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I'm still a pretty new GM. Even though I enjoy coming up with plots and writing the overarching story-line, when I tell my wife (who does not play) how the adventure should progress (the long-view, not specifics), she will point out a zillion plot holes. Granted, I'll keep asking my wife for help, because the plot becomes stronger as a result, but she will ask questions about things that never occurred to me to think about.

How do I figure out where plotholes are in my ideas for games, and how do I keep them from forming in the first place?

EDIT: To clarify, folks are commenting about the story once it comes in contact with the players. I meant while I'm conceptualizing story-threads. An example is that a notorious pirate wants to retire without the price on his head. After thinking up this long and detailed plan that he "goes respectable" and hires the PCs only to have his old crew "attack" his new ship (actually fake his death and put him ashore in his homeland once the heat has died down a bit). Part of the "evidence" proving that the charred cadaver in the captain's quarters is actually the notorious pirate is that his jolly roger is flying from the merchant ship's mast. Wife asked how it got up there in the middle of a fight without anyone noticing, and why didn't the old crew just attack, kill everyone and loot the boat like a typical pirate's MO?

The focus of the adventure was supposed to be the PCs overcoming false-conviction/imprisonment and (likely) revenge on the captain who screwed them over.

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Can you give an example of a "plot hole" that she pointed out, and how you changed your game accordingly? I'm wondering why you'd want to close them — a plot hole is a perfect place for the PCs to take action to change the nature of the game. –  Jadasc Jan 24 '12 at 14:50
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Do exactly what you're doing. Bouncing ideas off of someone else is the best way to find oversights or other things that make sense in your head but not to the players. –  dpatchery Jan 24 '12 at 15:08
    
@Jadasc—I'm assuming he means plot hole in the sense of something that doesn't make sense in-world. (The powerful wizard needing a ranger to track the party when he's easily capable of scrying instead.) These logical fallacies break realism if left unexplained, as opposed to allowing the PCs to take action. –  dlras2 Jan 24 '12 at 15:38
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Evil overlord list: legendspbem.angelfire.com/eviloverlordlist.html ... You have read it right? –  Sardathrion Jan 24 '12 at 17:21
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"Part of the "evidence" proving that the charred cadaver in the captain's quarters is actually the notorious pirate is that his jolly roger is flying from the merchant ship's mast." Can you elaborate? This makes no sense to me. –  Toast Jan 24 '12 at 21:39
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10 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Keep asking your wife :)

Really though, that is your best option. You will always overlook things outsiders to the game will notice, simply because you might have an X number of ways of how the story could develop in your mind. So your best option is to work with someone who is outside the game and whose imaginations on things like that will not be limited by system rules and tropes.

UPDATE: Also, don't forget, you don't have to write down every single detail. Have the general plot in mind and then if your players give you something you haven't planned on, make it fit then and there. You'll be surprised by how many things the players will think of that you hadn't, so don't try and cover them all, do it on the fly.

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Remember: no one is perfect. Your major NPCs rely on henchmen, contacts and contractors to do what they do. Things get messed up. This is where the PCs generally enter the fray and mess things up for the NPCs. Thus some plot holes are perfect there.

Second, remember that no NPC know what everyone else is doing with perfect knowledge. Sure, Sauron should have put a better boarder guards but he had no idea that the ring bearer would head to Mount Doom. What is seen as a plot hole could just be the NPC's partial knowledge. Thus, as pointed to by Adriano Varoli Piazza in the comments: "an NPC not knowing everything is not a plot hole but part of his character". This is where people make mistakes: There are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The Intelligence business is all about getting more information -- and sharing said information.

Thirdly, think of each NPC's motivations, knowledge and abilities: What would they do? How do they react? How careful/arrogant/lucky are they? Look at your plot through their eyes and things should be easier to work out.

Finally, know your plots' root theme(s) by heart. Everything should flow from there. Every sub-plot should reinforce the main theme(s). Note that there should be a few main themes, maximum of three or maybe at a push four. This is where looking at advise to write books would help, a little. Remember the an author has full control over all their characters. We, humble GM, do not.

No plan or plot survives contact with the players.

