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I'm preparing this game of Shadowrun where I have 3 main metaplots driving the campaign. One of them for instance is Seattle hosting the Olympics. Of course in Shadowrun, what the bad guys want is rarely obvious (unless they are really unorganized and bland). For instance the party might be hired to steal data from Knight Errant to end up being ambushed by well prepared cops and all of this was of course the plan of Mr. Johnson, who's actually working for Knight Errant, to make a diversion for another group of Shadowrunners in a different building (also hired by Mr. Johnson). So dozens of runs like this actually translates to Knight Errant framing metahuman activists for stealing sensitive information and justify more security measures for the Olympics and leading to the arrest of the leader of this activist group etc.

Brilliant! It's all working out after all. Muahaha. I have this big thing going on. But there's no way the players will ever know about it unless I get Mr. Johnson to make a big villain monologue explaining everything to them. How can my players ever know the hidden motivations, the metaplot and what part they actually took in the story without using the villain monologue trope?

Edit: I added the Shadowrun tag because I thought even though my example was specific that system agnostic answers would be acceptable but it's not. Shadowrun is really specific in its setting and tropes. To answerers I want an answer with the following considerations:

  1. Mr. Johnson is smart. He doesn't keep "receipts" of transactions with shadowrunners or anything that could incriminate him or the organization he works for.
  2. Mr. Johnson does NOT want anyone to ever see the beauty of his plan. He's not a comic relief evil guy. Mr. Johnson is human, he can make mistakes, but he will not keep written logs of his plans to be found by anyone. Yes the group can be smarter, but I don't intend to let the BBEG do stupid mistakes on purpose
  3. Since this question is now tagged with Shadowrun I want the answer to fit with minimal (or ideally without) adjustments to the setting.
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    \$\begingroup\$ TL;DR for probably every answer below the fold: Show, don't tell. \$\endgroup\$ – Lilienthal Nov 25 '14 at 23:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Like Lilienthal says, showing it instead of telling it. Many of the answers below show a common thread: the information isn't passed by the Mr Johnson.Either go with direct information (evidence, notes, interrogation from minions, bystanders) or indirect (repercussions, semi-unrelated events happening at once, via news flash, matrix nodes, contacts). At this point, some red herrings could be inserted, unless you want to make sure the runners get the right idea. As someone else said, the rule of three works great to make sure the info aren't red herrings. \$\endgroup\$ – Liack Nov 26 '14 at 16:20

12 Answers 12

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When questions come up about how much detail to plan for when prepping for a campaign/session etc, one of the answers I tend to agree with is that you only do as much as the players are going to see/experience. There's no point in having a detailed history of some far off land if it is never going to come up.

To a certain extent the same applies here. Shadowrun's tropes tend towards having these complex, multi-layered schemes and plots, with various rival factions backstabbing each other and noone trusting anybody. The problem is, as a GM you can come up with these clever stories, but unless the players run into the details somehow then a large part of the effort is wasted. (A slight caveat to this is that knowing this information can cover you if your group is prone to going off in unexpected directions, as the detail can help you improvise on the fly).

If you assume that Mr. Johnson is as smart as you say, then the PCs are going to have to work to get the information on the complexity, and this leads to one of the key things – you need to give them a reason to dig further. There needs to be some sort of motivation for the group to start peeling back the layers of the plots to reveal just how clever/convoluted everything is.

Assuming that you think the PCs care, then you need to leave a trail of clues. As you say, Mr Johnson is too clever to do anything really stupid, which cuts out many of the obvious choices, but there are still as many options here as your fevered imagination can come up with.

For example, perhaps the PCs overhear snippets of conversation with other involved parties, or come across news stories or other media that make oblique references to characters/places etc the PCs are encountering. The key thing here is to be subtle and not spell the connections out too obviously. Assuming that you've laid the ground work and the players/PCs have the appropriate motivation, let them join the dots and fill in the gaps. This can lead to some fertile ground for further adventures as the group of runners plots how to extract proof of what is going on. Things can be especially fun if/when they make incorrect assumptions.

