3 Ways GM’s Can Avoid Story Derailment

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Like an illusionist, a storyteller needs to keep the show moving forward. Even with a heckler in the crowd, all GM’s must be stoic and march forward. The joke of “herding cats” is often made about our players as they try to nibble on every possible side quest or even random conspiracies they generate in their own head.

But seriously ask yourself: Have you ever had a story end so far off track that you’ve had your players being held at gunpoint by a self-aware octopus? These things happen. Here’s how you can either embrace that chaos, or prevent it from ever happening.

This week on GM Tips with Satine Phoenix she has guest David Nett on to discuss how to get the plotline train back on track. Get caught up below.

The fifth tip from David is my personal favorite—if your players hop off track let the players and NPC’s both be surprised. If the players stumble across the final boss early, go ahead and have them NPC’s stuck in preparation mode, still setting up whatever they are doing. As a double edge sword, all the hints and clues about how to handle that situation is also lost to the players.

When you are making the transition from running dedicated campaign modules to more open world systems like Eclipse Phase, it can be difficult to keep a coherent story going. Your own imagination can be as much of a hindrance as players deciding that they would rather live their lives as cephalopods (who can really blame them). But not all games have the luxury of letting a story go… a little crazy. In a longer running house game, let the players wander. Campaigns like that shine for that reason.

Prevention Is Key!

As a storyteller, thinking ahead will do you wonders. Put yourself in your player’s shoes and imagine what they would do. Or hell, imagine YOU are the arch-villain, plotting their demise. Much like playing chess, out-thinking your opponent is the name of the game. Only, in this case, you are trying to find your plot holes before they are ever even narrated. By keeping careful track of motivations and incentive (sometimes triple checking even) and making sure players are always rewarded for playing their characters they way they wrote them up—I’ve kept LARPs of all sizes churning along.

Satine, you’ve showcased your talent at doing pre-story prevention early on in the video above and with your weekly mini-series time and time again. Can you give us an example of how you put this into practice to great payoff?

“For Fury’s Reach we drilled the knowledge of the land into our heads. If the players interact with anything, we are ready. Ruty and I have so many choice possibility trees or “If:Then” trees that we cover ALMOST everything ahead of time. We spend so much time planning with only a fraction people will end up seeing.”

Time. The Eternal Enemy.

One shot games, con-games, or games at an FLGS are the most time sensitive. Rush the players through the content, and they are left feeling empty. Go to long, and the story never gets finished. Players going off track at these games is a serious detriment to what is a set experience. I have found that tracking story beats with the time schedule to be valuable. If you have a 4-act story, and a 4 hour game. Assume it will take 30 minutes to get set up, 30 minutes for the first act, then an hour to complete each act after. If the player’s speed up or slow down, you have a mental gauge of the tempo you need to maintain. For a large group of players, counting time (rather than what each player is doing) is more viable.

Satine, what’s your timekeeper secrets for tempo and pacing?

“I break down the scenes into time segments much like they do in Adventures league modules, making sure things happen within certain time frames. I’ll even keep a timer on to tell me when I’m 10 mins away from where I need to be so I can wrap up what the group was doing before I shuffle them along,

The Hidden Savior: Matrix Math!

Often called the 5×5 method of storytelling, but it can easily be 3×3 or 7×7, the idea is simple (for geeks): Create a 5×5 table and put the main story in one cube on the bottom row. Then any sidequests you have planned as well next to those and leave one blank for “random player action”.

Then fill out the rest of what happens in each column going vertical assuming the players do nothing at all. Literal couch potato players. This gives you a GM Bingo card. As each story act comes to an end, you know which tree the players are on. And also, what is happening on the OTHER trees where they did nothing. This allows the players to hop between plot-tracks, and you still keep your story advancing.

What’s your plot-tree secret Satine?

Every character has a story and a purpose. Remind them of this every session by giving them something to focus on and do to fulfill their story or their part in their friend’s story. Design the tree with: if they, and they do x, then y. In all the different combinations of characters. If you have time, of course.

What’s your favorite off the player rails story?! Let us know in the comments below!

Featured Image: Eclipse Phase (Posthuman Studios)

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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