Getting to the Plan

Yesterday, I talked about the problems with having antagonists who Have a Plan that nobody in the audience can figure out. For the writer without an outline, though, or the GM improvising around the PCs, it can be difficult to make absolutely sure that the plan gets across. Here are some strategies to keep it from being obviously Plan As The Plot Demands.

The easiest way to avoid it, of course, is to know the plan ahead of time. You’ve got a pretty good idea what these people are up to, first step A through outcome Z and all the steps B through Y in between. You know what they need to do themselves, what they need the main characters to do, and how they’re going to get the main characters to do their part. You know those situations they’ve set up where regardless of who apparently wins they win–and more importantly, you know why. That part makes it a lot easier; now that you know all these things, all you have to do is run them in order, and find ways to show (or if you don’t want the plan obvious yet, just foreshadow) them, so that when they get through Step Z (or when at Y, the main characters figure out how to foil Z), even the less perceptive members of the audience know what they were trying to do and why it worked, and the more perceptive are having “So that’s why!” moments.

More often, you’ve got the broad outline, but you’re having to make the steps up as you go along. You know what the beginning is, you know what the ending is, and you’re basically having to make up the middle, going step by step and trying to improvise around whatever it is the players are doing today. You’re actually in a pretty good position, particularly if you’re GMing and/or one of the audience is prone to massive overthinking; you know what you’re trying to accomplish and, if you’re in a position to let the audience know what the objective is, you can even use their speculation to help come up with the remaining parts of the plan or justifications for what you’ve just done.

Sometimes, though, you aren’t even that lucky. The antagonist has an objective, but it’s not so much a concrete endpoint as an idea to strive for, and you’re stringing together things that he’s doing and not quite sure what some of it means, particularly those bits you strung together at the beginning that are starting to look like contradictions now. Heck, sometimes you didn’t even know there was an antagonist until one of your particularly motivated characters (PC or story MC, doesn’t really matter) is following up a lead and the principle of This Sounds Plausible kicks in. That doesn’t mean that you’ve already failed, though. Your best shot in a situation like that is to start asking why, particularly with regards to those details that just don’t compute, like why the gentleman whose younger daughter is probably one of the world’s leading demonologists is stealing badly written and mostly speculative books on demon summoning. The more contradictory the details are, the more you have to rationalize–and the more you can make your rationalizations fit together, the better the plan is going to come out when you figure it out and reveal it.

At this point, the only thing that guarantees that you’ll fail to establish your plan is if you let all your reasons be “Because I said so.” Think what you know through, extrapolate as best you can, don’t be afraid to piggy-back on your audience’s extrapolations, and make sure that as much as you can get without giving the whole thing away is sticking out of the black box.

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