The key thing through all this though is not to force it. If you want to stay true to the motivations and intelligence of a typical Mr Johnson then you're absolutely correct, they wouldn't be so stupid as to leave details of their plans lying around to be found. However, all people make mistakes however small, and with the number of parties that are involved in your typical Shadowrun adventure, there is massive scope for information leaks in various forms that the PCs can stumble on. Don't explain everything, and make the PCs work and leave plenty of room for assumptions as to what is going on. A typical group of Shadowrunners are unlikely to ever have a complete picture, and that is fine.

It can be really difficult for a GM who has put such a huge amount of work into a clever plot not to want make it absolutely clear to the players how good it is, but resist this urge. A bit of confusion is a wonderful thing to prompt a healthy amount of paranoia, and then you sit back and smile to yourself as the players gradually realise just how deep the rabbit hole really goes and how far they are in over their heads.

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Write it down! Perhaps they find snippets of computer files (autosaves, etal), pages left behind on some printer, or some other written information leak (or leaks) that gives them clues as to what has really happened.

Business documents are another good clue -- think along the lines of invoices, leave requests, inventory sheets, and maintenance requests...

In general, any time you want to avoid a monologue scene -- use written delivery. Who knows? He might even be nice enough to write the party a letter!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Definite +1. Any large-scale, complex plot would require a little more planning than just having the whole thing in your head. Now that I think about it, it makes more sense for the villain to have a list of instructions kicking around than for him to be able to remember the whole thing and just reel it off. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Nov 24 '14 at 6:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Bonus points for finding the villain's monologue notes prior to him attempting to deliver it. :) \$\endgroup\$ – IgneusJotunn Nov 24 '14 at 7:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ You mean leave the powerpoint presentation for the minions laying around? \$\endgroup\$ – ratchet freak Nov 24 '14 at 10:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ haha sure that works. also that's hilarious for revealing the banality of evil \$\endgroup\$ – jhocking Nov 24 '14 at 13:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MrJinPengyou People write things down for lots of reasons: because it's too complex to remember (notes), knowledge transfer (maps, memos), as a reminder to do something (fridge whiteboard), for analysis later (photos, scans), for proof (invoices, delivery receipts, bills). In large organizations, individuals write things down explicitly to be a paper trail, so they won't get blamed for doing something later which they were actually ordered to do. There are lots of ways to be creative and leave some evidence lying around that isn't a sheet of paper saying "I'm going to kill Mr. X". \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Hayes Nov 25 '14 at 1:48
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Expose bits of information through the agents/the minions of the villain. This can happen in several ways, e.g.

  • Interrogations
  • Written notes found on the bodies of the agents (in several forms - eg. it could be a message on the phone)
  • Conversations overheard by the PCs
  • remarks or comments addressed to the PCs

I find this approach satisfying because it is conceivable that the agents/minions might have received some information on the plan of the villain, but they do not need to have the complete picture. At the same time, not knowing the big picture, they might be quite careless with the information they have, leaving traces and accidentally sharing them with the players.

I find this to be a flexible approach to gradually drop pieces of information that the PCs will be able to make sense of by putting them back together.

EDIT: if you think that the previous methods would not be suitable for your game (eg. let's say Mr. Johnson is really smart and cautious, and he would never, ever reveal anything that is not strictly necessary to his agents/minions), another method I can think of - which, though, to me feels a bit deus-ex-machina-y - would be to introduce a powerful enemy of Mr. Johnson. Someone who has reasons for wanting to stop Mr. Johnson's plan or for wanting him dead/ruined. This person could try to manipulate the PCs as a way to damage Mr. Johnson without compromising himself/herself. He/she could send information to the players anonymously, for example, providing the PCs the essential elements of the plots to grasp what's going on, or at least putting them on the right track.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Even better, the players might assemble the bits in something completely different and totally misconstrue the plot! \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Nov 24 '14 at 19:30
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Use cut scenes.

