Sunday, August 15, 2021

Princess Mononoke and "DM-Prepared Plots" in Old School Games

Alternatively titled, "How to Have Your Cake and Eat it Too."

There is a commonly recognized dichotomy of gamers who like linear, "scene-based" games where the DM is a storyteller and has an epic and enchanting plot prepared in advance they're trying to deliver, versus games where the DM is a referee who impartially simulates an active world and hands the reigns off to the players to do whatever the hell they want. In the latter game, to the extent that there's a "story" or "plot" at all, it's usually one that emerges naturally and unplanned out of the consequences of the PCs' actions and how the world responds to them, but the point is that "player agency" is maintained above all else. In the former game, there's usually a much-needed Session 0 conversation where the DM convinces their players to try to "play ball" as often as possible so as not to "ruin the game," and typically as long as you're playing with reasonable people then you'll have a great time.

It's not actually as though all gamers fall strictly into one of these two types, but boy do these two types fight a lot and get very defensive.

There are essentially three main ways to think of this situation:
  • Broke: DMs are/aren't storytellers and that's the only correct way to play
    • (most sensible people recognize this is a childish take)
  • Woke: There are many different playstyles that are all equally valid, and you should try to just figure out the one you prefer and then go find players who agree
    • (this is what most sensible people settle on)
  • Bespoke: A good DM can achieve a game that both keeps player agency perfectly intact and features a good amount of "emergent story" from the simulated world and has a DM-prepared plot that unfolds and wows the players with their storytelling prowess.

I am here to explain how. 


Here's roughly the table of contents for this post:
  1. Caveats before I get started
  2. Theory about story structure and scenario structure
  3. Tools I'm recommending you use
  4. Finally, use Princess Mononoke as a detailed example to illustrate all this. Full spoilers, by the way.
  5. Challenges to making this work

As Usual, Some Caveats

Caveat 1: This isn't for everyone

If you are someone who's settled on the Woke Take, then you probably are very comfortable in your own playstyle and don't necessarily want what I'm offering in the Bespoke Take. A lot of OSR gamers really like the power of "emergent story" as an almost-unique strength of RPGs as a medium. And a lot of DMs like it because they prefer to be kinda lazy and not have to prepare a plot. They want to be just as entertained as everyone else!

I myself am now more used to playing in open world sandbox games where I just let the players get themselves into trouble. I haven't written an "adventure" in a long time. But that doesn't mean I never plan to again, and I still find myself using these techniques on my sandbox game once things really start cooking.

And the flip side is true, too. An uncomfortable truth that many OSR folks need to hear is that many gamers, quite possibly even most gamers, don't actually want or value "player agency" all that much. It's held up as the sacred Holy Grail in the old school scene but tons and tons of players out there would much rather just experience a story the DM has prepared for them. When given freedom, lots of players will flounder. And there's nothing wrong with that either.

But maybe the reason you've never aimed for what I'm here to discuss is because you just assumed it was impossible anyway. So read on if it sounds like it has potential.

Caveat 2: How to use a movie plot as an example when discussing RPGs

This feels like it should be a simple thing but whenever you use analogy, people get caught up on weird irrelevant stuff so I'm gunna try to preempt a couple pitfalls here. Justin Alexander has made a couple videos where he both 1) uses movie examples to illustrate RPG scenario structures, and 2) tries to explain the limits of doing so.

The point is this: yes, movie narratives are "railroaded" by their very nature and set in stone by the creator, never to change from viewing to viewing and usually arranged quite deliberately to best support intended themes and emotional effects, but we can still think of their underlying hypothetical premises as a "scenario" to be manipulated. If we understand the imaginary situation presented and its world and rules well enough, then we gain the power to hypothesize alternate possibilities within it. No, this does not serve the needs of movie storytelling well, but for the purpose of RPGs, we like working with "mutable plots" instead of adhering to a strict sequence of events.

We'll be returning to those ideas later when I get to Princess Mononoke. Just get comfortable with me saying things like, "we can imagine that, if Ashitaka had instead chosen to do X, then Y would result..." and understand that whenever I do so, it's strictly within the bounds of the fictional scenario's internal rules and logic.

Caveat 3: We have to define some stuff so we can be on the same page

What counts as "DM-prepared plot"?

A strict definition would probably just be... well, like one of those strict definitions of railroading. "The DM shuts down player ideas that disrupt their story and forces scenes to happen that they've scripted out" or whatever. The biggest problem with a definition like this is that it doesn't even begin to cover all the situations that trigger a "player agency only!" DM to freak the fuck out, so it's clearly too narrow.

