Looking for Something?

Most of us—particularly those of us who spend most of our time in some variation on the fantasy genre—are used to the idea of plots based around looking for things. Granted, in most of our cases the plot is a quest: go there, where this thing is, surmounting dangers and obstacles and covering a mess of real estate on the way. But sometimes, it’s a search—a closer look through one particular location for an item whose inaccessibility is due not merely to obstacles and dangerous guardians but more importantly to the fact that somebody knew how to conceal it. These let you delve more closely into the details of an area while still providing something a bit more interesting than a simple “Okay, you’re here, it’s here, let’s move on” scenario. So what do you have to think about when writing a search plotline?

  • What’s everyone looking for? Most often, this is an item or a person (I’ll get into the complications of looking for living, particularly sentient, beings later, I promise), though sometimes, people find themselves searching for a structure, a passage, an upswelling of (insert energy source here), or one of the above as a halfway-step to finding another of the above. What the thing being searched for will determine a lot about its effect on the plot—take careful note of qualities like how easy it is to hide, to move, and to cause to blend in with what’s around it, or things like whether it actually looks like what it’s expected to look like.
  • Where is it? Sometimes, the actual search is for the place where the object is hidden, but once that place is found the rest is (plus or minus a few traps and ambushes) easy until the next discrete complication. At other times, it isn’t the place that’s going to be hard to find, but finding the object itself within that place is a search of needle-in-a-haystack proportions.
  • How precisely does everyone know where it is? You’re going to get considerably different effects from “In the castle somewhere” and “In X city somewhere”–heck, you’ll get a decent amount of variation just from different sizes and configurations of city.
  • What would it take to find it? Your average search plotline isn’t like a basic game of hide and seek or an Easter egg hunt: if it’s going to stand as a plot, it’s probably going to require more skills than just the ability to notice something that might be out of the ordinary. I’ve seen everything from various flavors of interpersonal skills to esoteric scholarly topics, from physical skills to mental—it’s all about what you’ve got and how cleverly you use it. Most importantly, you’ll want to know which of the skills in question the characters you’re working with actually have, what they might need to get elsewhere, and if so where they can get it.
  • How vital is this thing to the overall plot? If you’re running game, that’s mostly going to determine how wide or narrow you want to keep your options. There is nothing more annoying than having an entire plotline stuck because the object a character is looking for is right there and her dice are laughing at her.

And then there’s the tension:

  • How long do you have to find it? The most straightforward way to ratchet up the tension on a search plotline is to introduce a deadline: if whatever it is isn’t found by x time, various bad things might happen.
  • Who else is looking for it? This might not be as easy as simply introducing a deadline, but it has far more potential for complicating factors: if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can even have five or six different groups of people looking for the same thing and fouling each other up in the process. (The clever main character/PC will, of course, take advantage of this—this is one of the reasons why I love them so much!) For extra complication, what if one of the rival searchers has an ability required to find the objective that the primary character(s) don’t?

Keeping all these in mind will give you an excellent skeleton for an engrossing (and hopefully not overly frustrating) search plotline. Hunt on!

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Why Objects Are (Often) Easier to Find Than Sentients | Exchange of Realities
  2. Where Are You Looking? | Exchange of Realities
  3. Search Plotlines: Of Obstacles and Skills | Exchange of Realities
  4. Rival Searchers | Exchange of Realities
  5. Search Plotlines: Dealing with the Impossible | Exchange of Realities
  6. Impractical Applications (Seeking Marten) | Exchange of Realities
  7. Impractical Applications (On the Construction of Rival Searchers) | Exchange of Realities

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