I’ve written a number of articles on the subject of Campaign Planning & Structuring which have been very well received, notably (oldest to newest):
- Back To Basics: Campaign Structures(also contains links to another twelve related earlier articles).
- Back To Basics: Example: The White Tower
- Back To Basics: Example: The Belt Of Terra
- The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure
- Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part One of Two: Campaign Seeds
- Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part Two of Two: Sprouts and Saplings
- Top-Down Design, Domino Theory, and Iteration: The Magic Bullets of Creation
The thing about running multiple campaigns is that any given problem recurs time and time again. Because each of my campaigns is very different in tone, content, and background, as I discussed in my articles on Naming Adventures, they each respond slightly differently to the same essential techniques and are best served by a tailored variation on those techniques.
Sidebar: The Campaign Phases Explained
- Phase 0 of the campaign was before the co-GMing arrangement came into being. I’ve talked a bit about that, and how I came to co-GM the campaign, in An Adventure Into Writing: The Co-GMing Difference.
- Phase 1 was a series of isolated adventures designed to enable us to find our feet.
- Phase 2 took place against the backdrop of a larger subplot involving FBI control of the Adventurer’s Club. It’s now wrapping up.
- Phase 3 will essentially take us back to Phase-1 style adventures.
The big campaign plot arc that my co-GM and I have been running in the Adventurer’s Club campaign for several years is, as we speak, coming to a head, in the largest and most complex adventure we’ve ever created for that campaign, something we’ve entitled Five Star. (I might do a future article describing that adventure, the way it has been structured, and the hurdles that we faced along the way, once the adventure itself has been run. Some of the challenges and solutions were unique).
More importantly, once we had finished crafting it, we were faced with the question, “What happens next?”
The Starting Point: Adventure Seeds
I had a whole bunch of adventure ideas compiled that we had built up since the last campaign planning session, back in late 2008 – Thirty-one in total. Some of these were a single line synopsis of an idea, some were a full paragraph, and a couple were substantially fleshed out.
Sidebar: The Requirements Of A Campaign Structure
A Campaign Structure must achieve three things. It has to organize the campaign, ensuring that each PC receives his share of the overall adventure focus (as distinct from his share of the attention focus within a given adventure); it has to be responsive to changes within the participants and within the campaign; and it has to spread out the workload of adventure development as much as possible.
Sidebar: Adventure Structure
The normal structure of adventures within a structured campaign is both a tool for campaign construction and a consideration in designing the campaign structure itself. The two have to integrate into a seamless whole.
This is achieved (whether GMs realize it or not) by the Adventure Structure defining how the elements of a campaign structure connect with each other.
Campaign Planning then becomes the process of determining what is linked to what using these connecting links. Not clear? Bear with me, it will all make sense in a moment.
The Adventurer’s Club Campaign Adventure Structure
The standard structure that we use for Adventurers Club adventures is one particularly suited to Pulp adventuring:
Framing Subplot(s) or Cliffhanger Prologue
Introduction (if no Cliffhanger Prologue)
Plot Part 1
PC Action Resolution
NPC-Driven plot development
Scope for roleplay
Scope for PC decisions
Impact notes for key decisions
Plot Part 2
Plot Part N (usually 4, sometimes 5+, sometimes 3)
Cliffhanger Prologue (optional)
The key points here are that we have two types of connection: PC continuity in the form of framing subplots or cliffhanger prologues.
The first essentially mean that we check in on our PCs and what they are doing, based on the decisions that they made in prior adventures, and who they are. We have some development within each of their individual personal lives, some evolution of their circumstances. One or more of those developments will then connect the PCs to the introduction of the adventure.
The second occurs when events were set in motion in the course of a previous adventure that place this adventure’s beginning on a strict timetable, or where we are taking advantage of where we expect the PCs to be, geographically, at the end of the previous adventure. There won’t be room for character subplots in between the two, so we tease the players with a cliffhanger prologue and then dive straight into the main plot. We don’t use this approach very often, and usually, when we do, we end the previous adventure with the same cliffhanger, as verbatim as we can get it.
In other words, the core adventures are strongly episodic and self-contained, while the framing around those adventures provides continuity within the campaign. This approach is very different to the structure of most of my other campaigns (the one that most strongly resembles it is, perhaps surprisingly, the Warcry campaign).
Because these framing and connecting elements are developed concurrently with playing the preceding adventure or the one before it, the resulting campaign structure is both organized by the sequence of the main plots and flexible because we can insert a new main plot if one is made necessary by player decisions.
