- 1 Overview
- 2 Vision
- 3 Framework
- 4 Pitfalls
- 5 The One True Way
- 6 Further Reading
For Empire we want to try and run as much plot as possible, and also to run a range of different kinds of plot and in particular we want to create plot that uses as many different themes as possible. We want to include plot with an emphasis on battles, intrigue, mystery, politics, morals, emotions and trade. To achieve that we try to work with individual writers to help them develop their own plots using the themes and approaches that suit them best. Individual writers are encouraged to create the kind of plot they like - provided it supports the overall vision for the game.
This document lays out that vision and gives a framework to explain what it means in practice. By doing this we hope to minimum the need for editorial control by myself and Andy Raff but we can ensure that we run plot that reflects the style of game we want Empire to be and that we don’t compromise quality for quantity.
Empire is intended to be a sandbox game - a world the players can observe and explore, can influence and control through a combination of their hard skills, their character’s skills and most importantly through the choices they make. The actions and choices of the players are what our game is about. That means we need to deliver a setting where the choices the characters make trump all other considerations, so we can't have those choices constrained or overridden by our writers or our referees to meet some other criteria.
The plots and encounters we run are not about telling stories, rather they should create opportunities for players to take advantage of new developments to tell stories of their own. Our plots should be moments where the actions the players take will create stories that perpetuate in the game world, and be remembered in the community for years to come. Our plots are a crucible for character stories to emerge from, they are not a story in and of themselves.
The following framework is designed to try and translate the high-minded philosophy of the vision into practical guidelines that writers can follow and apply when creating plots for Empire. These are guidelines not rules, we're not dogmatic about their application - but if we're breaking one of these guidelines we should think about why we need to do that - and look if there aren't ways to rewrite the plot to avoid doing that if possible.
All our Plot should be Responsive
This is the first and most important goal for all plot that writers produce for Empire. The plot must be responsive and flexible. We will not run plot in which the outcome is already determined, plot that requires players to act in a certain way or events to happen in a certain order.
Empire plot should respond naturally and easily to whatever course of action the players take. Roleplaying in Empire is fundamentally about players making choices as their characters - plot that has a predetermined outcome or requires certain actions to happen directly subverts that goal.
The key principle here is that we want the things the players choose to do have to be at the heart of what happens in Empire - not the actions of the NPCs. The responsibility of the NPCs is to challenge the players and to make their lives unpredictable and interesting but we still want the most important decisions being made in the campaign to be the ones being made by the players. For that to happen, plot has to have its outcomes determined by the players.
Failure Is Always an Option
No plot is truly responsive if failure is not an option. The risk of failure must be ever present, otherwise there is no meaning to success. In theory, you can trick the players for a short time, letting them think there was a chance of failure - but players are smart and they will quickly learn to see through the deception no matter how good a story-teller you are. We will not run plots in Empire that present the chance for failure - but are not prepared to deal with that outcome.
Learning to handle failure is part of gaining experience as a good Empire plot writer. There is some interesting literature in table-top game design around Fail Forward game design that is well worth reading on the subject. We don't use rolls in live roleplaying games - but player action is our equivalent, particularly on skirmishes and battles. Ultimately it comes down to planning for the prospect of failure - and crucially being confident that what follows is as interesting if the players fail as if they succeed.
The Goal is Leverage
It is a simple truism that we have more players than plot crew at Empire - even with around 150 plot crew, the players still outnumber us 10:1. In classic club linear systems it is possible to keep the players engaged through interactions between the players and the crew - the plot consists of the encounters that take place between these two groups. That fundamentally does not work well for fest LRP - because of the ratios above. Players will spend only a tenth of their time roleplaying with NPCs - some players will probably not speak to a member of the plot crew all weekend - it is a statistical fact that we cannot keep the players engaged and roleplaying if we view the interaction between players and NPCs as our "plot".
Good fest LRP plot has leverage - after the players have encountered the plot - as a letter, a ritual response, an interaction with an NPC, a past-life vision, etc - then they are motivated to go out and roleplay with other players. They may want to confront other players, conspire with them, haggle with them, or deceive them. The nature of the ensuing interactions between PCs and other PCs is utterly irrelevant for our purposes - we only care that it happens. If that happens - then the plot has leverage. The better the ratio of effort by the organizers to roleplay generated between players - the more leverage your plot has.