It's a literary/theatre device that works remarkably well in games such as these. Set them down with their snacks and their drinks and whatever, dim the lights, and start off by describing a scene that their characters aren't involved in, and gives a glimpse into something deeper. You don't have to have your big bad involved in the scenes - maybe no one they recognize is there, or maybe it's a goon or lieutenant they're aware of. They just sit and listen at this point, so make it brief.

Flip through your Shadowrunny music and practice reciting the scene to the music you've chosen - bonus points if you can cue the musical dramatic points to dramatic points in the cut scene. Don't take longer than a few minutes, and as soon as you're done, jump right in to what they're doing. A short scene, showcasing an interesting event that foreshadows what's happening elsewhere.

Players are naturally a little bit metagamey, but this is okay - you're showing the cut scene for a reason. That'll get them a little curious on their own, and they'll probably start investigating in the directions that the cut scene leads.

Can't recommend cut scenes enough - most of my game sessions start with a cut scene. They're fantastic for setting mood, exposing interesting world events or story components, and otherwise kicking off the evening. Very worthwhile.

I hope that helps!

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I've experienced the following problems with player's reconstructing delicate plans:

  • They miss info snippets
  • They forget that they have info snippets found long ago
  • They put only a subset of snippets together and invent some bigger picture missing the actual point

Most of these issues can be tackled by:

The rule of three

Place each info three times. Be it on different snippets or different ways to get a snippet.

Handouts

Well what shall I say? Deliever important information in writing. Maybe add a map of the location (Seattle or the stadium in your case) as another handout. You should gently remind them that their characters didn't have long breaks between gaming sessions and will remember all the info they've got (implying it's on a handout).

Reality vs. resolution

In reality many things would stay unresolved. But if you and your group enjoys having the riddle solved you should leave traces to solve it or have a mechanism that will reveal it. In my shadowrun group, we usually observe the results of our last run on the media. Maybe an investigative reporter finds out details that your players missed during the run.

As for smart bad guys

Even smart bad guys rely on minions, who might be captured and interrogated by the PCs. Computers always leave data traces. Money doesn't exist outside of computers in SR, so you can always follow its trace. A smart bad guy should have some fail safe plan. A Johnson is disposable for his superiors. Only a very loyal Johnson won't keep anything that can get him out of trouble. So maybe the Johnson didn't keep records of his doings but of other people's. Of course these records are not lying around but safe with some money the Johnson put aside for his retirement. So you can easily put up the PCs against their former Johnson (after all he conned them on the "well-prepared cops") to steal his retirement money.

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Defectors, hostages and allies

Either someone that was working for the BBEG, or who they'd kidnapped or someone who was independently working to take down the BBEG (because the BBEG poked their cat or whatever)

With this you get a temporary ally (depending on their abilities) and you can spoon feed them with an interaction scene what you want from their plot that they might know without giving any more away.

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In the end it all depends on your group of players motivation to expose Johnson's motivation or simply get a pay checked without being double crossed. If your players have any kind of street smarts they will probably run some background checks on their employer.

  • They may find some info about who he contacts regularly (Knight errant related people for instance), so they know who to be suspicious about before being confronted by them

  • Maybe their fixer tells them that this Johnson actually hired some other group(s) for a run too similar.

Then they can also gather a lot of info through several other means

  • Matrix havens, as can be seen in the fluff of all the rulebooks. They are filled with shadowrunners who may have dealt with said Johnson. They may have crazy conspiracies (some of them even red herrings) that point to useful information. Or they may know other people who are interested in countering Jonhson plan and know some information about it.
  • Magic. If you have a mage then he probably can do a lot of spying that is harder to prevent than technological intrusions. He can astrally project to follow Jonhson around a bit, IIRC there are even some rituals to spy from a distance

If you really want your players to dig into the plot and do an extended legwork to piece out as much as they can before, into and after the run then you must make them interested

  • Make sure they perceive Jonhson as a devious manipulator. He wants to pay them, they want to work, but they know he's got hidden intentions
  • Drop a subtle clue about him that can lead to more interrogation from your player. Maybe he as an obvious military standing that would associate him with Ares Arms, or he holds mostly ares products (and it can be a red herring again). Maybe he cant hide that spanish accent that marks him as working for the big A.