So what is it that the No-Plot-DMs worry about so much? Well, here's some slightly-less-obvious hypothetical scenarios that would 100% fall within their worst fears about why plot is a bad thing:
  1. The villains are an evil cult going to do a ritual where they sacrifice the princess to Tiamat, and the players are trying to stop it. The players arrive in the ritual room just in the knick of time! ...Regardless of whether they teleported straight there, worked through the dungeon room-by-room, or spent an extra two days doing sidequests in town first. Miraculously, no matter what they chose to do, they would burst in the room at the exact moment that the knife's point was mere inches from the princess's throat.
  2. The party comes to a fork in the road. They pick a direction, go that way, and find the dungeon. Either way they picked, they still would have found the dungeon, but not because the two paths converge again. It was just one of those awful "Quantum Ogre" situations, although I'm choosing an example of greater consequence than a mere "random encounter."
    • Although the original example is slightly more complicated and adds a twist that is also relevant here: the ultimate goal the DM has for the players is decided to always be in the second place they check, so that way the DM can make sure the party will encounter the ogre first no matter which way they choose. Still robbing players of the chance to make informed decisions that have an effect on the results.
    • Even worse is "palette shifting." The PCs choose a road, see the dungeon from afar but dislike the looks of it, backtrack and pick the other road, and encounter a "different" dungeon instead whose interior is secretly the one which the DM had planned to be used originally!
  3. The players are investigating a mystery and they wildly misinterpret a clue. I dunno, maybe they think there's a werewolf instead of a vampire and plan accordingly. Then the DM either 1) forces the vampire answer down their throat before they meet the grisly consequences of their mistake, or 2) changes the vampire to a werewolf instead to not fuck the players over. Either way, they're compromising the integrity of the simulation to make sure players don't have to experience the consequences of their own actions. While in this example it's hypothetically a benefit to the players, it's still bad for them by harming their agency.
  4. The PCs talk to an NPC who is secretly a devil or demon or something in disguise, the party has a paladin or something with an ability to detect such things, but the DM still withholds that information. Either they simply don't reveal it because "the player never asked" (dubious at best) or they fucking lie when the player does directly ask (what the hell) and maybe they come up with an excuse later to justify it ("my illusion magic is stronger than your divination magic!").
I'm fairly confident that most gamers who give each of those examples a moment's consideration will recognize that, yes, they are all instances of player agency being violated by a DM who is prioritizing their own preconceived intention about how the game "should" go. Yes, even those of us who are guilty of committing these sins in the past (I know I'm no exception). But these are all fairly extreme examples, no?

And yeah, we could get into a conversation about "hard railroads" and "soft railroads" and where you draw the line at what even counts. A hard railroad would be "you can't leave the city because I said so" whereas a soft railroad would be "you can't leave the city because there's an army camped outside of it." The second one is easier to justify and easier to believe but also easier to break through if the PCs are determined enough. And people debate the extent to which these are acceptable tools in the repertoire of a DM who wants their story to go a certain way.

But the player-agency-purists will deride any degree of DM-intended-results no matter how softly they were pushed. How dare you even know what the encounter on the road will be before the session begins? If it ain't random, then the DM must have decided something, and the DM is never allowed to make decisions. Only rulings, right?

I need to push back on that a bit. Yes, the examples I just gave fall into the category of "the DM's wants are overriding the players' rights" but that doesn't mean literally anything planned ahead of time by the DM is the same way. This sentence is important:
There are things that are legitimately outside the players' power to influence, and it's absolutely fair for the DM to be using those world elements.
In fact, it's actually better for both verisimilitude and inspiring the players to take advantage of their own agency more. Because honestly, while those things are oftentimes a worthy end unto themselves, they're also the most potent ingredients for an even greater thing to get out of gaming: an excellent story experience.

And here's what I need us to be on the same page about when it comes to definitions: what you think of as "plot" is probably mistaken. Or at least, there are other legitimate ways the DM can "write" the story based on their own intentions that you're unfamiliar with and have never considered. So to really finish Caveat 3, much of what follows in this post is me defining the things in the game world that are solely within the DM's control to influence, and then of course, how you can best do so.

The World Beyond the Players

I'm not about to say anything revolutionary by this, but: it'll serve your game well to create the illusion that the world is still spinning even while the players aren't acting within it. If you can create a living world where stuff happens in the background, it both reinforces the fantasy and keeps things from getting static. The problem is that most people only ever discuss this in terms of just that: the background. It's honestly pretty easy to constantly have NPCs discussing some war happening hundreds of miles away in order to worldbuild your setting a bit. But I insist that you need to also be doing this in the foreground. The "automaton campaign world" is the game.

Of course, you can probably think of lots of world elements outside the PCs' ability to control. We grant the DM full discretion over the world's weather, right? So sure, we can easily concede that it's acceptable for the DM to just decide that they want there to be a thunderstorm this session because they think it'll make for a cooler showdown and the players' agency won't get compromised. But that's small fry stuff. The real stuff that stories and plots are made out of are characters and actions.

Art Credit: kit-kit-kit
Here's a phrase I've talked about a fair bit before: "Villains Act, Heroes React." In the past, I've talked about it as something you should consider breaking from if you want to have a more open-ended sandbox campaign driven by the players. But it's not quite so simple. Here's how I once described it in a previous post:

See, there's an old adage in storytelling that "villains act, heroes react." I find it especially common in the superhero genre, where the activities of the heroes are usually just crime-fighting, and thus, responding to crimes being committed. In most heroic adventure stories, the conflict is instigated by the villain. A lot of the time, the audience is presented a status quo that is basically peaceful and just, and the villain is a disruptive force that must be stopped. Of course, you don't have to write adventure fiction this way, and in many cases, the opposite has been done. The heroes find a treasure map and are inspired to set forth on their own journey. The hero wants to enter a martial arts tournament to prove themself. They're an intrepid entrepreneur who wants to start a ghostbusting business. Or maybe the status quo is unjust and the world is a dystopia and the heroes decide to start a rebellion. In any of these situations, you are likely to find the villains reacting to the heroes instead of the opposite, like the EPA getting pissy at the Ghostbusters. But even within those narratives, they can sometimes still introduce a villain that is proactive and forces the hero to suddenly be the "reacting" one during the third act, like the ancient god Gozer needing to be stopped by the Ghostbusters. Hollywood-style villains lend themselves really well to the "villains act, heroes react" method.

Here's the thing: I stand by the statement that player agency is better served when you break the "Heroes React" part of that adage. But that doesn't mean that you should do away with the "Villains Act" part. I mean, the dickless guy from the EPA in Ghostbusters is a fine enough villain and all, but not as worthy of an epic climax as Gozer. A really dynamic game scenario is one in which the players have their own ambitions, take actions to achieve their goals, and find themselves going head-to-head against some other active agent in their world with their own ambitions which conflict with the players.

