A template plot document, and some other thoughts

Chris Whitehead asked for a template plot document the other day, and I thought to myself: “I must have one of those somewhere?” Before I quite knew it, I was adding notes to the raw list, and now it’s more a “how-to” than just a template.

I realised after starting that, I’d touched on the same thoughts here before and Ian Thomas has written about the thinking behind his version of this process quite beautifully. I’ve started so I’ll finish, though. I’m answering the question: “How do I get from a one or two line concept to a document that we can sit in front of at “time in’ and think “It’s OK, we got this.”? 

I’m taking as the definition of “Plot” – “Plot in the sense of ‘plotting’ – these are the pre-planned parts of the larp, the worldbuilding, backstory and any events of the larp that you as a designer plan or expect to happen.” (Brind,S. “Narrative Design”, in Koljonen, J. et al, Larp Design, 2019 p.110)

I’m using “I” here simply because I don’t want to put words in anyone else’s mouths; but what I mean is the team. I’ll be using examples from various larps I’ve been involved in running.  Notably, I’ll be using the most recent 3: “All for One”, a co-production with Crooked House, “Wing and a Prayer”, where I was part of the Allied Games team, and “Game of Roses”, which I designed with a friend who is a head of history at a local school.

The template plot doc.

Concept
Output: a better developed event concept
Moments
Output: a list of candidate moments
Tags
Output: a cloud of tags
Plot lines
“A plot line template”

  • Overview
  • Tags
  • Conflict
  • Delivery mechanism
  • Stakes
  • Schedule
  • Props

Output: a list of plot lines
NPC briefs
Output: a stack of NPC briefs
Props
Output: a stack of prop documentation
Timetable
Output: a timetable

Concept

I try and start with an objective: why am I running the larp? Educate, or entertain are two entirely reasonable objectives, but I don’t doubt there’s a million more. (Because I feel have to as an NPC, because I need the endorphin rush of combat narratology, because I’ve signed up to a series and the arc isn’t done yet, habit, weakness of will and having forgotten what it was like last time, or simply because I need the hit of thank-yous after the event are a stack of less helpful others.) I find it useful to remember why I’m doing what I’m doing anyway. It helps decision-making later;  “Look, we’re just here to entertain!” “It’s not a re-enactment!”

By the time we’re done here, we’ll have something we can use to communicate what the larp will be like to folk who come, and something to remind *us* what we promised people, so we can check what we’re delivering. (Aside: Useful advice for future-me. Do remember to check in on what you’re promised, to be sure it’s still what you’re delivering.) 

Output: a better developed event concept

As an example, the concept we ended up with for All For One is here.

Moments

Next up, I inhale source material. This might include:

…at this point, all I’m looking for is a list of moments. The kind of things I’d love to see at the larp. The kinds of things people will tell stories about later. The “They had a tank!” moments. The “Vlad dies!” moments. The “Great Bromley goes silent” moments. Because I’m usually working with a dispersed team, this probably means a list on a Google doc which everyone adds to, but in an ideal world it’d mean a weekend session and a large number of Postit notes. “Moments” are things I’d like to see happen. They may, they may not, but they’re on the list. Previous plot docs, previous NPC reports, historical material and media references: they’re all source material for moments.

What this gets the Plot Doc is a list of candidate moments and their inspiration if we have one for them, nothing more at this point.

Output: a list of candidate moments

  1. “Blue on blue” (ep1, Piece of Cake) (From “Wing and a Prayer”)
  2. “Nuns shall pass” (From “All for one”)
  3. “And the bishop preached from the steps of St Pauls: “bastard ‘slips they shall not strike deep root”!” (From “Game of Roses”)
  4. “Etc.

Tags

The “Tag system” is an evolving bit of practise championed by Crooked House; it was core of All For One, and we used it as Allied Games for Wing and a Prayer. It’s part of character creation; we’ve used it when we aren’t writing characters, but there’s nothing to stop it being used by writers who are. A tag defines part of what a player wants from the game, and part of how their character is involved in the game. Your game might not have them – back in the day, I’d have used a list of skills in the system and my knowledge of what the event’s players were into for the same job. There’s no implication this is a closed list, or that PCs who aren’t tagged that way can’t get involved, or that the tags represent the only way of engaging with the plot. It’s used in the plot document to ensure that a plot line is worth including. A plot line defined by a tag that no-one has? Not worth the bother. Does a read through the evolving plot document alongside the tags you know your player base has show there gaps? You need plot lines that speak to those specific tags.

There’s more about tags here.

Output: a cloud of tags

If I get round to it, I’ll do this as a graphic. It’d start as a list of words.

Plot lines

Once I’ve got a list of moments and tags, I’m into plot lines. Some of these might be inherited from previous events in a series, many will be inspired by moments. They start sketchy. That’s fine, they’ll morph and change and at this point nothing is in stone. They’re usually in a Google Doc. with a template at the end of paste in to every new plot idea. This template first came from Tom Owen, and I used it first at Wing And A Prayer. It’s a useful checklist, I think. I’d love to say that no plot makes it into a game without careful consideration of all the items, but of course this is not an ideal world. 

Ideally, I’ll organise these evolving plot lines as notes on a Miro board at https://www.miro.com/, like a wall of digital postit notes. Each tagged with its applicable tags, and the moments that I’d like to see in the larp.  

“A plot line template”

Overview

Some scratch notes, referencing items from the moment list, maybe justifying the plot line’s inclusion, and useful to remind us how we were thinking when we added it. 

Tags

What tags is the plot line is “for”? Essentially; does it look clear that someone will be interested, but it’s also handy to check for gaps later. If there’s a popular tag with no plotlines, you need to get back to plotting.

