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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Plotting and Paradigm: How to Open a Story

I came across an unusually insightful tidbit the other day, watching Casino Royale. The start of the movie begins with Bond and another agent, following a bomb-maker. Eventually, of course, we find out exactly what this bomb-maker had to do with the general overarching story, and how he connected in with the main villain of the film. So far, that seems like a standard quest hook, right? You find a minor character, they have leads to other things, and so on.

Wheels Within Wheels
But is it?

I realized something important about the design of the plot. Whenever Bond stumbled across an initial lead, it was because something went wrong. A courier got noticed who wasn't supposed to be, a drop was made sloppily, leaving room for him to track. If you think about it, the exact same thing happens in a great many Alfred Hitchcock films: the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time mucks an entire plan up.

In essence, it's all about an organization. Every plan, every conspiracy, every villain operates through structures that work just like machines. To accomplish Objective X, parts A, B, and C need to come about, and each has a specific mechanism that makes it tick. If the plan is a recurring one, like a Mafia's money laundering scheme, then the machinery is more or less regular.

And every machine has parts that can break down. For example...

Lou, a middleman in the crime syndicate, wants to be a bit bigger, so he's got a goal: to kick town with enough "enforcers" to start his own little syndicate in a smaller town. So, Objective: get thugs who are loyal and willing to move somewhere else. Part A: hire up thugs from the syndicate. Part B: work on the payrolls of the syndicate to mask the hirings. Part C: find somewhat capable schmucks to replace the missing thugs.

Part A means convincing some of the lesser toughs in the syndicate to jump town, toughs who won't squeal on Lou's plans. That entails a bit of research and discrete questioning, plus raising the funds to do that.

Part B means getting some accountants to mix around numbers, and to swap names. It also means putting those accountants in the right positions, or else stealing the syndicate's ledgers.

Part C means finding a few tough guys to get working for the syndicate, so that nobody will notice the missing gaps. This entails recruitment, and also careful switch-arounds.

Points of Entry
The players' characters can enter into the story at any point where the machinery might go wrong. You can easily shape up an entire plot, and then work with the players, to find out what type of characters they're playing. This should give you an idea of how they can stumble into the scheme, and get drawn into the rest of the story. Wherever something can go wrong, that's an avenue for the players to run into it. It should also be appropriate for the characters themselves.

Into this mix, we have Willy, a shopkeeper who's noticed that his cashier goes missing from time to time. Turns out that his cashier knows a bit more about numbers than might be guessed, and he's been siphoning some funds from Willy's store for an unknown purpose. This ties into Part B of the plan, obviously, as the cashier is one of the accountants that Lou needs for his plan to work.

You could just as easily have Riley, a social worker who notices that some of the homeless she regularly works with are not coming around any longer. If she continues to poke around and investigate, she might find that they've landed some dubious employment under Lou: Part C of his plan.

You could also have the Old Widow Yetz, who's concerned about the unruly new tenants who're staying in her boarding house. This also ties into Part C: these are the thugs being hired as replacements, housed until they can be shuffled into the syndicate's lineup.

There's a lot of different ways you can expose the players to the machine that's going on. From that point, whatever they do, disruption of the mechanism is sure to follow, and then the real fun begins, as the people behind it all try to piece it together...and to eliminate the obstructions. All it takes is the wrong people noticing the wrong thing...

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