For example, the heroes who find a treasure map and decide to seek out their fortune may run into some other characters who want the same thing and are also on the trail. Or the heroes who join the fighting tournament are obviously going to need people to compete against. All it takes to make these characters into "villains" is to make them assholes or make them desire harm, you know? But of course, now you also maybe realize that having "villains" is actually optional, and clearly not as important as simply having "conflict agents." And it's honestly quite refreshing to see a story or play a scenario that has no "villains" per se, but just has "conflict agents" to compete against. Maybe even characters you can like!

Of course, it's easy to come up with conflict agents who merely have the same goal as the heroes. That's a straightforward competition. What's often a bit more interesting is when the villain is a proactive agent whose goals are totally different from those of the heroes. And if you cram these villains and heroes into a small enough space together, conflict between them will be almost inevitable despite their respective goals being unrelated.

See, it's not that the evil cult is attacking the PCs or their interests specifically, nor is it that the PCs make it their personal goal to destroy the evil cult. It's just that the PCs are here to find treasure and that cult happens to consistently be in their path. But so too does the wicked pirate fleet, the mighty warlord's army, and the necromancer's cabal. The whole campaign world is just agents who are each driving their own story, and those stories keep overlapping. Everyone is "acting" on their own accord, and they are all seeking change in the status quo in their own ways.

Here's what this is NOT:

This is not the same thing as merely having your sandbox populated by a bunch of plot hooks waiting to be attacked. If they're in a resting state, then no matter how evil and powerful those NPCs are, they are still part of the status quo and will merely be reacting to the PCs when the action starts.

This is also not the same thing as the players merely hearing about the actions of other villains of the setting going on in the background from session to session. Yes, they're active, but they need to be active in this scenario. Even if the events described are playing out "off screen" they can't be said to be "in the background." The war that the PCs always hear the NPCs discussing can't be happening hundreds of miles away, it needs to be happening here.

Reactions and Retaliation

Of course, all of that is merely to get the ball rolling. It helps you understand the source of good and potent conflicts to enjoy. How to set them up. But once things start moving, then we will find characters, both heroes and villains alike, frequently in the position of "reacting" rather than "acting."

So sure, the players had their own goals and the NPCs had their own goals and the two happened to brush against each other along the way and there was friction, but from here until the conflict is resolved, we'll be seeing lots of "reacting" happening. Sometimes the players will still make decisions independently of the NPCs' involvement and vice-versa, but much of the way things play out will still be "Person A did W so Person B responded with X so Person A responded with Y so Person B responded with Z..." and so on.

Of course, if you're spending the majority of the story/scenario on this stage of simple back-and-forth, then does it really matter who started it? Once it gets cooking, everyone is taking actions and changing the situation when it's their turn. But I insist that this stage will actually play out better if the agents being fed into it have their own specific ambitions, rather than one or more of them being just, "maintain/return to the status quo."

If the only thing your opponent ever does is react to your actions, then they can become much more predictable. It allows for perfect strategies. But an opponent who has their own agenda they'll be pursuing whenever you aren't actively disrupting them is an opponent who becomes much more complicated and interesting to deal with. This is true for how players can approach the villains and also how the villains can treat the players!

An opponent who exists only to oppose you is usually more boring than an opponent who's just trying to do their own thing. Imagine playing a Chess game where you have no King and your opponent is merely trying to prevent you from checkmating them, not trying to achieve checkmate themself. It would simultaneously both be easier for them to just sacrifice whatever they need to at any time (since they don't need to save their own pieces for an eventual checkmate) but would also be much less interesting as a situation.

Learning to Share the Road

See, because the PCs are still driving the story, but the NPCs are also still driving their own stories on the same road. Get it?

Alright, all of that is great and cool and stuff that a lot of OSR DMs have probably already figured out. Maybe not to the full extent that I described, but still in the same ballpark. But here's how you take all of those ideas about scenario structure and incorporate the New School ideas about story and preparing a plot and whatnot:

The first step is to define NPC motivations. Any NPCs who has a thing they want will be an NPC who you can understand as a creature of agency. It gives you a logic that rationalizes all their actions. And while it's fine to have passive motivations ("I'd just like to mind my own business here in my tower, studying magic"), if you have NPCs with goals then suddenly the wheels will start turning on their own with or without the players.

The next step is to then translate motivations into plans. If I can envision the current situation, and the situation where the thing I want has been attained, then what are all the differences between those two? What are the steps that would need to be taken to get me what I want? What resources do I already have? What are my material needs? Where will I need to be located? What kind of help will I need? How can I get those things along the way? ("sub-goals" we might call them). How long will this all take? What could stop me from smoothly carrying out my plan? What other consequences will come about from my actions? Are they acceptable? And so on.

