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fork in roadWhile plotting itself is not central to world building, plots develop out of the situations built directly into a setting. Are there muscular power politics going on? Perhaps court intrigue plays a large role in background events. Are two rivals vying for control of a organization or the military? The ripple effect of this contest will affect much of the world around them. Has a drought-stricken area lost its aqueduct, and now a city’s very survival is threatened? And so on.

Virtually any element of a setting can become central to a story line.

But what happens when these situations collide with character actions? In stories, we develop events to support a plot line in our fictional setting. If things go awry for the main characters, this is the very substance of the narrative itself, and the worldbuilding author can control how things unfold.

But when we design for role-playing games, this takes on a different complexion. PCs can easily take actions that ignore or break the GM’s plot, or head off into the Great Unknown in pursuit of their own plans. Player agency can easily toss the game world into disarray and take the plot in an unforeseen direction.

While a game master must respond to this in the moment at the table, the challenge can be mitigated by the world builder (who may or may not be the game master as well) by planning ahead for unexpected events within the context of that particular setting.

Character Behavior and Contingencies as World Building Elements

We can mitigate potential plot and gaming derailment* with a little forethought put into the world building. Namely, when developing characters and plot elements that relate to them, be sure to ask yourself specifically “How will they react if [fill in the blank] happens?”

  • What will the antagonist do if his plans are thwarted by the PCs at an unexpectedly early point in the plot?
  • What happens if the main NPC is killed by the PCs at some random point in time (before the foreseeable boss showdown)?
  • How do NPC characters react if PCs cause unexpected changes in their situation or environment?

Add other relevant questions as you think of them

Before doing this, I find it useful to think of the world as a set of complex interactions already in motion quite independently of the player characters. As I have said to my players, “The world ticks on without you” – and I, as the world builder, must understand what that looks like.

Fictional characters behave in particular ways, and events will develop in a predetermined direction if PCs do not interfere. But what happens when PCs do effect some kind of critical change? The new direction of events will be shaped by the NPCs’ goals and motivations based on what they have been doing up to that point in time.

How to Plan Ahead

In order to extrapolate likely outcomes, consider the goals and motivations of certain world building elements. Those elements include NPCs and notable organizations such as government offices, guilds, and the military, and in fact anything that can have an impact on the world around it in response to character actions. An ancient dragon in its mountain lair might be a case in point, or a humanoid tribe pushed into migration because of warfare, and so on – the possibilities are endless, but the essential questions are:

  1. Who or what will react to PC actions and the consequences of those actions?
  2. What does that reaction look like?

This does not need to be a major brain-drain exercise. When designing a campaign world, certain factions or individuals or places suggest themselves as hotbeds of activity and adventure focus. Just pick a place or person to focus on (which will typically be the locus of adventures set in that world), determine what’s afoot for NPC activity, then ask the two essential questions for contingencies.

The nswers can be added to game notes or sourcebook as singular sentences used to expand NPC or encounter descriptions so a reader has some direction if/when it is needed. For instance, following the description of the main antagonist NPC, the world builder might add, “If PCs kill him before the final encounter, his lieutenant takes over the organization and continues to implement their plans to control the city.”

Obviously this becomes a plot element, which normally I would consider a little outside the realm of direct world building, but it springs forth from the circumstances of the world as it exists. That is a situation the world builder has the best handle on and can make the best extrapolation about.

A little contingency guidance like this is helpful for a personal campaign, but really essential for a published adventure or campaign setting. It can make all the difference between a game that is suddenly difficult to handle on the fly, and one where the general direction of improv (and future plot developments) is taken in a direction that makes sense within the game setting.

* “Derailment” – I use this word in the general sense of something going in an unexpected direction, NOT to imply that a game should railroad the characters into a predetermined path.


2 Responses to World Building for Adventure Contingencies

  1. Keith Davies says:

    In my campaigns, “plots” are “what happens if the PCs don’t do anything”. They are destined to be tampered with. This way, I feel actually quite good about plots being ruined and major NPCs being neutralized early.

    My major ‘protection’ against this is looking to the high level before getting into detail. Entities are defined with a Role: theme (who and what they are, their place in things), goals (what they want), threats (who/what they threaten and how, and who/what threatens them and how), and rewards (why someone might seek them out). Then relationships (who/what they’re connected to and how), identification (how you know you are dealing with them, or that they were involved), and status (which includes ‘entanglements’, things they’re currently involved with).

    From here I might know that Duke Whatsit wants to become king. He’s not really close to line of inheritance, so he’s going to have to go full usurper to get it — take it by force, not by creative elimination in the line of inheritance. This makes it easy to identify possible lines of attack: discredit that noble, distract the church (atrocity in a foreign land = crusade! Which also means many others of the nobility will be away at war, helpful!), dethrone (or dehead) the king, marry the princess (before or after the king is removed, it can help cement his position), and so on. I might plot that he will be successful — after all, I’m the GM, what I say goes.

    … until the PCs show up. If they kill Duke Whatsit before he is truly a threat, so be it. I’ve invested maybe 10-15 minutes, and the game becomes “outlaws evading the King’s Men… and the Duke’s family” (which continues until we get bored and say they’ve successfully evaded justice, or they make a deal with the right people — making friendly with the Duke’s heir, for example). If the PCs manage to interfere with the other plans, excellent.

    * find information that vindicates or exonerates the framed noble… interferes with Whatsit’s plan, and the Earl of Ware is now a friend (and the PCs might start to stand out as threats to the Duke). Duke might look for some other way to neutralize the Earl.

    * prevent the atrocity in the foreign land (the PCs were touring with the Prince and saved him from assassination from the Duke’s — possibly unwitting — agents). The Duke might try to arrange another atrocity, perhaps the attempt alone was enough to raise the ire of the foreign power (“infidels are using us for their own aims! DESTROY THEM!” — jihad instead of crusade, good enough!).

    … and so on. I would try to avoid “Indiana Jones” results, where the net impact of the PCs’ actions is nothing (the crusade-jihad one is like that). Instead, it changes the BBEG’s approach, but his goals remain the same. It opens new avenues for adventure without stripping the players of agency.

    TL;DR: Keep the BBEG adaptable. Plots are what happen without PC involvement, PCs should be able to change outcomes. Let them, but have the BBEG able to adapt to accommodate this. If the PCs defeat the BBEG, let them celebrate, they won.

    Then, they get hit with new problems.

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      Hi, Keith,
      Thanks for your comments.
      It sounds to me like you are already doing the kind of thing I suggest.

      “If they kill Duke Whatsit before he is truly a threat…the game becomes “outlaws evading the King’s Men… and the Duke’s family”…or they make a deal with the right people — ”

      Here you have made a determination that IF the Big Bad is killed early on and his plans thwarted, then response X might happen (PCs are outlawed and hunted), or response Y might happen (PCs can make a deal), and so on. You have contingency responses in the back of your mind and are not depending solely on the NPC-centric original plot (Duke Whatsit Usurps the Throne) to run smoothly in a predictable path.

      I think good GMs come to this perspective eventually, but there are many (especially newer ones) who plan for xyz to happen that is central to the adventure they are planning, and when it does not, then they are caught flat-footed. It is more than an improv test in the moment: it is lack of any idea about how NPCs would react to the changed circumstances.

      In any case, my larger point here is that how the designer sets up situations from a world building perspective can give you a really good handle on “what happens next” when NPC actions (or plots) are interrupted by the PCs. It sounds like you’re doing something like that in your games already.

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