In terms of campaign planning, these connective elements cannot be pre-specified or they lose that vital flexibility. So campaign planning for this campaign is the organization of highly episodic, largely self-contained, adventures. This is markedly different from my superhero campaign, for example, which has adventures comprised of overlapping layers of larger plot threads and loops. It produces a much simpler campaign structure.
Step One: Indexing The Ideas
The first step is to index the ideas. This was done on three-inch-by-five-inch index cards, in a standard format:
- Title (if decided)
- Campaign Notes
- Jade Involved?
I haven’t defined them in the list, because I’m going to take a closer look at each.
Each time we added an idea to the pile, we numbered it. This number is recorded so that we can refer to that adventure idea within other adventure ideas – prequels and sequels. Also, given that most of the ideas didn’t have a title, we needed something to use when referring to them.
Title (if decided)
Adventure titles are important and useful tools. That’s why I dedicated a two-part article to the subject as part of the A Good Name Is Hard To Find series: Hints, Metaphors, and Mindgames: Naming Adventures (Part 1) and Hints, Metaphors, and Mindgames: Naming Adventures (Part 2). Most of the adventure ideas didn’t have names when we started organizing them, as I said, but space was left to write in the names when they were determined.
A thumbnail description of the adventure. Hopefully it will all fit on one card. Use the back if necessary. Because talking about the adventures sparked further ideas, there was some development of the plots even while the synopsis of the idea was being generated.
Some adventures have possible campaign repercussions that get noted at the end of the synopsis. Other adventures rely on information provided in a previous adventure, or are sequels or prequels. This section contains notes on all such connections.
Which PCs, if any, have a starring role in the adventure? For use in spreading out the spotlight. Also useful if a character gets killed or retired.
How finished is the adventure, on a scale of 1-5? A five is still not quite ready-to-run, but the internal structure of the adventure is pretty solidly laid out. A one still has key conceptual elements to be decided and incorporated, key decisions to be made.
How complicated is the adventure? Some are very complex, others simple and linear. A rating out of 5 (1=simple) means that we can bracket a complex scenario with a couple of smaller, lighter ones to allow more development time of the complex plot and provide contrast and relief.
This is how we handle recurring subplots. The current adventure actually closes off all but one ongoing subplot within the campaign. Adventure idea #22 will wrap that subplot up, and has to take place reasonably soon in the campaign for reasons that I can’t go into just now. That means that we need to make sure that any adventures that could involve or extend or be complicated by this subplot need to be identified. There are three possible answers: Yes, No, and Maybe.
With two GMs, we each rated how much we liked the idea on a scale of zero to 5, then combined those scores to get a score from 0 to 10. For a one-GM campaign, you could stick with the 0-5 scale. It goes without saying that the more original and less “it’s been done too many times before” an idea was, the more we liked it, but this also took into account campaign continuity and building on events in the past, and the sheer fun that it looked like being when we played it.
There is a temptation to front-load all the ideas that you really like when you are campaign-planning in the expectation that you will have better ideas than the ones you don’t, by the time you get there. There is also an equally-valid arguement for spreading those good ideas out so that the GMs sustain interest in the campaign. Acting on the assumption that if the GMs think it sounds like fun, the players will find it to be fun to play, spreading them out also helps to sustain player interest in the campaign.
And, of course, any idea that scored a zero would have been culled, any that scored a One would have been re-invented. Any that scored a 2 or 3 would be earmarked for further conceptual development with the aim of increasing those scores.
So the Like score is very important. When assessing these, we were careful to articulate as clearly as possible the reasons why we liked or disliked it as much as we did. Sometimes those reasons influenced the other person’s thinking, putting the adventure idea into a completely different context.
Ultimately, only one idea got culled (#4).
An Actual Example
I wanted to be able to offer a genuine example, but (for obvious reasons) didn’t want to use any of the ideas scheduled for the campaign. So I invented one out of whole cloth just for the readers of this article: Amazon Nazis On The Moon. Since the number was available, I pretended that this was idea #4.
Below are scans of the actual index card for the adventure, in my own sloppy handwriting:
Here’s what the cards say (spell-corrected into American), for those who can’t decipher them (or who are vision-impaired, like at least one of our readers that I know of):
- 4 AMAZON NAZIS ON THE MOON
- Statuesque Woman is chased down the street by Nazis with SMGs. PCs must fight them off.
- Woman is covered with bruises & scrapes on closer inspection. She tells the PCs that her people live in a hidden valley in Germany, that the Germans recently discovered them by aerial reconnaissance, and made contact.