Then, for the DM to put this into action, you translate plans into timelines. Timelines serve a couple specific purposes and won't work for all scenarios. That said, they are a fucking spectacular DMing tool that will make your life easier and your adventures way better. Here's a list of things to know about timelines:
  • A timeline is literally a schedule of events that'll happen in your game at predetermined times. They can be actions taken by NPCs or environmental changes or whatever. They're not sacred. Should the PCs' actions disrupt what the timeline's plan is, then the PCs' actions take priority. In fact, that's one way to confirm that their actions have an impact: you can literally tell (or maybe show) them what would have happened if not for their choices.
  • However, a timeline is "anchored" to specific points. It's not merely a list of scenes you plan to have. The relationship of one event to the next isn't just, "after we're done with this moment, we'll do this one next" or something. Their pacing is totally independent of player actions. If the cult is scheduled to sacrifice the princess at midnight, then it happens at midnight no matter where the PCs are. If they're too slow then it'll come and go and that princess will be dead by the time the PCs get there.
    • If you've played Blades in the Dark before and you're reminded of clocks, then be warned that I'm not talking about those. Yes, clocks visually appear like timekeeping devices and are named as such, but they're actually ways of tracking progress on something. They only fill out with the passage of actions. A timeline's events will pass on their own regardless of actions.
  • Thus, in order to make use of a timeline, you'll also need some way of firmly tracking the passage of time. This isn't as hard as you'd think but it's definitely not something most people are used to. If you've never done it before, I know it sounds like a pain but I assure you that the payoffs are way better than you realize.
  • Your timeline can be really complicated if you'd like. If you've ever played The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask then think about the Bombers' Notebook. It's a ledger with the schedule of every single character in Clocktown tracking their locations and activities for every hour of a 3 day period. Skerples' heist adventure Kidnap the Archpriest relies on a very similar tool for the DM in order to help you run the complicated scenario in which the PCs have their opportunity to, well... kidnap the archpriest.
  • Of course, if the actions of the PCs do derail the timeline, then that's what you have those NPC motivations written down for. When the plan fails, you can just fall back on their base motivations to figure out what they would do in a situation they didn't account for. Of course, if you're trying to run a very intelligent villain then you might make multiple timelines for different possibilities, but you'd be surprised how reliable it is to just use the motivation alone. At least, it's usually enough to get you through the end of the session so you can take a breather and start thinking about the villain's new plan come next session.
  • The timeline also contains things that you (the DM! The person with meta knowledge!) already know aren't going to be "according to plan." While I've introduced this idea in the context of villains having motivations and plans, the timeline as a tool of the DM is not necessarily the timeline that the villain has written up for themselves. It'll contain things that would surprise them just as much as the PCs! But if the villain does have a plan that can be broken into steps, then those should be seeded into the timeline appropriately among everything else. You may also prepare moments of the villains' plans being disrupted as part of your intended sequence! Just understand that this is probably unnecessary since the players will handle that just fine.
Of course, you can instead make your timeline pretty simple. I once ran a Halloween-themed adventure about middle schoolers defending their neighborhood from Venusian pumpkin mutants who indoctrinated all the local grown ups with "hypno candy."* I used a timeline for it and it allowed me to tell a full story, with a beginning, middle, and ending, including emergent "character arcs" for at least 4 of the 6 PCs involved, all in one session. In fact, it was probably the best session of gaming I've ever run in my life, and I owe most of that to the timeline as a tool. Here's a picture of it:
It makes reference to some other documents, including the map and NPC rosters. Most NPCs' default locations and activities are described on either the map key (if they're fairly static) or the random encounter table (if they're out trick-or-treating) but the events listed on the timeline are departures from their normal state. Although they never managed to, the PCs could definitely have prevented pretty much anything on this timeline. But defining the whole scenario into 15 minute chunks and making sure the players have a concrete understanding of how many actions they can accomplish in each turn allowed them to make plans of their own.

Here's a great example: see how it says that the Bullies have an ambush planned for 7 PM, setting up 15 minutes early? That's because the PCs were dared to go to Wolf Creek to prove their bravery, but were really going to be walking into a trap. You know what my party did? They had the foresight to expect an ambush, decided to do an hour and a half of trick-or-treating, and then head to Wolf Creek 30 minutes early to set up their own ambush. Out of sheer luck, they guessed the exact right time to do it! This is the equivalent of the party who is so good at strategizing that they manage to not only show up at the cult's ritual room before the sacrifice, but to get there before the room has even been set up! It was fucking awesome.

In addition to timelines, it's also worth having in mind some predictable scenes that could happen under a variety of circumstances. Like timeline events, these are moments that the DM could probably "script" to some extent and do a bit of extra prep for, whether that's having some unique stat blocks ready, a unique battle area already prepped and ready to go, some evocative fluff description to enhance it (if that's your thing), or what have you. Personally, I think the most valuable thing to prepare when writing a "predictable scene" is actually just a list of consequences for how it would change the rest of the scenario once/if it happens.

The difference from the timeline events is, of course, that they're circumstantial. Instead of saying, "the orcs and the elves will battle at dawn on Wednesday" and planning for that to happen, it would instead be something like, "if the orcs and the elves ever cross paths, they'll battle" and then have a more flexible plan in mind instead. While I still insist that the timeline is a much more useful and reliable tool than you'd ever expect, I imagine it would be a lot easier for most OSR DMs to get comfortable with having a handful of "predictable scenes" in their back pocket at any given time.

Finally, Let's Analyze Princess Mononoke

If Princess Mononoke were an RPG adventure scenario you could buy off the shelf, here's what the DM would be given for their money:
  1. A map of the adventure area
  2. A list of characters and factions, with all their normal stats defined but also a motivation given for each one
  3. A timeline of events that will happen by default AND a list of events/scenes that are likely to happen under various circumstances
I'm not totally sure what the map looks like. Figuring out the spatial relationships of everything based on the shots we get in the movie seems like too tricky a task for me to attempt right now. But I at least know that the core locations would be Iron Town, the Forest and the Mountain (are these separate?), the Lake, the Center of the Forest (where the Forest Spirit hangs out, with the little island in the pool and the nearby rock promontory thing that Moro chills on top of), and some of the roads connecting things.

Let's remind ourselves of those characters and factions right now. Here's everyone who matters in Princess Mononoke:

Ashitaka, former prince of the Emishi clan.
He's been cursed because of the damage done
to the Forest by humans, and is seeking a cure.
He's our "player character."
The Spirit of the Forest, AKA the Nightwalker. It's
more of a plot device, and is completely passive.
It can grant and take life, but if it were to die itself
then the whole world would go to shit.

Lady Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town. She has a
body guard named Gonza and a small army
of riflemen. Eboshi wants the iron extracted
from the forest in order to maintain her power
and independence, despite the damage it does.
The people of Iron Town. They want safety and
to not have to return to their old lives. The women
used to work in shitty brothels, and many of
the people are afflicted with leprosy. They're all
completely loyal to their leader, Lady Eboshi.

