My 2 Ps: plot-led and player-led tabletop campaigns

Back in the good old days, when everything could be boiled down to a nice dichotomy, we used to argue about whether roleplaying campaigns should be plot-led or player led. What exactly did we mean by that?

Well, briefly, a plot-led game was supposed to be one where the GM sets up some kind of interesting structured situation. He or she has a reasonably specific chain of events in mind for the game to resolve itself, with a beginning middle and end. There is a specific "plot" or plots to sort out. A player-led game was more of a "sand pit"; that is, the GM creates an interesting world and lets the players decide what they want to do in it. There is no specific plot to sort out, and the players set the direction of the game. Their decisions determine which bits of the game-world the campaign focuses on.

To be clear, by "player led" I do not mean the kind of game where players have GM-like authority to write the game background, control NPCs, or similar. Such games are interesting, but not the subject of this article.

Ok, that wasn't all that brief. And now I'm going to be even less brief. Let's consider some of the pros and cons of the two.

A well run plot-led game has lots for the players to do. The GM has created a carefully crafted storyline which the players can work their way through. There will be challenges, there will be thrills, there will be terrifying denouments and satisfying resolutions. There will be a genuine feeling at the end of having overcome something.

The downsides can be that the players feel railroaded. They wanted to go investigate that dark forest and you conspired to get them to the castle instead. Worse, they may start to feel like the challenges and thrills aren't real challenges - after all they have probably been carefully calibrated to be just difficult enough that the players will almost certainly succeed. And the GM defines the entire direction of the campaign, with minimal unpredictability, which can be boring for him or her.

On the other hand, the best player-led games create stories that emerge from the interaction between players and the GM or even, ideally, just between players and players. You can get whole storylines the GM never envisaged that come from the decisions the players take. Further, because the players have the freedom to make decisions, you can guarantee that whatever the game ends up focusing on is something the players have an interest in.

However, the player-led style has some important weaknesses. It takes away all structure, meaning that the game may feel more like a chaotic game of association than the sort of interactive storytelling many roleplayers enjoy. Because the players make the choices, the GM is left to pick up and run with whatever those choices entail - which entails either a massive level of preparation or everything being made up on the spot. Depending on how good the GM is at improvising, this can lead to the unfortunate feeling that once you scratch the surface you find nothing but plywood scenery, and risks major inconsistencies building up over time.

The biggest risk from a pure player-led approach is, in my view, that most player groups just aren't dedicated enough to make it work. Without a structure to hang off or direction from the GM, they can end up drifting through the game. In turn there is little incentive for the GM to put too much into the game, since he'll end up just having to make most of the game up. The glorious vision of a riveting story woven from nothing but the individual decisions of the participants rarely matches reality.

And now you get the dubious benefits of my personal view on what really works. As with all good dichotomies, the best approach actually lies in the middle ground. Campaigns need structure and direction *and* spontaneity and the freedom for players to choose. There now, that was easy wasn't it? Well, not quite. Reconciling the two can be difficult. Here are some thoughts on how to do it.

1) Match the players to the campaign (and vice versa). If you want to run a campaign where the players get to make important decisions, you need players who match the campaign you want to run. It's no fun being in conflict with your players because you disagree over what the campaign should be about. To an extent this is about picking the right players; to an extent it's about being clear what kind of campaign you want to run and giving them the chance to bail if that doesn't suit them; and to an extent it's about adapting your campaign to the wishes of your players right from the start. Above all you need clear communication from both sides.

2) Collaborative background-writing. So, I said that this wasn't about the players have GMly powers. But this doesn't mean they should have no influence over the game background. During character creation, encourage the players to give you clues about what kind of campaign they'd like and to help you create it through generating NPCs (villains, allies, friends and relatives), locations (home town, site of key triumphs/tragedies, and so on. Not enough time is made for this stage of most games, and not enough effort put in to making it work. Too often character backgrounds are written in isolation and not really made use of in the way that they should be.

3) Play to the motives of the party. To give your players real freedom you must first understand what their characters want. In this way you can predict what they might do and ensure your game plays into that. You should get your players to provide motives and background (or if you are using pre-generated characters, provide clear motives and background as part of that). Identify the motives that you can play on - if one player is a police officer then investigating crime is a "must do" for that character.

4) Expect the unexpected. Once you've decided the general structure for your plot, give careful thought to each of the scenes, locations, characters and decision points. Look for the too-tempting red herring that the players will waste entire sessions on. Watch for the too-fearful threats that put the players into "duck and cover" mode, stymying progress. Be aware of the possibilities for the players to miss important things or get distracted by unimportant things. In each case, you can either try to tweak the game to reduce the risk of a derailment, or weave the possibility of derailment into the game.

5) Influence the players' decisions. There's nothing more annoying as a player than finding that the GM has put a brick wall in your way with the seeming purpose of arbitrarily blocking a particular direction of inquiry. But a skillful GM can influence the players so that they choose not to go down that route in the first place. At its unsubtle worst, this can be a blatant trail of breadcrumbs that leaves the players feeling as railroaded as if you'd placed all the encounters on one long corridor. At its best, it will create an environment where the players choose to do what you wanted them to in the first place.

6) Give yourself the tools for a flexible game. Let's assume the players have not only not made the decisions you were expecting, but have ended up heading in a completely new direction. You need to be ready for this happening, because if you play for long enough it is a virtual certainty. In an ideal world you'd just effortlessly improvise without any inconsistencies emerging. If you can do that, great. If like me you aren't the perfect improviser, you can make life easier for yourself. Have a good grounding in your general setting and the wider locale the game is set in. Create some interesting locations and NPCs for ad-hoc use. And have a list of names to hand to make use of when you need a random NPC.

7) Discuss the direction of the game with your players. It never hurts to ask at the end of each session what the players think they might do next, both their short-term actions and what they'd like to do in the longer-term. Don't be disheartened if you get a "meh" type response, as most players don't actually have a clear idea of what they want to do in much more than the immediate-term. Failing to give an answer to this question is an invitation to you to provide more clear direction of your own. If you do get a clear answer then you now have scope to shape your preparation accordingly. If you can, avoid asking these questions over email - you will be unlikely to get a decent response and it will often take a long time, by which point the next session may be upon you.

I believe that if you follow the above tips you can have a campaign that has a strong direction and structure, but which allows the players to make choices - including major, long-term choices - without the game being so unpredictable it falls apart. You end up with a game where the plot leads the players, but the players choose the plot.