Conflict

What’s the conflict here? No conflict, no drama. If there’s no drama, then look hard at the plot line to justify it. If it’s a moment you really want in, that does impact this decision. Maybe the message there is that the moment is right, but this plotline isn’t good enough. In some games the conflict will between player characters, or groups of similarly tagged PCs, in others between PCs and NPCs.

Delivery mechanism

How does this plot get into play? What’s the hook? I might have called this “seeding” once upon a time. Is it part of an NPCs brief? Then add it to a pre-existing NPC, or create a new NPC role to do just this. You can name them later. Is a letter sent in?  If so, you need to add that letter to the props section too.

Stakes

What are the consequences? What are the results of the plotline? What, to use old UK jargon, is the “benny and slap”, the benefit and disadvantage to the character of engaging with the plotline?

Schedule

What encounters does this plot line require? Are there any timing issues, or can this plotline be placed anywhere on the event timetable? Does it have to happen before or after some other plotline? Would it be usefully seeded at a particular time where some or all of the PCs are in one place or another? Should it happen when a specific NPC is *not* somewhere?

Props

Nice and simple; just a list of what’s needed for this plot to fly, so nothing gets forgotten. Printable props end up in documents linked from here. Sometimes, this ends up as a requirement a larp can neither afford or obtain in time and then you bid the plot line a fond farewell and move on to something else. Sometimes, a high-fidelity foam replica of the Iron Mask arrives in the post, or you get sent an image of two identical copies of the famous painting of the Fallen Madonna With The Big Melons and you realise you absolutely have to have a good plot line written for them. Those are moments of deep joy. 

Output: a list of plot lines

Eg: “You shot my bomber!”

(NB: This is brushed up a little from the plot document for Wing And A Prayer, and right now I couldn’t swear if we ran it out. It’s a little light on detail, but I’ve run on sketchier documentation.)

Overview

A radar contact results in a potential blue-on-blue. A returning Blenheim bomber could be mistaken for a Heinkel He111. 

Qv: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_friendly_fire_incidents#1940

Qv: The TV show “Piece of Cake” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piece_of_Cake_(TV_series). “A tragic mistake is made when Barton leads a patrol to intercept what they are led to believe is a German attack and he shoots down a bomber which is later identified to be a British Blenheim, killing the pilot in the process. “

Decision for the Allied pilot: should be opt-in ooc.

Tags

Vengeful – a pilot who’s had might be more inclined to engage on the basis of doubtful identication

Fear of Failure – a WAAF character might lack confidence in their professional abilities. Giving them this kind of decision to make is just the sort of experience we promise, and leads to good character play afterwards.

Conflict

Between WAAFs who have and have not recommended an  interception.

Between pilots who do and do not advise engagement at the time? 

Stakes

Emotional impact, stain on pilot’s record.

Delivery

  • War room report of radar contact – possibly timed during the morning training mission?
  • A call for base commander later that day – loud conversation, through the open door, script for a bomber squadron leader off-stage NPC. Preferably during the cricket match so someone else takes the call.
  • A denouement – the backstop is an awkward briefing by the base commander, better would be a ticking-off from a squadron leader?

Schedule

Saturday morning: contact

Saturday evening: denouement.

Props

Base telephone

Base telephone notepad and pen?

Delivery

This is the second half of the plot document, and at this point it’s probably someone else’s job, not mine. We start with text in a Google Doc, and that text gets parcelled out other places. Some folk use a stack of Excel sheets here, some stick to a Miro print out, either way we’re in the world of event management. I still can’t quite call it “actualisation”, although that’s the first term I heard for it in the UK.

NPC briefs

Each of these briefs will end up as a linked document we can work on with the NPC, so they understand their role, and their role of their character in the event. For characters with a key role at the event; the more we’ve worked on this together before the event, the happier I am. “Extras” might only get a shared document with a generic role. Ideally, that document will have some suggested names, and half a dozen bullet points of knowledge that kind of NPC will know. That brief should be printed out big and on the wall of the room folk where get changed into role.

Output: a stack of NPC briefs

  1. “NPC name” – character brief here 
  2. Etc.

Props

Pages and pages of props, listed so we be sure we’ve got them, and can find them and can find them at the event.

Output: a stack of prop documentation

  1. Prop name – who’s responsible for obtaining it, how are they getting on with that, how much do we think it’ll cost, is it printable, location, …
  2. Etc.

Timetable

Never lasts contact with the actual event. It’s almost the key distinguishing feature of larp as a medium, that it shouldn’t, but it’s hugely reassuring to have a detailed plan at the start of the event so you know what you’re not going to end up doing. It’s the sum of all the plot lines scheduling influences, and the NPC casting decisions, and entirely one-off impacts such as “We can’t do musket training while the horses are nearby”. Sometimes, there’s two versions: a schedule which player characters can see and use, and another for the crew. At All For One, for example, posters the Cadets’ Academy schedule were nailed up around the site, and the timings of various activities were also incorporated into the event schedule the manager and NPCs used to be sure they were in the right place at the right time.

Output: a timetable

Last thoughts

This changes every time I’m involved in running an event. Some styles of event are more or less prescriptive about “encounters” for example. The precise terms for the various sections are almost invariably different. But essentially, this is it.

That said, there’s not a lot in here on the “bones” of the event, those happenings which are hardly “plot” at all, but which give the event shape. I find a good solid set of bones hugely reassuring, as they mean the players will have something to do all the way through, even if nothing changes. That’s a bit of blogging for another day. Given this started out as a displacement activity, and what could have been 250 or so words is now 2500, it’s probably best to stop here.

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