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Story Troubleshooting

Collaborative environments, especially in simming, are a powerful system, but still subject to bumps in the road. On occasion, it is normal for a sim to get “stuck” for various reasons. This guide will offer some tools and thoughts to help you get over the hump and get a sim back on the road.

Navigation

Tools
Communicate
Set a Good Example
NPCs
Goals
Stakes
Escalate the Plot
Deescalate the Plot
Summarize Progress
IC status meeting
Add Solutions/Clues
Accept Alternatives
Reward/Recognition
AGM or Veteran Player
Write a post from the Antagonist’s POV
Ask Another GM/Player
Story Troubleshooting Examples
Problem 1
Problem 2
Problem 3
Problem 4
Problem 5

Tools

Communicate

Most mission/story troubleshooting involves communication. Check-in regularly with your players. Let them know you appreciate their participation in the sim, and welcome questions, feedback, and suggestions. Ask players for their point of view and listen to what they say. Remember, you are the guiding force as the GM, but new ideas and different points of view are why you’re writing with other people, right? 🙂 You don’t always have to have a solution yourself, but if you’re having a conversation with others, most of the time ideas and resolutions to issues, stalemates and stalls will present themselves.

Set a Good Example

When the GM answers their own tags in a timely manner, they demonstrate the expectation for players to do the same. Be a pro-active player. Encourage players to initiate JPs by starting JP idea conversations in discord (or other OOC chat space). “@” less-active players with JP suggestions. Come up with suggestions yourself for new JPs and be prepared to change things around to fit with different characters, different personalities and different backgrounds, both IC and OOC.

NPCs

NPCs are the most versatile in-character tool a GM has, especially for a sim without a built-in command hierarchy. Recurring or one-off NPCs can provide missions/quests, deliver plot hooks, leads, information, clues, rumors, red herrings, etc. NPCs can act as witnesses, antagonists, victims, barriers, and guides. Make your NPCs believable, give them strengths and weaknesses, be prepared for them to lose, fail and provide interesting options for players to explore.

Goals

Make sure the mission/story has a goal, each player knows what the goal is, and each player-character has the agency to use their skill(s) to contribute toward achieving the goal. If you’re in a position where this isn’t the case, sometimes picking up on this fact and choosing a new goal for one of your players will unstick the story and get it moving again. If in doubt, ask your players if they’re happy, if they have something to do and if they want more. Some players will take lead roles, others will be happy to follow. If in doubt, ask. Talking about things often brings up new ideas and solutions all on its own.

Stakes

Add meaning/significance to the goal the players’ characters are trying to achieve. What will happen if the team of characters doesn’t achieve the goal? What happens if they do? Are you helping one character while irritating or hurting another? Conflict is something to be used but not overdone and be aware that not everyone wants conflict and that this is okay too.

Escalate the Plot

Add a new obstacle/problem to the characters achieving their goal (antagonist, equipment breakdown, puzzle, etc.). Tie the problem to the characters’ skill sets. Add clues. Add a ticking clock/countdown (a rift closing, an NPC will die without medical attention, a literal bomb). Have the villain make their next move. Have the antagonist attack because the team is “too close” or wants to stop their investigation.

Deescalate the Plot

If the problem/obstacle is too hard or the bar is set too high, or key players are suddenly on LOA, remove or lower obstacles. Examples: the antagonist makes a fatal mistake, the confusing red herring is debunked, an NPC solves the riddle. Simplify the solution by adding more obvious clues. As a last resort, execute a deus ex machina save/rescue, but keep in mind that although your passive players may be relieved by this solution, your active players may be frustrated. Also, bear in mind that you don’t always have to win or resolve the problem – sometimes as much entertainment can be had from failing or losing than from winning. And some of the best character development can be found in being unsuccessful at something too.

Summarize Progress

Many television series have an introduction at the beginning of each episode with highlights of past episodes. Remind players what has happened so far, as a news item, in a shared document, etc. (This can double as an introduction for new players and players returning from LOA.) Keep a timeline on your website so that everyone can refer to it. Make it simple and easy to follow, it’s there as a reminder not to reproduce the whole story.

IC status meeting

In a sim with a built-in hierarchy, a JP where the GM’s captain/team-leader character meets with a subset of characters to discuss progress and make assignments, or a team passing a bottle of spirits around a campfire to share information and ideas, can get the mission/story on-track and moving.

