The symbolism should now be getting clearer.
There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. This series examines the process in detail.
So you’ve got some general ideas, and you’ve vetted the legacies of the past to see what to keep and what to throw away (with a few ‘wait and see’ items that will only stay if the fit the new campaign after it is developed, you’ve recharged your batteries and your enthusiasm as necessary, and then eased into the campaign development process…
The ingredients at hand
As a reminder, from the work done in previous parts of this series, you have at your disposal a number of campaign ingredients to use in creating the new campaign.
Specifically, you have:
- A whole bunch of vague ideas from Phase 1: Inspiration
- A list of things that you want to keep from past campaigns, including campaign elements, from the Baggage Dump phase;
- Another list of things that you definitely don’t want to do, either because they didn’t work or would make the new campaign too much like the last, also from the Baggage Dump Phase;
- A third list of undecided elements, also from the Baggage Dump Phase;
- The main theme that you will be building the new campaign around;
- Three Moods that you want the new campaign to touch on regularly;
- Three surprises that you want to incorporate into the new campaign;
- Three Things The PCs will hate but the players will love;
- Three Things that the Players will want to do, especially slanted towards the early part of the campaign; and,
- An overall structure for your adventures or game sessions.
Between them, these items account for about 25% of the Campaign Design – and it’s already done! What happens next is a series of steps that connect this disparate stack into a campaign, combining and cross-linking campaign elements into a cohesive whole.
Plot before Setting
I’m a great believer in having your overall plotlines and concepts in place and then creating a setting in which they can take place, instead of the other way around. The need to place interesting plotlines in front of the players takes absolute precedence over everything else. Whether they choose to investigate and involve themselves in these plotlines is up to them, though in some campaigns the genre can dictate that they will take just about every piece of bait offered to them.
Any sort of law-enforcement or crime-fighting aspect to the campaign, for example. It doesn’t matter whether the campaign is Superheros or Pulp or Secret Agents or if the PCs are all to be members of the Fantasy City’s night watch or simply stopping the Netherworld Creepies from invading – ignoring a plotline, any plotline, in these genres is ultimately self-defeating; you have to deal with the menace that the GM puts before you. Strongly-Militaristic campaigns can also fall into this category. These are essentially “Reactive” campaigns, where the NPCs controlled by the GM are the driving forces, instigating plotlines, making mistakes, and so on, and the PCs React to these evolving circumstances, dealing with the menace of the week. In these campaigns, the number-one priority is avoiding the Plot Train.
The alternative type of campaign could be given a number of titles. You could label them “Passive” because the GM doesn’t instigate the plotlines, only a series of evolving circumstances that the Players choose whether or not to involve themselves in. You could label them “Active” because the plotlines are essentially generated by Player Choice, and if they don’t choose to get involved in anything, the whole campaign can grind to a halt. You could label them “Rudderless” because the GM has limited options in choosing the direction the plots will evolve in. Plot trains are not the major problem with this type of campaign, Unity is; it is very easy for each PC to go off in his own little direction. The best approach to this type of campaign is to infuse a Reactive “backbone” that doesn’t dominate the campaign but which keeps the PCs together, providing that unity. This can be as simple as an enemy strong enough to destroy them singly, but against whom they have a fighting chance if they stick together, or it can be as complex as each having a goal that can only be achieved with the help of one or more of the others. Lots of Fantasy and some Sci-Fi falls into this category. Cyberpunk is split about 50/50.
Some campaigns wander from one side of the street to another, with no grand plot but lots of little plots. The best campaigns are usually Fusions of these two styles. It doesn’t matter which style dominates such a fusion, if either does; the presence of some element of the alternative gives a freedom to both players and GMs that helps avoid the worst problems of both.
Of course, some plotlines will be inspired by the setting that is eventually developed (in Phase 5); that’s fine. Your entire campaign plan might get tossed aside in the course of your first session of play. The plots that you generate in this phase, and integrate into a campaign plan, are a tool, nothing more. The genre-related patterns described above still apply.
I see a Campaign as a stage for the gestalt of players-and-GM to tell the story of the lives of the principle characters – that is, the PCs and one or more major NPCs. The GM’s job is to provide the foundations and setting, to keep the players happy and participating, to keep the story interesting and entertaining, and to ensure that everyone gets his or her share of the spotlight. He also serves as a referee, managing the Rules vs Players, Players vs Players, and Players vs NPCs interfaces. It’s not the GMs job to create the story, just to create the circumstances that enable the players to create the story in collaboration with the GM.
All this results in a development loop – Campaign to Plots to Setting to More Plots to Campaign, repeat.
I am discussing this now so that readers can have a clear understanding of the design objectives in this phase; this article is all about campaign to plots. Next time, we do setting to more plots to campaign, which might seem like the bigger task; in reality, many of the techniques will be the same as those described in today’s article, so the split might well be the other way around.
What do you need to know more about? There should always be something, and most of the time, there should be many things. Some of these will derive from the indeterminate items on the baggage dump list, but most will derive from the inspiration phase. Don’t interrupt the campaign prep with actual research at this point; what you want to begin with is simply a list of subjects to research. This should include “[x] in writing” and “creating [x]” where “[x]” are the three moods. Basic research will be an ongoing task; this is just the beginning. In each subsequent step, more subjects are likely to suggest themselves; simply add them to the list.
Why not do the research now, or as you go? Because so far you don’t have a context in which to view the results. You can only tentatively identify what might be relevant in a general way at this point, you can’t extract the actually-relevant from the noise of irrelevance that will surround any topic.
Campaign development begins by expanding on the theme by generating a list of as many ways as you can think of applying it. Search for phrases relating to the theme, list as many different types of group or individual that could be affected by the theme and all the shapes that this theme could have, free associate around the theme, look into anything that is considered symbolic of the theme, and so on. Don’t neglect to list the conditions and situations that can lead to the theme, and the many different forms that the aftermath of experiencing the theme could take. In essence: brainstorm, with internet support, the theme, and list the results for later reference.
The Sets Of Threes
Once you have the theme-related list, go through each item and look for associations and/or connections to each item in your “sets of threes” – the three moods, three surprises, etc. Add these theme-related notes to your notes on the item in the lists of threes. Don’t stop at one, you want as many as possible to provide later flexibility.
Still More Ideas
The next step is to generate even more ideas. This part of the process comes in two parts; ideally they should be conducted separately, but the fact is that as you work on one, you will get ideas about the other, so the actual processing is not so clear-cut.
Reinterpret the list of discards
The first of the two is to go through everything that you decided to discard and reinterpret those findings into something constructive, rather than retaining their current (negative) form.
