Ask the gamemasters

A short time ago, we received an ATGMs question that made me stop and think for a minute. The question was straightforward; Angeline wrote, “I need some help, I’m a starting DM and I just have so much trouble coming up with Campaigns or good plot lines. Please help!!”

Last week, in Part One of this response, I talked about adventure creation, and how to structure various plot elements into a single adventure.

This week, I’m going to talk about the basics of linking adventures into a larger structure.

This is a subject that I’ve written about before, but one about which there is always something more to say. Most of those previous posts will be more advanced in technique than today’s discussion, and in many ways, this can be viewed as a primer for those more detailed and complex approaches.

For the benefit of our readers (and Johnn, who was asking me for just such a list a day or two ago), I will close this article with a list of my previous articles on the subject, arranged in logical sequence. But, right now, let’s get into the subject at hand…

Adventures generally consist of a number of simple elements:

  1. subplots and plot hooks that build up a context and an atmosphere concerning a subject;
  2. an introduction that connects those subplots and plot hooks to some immediate problem or situation that is going to be the central focus of the adventure;
  3. a partial resolution of the immediate problem by the PCs;
  4. a plot twist and/or setback that increases the tension surrounding the problem, and sometimes its significance or context, transforming it into a different, often more difficult, problem;
  5. a resolution of the resulting problem by the PCs;
  6. after-effects and consequences in the form of further subplots.

That, in a nutshell, is the essential shape of an adventure. Some of these items, especially stages three and five, can be quite extensive, and may even be composed of smaller mini-adventures and subplots. If the adventure is a dungeon, each room or encounter would be a mini-adventure.

The key to integrating miniadventures into a larger adventure, or adventures into a campaign, is for the after-effects and consequences to become part of the context and circumstances for a future plotline. In other words, a campaigns structure is defined by how the elements of one adventure relate to, and interact with, the elements of another adventure.

Sequential Episodes

There are a number of ways in which adventures can be strung together; Sequentially is the most obvious and least interesting way to do so.

In this structure, one adventure comes to a complete close before the next begins. This makes the campaign a series of easily-digestible chunks. It doesn’t matter whether an adventure takes a day or a year to complete; a new one won’t start until this one wraps.

This structure has only one real benefit to commend it: because both subplots and consequences are fully contained within the one campaign segment, there is time for character establishment and campaign background exploration while these are taking place. There can be game-time gaps in between of anywhere from seconds to decades or more. There is not even an absolute need for the characters in one segment to perpetuate into the next.

Plot Ladders

By incorporating subplots and preliminary encounters to the plotline preceding the main plot, the structure immediately assumes a ladder-like structure in which each adventure foreshadows the next.

Technically, there are two obvious ways to achieve this: either the subplots foreshadowing the next plotline coincide with the aftermath phase of the current or adventure, or they coincide with the preliminaries of the current adventure or the aftermath of the preceding adventure. With experience, ways can often be found to insert them into the main action of the current adventure, expanding the possibilities. Either way, the result is a series of overlapping plotlines that are nevertheless fairly straightforward and simple for players and GM to understand.

Complex plotlines

The next step forward in plotting sophistication comes with the realization that a little planning ahead means that subplots can relate to a more distantly removed plotline.

There is still an obvious pattern to this structure when the segments are arranged in this fashion. Plotlines are designed to be resolved sequentially, the only requirement being that the initial conditions relating to each have been established at some point prior to the adventure.

Connected Narratives

It’s not long after the development of complex plotlines – and sometimes even before it – that GMs start stringing adventures together to form a larger narrative. Subplots can be spread out, smeared across whole adventures. And what looks like two entirely separate adventures can dovetail to form one much larger and more complicated narrative.

One trend that is fairly clear at this point is that the more complex the campaign, the more slowly individual adventures and situations resolve. That’s because there are more things going on in the course of a single adventure; not only might it now have preludes and foreshadowing of the plotline to immediately follow it, but it might have plot threads connecting it to adventures that are two or three or more removed into the future, plus aftermaths and consequences that are two or three adventures removed into the past.

In fact, it becomes quite easy to construct a campaign that is so rambling that the PCs and GM lose track of what’s going on, get confused and tangled, and bring the campaign to a crashing halt. Structure can become so anarchic that it is now detrimental to the success of the overall campaign. What’s needed is some new organizational principle to start tying plotlines together in a more systematic way.

