Okay people. Strap on your pads because I’m coming out swinging with this one.
I would define ‘plot’ as being the GM’s plan for how the game they are running or will be running is going to go. Now any of you who know me know I’m a fan of having a plan. So planning for the future is not what I’m attacking here. What I’m attacking here is setting any part (any part at all) of your game’s future into stone. Just for clarity’s sake I’m going to lay out my opinion on ‘plot’ here as succinctly as I can and then elaborate on that.
Start with the players and their characters and nowhere else. If you find yourself in possession of any idea at all about how a game is going to go before you have a complete grasp on what players you are going to have and who their PCs are or an idea that you think would work with any combination of players and PCs, you are doing it wrong.
Good god, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard GMs talk about an upcoming game using phrases like “I have been planning this game for months!” or “I have all the NPCs rolled up already.” or “I hope they [the players] like dungeon crawls.” The analogy I like to use is cooking. Your players are your main ingredients. So choosing to make veal parmesan before you check the refrigerator to see if you have either veal or parmesan in there is kind of idiotic.
Check your refrigerator first, then decide what dish you’re going to make, because in the case of players, you have what you have and can’t just go to the store to get what you want. It is possible that when you open the fridge with your plan of veal parmesan you’ll find you have the ingredients for it or at least the ingredients you’ll need to make something like it. It is however very unlikely and you’re more likely to end up with a poor approximation of your goal that satisfies no one. You are much better advised to look at your ingredients first and make something with them that they will work well in.
Don’t like the cooking analogy? Fine. It’s one of my favorites, but I’ll give you another one. How would the book Hound of the Baskervilles have fared if the story had been written before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew he was going to have Sherlock Holmes, Doctor John Watson or any of the Baskerville family members in it? Suppose he’d written the story and then been given a cast of characters to put into it including Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Tinker Bell? The story Hound of the Baskervilles hinges on Holmes, Watson and the Baskerville family being in it just like the story Peter Pan kind of hinges upon Peter Pan being in it.
Start from your characters and under no circumstances start anywhere else. I’ve said this to many a GM and been ignored to the detriment of their game. They tell me “I can’t think of stories on the spot.” or “I just have this fantastic idea!” In my humble opinion though, those excuses are as relevant to the issue as the current state of the horse manure market and twice as smelly.
To those of you who have a fantastic idea with fleshed out characters and a trail of plot bread crumbs and turns and twists and mysteries and everything detailed out in some closet full of binders: Write a book. If you write a book you get to decide what characters will be taking the lead in your story. In a game you have to share with others. Planning a game in advance and keeping all of the creative portions to yourself is not only unfair to your players, it’s more than a little rude, if you ask me.
To those of you who think you can’t come up with awesome stories on the spot: You don’t have to. At least you don’t have to do it on your own. For god’s sake relax a bit, man. You are only one part of the group and don’t need to carry everyone else upon your back. Talk to your players about their PCs. Listen to their histories. All you have to do is think about how to interconnect them. The PCs will provide the motive force. Reserving the first session to let the PCs meet each other in character is a good way of getting this ball rolling. Many GMs like to just start with the players knowing each other, but I feel that those GMs are short changing themselves as well as their players of a good game building experience.
Your players are the horses in this “horse and cart” scenario and you are the cart and unlike real horses, these horses have just as much of an opinion on and a stake in where you go as you do. They come first though and will be doing most of the work. What you have to do is look ahead and try to gently steer them in what looks to you like a fun direction and give them a swat on the ass every once in a while to keep them moving. That’s all. Listen to them as they discuss your game and they’ll deliver all the inspiration for story twists and interesting devices you’ll ever need. They, not you, are the main characters in this story. You are the guide, not the leader, so where they want to go is paramount. Plan for the future, but look at where your horses are heading and plan for that future rather than the one you came up with last week before seeing either cart or horses.