For each item, think for a moment about possible alternatives to “what you don’t want”. If the idea is inherently interesting, list it on some scratch paper under a title that reflects the “Replace this” entry. If the idea is not inherently interesting, keep thinking. This is where the long list of resources that I named earlier begins to have value, as does the research that you have done; these are all sources of ideas, so if you find yourself getting stuck, don’t stare at an empty list, skim through the collected resources looking for inspiration.
That’s a fundamental element with this entire process that I will try not to repeat again and again – every time you proceed with a step, you add to the collected resources relating to the new campaign, and every time you need inspiration, go back to the continually-expanding list of resources. We do this sort of thing in the back of our minds all the time, anyway; this simply formalizes the process so that we are not hampered by uncooperative memories.
Don’t list every possibility, either; pick the two-to-four that are most interesting and move on to the sub-step below, which is concerned with selection of the best of those interesting alternatives.
Links to theme
Of the 2-to-4 options available, which has, or can have, the strongest connection to the theme in one or more of the many possible aspects that you listed earlier? Rank it #1. Which has the second-strongest connection to the theme? Rank it #2, and so on. This should take only a few seconds, depending on how long it’s been since you generated that list of theme permutations; ideally, you would get to this point, and beyond, in a single sitting, but that might not always be possible.
Links to the sets of threes
Next, get out your lists of threes. Which of the alternatives has connections to one or more of these? Are some links more of a stretch than others? Which has the greatest number of connections to items on the lists of threes? These are rather more subjective, but that’s OK; these won’t be the only subjective decisions that you make. Rate the best-connected alternative as #1, the next best as #2, and so on.
Then add the two ratings together. The lowest total (and you may get a tie) is the preferred replacement for whatever you are getting rid of, the next lowest is the #2 choice, and so on.
Work your way through the entire list of Rejected carry-overs in this fashion. It should only take a few seconds per rejected item. Some items may have no relevance to any of these resources, for example changing a rule, or dumping a house rule that has proven more trouble than it is worth. In that case, don’t bother listing alternatives, you aren’t up to that stage yet – ignore it and move on. The same is true of anything relating to the campaign setting. All told, 1/3 to 1/2 of the items on your rejected list will not be relevant to this stage of campaign development, speeding the process considerably.
Reinterpret the list of undecided items
This entire process is designed to be one of gathering momentum, in which each step builds on what’s already been done to the greatest possible extent. I’m varying from that maxim only when I absolutely have to. Using your theme as a core, you’ve started sending out feelers in various directions, connecting various bits and pieces into the beginnings of what will become your new campaign.
This sub-step continues that process. On paper, it’s quite straightforward; in practice, it will be a bit messier, and so this is not the end of this particular process; like research, there will be more to do as development proceeds.
Right now, you have a list of deferred decisions, but they aren’t phrased in a way that leads naturally to making decisions; the form itself is getting in the way because it has to be interpreted into a suitable structure every time the subject comes up for consideration. Each of your “undecided” items from the baggage dump needs to be rephrased into one or more key, decisive questions, and the fewer there are of these, the better. That means defining the alternatives and highlighting the relevant differences in as few leading questions as possible.
For example, you might be undecided about the base of operations opportunities that you are going to provide for the PCs. You have three choices: A mobile operation (no base of operations), a stronghold, and a city. We need some context to make the example complete; let’s assume that your last campaign started off in a city and got bogged down with the sheer variety of options open to the PCs before they knew the game world that well, and that’s the problem that you want to avoid this time around.
The way I would analyze this problem is as follows:
- The big difference between the city choice and the other two options is the breadth of social interaction that is possible. A city brings everything into one space, and that is both its benefit and the vulnerability to which the last campaign fell victim. Both a stronghold and mobile base of operations take a lot of that variety off the table, giving the players a chance to grow acquainted with key game-world concepts (whatever they might be, that hasn’t been decided yet, and won’t be until Phase 5) before they have to deal with the relatively unlimited opportunities presented by a city.
- The big differences between the mobile option and the stronghold option are (1) static vs dynamic environments, and (2) defense vs exploration. With a stronghold, the PCs are relatively fixed in place, and there is a heavy emphasis on the military situation that led to the construction of that stronghold in the first place. The threat that resulted in that construction might still be valid or it may have faded long ago. It also has the advantage of further simplifying the perspective on the game world that the players have to initially absorb. The downside is that it restricts opportunities for discovery by virtue of that static location. Finally, there is the Chekhov’s Gun argument – if you start your campaign inside a defensive structure, you want that structure to come under threat in some fashion.
- Compare that with the mobile beginning. It gives access to a range of environments, from small towns to wilderness in various terrain forms; traveling companions furnish a restricted but illuminating range of social interactions, if well-chosen, and these can be used to provide initial briefings to the players in the form of campfire chats, exchanges along the trail, etc. It has most of the virtues of the city beginning without the liabilities.
- Rephrasing these options into simple questions is now relatively straightforward:
- 1. Is the social openness of an urban environment critical to player understanding of the world? (Yes = City, No = Not-City).
- 2. If Not-City: Are defensive/military considerations critical to the overall campaign, or even just the early parts of it? (Yes = Fortified Structure eg Stronghold, No = mobile base of operations, at least initially).
Two simple, straightforward questions with profound implications for the campaign.
(It’s worth noting that I employed the “Mobile Beginning” option quite successfully in the initial Fumanor campaign, giving the PCs a slightly cynical very world-wise introduction to the game world through the garrulous remembrances and unwanted advice of “Old Carl”, the guard on the “wagon” the PCs were traveling in. He gave them just enough information – colored by his opinions and prejudices – to give them a solid foundation to build understanding on when they reached the city, and then got killed in what would eventually be revealed as the first hints of one of the main plotlines, a growing Orcish threat to the entire Kingdom instigated by Dark Elves, who in turn were pawns in an even deeper plot to resurrect their dead “Goddess” Lolth and make her a true Goddess at the same time. Only the inner circle “knew” that she was even dead, they had been using trickery to disguise the true situation for a century. The death of “Old Carl” from an Orcish Arrow was the tip of a very large iceberg!)
Given the work that has already been done prior to reaching this point, it would not be at all unsurprising if the reformulation of an undecided point into one or more questions didn’t make the decision self-evident in some cases. Knowing the theme and all the ways that it can express itself, can interact with characters in the course of the campaign, you should be able to rule on the example offered above pretty much right away. You will already know how critical putting the PCs into a completely open social mixture is, and will also have a fair idea as to how central militaristic aspects of the game world will be to the theme. Simply formulating the decision as one or more questions will enable you to answer a lot of them right away.
