficult for most GMs to run a game without at least a light hand on the rudder of the plot. And so, most adventures involve a push and pull.
Further complicating this whole spectrum is the fact that an RPG has many different levels and each of those levels can have its own dynamic. For example, an individual scene can be GM Driven or Player Driven. When a group of orcs leap out of the underbrush and attempt to murder the PCs, that’s a GM Driven scene. The players really have no choice but to react. They are trying to stop the orcs from killing them. End of story. But if the PCs come upon a group of orcs and have the element of surprise, the scene is Player Driven. The players can decide to attack the orcs in combat, assassinate the orcs, sneak past the orcs, or avoid the orcs altogether.
A GM Driven plot – one that involves a sequence of obstacles or events to overcome – can involve a multitude of Player Driven scenes. And they often do.
Who Drives the Dungeon
So, given that there are no purely Player Driven or GM Driven adventures, we’re almost always dealing with adventures that LEAN toward Player Driven or LEAN toward GM Driven. And the adventures themselves are hybrids. Take, for example, the classic site-based adventure, the dungeon crawl. The protagonists are exploring some sort of adventuring site made of hallways and rooms and whatnot. Assuming the players are merely exploring, you might be tempted to think of that as a Player Driven adventure. But really, it isn’t. The players are reacting to everything. They enter a room, deal with the obstacle or challenge of the room, and then they are presented with a limited choice of paths to pursue. Often, those paths have nothing to differentiate them. There’s no way to choose which direction is more likely to lead toward the resolution. And if the resolution really is just “explore the s$&% out of this place, kill everything, and take all the stuff,” it doesn’t matter anyway. That’s a very passive, reactive adventure. It’s just a branching obstacle course.
On the other hand, if the players have a specific task to accomplish in the dungeon and they are trying to come up with ways to accomplish that goal efficiently, the adventure veers toward being Player Driven. For example, imagine the heroes are attempting to find a lost group of adventures. They don’t want to explore every room of the dungeon. They want to get to the lost adventurers as quickly as possible and rescue them. The players might come up with a search pattern based on their research of the site, or they might try to track the adventurers through the dungeon, or they might use scrying magic. Depending on how many opportunities they have to meaningfully decide their path through the dungeon, that adventure is MORE Player Driven.
The point is, there are no purely Player Driven or GM Driven adventures; all adventures are hybrids. Every adventure does LEAN one way or the other, though. Some more strongly than others. And every adventure’s individual scenes will probably be a mix of Player and GM Driven. And in many cases, Player Driven and GM Driven adventures can look very, very similar. Especially if they lie toward the middle of the spectrum.
Who Gives a F$&%?
If every adventure is going to be a hybrid of GM Driven and Player Driven and individual scenes are going to be all over the place, why does any of this s$&% matter? Why, in short, should you give a F$&%. Well, let me tell you something, first of all, hypothetical reader: I don’t care for that tone. Second of all, you should give a s$&% for a very important reason: Player Driven and GM Driven adventures DO DIFFERENT THINGS. Thus, they are DESIGNED IN DIFFERENT WAYS. And different dynamics WORK BETTER FOR DIFFERENT PLAYER GROUPS. So, if you understand the dynamics, you can CHOOSE THE DYNAMICS THAT WORK BEST FOR YOUR GROUP and then DESIGN ADVENTURES TO THE DYNAMIC. How’s THAT for a reason? Now stop questioning me.
Growing into Player Driven Adventures
First of all, understand that Player Driven Adventures are very empowering, but they also put a lot of pressure on players. And not all players handle them well. If you’ve ever seen a group of players sitting gormlessly around the table, staring at one another, trying to figure out what they are supposed to do next, you have a group that can’t handle Driving the Plot. And there is NOTHING WRONG WITH THOSE PLAYERS. In point of fact, lots of people gravitate toward the player side of the table precisely because they prefer a reactive role to a proactive one. Many, many players like the simple challenge of overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of a goal.
