Plotting adventures (part seven)

27 10 2009

Defining a plot device

 A plot device is something introduced to an adventure to affect or advance the plot.

It ought not to be recognisable to the players that it’s been introduced, it should just flow in with the story.

Its use is to move the plot along, or to introduce a plot element. Used wisely, a plot device will help with pacing.

Some popular plot devices

From various sources, I have pulled the following together:

  • Chase scene — a scene interjected between plot points that does not develop the plot, but serves to heighten tension in the conflict; in film, often used purely to display special effects.  It can really help pace.
  • Chekhov’s Gun — object introduced into a story but not used until much later.  When it’s used, players will say, ‘Oh, I remember that…’
  • Cliffhanger — abrupt ending presumably allowing the story to be continued in another adventure.  Used widely to bridge between adventures in a campaign.
  • Deathtrap — overly complicated method of killing a character, typically used by a villain.  Has some comic effect. 
  • Deus ex machina — strange or unusual means of resolving a story, such as having an event turn out to be a dream (rarely works well – avoid at all costs) 
  • Discovery — sudden realization of events or relations with other characters.  ‘Luke, I am your father.’ 
  • Eavesdropping — surreptitious listening to others’ conversations.  Every tavern has eavesdroppers. 
  • Exposition — explaining prior events that occurred in the story without having to role-play them.  Again, common in taverns. 
  • Fictional ‘fictional’ character — a fictional character known to be fictional by the characters in the story.
  • Flashing arrow — explicit and obvious reference to a person or object in a story.  You really are telegraphing this one to the players. 
  • Foreshadowing — giving subtle hints of events yet to come in the story (every adventure should have these).  
  • Frame story — a main story being told in the form of smaller stories.  This is in many ways what adventures and campaigns are.
  • Framing device — a single event or object having heightened significance.  Get the PCs attention. 
  • MacGuffin — a prime motivation for the characters that has little other relevance to the story.  The PCs are asked to fetch a scroll but it’s the fetching and returning of the scroll that’s important – not the scroll itself.
  • Mexican standoff — where two or more people are trapped in an impasse where neither can win.
  • Plot coupon — obvious object needed to resolve a conflict in a story.  Do the PCs need that emerald in order to…
  • Plot twist — an event which completely reverses the plot or story.
  • Predestination paradox — where someone travels back in time and could conceivably change history or their past (needs to be used sparingly – if ever)
  • Pyrrhic victory — where someone wins an outcome, but the result of the “win” is disastrous.  The PCs win the battle but lose the war.
  • Quest — complicated search for capture or return of an object or person.
  • Quibble — following the exact terms of an agreement to escape what would normally be expected.
  • Red herring — a person, event or object which deflects attention from the real thing.  Unlike a MacGuffin, this serves absolutely no useful purpose, other than throwing the PCs off the trail.  Read Sherlock Holmes and the pygmy/club-footed man for the use of a red-herring at its best.
  • Reversal — a change in the action or circumstances completely reversing them.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy — a prediction of a future event, where the prediction of the event causes the event. 
  • Sexual tension — where characters desire each other but either can’t fulfil their desires or they are delayed.
  • Side story — additional story taking place at the same time as the main story.
  • Story within a story — where one story is being told as part of a larger one.
  • Twist ending — unexpected conclusion to a story.

 More plot devices – learned from a master

 These are all courtesy of Agatha Christie and show how ingenious plot devices can be.  Of course they don’t have to be linked to murders, but her plot devices invariably were based upon them, so:

  • A character notices something odd, but cannot identify what it is (how long do the PCs take to puzzle it out?)
  • Attention is drawn to something that should be there and isn’t (I remember the Sherlock Holmes story where the dog didn’t bark).
  • The detective draws an inference from something overheard or unconnected (but goes down the wrong path or by chance down the right path).
  • The murder proves to be an opportunistic crime complicating a complex one (it was a burglary and the murder was to cover it up)
  • A significant item is hidden ‘in plain sight’ (the diamond is in the chandelier).
  • ‘No one ever notices the waiter’ (the lowly NPC is actually the main bad-guy).
  • Identities are concealed (the PCs don’t know whom is who).
  • A character who is considered unreliable or untrustworthy speaks the truth, but nobody listens to him or her (the NPC you set up as mad tells the truth but nobody listens).
  • The criminal is the one who calls in the detective (who would suspect him?).
  • The murderer appears to be the intended victim (by a stroke of luck they didn’t drink from the goblet but another NPC did).
  • The murderer appears to be an actual victim (in a string of murders).
  • The murderer is the hero or heroine of the story (the goody-goody NPC is actually the bad guy).
  • The murder has been committed by all of the suspects (Orient Express anyone?).
  • The murderer is a policeman (whoever suspects the forces of law and order?)
  • The murderer is the detective (who is called in to solve the crime).
  • The murderer is a child (or helpless person).
  • The conspirators in a murder appear to hate one another (always throws PCs off the scent).
  • The murders are unconnected (but the PCs look for the common thread).
  • The murder takes place after the corpse is discovered (body discovered ‘apparently dead,’ the alarm is raised, then the person is actually killed.  Instant alibi for the murderer).
  • The murderer is … exactly who it appears to be (PCs love to disprove an open and shut case).
  • The murder was a ‘dress rehearsal’ (when will the real murder take place?).





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