Each one that you answer will add to your list of ideas and campaign elements, may add to your list of research items, and will reduce the unknowns in your campaign plans.
Furthermore, there is a domino effect: answering one question will function to reduce the options open in others, further narrowing the focus onto the campaign as it will eventually be. For that reason, the final step after completing the translation of unknowns into answered and unanswered questions is to go back over the list, looking for other questions that you couldn’t answer at the time, but can answer now.
Questions to be answered
What you are left with is a series of questions to be answered. The solutions to those questions come from three sources: Research, Campaign Planning, and Personal Preference when all else is equal. So the next step is to add anything needed to answer those questions to your list of subjects to research, if they aren’t already.
At the same time, you can take the opportunity to make campaign development easier further down the track. Number these still-unanswered questions (Q1, Q2, and so on) and then cross-reference each question with entries on the list of research subjects with the questions that you expect the research to have a bearing on. Nothing fancy, just something like:
R3: Mongolian Society c. 1600s AD – Q5, 8, 23
will do the job just fine. What this is telling you is that after you research Mongolian Society (the third subject on your list), you expect to be able to make progress on questions 5, 8, and 23, and so should re-examine those questions before and after the research.
Does it seem like “Mongolian Society” is an unusually specific term to be on a research list? It isn’t. The reasoning might have gone something like this: “Goblin Hordes to resemble Mongol Hordes. Therefore Goblin Society to be based on Mongol Society contemporary with the Hordes.” Simple, yes? The key idea is connecting Goblins and historic Mongols, instead of using a rather-contaminated view of Germanic Barbarian Societies the way most D&D does for Orcs and Goblins. And if you retain the traditional view of Orcs, or even use a different idea again, you would end up with very interesting dynamics and relations between the two populations :)
The subject has segued nicely into the topic of research once again, which is timely, because that’s the next step.
One technique that I’ve had to learn the hard way is to properly breadcrumb where my research takes me, and I had better explain that before any actual study begins.
Studying one website inevitably in most cases leads to another. These days, I always create a folder within my bookmarks for the research (called “[campaign] research”, naturally enough). Every web site that I visit in the name of research for that campaign gets bookmarked before I start reading. I then rename the website bookmark to insert a number at the start of it – the first site is 001, the second is 002, and so on. Most browsers either show these in alphabetical order or in order they were added; the renaming not only provides an abbreviated reference number, it ensures that they are presented in order.
After each research topic on my list, I note the websites that were relevant to that subject by number, and – If I notice relevance to another of my topics – I list the website there, too. This makes it much easier to refer back to a site, and to build up pages to be read as relevant to one of your research topics. When my research is complete, I export the list as a HTML page or use a bookmark aggregator to turn them into one.
The purpose isn’t just to gather information for now, it’s to index and cross-reference information for use months or years later. Right now, you only want to do enough research to know where to find the information that you need when you need it, and to give you the information that you need, Right Now. Think of this as “campaign design sandboxing”.
It divides information into three levels: Vague Information, Broad Overviews, and Specific Inputs. Vague information contains just what you need to paint the “big picture” in your head, and to find Broad Overviews when you need it. Broad Overviews are more comprehensive, enabling you to construct a detailed picture of the game elements that are related to that research; if Vague Information enables the “big picture”, broad overviews enable a “regional closeup” or “cultural closeup”. It also gives you a starting point when you need to get into Specific Inputs, which are what you need to take a detailed look at the game element. Each stage is the gateway to the next, but contains only what you need at the current moment.
Another way to look at it is that Vague Information tells you what Broad Overviews you need to integrate into your campaign and how they relate to the whole; Broad Overviews give a context for more detailed information and enable that research to fill in the details in your creations.
Rulebook Reference Reading
One element of research that can’t be handled in this way – well, it can, but the broad overviews (and sometimes Specifics) are needed right away – is checking the rules for conflicts with the material that you are making central to the campaign.
For example, if you were to go with the “Goblins – Mongols” equivalence suggested earlier as an example, you would need to review the Write-ups on Goblins and the rules for Barbarians, at the very least. You might also might need to look at Clerics.
You’re looking for two things: Rules Conflicts, and House Rules to resolve them or extend the official material to cover the new directions your game is going in.
The official rules can be very confining, especially when it comes to D&D / Pathfinder, because so much of the game world is integrated within those rules. You can get some idea of the scope of what I’m talking about by looking at the subset of the House Rules for the Fumanor campaign that I published as part of the Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD series, itself part of the larger Orcs & Elves series, specifically in Parts Two and Three.
Now, you might be lucky, and nothing you’re contemplating or will contemplate will ever conflict with the published rules, but the more creative you get, the more likely it is that such a conflict will arise. Given that, the question needs to be asked: when is the best time to identify and resolve these conflicts – during campaign development, so that players can be told anything they need to know before play begins, and when you have plenty of time to work out a solution; or in the middle of play, when you have to retroactively introduce changes to the rules that have been constructed in haste, disrupting the current adventure in the process? And, where there’s one conflict, there can be several – so this can occur repeatedly, something else to take into account.
When it’s put that way, the answer to the rhetorical question seems pretty self-evident, doesn’t it?
Of course, there doesn’t have to be a direct conflict for a house rule to be needed. Seventy-five percent or more of House Rules are usually Rules Extensions, covering something that the existing rules don’t even mention. A new character class, A new Feat, New Spells, New Skills – you name it. And that’s the other thing that you’re looking at.
Preliminary Notes: House Rules
It should be emphasized that you aren’t writing these House Rules at this point. Describing what’s needed, and why, and perhaps offering some rough ideas as to what form the new rules will take, is all that’s required at this point.
That’s because a lot of this planning is preliminary, and may not survive into the final campaign – and I don’t want to be wasting time on rules that are never actually needed, and I’m sure you don’t want to be, either. At this stage, you simply are identifying needs based on the campaign concept in an early state and proposing a general basis of resolving those needs. The detail work of translating those preliminary notes into actual rules comes much later in the process.
Other reference sources
The other thing that’s worth doing at this stage is to list any outside resources that might be useful/necessary in terms of rules and resources.