If you give enough clue that are not probant to Johnson's real motivations but actually lead your players to more investigation, and then based on their efforts you drop some more info, they might find enought about your clue to piece out a lot of it.

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Everything leaves a trail

Sure, the mastermind is smart enough not to leave clear evidence in plain sight. There isn’t a single document that lays everything out with his name attached. However, you can’t manage a master plan without plans. The mastermind will need to keep track of jobs and timelines and appointments and schedules and contacts and funds and prototypes somehow, and you can’t reliably keep all that information in your head, not for a plan of any sophistication. (A Shadowrun mastermind could keep a lot “in his head” via technology, but then you’re at risk of hackers finding it in the most incriminating place possible.)

Furthermore, everyone in Shadowrun is accountable to somebody: corporate bosses, organized crime bosses, shareholders, law enforcement, elves, dragons, horrors, something. In practice this means that you need at least two sets of books, one for yourself and one for the rest of the world. Thus, even if you can somehow keep your secret plans 100% secret, you’ll always have some records available for discovery. A brilliant mastermind can hide them behind slush funds and entertainment expenses and obscure projects and such, like Bruce Wayne – who was eventually found out by a nosy employee with a grudge and access to financial records.

Give the players a thread and they’ll tug on it

In a game like Shadowrun, you probably needn’t hint too much that a conspiracy is at play, especially if you hint that an employer is up to no good. In my experience, half of Shadowrun players are paranoid that every client is secretly out to get them, and the other half are in denial about it. Get them in touch with somebody with a good reason to be suspicious, like an investigative journalist or a forensic accountant, and the paranoia should be contagious. Imagine what would have happened in The Dark Knight if Coleman Reese went to ’runners instead of trying to blackmail Lucius Fox. You can start subtly, just getting them some jobs to investigate some suspicious expenses or client meetings, not even bringing up the Mr. Johnson involved. As the plot thickens, introduce more concerned third parties, like business rivals or crime bosses, who know there’s something afoot. Let the plot unravel as the players get more conspiracy-minded and take more initiatve in the investigation.

Dramatic irony is fun too

For an entirely different approach, leave the characters in the dark and just straight up tell the players what’s going on behind the scenes. This approach isn’t appropriate for every game group, but I’ve had fun with it in the past when I had some grand story to tell that just wasn’t ever going to come out in character. With the right group, this leads to fun dramatic irony, where the players know exactly how much their poor characters are in over their heads.

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Your idea of a single Mr. J sponsoring dozens of runs gave me an interesting idea: This answer will only work if you do frequent campaigns of Shadowrun and your runners can accept frequent wipeouts, but the idea is interesting enough that it may be worth considering.

Run several campaigns in the same setting with the same Mr. J. Give him a slightly distinguishing characteristic, like an ear that's got a scar, a pair of sunglasses with a noticeable feature, or a memorable meeting place. Have the players pick up multiple pieces of information on the news that they will remember in future campaigns. After a group is wiped and you start a new campaign, link this information back to a certain time in their previous campaigns.

For instance, when the group is searching for information, throw in a few extraneous pieces of information about how Corp X is looking for people to do Y or you hear about a team of runners trying to do Z. In the future campaigns, have the team be contacted by Corp X to do Y, or have them try to do Z. They could even meet/see their past selves during 'offscreen' time (But be really careful that they don't screw up your timeline.) When the group realizes they are still in the "same" campaign, it should give them a little added incentive to keep going . . . I hope. :)

Once the group is on their third or fourth campaign where they hear about the same incident from a different perspective, have some of their allies from their previous teams start meeting with each other and putting some of the pieces together, and clueing in your party. Eventually the party will have enough different perspectives on Mr. J to realize what's going on. Now they can get in contact with the other side and try to take J. down.

This should give the culmination a truly epic feel, and make it very satisfying when Mr. J. is finally taken down . . . after all, he's had them all killed several times.