...San, AKA the fabled "Princess Mononoke"
who is a human raised by wolves. She's totally
loyal to the Forest side but isn't always on the
same page as the rest of the wolves.
The Wolves, led by their mother goddess, Moro.
There are only like three of these but that's enough
to make them one of the most powerful factions
involved. They want to protect the Forest Spirit, but
they also want to protect...

The Boars, led by their god, Lord Okkoto.
Just like the picture says, they want to kill
humans and save the forest. They're much
dumber than the Wolves, but have an army.
The Apes, who are on the side of the Forest
Spirit but are generally very passive and
fatalistic. Their general strategy is to plant
new trees faster than Eboshi can cut them
down. They'll also fight humans if the chance
presents itself.

The hunters, who are (presumably) loyal
to the Emperor and will carry out his orders
without question. They're fairly ruthless. They are
introduced through Jigo, who is given command
of them.
Jigo, a mercenary disguised as a monk. He's
pretty much just an opportunist looking to
get rich, with no true loyalties to anyone.

The Samurai, led by a daimyo named Lord Asano.
Asano himself never actually appears on screen, but
he's been sending his samurai to attack Iron Town
in order to conquer it and take its riches for himself.

Alright, so that's a lot. But quite a few of them are really just a subset of a parent faction, right? And the Apes and Forest Spirit don't really count as conflict agents, honestly. As I see it, these are the divisions that most consistently operate as discrete units. They physically stick together along these lines, and Ashitaka forms a separate relationship with each one along these lines. So it should be simple enough to chart the scenario kinda like this (treating the Forest Spirit as a static landmark):

And then you just move around the character tokens from point to point as necessary. This is how it would be at the beginning of the movie, but here's how it would look about halfway through (right after Ashitaka wakes up from the Forest Spirit's healing and returns to Iron Town to see how the battle went):

Ashitaka is approaching Iron Town from the lake, and finds it under attack by Asano's samurai. The villagers defending it ask him to send a message to Eboshi for help, since the town is pretty much defenseless with her and the riflemen gone (Asano was a clever opportunist, you see). Meanwhile, the battle between the Boars, San, and the Wolves against the men of Iron Town and Jigo's men has now ended, and it seems that most of the survivors can be found on the mountainside. Jigo himself and Eboshi went on ahead to follow the now-crazy Lord Okkoto back to the Center of the Forest, since they know he'll lead them straight to the Forest Spirit. Moro never went with the rest of the wolves, so she's detached in this diagram. Okkoto also detached from the boars when he got shot and started turning into a crazy demon, and Eboshi left behind the rest of her own guys to go pursue her goal directly. So San left the battle to try to rescue Okkoto, and when Ashitaka discovers the battlefield on the Mountainside he asks where Eboshi and San are. He turns Eboshi's men against Jigo's men, and then convinces one of the Wolves to help him go find Eboshi and deliver the message from Iron Town. By the time they catch up, they'll find Eboshi, Jigo, San, and Okkoto all reunited with Moro at the Center of the Forest.

Jeez Louise!

That said, the map and tokens make things easier, no? And besides that, how did we end up in this situation to begin with? When did Eboshi become interested in the Forest Spirit? Or why is she working with Jigo and the Emperor? Why would the wolves help Ashitaka on his mission to rescue Iron Town? And so on.

A lot of those circumstances are merely a product of all the adventuring that's happened between that first map and the second, emerging naturally from the PCs' actions. But a lot of it was "planned" by the DM! Which is really to say, that most of the NPCs already had their own plans in mind and they were able to play out uninhibited by the PCs.

Let's talk about scenes and events. There were many that had nothing to do with player actions and were probably going to happen no matter what:
  1. The inciting incident! Ashitaka was just vibing in his home village when a crazy boar demon came in, wrecked shit up, and passed its curse onto him. Of course, this is a classic "Villains Act, Heroes React" where the PC didn't really have a say in what today's adventure would be. Not my personal style, although it's worth noting that the thing the PC is reacting to isn't really a "villain's action." It's more like the PC is prompted to react to a situation, and when they do, they'll discover all of these other NPCs/factions who are each proactive-yet-unconcerned with him personally.
  2. The Wolves attacking the rice shipment to Iron Town near the beginning of the movie. Ashitaka isn't present for this but he sees the fallout of it. Eboshi injures Moro and a couple villagers get thrown over the cliff. If there wasn't a personal conflict between the Wolves and Iron Town before this, there definitely is now. So the DM prepares two scenes to follow from this: Ashitaka briefly meeting San and the Wolves and Ashitaka encountering the surviving men who fell from the cliff. The first scene results in the Wolves telling him to get lost and the second one results in him rescuing the villagers, who then tell Iron Town all about how awesome he is. Once again: the outcomes were not predetermined, but the setups were.
  3. San trying to assassinate Lady Eboshi in the middle of Iron Town. This literally interrupts what the PC is already doing and could not really have been influenced by their actions. The reason the result is "everyone lives and goes back to their corners" is only because the PC is present, intervenes, and manages to get that result. If he'd been anywhere else at the time, Eboshi would probably have been killed.
  4. Lord Asano's samurai attacking Iron Town. This was probably "scheduled" to happen at the very first opportunity that the village was left undefended. It's hard to even imagine how this could have been influenced by the PCs since Lord Asano lives somewhere totally off the map!
While it's notable that 3 of the 4 examples I just gave all happen near the beginning of the story, I still believe that even late in the game, the DM can reasonably introduce events that are functionally guaranteed to happen.