In terms of the rules: Does TORG have a really good spell design system that you want to try and incorporate? (it does, especially if you convert it into software the way I did for the C-128. I even built a custom word-processor into it, and fed everything into a custom-built database and DBMS. So complex that it took two floppy disks just to hold all the program, more than 100K lines of code!) Do you want dogfighting rules from a WWI aerial-combat board-game for use with flying creatures? (I did that for the Zenith-3 campaign). Or perhaps the damage-handling rules from Empire Of The Petal Throne, or the Sanity rules from Call Of Cthulhu? One of the easiest ways to change the look-and-feel of a D&D / Pathfinder campaign is to make some other monster source your primary one instead of the established, standard, sources. Now is the time to identify and justify these rules imports, simply because of the profound effects that they will have. And it’s not a bad idea at this point to make sure that you have access to them, as well. While you’re at it: Which “official” game supplements will you be using, and which are off-the-table? They don’t all play nice with each other – Deities & Demigods and The Epic Level Handbook are particularly incompatible unless you want the PCs to face threats that eat the Gods for breakfast, for example.
Outside Resources: Again, this is the time to identify and source these, whether it be a reference book on the tribes of New Guinea, the mines of the Aztec Empire, or a Fantasy Trilogy that you want to mine for ideas. Select these, gather them, and start to read them (or re-read them), taking notes.
The Sea Of Ideas
By the time you’ve done your preliminary research, you have amassed a sea of ideas. It’s now time to wring some coherence from them, building up an organized campaign concept. I’ve explained this process before, on a number of occasions, each time seeking a slightly different way of approaching the process in the hopes that one of the variations will work for a particular GM where the others didn’t ‘click’. This time, I’m going back to the basics, and as straightforward an approach as I can offer.
Organization and structuring of your ideas starts with numbering them – putting each on a separate line in a text document or spreadsheet and giving each a number that can be used to point to that item.
Each idea will usually have one or more blank spots that need to be filled before that idea will be complete and ready to integrate into an adventure. Central details like who, what, where, why, how, beginning, and outcome/purpose.
- Who: Nothing happens without a cause, without someone doing something. “Who” is not necessarily about identifying an actual individual, it can be defining an ambition, or a motive, or a general “type” of person. Obviously, you always have two choices: an already “identified” individual, or someone new. Having two ideas with an individual in common clearly connects them, and that’s often desirable, but every individual has a first appearance in the campaign – they were all “someone new” once. And, of course, that “someone” can be a group.
- What: The least-often blank, this is what the “who” is doing, or the situation that results and that impacts the PCs.
- Where: Again, not so much specifics as a definition of the location. “An Inn” or “A lost Temple” or even “a sad place” is good enough of a definition. “Home Base” or “Wilderness” or “Village” are also good enough. Some ideas, on the other hand, can be so tightly connected to the location that “Where” is explicitly stated – “Tomb Of the Dwarven Kings”, for example. Some ideas are so broad that no one location stands out; in which case, “Where” may refer to the location where events first impact on the PCs, or where the perpetrator’s base of operations is, or even a central nexus from which events unfold. It’s even possible for “Where” to be a relative location – “location of the Thalinstone”.
- Why: Quite often, “Why” is dependent on “Who”, which is why a motive can be the defining attribute of the perpetrator. At other times, “Why” is more about circumstances that offer an opportunity than any overt motive.
- How: Usually fairly vaguely defined, but some indication of “How” the Who is going to bring about the situation that confronts the PCs is needed. Despite the vagueness, this is one of the most rarely blank items.
- Beginning: This usually isn’t about where the plot begins as it where the PCs first experience the effects of the situation, ie where they potentially first become aware of the plot. This is one of the more frequently blank entries.
- Outcome/Purpose: Finally, what does the GM hope to achieve with the plot? What consequences and long-term implications for the campaign will this plotline produce? Quite often, this is what the plotline is really all about. It could be something like “establishes a new long-term villain” or “strips the PCs of their privileged position” or “overthrows the local government, replacing it with one hostile to the PCs” or “Disrupts magic throughout the Kingdom” or “Stirs the Orcs into war preparations”… there’s a long list of possibilities.
The goal is to fill in as many of those blank spots with the numbers representing other ideas, but not to choose at random; rather, guided by the theme development that was done earlier, and your preliminary research, and the sets of threes, the goal is to identify thematic matches, things that look like they fit together.
It’s probably worth reminding readers that “ideas” that this point include everything from plot concepts (“A city is brought to life as a huge immobile golem”) to iconic setting concepts (“a flat mountaintop with a gleaming white temple above and a Gothic cathedral carved into the mountain underneath”) or a character idea (“a vampire who sucks magic as well as blood”). Some might be more developed than these, others may even be less, but this is pretty close to the standard of most of them.
This task is often made easier with a preliminary sort performed using copy-and-past, separating your ideas into those that feel like they are part of the early campaign, those that feel like they are part of the middle-campaign, and those that have the drama and gravitas needed for the end-of-the-campaign.
You can even go further – once you have divided the ideas into these three groups, you can further divide each into beginning-of-campaign-phase, middle-of-campaign-phase, and end-of-campaign-phase.
I usually go one step beyond even this, creating a “phase 0″ for anything that introduces key concepts into the campaign, anything that sets the stage for the campaign proper, anything that can be considered foundation for the campaign. That gives me ten “stages” to the campaign. I also look for anything that I would consider foundation to the middle part of the campaign, and consider advancing it into one of the prior stages, and then do the same thing for the ending phase of the campaign. The result is that those discrete “bands” get slightly broken up, and there is a smoother transition between the phases.
Not all your ideas will be amenable to such organization. It is usual to have a large number left over that can go anywhere. These are the “pool” that you draw from to fill the empty spaces in the items that have been allocated a position. I usually extract those at the very beginning of this process because it makes numbering easier.
Repeat the process of allocating connections between ideas until you are sure that every idea that can be grouped together, has been grouped together.
I tried very hard to devise a means of illustrating all this. I soon discovered that I had three choices: Make it impossibly large and complicated, or a series of 7 or 8 separate illustrations (but I didn’t have time to do that); Make it something approaching a full page and try to shrink it down cleverly to fit the limited space available on the web-page (but I wasn’t clever enough to do that in the time available); or accept that it simply wasn’t going to be possible.
Option three being the only practical solution, the trick was finding a way to do it anyway. So here it is: the example (without explanations) is available as a small PDF. Click on the image above, which is a severely-shrunken excerpt, to download it. Then read the above section again, referring to the example, and all should be clear.
What you end up with is a series of numbers that thread plots and micro-details about settings and participants into little bundles, many of which serve to connect one plot with another by virtue of common elements. If you were to picture each of those bundles of information as a dot you could even visualize the results as something resembling an organic molecule, as shown below! (It doesn’t mean anything but it does reveal how extensive a structure you can end up with at this point, if all has gone as expected).
These bundles encode in a snapshot of either a complete adventure or a significant portion of one.
Each is a long way from being ready to play, and of course there’s no real information about which order they will take place in, but since a campaign consists of one adventure following and building on events in another, the new campaign is quite literally beginning to take shape.