Leverage is the holy grail of fest LRP. We can all write a quest that keeps players entertained while they are on the quest - that is easy. The challenge is to keep them entertained and roleplaying hours after the quest is completed - or hours before the quest begins! Our logistical ability to run plot is limited - we have a limited number of NPCS, a limited budget for costume and props, and only a handful of quest and battle slots.
Delivering the best possible LRP event to our players means allocating those limited plot resources to the plots that have the most leverage. A quest for 15 players that has 15 players engaged with the plot for 30 minutes is innately inferior to a quest for 15 players that causes roleplaying between players for an hour afterwards on the field, all other things being equal. We won't stop a plot running just because it has no leverage but we will work with any writer to offer advice and suggestions to look at how to increase the leverage that *all* our plots have.
In Empire the Players are in Charge
The player-characters are fundamentally in charge of the Empire. There are no offstage Imperial kings, queens, generals or empresses and no gods. All of these social roles are filled by PCs. There are also no secret masters secretly controlling the Empire - how could there be unless such characters were controlling the PCs? It’s fine to have an NPC who desires power, who has nefarious plans to rule the Empire - but they can only be plans at the point where the plot begins running. They can’t start out with an Imperial power base that surpasses that of the players - or indeed is formed of things that are actually under the Empire’s control (like armies).
There are entities outside the Empire whose power is equivalent to the players. There are kings and queens of foreign nations, there are chieftains of great barbarian tribes, Eternals with a court of heralds and so on. However the Empire is one of the most powerful Empires in the world - even a king or queen of a mighty foreign nation only has power equivalent to that which a player would wield if they were Emperor or Empress and in most cases less - the Empire is one of the most powerful of its kind in the world.
We want Empire to reflect the fact that the players are the most important people in the world. There are no greater heroes than them, not greater powers, no greater threats. Plot that presents foes whose power exceeds that of the players diminishes them as characters who are central to the story.
Respect the Event Conventions
The events are set in Anvil, which four times a year is the beating heart of the Empire. The Empire is a “points of light” setting; there are wide swathes of wilderness inhabited by bandits, enemy orcs and monsters. Even within its own borders, the Empire’s writ runs thin in places.
But Anvil is not one of those places! The greatest heroes of the Empire have come here to determine its fate. 30 Orcs are not going to turn up to attack Anvil, that would be as effective as muggers panhandling for small change off the leaders of the G7 summit. There is not enough money in the world to pay mercenaries to attack the camps in the most well-defended spot in the Empire. Attacking Anvil is like attacking Fort Knox while it is being defended by the Avengers and every other super-hero team ever created. If it happens, it’s a once in a campaign event, involving the army that would be required to give it a hope of succeeding.
It is ok if the players choose to murder your NPCs in the field, it is ok if they choose to murder each other. It’s ok for your NPC to oppose the players politically. But do not write plot that involves an attack on the camps by a small group of orcs or their monstrous equivalent, it damages the credibility of the entire setting.
We have deliberately chosen this style of event precisely to try and make the event area feel safe. This is not to everyone’s taste, but it is the strategy that we are using for Empire. We don’t want fights in the IC field and a significant number of our players don’t want fights there either. We want players to wander around the IC area not wearing armour, maybe not even carrying weapons. We want girding themselves for war to be part and parcel of the experience of going on skirmishes and battles - we want those fights to be exciting and dangerous. Please create your plot accordingly!
Plot should be fun to NPC
The crew at Profound Decisions events are not paid, they are volunteers. They are there because they enjoy volunteering, they enjoy NPCing and they enjoy helping to create the event. Without them - there is no event. Therefore it is clear that the single most important aspect of plot writing is that it should be fun for the NPCs who are playing the parts. Plots that aren’t fun to crew, diminish crew interest and threaten to undermine the entire structure by which we deliver events.
Fun to play does not mean mingy over-powered NPCs who get their kicks at the expense of the player’s enjoyment of the game. If that is what the crew enjoy, then we need to change the crew. What fun to play means is that there is an assumption that crew are capable and trustworthy, that they are given a degree of independence to mould the characters they are portraying. It also means avoiding plot that requires the NPCs to spend long periods of time bored; an ambush is fine, an ambush that takes 3 hours for the players to arrive is not acceptable.
