Beyond Random: Plot Points and Dynamic Worlds


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 28 March 2012

One thing I’ve learned over the last three years is that people play Dungeons & Dragons many different ways. Some like sandboxes. Others like rails. Some like meat grinders. Some like tons of story. A few like a little of everything in every game. There really is no one way to rule them all.

Since I love designing adventures, this has led me to thinking a lot about adventure design across editions. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the different ways we produce a dynamic world around the player characters. In general, I see one of three options used:

  • Random - The dungeon master uses random tables or percentiles to determine most of the world around the player characters. A common example of this is a random encounter table or a weather percentile table.
  • Planned Stages - The dungeon master writes ahead of time what will happen when, such as “the town will riot on the third day unless the player characters capture the rebel leaders.”
  • Improvisation - The dungeon master comes up with things on the fly, in reaction to the decisions of the player characters. If she thinks rain would make the atmosphere more appropriate for the scene, it rains.

Each of these has pros and cons associated with them and aren’t appropriate for all groups. For instance, randomness helps ensure the impartiality of the dungeon master, at least to a degree (nothing stops her from including items that aren’t level appropriate) but may make it harder to tell a smooth story. Planned stages risk railroading the players or cause wasted time spent in planning. Improv requires a fair degree of skill on the part of the dungeon master and, if there isn’t enough trust in the group or the group prefers certain play styles, may be interpreted as unfair by the players.

Given that there’s no clear winner, it might be awesome to find a way to serve them all about 80% of the way. In the adventure, Blood Money, Logan Bonner lays the groundwork for such a tactic. The adventure involves the player characters running a caper to steal the treasury of a local tyrant, ensuring that he cannot pay his mercenaries and, thus, freeing the town of Elderwood from his iron grip. Capers can be a bit difficult to run in D&D, satisfying caper stories often have a lot of twist and turns with an ever increasing tension beat. Pure randomness makes maintaining that upward track of tension difficult and the twists make it hard for a DM to plan for all the contingencies. Improv sounds like the best option but many of the guidelines for the DM presuppose planning time; they can be difficult to employ during a fast and furious session.

To aid the DM in responding in a fair manner to player character actions, the adventure gives the DM plot points, currency she can then spend on various defenses or changes to the adventure’s default settings. She spends some before the adventure starts, giving both her and the players enough details to begin play. After play starts, she spends her remaining plot points in response to player character actions and gains additional ones the more they plan. This last point is particularly important. If the PCs decide to do a surprise raid, things will be harder for them overall because the adventure defaults that way, but the reactive defenses will be lower because the DM doesn’t have as many resources to counter the PCs assault. If they take their time, the basic part of the adventure gets easier, sometimes even lowering the DCs, but the reactive defenses increase.

What interests me is that we can do something more general, providing DMs with a plot point currency that she can use in a variety of instances. It’s not for everyone for sure, but might help with those groups where either the DM is newer or the players tend to prefer a more structured or impartial approach to choices in the adventure or among groups that lack trust. Essentially, I see it as a point buy or point array system for the DM.

Here’s my pitch: Have random tables just like in older edition adventures but also provide either plot point costs for the DM in the table or a conversion chart in the adventure. Also provide the rate at which plot points for the DM refresh. In my mind, this does a few things:

  • If the plot point refresh is tied to time, as it is in Blood Money, this makes time important without necessarily making time keeping onerous or overly subject to DM fiat.
  • Groups that prefer random tables still have them while still providing support to other groups as well, including improv DMs who can use the random tables as inspiration for their own decisions.
  • Gives the DM tools for planning things beyond combat.
  • Reactive defense capabilities can make the world seem richer and make the PCs a stronger part of the story since their actions have consequences in the game world.
  • Planning in points where the adventure can differ, whether randomly or in response to character actions, makes it easier to reuse the adventure.

So what do you think?

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I like the idea of plot points and I think Blood Money has very good potential, even providing a nice starting point for similar adventures across the tiers. I'm hoping to modify it for my paragon tier game soon. I think one of the trickier aspects of DM'ing is simply being able to react to the PC actions so as to make their decisions truly matter. The only potential problem with the idea of plot points (depending on how a DM implements them) is that it could lead to player frustration. For instance, if the DM in Blood Money uses her plot points simply to provide direct counters to the PC actions/plans it may just frustrate the players. The problem there is that while the DM likely knows exactly what the PCs will be attempting, much of the time, the actual NPCs wouldn't know. If the DM isn't careful, she could wind up with her players deciding to simply make a frontal assault everytime since the enemy ALWAYS seems to know their plans and be prepared for them.

With respect to Blood Money, I think what I would try to do as the DM is to plan out my future plot point expenditures before the adventure begins. i.e. my first "new" plot point expenditure will be X. I would leave some room for adaptation of course based upon PC actions. Obviously if the PCs put up a huge billboard detailing their plan, and place directly in front of the keep, odds are the NPCs will be prepared. :p In general though, having the future points already planned out, will make it more likely to seem as though the player choices are having an actual impact since the DM won't always have the OOC knowledge available when deciding how to spend the plot points.

The module recommends spending half up front and reserving half to react to the players. I think that's a pretty good mix and can be changed depending on the players' skill level and what they are looking for from the game.

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