Incorporate the Three Moods
Once you’ve finished tying as many bits and pieces together with metaphoric string, it’s time to start building on the structure that results.
This construction is achieved incrementally, adding little bits here and there. By the nature of these additions, some of them add a new layer of interconnection between the elements already allocated.
That’s particularly true of the first of these additional layers to be added – the three moods. For each bundle, considering what has already been allocated, which of the three moods is most appropriate, if any.
In theory, the breakdown should be something like:
- 25% mood 1;
- 25% mood 2;
- 25% mood 3; and
- 25% none of the three moods.
…but I’ve devised campaigns which were 50% no mood, and others in which there were massive imbalances between the three moods. I’ve even run campaigns in which one of the three moods only existed as an undercurrent underneath more overt emotional content. So take that guideline with a rather large grain of salt, and decide what is important for your proposed campaign based on the content.
Another point to take into account is relative emotional intensity of the three moods. The more intense an emotion, the less frequently it has to show up in order to balance in “campaign presence” with something less intense.
Take, for example, revenge vs obsession vs friendship – obsession by far the most intense when it comes to a head, but the rest of the time, revenge would rate as more severe. It follows that there should be fewer adventures in which obsession is the driving force than there are those in which revenge is amongst the dominant elements. However, there should be even more adventures in which obsession is a background element that does not drive the adventure, but in which it plays a part nevertheless. Finally, Friendship is by far the least intense tone of the three; there should therefore be as many adventures with that as an element as you can think of different ways to highlight it, even if that is as many or more than the rest put together.
Incorporate the Three Surprises
The three surprises can be considered, by definition, plot twists. It is therefore important to match them as twists with the appropriate plot – or, if necessary, to add another one to the collection already created.
It should be noted that sometimes one of these surprises can thread through multiple adventures by having the actual “twist” take place off-camera, generating many repercussions and consequences that are not obviously related and which may occur in many adventures before the twist itself is revealed.
In this circumstance, you need to designate one adventure as being the initial incident, another (which may need to be created for this sole purpose if necessary) in which the revelation is to take place, and determine the appropriate number of directly-connected adventures in between by means of identifying and counting the number of repercussions and consequences and establishing a logical timeline. The whole thing will fall apart if the timespan between these two is in excess of what logic and common sense can justify, and that in turn usually limits both the number and length of adventures in between.
Incorporate the Three Things The Players Will Love To Hate
Like the recurring element of the three moods, these can form a new layer of connection between otherwise disparate plot events, because when you provide something the players will love to hate, you have to give them the opportunity to vent those feelings repeatedly. But remember, never the same way twice! As a result, you are limited in the number of adventures that can incorporate a love-to-hate element by the number of variations that your creativity can wrest from the idea.
My first priority when incorporating these is to try and use them to link many or most of those adventures that aren’t linked already by the three tones, binding the whole campaign together all the more solidly. However, it always has to make sense that this campaign element plays a role in the adventures in question.
My second priority is to link with the ideas where the love-to-hate element is a natural fit. These form the mounting points of the love-to-hate elements.
Finally, I try not to have these three love-to-hate elements overlap too much. For that reason, my preference is to have one that is most relevant in the early part of the campaign, one that is dominant amongst the three in the middle part of the campaign, and one that is dominant in the final part of the campaign. That doesn’t mean that an element can’t have an impact in parts of the campaign that aren’t their designated “territory”, just that these will be exceptions.
Choose Three Nexii
What the campaign’s overall plots actually are, and what the players will think they are, can often be two entirely different things, and this can be very good news for the GM because it means the players are watching the wrong things, and zigging from time to time when they would be better off zagging.
But it’s not all good news. This can also make the players unpredictable, because you don’t know what they are going to focus on. The best solution is to build-in something that will occupy their attention at the critical moments and provide forward impetus from time to time. I have called these Nexii (the plural of Nexus), as in “the center of attention”.
There is a bit of an art form to getting these right. If they are too blatant, they will be immediately suspected of being red herrings or distractions, too obvious to be taken seriously – especially if you have any sort of reputation for subtlety. If they are too subtle, the players may miss them, or decide (correctly) that they aren’t all that important in the scheme of things. Both problems are exacerbated if the nexii are obviously being fed to the players by the GM – you really want it to seem to them that the nexii are their own ideas, or at least that the decision to focus on them is their own idea.
You achieve this with a careful balance between significance and insignificance, a hint of reluctance, and a whisper of understatement. Subtle touches like focusing your attention on each player NOT looking into the nexus, implying that handling the nexus is something of an afterthought, almost forgotten, then apologizing for that (and in the process drawing everyone else’s attention to it), and making it a priority the next time around (while their attention is still on it) and revealing a prepared handout or prop of some kind, which tells the players that the nexus is far more important than you are trying suggest. Impressed with their cleverness at catching you out, they will take the bait and swallow it whole.
Of course, it would be all too easy to give the game away if you can’t keep yourself from smiling. So if you have to smile when the Players fall for your deception, make sure that you have practiced a somewhat sheepish version in advance!
The Primary Plot Nexus
This is the first Nexus that players will encounter within the campaign, usually within the first adventures or two. It represents what the players think is going on when the campaign gets underway, gives it the kick-start that it needs to get moving, and as such, is the most important of the three, by quite a long stretch.
It’s also usually the shortest-lived of the deceptive nexii. There are more important things that you want to establish in the campaign (like the central theme and other campaign foundations) and don’t want this myth getting in the way. The best way to think about the Primary Plot Nexus is as an energizing delivery system for those fundamentals; it works in the same way as a James Bond teaser, which not only establishes the action-packed format, and the central character, and the nature of his profession, while (usually) having little or no relevance to the main plot.
The Secondary Plot Nexus
There’s an almost-inevitable lull in the middle of anything. Participants, both PC and NPC, are making chess moves, reacting to each other, and dancing around the ultimate confrontation between them. If ever there was a period that needs extra impetus, this is it. And the best way to achieve it is by incorporating a plotline that will capture everyone’s attention and look like it’s absolutely vital to the campaign – until it gets resolved just as the real endgame begins to emerge from the shadows.
The Secondary Plot Nexus is frequently longer, and often interrupted by other plots; it’s like a campaign-within-a-campaign. It is actually rather more relevant than the Primary Nexis, and its purpose is to build on the momentum of the early beginnings and sustain the campaign through this mid-campaign slump in the action.
