Plot vs. Story, Part 2: Losing the Plot


Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and produced a selection of self-published pdfs.

This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM.

Last week I began a discussion of the competing terms “plot” and “story”. The topic for today explores 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

My underlying 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 different.

This essays looks at how the GM should react to this event. 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.

Assuming you are not this type of GM, then I have five options for dealing with the situation when Players 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. Part three of this mini-series addresses the GM-focused options.


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, a recent cycle in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign was Sigil PD. The premise of this arc was 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 were 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 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 for Players to 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.



So, if your Players reject the plot you offer them, then here are two direct methods of dealing with the issue. A better route may be the GM options, which I will explore next week.

How do you deal with Players ignoring your plot? Have you ever had to revisit the campaign premise in the middle of a session? How did that work out for you? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.

Happy Gaming


For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.





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