How to demolish the status quo

May 20, 2015 at 9:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
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I’m thinking about stories with choices these days. Or more broadly I’m thinking about what makes a story interesting. To some extent the ability to create this comes from clarity of thought. At a high level, stories should have conflict and action. These are forces which change the status quo, and the consequences ricochet around the story’s world. So if you can nail down the status quo, a catalyzing event, and the potential consequences, you’re on your way.

Yes, this is story 101 stuff. That’s because I’m going back to basics— basics I’m not convinced I ever really mastered anyway. I’ve been dissatisfied with my DM technique and skills.

I broke this down in my notebook, and I’ll expand on that here.

Status quo

This is a lot like Act I in the three-act structure. Through exposition, you establish the status quo well enough that when you violate it, you pique your audience’s interest.

In practical terms, though, establishing the status quo is for my benefit. I have to commit. If you are going to change the status quo, it pays to emphasize the parts you intend to break.

This would mostly center around who, what, and where you’re going to set your adventure. Blah, blah, blah. The point is, whatever it is that you talk about had better be well-defined enough so that it makes a noise when you break it to pieces.

As a guideline, by the way, I try to keep any description to at least three sentences and no more than five. It’s very difficult to be terse, so it helps me to have a good metric.

I put a TBD in there because, unless the next part or two focuses on it particularly, it’s not worth more than a sentence or so once you have everything else sorted out.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Now, you may already know what you want your catalyzing event to be. This step won’t be as helpful in that case. Give the next one a try.

Speaking for myself, I don’t like it when things break. For some reason the mere sight of a broken drinking glass makes me sad. This may be one reason why I’m so afraid to smash the status quo.

Lois McMaster Bujold once wrote:

I have a catchphrase to describe my plot-generation technique — “What’s the worst possible thing I can do to these people?”

Here it pays to be creative. In order to hurt someone, you need to know them. (This is why it’s easy for us to hurt the ones we love, yeah?) And to really hurt someone, you need to know them and apply that knowledge to a sadistic creativity.

To be clear, I am not advocating that you do this to the PCs. Of course you can do that. I prefer to do something to the NPCs such that, for instance, the PCs have an opportunity to avert disaster.


If you aren’t careful, it might seem like you can’t tell the difference between success or failure in your story. Consequences help you sound out the choices you offer the PCs at a micro level, and the overall scenario at a macro level.

You have the status quo. You have a change. Now you need to prove to yourself that any given consequence is easily distinguishable from the status quo.

An ancient disease appears in a once-thriving border village. The PCs may intervene. Roughly, what is the difference in consequence between success, partial success, partial failure, and outright failure?

What’s that, self? Oh, how is partial failure different from partial success? I’m glad you’re keeping me honest, self.

Obviously it doesn’t have to be this regimented or this simple, although at a minimum it should be clear enough to you that you can convince your players there’s a difference.

Also, I should note that if you don’t like any of those conditions, don’t offer them. A disease is unpredictable, especially an “ancient” one. Make it do whatever you want. Maybe some people have partial immunity. Whatever. Literally the only part of the world your players see is the parts you show them.

Similarly, don’t count out failure as a viable route! This is part of the novelty of roleplaying. What’s important to me is to ensure the players feel like it would’ve been different if they hadn’t been there. Perhaps they salvage something out of it, eradicate the source of the disease, or they merely survived against “impossible” odds.

The End

I’m not really happy with those examples above, so this is something of a work in progress. What’s most important to me is the ability to have sharp, diverging lines for any branch point which is meaningful. When it comes to starting the adventure, this is how you kick it off. You make it clear that PC involvement makes a difference.

This is also, not coincidentally, how you keep going.

How do you offer meaningful choices? In the spirit of the above, make every choice a suboptimal choice if not a bad one. The degree to which they are suboptimal or merely preferential depends on your style and how much of an asshole you want to be as a DM.

I’m too nice but I’m starting to develop a taste for this. Hey, they wouldn’t be interesting choices if the right answer were obvious!

  • Some games, and groups, lend themselves better to this style of play. SOme groups prefer clear cut victories after all. But I like where you are going with this.

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  • Matthew

    @Sean: absolutely. It’s all about setting expectations.

    I should say that some parts are still applicable. For instance, if you want a victory to seem all the more meaningful, you’ll still want “falsifiable” change. What’s true now that was not true before? And what was true before, but is no longer true?

    But yes, some groups don’t care for failure modes as such. Oddly (or perhaps ironically), I struggle with that when I play computer RPGs. Wasteland 2 would be the most recent example.

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