Different requirements mean a different type of plotline. Where the primary plot nexus can have quite a wide range of plot types, from mystery to action and everything in between, the secondary plot nexus has to be far more action-oriented. That being the case, it is perhaps no surprise that the biggest danger posed by this campaign element is repetitiveness; it’s too easy to fall back on a “monster of the week” approach (or its equivalent). The action has to take many different forms, and that is often trickier than it sounds to achieve.
The Tertiary Plot Nexus
The tertiary plot nexus is almost as important as the secondary, though its length is considerably shorter. With this plotting method, its normal to end up with the end of the campaign being full of, well, endings to event sequences that have been building pretty much from word one of the campaign. That necessarily involves a lot of nostalgia and a lot of looking forward at the same time, without a lot of focus on the present. To counterbalance that, and keep the “now” as more than a bridge between yesterday and what you’re going to do about it tomorrow, you need something that is all about “now”.
Again, the rest of what is going on in the campaign must shape the style of this plot nexus. There is a tendency for events in this phase of the campaign to be heavy, full of importance and gravitas, and too much of that can get wearing. So this needs to be lighter, to serve as both a relief and a contrast with everything else that’s going on.
The PC Focus
At this point in time, you may or may not know who the PCs are that will be taking part in the campaign. If you do, then you should build in at least one adventure that focuses on each individual. If you don’t, list all the archetypes that you might be presented with, and incorporate an optional adventure focusing on each character archetype.
Always remember that the PCs are going to be the stars of the show. No matter how clever your plotting and planning, without them, the campaign will go nowhere.
Incorporate The Three Things The Players Will Want To Do
Since you have decided what these goals will be well in advance of actually having a campaign ready-to-run, it’s fairly likely that these objectives will be relevant fairly early on in the campaign, but in some cases, you might know in advance that a given objective is on the cards for later on. Of course, as with anything that the players might decide to do, you can either let it happen without too much difficulty, or you can throw all sorts of obstacles in their way, or anything in between. Bearing in mind that you don’t know exactly what the future holds, and so your expectations might be way off-base, now is the time for you to make these decisions. This can form an entirely new “tree” of subplots (i.e. ideas) that you add to existing adventures or each can be an adventure in its own right.
This is all made a little trickier because you still don’t know what order the adventures will occur in. The best solution to this problem is a quick three-step process:
- List each of the complications that you are going to include.
- Prefix each with an idea number (the same as all of your other ideas) and precede that with an alphabetic code that identifies this particular plotline to you. The use of the alphabetic code means that you can number from 1.
- Counting up the number of complications tells you how many other adventures, maximum, that you can have in-between. If you want to have one adventure set aside to be nothing but the end of this particular road, you can do that at this point just by subtracting one or maybe two from that initial total.
- It’s getting slightly ahead of ourselves because I haven’t gotten to the organization and sequencing aspects of the campaign design yet, but you can prep for that at this stage simply by adding “alphabetic code – #” to the adventure bundles in the right part of the campaign, where “alphabetic code” is the designation that you chose in step 2, and # simply indicates that you don’t know which part of this plotline will go in that slot yet. It quite literally means “next”.
If campaign events are going to have any significance, it must be presumed that no character will experience them and emerge quite the same as they were going in (ignoring purely game-mechanics things like character levels). Something about each character’s personal “world” should be fundamentally and irrevocably changed by events in what I (and Hollywood) refer to as the character’s “Arc”.
Without knowing who the characters are going to be, at this point, this is difficult to build into the campaign plan, but it is also obvious that if you wait, your campaign plan will be incomplete, and these changes will feel far more superficial and tacked on instead of being an integral part of the campaign.
Never fear, there is a simple solution to this conundrum.
- Count up the number of adventures that you have. Divide by the number of PCs and round down. This gives you a target number of “personal events” for each character’s transition. It’s almost certainly going to be a higher number than you actually use.
- Multiply the result by the number of PCs and subtract from the number of adventures. That tells you how many adventures won’t have “personal events”.
- Cherry-pick that many adventures that seem unsuited to incorporating a “personal event” – these will tend to be toward the tail-end of the campaign outline that you’ve been constructing, where such a “personal event” would be a distraction. Add to the list of codes for each of these chosen adventures – remember, it’s pretty much just a series of numbers, indexing ideas, at this point – the code “PC NO” (That’s “no” as in “the opposite of yes,” not as in “number”). The implication is that any adventure which does not have the “PC NO” code will have a “personal event” to be incorporated.
- Make it a requirement of character construction that each player includes one major change that he wants to occur in the character’s life in the course of the campaign. And don’t be afraid to reject proposals that don’t seem significant enough to match everything else you have planned for the campaign, or that seem too extreme.
A useful alternative: Instead of one, have the player designate three, of different levels of drama. You can then choose from amongst them – that way, the player himself won’t know his character’s destiny. And you can even incorporate elements hinting at the other two, or even include one or both of them as part of your real choice. It would not be the first time that one change in a person’s life led to another – either in fiction or in real life, for that matter.
- When you receive the character sheets for approval – and make sure that you get them! – break down the proposed Character Arc into logical pieces. These then become the items that you will introduce, one per adventure (maybe more), into your campaign plan.
Of course, every adventure should have something in it for each character. The only difference is that most of these are going to be “undirected”, stuff that just happens, while those relating to a character’s arc are building toward something.
It’s even cooler, and better for the campaign, if you can arrange these “personal elements” so that they are relevant to the main action – so keep that in mind whenever you are working with the Character Arcs.
I could have offered a quick example at this point, but I’ve already offered a far more extensive one in The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure.
Compile, Cross-link, Cross-reference
Right now, your “campaign plan” is just a series of numbers that you can decipher if you have to, and a general indication of where it is probably best placed within ten phases of the campaign. It will look something like “12 57 23 83 178″ (the numbers will be different, of course, and there may be more or less of them). Some of these numbers may appear in multiple adventures, others will be unique. This part of the process deals with the problem of sequencing these into an actual campaign plan, which has been a growing thorn in the side of campaign planning.
I always like to do this sort of work on a copy of my source file(s) so that the unchanged original is available for future reference. I wanted to mention that up-front.
In the order that they are listed in your planning document – the one that’s divided into phases and which I illustrated with the graphic to the right – take your “adventure profile” (“12 57 23 83 178″) and rearrange it so each number is on a separate line. Hint: The first number is the plot idea, so that becomes the master identification of the whole adventure. The others refer to antagonists, locations, etc, and I often find it reads more easily if I indent these. Then copy-and paste from the ideas list the actual substance of each idea onto the same line as its corresponding number.
When you’ve finished doing this, every adventure you currently plan to make part of the campaign has been converted into a bullet-point paragraph listing the key elements that it contains!
