Writing Plots For Freeforms

Steve Hatherley

When I first started writing freeforms, I found writing plots really difficult. I didn’t know how to do it and the fact that they worked was down mainly to a lot of hard work and checking.

Now, and several freeforms and many years later, I find that plots are pretty easy to write. That’s partly down to experience, but mainly due to the fact that I have a system.

This is it.

What is a plot?

A plot is nothing more than something to do. If you have one character talking to another due to something written on their character sheet, then you’ve created a plot.

Plots vary in size from massive conspiracies that involve everyone in the game to tiny little filler plots that affect only a small number of characters. They’re all written in exactly the same way.

Plots also tend to have the same sort of features, such as:

  • An overview
  • A timeline
  • Secret History
  • Public History
  • Character backgrounds
  • Locations
  • And more – I’ve written a more detailed list here: Plot Elements.

Features of good plots

  • Activity – the plot encourages players to actually do something, even if it’s just starting a conversation.
  • Conflict – characters in the plot have opposing goals which create conflict and tension.
  • Information – information required for the plot is spread around the freeform (usually with other characters, but sometimes in game background or handouts). This will ensure that the plot doesn't happen in isolation, without anyone else knowing about it.
  • Breadth – significant plots should involve (even if only in minor roles) at least 40% of the characters. (Not all plots need to be significant plots, though.)
  • Consistency – information between characters is consistent.
  • Availability – the characters in the plot are, at most times during the freeform, available to be interacted with. (In other words, they aren't tucked away in a secret location, or hiding.)

The process

I now follow a fairly standard process when I’m writing a freeform, and I don’t start writing plots until I’ve got a good idea of what the freeform is about or who the characters are going to be. (I know that sounds like very basic stuff, but you might be surprised at how many freeforms I had to write before I worked that out.)

The whole process itself is mapped out here – The Freeform Writing Process.

Step 1 – the idea

Coming up with an idea for a plot is both the easiest and the hardest bit. The first few plots are always very easy to write – but that’s because of all the steps that have happened earlier in the process. So by the time I come to write the first plot, I’ve got a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that I want to happen in my freeform.

For example, when I wrote Hollywood Lies I knew I wanted these sorts of things:

  • Solving the murder
  • Some kind of making movies plot
  • Someone with writer’s block
  • A young starlet who had been taken advantage of early in her career
  • A weird “new age” type cult
  • Someone with a green card problems
  • And so on.

I find that it gets harder when I am writing “filler” plots – small plots that can involve a small number of people to make sure that they are as busy and having as much time as those characters in the early plots.

If you're struggling to come up with ideas for plots, do what authors the world over have done – steal! In the same way that Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, I get inspiration for my plots from all sorts of fiction (novels, movies, television). It's true that they do often need some reworking so that they fit my freeform's setting – but that also helps to disguise their origins.

Step 2 – the plot skeleton

My next step is to write the plot out in bullet points so that I know who is involved and to what extent.

The idea of this stage is to work out an overall plan for the plot. I try and differentiate between those that have goals and aims (ie, the plot’s main movers) and those who just have knowledge or clues.

Here’s an example.

The Council of Elrond: This is a fictional plot from a Lord of the Rings freeform (also fictional) that I’ve created purely as an example. I’ve written the plot up here in summary form (in bullet points) to show how you might start putting a plot together, before doing the detailed writing.

The Council of Elrond – Overview

Frodo Baggins has brought the One Ring to Rivendell. Elrond has called a secret council which includes Gandalf, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, Strider and Frodo. The purpose of the council is to determine the fate of the One Ring.