Plot Arcs

I call these plot arcs, Johnn has sometimes referred to them as loops.

But what they really are narrative superstructures that connect a bunch of related plots together into a single super-plot. Each plot arc is designed to overlap with several others. The only real difference between the campaign structure depicted above and the one that precedes it is in the identification of the individual adventures – instead of being treated as isolated units, a new level of organization has been incorporated to identify several adventures as being part of the same plot arc.

Even so, this is no longer the most efficient way of planning a plot arc. I’ll get to the subject of a better planning and design structure a little later.

Phased Campaigns

If you were to divide your campaign up into tenths, then schedule one or two plot arcs to have their major action (and hence their resolution) in each tenth, and to have their preliminaries subplots and establishing encounters coinciding with earlier phases, you end up with a phased campaign. Within each phase you can totally sandbox the campaign as you see fit, you can alter the sequence of resolution of adventures in response to PC choices and actions, and so on. When you reach the division between phases, there will be a relatively small number of divergences from the overall plan, usually taking the form of an additional plotline to be resolved or an unexpected outcome to complicate a future adventure. If such a structure has been plotted out carefully, with future dependencies carefully outlined, it is relatively quick and easy to update the plan to accommodate these variations.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been preparing my next superhero campaign for a couple of years now – actually, all I was doing in that respect for most of that time was coming up with plot ideas. Most of these were described no more fully than an adventure seed – a line or a paragraph each, nothing more.

Recently, the time came to start compiling these ideas into a set of plot arcs and thence into actual plot structures. A key principle to bear in mind in designing these plot arcs is that outcomes must never be preordained; at best, some intervening step on the way logical path to a point of ultimate resolution can be predetermined. I can’t presume that The Astonishing Ant-gorilla’s scheme to shrink a population of apes to millimeter size will be successful or will be defeated; only that he will obtain a supply of Compound Vanilla, the key component of his shrinking potion, in advance from where it is located in Laboratory 23, the super-scientific think-tank. I can happily construct a subsequent scenario based on the consequences of the security failure, or on another application of Compound Vanilla, or on the existence of Laboratory 23; I can even presume that if Ant-Gorilla is captured, he will be able to escape if needed for a subsequent adventure. But I can’t assume that his scheme will succeed or fail; remember, no plan survives contact with the PCs!

Step 1: Themes

I started by grouping them into overall themes – there is a mutagenic drugs theme (about drugs that, instead of being just mind-altering are also body-transforming); there’s a cybernetics/computer-crime theme; and so on.

Step 2: Character Arcs

Next, I came up with at least one (and preferably two) major plot arcs that focus on a single character. That doesn’t mean that the other PCs won’t get involved in them; they certainly will, since they form a critical part of the circumstances of each adventure within the plot arc, i.e. they are part of the context of each adventure; it’s just a question of where the plot spotlight will be focused.

Step 3: Character Plot Threads

One of the opportunities that I offer new characters comes in the form of additional character building points for each plot thread that they build into their character backgrounds. There are so many points for a closed plot thread – one that doesn’t have potential for multiple adventures – and more for an open plot thread that go in many directions. Making a list of these, then picking and choosing a few to become major elements of the campaign and expanding them into a series of specific adventures, is the third step.

Step 4: Villain/NPC Plot Threads

The penultimate stage of arc generation consists of the creation of extended plotlines for a handful of selected villains and NPCs as though they were PCs.

Step 5: Overall Plotline

With these plot arcs as raw material, and in broad strokes within my mind, I can then construct a rough overall plotline, with an overall campaign theme.

Step 6: Allocation Of Plotlines

The next step is to take the general plot arcs that were created in steps 1 to 4 and allocate the plot threads to different phases of the campaign according to how they fit into the overall plotline.

The result, in the case of my superhero campaign, looks something like this:

(It doesn’t look exactly like this because this is actually the result of a few more process steps). The colored bands running across the page depict the six phases of the overall plotline from step 5; these are groupings of (more than 10) stages, but most of the stages are very small. Plot arcs run across the page; yellow indicates that events relating to that plot arc occur in that stage of the campaign (dark yellow in the darker bands, lighter in the lighter bands) while white and gray are used to indicate an unresolved plot arc that has no significance within the stage. Note that most people will use a much simpler system of coding, which is what this started out as – blue for no, yellow for yes!

