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I love RPGs. I think they can create some of the most fun and enjoyable stories, both from an out-of-game and in-game standpoint.

I also realize that "story" is the result of the game played by the players and the GM, not what is actually played.

And yet, as an eager GM, my main downfall is that I write stories for the players to follow instead of giving them the freedom of choice. I need a way to focus my creative abilities to set my game up for success without writing the story.

What elements do I need to prepare for sessions without writing the story? How can I use these elements to run fun and engaging games that foster story?

I guess I really don't know how to write plot instead of story. I am shooting for a long-term game.

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8 Answers

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Write the story as if the characters were not there. Make sure that all your NPCs have motivations, goals and personalities. This is what would happen if the world was run like clock work. This is your story.

Now, add the characters into the mix.

Let the story be modified by what the characters do. The NPCs will react, and depending on their personalities, goals and motivations (see, it all fits) they will respond. Thus your story will grow organically and be build between you and the other players. Nothing must be set in stoned from there on: even the characters killing your big bad end of game boss in the first session! Run with it. See what and where your story takes you. Good NPCs are a key to this: you must know how they think to allow them to react in a true manner.

A side note on set pieces: One of the drawback of this approach is that set pieces do not work at all -- unless they are designed close to the session. You cannot assume that the characters will go to X, find Y and do Z which will set up the background for NPC Monkey to fight them a top a waterfall. That is rail roading.

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Exactly the way to do it. –  RS Conley Dec 13 '11 at 14:39
Great idea. But, my fear would be a lot of unused content that work was put into. Is that the case? –  Josh Dec 14 '11 at 0:33
@Josh: A lot of work must go into the NPCs' motivations, characterisation, and their ability to gain information. No NPC will ever be aware of everything the PCs do so the GM needs to know how much each NPC gets to find out what the PCs have done at a specific point in time. Note done not necessary with their motivations. The plot should be written anyway. After each session, the plot is tweaked depending on what the NPCs have learned of the PCs's actions using all the ramifications of the events -- something the GM should be doing anyway. –  Sardathrion Dec 15 '11 at 8:53
@Josh: As a side note, this is how most of the old style ICE MERP modules were written: lots of locations, characters, settings and some adventure ideas generally one or two paragraph long. See Dagorlad and the Dead Marsh and The Court of Ardor for two very good example of it. icewebring.com/ICE_Products/… and icewebring.com/ICE_Products/… –  Sardathrion Dec 15 '11 at 12:23
@josh Thread necromancy, yay! There are several games that solve the "unuseful content" issue by guiding you through preparing only the essential things. Reading Apocalypse World is a good place to start. You don't even write a plot. The plot is provided by the players themselves and using coincidences to string things togheter. For a free RPG that uses more or less the same mechanichs take a look at Dungeon World. book.dwgazetteer.com –  Zachiel Jan 18 '13 at 18:54
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Stop writing. :-)

Think of villains and places. Feel free to write those down, but purely in terms of their past and present. You don't know their futures any more than the players know their characters' futures, so why write about that?

This sounds like valadil's response, but I'm taking it a step further: don't even worry about your NPCs "doing stuff."

Just make them, then on game night, put them in front of your players.

For what it's worth, this will feel awkward at first. That's okay. Most good things do. ;-)

Best of luck!

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Outstanding answer! Also, (IMHO) write places as well. –  Vorac Oct 23 '12 at 14:18
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The only thing I would add to Sardathrion excellent response is that you can manipulate the direction of the campaign by manipulating the characters.

There are several ways of doing this. The first is use the character background to increase the chance that the player will pursue certain goals. For example if the character desire is to recover a lost family sword and you want that character to goto a particular orc infested forest, then you plant rumors to that effect. If the player is truly a roleplayer and the party agrees then campaign will get there.

Mission handed out by a powerful NPC patron is another technique

Not everybody makes or wants to make character backgrounds. For these players after a couple of sessions they will have assets to protect and goals peruse and you can use these to manipulate them in a particular direction.

Be subtle with your manipulations and do not force it. It make take a couple of sessions unless the players are playing crazy insane characters. Even then you can generally fall back into manipulating their greed or lust for power.

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+1 Very true indeed. See my question on how, as a player, you can help your GM do just that: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/11241/… –  Sardathrion Dec 13 '11 at 15:07
Although what you say can be useful, I think it's the opposite of what the question is asking. The question would be "How can I subtly push my players in the directions I want?", which is opposite to let the story go in the direction they want. –  Flamma Dec 26 '13 at 8:16
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Have a start and a goal, and maybe some events that you want to happen in between and leave the rest up to the players.


Start - you put the players in a cave, tied up, having been abducted by some hobgoblins who revere a beholder as their god-king. They plan to feed the players to it.

Goal - The players survive.

The rest is up to the players. They can magically control a hobgoblin (assuming they have the ability) to release them, or start attacking the other hobgoblins as a distraction while they untie themselves and escape, they can wait until they are to be fed, then kill the beholder, now having their own clan of loyal (and scared) hobgoblins...

What I am trying to say is, don't first think of a whole adventure that you want to run, with all the details in it, and then find details to remove to make it interactive - make it interactive from the very beginning.

While writing the adventure, always keep your players in mind - One of them might not actively take part in the RP, but is an excellent tactician and shines in battle. In that case, have some battles with tactical elements (cover, height difference, changing battlefield - like a bridge that collapses, or magical platforms that fly around the scene that the players, but also enemies, can stand on). One other might prefer to flesh out his character, and thrives in conversation - have a pivotal point of the adventure involve conversation and diplomacy.

