The GM’s Art: The Knots in the Rope

Always remember the first rule: you are an entertainer. It is your task to craft an entertainment that the players will be served in episodes, and which will keep them interested for months and seasons at a time. Fortunately, you have an excellent teacher – me. And also television.

Series television should be your dancing master when crafting a campaign. How does series television engross people week after week, for years at a time? With story.

You don’t watch Game of Thrones for the swordfights. You watch Game of Thrones to see if Tyrion will escape Cersei, if Littlefinger will betray Sansa, and if Daenerys is in the nude again. Which means that you watch it for the story two times out of three. You come back for the story. Is it a spoiler if someone tells you there was a swordfight on GoT? No. It’s a spoiler if they told you who fought, and who lived, and who died. If GoT was nothing but a series of swordfights, without motivations, choices, consequences, or character arcs, it would be meaningless and unwatchable. The audience doesn’t care so much that there is a fight; they care who is fighting, and why, and what the result will mean for the story.

You recognize him because you're following the story.

You recognize him because you’re following the story.

If it’s just a series of swordfights, it is unwatchable. In the same way, if the campaign you are running is just a series of battles, then it is a bad campaign. The PCs enter the dungeon. The PCs kill the monsters. The PCs look for another dungeon. That is terrible. That is not a story, that is just a sequence of events. People hate that. People love stories. It’s the defining characteristic of Homo sapiens.

The human brain makes sense out of the world with stories. When your brain is awake but your body is asleep and you can’t move, your brain tells you a story; about demons attacking you in the night, if you happen to live in the 11th century, or of alien abductors, if you live in the 21st.

When your brain is short-circuiting in the moments before death, it tries to make sense of the malfunction by spitting out a story that matches your cultural expectations – Christ descending, the white horse galloping, Anubis looming with his scales. That is how much people love stories. That is how much people want stories. So give them stories.

How do you do this? First, never seek endings. Seek beginnings.

For example, in Archer Season 2, Archer is trapped in Russia, but Katya Kazanova helps him escape. Are we finished? No. Katya is a KGB agent who is willing to help Archer escape because she wants to defect. Does she buy a condo outside of Tempe and get a job at Olive Garden? No. She is in love with Archer, and Archer falls in love with her. Katya wants to work for ISIS. Is this OK? No. The ISIS staff is deeply skeptical of her motives. Eventually they are convinced to accept Archer and Kazanova’s wedding. Do the newlyweds honeymoon at Niagara Falls? No. Archer’s nemesis, Cyborg Barry, crashes the wedding and murders Katya. Do he and Archer shake hands and part as friends? No, their bitter rivalry deepens and spins off into new plotlines. Does Archer mourn his lost love and move on? Not hardly. More plotlines, mostly about robovaginas. Are we finished? Never.

Let’s use Shadowrun as the example in a game. One night in the Z-Zone, the PCs bump into the Whittaker Avenue street gang and a firefight ensues – just an accident of the urban wastes. Are we finished? No. Another gang called the Bad Ratz had been after the Avenues because the Avenues had stolen a load of their drugs. The Ratz assume that the PCs attacked the Avenues and stole the drugs from them. First the Ratz try deceptive social engineering, then the Ratz attack. The PCs defeat them. Are we finished? If you think we are, you fail the lesson. A surviving member of the Ratz is so impressed with the PCs’ élan that she wants to work for them as a contact. Her name is Rachelle. She wants to impress her lover by introducing her to the PCs – but her lover is the granddaughter of a Yakuza boss in a forbidden romance with her gangsta. And then an emissary comes to the PCs from the Sons of the Neon Chrysanthemum…

You must always look for new beginnings, new plotlines arising out of the old. That’s the neverending story. You just keep moving the goal posts.

All right, that part about the goal posts was facetious. When you move the goalposts, you just keep changing the win condition so that your enemies can never win. But the PCs aren’t your enemies, they are your audience – and they need to have victories or else they will get embittered and quit. Think of the story as a rope that they’re pulling on. Every few feet of rope has a reward tied to it – but there’s always more rope.

This is how video games are structured, and that is another lesson for the gamemaster. Drip rewards. You drip good stuff on the PCs a little at a time, and they hang around waiting for the next hit. You can do the same thing with heroin addicts; dole out the medicine a little at a time, and pretty soon you’ve got a stable of gladiators for your YouTube Fight Club. It’s the same thing with players – they’ll fight on and on for the next reward on the rope. But don’t share that junkie slave-gladiator metaphor with your players. They’ll be offended. Also don’t produce a smackie bumfight YouTube channel. It’s illegal, and awkward when people at parties ask what you do. In fact, it’s an ugly metaphor. I retract it. I’m embarrassed. I blame Dr. Krieger’s mind control chip.


And this is where you need to be careful. A common GM mistake is to drip-reward players with gear and abilities. This is fun, but hollow. Squad support smartguns, faster cyberdecks and more potent combat drugs glitter when they’re new, but soon it becomes collection for collection’s sake, another bauble to toss into the drone truck, higher skill ratings as their own justification. The upward power spiral outraces you and soon there isn’t an adversary left in the 6th World database to challenge your runners.

So while gear and abilities amuse, they don’t fulfill. The neverending story is what your players crave, the plot that twists in and out and back on itself. It’s how we humans understand ourselves. Television is the model. Find your favorite – Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Justified, Penny Dreadful, Falling Skies, Walking Dead, Angel – and study its rope; where it goes, and what’s in the knots.


Brian Downes
Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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