Plots and Player Agency

I have long agreed with the premise of Justin Alexander‘s article, Don’t Prep Plots. The gist of it is that if you prepare an adventure or scenario with a plot, it is easy to become attached to the outcome, and the game play can become ‘fragile’, where deviation from the plot causes the story to break down. The game can become a railroad in order to protect the plot, or a mess as deviation from the plot causes the prepared material become irrelevant and play becomes unexpectedly improvised.

I still agree with the intent of Justin’s article, but I think I have found a way to reframe it in my mind that gives me better results.

Plots are what happen unless the PCs change things.

I now do prepare plots. I plan, at a suitable level of detail, what happens if the PCs do nothing.

Duke Whatsit wants to become king. He’s too far down the line of succession to expect anything short of extreme pruning of the king’s family tree to be helpful, so he’s going to have to go full usurper. He has several schemes on the go:

  • he discredits the Earl of Ware, who has an inordinate amount of military power and is fiercely loyal to the king;
  • he arranges an atrocity in a foreign land to cause a crusade and distracts the church;
  • he has a woman (or better yet, a man?) seduce the king (alienating the queen, and hopefully his heirs; with any luck he’ll step down);
  • arranges a marriage between himself and one of the king’s daughters;
  • builds up his military force ‘to take part in the crusade’… but they never seem to get Over There;
  • etc.

This all happens over time, and while the root causes are not always known, the effects can be seen. The PCs should become aware of them (how else can they get involved?), but if they don’t do anything about them then eventually Duke Whatsit might become King Whatsit.

Plot is there… but plot is there specifically for PCs to tamper with.

I know the Duke’s goal, I know the things he’s doing to advance that goal. Because I know what happens if the PCs do nothing, when the PCs interfere with it it means they made a difference. The Duke might be forced to adapt his schemes to account for the PCs’ actions. The Duke might end up becoming a direct opponent or enemy of the PCs. The PCs might kill the Duke, or better yet defeat him and reveal his dastardly plans and ruin him!

Or the PCs might agree with the Duke and join forces to dethrone the king. I can’t rule that out. In fact, that might be a deliberate effort on the Duke’s part, to sway the PCs from supporting an ineffectual king who’s busy with his paramour instead of paying attention to the crusade his nation’s church is on. After all, the Duke is interested in what is best for the kingdom, even if it means going down in history as a regicide and putting himself on the throne, sacrificing his relative freedom for the sake of all…

Either way, because the PCs got involved, things changed. The PCs made a difference.

And PCs making a difference is critical to player agency.


  1. 100% agree with what you’re doing here, but I still recommend dropping the word “plot”.

    If you look at the definition of the word “plot”, what you’re talking about is a variant of the first definition: “A plan made in secret by a group of people to do something illegal or harmful.” Which is great. No reason that your NPCs shouldn’t have plans. And it makes a lot of sense to know what the ultimate outcome of that plan will be unless the PCs interfere.

    The problem is that RPGs are a narrative form, and so when people hear the word “plot” they tend to think of the SECOND definition: “The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” And that’s the definition that gets you into trouble.

    So while GMs should absolutely be having their NPCs do all sorts of devious plotting, I find that using the word “plot” is still confusing. So I just refer to that as “NPC scheming” or “The Plan” or some other synonym that doesn’t carry a lot of baggage with it.

    • Fairly similar, yes. In fact, Justin’s article makes an even more concrete timeline than I would. My emphasis is more on the goals and actors the PCs don’t see directly, that might or might not act to ‘re-rail’ their plots.

      • Aaron Griffin

        That sounds a bit like the countdowns in Apocalypse World (and friends) for the “Agenda/Dark Future” – even though they use a clock notation, it’s just syntax. Monster of the Week uses terms like day, dusk, evening, midnight, etc to indicate the impending doom.

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