Expanding Plots

Steve Hatherley

As I write this I'm in the middle of editing a new game for Freeform Games and I thought I'd explain how I expand plots to include more characters. (To spare blushes, I'm not going to name the game.)

I'm going to refer to a plot that I've recently worked on - "The Video Tape". The plot concerns a video tape that contains some steamy scenes that one character is using to blackmail another - and the video has gone missing. As originally written, the plot involved five characters:

Alex want to use the tape to blackmail Bill. But the tape has gone missing. Alex needs to find the tape and finish blackmailing Bill. (Score 5 out of 5)

Bill is being blackmailed by Alex. So far all he has received is the blackmail information. (Score 4)

Chris has found the tape in Alex's belongings and sold it to Dom. (Score 2)

Dom has bought the tape. (Score 2)

Ellie is married to Bill and is thinking about a divorce. Although not directly involved in the plot, is likely to become involved if she finds out about the video. (Score 3)

(For more information on scoring, see this link: http://www.flar.demon.co.uk/freeform/article-freeform-writing-process.html.)

This is a great core for a plot - Alex and Bill are clearly in conflict (and this plot is likely to be a large part of the game for them) and Ellie may well get embroiled in the plot. Only Dom and Chris have relatively little to do.

But, the game is being written for 24-30 characters (that may change). So at the moment, our plot involves 16-20% of the cast.

We can do better than that.

In terms of expanding the plot, here are some simple questions that can be asked:

  • Can we add complexity to the plot by adding more conflict?
  • Has anybody witnessed anything?
  • Does anybody know any of the characters' histories?
  • Is anyone asking for help?
  • Are there any items that can be confused?
  • Is a skill or item needed?
  • Are there characters who care about the plot who aren't involved?

Taking these in turn:

Can we add any other conflict or action?

Interestingly, the plot already has had some element of complexity because Chris has sold the tape to Dom. But we can add a twist to that by changing the relationship between and making it that Dom stole the tape from Chris. That also means that Chris now has no idea who has the video.

We can also change Dom's reason for having the tape. Originally, Dom just wanted the tape - but if we make the tape the means for Dom to achieve one of his other goals (on one of his other plots), then that means he will be looking for someone to sell the tape to, which gives him a much more active role (I'd increase his score to 4).

If we also assume that Alex has given Bill a blackmail note, then it's possible that Bill could have lost the note - in which case it could be in the hands of another character, or is somewhere where it can be easily found by anyone.

Has anybody witnessed anything?

Now that we have Dom stealing the tape from Chris, we have nobody (other than Dom) who knows where the tape is. While Dom will be trying to sell the tape, we run the risk that he decides to keep the tape and do nothing with it (players don't always do the expected). So therefore we need witnesses - in particular one or two characters who can have seen Dom either with the tape or somehow acting furtively. (In a game this size, I would suggest at least two witnesses.)

It's relatively easy to add other witnesses to other parts of the plot as well - perhaps someone witnesses Alex handing Bill the blackmail note, or perhaps they saw Bill's reaction as he read it. (And this kind of witness information can be added to any character, and can help some of the more plot-light characters.)

An aside: What's the point of witnesses? Witnesses serve a couple of useful functions:
First, they provide a route for that character into a particular plot. While I would only score them 1 in terms of the plot, it gives a plot-light character something else to get involved in.
Second, they spread the information around and so make it more likely that the characters driving the plot (those with a score of 4 or 5) are more likely to find what they need.

Does anybody know any of the character's histories?

Alex may have a reputation for doing things like blackmail. If that's the case, then one or two other characters should be aware of this. It won't tie them deeply into the plot, but as conversations happen in the game, the information that Alex has a reputation will slowly filter out.

Colleagues and friends of Bill may know bits and pieces of the plot - so a colleague may be aware that Bill and Alex have some kind of previous dealings, but not the sordid details.

Is anyone asking for help?

A powerful way to draw in another character is if one of the characters either asks for help, or has sufficiently close a friend that the help is offered anyway. A character who is providing help inevitably has a goal to help - and that will make them more involved in the plot that they might otherwise be.

In this case, Bill may hired a detective to recover the blackmail material first - which brings another character into the plot.

(You can use this sort of complication to introduce some variety into "teams" of allied characters. Let's say that B knows about A's blackmail problem, but C doesn't, and they're all supposed to be allied. C might therefore be slightly suspicious of A and B "talking secretively about something", or they might have doubts about whether to bring C in on it…, and so on. This may create tension between characters who might otherwise play largely in unison.)

Are there any items that can be confused?

A time-honoured way of making a plot more confusing is to add another similar item to the plot - and the two items become mixed up. (Don't overdo this, however, as it can become extremely contrived. While it's suitable for a more farcical theme, it needs to be used with care in a more serious game.)

In this case, we could add another video tape (containing something innocuous) which has got mixed up with the original. The characters who start with the tapes may (or may not) realise that they have the wrong one at the start of the game.

Is a skill or item needed?

Sometimes a plot can be expanded by introducing a skill, ability or item that is needed to resolve the plot. So for example, a plot might need the Evaluation ability (You are able to judge the exact price that you could sell an object (jewellery or goods) for) to resolve - and that ability may be with someone otherwise unrelated to the plot who needs to be negotiated with first.

In our example, the video tape might need to be put together with a video player in order to be viewed.

Are there characters who care about the plot who aren't involved?

Some characters may not be involved in the plot to begin with, but their background and goals are such that they would expect to become involved. This needs to be done with some care as not all of these characters will end up becoming involved in this particular plot, so you may count plot-involvements that don't actually happen. You might also be imposing your view of how the character should be played when in reality the character will be played however the player chooses.

In The Video Tape plot above, Ellie is an example of this type of character - but we could (with care), introduce others:

  • Bill's boss might be very keen on morality and would disapprove of whatever's on the tape, should they to find out about it, and maybe sack Bill.
  • Dom might have a partner-in-crime who would want to claim a share of the proceeds of the sale of stolen goods if they learn of the theft.
  • A police character would have a duty to investigate the crimes if they learn of them.

The Character Sheet

In terms of where to put the plot information on a character sheet, you should follow these rules:

  • If the character has a goal from the plot, then the information must go in the character background.
  • Otherwise it can go in either the character background, or the Other People. In general, however, put unrelated snippets of information in Other People. If the plot information fits into the character background, then put it in there.

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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