Game masters are the directors, producers, and screenwriters of their own weekly stories, and studying how the pros write shows offers advice that any GM can use. For those who don’t have the time or the money to go to film school before their next session, we offer this quick break down of five screenwriting terms and how they can improve the overall arc of an ongoing campaign.
Most ongoing shows have two plots running each episode. The A-plot is the focus of the episode and what all the main characters are trying to resolve by the end of the runtime. The B-plot focuses on one of the characters for development and depth. Often, the two tie together, giving the character whose history is explored in the episode a vital role in resolving whatever crisis is going on at the moment. Make sure that every session has a clear threat or problem to resolve by the time it’s over, but also figure out which characters can be hooked into the plot through their backstories and connections to the world. Personal motivation gets players interested in an A-plot much more readily than being given a mission or a quest by a random NPC.
Screenwriters use this term when they talk about setting up plot elements early on in an episode to pay off later. Without laying pipe, plot twists can seem to come out of nowhere that can pull people out of the story. This term is very useful for games with an investigation element, since it encourages game masters to make sure the chain of clues that help players solve the mystery can be easily followed.
Get In Late And Get Out Early
Part of the fun of playing an RPG is exploring a fantasy world in ways that TV and movies don’t allow. Sometimes, this exploration can drag, and GMs that want to keep the pace up during their sessions can apply this idea. Cut to scenes right as the action begins: the first punch thrown in a barfight, the trap sprung with the room filling with water, and so on. Cut away from scenes when the main question of the scene is answered. If the big bad guy has been slain by the heroes, cut to their victory celebration back at the pub rather than grinding out the fight with every last remaining goblin. A faster pace keeps players engaged and makes plot elements more likely to get resolved in an evening.
In Media Res
Many great adventures start with a call to action: a shadowy figure hiring adventurers in a tavern or a mission briefing from Starfleet Command. Adventures that start in media res are already underway. One of the most famous examples of this is from Star Wars: A New Hope, where Leia’s ship is being chased down by Darth Vader. All the details about what led up to the chase—the Death Star plans, the Rebellion–get filled in during the action. Starting a session like this can quickly snap players attention to the game and away from watching one last cat video or dallying over pizza toppings.
Raymond Chandler penned a number of crime stories, including Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep which he later adapted into screenplays. In a 1950 essay about writing for pulp magazines, he is famously known for suggesting “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” This advice was meant to give writers a quick and dirty way to inject excitement into a plot that’s lost its way, but it can prove to be useful advice for GMs. The time it takes for heroes to resolve a random combat encounter can give a GM some time to think about getting a plot on track, whether that means planting a clue the players missed on one of the monsters about to be slaughtered or by using a complication created by the battle to pull the players back toward an important NPC.
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