Friday, September 17, 2010

Managing the Critical Path

There was some talk in a previous post about problems associated when plot hinges on a single individual/group performing some action that falls by the wayside for whatever reason. I like to describe this phenomenon using a term from Project Management - The Critical Path.

The Critical Path in a project is the shortest path from beginning to end. Any task on the Critical Path, called a critical task from here on out, has a direct influence on the completion of the project, and any delay in that critical task will delay the project by the same amount.

When used in Plot, Critical Path Management is a powerful tool. Critical tasks represent objectives that must be completed in order to move forward. In broad plotlines, these tasks can be completed by any player or the objectives can be achieved by several different tasks. Lots of options.

Here's an example of broad plotline with a managable critical path.

Start: Farmer's Daughter is Kidnapped
Middle Milestone: Locate the Farmer's Daughter
End: Return the Daugther

In this plot, there are two broad tasks - Finding the daughter and rescuing her. However, there are many different ways to go about those tasks. To find the daugther you could use tracking, question prisoners, or call in underworld contacts. To rescue her you could pay a ransom, infiltrate the complex, or simply bust down the door. Anyone can do those actions, so there is no defined critical path.

However, there is one possible critical task in this scenario, and that is getting the word out. How do the players find out about the kidnapping? Does the farmer keep talking to people until he gets some people to move out? Does he mention it to the nobles and go back to his farm? Does he post something in the tavern, offering a reward?

If he only mentions it to a single person or a single group, you now have a critical task. You will be unable to move the plotline forward until that person/group does something with that information (form a posse, pass it on to a group of adventurers, or go Rambo on the slavers).

As a plot member, you must know that there will come a time where one of your plotlines gets held up on a critical task. Usually this comes from the PCs with a critical task having too much on their plate, or in a few rare cases, the PCs on the critical path are not present at a given event.

Alas! All is not lost! There are a number of ways that you can deal with this critical path issues, all of which are much better than brooding on whether your plot is good enough or not.

1. Prodding
This is the most commonly used method for moving a plotline along, but I am not a big fan of it. A lot of times, your players are simply tapped or unaware of a method for getting the job done. In those cases, this is just going to stress the players out. If you're going to prod, you should lend them a hand or give them a hint to go with the prodding, lest you push the PCs to actively ignore your plot.

2. Alternate Route
This one is tougher to use while keeping the game epic, but I feel is a much better option than continuous prodding. Give a different group of PCs a different task that can be done to effectively do the same job or make the original task easier. In this case, you don't want the alternate route to be easier than the original task, or else you'll belittle the characters involved in the original task. I would also suggest trying to make the two tasks independent of one another, or else one task may ruin the possibility of the other task. In the case of two tasks, one being combat and the other being roleplay, rolplaying usually loses out, causing disenchantment for the players involved in that task.

3. Back Up Plan
The best way to fix critical task issues is to not have them in the first place! You should always have a Plan B. Back up plans are a lot easier to build into a plotline from the start, as opposed to coming up with one when you get into trouble. Contingency is more than a cantrip.

4. Spread them Out
The other thing that causes these delays is the fact that one player or group might end up being the critical path for multiple plotlines. If you can spread it out, not only will you be less likely to have one of the critical paths stall out, but you'll also have the added benefit of making more players feel special and possibly make their event.

Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't have critical tasks. Critical tasks go a long way towards making players feel important. Everyone, after all, wants to be the hero in their own story. You should just be prepared to manage any plotline that hits a critical task, rather than waiting for something to happen. This is something I was unprepared to do when I started writing plot, and I feel like I could have made my life a bit easier.

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