How to Create Adaptive Stories

As many of you will know, my second job is as a volunteer administrator for Iron Realms Entertainment. In my spare time, I also run live roleplaying games and occasionally tabletop games. I’ve talked before about how these things greatly improve my writing skills.

Today I want to talk about something that these writing-adjacent activities have really helped me with: building adaptive stories.

In live and tabletop roleplaying, you can spend days crafting an intricate, carefully planned story. You can work out the many paths that could be taken, the options for each, draw maps and write NPCs and come up with all manner of things.

And then, inevitably, your players will decide that they want to do something totally different. Or they’ll work out your complicated overarching plot within a single day. Or they’ll completely fail to, leaving you unable to hook them back into the main story.

Because the problem with players is this: they’re unpredictable.

Help, My Players Are Rebelling!

There are two ways to react to this unpredictability. Firstly, you can take a heavy hand and push the party until they get themselves back onto the bloody plot, damn you! This can be difficult, and sometimes forced.

Alternatively, you could embrace that unpredictability – and let them go wherever they want. Follow their thoughts, and watch for the opportunity to steer them back towards the course you intend for them to reach.

The second one is in many ways a lot harder. You have to think on your feet, it can completely derail your narrative, and sometimes you yourself will get so carried away that you’ll forget that actually, the party came here to kill that lich that they’ve now ignored for several months.

But those derailings? They can be the best parts of stories, if you let them. It’s well known that one of the things that makes a good story is a complex interweaving of plot layers – not having a single linear thread, but a mixture that cross over one another to form one overarching path. This is true both of roleplaying games and of fiction.

This is the thing that I mean when I say that running live events is such good practice for writing. Because that need to create an adaptive story and world is like an exercise in generating plot complexity. However it is only that if you learn to take advantage of it and make it your own.

Everything is Interlinked

Let’s say for example that your players are indeed hunting a lich. They all have their own reasons for being there: one for revenge; another because they want to find the lich’s book of spells; others for glory; some for simple greed. You’ve successfully hooked them into that goal.

And then they find that there’s an underground network in their home city, trying to bring down the government. They decide that this, which is happening on home soil, takes precedent – and you start panicking. You hadn’t intended for this to be a present threat, but it’s too late to take it back now. They’re determined to investigate and fix it, and it seems like there’s no way to get them back to lich hunting.

But there’s always a way to interlink things.

Perhaps your lich once had dealings with this group, and there are people in the group who know them. Perhaps the group are working for that lich directly. Perhaps the group are morally adjacent information brokers who, if dealt with in the right way, would be willing to give up what they know about said lich. Perhaps the government they would save could give resources for the fight.

Often, the instinct when faced like this is to be stubborn. You built this world a certain way, right? It’s supposed to be that way. You’ve explicitly stated at points that things are that way, and it would be confusing now to change it.

But flexibility is what will make your world seem real and your plots seem cohesive – and by flexibility, yes, sometimes I mean that most controversial of things.

Retconning.

Retconning is Not Inherently Evil

For those unfamiliar with the term, “retcon” – or “retroactive continuity” – is a term that comes from the comic book world, where stories are very frequently changed to overwrite, modify, or undo previous ones. Retconning has gotten something of a bad reputation as a result, from times where the fanbase has reacted badly to changes and deviations.

But there are plenty of times where using a retcon isn’t inherently bad, and there are ways of doing it that can actually empower your plot rather than weakening it.

The main way in which this works is by using the following idea: what you knew before wasn’t wrong; it was incomplete information. Sure, you the author/GM/referee know that at the time you weren’t thinking along these lines at all. That doesn’t have to be a problem; you can make this work.

Let’s say that you’ve previously stated that this rebellious underground group have no master, but you like the idea that the lich is behind it.

Keep your original idea. As far as your average rebel is concerned, there really is no master. You have leaders, sure, but not huge powerful ones in the background – you serve your own ends as a group and that’s that. This fits completely with what you’ve already established.

Then, start to embellish that. Maybe higher ranking members, who the party haven’t already encountered, know that this is just a front. They might know that there is ‘someone’, but not who it is. Then, at the very top, you can have someone who knows the true identity of the lich. Someone who can tell them information seemingly vital to the main plot.

The great thing about this is that your players can wander happily through their seemingly derailed plotline, only to find suddenly that they haven’t actually been derailed at all.

Now Apply This in Fiction

Feel like you’re practised in dealing with the unexpected? Great. Now it’s time to put that into your fiction writing.

At first this might seem counter intuitive, as you haven’t got that wildcard that is a party of other people involved – but it’s possible to derail yourself whilst writing. You know how it is; you get so excited by one character’s personal plotline that suddenly you realise you forgot about the main one.

It happens. And when it happens, sure, you could delete it – or you could apply those adaptive methods. Turn that tangent into a trackback that swings round, ouroboros style, into the main plot. This will reinforce your plot structure as well as feeling satisfying to read and write.

Even if you don’t derail yourself, you can still use these techniques. Think about tangents you could make voluntarily – plot threads that aren’t obvious in their link but then weave back in later on. You can then choose to have these happen on or off camera – knowing what’s happening in the background will again, reinforce the realism of your plot.

Keep doing that, and soon you’ll have a complex, beautifully adaptive story.