Now for the hard part. Find every number that recurs on the list.
The easiest way is to use your word processor’s “find” function, but you need to keep where you are in the document firmly in mind. You might also be able to replace each space in your numbers list with a tab or comma and then sort the lists by field number to make it easier – but note that the sort completely destroys the sequence information in the document.
Let’s say that idea 57 appears in adventures 12, 23, 15, 43, and 17 (in their order in the list). To adventure 12 you would add the line, “Leads to 23, 15, 43, 17″. To adventure 23, you add a line that reads “sequel to 12 leads to 15, 43, 17″, and so on.
At least, that would be what you would do if you intend to actually run them in the order they were initially listed. You might very well have a choice of several. It’s time to make those decisions, which are conveniently simplified by this process. 23 before 15? 43 before both of them?
I usually find it simpler to make a copy of the file that results in step one, NAMING IT SOMETHING ELSE TO PREVENT ACCIDENTAL OVERWRITING, and deleting all but the relevant adventures. Rather than looking for specific fish in the sea of ideas, this collects them all in one place and removes the irrelevancies from view.
It’s always possible that you might miss one or two – it often happens to me. Don’t sweat it, so long as the majority are there, all will be well.
As you proceed, you are quite likely to notice adventures that either have a logical dependence on other adventures having taken place already, or that would be enhanced by following another adventure. These adventures should also be tagged with “Must follow [#]” or “[#] Follows”. You may also notice adventures that seem like a good one-two punch; consider the pros and cons carefully, and if you still think that, make the appropriate notations – I simply insert the word “immediately” into those notations.
4. Tonal Similarity
It is possible too soon to be able to spot most of these, but it’s always preferable to avoid two successive adventures having too great a tonal similarity. Where it becomes immediately relevant is in all those cross-links and cross-reference links that you’ve just created. Because – at the time – you are concentrating on plot, it’s best to assess the tone of the adventures separately.
If there seems to be too much similarity between A and B, add a note requiring a contrasting adventure in between. That means that the standard format of some of these links will become:
- Leads to #, (#, …) Contrasting Insert Required
- Sequel to #, Contrasting Insert Required
- Must follow #, (#, …), Contrasting Insert Required
- # follows, Contrasting Insert Required
- Must Immediately follow #, (#, …), Contrasting Insert Required
- # Immediately follows, Contrasting Insert Required
This immediately brings a problem to the campaign planning, in the form of those last two link variations, which contain conflicting information. You should resolve these conflicts immediately if you can. There are two simple solutions, either of which will work: a contrasting epilogue/ending to the earlier of the two adventures, or a contrasting opening sequence to the later one.
You may have only one option open to you in any particular case, however, so consider you choices carefully. The decision should be made on the basis of two criteria: (1) will the additional requirement harm the adventure? (2) will the additional requirement get in the way of the reasons the two adventures are linked?
Question one determines which solutions are not viable in this particular case. It might be that an ending with a tone that contrasts with the intended tone of a particular adventure sacrifices poignancy or makes no sense – the more mournful, sad, or tragic the adventure, the more likely it is that this will be the case. You don’t cut directly from a heartfelt funeral sequence to a light-hearted comedy moment! In general, tonal dissonance is more likely to occur with contrasting end-tones, while it’s easy to get away with a contrasting opening sequence – and, done right, it can even serve to emphasize the primary tone of the adventure through contrast.
Because it’s easier to rule out, and because it’s more unusual when you can operate that way, I generally consider the contrasting epilogue/ending first. Once that option is either selected (tentatively) or ruled out, the whole question is simplified – but just because the adventure-end option is available right now, make sure that you assess the alternative, anyway; you still have to navigate question two, and that might change things!
It’s also possible that neither will work because you think it desirable to start the new adventure at the precise moment the earlier one wraps up – that’s what “Immediately” usually means! – and the contrast would therefore not make sense. In this case, either change the word immediately to “closely” and live with the need to insert a contrasting adventure, or note that you will have to fight tonal fatigue in the second adventure!
When you have too much of something, you stop noticing it after a while, or at the very least it becomes muted, the senses dulled. To combat this, you need to intersperse moments of contrast, but after a while these lose their effect and you need to employ stronger medicine. Tonal Flow – highs and lows – is something that doesn’t happen by accident; you need to actively work at achieving it.
It will more often be the case that one or both solutions are available. In which case, move on to Question 2, which is harder to assess because you might not even be sure why it seems like the two adventures should immediately follow one another; its often an instinctive reaction. If you can pinpoint the reason for the connection, then you can make a specific assessment of the options open to you; if you can’t, the only thing you have to go on is the same instinct that’s connecting the two plotlines in your head. Look at each plotline and imagine them with the tonal addition, then choose the option that seems to work best: modified ending to the first, modified beginning to the second, both, or neither, with a note to actively combat tonal fatigue in the second.
And if you are still left with two or more choices and no clear winner? Add short notes to each of the connected adventures about the alternatives, and defer the final decision until you actually start prepping to run the first adventure.
5. Tonal Contrast
I mentioned Tonal Flow in the preceding section. The other half of achieving that is to avoid having tonal contrasts that are too sharp, as implied by the questions that were used to select the best approach to handling too-similar tones above. As soon as I have finished assessing tones that are too similar – or (more often) at the same time – I deal with tones that are too contrasting, too dissonant. Again, the best approach is to insert a more neutrally-toned adventure in between, but if that’s not an option, the ending of the first adventure or the beginning of the second are what you have to work with. The process of choosing between these options is also virtually identical, so I won’t go through it again.
6. What you throw away
Not all ideas work out. If one doesn’t seem to make sense when you come across it in the process of all this linking and cross-linking, cut it, and throw any unique element numbers (the ones that follow the plot #) back into the idea pool. Most important, try to analyze why you initially thought it would work and why you now think differently, as it offers clues to other potential problems in your campaign design process.
The Campaign Plan
It’s time to start putting the campaign plan together into its final form.
That means cutting and pasting the adventure outlines that you’ve been compiling into their sequence in the overall campaign (in a copy of the source document, of course!)
I personally find this much easier if I’m cutting-and-pasting a single line, so I start by reformatting the adventure notes in such a way that it looks like paragraphs when word wrap is turned on but becomes one line when it is turned off. That’s a trick that doesn’t work with your more sophisticated word-processing software but one that is very handy if you have a plain-text editor that supports it, like Wordpad, or the software I’m using on my laptop to write this article, Kate. The graphic below illustrates the effect.