Then there are some things we can imagine would be preventable if the PCs intervened early (usually by killing the right person) but which were strongly likely to happen in most versions of how the scenario could go down:
  1. The boars choosing to attack Iron Town. Look, there was already conflict between the forest and Iron Town before the PCs showed up, and violence is the default answer all these bitches use. Not to mention, the boars are already an aggressive and proud warrior race, and they're getting stupider by the day! They explain in the movie that one of the effects of the forest slowly being destroyed is that the intelligence of the animals is also being reduced, making them more primal and having poorer judgment.
  2. Jigo teaming up with Eboshi. The audience (and the PCs) don't realize it when Jigo is introduced, but the whole reason he's traveling the same way as Ashitaka and knows all this stuff about the Forest Spirit situation is because he's already secretly on a mission to go there and chop its head off. The Emperor hiring Jigo to do this happened off-screen, and it's a pretty predictable thing for Jigo to look at what's going on and see a more natural ally in Eboshi than the wolves or boars or whatever. The flimsier part is Eboshi joining with him. Ultimately, she does so because she believes that if she helps deliver to the Emperor what he wants, then the Empire will send people to protect her from Lord Asano. It still ties into her core motivation I described above, but puts her at slightly higher risk than her previous plan of just "continue cutting down trees, extract iron, and find a way to kill those wolves." On the other hand, there's a short scene where she's shown explaining to her women that she doesn't trust Jigo and is making contigencies for the alliance going poorly, so that makes this event all the more believable and likely.
  3. Lord Okkoto being turned into a demon. As stated above, it's almost inevitable that at some point the boars were going to attack Iron Town, and I also believe it's almost inevitable that Lord Okkoto would get shot in the process. 1) They're a proud warrior race, so they put their leader up front, 2) they're fighting an opponent who uses guns, which we're told is the thing that transforms gods into demons, and 3) he's fucking blind. Wherever this adventure has the stat blocks written out, there better be a "Demon Lord Okkoto" in there. That's not railroading, that's just common sense.
Lastly, the further into the scenario an event is planned, the more contingent it probably is on certain prerequisite events happening and, therefore, the more subject it is to chaos. In this case, I think the best example of that is: does the Forest Spirit live or die?

The question of whether or not the Spirit of the Forest would be killed depends on a ton of factors leading up to that point. You could argue that, had any one of those things gone differently, the Spirit wouldn't have been killed. On the other hand, you could also argue that there were many other possible timelines where the Spirit could be killed by a completely different sequence of events. Thus, we might conclude that the likelihood of the scenario resulting in the Spirit dying was closer to 50/50 than you might expect, although the exact path to get there could have been nearly anything.

Still though. It's a strong enough possibility that it was completely reasonable and a good use of their time for the DM to prepare a scene for "what would happen if the Spirit is killed?" regardless of the path to get there. The possibility that the PCs might fail and the Forest Spirit is killed is the entire third act of the movie, and all of it was reasonable to expect from the very beginning even if the DM had no fucking clue what the second act would look like. And if they had prepared material for the opposite result, where the Forest Spirit is successfully rescued, then that was a good use of their time as well!

Okay, so you showed that a linear movie plot can work like a linear RPG game. Big whoop.

Right, fair point. All that shit I just said shouldn't actually be all that surpising. Maybe it would be better for me to demonstrate that, despite all the DM-scripted scenes and moments crammed into this scenario, it still had plenty of open-ended, player agency gameplay. How can you tell that sort of thing from observation? Well, the easiest way is to get a better view of all the possible things that didn't happen, showing us just what impact the PCs' actions had.

Here are some alternative ways this "adventure" could have gone if the PCs had made different choices:
  1. The players fail to prevent San from killing Eboshi. As I said before, this is really more like the default situation if the PCs had done literally anything differently or been anywhere else. So in this group's game, Gonza is made the new leader but everyone is angry and unstable and he leads everyone into their deaths at the hands of the wolves and boars. Lord Asano takes advantage of this and successfully takes Iron Town for himself, now with enough power to directly challenge the Emperor.
  2. The PCs kill and rob Jigo at the beginning. They find some letters from the Emperor, including a promise of reward for killing the Forest Spirit. They decide to pursue this themselves, thinking the same immortality that the Forest Spirit's head will grant the Emperor could also potentially cure them of their own curse.
  3. The players join the attack on Iron Town, fighting alongside Lord Okkoto, the boars, and San. With their help, in this version the forest army is actually victorious! Okkoto never becomes a demon, and instead the people of Iron Town flee and submit to the rule of Asano in his own shitty domain. Then the PCs face the question of maybe looting the remains of Iron Town for themselves, and think about setting up there (with San probably feeling quite conflicted about it).
  4. The players kill Lady Eboshi just before she pulls the trigger, successfully rescuing the Forest Spirit. Once again, Iron Town will be unbelievably angry and hungry for revenge, but while there will be a temporary lull in the conflict (that appears as though the Forest factions will be fine, since the spirit has been successfully defended after all), the ensuing retaliation by the townspeople will be much more effective now that the boars, Lord Okkoto, and Moro are all dead. Of course, that lull will be a crucial moment for the PCs to possibly influence things differently once more!
All of these remained within reason to expect, and all of them still had room for some of the pre-planned timeline events or "predictable scenes" to still happen anyway. In all four of these, we can expect the scene of San going to assassinate Eboshi, the boars attacking Iron Town, and Asano's samurai attacking Iron Town. The riflemen going to kill the Forest Spirit is contingent on the alliance between Jigo and Eboshi, but I can imagine some other ways it might happen, too.