Different crew will enjoy different things, some crew love fighting, some crew like emotional roleplaying. Part of the art of running plot is helping to identify the right people to play the roles. But part of the art is in creating roles that are fun to play. It’s a cliché of LRP, but if you think of yourself as a part you have just written and ask “What is my motivation as this character” and the answer is “You have four hits, run at the players and fall over” then the plot is going to be a lot less enjoyable to npc than it should be.
Use Limited Resources
It’s theoretically possible to create NPCs in Empire with access to any amount of resources. They can have unlimited coin, unlimited herbs, crystallized mana or resources. They may be festooned with more powerful artefacts or have vast armies at their command. All plots created should have a clear definition of the resources available to the NPCs, these should be appropriate for the scale and power of the NPCs and they should not normally receive additional resources based on plot developments.
Economics is one of the core tools that the Empire system uses to make every character as important as possible. The wealth that the characters possess makes them rich and significant, it makes them valuable to their fellow characters. NPCs whose resources dwarf those of the players directly undermine this design goal. They also undermine the related goal that the PCs are the most important people in the world.
It is important to appreciate that NPCs are often only in play for short amounts of time, so they have less need of resources than PCs do, not more. NPCs in many LRP games are a byword for economic inconsistency, they tend to carry vast wealth but are simultaneously utterly ignorant as to its true worth. This problem starts with giving them unlimited resources. Any good plot should use the least resources possible and should aim to have less resources than the characters involved might need or want - just like PCs do. This is critical for making characters that are consistent with the game’s economic setting.
In Empire, a single PC gets 14 herbs per event, or 7 mana crystals or 10 resources. This is a good amount of resources for an important and powerful NPC to have. If you are sending out a large group of NPCs to represent a powerful group, they may have two or three times these resources to try and achieve their aims over an event. Plots that require resources significantly in excess of these are likely to get edited.
The following pitfalls are things to make all reasonable effort to avoid when creating plot.
Avoid Extraneous High Fantasy Elements
Empire is a fantasy game and one of the goals of plot is to reflect that. However we want the game to feel as immersive and real as possible so high fantasy elements should be used sparingly and where they are essential to the plot. If a plot requires a Varushkan Sovereign who is five hundred years old then it requires that - but don’t have the Sovereign possess the body of a dragon unless that element is also essential.
When you are writing plot, check it over carefully and look at the high fantasy elements to see if they are essential to the story. It’s good to include fantasy elements, but its easy to get carried away and want every threat the players face to be the biggest, most magical, most awesome, most incredible thing ever. The magic elements of a plot should be sufficient to tell the story - don’t use an Eternal if a Herald will do. Don’t use a Sovereign if a Wolf will do. Don’t use an ancient magical heirloom when a recently crafted artisan item is sufficient.
As a writer we want to write epic stories, but as a team of writers, we can’t have a world in which every single story is epic. Clever, well-written stories that pull the heart-strings are more enjoyable for the players than a titanic struggle against a thousand year-old evil - especially if that’s the fifteenth thousand year-old evil the players have met this week.
Avoid Criticizing the Players
Empire is deliberately designed to be a game where the players are forced to make difficult choices. When we get the game right, then these choices should be, by their very nature, contentious and difficult. Empire is very much a low fantasy game in this sense - it is not a game with perfect outcomes - it is one where the players need to make bitter political choices which leave nobody happy. A core part of the appeal of Empire for many of our players is the political PvP play that arises from the conflict over these decisions.
It is trivially easy for us, as the plot writers, to characterize a group of Imperial NPCs who don't agree with the decisions the players have made and turn up at Anvil and barrack them for their choices. This kind of plot should be strenuously avoided because it puts us as the game organizers in the position of criticizing their choices. It is very hard for an NPC to say "This was a bad thing you did" without it being seen as PD saying "This was a bad thing you did". Worse still, it upsets the delicate balance of player politics in a way that is inappropriate. Plot should give players things to come into conflict over - opportunities and costs - it shouldn't start taking sides in the conflicts that develop. When our NPCs criticize the decision of a player we are effectively siding against them and with the PCs who are that character's political enemies.
This is not a conceptual space we should occupy. Empire is a player-led game - that means that the PCs are fundamentally the movers and shakers of the Empire. The sort of Imperial characters who would turn up at Anvil to barrack a senator for a motion he voted for are played by PCs - most Imperial citizens will simply follow the lead of the PCs and take their cues from them.