Player Driven Adventures also put a lot of pressure on you – the GM. You have to be quick on your toes because, no matter how well you plan (and I’m going to give you some advice for planning later), you still have to improvise a lot. By definition, you’re adopting a reactive role. And, unlike players whose reactions are limited to what one specific character can reasonably do, you’ve got an entire goddamned world to react with. And it’s filled with gods and mysterious forces and NPCs and factions and nations and monsters and driven by weird rules that you have to apply consistently or else you’ll break the world. Essentially, when the players are in a reactionary role, they are playing a game of checkers. When the GM is in a reactionary role, it’s the equivalent of playing four-dimensional hyper chess. It’s easy to get overwhelmed because you have so many pieces and so many ways to move them and you can invent more pieces and more moves on the fly.
Long story short, Player Driven Stories put pressure on the players and the GM. They can be very hard to run. For that reason, I would advise new GMs to stick with GM Driven Adventures for a while until they feel confident. And then, start to give the players more control. Maybe, as part of an adventure, provide a very open-ended side quest that involves solving a problem with limited guidance. If the players respond well (and you handle it well), try to run more Player Driven Adventures.
Experienced gamers are generally better able to handle Player Driven Adventures because of the pressure levels. But, there are some other factors as well that will help you decide if Player Driven Adventures are for you. Some players like to have a level of control and empowerment. Free f$&%ing spirits and all that. If you notice that your players tend to wander pretty far afield and try to come up with odd, unusual, or surprising plans for even seemingly simple things, you might have the sort of dynamic expressive pains-in-the-a$&es that appreciate the open-endedness of Player Driven Adventures.
Another factor, though, and one that is easy to overlook, is a familiarity with the world. See, in order to drive the plot, the players need to know what’s possible and what’s not possible. They need to know what resources they can draw on and how to find them. If the players don’t know how they might do basic research in the world or whether magical services can be bought or how they might hire assistants or whatever, they will have trouble figuring out how to approach a goal. The stranger the world or the less familiar the players are with it, the more difficulty they will have driving the plot. If you’re running a crime drama in the modern world, or if you’re running Star Wars for a bunch of Star Wars fanatics who have all read Mr. Scotts Guide to the Enterprise and know all of the episodes of every spin-off series, including Caprica and Babylon 5 and know the first name of every incarnation Dr. Who, they are fine. But without that level of intimate familiarity, it can be hard for them to drive more complex plots.
Likewise, if the adventure requires some sort of specialized knowledge – say technical knowledge or knowledge of specific genre conventions – the players can run into trouble. Police procedurals, for example, have their own conventions, tools, tropes, and structure. So do superhero games. And Lovecraftian investigations. If the player aren’t familiar with the genre, they are going to struggle.
Now, if you have a bunch of expressive, self-driven experienced players in a game they are intimately familiar with, they will probably LOVE a Player Driven Adventure. If you can handle it, go to town. They ARE very empowering.
But, for the most part, Player Driven Adventures are something that most players grow into over the course of a long-running game. That is, many groups start out reacting to events and dealing with problems. As they become more familiar with the world (and depending on the players, more familiar with the game system and the genre), they become more capable of driving the plot. And, in many games with character advancement, the characters also gain lots of tools that allow them to take a more active role in the plot. So, long running campaigns tend to shift focus gradually from GM Driven games to Player Driven games.
And this actually works out very well because it follows the natural progression of character power. Young, inexperienced heroes deal with local problems and react to situations. Experienced, powerful characters deal with complex problems and take control of the events in the game world.
There is Nothing Wrong with GM Driven Adventures
By contrast, GM Driven Adventures are just easier. They are easy to run, they are easy to play, and they are easy to plan. And, as noted, many, many players enjoy them. As long as there are still ample opportunities for the players to affect the outcome of the adventure by choosing between limited paths and by having to deal with the consequences of their choices and actions, the players will not feel any major loss of agency. Seriously. A lot of GMs sneer and glare down their noses at GM Driven Plots as if it’s a thing for lesser gamers. Those GMs are a$&holes who don’t understand that different people play for different reasons. In fact, many of those GMs assume that players and GMs inherently have the same motivations and engagements.