At the same time, the impact of the PCs' choices sure do make some dramatically different stories, huh? Imagine just how different a movie Princess Mononoke would be if any of those other timelines happened instead. I even kind of wonder if some scenes the DM prepared for the PCs to be present for got "accidentally" skipped by the party (e.g. the Boars vs Riflemen battle or the attack by Asano's samurai on Iron Town), but let's just remember that there's no "accidental" variations on the plot. You prepare a bunch of scenes that are likely and a timeline that'll keep the situation dynamic if the players can't do it themselves, and then you expect some of those scenes to go unused or unseen and some of that timeline to get derailed. All of that is work worth putting in to make a robust adventure, and even the stuff that goes "unused" was still helpful to you in gaining a more thorough understanding of the scenario.

Chaos and Unpredictability

Aside from not wanting to have any plans about what the "plot" will look like, many DMs are just convinced it can't be done because of the unpredictability of PC actions. There are two arguments to be made against this:
  1. PCs are not as unpredictable as you think. This is a meme about D&D that needs to fucking die already. If you say, "I've tried to have a plan before and the PCs immediately derailed it!" then you probably had a bad plan. You were probably thinking like a screenwriter: "here's how I want things to go down based on the ideas I have for what would be most dramatic!" You need to think like the simulationist: "here's how I think things would go down based on what I know about the world, what my players will know about the world (at that point in time), what their desires are, and what they're most likely to do in order to achieve their desires." If you want that series of events to look dramatic and cool, then you just arrange a situation in which the players will naturally do things that are dramatic and cool! And no, players do not always act rationally and pragmatically. But they do act in ways that can be learned fairly easily. If you have a PC who likes setting shit on fire and then running away then you'll pick up on that pretty quickly. And you'd be a fool if you didn't also include contingencies in your plan to begin with. Half of your "plot" should be statements that go, "If the players try X, then Y will happen" with the top three most common X's accounted for at every crucial moment.
  2. The "plot" you have in mind should have built-in flexibility anyway. In my Halloween adventure, I merely planned for an encounter between the bullies and the PCs at Wolf Creek at 7 PM. I didn't plan for who would come out of it on top. You would do better to prepare a direction for the adventure rather than outcomes of it. You can arrange when confrontations, twists, and climaxes will happen without compromising player agency, but deciding for the PCs the actions they'll take within those situations is where you go too far.
  3. And for fuck's sake, stop assuming the PCs will overcome every challenge you throw at them. Never assume victory. And fuckit, never assume failure either. Prepare for both! Prepare for something in the middle! Why don't people do this more??
I have been doing this for years, DMing for 20+ cumulative players across countless games, and it is really not that hard. It's just a question of how you approach the problem.

That said, I will acknowledge some variables that do contribute to unpredictability. I didn't say it's not a thing at all.

1. Multiple "Conflict Agents"

So modeling a conflict between the PCs and a single villain/villainous faction is kinda simple because 1) you only need to create one plan and seed the timeline accordingly, and 2) the events that unfold throughout the middle will quite naturally fall into the back and forth, "PCs react to Villain, Villain reacts to PCs, PCs react to Villain..." pattern.

So the moment you introduce multiple NPCs or NPC factions into the scenario, each of whom has a motivation and plan and whatnot, then that gets a bit trickier. But not as much as you think! If they're mostly separate from each other, then you've really just created multiple different adventures, you know?

The real snag is when those multiple NPC agents are in competition with each other in addition to the PCs. While that's the juiciest kind of scenario of all, even I have to admit that it's just fundamentally difficult to run. You have to be able to predict interactions between each NPC with the PCs and each NPC with each other, along with a few likely outcomes for each, across time. In this situation, using a master timeline populated by the separate plans of each NPC will be more helpful for organization than ever, but surprisingly, it also might stay more intact than ever.

Why? Well, the PCs can (usually) only affect so much at any time. If they're busy thwarting the plans of the cult while the warlord is tearing up the Elven lands and the pirate fleet is at war with the Dwarven fleet, then that's only one event on the timeline that got disrupted! The more that's happening in parallel, the more opportunity cost each PC action has. Sure, one of your NPCs' plans may get completely derailed and you'll be forced to run them purely off of their motivational instincts for a while. But meanwhile, all your other NPCs are basically running on autopilot based on the script you prepared ahead of time.

It's kind of funny, but in a way you actually gain more control over your world the more elements you introduce.

2. Time Itself

Possibilities expand exponentially with time. Even the best planner DM ever cannot see into every future. Imagine this permutation tree representing predictable events and results in your scenario:

That's just too damn much. And sure, while sometimes the paths can converge and reunite again, there'll be a lot more times when possibilities multiply. Trying to maintain a plan past, like, the second step of a situation this complicated is a fool's errand.

Thus, the answer is to never plan too far ahead. Yes, the argument of this article is that you can and maybe should have a scheme for how your session will play out in greater detail than you might expect, but still I say that it'll be probably too difficult to do this more than a few sessions in advance. You should periodically reevaluate the state of the scenario and then think about the next set of possiblities, and then prepare the next stretch of the timeline. Back in the early days of my blog when I was a worse writer, I talked about this in a post called Navette (or Marquise) Story Structure. Read it if you like, but it's long and less focused compared to this article.

Notice that I said "a few sessions in advance." Most old school DMs would be hesitant to ever prepare more than one session in advance, but I think this is more doable than you'd expect. See, while my examples of timelines I gave also show this broken down into minutes and hours (the Halloween adventure, Majora's Mask, and Kidnap the Archpriest), there's no reason you can't make your timeline cover a period of days, weeks, and months.

For example, you can prepare a list of 10 events that'll happen over the next in-game month and then use that schedule for many, many sessions to come. Why not? It doesn't have to be nearly as detailed and dense as the timelines I showed you. You can have 90% of your game still be player-driven nonsense with only emergent story ever happening, but then every 5 or 6 sessions there's some big event that you planned on.