This rule only applies to Imperial citizens - representatives of external powers such as foreigners, barbarians, and eternals exist to provide opposition to the players, their default position is inherently one of criticism of the Empire and the things it does. External powers are antagonists in our game, they seek to change or influence the Empire by opposing it and the decisions it takes, the players are not their leaders and are not in charge of them. So it is perfectly appropriate for external powers to respond negatively to the actions of the Empire.
Be Careful when Tricking Players
Tricking players is easy, much much easier than it ought to be. NPCs are often considered an extension of the organization, they are assumed to exist to propel the story forward. If a scout comes running in and says “We have seen 5,000 orcs marching on Semmerholm” the players know we can’t phys-rep 5,000 orcs so they won’t send a scout to check that the NPC is not lying, rather they simply assume that this character is facilitating the story and believe everything he says. Tricking players is easy.
It’s also often deeply unproductive. It would be trivially easy for the barbarian orcs to dress a group of their number up as Imperial Orcs and have them spy on the camp. The consequence of doing that is that the players will lock the camps down, they will stop Imperial Orcs entering any important area, because they could be barbarians. Meetings become “eyes only” making it much harder for players, especially new players to get involved. The game becomes less fun for everyone to play, and that is a clear failure in plot terms.
For this reason we ask plot writers to avoid plot that involves spying on the players or that will result in undermining their trust in each other. We don’t want camps with gate guards, we don’t want closed senate meetings or military meetings. We want to encourage the players to treat everyone in the IC area as an important Imperial Citizen so that the players can get involved with the game.
This doesn’t mean that plot can’t have layers of deception and misdirection. An NPC's true goals do not need to be transparent. Players like locking wits with NPCs and striving to outsmart them - it is usually more fun than striving to out-hit them. But it does mean that it is essential to be careful when writing plot to think about what the impact of any deceptions may be.
Don't Brief NPCs to Murder Characters
The Empire setting is designed to be a legal setting where most Imperial citizens regard murder of other Imperial citizens as unconscionable. To support this the setting has a legal system that will strive to punish law-breakers, particularly anyone who engages in murder. The goal is to make murder a risky and dangerous endeavour, one that could well result in the arrest and execution of your character - in short it should be rare and have massive consequences. We do not want murder to be trivial.
NPCs have no meaningful basis for fearing consequences. It means nothing to an NPC if they are arrested and executed, so it is easy to brief monsters to attempt to murder a player because their actions carry none of the implications that a player would experience in their situation. For this reason it is important for characters produced by plot writers to reflect the underlying values of the setting and to regard murder as a terrible action, something unthinkable that they might resort to only in the most desperate situations.
Creating NPCs this way will help to reinforce the setting. It is fine for NPCs to oppose some of the players and to side with other players, but they should be appalled if someone suggests murder, either at the thought of it, or at the risk inherent in it. They should never agree to be stooges for players, killing characters on the orders of PCs and being left to carry the blame. We have plenty of opportunities to make the PCs' lives dangerous on the battlefield, plot that is run in the field should focus on supporting the goal of making the environment a hotbed of politics, intrigue, mystery and magic. It will be everything we can do to stop the players' characters murdering each other; they won't need our help.
Don't Break the Closed World
Empire is a closed world - the players know what is in the setting because we will tell them. The barbarian tribes will be defined and described on the wiki, the different species that exist in the world will be on the wiki. We have endeavoured to ensure that the game includes dozens of different elements that will be useful when writing plot. Secret cults, Eternals, Foreigners, Barbarians, the ancient past, monsters and creatures of legend.
These things have been created precisely so that we can use them to create plot. Plot should be written using these existing entities - by creating individuals with personality, objectives and resources that reflect their nature. Don’t use a mysterious new race of creatures, use one of the species laid out in the setting. Don’t create some ancient evil from another world - use an Eternal or better yet a Herald.
When writing plot it’s tempting to make it as mysterious as possible by making it as new as possible. This can cause continuity and credibility problems if every new threat the players meet is new and alien, but in a setting where multiple plot teams are working independently the potential for dozens of mysterious new alien threats - all of which have never been heard of ever before - is vastly compounded. Please respect the closed world and use the tools that exist to create plot.