It can be seen that there are a lot of plot arcs that start in stage 1, but some are immediately resolved. For a while, plotlines seem to multiply faster than they are resolved, but that isn’t actually the case – a lot of them are inter-related and inter-connected, with significance that doesn’t get recognized until later in the campaign. This is a map to tell ME what is going on, not the players.

Other users might like to distinguish between subplots and main plot developments with colour coding, but I deal with that at a later stage.

Step 7: Flesh Out The Plot Arcs

It takes a lot of context to properly build a plot arc. Take the example I offered earlier of the Astonishing Ant-Gorilla – simply to use this plotline, I would want to have the option of:

  1. establishing the villain (or, at least, his expertise in the relevant science)
  2. establishing the existence of Compound Vanilla; and,
  3. establishing the existence of Laboratory 23.

Sure, a lot this material can be introduced in the plotline, but the campaign achieves far greater consistency and verisimilitude (within genre-limits) if these are handled in advance. So I’ll go looking for plot opportunities in the other arcs in which Compound Vanilla can be important, other plotlines where Laboratory 23 might be useful, and other plotlines where Ant-Gorilla could be the villain. Oh, and shrinking.

Since there is no guarantee that Ant-Gorilla will be around after this plotline, just to be on the safe side, if he has anything else significant to contribute to a plotline, it should be scheduled to happen before the Shrinking Apes plotline, UNLESS it relies on that scheme’s outcome – and I can be reasonably sure that the PCs will trash the bad guy’s plans, even if he gets away – in which case it has to happen AFTER this plotline.

By building up interactive narrative structures that logically establish everything that’s needed before the main plotline, the plotline becomes a listed sequence of events and facts for the PCs to learn.

Step 8: Generate a single timeline of events

Once you have a complete concordance of the important facts of every major plotline pre-scheduled, you can construct a timeline for the campaign, a blueprint that tells you what every major NPC is doing at any given time and every fact that has to be revealed to, or uncovered by, the PCs, because it will either explain the significance of something that’s already happened, or will propel them into a new adventure, or both. For the Champions campaign, that list is currently 29 pages long – but I’ve compressed it into a tiny little graphic and rotated it 90 degrees to get what’s shown above.

This chart uses colour coding. It divides each step in the adventure process into three phases: subplots before, main action, and subplots after. Each of these is divided into columns for each character, and colour coding used to indicate yes or no – bright green for subplots, pale blue for incidental involvement in another PCs subplot, pale yellow for active involvement in another character’s subplot, bright purple for no subplot for that character at that time for whatever reason, red for no subplots at all because the next main event will follow immediately with no time gap. Main events are colour-coded – bright yellow for yes, golden yellow for yes but away from their main base of operations, dark blue for no main action for anyone, bright blue for no involvement in the main plot expected for that specific character. Each line represents a day, game time, or less.

Again, I expect most people to use a much simpler colour code; this is an especially complex campaign.

Let’s take a closer look at just a few lines of the timeline (I’ve broken it into five separate parts to get it to fit across the page), and to enable discussion:

The first column, “Apocalypse Phase” refers to what phase of the overall plotline these events are part of. Session # shows how far I expect to get in a single session of play (4-5 hours). “Early Ranking” lists the campaign stage, counting down from 9 to -3 (with 0 being a major event), the start of the Big Finish. “Plot Arc” is a numeric code that identifies which plot arc the event is a part of – if any. And Plot Code is an index entry that points me to both my concordance notes and the full description of the event. “V01b”, for example, has a concordance entry of: “follows v01.2, precedes v01b1”. The concordance also lists the emotional impact the event is expected to have, the cosmic and fantasy ratings, and the tone – as described in an earlier post on this manner of plot organization. It also has a synopsis of the event for my benefit – in this case, “team research who Vala is – mission logs, media reports, etc”. In essence, this about a new PC describing what is publicly known about the character. I doubt it will take more than 10 minutes, real time.

Other points of interest in this excerpt: notice that multiple plot points can be contained on a single line; notice that a single line might advance one, two, or three plot arcs (in fact, some advance even more plotlines, but those are exceptional events); and notice that one event has been highlighted as taking place in an unusual location. In fact, this example contains an error, as the first event line should also be so colour-coded, as might be surmised by the plot arc number that they have in common.