- Their “Racial Superiority” story resonated with the Amazon’s own beliefs and an alliance was formed, but not all of them were convinced. The Nazis are going to use the Amazon’s advanced Tech to set up a Secret Base on the Moon. Loreleina has made her way to the US seeking help to stop this before it is too late.
- NB: At plot end, Amazons must isolate themselves from the outside world.
- Features: None
- Finished: 2/5
- Complexity: 2/5
- Jade Involved: No
- Like: 3/5
Postscript: I showed the card to my co-GM and he agreed with my ratings. Discussion of how the plot might evolve followed. My idea, not recorded here, was that the Nazis intended to use the lunar base to threaten the rest of the world with bombardment from space if they did not capitulate; that it had taken Loreleina some time to reach America (she did not stay in Europe because she could not tell who was Nazi and who was not); by the time the PCs sneak into Germany and reach the launch site in the Amazons hidden valley, the base would already be established, and a number of bombs shipped up in parts. The PCs were going to have to capture the rocket that was about to take off (fortunately Loreleina can fly it), travel to the Moon Base, and use the Nazi’s own weapons to blow it up, escaping in the nick of time. The US could not keep the tech to use against the Nazis because the valley is in the middle of Germany; all the Amazons could do was conceal themselves. We suggested that there might be some consequences such as accelerated aging for any who left the valley. While the Nazis were not able to copy the Amazon designs, their engineers had been able to get a head start on rocketry as a result, hence the V1 and V2 programmes later in the war years.
The Initial Extractions
The first step in organizing the plot cards is to extract all those cards with an overriding consideration concerning their timing. Blair and I had already agreed on what our next adventure was going to be, a decision made while writing out the cards (and a plotline that had not existed at all just two weeks earlier). We had also selected one as being the big finish to the whole campaign. That meant that we were able to set those adventures aside from the deck, placing them at different ends of the long table.
The Subplot Filter
We then went through the deck, reviewing each of the plots for which we had answered “yes” or “maybe” to a connection with the ongoing subplot. In our case, this is the “Jade Involved?” flag. If the answer is a “yes” then we set the plotline aside for the moment. If “maybe” then we ask the question, “Could connecting this plot to the Jade plotline enhance or improve either?” If the answer is “yes”, we change the “Jade Involved” flag to a yes as well, and set it aside.
In theory, our layout now looked like that illustrated above. In reality, we ended up with a situation in which one “Jade Maybe” plotline was converted to a yes and all the others converted to a “No”.
Hand Grenades & Wrecking Balls
The third step was to go through each of these stacks looking for plots that were potentially campaign-wrecking, usually by introducing a level of technology that could radically alter the status quo or “look and feel” of the campaign. In the case of those plots without jade involvement, these were called “wrecking balls” and placed to one side just under the final scenario; in the case of plots with Jade involvement, we revisited the question of whether or not the Jade Involvement was really necessary to the plot. If we answered no to that question, the plot card was placed with the other “wrecking balls” and the jade involvement crossed out; if “yes”, then we had isolated a “hand grenade” that (a) had to appear soon in the campaign (because the jade subplot is due to wrap up soon), and (b) that could be catastrophic if not especially carefully planned. We made a note on the card, accordingly.
Our layout now theoretically looked like this:
As it turned out, we had only one Wrecking Ball and no Hand Grenades amongst our plotlines, so not all our careful planning was needed. The real layout at this point looked like this:
Since one of the two remaining “Jade Involvement” plots was the resolution of the entire Jade subplot, we had, in effect, determined what our next three adventures were going to be, and what the last two adventures were going to be. That left only the middle, so we set the plots we had allocated to one side and turned our attention to what remained.
Lay Out The Cards
We dealt out the remaining plot cards into smaller stacks across the table by decreasing Like score. Each of these stacks was then sorted into a column down the table by Finished score, more finished at the top, less finished down. Ties are broken by increasing complexity. Columns run from the top of the table down. It looks something like this:
It’s still possible for there to be ties. Decide these by random shuffle.
The Initial Sort
Okay, now this is the tricky bit. Pick up the cards following an angled path, down and left.
- Start with the top left card.
- Then the top card of the next column to the right, and then the card that is now at the top of the first column.
- Then the top card of the third column, followed by the newly-on-top card of the second column, followed by the newly-on-top-but-used-to-be-third card of the first column.
… and so on.
When you exhaust a column (no more cards left in it, collapse the columns together to eliminate the space, and carry on.
