This post is primarily discussing long-running games that have strong staff-directed plot components. Think most ongoing vampire games like MES, NERO/Alliance/etc, that sort of thing. This doesn’t apply as strongly to short run games, let alone one-shots.
Introduction: The Core Problem
Every single game I have been in has run into the problem of plot threads being dropped or information lost by players, except one, which I’ll talk about later. This wouldn’t be too big an issue if it didn’t result in players feeling helpless, lost, or ineffectual.
It is also frustrating for staff running plots. They drop all these hints, that go… nowhere. The players don’t put the picture together. They don’t register that they just got a juicy, plot-defining piece of information, or they do understand it and then hoard it. It’s frustrating and often leads staff to continue the plot as originally written, letting consequences pile up.
This in turn can frustrate players more, since they are suddenly punished for things that they feel are outside their control. It’s rarely possible for players to discourage plot-hoarding. Staff often attempts to by directing information (often referred to generally as “plot” in many games) towards players who spread it around. However, this requires that staff do more work figuring out exactly who is sharing what with who, and is fallible.
Causes of Lost Information and Dropped Plots
In order to formulate a solution to the overall issue, it’s worth assessing the factors that contribute to information loss. Some of these are avoidable, some are not.
Out of Character Factors
- Players meet infrequently, usually between once every two weeks to once a month, with one round of downtime actions done over email or forum PMs in between. Not thinking about the game very often means that memories fade more easily and information is simply forgotten.
- Much plot information is communicated verbally at some point, and then held only in a person’s memory. Though a downtime action may get an email response, the character will then tell the IC authorities verbally during uptime.
- Most people do not have particularly clear memories of conversations. They may well remember details wrong or miss a crucial word.
- Most players do not bring notebooks to game, most games do not provide writing materials to take notes, and fewer still of these notes are digitized and shared because that requires additional OOC investment of time and resources.
- Player attendance can be spotty. If the point person for a plot has to work over a game weekend, suddenly the whole plot can go on hold. Does staff stop progression of it to avoid punishing the entire character base for the RL conflicts of one player, or do they maintain the setting and keep the plot going?
- Lack of player interest of engagement. Some players are just passive and don’t want to engage in plot. It’s their responsibility to tell staff that, but sometimes they won’t.
- Staff misjudging how long a plotline will take to resolve and the amount of work involved. Example: there was one plot in a vampire troupe game I played in that was novel and interesting in concept- it was roughly a turn-based text RPG that we played using magical proxies in downtimes. The ST thought it would take at least three months, at most six, to resolve. It took two and a half years. When we were making progress, it took at least an hour of work each week coordinating the downtimes of a half-dozen people, not to mention the staff time.
- Player and staff expectations varying with respect to the amount of work they are expected to put into the game.
- Lack of reward from staff for plot resolution. If players don’t feel like their actions mean anything or that solving a plot is merely a cue for the next problem to arise, it can easily feel like they are on an awful treadmill. Why not draw this plot out or keep it barely in check when success just means a new, unknown threat?
In Character Factors
These factors will depend on the game. All of these I have seen at least one game, some at several. Some of them are side effects of perfectly reasonable actions, some are unhealthy game dynamics, some are technological (looking at you, Facebook algorithm).
- Snark reigns. In this scenario, IC criticism and snark are the reigning tools of social hierarchy. Though in-genre for vampire in particular, it encourages passivity. If any action can expose your character to ridicule, it disincentivizes characters from acting all.
- Disorganization of responsibilities and escalation. Who is responsible for that? Does the sheriff handle that, or the scourge? Or lord so-and-so? When should we tell the prince? Without clear job responsibilities, everything tends to gravitate to being dumped on a handful of people, but not necessarily the right people.
- Lack of an in-character archive of issues. Some games used to handle that via forums with relative success, but I have noticed that falling out of favor as people prefer Facebook groups, which are enormously worse for archiving anything.
- Plot hoarding. Some PCs will hoard plot to feel important, either to work on it by themselves, or to just sit on it until the information can be revealed at a crisis point to make them the savior, or sometimes just to let the world burn.