Don’t Subvert the Empire Rules
The rules are laid out on the wiki and they are pretty simple but fairly flexible. It is important to note that there are a couple of very clear consequences that flow directly from the rules design. There is no such thing as “magic” damage - therefore there is no way to be immune to normal damage. The Words of Ending ritual destroys magic items, so there is no way to create a plot that features the epic quest of nine brave adventurers to destroy an ancient magical ring. And one of the central concepts - there is no way for anything to “resist” a call.
Don’t try to subvert these rules - because they have been designed to reflect the ethos of the game. In Empire a piece of two by four round the back of the head hurts you whoever you are. Anything that the players make can be unmade, so anything the NPCs make, can be unmade just as easily. There are some caveats, some creatures may have magic that allows them to return from the dead if they are slain, larger than man-sized creatures are not affected by special calls, but the players cannot be in a position where they cannot kill the creature when it is stood in front of them.
It is often tempting to try to subvert the rules in some way. Perhaps the NPC can be harmed by a weapon but instantly regenerates unless hit with the Spoon of Pure Blue.Or maybe the chieftain’s bodyguards are vulnerable to any weapon but just happen to have 5000 hits each. Resist this temptation, if you are writing plot that has no set outcome, then it can’t matter if your NPCs get killed. If the NPC getting killed is a problem - change the plot - not the rules.
Avoid Ending the World
It should be clear by now why a plot that threatens the end of the world is not right for Empire. It likely includes unnecessary high fantasy elements, it presents a threat that dwarfs the powers of the players, it does not respect the closed world and worst of all it requires a pre-written outcome - the players save the world. Plot that threatens to end of the world is the stylistic equivalent of shouting. It creates a plot that cannot be legitimately ignored and requires all possible resources to prevent it happening.
Of course there will be threats that the players must face - that is one of the core roles of plot - but Empire is designed to incorporate the principle of reflection, that the game world can be updated to reflect plot developments. If the players fail to wipe out a bandit chief, then we can reflect the fact that that chief continues to attack settlements and resources in an area. If the players fail to stop the Jotun from invading Upwold, we can reflect that too. We need plots of all sizes and scales to make Empire feel like a rich immersive world - we don’t need every plot dial turned up to 11.
One of the themes of Empire is about picking which of your many enemies to fight. With many plot teams creating plot, it is tempting to try to write plot that produces the most impact by making the threat as great as possible - but doing this fundamentally undermines the game - it makes the choices of the players of how to handle the threats they face meaningless by trying to make that choice for them.
Death is the End
In a LRP game in which the players are encouraged to be inventive and take control of their own fate, it is important to establish what is not possible, what the limits on their abilities and by extension the abilities of NPCs are. By far the most important is that death is final and irreversible, death is quite literally the end. There is no magic in Empire that can restore a dead character to life and therefore not magic that can do that to an NPC. Dead, is dead, is dead.
It is important to note that in rules terms, terminal is the same as dead. It is vitally important to ensure that plot never ever creates a loophole that allows a terminal character to survive, either indefinitely or by curing them. Once it becomes a theoretical possibility for any character, then every character is persuaded to remain terminal for as long as possible in the hope that they too may be saved. The terminal state exists to maximise the roleplaying impacts of character death, it cannot be reversed by any mechanism.
It is possible for spirits to be called back to speak to, using some magics, and there are some undead spirits in Empire, barrowights that protect their tombs, restless spirits that seek surcease from their torment. For these creatures, their cursed status is the point of their existence, a restless spirit endures only to find a release from their fate and they take no interest in any other matters, regardless of how important they may have been in life.
The One True Way
I’ve been involved in writing and running plot for LRP games for over twenty years and in that time the only thing I’ve learned about the “one true way” to write plot is that it simply does not exist. Writing plot, like story-telling, is an art form. There are techniques you can explore, there are styles you can employ, experience you can gain, but there is no formula for the perfect plot - if there was we’d all have discovered it some time ago.
What there is, is a style and an approach that is appropriate for our game. We want to run a wide range of different plots in Empire, with different emphasis and focus, but they need to have a coherent style and approach. They need certain rules in common and they need to respect the flavour of the Empire setting. This document is about setting the underlying style for Empire. It is not intended as a comment on the plot run by other LRP game, other styles of plot are appropriate for other games.
This material is on our wiki, so that people who are interested in writing plot for Empire can see what style is appropriate and players can get some insight into the type of plot we intend to run. By making it public, we also make an effective commitment to stick to our own house rules... nothing is easier to ignore than the rule nobody but you knows about...