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I would suggest analogues. Mr. J could have played similar trick to another party of runners and at least one survivor NPC runner could survive, couldn't he? And he probably wants some good cold piece of revenge.

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I have a couple different suggestions that might be a bit difficult to play out, but might be worth a try.

  • Written "meta instructions" from someone else to the arch-villain behind one of the three metaplots. (Based on the "instruction to commit a murder" from The Demolished Man) - if you haven't read it, the idea is that in a future where ESP exists, committing a crime is very difficult, the main character will try to stage a murder based on a "template" document left to him from one of his ancestors...
  • a software simulation of the whole plan that the Arch Villain used to evaluate alternatives etc. (sort like an interactive wargame).
  • one of the plots is based on a work of fiction (either movie script or a novel) - or even better, someone who managed to uncover the plot originally tried to "hide it in plain sight" by changing names/places. Motivation can be revenge, an attempt to prevent the plot without making it obvious that the author got the details etc.

N.B.: In all three cases what the PCs will stumble upon is something that describes in detail the masterplan, but the actual names of places, people, parties etc are either replaced by aliases (novel, simulation) or by sort of "algebra variables" (meta instructions) - the trick would be for them to find the material first, and then to realize that it is a description of the actual plot they are unravelling during the adventure.

The last part is tricky (we are all familiar with situations where what looked clearly obvious to the GM is missed by PCs) but if you go for the simulation idea, for example, you can make it easier (for example the simulation has an actual geographical plan that matches events in reality...).

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You are, above all, writing a mystery. With that in mind, look at how good authors build up a mystery, and eventually reveal it. I've always enjoyed, both as a player finding it out and as a GM watching the players figure it out, finding the pattern that ties everything together - do it right, and your story will become legend. Do it wrong, and it's boring, and is quickly forgotten. So, no pressure.

Loose Ends

If the players are to find the information at all, there must be loose ends. However cautious Mr. Johnson may be, his minions probably aren't, and his hirelings definitely aren't. Even if they are, there may still be data left over. Perhaps a certain hotel that Mr. Johnson was staying at when he made a call is known to record all phone conversations; Mr. Johnson knows that too, but he also knows that the recordings are purged after 24 hours, and considered himself safe. Except the tape-eraser went on the fritz, and the hotel hasn't erased his conversation. Or, more simply, Mr. Johnson always sets an auto-destruct on communication, but for some reason, it didn't.

While Mr. Johnson will try to leave as few loose ends as possible, his minions and hirelings will not. Any communication with them should be able to be had, for a price. The only way for Mr. Johnson to keep anyone from talking is to kill them - but that will send a strong message never to work for him again.

Loose ends must exist for the players to pull on, and because of the paperwork required for management, loose ends will exist.

Emerging Patterns

When the players put together their information, patterns will begin to emerge. Just like police will look for similar crimes, if the players find something from a decade ago with similar results, it will help fill in holes. Then, rather than Mr. Johnson telling them his plan, they can hear a version of his plan from someone else - an old associate, his mentor, or a retired cop.

No matter how smart Mr. Johnson is, he will have a key weakness - maybe he doesn't know about some new technology. Maybe he calls his mother (a traceable number) every week, regardless of where he is. Everyone has habits, even in devising elaborate evil plans.

Flexible Weaving

As a GM, there is nothing more satisfying than creating a master-work of fiction and suspense, and nothing more humbling than seeing your players rip through it in seconds like overeager puppies, finding every hole, flaw, and weak point. It's not something you can stave off - it will happen. A player will end up killing the NPC who was willing to talk. Or burning a building full of information. Or taking a job they should have known not to take. It's just going to happen.

So, be flexible. As you weave those loose ends together, make sure to leave a little room for error. Maybe the players will come up with an amazing tie-in that you never thought of; maybe someone will misinterpret some information. Whatever the case, have some back-up plans. Be prepared to change the story on the fly. The last mystery I ran, the players took a completely different approach than I expected, but with a little tweaking, they made a much more interesting story. They ended up catching the "wrong" bad guy, but their way was just as fun as my way, and in the end, that's really what matters.

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