- Overreaction by PCs to potential plot hoarding. If the game is largely passive and a small group of people just on all problems because they want to fix them, the rest of the game can jump on the active group and accuse them of plot hoarding when they’re just engaging with the story. This is especially disheartening when combined with plots that grow worse without player action, because it traps players into a lose-lose situation until they stop caring.
- CvC/PvP conflict. If you want to overthrow the current prince, why not let everything fall apart and sabotage plot resolution by players? I would personally discourage this since it makes the game a lot less fun, but it can be very effective.
- Lack of reward from other PCs for plot resolution. If PC authorities or peers fail to congratulate other players on solving plots, the work will feel thankless very quickly.
Have you noticed other reasons plot threads get dropped? Share in the comments!
There are lots of potential solutions, with varying degrees of feasibility and workload involved on the part of the players, the staff, or both.
Out of Character Solutions
- A staff member or a player writes up a summary of common knowledge of the events that happened each game and posts it somewhere everyone can see. This allows players to reference it between games. This fix is an OOC version that people can know IC, and should be reliable and fact-based.
- Plot staff and players should endeavour to confirm as much as possible in writing. For example, players can send their interpretation of an event to staff for fact-checking after games, for example, which doubles as a written record for staff to use.
- Bring writing materials to game for people who don’t have them.
- Bring a laptop to game so people can file their reports at game. Laptop can be IC or OOC.
- Set clear expectations about player absences and plot. Will plot information be spread to other players by staff if it’s critical? Will plot go on hold? Is it the responsibility of the player who is missing game to pass on information?
- Set clear expectations on how much work is expected between games for players, and for players of office positions. Are officers expected to put in DTs every time, or to have meetings on their own time, or to update files and documents? How many hours? This is a collaborative effort between staff and players IMO.
- Realistically assess how much time people want to spend on plot during uptime, too.
- Staff should give breathing room after the resolution of major plotlines or threats. Let things be quiet for a bit. Let good things happen. Give small issues for the most Type-A people to work on but don’t make anything too time sensitive.
- Players should delegate (see below), but they should also make sure people are okay with being delegated to.
- Players should positively metagame if a player comes to them OOC and says they’re having issues handling a plotline they’ve volunteered to manage or have been delegated, and find a way to move management to someone else. A personal lack of OOC time, ability, or interest is not the same as making a choice to have your character fail in-character.
In Character Solutions
- Start an IC newspaper (this is a great option for players). Have a clear distinction between “news” and “opinion” if possible. Harpy Reports can be this in Vampire, but it depends on the harpy and the style of report.
- Take in-character notes and carry notebooks.
- Start an online archive if one doesn’t exist for your game. Google docs or dropbox works well, ideally tied to a staff email. Forums work well, too. Make sure it’s well-labeled and well-organized. Online is good because people can access it when not at game, but an IC filing box can also work.
- Clearly outline the job responsibilities of each officer and how issues are escalated.
- Design specific information reporting guidelines.
- Have responsible IC authorities such as sheriffs hold office hours where they have a laptop or notebook handy. All reports of information that are not immediately important should be given during that time so they can be recorded.
- Officers should delegate issues to individual players to run with and manage. This mitigates plot hoarding and accusations of plot hoarding, as it spreads the plot out. It also gives those players management experience.
- Give praise and rewards for resolving plot issues.
- Avoid snarking at people who put in the effort, even if you are playing a snarky character. Being sarcastic about behavior you want to encourage (think parents saying “you’ve FINALLY decided to join us, I see” when an introverted child joins the family) is a great way to kill that urge cold.
Do you have any other solutions that have worked? Let me know in the comments.
This is a short summary of the problem of dropped information and potential fixes, and is largely intended to promote discussion and thought on the subject. I don’t feel this issue is the fault of either staff or players alone, and I don’t think the problem is strictly in or out of character, either. Instead, it is shaped by game culture, the physical realities of how ongoing LARPs work, and the nature of human memory and motivation.
I believe this frustration is avoidable with work and time. Some of it will be difficult- I think the hardest discussions in any currently-running game are about expectations, since they can reveal very difficult to resolve conflicts that were previously glossed over or unseen. Few play styles or sets of expectations are inherently wrong or bad- they just might fit only a narrow group of players at the game.