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The fact that an NPC not knowing everything is not a plot hole but part of his character could be stated more clearly. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jan 24 '12 at 17:01
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+1 for No plan or plot survives contact with the players, that could be an answer unto itself. –  mirv120 Jan 24 '12 at 17:50
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As a general rule, don't create plots, create people. If you focus on the plot, then you end up with things like how did the flag get on the mast. If you create people first, and then step through the events in sequence, the characters you have created will dictate what actions will be taken when and by whom. The additional advantage to this is that when your story comes into contact with players who don't follow the script, your plot may morph, but it will manage to survive as a playable story line.

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I think it best not to tightly script the long-term. 4th Edition really encourages GM's to involve the players in plot creation. What I do, instead, is come up with interesting characters with some basic motivations and put them in the path of the PCs. I roll up a prince who is planning to overthrow the king, a servant girl who is mute and a dragon who is coveting a tapestry that a certain baron possesses. My plan is that the servant girl will assist the pc's by drawing a map of her home village including the location of the dragon. But it's possible that the slave girl is an orc spy (!), the dragon will not be necessary to point the pcs to the Baron and I'm leaving it until later to decide if the pcs will assist or oppose the prince in his coup.

So, suppose we come to a plot "hole": how did the orcs know the PCs were coming to the village in order to prepare the ambush? Well, the slave girl told them. I originally intended the slave to be helpful, but if I need to fill a hole, I can go back to her and use her to advance the story.

Another potential hole: why does the dragon suddenly decide to help the PCs oppose the prince? Well, he's hoping the pcs will help him secure the baron's tapestry.

Use these ambiguous npcs to fill in gaps in knowledge, changes in motivation, reversals in fortune, etc. when a hole is pointed out or is imminent.

The other advantage in letting the npcs guide the story is that they will overlook holes or at least be more forgiving when the realize that they are participating in writing the story, and not just following a linear, pre-determined script.

Hope that helps,

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The easiest way to answer plot holes is to listen to your players.

Players always hint before hand at the plotholes they see and will tell you how they hope they will get solved. If its something that I haven't thought of, I usually do one of two things. I either go with what the player thinks is happening or I do the exact opposite. Both of them validate the players.

If neither are suitable, then I just tell the player wait and see and I take notes and try to include it somewhere down the line with a good solution.

FOr instance, in my Pathfinder Zeitgeist adventure, the party made friends on an island that was primarily suppose to be a 1 and done thing. But the party wanted to know what happened to their friend and the island itself after they left.

I had no solution for it, until 5 adventures ago the PCs questing took them to an island. So I happened to make this island close to island 1, and use a lot of the plot holes to facilitate the new adventure. Their friend sends them supplies and helps them out .

The key is, don't screw up the overarching plot to fix a plothole, make sure it's natural.

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To quote HP:MoR:

"You wouldn't go along with that and neither would I," said Harry. "This is our world, we don't want to break it. But imagine, say, Lucius thought the Conspiracy was your tool and you were on his side, Dumbledore thought the Conspiracy was my tool and I was on his side, Lucius thought that you'd turned me and Dumbledore believed the Conspiracy was mine, Dumbledore thought that I'd turned you and Lucius believed the Conspiracy was yours, and so they both helped us out but only in ways that the other one wouldn't notice."

Draco did not have to fake being speechless.

Father had once taken him to see a play called The Tragedy of Light, about this incredibly clever Slytherin named Light who'd set out to purify the world of evil using an ancient ring that could kill anyone whose name and face he knew, and who'd been opposed by another incredibly clever Slytherin, a villain named Lawliet, who'd worn a disguise to conceal his true face; and Draco had shouted and cheered at all the right parts, especially in the middle; and then the play had ended sadly and Draco had been hugely disappointed and Father had gently pointed out that the word 'Tragedy' was right there in the title.

Afterward, Father had asked Draco if he understood why they had gone to see this play.

Draco had said it was to teach him to be as cunning as Light and Lawliet when he grew up.

Father had said that Draco couldn't possibly be more wrong, and pointed out that while Lawliet had cleverly concealed his face there had been no good reason for him to tell Light his name. Father had then gone on to demolish almost every part of the play, while Draco listened with his eyes growing wider and wider. And Father had finished by saying that plays like this were always unrealistic, because if the playwright had known what someone actually as smart as Light would actually do, the playwright would have tried to take over the world himself instead of just writing plays about it.

