There has been a lot of great feedback on this series so far, but one of the many things I keep reading is the concern that Off the Cuff GMing may lead to plot holes. It’s true that if you’re not careful you can improve yourself into a situation where the world ceases to make sense and verisimilitude is shot, but with a bit of practice and some forethought you can avoid this pitfall.
As a side note, I just got to use verisimilitude in a sentence.
One of the easiest ways to maintain some amount of cohesion in your stories is to define—however clearly or loosely you choose—your goals for the game session or campaign. Set goals, but don’t be afraid to alter them as necessary.
For example, say you want your characters to ultimately take on a Big Bad Evil Guy (or Gal) and save the world from certain doom (because that plot is totally original.) That’s your primary goal. You should probably have an idea or two of who the BBEG is, why they want to destroy/enslave the world, and what the PCs may need to do to stop him/her.
What the players do along the way is where you get to be creative or, better yet, where your PCs get to be creative. Let’s say your BBEG is hidden away in an underground fortress, which is rumored to be rigged with all manner of traps and inhabited by any number of beasts (again, a totally original plot). Your PCs probably don’t know this when they start out, so they need to quest around a bit and maybe gather some info.
They’ve heard that Old Man MacGuffin is being plagued by rats, and while they’re clearing out his basement they discover a hidden tunnel that leads to an abandoned house on the edge of town. You came up with all of this on the fly and you’re not sure how it ties into the grander plot yet, so you don’t give the PCs any more clues for now. Now that you’ve established there’s a mysterious abandoned house with a tunnel that leads to MacGuffin’s though, you have a few options:
- Do nothing with it. This is sort of the boring way to say “Gosh, I threw that in there but had no clue what it was for. Maybe the PCs will forget the whole thing.” (They won’t.)
- Stall for time until you come up with a clever idea. Perhaps the PCs don’t find anything else this week, but next session they discover rats are infesting other parts of the village. They also learn that the BBEG is rumored to be a Rat Shaman, and that she seeks revenge on the town because the mayor used to pick on her when she was a kid. Now the players have a connection between the goings-on and the BBEG, and they’ll probably stake out the house to see if anything fishy happens there.
- Let the players guide the story. They may come back next week with a theory that the tunnel was formerly used to smuggle goods, and that Old Man MacGuffin was quite the rogue in his day. Perhaps the tunnel means nothing, or perhaps the new rat plague has something to do with the BBEG. The players decide to press MacGuffin for information, and he may reveal that an old colleague of his was really into rats…
Because you can’t count on #3 happening, you need to come to the game with a vague idea like #2 in your mind. It doesn’t need to be anything big or fancy, and in fac the less time you spend thinking about it, the better. If you don’t get too invested in #2 and don’t picture it as being the one way things have to happen, you leave yourself open to the possibility that your players will have their own ideas. If your players aren’t taking the bait and guiding the story themselves though, at least you have a backup plan about where to start the next session.
Over the course of three or four sessions, you’ve given your players all sorts of clues. Some of them may be important to the situation, some of them may not be. It’s important to keep a running list of notes about what you’ve told the PCs either way, because inevitably someone’s going to ask you about Clue X from three weeks ago.
You may have been improvising at the time and just said what seemed to fit, but if you’re not prepared to answer more questions about Clue X then you may be called on it. If you had a couple of notes though, you can quickly refer to them and make up something new that’ll fit the situation.
For example, your players staked out the abandoned house and spotted a shadowy figure enter it late one night. The PCs stealthily tracked the figure into the house and noticed him enter the old tunnel, but he closed the secret passageway behind him. Deciding discretion is the better part of valor, they decided not to immediately follow the figure into the tunnel.
Instead, the players make a mad dash for Old Man MacGuffin’s in hopes of catching the shadowy figure on the other end, but they arrived to find no signs of the person. After a thorough investigation, the only clue they found was a dusty footprint somewhere in the tunnel. The players give up the chase for the evening.
Several sessions pass before they come back around to that dusty footprint. It seemed inconsequential at the time, and in fact you probably just made it up to explain that the figure had in fact been in that tunnel at some point. You may have forgotten about the dusty footprint remark but your player, Bob the Guy Who Always Remembers Everything, brings it up when they appear to have reached yet another dead end.
You consult your notes and remember mentioning something about a dusty footprint near a wall in the tunnel. You mention the players noticed it during their cursory search for the shadowy figure, but now you elaborate a bit and mention it didn’t seem to lead anywhere. Taking that as another clue, the players head back down into the tunnel and begin searching for additional secret passages.
Why not? This seems like a plausible explanation for the disappearance of the shadowy figure. You let the players find a hidden passageway within the hidden tunnel. This one leads to Farmer Radcliff’s house, also on the outskirts of town, and Farmer Ratcliff appears to have been away from home for several days…
A Little Prep Goes a Long Way
I tend to advocate not prepping too much for games because you’ll never know what’s going to happen, but sometimes it’s nice to at least know how you’re going to start a session. Just having a list of notes and reading over the relevant ones before a session may be all the prep you need to get your ideas going.
As your campaign marches ever onward, you may notice your list of notes getting longer and longer. Don’t worry about them too much. Just check over the most recent ones, and remember that the rest of them are there if you ever need to consult them. Make sure you always know what your general goal is, and keep the players moving toward that BBEG so you can keep a clear destination in mind. If they’re having fun drawing out the investigation, let them have it. If they start getting bored because all they’re doing is tromping around some dirty old peasant village, you may want to ramp up the info you give them and make the clues more meaningful, then let them discover the BBEG’s lair and start the process again.
When a Plot Hole Isn’t a Plot Hole
On one final note, I’d like to point out something that others seem to occasionally miss. Have you ever heard the saying “It’s only wrong if you get caught?” The same general premise is true in regards to plot holes: it’s only a hole if somebody stumbles into it. Don’t worry about tying up every loose end, because not everyone will notice or care.
If Bob the Guy Who Remembers Everything decides to bring up every old piece of information you’ve given him and wants to investigate every hook, that’s just more fodder for your continued adventures. If two ends of the story don’t seem to connect when it feels like they should, you’re of course welcome to come up with more plot points with which to connect them.
Concern for plot holes is valid, especially if you’re GMing for the types of players who really need an explanation for everything. However, in my experience it’s not worth spending a lot of time worrying about them. Either they won’t matter in the long run and nobody will care, or you can improvise your way out of them.
What I’ve also found is that, generally speaking, keeping a steady stream of improvisation going leads to fewer plot holes because you’re not trying to pre-connect any dots. Instead, you’re focusing on what’s happening in that very moment, so you don’t need to look forward and backward in your carefully planned timeline to make sure everything matches up.
What experience do you have with players calling you out on plot holes? How do you handle them?