Don't Forget the Cat
"It's not enough to put the mouse in the maze with the cheese at the end," my wife once said as we talked about roleplaying plots. "You've got to drop a cat in with them."
This axiom - call it Kalouri's Korollary - is all too true.
Plots that focus on exploration - previously undiscovered catacombs or a strange new world, for example - are particularly vulnerable if you drop players into the mix without a rudder, without some impetus to guide them. Without the cat.
It always sounds good in theory to develop a plot for exploration. Often, it sounds particularly good to the person developing the plot. The plotter schemes, devises a large, well-crafted, fleshed-out alien world for the players to land upon and explore. "This," the plotter says, "is going to rock." The plotter expects players to soak up ambiance and get caught up in the new world for the sake of the new world, and nothing more.
Some rare players will.
The rest, on the other hand, will just spin their wheels because they have little motivation to do anything more.
That's where the cat comes in.
You've got a maze, with the mice at one end and the cheese at the other. The cheese can be a treat as simple as the completion of the exploration or as complex as some canon-bending, history-shaking discovery. But the mice might not be hungry. They might not feel like running through a maze tonight. So, guess what? You must give them a reason to do it. No sitting around, complaining about how slow they are or how uninterested they seem. Motivate them. Drop a cat in the maze. The cat can be just about anything that helps forward the plot: A villain hunting the players, an earthquake threatening to tear the place apart, a time limit imposed to find a cure for a potent poison. The cat is the element that keeps players in the moment, reminding them they can't afford to sit and contemplate their navels.
If you feel particularly daring, throw multiple cats into the maze and then you'll really see your players jumping.
A primary storyline of the current arc of OtherSpace, largely shrouded in secrecy as it follows the VES Minerva on an exploration of several alien universes, has been populated by a few cats recently. The characters aboard the Minerva are in a giant maze, isolated from the rest of the MUSH playerbase. It's easy to get bored and lose focus, play alts, do something else.
Things sort of puttered along uneventfully early in the arc, but once the cats started rampaging through the maze, the action worked itself into a frenzy:
- Several crewmembers got kidnapped by a villain who issued a deadline of 100 days for his ransom demand to be met.
- A squad of marines got trapped on an alien ringworld, and can't be rescued until after the villain mentioned above gets what he wants from the Minerva crew.
- The Minerva's commanding officer got injured and fell into a coma, requiring other crew members to step up and fill the void.
- And a curious alien with animosity toward some characters on the Minerva demanded the ship's surrender.
It doesn't matter precisely what cats you drop into the maze, so long as it keeps the action lively. Such activity feeds on itself and keeps your players coming back for more.
Wes Platt is the creator and chief storyteller at OtherSpace (www.otherspace.org), now in its thirteenth story arc. He moderates the roleplaying discussion forum at Top MUD Sites. He reviews computer games for Radio Sci-Fi (www.radioscifi.net). OtherSpace books and collectibles can be ordered through the OtherSpace website.