Add Solutions/Clues

If players are stuck at a chokepoint problem, add opportunities to discover important clues, and/or add more possible solutions. Throw in an NPC or DM one player and give them some information in order to let them move things forward.

Accept Alternatives

Often the unanticipated solution players come up with is way better than what the GM planned. Embrace this! If players are coming up with great ideas, run with it. Being actively involved in a sim and a story is absolutely the best thing ever, and the reason we’re all doing this. Everyone likes to have a cool moment after all, good or bad, for their character.

Reward/Recognition

Encourage player participation by acknowledging in OOC chat when a player’s character resolves a problem, hits a milestone, or keeps the story moving in some way. Hold an in-game ceremony and reward player-character’s contribution to the story by promoting characters (in a command-hierarchy structure game) or for example presenting the character with a special weapon, or a McGuffin related to the next adventure.

AGM or Veteran Player

Ask your assistant GM, or one (or more) of your players to step in and implement some tools and/or help a new or struggling player.

Write a post from the Antagonist’s POV

This can give the players insight into the problem they’re trying to solve, add stakes, and stimulate ideas.

Ask Another GM/Player

Talk to other people outside your sim. Sometimes you can be too caught up in the detail or the problem and just talking simply about it to someone who isn’t actively involved can really help. Another person can often bring a valuable and different pov to the mix, and even if they don’t resolve your problem, the conversation itself might bring you new ideas.

Story Troubleshooting Examples

Problem 1:

The mission was off to a great start with an all-character introduction post, but then only a couple players started JPs to continue the mission.

Suggested Approach:

Start by checking in with your players and determine why they are not writing. Perhaps a situation came up in real life, and they are dealing with that. Or perhaps the players simply don’t know what to do. Offer to JP with them, or offer some suggestions that might inspire them to write.

 

Problem 2:

I designed the solution to the plot problem so that it would be solved utilizing the specialized skills/backstories of certain key players… who had to take LOAs at the same time. Posting has stalled.

Suggested Approach:

See if you can start a side plot with the players who are not on LOA. Is there room for a side quest, or even a casual in-character get together at a bar? Perhaps introducing a plot-specific NPC could help, such as a Good Samaritan arriving in the nick of time with the skills needed to rescue the entire party. Consider also developing a policy that will allow a game manager to temporarily write for a character whose player is on LOA just so the plot can continue to move.

 

Problem 3:

My players disregarded a critical clue and fixated on a red herring, and have now taken the story in an unintended/problematic direction.

Suggested Approach:

Ask yourself if you can trust your players. If you know several of the writers, allow them to drive the story forward for a while. Perhaps they’ll come up with something that’s far better than what you can come up with.

If you need to get the story back on the proper path, however… You might find that redirecting players can be a challenge. But it might be best to use their momentum in your favor. Evaluate the unintended direction and see if the next plot points/milestone in your story can gain from this direction, even with a slight tweak. If the direction is problematic and will take the story in a direction that isn’t favorable, find a way in character to expose the red herring and provide a clear direction/McGuffin instead.

If neither of those situations are favorable, communicate with your fellow players and collectively draft a series of points to get the plot back on track.

 

Problem 4:

The mission on my space station sim started off with a literal bang – a bomb went off. All the characters reacted to their homes and businesses being destroyed and family members murdered, but now some of my players have quit and posting has stalled. btw, I have not decided who planted the bomb and why.

Suggested Approach:

It always helps to have a rough outline according to the five-point story structure (described in Story/Mission Development and Planning). Introduce a follow up event to give your characters direction. Maybe an insurgent or terrorist group claims credit for the explosion? Or an Internal Affairs investigation begins which removes all characters from duty and now they have to find a way to prove their innocence?

 

Problem 5:

Last week, I accepted a new player on our sim. They didn’t have much experience, but I’m finding it a challenge to prepare them for the game.

Suggested Approach:

Just because a player is new to your game doesn’t mean that they are a novice player. Each sim operates somewhat differently, and it could take the new player a while to adjust. During this time, be friendly in your approaches, and consider asking other veteran players in your sim to assist.

If the new player is definitely a novice when it comes to simming, don’t try to go it alone! Let your small community get involved and help train the player. This will expose the newcomer to the different styles and will help them quickly get past the novice to the intermediate stage where they will be most beneficial to the game.

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the Mentoring Committee and in particular AlphaJuliet and Greenfelt for their help in drafting this resource. ~ Sprite