When I’m using Wordpad, which has a tab bar, I will then usually drop in extra tab markers only one or two characters apart, that I can later take back out, so that I can see most or all of the text on the one line, such as:
76 plot idea>>>> 98 element >>> 48 element >>> 28 element >>> 07 element >>> note>>>> note
Finally, I’ll take out the empty line separating the two adventures so that the whole text tightens up, visually.
The second block of text in the document looks exactly the same as the first one except that it uses tabs (note the tab marks) to pad out the line instead of a line-break at the end of the text. But when you turn off word-wrap (as shown in the second image) the difference becomes obvious. Each adventure can now be handled as a single line of text.
Using the notes that have been made (# follows #) etc as a guideline, assemble your plot ideas into a coherent sequence. This is when the earlier work, dividing the ideas into the ten phases – “phase 0 (preliminaries),” “early (subdivided into three),” “middle (also subdivided),” and “late (subdivided)” pays off; instead of having to work with the whole campaign, you are working on roughly 1/10th of it or so.
That also gives you a lot of flexibility – none of your earlier decisions are set in stone; you can change when in the campaign an adventure is to take place if that results in a better “flow” within the campaign.
Another tip is to assemble “blocks” of adventures first, then maneuver the whole block into position. The “common elements” can be extremely useful in that respect – for example, if you have three adventures in one location, you can consider running all three back-to-back or can have this be a recurring location by spreading them apart.
Fill any empty slots
One of the reasons for getting rid of the empty lines when Re-formating is so that you can use a blank line to indicate that you need an adventure idea to “happen here” – I say “an” adventure, though you could happily fill an empty slot in your campaign plan with a pair or trio of adventures or even a mini-campaign, moving an entire block of adventures into that empty space in your campaign plan.
Create and tag additional slots
It’s a mistake to plot too tightly. New ideas are sure to occur to you once play is underway, and you will want to leave spaces for character-driven adventures. Finally, you may need the occasional low-prep “filler” to give you some breathing room – this is the perfect opportunity to build a few such into your plans.
Don’t be afraid to list these as “Undesigned Character-based Adventure No #” or whatever. I do suggest adding a note two or three adventures prior that this is the cut-off point for designing the forthcoming adventure, however – just so that you get a reminder to do so in plenty of time!
You don’t necessarily have to perform this step, but I find it a useful mnemonic.
Adventures can be divided into 4 categories, in theory:
- Adventures with no forewarning
- Adventures with minimal foreshadowing
- Adventures with depth of foreshadowing
- Adventures with great depth of foreshadowing.
No forewarning means no foreshadowing, obviously.
Minimal means that you might drop a hint somewhere in the preceding adventure, but that there will be little- or no- scope for the characters to do anything about it before the adventure is upon them.
Depth of foreshadowing means that you will be giving forewarnings of what will be come for some time to come – within two-to-four adventures prior – and that there will be time for the characters to not only react but to make active preparations or investigations. It might even be that those investigations will ultimately be the trigger for the adventure being foreshadowed.
Finally, there are adventures/plots that have a LOT of foreshadowing, such as the major example provided in The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure, which I have already referred to above. In this case, the foreshadowing involves: 1) Introducing the feature NPC; 2) Overcoming the PC’s reluctance to trust a member of the media; 3) Establishing a relationship between the two; 4) The NPC earning the (probably reluctant) trust of the other PCs; 5) Dealing with personality issues the PC has with his personal relationships (note that this plotline was written in cooperation with the player); and 6) deepening the relationship. Several of these take the form of minor subplots within adventures, in a couple of cases the NPC plays a minor role within an adventure (and in one case, a more substantial but not central role). All of that is establishment and foreshadowing for the main plot in which the NPC will be involved, which is the publication of an “inside story” on the PCs that dishes dirt, spin, and sensationalizes everything about them. All told, there are about 25 parts to this particular plotline, though more than one might take place within the one adventure, provided the other PCs get their share of “screen time”.
Now that you have the adventures in a rough sequence, this is an ideal opportunity to go through and decide for each adventure which category it falls into, and then to annotate the relevant adventures with a reminder to foreshadow the coming plotline. If such foreshadowing doesn’t seem to fit the mood of an adventure, you can skip it and move backwards one further.
Once you have finished, it’s time for final editing of the planned sequence of events. This is achieved in two steps. The first is to ensure that you have everything as well-sandboxed as it can be, given that none of these adventures exist as anything more than notes about content and a general plot outline. If a minor tweak to the adventure running order serves to greatly enhance the sandboxing, then you are probably well-served by making that change unless it really messes up the internal logic of what you’ve put together.
Sandboxing, to my mind, can be summarized in this context as no more than one major new location and no more than one major new NPC per adventure. If you have more than that, I try to insert a prior adventure that introduces part or all of the overflow, possibly two. Again, there’s nothing wrong with an adventure or sub-adventure having no other reason for existence than the introduction of one of these elements!
The second step is to read it, from start to finish, as though it were the proposed chapter breakdown of a novel or TV mini-series. Does it make sense? Does it flow? Does it build to a peak at the right time? Does it have good times and bad times and times in-between? Does it become repetitious at any point? Does it take too long to get to the point? Are the themes clearly represented and articulated by the end of the story?
If there are any problems – be they with pacing or content or characters or settings or tone or theme – now is the time to fix them. If something doesn’t make sense, one way or another, where it is, you have three choices:
- Cut it out;
- Move it;
- Fix it.
After your first read-through, in which you do nothing but indicate where there are problems and what they are (in general terms), go through a second time and – using one of the techniques listed – fix the problem.
Note that if you move a plotline, you need to leave any foreshadowing where it is. This is then subject to one of three fates:
- Absorbed into the preceding plotline;
- Absorbed into the following plotline;
- Becoming part of a new adventure that has no other purpose than delivery of that foreshadowing element.
It’s also important to keep an eye on any sandboxing violations that result from these rearrangements, and fix those as necessary.,
Collate & Compact
The final step in the development process is to write up a synopsis of the whole – a single paragraph that outlines the major overall story. This is absolutely critical, because even if individual adventures go off the rails or out the window, even if you end up improvising most of the campaign, so long as whatever you run is covered by this blanket synopsis, the overall campaign is still in good shape, and not meandering and floundering.
According to some people, I’ve been blessed with the ability to keep one eye on the shape of the forest while using the other to examine and shape a single tree, up close and personal. Whether that’s true or not, having this guideline to help remind you of the intended shape of the forest should help steer you in the right direction even when you get lost in the pruning of individual trees.
With the overall plotline mapped out like a paint-by-numbers illustration, it is then time to move on to putting the broad swathes of color onto the campaign canvas – and that’ something that I’ll deal with in part 5 of this series, Surrounds.