Many, many campaigns I have personally run for some very experienced groups have never moved beyond mostly GM Driven Adventures. And no one was any sadder for it. Remember, this is just a f$&%ing game. It’s okay to take the easy way as long as the easy way is satisfying.
How to Play a Player Driven Adventure
And now comes the important part: how to design a Player Driven Adventure. I really don’t have to talk much about GM Driven Adventures because they are kind of the default state. In fact, most of my adventure design advice assumes a leaning toward GM Driven Adventures. And, honestly, you CAN design Player Driven Adventures mostly the same way. But if you do that, you have to accept you’ll be improvising a lot at the table and you’ll be throwing a lot of work away. And the reason is because of Angry’s Law of Plot Dynamics which is a neat law I made up right now to explain the difference in planning Player and GM Driven Adventures.
Angry’s Law of Plot Dynamics
GM Driven Adventures provide the players with scenes and events to react to. Player Driven Adventures provide the players with opportunities to plan and resources to use.
Basically, a GM Driven Adventure is the adventure that most GMs know how to write by default. That’s the adventure where you plan out a flowchart of scenes and encounters, design the encounters, and decide when and where those scenes and encounters will occur. It might be a dungeon map, a murder investigation, or a timeline of events that will happen as the party travels from A to B. Regardless, if you’re planning scenes and encounters and figuring out how they fit together, you – the GM – are driving the adventure.
Player Driven Adventure’s require the GM to be more reactive. And thus, if the GM tries to plan scenes and encounters, it’s a crap shoot as to how much of that planning will get used. Instead, what the GM really needs is as much background information as possible so that the GM can easily figure out how the game will react to the players or provide the players with any information they ask for.
For example, if the GM is planning a Player Driven heist adventure in which the PCs need to break into a cult’s temple and steal an idol, the GM will need to know the layout of the temple, the defenses, how the cult will respond to attack, the stats of the various cultists, where the idol is located, any particular weaknesses in the temples defenses, and so on. In a political intrigue adventure in which the PCs need to ensure a particular proposal gets through the senate, the GM needs to know everything about the supporters and opponents of the proposal. Dirty secrets, motivations and goals, hopes and fears, where they live, how they are protected, and so on. In such an adventure, the players might try to blackmail some opponents, bribe others, curry favor with others, and so on.
Long story slightly shorter – because I don’t do short – designing a Player Driven Adventure is more of an act of detailed world building than an act of adventure design. The more you, the GM, know about all the moving parts of the adventure, the more prepared you are to react to any crazy, stupid thing the dumba$& players do to the moving parts.
Now, I know this sounds like I’m going back on some of my advice. I once claimed that every adventure is a dungeon adventure because every adventure is a progression through a series of scenes, from motivation to resolution, but I’m not. What I’m saying is that, in a Player Driven Adventure, planning the scenes is a waste of time. Instead, you need to intimately know all of the game elements that you can include in any scene the players invent. Do that, and you can invent scenes on the fly and string them together into an adventure. In point of fact, running a Player Driven Adventure is like making up a dungeon as you go. You have a pile of monsters and NPCs and traps and all the other crap that goes into the adventure and, as the players explore, you have to throw that s$&% together into fun scenes.
And inevitably, for all of your planning and world-building, you’re eventually going to find yourself ill-equipped for a particular scene. The players will start a fight with the one NPC you didn’t stat up because he’s a good-aligned pacifist monk who no one in their right mind would attack. Or they will visit a location that has nothing to do with anything because one of them has a tinfoil hat crackpot theory that the owner of the local puppy orphanage is actually financing the construction of the mercenary stronghold the PCs are trying to sabotage. But the more you DO know, the better prepared you are to make up whatever s$&% you don’t know.
And after you muddle your way through that bulls$&%, you can go back to nice, simple GM Driven Adventures in nice, simple dungeons. Because it’s just f$&%ing easier.