Sweet and Simple
We’ve written before about the advantages of simple plots, but recently, our table offered up some reminders. We had a simple, short one-shot game that went perfectly, and then another campaign that got strangled by its own complexity. The whole point of this blog is to share our successes and failures, so others can avoid our blunders and steal our good ideas, so let’s talk about why one worked and why the other got bogged down.
We’ll start with the game that got cut short because it wasn’t working, then get into the one-shot that went well, which contains a lot of the fixes.
What went wrong?
The game with issues boiled down to an over-complex plot. There was a threat from ancient history, sort of tied to some even more ancient history — although it didn’t really have anything to do with the plot — and some villains who had sub-villains, who also had sub-sub-villains in an effort to hide the identity of the main villain. Oh yeah, who were working with the ancient threat part.
I’m not saying a plot with a variety of villains that are rooted in world lore doesn’t work. I mean, that’s usually a bonus. But as the game developed, the Storyteller kept throwing in extra stuff. Some foreshadowing that was awesome, but also details and plot twists that just confused things. And adding ad hoc lore and plot points meant that not all of them lined up with the overarching plot that the Storyteller had planned. Each cool detail or lore drop actually made future plot points more complicated — and even sometimes contradicted them.
What went right?
By their very nature, one-shot games have to be simple. There’s no time to plant plot seeds that can sprout up along the campaign, and you’re hemmed in by whatever time you have to play this single story. So the one-shot plot was straightforward — a little girl was kidnapped by an evil hag. There was a dusting of prophecy sprinkled on top, but mostly amounted to “the hag’s gonna do something evil to a kid.” The girl gets taken, PCs chase monsters to the hag’s lair, PCs fight hag and rescue the girl.
There’s not a lot of room in that to screw things up, no time to add extra stuff that might tangle up the plot. And the simple nature of the story worked to the game’s advantage. No one questioned whether the hag needed to be stopped. Everyone fell in love with the little girl as soon as they met her, and were ready to lay down their lives to get her back. And the smattering of prophecy on top made it feel important.
Why does simple work?
A couple of reasons. One is plain logistical. Players will engage in antics. They have character arcs, romantic arcs, or just want to screw around — and one of the Storyteller’s jobs is going along with them, Yes Anding and improvising. That’s a lot easier to do when the plot is simple. The more complicated the plot, the more failure points it has. And the easier it is for antics to scuttle something you have planned; it’s just harder to be flexible and give the PCs room for their own stuff. A simple plot leaves plenty of room for them, and is more antics-resistant.
The other big reason is pure storytelling; Homeric epics storytelling and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller kind of storytelling.
Have you seen James Cameron’s Avatar? As of this writing, it’s still the highest-grossing movie of all time. Is it complicated? Is it original? Does it have one of the most ridiculous MacGuffins ever? No, no, and yes, respectively. So why is it still at the top? Because it used incredible technology to create vivid visuals — and because it is simple. There’s a reason that the heroes’ journey is so reliable, why themes and plot beats from Homer have endured for literally thousands of years. It doesn’t take a complicated plot or elaborate reveals to create a good story. And as opposed to a book or movie — something scripted — a role-playing game has player characters who are going to jump at plot hooks whether they’re real or imagined, and guess at the nature of the plot. On top of that, who knows what the dice are going to do? Put simply, there’s enough chaos already.
That’s the angle I come at when Storytelling, maybe because I’m not very good at mysteries. I’ve always leaned on simple stories with basic villains, then just dress them up. Scene-setting and detailed narration are my visual effects. Using the hero’s journey and other narrative tools make my stories strong, and character-driven arcs that strum my players’ heartstrings give them weight. I’d rather every one of my players know exactly what the villains are doing, but be 100% invested in stopping them than to try to set up a reveal that leaves my players confused.
Movies like Clue or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels are awesome, with lots of characters and overlapping plots that come together at the end — but those have scripts. Just imagine trying to run that as a game! Keeping all the pieces moving, not losing track of any, making sure all the reveals are set up while the players are doing their own thing, and the dice are rolling who knows what sounds like an absolute nightmare to me. A big social scene is handful enough, thank you.
Storytelling is a difficult job. You have to wear a thousand hats and do a million things. The players each only have to worry about one character while you have to play literally everyone else in the world. There’s a lot going on, and complicated and elaborate plots have a way of spooling out plenty of rope to hang yourself. Some stories have endured thousands of years, through translation after translation, through reboots and remakes because their narrative structures are strong. There are story beats and genre conventions out there for you to use with proven records of supporting plots. And that lets you focus your energy on reacting to your players, polishing up your narration, and making your world a living place with memorable NPCs.