Date/Time Character(s) Event Plot
6 weeks ago Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Strider Strider and the hobbits arrive at Rivendell with the ring. Frodo is near death, after the Nazgul attack (see Attack of the Nazgul plot for more info) The Council of Elrond
5.5 weeks ago Elrond Elrond writes to the Dwarves and Gondor inviting them to the council. The Council of Elrond
2 weeks ago Elrond Elrond invites Legolas and Gandalf to the council. The Council of Elrond
4 days ago Boromir Boromir arrives at Rivendell The Council of Elrond
3 days ago Gimli Gimil arrives at Rivendell The Council of Elrond
NOW All Game start NA
+1 hour Elrond, Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Strider, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry The Council of Elrond held (lasts 30 mins) The Council of Elrond


  • Has been invited to the council by Elrond.
  • Is currently the ring bearer.
  • Wants to go home (but also to do the right thing).
  • Starts with the One Ring (item)

Gandalf the Grey

  • Has been invited to the council by Elrond.
  • Knows all about the ring - but dare not wear it.
  • Wants the ring destroyed.


  • Has called the council (and will chair it).
  • Wants the ring to be destroyed – but this is not a job for elves and the council must decide who is to destroy the ring.
  • Knows about the ring.
  • Believes men to be weak and doesn’t trust Boromir.


  • Hasn't been invited to the council, but has snuck in anyway.
  • Wants to find out what's going on.
  • Eager to help Frodo and Sam.


  • Hasn't been invited to the council, but has snuck in anyway.
  • Wants to find out what's going on.
  • Eager to help Frodo and Sam.


  • Has been invited to the council by Elrond.
  • Believes that the ring is a weapon of great power and should be used against Sauron.


  • Has been invited to the Council by Elrond.
  • Wants to see the ring destroyed.


  • Has been invited to the council by Elrond.
  • Wants to make sure that the ring does not end up in the hands of the elves.


  • Has been invited to the council by Elrond.
  • Wants to make sure that the ring does not end up in the hands of the dwarfs.


  • Has been invited to the council by Elrond.
  • Wants to do what’s right and support Frodo.

Step 3 – the full plot

Finally I then write out the plot fully in a single document. During this stage, I assume that whatever I write will end up on the character sheets. My plan is to take the text that I’ve written in the plot document, and paste it into the relevant character sheets.

If I’ve done my job properly, then I shouldn’t need to do much rewriting – and as I write each plot, the characters are effectively writing themselves. (Inevitably there is some final editing to make sure that character sheets flow. But hopefully that’s about it.)

Here's another example.

Enoch Flint’s Revolver: This is a minor plot that I added to a game that I was editing for Freeform Games. (A couple of the characters were a little light, and this gave them a bit more to do.) I've significantly changed the details (although not the overall structure) to avoid giving away any secrets.

This plot covers the loss of Enoch Flint's revolver during the wrecking of a ship he and his wife were travelling on, the Spirit. The details of the why and wherefore of the wrecking itself (who did it, why, what their goals were and so on) are covered in a separate plot.


When the Spirit was wrecked on the Cornish coast, Enoch Flint lost his revolver - an expensive, nickel-plated revolver with his family coat of arms engraved into the handle. Since the wrecking, Flint hasn't got himself another revolver yet, so his holster is empty.

The revolver itself is now in the hands of William Black, one of the wreckers. He knows that it’s valuable – and he wants to sell it as quickly as possible as he needs the money.

John Savage has two spare guns, and knows the Evaluation skill (for guns only).

Several people would be interested in buying the revolver – Enoch Flint (obviously enough – although he might not want to buy it…), John Savage, Hilary Forrest, Sam Metcalfe and Pat Gunn.

Jenny Flint, on the other hand, is happy to see the back of the wretched thing as she never liked it. She doesn't like guns in general.

Costs of things for anyone with the Evaluation skill.

  • A revolver costs about £20.
  • A pistol costs about £30.
  • The nickel-plated revolver is worth about £250 to a collector.