That was when Father had told Draco about the Rule of Three, which was that any plot which required more than three different things to happen would never work in real life.

Father had further explained that since only a fool would attempt a plot that was as complicated as possible, the real limit was two.

The way you avoid plot holes is to have very simple plans. To be fair, these plans don't need to appear simple, but they need to have no more than two things "go right." (Incidentally, identification of these crucial points makes for excellent times for PC involvement.) Plans like you articulated in your question, the "Step 1, step 2, step 3" plans so derided by competent military strategists because they break down and are vulnerable to moments of fridge logic. As enemies are prone to think about your plans in a completely different way ... don't make them too complex.

Instead, focus on logistics. The two steps don't have to be easy, but by figuring out the logistics trail needed to accomplish them, you have all your "elaboration" and complexity which goes to support two and only two things.

From a "writing the storyline" point of view, don't write what will pass. Instead, give your NPCs intentions which will shape their actions. By giving them intentions but without locking them into step 1, step 2, step 3 plans... you allow the world to resonate to player choices and accidents.

As an additional note, use PC imprisonment very sparingly. It's generally not fun and very hard to set up without being heavy handed about it.

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Your players will notice some things that get by you and whoever reviews your plots. In these cases, you need to think fast.

The players will complain about three things, mainly:

  • Continuity errors
  • NPCs acting out of character
  • NPCs being irrational

To avoid continuity errors, use a wiki. Document everything.

To keep NPCs acting in character, you need to have a good idea of what their character is. Then you need to think from their perspective. You can ignore the mooks, but anyone with more than a couple lines should have this treatment. This is preventative only, though.

To patch up an error that you've already made, add a new motivation, or make the past false. "Yeah, I almost let that orc hit squad capture me, but I was undercover as a spy." "I'd just as soon let my old crew kill everyone aboard the ship, but they'll be flying the red spear -- they're sworn to neither plunder nor pillage nor sleep until they've got my blood."

This works also for things that seem irrational at first glance.

More of this might be happening than the players become aware of. But if they choose to investigate, they should find answers.

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I stopped sketching plots for campaigns a while back, because my players never follow them anyways.

As for holes in the plot, our games certainly have (quite) a few. I quietly brush them under the rug while no one is looking, thus solving the problem forever.

Remember, as the GM you have final word over what's a hole. If the players insist on an explanation, make one up.

Edit: This was a serious answer and is how I handle this problem 99% of the time. Since I was downvoted, let me elaborate.

Let's say you have a quest to steal the king's crown. After stealing it, you're double-crossed; you fight for your life, barely escaping with the crown. Upon trying to sell it, you discover it's a fake.

The PCs cry foul: they were never detected, stole it from the king's head, yelled Eureka while measuring the water it displaced, etc. Possible answers to this "plot hole":

  • Someone in the palace orchestrated it and arranged the fake
  • Someone swapped the crown after the PCs stole it
  • The real crown was stolen years ago and rests in the dragon's lair

As a GM, you never intended to give the PCs a gold crown (the value of it will break the game). So you pull the rug at the last second. Answering this "hole" in the story leads to the next adventure (and the GM smiles smugly like it was planned all along).

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As with any other writing, you might try writing it down and reading it aloud to yourself. Not every detail, but the main plot points and how the story progresses. It's easy to let your brain take shortcuts when going over things in your head or jotting down notes to yourself, but when you sit down and write it out like a short story you force yourself to reexamine each detail, and you should find yourself noticing a lot of problems you hadn't thought of before.

That, and keep asking your wife. =]

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Take a step back and look at the entire campaign as a whole. I introduce plot holes when I get too focused on one thing. I'll have three or four plots going. They'll all make sense. Then I zoom in on one plot and forget the others. While there I'll make a couple tweaks that make that individually make that plot better but break its ability to interact with the other plots.

Usually I catch that mistake before showing it to the players. If not I try to write out the requirements each of my plots has. If the chancellor needs to remember a detail from 15 years ago, I couldn't have replaced him with a doppelganger last month. That sort of thing (NOT a list of requirements for the PCs to accomplish.)

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