I need a blog. hops up on soapbox, takes out index cards
Dungeon World, and role-playing games in general, are inherently interactive activities. Success hinges on proper communication between all participants, and the ability to improvise new material based on the suggestions of the other players. For the gamemaster, this becomes quite the responsibility, as he must provide both the scenery and the actors for the player characters to get involved in. However, creating opportunities that entice the players to explore can be challenging.
To create a good plot, the gamemaster must have some insight as to what will motivate his PCs to action. Every player comes to the table wanting something different, but they are rarely explicit in their wishes. So the GM must learn to “read” the players, and look for the cues that indicate that this is what they are interested in. This is key to creating investment in the story both in and out of character.
The most direct method to reading players is by asking them in-character, and interrogating their backgrounds. As the player forms a character idea in his mind, he will come up with in-game reasons to pursue his out-of-game desires. Here’s an example:
Player: “My thief likes to steal from the rich, because a rich nobleman killed his parents.”
Boom. There’s a juicy plot hook just waiting to be used. It invests the character in the world, and gives them a reason to get into trouble. Now, let’s look at multiple players offering background information or motivations at once.
Player A: “I want revenge against the nobleman who killed my parents.”
Player B: “My church is committed to helping the poor and downtrodden.”
Player C: “I’m an archaeologist who studies magical mysteries.”
Putting these three elements together, we can make the outline of a campaign.
“Player A’s nemesis is seeking out–or has already found–an artifact which will allow him to turn into a lich. He is corrupting the people of the town into his undead army, and will march across the land if not stopped. Putting him down for good will require research and the appropriate magical items, while taking out his death knight lieutenants and helping the zombified commoners.”
There you go. Conflict, stakes, and something for everyone. If you’d like to further encourage your character to chase their goals, you can offer a mechanical reward in exchange. (See my post on Callings from last week.)
Once you’ve found something to grab the players’ interest, you can alter your plans slightly to let the players get involved in the plot elements they are interested in while you add in steps that move the plot forward. This requires some flexibility on your part. Don’t force the players down along a plot that they’re not showing interest in. If they don’t bite at a plot hook, recycle the idea. You can bring elements of it back later in the game.
In one of my games, the player characters were freelancers in a space opera. I had originally planned for them to explore a political mystery, but instead they got distracted with a planet in the hands of a criminal cartel. I altered my plans, and created a conflict on this planet, which the players were happy to investigate. Eventually, it was revealed that the forces behind the conflict had their roots in the political mystery I had planned before, but was never explored by the players.
Another place to find ideas is in your players’ character sheets. Look at the advanced moves that the player takes when they level up. These are the parts of their character that they want to emphasize. Is the thief taking more moves that improve his Backstab ability? That may be a good indicator that he wants to be more like an assassin. Plan ahead to give the character a chance to shine by using his moves. Conversely, if no one is taking moves related to a certain type of conflict, then don’t use that conflict.
Improvisation is a skill that anyone can learn, given practice. The gamemaster’s moves are designed to help you make choices that will keep the action going. Be a fan of the characters by giving them things that they’ll enjoy doing. Point to looming threats and offer opportunities to entice the characters into action, and see what they bite at. When you find something that motivates them, make more moves that will follow it up, and play to see what happens.