RPG Blog Carnival – November 2013: Gunpowder, Treason & Plot – Turning the plot on it's head

The RPG Blog Carnival is an idea to get groups of bloggers to all writing about a monthly topic, the aim being to build a dialogue across many different blogs, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
This month the topic is situated around plots and treason! Suggestions of political or military coups or circumstances that maybe through design or the wrong location at the wrong time result in your PCs getting tangled up in matters that are usually hidden by shadows.
I thought that instead of producing a ready made plot or conspiracy for people to drop into their game that i’d talk a little bit about how we tend to stereotype this kind of plot and how we can add a little more complexity by either expanding on these tired old tropes of gaming or can flip the stereotype around to provide a little contrast.
What do I mean by stereotyping?

Well in roleplaying games GMs tend to use a certain amount of shorthand when it comes to describing characters and world elements; this is not only understandable to a certain degree but it is entirely necessary, after all the GM has to manage (and possibly create) the entire campaign world, it would not be possible for a single person to detail every last peasant or small village in a D&D/fantasy world nor every backwater colony or space station in a science fiction setting (and this similarly applies to other genres, but you get the idea). Whilst any good GM will do their best to make sure that even disposable NPCs or places have a few quirky little details to make them interested and that can be expanded upon later should the NPC/setting become more important to the overall plot of the game, there are certain standard tropes for each genre that tend to get trotted out.

A few examples are:

  • The brawny barbarian who doesn’t fit in civilised society.
  • The stealthy, black cowled thief.
  • A good natured tavern owner whose family run the tavern.
  • A small village settlement where the locals are superstitious and look at any new people as “strangers.”
  • The totalitarian galactic empire who manages to almost entirely suppress a large area of the galaxy.
…and there are loads more stereotypes that can be used in a game.
Stereotypes like this (when used in moderation) can be a useful shorthand for a GM in a game and they instantly give the players an idea of how to behave or react to whatever is being presented to them; for example, when the players enter the superstitious village they know that throwing magic or strange items around is liable to result in an attempted lynching or worse.
So how does this apply to plots & treason

Well plots, rebellions and treason also have a long-standing history with RPGs, everyone is familiar with the idea of the players helping a local populace to overcome a corrupt noble regime or the aforementioned galactic rebellion; however because this is such a well known trope it can be a little obvious or tiresome if used as the basis of a long-running campaign. There are a few ways to subvert this stereotype and inject some additional interest into such a campaign and i’m going to discuss a couple of them in a little more detail below.
i) Flip the stereotype on it’s head

When use sparingly the idea of reversing or flipping the stereotype can work really well to break from the usual mold and to add a bit of additional interest to a session. For example, instead of having the players arrive and help an oppressed population of peasants overthrow a corrupt nobility, perhaps the noble family who rules the area does generally have the best interest of the populace at heart, but some organisation or group of malcontents is stirring up the peasantry against their rules for some reason or as part of some nefarious scheme, with this idea you then have the additional level of the shadowed groups scheme as well.
If you use this idea too much though then the players may (rightfully) feel a little confused or paranoid whilst playing in your gameworld, if everything is not what it seems then they will start reacting to everything with suspicion having a detrimental effect on your game (unless a constant mood of paranoia is what you’re looking for in your game); but used sparingly this technique of turning the stereotype on its head can make an otherwise very obvious story a little more interesting.

ii) Expand on the Idea

Touched on briefly in the example above, another good way to add additional interest to this type of plot is to expand on the initial idea or add extra layers to the plot; now this may not be feasible if you’re running a one-off game or a very short campaign due to time restraints, however, if you are running a more long-term campaign then adding some extra layers to your plot can result unexpected twists and turns, additional mileage from the plot and a narrative that seems less like a cardboard cutout/stereotyped scenario (I hope to produce some further posts this month containing a few samples that demonstrate this).
In terms of how to expand on the idea, what if the evil baron leading the revolution is not actually doing so because he is invested in it but because someone is holding his daughter hostage and is forcing him to use his contacts and sway with the people to lead the revolution? Instantly this scenario conjures up a number of additional questions, how did the shadowy mastermind get hold of the Baron’s daughter? Was the Baron betrayed from within? Why does the mastermind need the Baron? Who is the mastermind? What benefit do they gain from the revolution?

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