Date/Time Character(s) Event Plot
10 days ago Enoch Flint, Jenny Flint The Spirit is wrecked on the Cornish coast. Enoch Flint loses his revolver Enoch Flint's Revolver
8 days ago William Black William Black finds the revolver in the wreckage of the Spirit. Enoch Flint's Revolver
Now All Game starts NA

Character Information - Enoch Flint

Background: Unfortunately, you lost your precious revolver when the Spirit crashed on the north Cornwall coast. It was a beautiful revolver - nickel-plated and with your family crest engraved into the handle. It was a one-of-a-kind. Things have moved so fast since the crash that you haven’t had an opportunity to replace it. So you’re currently wearing an empty holster. As things are starting to look a little sticky around here, you ought to find yourself a replacement.

Goal: Find yourself a new revolver - You lost your precious revolver when the Spirit was wrecked. You need to find a replacement as you're currently unarmed and things are looking sticky.

Character Information - Jenny Flint

About the only good thing to come from the wreck is that your husband lost his horrible revolver. He was so proud of it – it was nickel-plated and had the family crest engraved into the handle. While you never directly complimented it, you never said you liked it either. Secretly you hated it (you've never really liked guns of any sort) and you’re glad that he’s lost it.

Character Information - William Black

Background: You were picking through the wreckage of the Spirit and one really nice find was an expensive-looking nickel-plated revolver, with a crest or something inlaid into the handle. It’s probably worth quite a bit – you think you ought to be able to sell it for at least £100 to a collector.

Goal: Sell the revolver – Get as much as you can for the revolver. It ought to be worth at least £100 to the right person.
Item: Revolver – A nickel-plated revolver with a family crest engraved into the handle.

Character Information - John Savage

Other People: Enoch Flint: Enoch is wearing an empty holster for a handgun. Perhaps he's looking to buy a pistol or revolver.

Item: Pistol – An automatic pistol.

Item: Revolver – A revolver.

Ability: Evaluation (guns only) – You know the true value of most guns and weapons. See the GM if you want to know how much a particular gun is worth.

Character Information - Meg Squire

Other People: John Savage - You know that John Savage is a shady arms dealer and is the right person to see if you need a gun.

Character Information - Hilary Forrest

Background: You've realised that things are starting to look a bit dangerous and you are feeling very vulnerable as you don't have a weapon. See if you can get one from somewhere.

Goal: A gun – You need to defend yourself. Find a gun from somewhere.

Character Information - Sam Metcalfe

Background: You've realised that things are starting to look a bit dangerous and you are feeling very vulnerable as you don't have a weapon. See if you can get one from somewhere.

Goal: A gun – You need to defend yourself. Find a gun from somewhere.

Character Information - Pat Gunn

Background: You're on the lookout for anything unusual and strange that you can buy cheap and sell later at a profit.

Goal: Curios and collectables - Keep an eye out for curious and collectables that you can buy cheaply and sell later to a real collector (or at auction) for a profit.

Ability: Evaluation – You know the true value of most things. See the GM if you want to know how much an item is worth.

Step 4 – cut and paste

The next stage is to cut and paste the various sections into their final homes – whether that’s the character sheets, rulebook, background notes or wherever.

Once I’ve updated the character sheets and rulebook and everything else, if I make further changes I only make brief notes to the plot document. Keeping the plot document fully up to date at this stage is just making work for myself. I do, however, update it if I make significant changes (such as add an extra character).

Checking the plot

With the plot written out in a single document, it’s pretty easy to check for inconsistencies and irregularities. For example, it becomes obvious if you’ve described an event in one place but missed it elsewhere.

It’s also easy to add extra characters if you need to complicate the plot – you just add them to the plot.

Plot Balance and Scoring

One of the important features of a freeform is that everyone is the star – there should be no favourites, and the king should be as important as the lowliest slave. So it’s important to check that all the characters have a roughly equal amount of plot.

My main tool for this is a plot matrix (which I describe in The Freeform Writing Process).

The two are basically similar, but I prefer the plot matrix as it’s simpler for me to use a spreadsheet than it is to create a database. In both cases, scoring the characters’ involvement in their plots is important – if you get the scoring wrong then you will end up with an inaccurate idea of how involved that character is.

