Search Plotlines: Of Obstacles and Skills

When I talked about the questions we need to look into when constructing search plotlines, one of the ones I covered was what sorts of skills are required to find the object of the search. What I didn’t note is the interconnectedness between that and the obstacles to the successful completion of the search—after all, what else are the skills for but to surmount the obstacles? When designing a plotline, then, it can be a good idea to determine which skills are likeliest to be useful and what obstacles there are to the characters’ success at about the same time; after all, each can be derived from the other, giving you an alternate angle of attack if you run into a mental block on either one.

Since I tend to derive a lot of what I do from the existing environment and characters, I usually start with the obstacles, and work backward to derive the necessary skills. If my characters are looking for an object, for instance, figuring out where it is will give me some ideas on what they’re going to have to be able to do to get there, while if they’re looking for a person the logical thing for me to do is to figure out what sorts of tactics the target might use to stay hidden, and figure out what would need to be done to counter those tactics.

On the other hand, in both writing and RPGs it’s important to make sure that all the characters have something to do, and what better way than to tailor obstacles to their skills? If I’m dealing with someone whose specialty is esoteric knowledge, for instance, I might focus on clues or defenses keyed to riddles and references, while if one of the characters has a particularly good sense of smell or some other means of tracking, I’ll give them a trail to follow. Just about any skill can be made at least somewhat relevant—even a close understanding of the techniques of basket-weaving can come in handy with a little thought. Unusual skills can be used to notice oddities in existing patterns, to establish common ground with potentially helpful characters, to open up tasks that can be done or bribes that can be offered to grease the wheels, and occasionally to deal with problems that, while not technically tied to the search at hand, still manage to impede its progress (someone with a military background, for instance, can come in handy if it turns out that the place that needs to be searched is in the middle of a war zone.)

Of course, the GMs among us need to keep in mind that just because a problem can be solved with a certain skill doesn’t mean that that skill is going to be the one that actually gets used. When your primary characters aren’t you—and sometimes even when they are—you should always keep your mind open to approaches that aren’t quite what you planned for. Some of the most awesome scenes I’ve played in or run have been direct results of that kind of flexibility and the crazy ideas of the players!

It’s the obstacles, and the skills that surmount them, that make for most of the story in a search plot. Keep them well in mind!

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