Whatever you do, if you know your group and keep them in mind when developing an adventure, the players will (in my experience) find ways to do it their way. I find, you might create an encounter, or a story, and expect the players to do certain things within that story, but they will always think of something you haven't planned for.

Listen to your players.

Have an open mind. If the players suggest something you haven't planned for, improvise it. Give them what they want. You can't plan for every possible action they might take - so judge them while you play, and see what ideas they come up with - then make it work within the story you have prepared.

Create your story as if it were a tree. You start at the trunk where certain things happen, then start creating branches according to different things that might happen.

Don't try to cover every possibility, but rather, during the creation process, make branches that you can adapt to what the players might do. When you are writing the "branches of the tree" think of results, what that branch does and what it means for the players, not how they will get to it; they will find a way on their own.

I know I possibly overcomplicate the answer, but I hope I've helped :)

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I assume doing this informs what at a minimum you need to create (NPCS, enemies, factions) for your hook/goal. Do you just write a sentence or two for each? –  Josh Dec 14 '11 at 2:26
well, NPC's, enemies and factions you can fully flesh out, the way you imagine them. Just don't write too much about how the players succeed (or how you expect them to succeed) each goal you put them. Create the world around them, not what they do in it :) –  OddCore Dec 14 '11 at 8:12
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Write things. Don't write how the PCs will react to those things.

To elaborate, come up with NPCs. Make them do stuff. Treat them as your own PCs (well, in terms of planning, not in terms of statting them up and showing off their combat prowess). Then put them in front of the PCs and see what the PCs do.

If you force the PCs to react a specific way, you're dictating their choices and telling the story for them. What I mean by that is if you put a quest giver, combat ally, and nemesis into play, what the players do with them is already determined and there's no story left to tell. Instead, put three distinct personalities into game. Give them connections to each other. Show this to the PCs and see who they try and work with. If you've created interesting enough NPCs you'll be able to run with them in whatever direction the PCs push.

Now, if you're able to get backstory from the PCs, all the better. Character backgrounds will give you clues about what the PCs will react to.

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Write down the major NPCs who will be influencing the situation the characters are involved in. This might be kings and dragons and such, or it might be stuff like the local sheriff and the mayor of the town and the head of the Northside gangs... scale it appropriately.

Give them personalities, goals and problems they're dealing with - have these intersect with the players' goals and problems in ways that mostly create problems and sometimes create spaces for alliances.

Start your campaign with at least one NPC or faction making a big move. Let the players react how they will. Let your NPCs react how THEY will, except focusing the camera and favoring what will be the most interesting for the PCs.

You're now playing the NPCs like players play the PCs- improvise and have fun. Every so often, check in and see if the NPC needs to be rewritten because their outlook has changed.

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This is something that does not fit into every system, setting or play style, but it is something I wanted to share because it has worked wonders for me.

Player created plots

Before you begin playing, gather all your players and have them write a short summary for a plot they have in mind. This plot can be something minor or local, or it can be a great saga brewing in the background. Write one yourself as well. Have a short discussion about the plots, and then add a few bullet points to detail every plot. (I used aspects in a FATE game for this). You don't need precision here, just inspiration. Preferably those bullet points should answer a couple of key questions you determined beforehand (e.g. "What's the opportunity in this plot?")

The plots do not have to involve the characters. If the characters want to get involved, they can do that in the game.

After the plots have a summary and details, you may optionally want to stat them up to determine how they compare. Assign numbers to determine their scale(minor-major), prevalence(occasional-everywhere), influence(negligible-world changing) etc. You can use these numbers to determine when and how a plot generates encounters or events. Use numbers and dice mechanics that fit your system.

Also assign each plot a number of "progress points". This indicates the amount of player involvement before the plot resolves. Just like hit points, reduce this number every time the players do something about it. When a plot reaches zero progress points, run a final confrontation, and then generate a new plot to replace that. The new plot may be totally different, or may be the sequel to the old plot, but with its own summary ("After the iron knights defeated the lich king…") and details.

When play begins, be sure to keep all the plots running in the background, but start by nudging(or pushing) your players towards one of them. And then improvise, using the plot details as inspiration. If the players want to shift their focus elsewhere, let them.

Use the additional plots to color and enrich the world and to generate random encounters and side quests.

This needs some prior work in that you need to invent some new game mechanics within your system to allow players to create plots. It also requires that the players are mature enough not to abuse their plot knowledge (of course, you as the GM can twist a plot any way you like). But once you can get this going, it becomes very rewarding for everyone at the table, since everyone has their part in making a great story.

Let me stress again, this is not for everyone. Some people just love to solve the intricate mysteries their GM throws at them. Some others don't care about plots but just enjoy the tactical aspects of a game.

But then, there are people who enjoy the story that emerges from a game session. This is probably for those people. Hope it helps if you are one of them.

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These are all excellent suggestions. I would add though, even when running a directed story, the illusion of choice and self determination is still critical. "All roads lead to Rome" is a technique where, for example, you have prepared a site based adventure, where you anticipate the players say fetch a crown from a tomb, only, they end up following another inadvertently introduced thread like some cagey guy at the tavern. You instead have the cagey guy head to the tomb to fetch the crown, perhaps after finding the bait you formerly intended for the players, or move the tomb entirely so the players end up there essentially no matter what direction they take. Being flexible will allow you to use your prepared materials even when the players don't take the bait (as you anticipated) or get distracted by otherwise mundane (or unprepared) elements you can work back into the adventure you had prepared, all the while allowing your players to act as they choose. Having a few event based encounters can also help you to further a directed story all the while allowing the players to create an emergent story.

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