So here’s how I do it – using Enoch Flint’s Revolver as an example. I use a score of 1 to 5, with 5 being “this plot will keep me very busy” to 1 being “This plot is incidental to me – I know a piece of information, but that’s about it.”

In general, if the character has a goal, then I score them at least 3. If they don’t have a goal, then the most they will score is 3.

Character Score Reasons for my score
Enoch Flint 3 This is a relatively minor plot, and it’s unlikely to take up much of Enoch’s time.
Jenny Flint 2 This is mostly character info – Jenny doesn’t have a goal.
William Black 4 William needs to sell the revolver, so it’s relatively important for him.
John Savage 2 This is relatively trivial for John.
Meg Squire 1 Meg only has information, so she scores 1.
Hilary Forrest 3 Hilary scores 3 because he/she needs a gun.
Sam Metcal 3 Sam scores 3 because he/she needs a gun.
Pat Gunn 2 Pat scores a 2 because even though he/she has a goal, I don’t feel that this particular plot is likely to be that involving for him/her.

In general I prefer to score low rather than high, because I’d rather my players had too much to do than too little. (If I were to err on the high side, then I might think that my characters had plenty of plot when in fact they have very little.)

Please don’t score characters based on how much backstory they have. You have to think of how much involvement they will have during the game - not in the lead up to it. So even though someone might have lots of prior involvement in a plot, that doesn't score very highly unless it gives them lots to do during the game itself.

Obviously, this is all very subjective. However, the actual score is unimportant – the important thing is that each character has roughly the same score.

Filling Holes

Once you’ve completed your plot matrix or database, it’s likely that you find a few characters that are a few points short. So what do you do when you find that characters A, D and H are a little too light?

You have two options – you can either shoehorn them into an existing plot, or create a completely new plot.

Adding characters to existing plots needs to be done very carefully. It’s relatively easy to give a character a snippet of information about a plot, but just giving characters lots of information is unlikely to make them fun to play. To really work, you need to get them involved in the plot, and that usually means giving them a goal to work with. If you’re plots are complete, it may not be easy to add another character.

A better alternative is to come up with one or two new plots that characters A, D and H can be heavily involved in to make sure they have enough to do. It’s likely that any plot you come up with will spill over into other characters – but that’s unlikely to do any harm (unless you end up giving more goals to already busy characters, in which case you may end up back where you started).

Tips for writing plots

  • Don’t be afraid to duplicate text with cut-and-paste – it’s often the easiest way to write a plot. (Players rarely see more than their own character sheet, so it doesn’t matter if you re-use your text. Nobody will know.)
  • Most plots should involve at least two characters who want something. The more characters who are driven to make something happen in a plot, the better. Ideally those characters will have conflicting goals.
  • Each character in a freeform will need to be a major part in at least one plot (preferably more than one).
  • It’s often worth taking a sprawling plot and splitting it into several smaller plots to keep things manageable.
  • You can’t write a plot in isolation – it has to be done with the knowledge of other plots and you may need to cross refer. Don’t worry too much about it as you write the plots – the merging the plots will take place during editing.
  • Be wary when writing plots that rely on historical attitudes (eg, votes for women). In my experience, it's hard to create an accurate historical simulation and players bring their own modern sensibilities. This isn't necessarily a problem, just something to be aware of.
  • Tips for ensuring that plots involve lots of different characters:
    • Don’t give anyone too much information. It is often best to spread the information amongst several characters, each knowing a small part of the overall picture.
    • Split the information that one character knows and give part of it to another character.
    • In a large freeform (say with 20 players or more) it is quite normal for some players never to interact with one another. So for your plots to work, you may need to give the same information to two or three (or more) characters.
    • It's often easy to add witnesses to a plot – What did they see? What did they think they saw? Is it important to them or is it just trivia?
    • Items can be a source of confusion: Who has the item? Is it where it’s supposed to be? Is there another similar item? Who knows where it is? Does anyone think that it’s something else? Is it real? Is it a forgery?

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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