You ever heard of the RPG Pendragon? I talk about it on this blog quite a lot. If you don't know it, one of its gimmicks is that each session covers a year's worth of events, and the whole campaign has 80 years of history in King Arthur's Camelot. You can expect to play at least 3 generations' worth of knights over the campaign. Well guess what? The setting comes with a timeline for the DM for what events will unfold over 80 years of game time that will hold true unless the PCs disrupt it. And even going at a speed of 1 session = 1 in-game year, that's still 80 sessions of gaming that your timeline will last you. There are often big gaps of 10+ years where nothing major happens, so it's not even that dense either! If one of your PCs cucks Arthur years before Lancelot ever gets a chance to, then don't worry. Arthur himself won't find out for years to come, so you have plenty of sessions to figure out how the timeline will adjust.

3. Yes, the PCs too

Ashitaka is our stand-in for the PCs but it's not a perfect analogy.

There are two important differences: 1) Ashitaka is just one guy, and 2) he's pretty much the opposite of a murder hobo. It's true that your party will probably have 3-6 players in it and, thus, a lot more power to influence the situation. That destabilizes things a bit. And I cannot guarantee that your PCs will be as respectful to the world around them as Ashitaka. Some PCs aren't just "Chaotic" for their alignment. They're straight up little balls of crazy.

Although I think it's worth mentioning that, even if he's a very "Lawful Good" kind of guy, Ashitaka's actions do make him an enemy of literally every other conflict agent in the story rather than, like, a single fucking ally. So in a way, his playstyle should be as destabilizing as any murder hobo, right? Every NPC you befriend is an NPC whose plan will probably stay intact, which is another chunk of the DM's timeline that'll go smoothly. But Ashitaka disrupts everyone's plans, so hypothetically that adventure must have gone as off-schedule as possible. And yet I believe I've convincingly demonstrated that it's still a scenario that the DM can retain control over from beginning to end.


This is, at its heart, a compromise. Some DMs just want to write a screenplay and recite it out loud to their players, and their players will happily listen. Some DMs want to sit back and watch the players dick around aimlessly in their world, and their players will happily get into shenanigans. One of the only situations in which gamers of both playstyles feel like they can meet in the middle is the dungeon, an adventure area in which things are just confined enough to allow the DM some control over how things play out in dramatic fashion, but also just interesting enough as a possibility space that even "storyteller" DMs will be interested in just watching their players toy with things curiously.

I just believe that we can achieve that same balance in contexts other than the dungeon, already.

Yes, my method still requires that you set up many of the elements of emergent story rather than planned story. Yes, you should still have many potential villains and be ready to say goodbye to those killed early and amplify the survivors to "big bad evil guy" status later,. Yes, you should still have characters respond to events logically based on what they know and what they want. And yes, you still shouldn't be afraid to procedurally introduce things with some randomness (who knows? Maybe I was wrong and Jigo was actually originally just a result rolled from a random encounter table). But also don't be afraid to set up specific scenes and sequences you have in mind. You probably shouldn't be too specific with your plots. It'll always serve you well to have modest ambitions when it comes to story, but even just one epic orchestrated fight scene can go a long way towards transforming your game from, "another Friday night of goofy make believe" into a story that your players will remember for ages.


*That's one of the wildest sentences I've ever written on this blog.


  1. Personally this fits into how I have always understood "don't prep plots" like, if this were a published adventure it would be more similar to OSR modules than Pathfinder Adventure Paths. Also the way ypu describe the different events immediately reminds me of PbtA style fronts which I use in all my OSR games as well as Story Games...

    1. I have a feeling you might not be the "target audience" of this PSA, although that's a good thing! And yeah, on a spectrum of "Pathfinder Adventure Paths" to "Deep Carbon Observatory" I suppose the hypothetical adventure I'm describing would be closer to the latter in form, but closer to the former in FEEL. You only need a few prepared narrative elements to go a long way towards making the game feel like an epic and dramatic story rather than just goofing around in a world.

      PbtA fronts were definitely an influence on my thinking but are also very different from what I'm envisioning. I take some issue with them, but that's a bit off-topic. For fun: I once wrote an article that covers them pretty extensively (among many other things) here if you'd like:

  2. I'm so glad you wrote this. I run my campaigns this way and was starting to wonder if the way I GM OSR games is slightly too linear for the way they're "supposed" to be run (in talking to other OSR gamers, I find people get heated about the perceived dichotomy between OSR and "story").

  3. No surprise to me here that your Mononoke abstract 'map' with simple tokens for factions' or key agents' current locations looks a lot like one of Mouat's Matrix Game maps - and should work just as well!!!

    I am forgetting the blog source for this next point, but there is a beautifully simple suggestion of framing factions in mad-lib style, like this:

    Faction ___X___ wants __GOAL___ but they face ___OBSTACLE___, so they will __PLAN___.

    Being sure to frame your key factions with just a few lines fleshing out motivations and intentions this way can be really helpful. Then, your very apt point about timelines slides in as the next step for development. Some of the most satisfying complex sessions in recent years revolved around a simple timeline - busting slave-smugglers before they left a space station, infiltrating a goblin stronghold before they killed their prisoner, solving a murder mystery before the culprits got away with the MacGuffin they'd stolen in Mystara's Threshold, etc.

    1. I've posted it somewhere on this blog before (I think in my campaign-level play series?) but I was quite impressed by Neverland's approach to making a little dynamic sandbox by just having a ton of well-defined factions with a complicated network of relationships between them.

      The limitation, of course, is that it's lacking that very thing you point out: goals, obstacles, and plans. Honestly, maybe it'd be a good idea to revisit LOTS of adventures and inject that sort of thing.

      Like, why not go into any 5E Forgotten Realms adventure like the Lost Mines of Phandelver and actually give some depth to the PC factions (Order of the Gauntlet, the Harpers, etc.) or the villain factions (Cragmaw goblin tribe, Redbrand Brigands, tec.) by filling in those blanks.