Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Plot-boarding

Watch almost any cop show on TV in the last forty years and you’ve seen it.  Corkboard, chalkboard, or whiteboard, they all assemble the clues to the murder, pinning up photos of suspects, adding ?s where they know there are connections, keeping the case up to date for all involved.  Makes sense in real life and makes added sense for a TV show where you’re trying to keep sometimes inattentive viewers up-to-speed on things in the episode.  All these same factors work for ANY RPG game.  I guess I call it plot-boarding.

You don’t have to be playing crime drama for plot-boarding to work.  The same value can be found in far future, swashbuckling, fantasy, and many more genres.  The players need to keep track of NPCs, try to understand what is happening around them, remember places and names, and keep key visuals in front of them.  If you don’t meet as often as you’d like, it is invaluable for reminding the players what the game is again.

What should go on a Plotboard?

Goals: Writing down the group’s goals is a good way to force them to agree on what exactly the goal is and to keep them focused on that goal during the sessions.

NPCs: They can log every NPC they meet or just the ones they think are important, allowing the GM the freedom to make things up more on the fly without taking his own notes… the players are doing it for him.  Names can be spelled right and phonetic notes made if they wish.  The GM can print pictures of NPCs for the players to stick on the board.

Places: Locations in the game can be logged along with a few key words of flavor: “Greyhawk, rich, cosmopolitan”, “Sanctuary: lots of gods, thieves”.  An important tavern in a city or location of a combat can be noted.

Things: Are the PCs given anything?  Stick that scrap of parchment from the beggar on the board.  Give them printouts of the elegant sword they found under the bed of an enemy.

Connections: Connect the people, places, and things together.  Who owns that thing?  Where was the thing?  Where can you find that person?

Motives: Even when not trying to solve a crime, plots are about figuring out what other powers are doing, what their goals are.  Use a different color for motives and note if the King seems desperate for money for the empty Treasury coffers or if the thief they catch is trying to save his sister.

In a semi or wholly virtual game, you’ll need an online whiteboard sort of solution.  Suggestions for good websites or software for this?

GMs can plotboard ahead of time to help work out what they need to create, if they want to introduce red herrings or false evidence, determine what ‘pictures’ they need to have on hand to give to the players for their plotboard.  It can be quite revealing to compare the players’ final plotboard with the GM’s initial one and see how different they can become.

Even if all you do is write things down on a sheet of paper and try to connect the dots that way, I think GMs and players will both benefit from plotboarding their games.

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