This is a pattern that’s easy to see visually but hard to describe.
1 2 4 7…
3 5 8…
If you count these up on the example layout, you will find that the tenth plot exhausts the “Like 10″ column. The layout now looks like this:
So, the next set of pickups would be:
- 11, The top card from Like 6, then 12, the top remaining card from Like 7, then 13, the top remaining card from Like 8, and finally 14, the top remaining card from Like 9.
This exhausts the Like 8 column. The others are then redistributed to remove the gap thus created:
Once that’s been done, continue taking cards off the table:
- 15, The top card from Like 5; 16, the top remaining card from Like 6; 17, the top remaining card from Like 7; 18, the top remaining card from Like 9;
- 19, the top card from Like 4; 20, the top remaining card from Like 5; 21, the last card from Like 6; 22, the top remaining card from Like 7; 23, the last card from Like 9.
You can see this illustrated below:
Again, collapse the columns to eliminate the gaps and continue on. Eventually, you will have picked up all the cards, completing the initial sorting procedure.
The Second Sort
From this point on, we’re sorting through the deck in a linear fashion, one plot at a time. The second sort looks for those plot relationship notes and makes sure that if plot 14 is a sequel to plot 5, plot 14 occurs AFTER plot 5.
Go through the intermediate adventures one at a time until you find one with a dependency. If another plot is a sequel to that one, this is fine; keep going. If this plot is a sequel to another, remove this plot card for a moment; look through the deck until you find the parent plot; then swap their places.
The original order might run 21, 12, 14, 3, 9, 6, 15, 24, 5, and onwards. If plot 14 is a sequel to plot 5, we remove plot 14 for a moment, sort through until we find plot 5, insert plot 14 and pull out plot 5, then place plot 5 where plot 14 used to be. That gives a new order of 21, 12, 5, 3, 9, 6, 15, 24, 14, and onwards.
Then resume from where you left off, the position now occupied by plot 5.
Note that some plots may say they immediately follow a parent plot – in which case, they stay together and are both inserted at the later point in the list.
Assuming that most of your plots aren’t sequels, in which case you would be looking at a more “Plot Arc” structure, this won’t take too long.
Next, we go through the deck again, looking for plots that end in a particular geographic region and that are followed by plots that take place in the same geographic region.
The term Geographic Region is subject to some interpretation. If half your plotlines take place in the US, for example, then that would be too large a region and you would consider localities within the US. If only one or two plots take place in the Pacific Islands, then those might form a couple, if – by chance – they have happened to fall in sequence. Within the one campaign, you might have “The Rocky Mountains” and one region and “South America” as another, even though the two are in no way comparable in size and population.
To decide whether or not to form a couple, look at who the adventure features. If the dominant PCs for the adventure are completely different, they form a couple, and should now be paper-clipped together (or a note to the coupling be made on their respective cards), and thereafter treated as a single card. If the features list is identical, they are not a couple. If the lists are not the same but there is an overlap, make a decision for how well the two would follow each other.
If they are not a couple, they need to be broken up, either by moving the first of the two to earlier in the sequence, or by moving the second of the two to later in the sequence. The rule of thumb is to move plotlines in the direction of the centre, and roughly halfway through that part of the deck. If the broken couple are more or less in the centre, move both plots – one forward and one back.
These adjustments are all shown in the diagram below:
When moving a plotline in this fashion, you have to be careful not to create a new potential couple in the process, and not to break any parent-sequel plot relationships. The easiest way to avoid the latter is not to use the whole group of plot cards for the range within which you will move the plot, but only the ones that lie between the current position of the adventure in the sequence and the preceding parent plot. If that is not possible without creating a new potential couple, use the full range and move the parent plot as many positions forward as you do the child.
The idea is to preserve the essentials of what you have already done through each subsequent step in the process.
Adventure Style and Features
The final step in the sorting procedure is to look at the succession of plot types and featured PCs. Having a run that goes “Sci-Fi – Supernatural – Action/Adventure – Lost World – Mystery” is fine, but you don’t want three sci-fi oriented plots in a row. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Since one adventure type may well feature a particular PC simply because of who and what that PC is, these two factors should be considered in conjunction with each other.
If an adventure is too similar to the one that follows it, treat the pair as you would a broken couple – but this time there is the added need to ensure that you don’t create another “too similar” pairing, so be prepared to give yourself more latitude in looking around the midpoint for a suitable location. You may have to move an adventure further towards the front of the cue or leave it closer to where it already is.
