The Art of Espionage

The Art of Espionage V: Plot Lines

You don’t know what your scenario is going to look like when it is finally played. You really, really don’t. I find this to be both fantastic and immensely frustrating. After play starts, most of it is out of your hands. The players might follow some plots more or less as you expected. At least one might fizzle out. Then other plots will get tangled in each other in unpredictable ways. The real surprises, though, are the plot lines that the players just seem to summon out of nowhere. An hour into the party, you’ll hear someone mention something that everyone is suddenly concerned about and which has zero connection to your writing.
What I’m about to tell you is one of the most important single pieces of advice I possess about writing an Espionage Party. Do not try to write what will happen. Create opportunities for things to happen. You should remember at all times that what you are writing is a game, not a novel, a movie, or any other medium. That means allowing your players to make meaningful choices and forge paths you have not foreseen. But you do need action, movement, and development. As surprising and creative as they can be, players tend to feel lost if you don’t give them some things to do starting out. What that means is that whenever you give people specific, concrete objectives, you need to imagine what possible routes are available to complete them. Failure is okay. You don’t need to hold the player’s hand or spell out what they need to do to get there. What is not okay is failing to provide a way to get to their goal.
We want confusion. We want collisions. The Wrap-up is usually a necessary element when the game ends because otherwise nobody will understand what the hell happened. When devising a plot, don’t just think about what it offers in itself. Look for how it can intersect with others.
I usually try to develop four subplots as a baseline, maybe three in a really small scenario. If more happen, great. The nice thing about plot lines is that it’s hard to overdo them. After you’ve crossed a certain threshold, you may not need any more, but you’re unlikely to ruin anything by piling on more if you have the ideas for them.
What you do want to avoid is having your scenario be about one thing. Remember how the premise gives everyone a reason to be there? That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be things going on that have pretty much nothing to do with that premise. It doesn’t mean much for plot threads to get tangled if they’re bunched together to begin with.
Start your subplots off as rough sketches. You don’t need to have everything figured out at once. Just start with some dynamics and what kind of directions they can go in.
Let’s revisit our example scenario now. Go back and look at the previous posts if you’ve forgotten what I’ve been talking about there; I almost did. I’ve loosely settled on twelve characters, the details of which are likely to change somewhat as we proceed. They are as follows.
Three bandmates (hereafter designated by their instruments: bass, drums, and wind chimes), groupie, manager, unsubtle spy, former bandmate, roadie, fashion designer, model, party crasher, drug dealer.
Plot 1: Internal Meltdown.
There is internal strife within the band on a couple of levels. The other two both think the wind chimes are lame, but since they both want to name the next album, wind chimes is the tie-breaking vote.
The groupie has been sleeping with all three of them, but none of them realize this. Not yet decided on the groupie’s reasoning for this. Either there will be major conflict when they find out, or the groupie will engage in highly entertaining shenanigans to prevent this.
The manager meanwhile knows about this and is angling to get the groupie out of the picture before the group implodes.
Plot 2. Plagiarism
The former band mate (banjo)  has had a fairly unsuccessful career since leaving the band for a solo career. They were, however, the best songwriter in the group and have continued to ghost-write for the band by passing things off to the manager. None of the current members know where these songs come from, although they still attempt some of their own stuff. The manager wants to  reintroduce banjo to the group, but everyone else hates them.
The roadie, who is secretly in love with the groupie, found one of these songs that had been misplaced backstage and took it to windchimes to sell. Windchimes is about to pass it off as their own.
Plot 3. The Playboy Spy.
One of the guests is a spy, who leads an excessive, flamboyant lifestyle, is universally admired/desired and takes on cartoonish Bond-style villains. They are the life of every party they attend. They’re pretty much here to have fun, get high and bang. Their drug dealer, however, has been tempted to sell them out. The fashion designer is secretly none other than the spy’s nemesis (though not arch), Velvet Heel (okay, maybe I’ll come up with a better name later). The designer is attempting to bribe the drug dealer to give the spy some bad stuff (of some nature). The party crasher, meanwhile, is a young secret agent, unknown to the spy, who admires their exploits and is actually on the job. They are tracking down an assassin, the model. The model is working as a hitman for hire to pay off some loans while they try to break into mod fashion.
Plot 4. The Message
The fashion designer is trying to subtly communicate with the roadie, whom they have been mailing notes to for months. Their ultimate goal is to get the roadie to kill themself. Since this is a code they have  used before, the spy also recognizes it. One of the band members (maybe bass) has a deep personal connection to a couple of the songs and will act out based on them.
Right, so these plots are flawed, messy, and vague. They definitely need some work, but it’s a start.
Next time: Relationships

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