If an adventure has something for everyone, and was therefore marked “features: all”, we looked at the boundaries within the adventure. An adventure that “Features: A” followed by one that “Features All” means that we considered the opening sequence of the second adventure and who that featured. If there was a difference, that was fine, and the card could stay where it was. Similarly, a “Features: All” followed by a “Features: B” would be fine if the big finish to the first adventure did not feature B in particular.
Something we didn’t do, but probably should have looked at, was an estimated adventure length – though that tends to be reflected in the complexity score. Again, short adventures and long adventures should tend to be evenly distributed, and one long adventure shouldn’t follow another. When you are utilizing this system for your own campaigns, it might be worth doing a sequence check right after the plot couples stage for complexity. In which event, i would add the two values for each member of a couple to get a unified value for the “single card”.
If there had been a lot of subplot-connected adventures
Then we would have run this entire sort sequence twice, once for the subplot-connected adventures and once for those not. But because in this particular case we knew that the subplot was to be resolved fairly soon, we would have then revisited the question of whether or not the subplot benefited the adventure or was benefited by the adventure and been much more stringent, reducing the number of subplot-connected adventures to a much smaller number.
The overall distribution effect
The initial sort produces a sequence that distributes adventures by the amount of “bang for effort” roughly evenly but with a bias toward the top end at the start and towards the low end at the bottom – because we’re always mindful that at any point a campaign can fold because the players have had enough, or because the GMs are tired of running it. This semi-random sequence is then reordered as necessary to reflect logical connections, pushing mid-to-high-likes down the order and mid-to-low upwards. The even-less-random sequence is then examined for more potential logical connections, grouping adventures together into couples, and then is reordered again to distribute the plot spotlight more consistently throughout. The end result is a logical sequence of adventures which ensures maximum variety and a fair shake for everyone.
Making Space for new ideas
There’s a lot of potential left for the insertion of new plot ideas. Aside from being able to add a plotline in anywhere it doesn’t violate style and features considerations, any new plot can be inserted after a “Features: None” without difficulty, and there is a logical gap between the last of the middle group and the first of any potential wrecking balls. In fact, we intend to repeat the entire process when we get to the last pre-wrecking-ball adventure to include any ideas we’ve had in the meantime before we get into the adventures that could wreak irreversible harm on the campaign – only then deciding whether or not to call it a day on this campaign. If we’ve had a bunch of new adventure ideas and both we and the players are still happy to continue – probably about 6-8 years from now (remember, at best we play about 11 times a year) – we might kick off a phase 4 in the campaign, possibly moving it from “sometime in the 1930s” into the 1940s and a far more calendar-synchronized plot schedule. Those are decisions for the future.
For The Record
The last thing we did was to go through and give each of the adventures a title, if they didn’t already have one, in order from first to last, employing all the techniques that I described in my “Naming Adventures” articles. Here, for the record (and because we’re darned sure they won’t tell the players anything we don’t want them to know) are the planned adventures for the rest of the Adventurer’s Club Campaign – as it currently stands. The first adventure on the list will be the 19th adventure in the campaign; and the number in brackets after each adventure is the idea number.
- Worse Than The Disease (25)
- Heir To The Throne (23, plus subplot 24)
- The Prison Of Jade (22)
- The Hidden City (2)
- Lord Of The Flies (6)
- Weapon X (1)
- The Curse Of The Golden King (16)
- Back To Your Roots, Dr Hawke (29)
- The Secret Of The Kahoolawi Diamond (3)
- Payback’s A Bitch (31)
- Land Of The Lost (18)
- The Devil’s Triangle (12)
- Zombies Over Manhattan (10)
- Back To Your Roots, Captain Ferguson (27)
- The Locked Door (13)
- Back To Your Roots, Father O’Malley (30)
- The Tomb Of Nitocris (32)
- Pass The Parcel (19)
- Dr Isaac’s Marvelous Electric Salubrigraph (26)
- The Tunguska Event (21)
- The Treasure of New Schwabenland (14)
- The Petticoats Of William Withey Gull (5)
- On The Waterfront (7)
- A Good Christian Man (20)
- The Secret Highway (15)
- Watery Graves (17)
- Back To Your Roots, Eliza Black (28)
The campaign review – do we commit to the ending, or do we have a phase 4?
- DuQuesne’s Revenge (11) – The One Wrecking Ball
- A Day In The Life Of [x] (8) – The Campaign Big-finish, a 2-year plotline
Readers are free to speculate on what these might contain but discussions on that particular subject will not be entered into and I will confirm or deny nothing…