The second set of columns in the table shows a lot of information. First, note the column title at the top: these depict subplots – often just a few minutes or seconds long in real time – focusing on a specific character. Underneath that (in blue) are abbreviations of the main character names – the first four are PCs, and the next two are recurring NPCs. The first line shows a shared subplot for everyone (DP39) – that’s actually not technically correct, as two of the characters will not have entered the campaign at this point, but this indicates that I want them to know of that event (because it will also serve as a general introduction to the campaign, in this particular case). This is followed by a sea of red (no subplots because there is no time for them) and occasional splashes of purple (no subplots for some other reason); in the midst of which, there are three subplot events listed: v01a and v01d1 focus on Vala, while RA09 focuses on Runeweaver.

Beneath the red section, in the last three rows, a different pattern (more normal) emerges – there is a shared subplot (v04) for two characters before one event, there is a shared subplot (er02) for almost all characters before the next event, and there’s a single subplot (v07a) for one character prior to the event after that. White space means that I can fill the space with whatever seems appropriate – I have a list of mundane activities that would normally pass without notice, which can be used to answer the question, ‘what were you doing while this was occurring?’.

Notice that I need have no fear in showing this information publicly; without the key, and the corresponding plot summary, these codes mean absolutely nothing to the players.

The next set of columns are for the main plot, which is usually identified by number in the first batch of columns, and so doesn’t need to be referenced here. The structure is similar to the previous section, with character names in sub-columns. Light Blue indicates non-participation, Dark blue indicates no main plot, gold indicates a main plot that occurs somewhere other than the main adventure venue – in a fantasy game, you might distinguish between dungeons, wilderness, and urban settings, in this case it indicates something occurring in deep space or in a different dimension. The only other really significant observation to make is that at one point, a subplot affects the main plot, as shown by the codes displayed; these really stand out because they are the only codes shown in this section of the table.

At times while compiling the event plan, there have been occasions when I’ve had to insert clarifying notes in this section. I’ve split cells into separate rows as necessary, because that is often less work than merging multiple rows and columns. Oh, and I’ve used the table construction systems within Open Office for this table – I find it more customizable with less effort than the Word equivalent, which I use for other kinds of documents.

This shows subplots that follow the main-plot events. It’s also used to contain teasers for the next piece of the main plot. Once again, it is organized to show the principle characters of the campaign in individual columns. What this shows is a whole-group briefing event (DP40); then 4 characters having a subplot (v01.2); then no characters having subplots; then two characters having a subplot (v01c) with the possibility that other characters may be passive observers or secondary participants (v01c?); a single subplot for one character (v01d1) and a whole heap of red (no subplots because one event follows immediately after another). Finally, there is a whole group subplot (SB05), quite possibly a teaser – you might just be able to make out that it precedes an off-world adventure. Then there’s more white-space room for mundane events.

Also noteworthy is the fact that one NPC character is not expected to be involved in any of this activity beyond that initial briefing event.

There are just two columns left to examine: Featured Villains (if any) and Featured NPCs. VW is an obvious abbreviation for someone who will be a regular villain/NPC within the campaign. “Major Journalists” indicates that we have a substantial press conference at which some of the leading journalists of the western world will be involved – this is a blanket label to save listing them individually, and a reminder that I will need to compile such a list. “Baron Varnae” is a vampire who gained superpowers by drinking the blood of a superhero; he was thought destroyed, but since when does that stop a Vampire? “Ringmaster & The Circus Of Crime” is a homage and variation on the classic Marvel villains from the 1960s – and as for Red Shanahan, well that would be telling – but it’s not a name the players will recognize!

Critically important is the fact that if there is no featured villain, there is not going to be any combat – and battle is what eats up time in any game.

You can’t get the full impact of this column structure with it all broken up like this, so now that you know what’s in any given column, here’s a somewhat-reduced version of the whole section – the text will be illegible, but the relationship between colour-coded sections becomes clearer.

All you need to know to interpret it is that time proceeds across each line and then down to the next, just as though you were reading a line in a book. So the two whole-team subplots occur in succession, and then there is a main event for 3 characters, a subplot for 4 characters, then a subplot for 1 character, a main event for four characters, another main event for 4 characters, a two-character subplot in which other characters may be present, a five-character main plot event, a single-character subplot, a single-character subplot which occurs to the same character, and a main plot event for 5 characters – and that constitutes everything that’s expected to happen in the first session of play of the new campaign.

The second session starts with a single-character subplot, then there’s a five-character main plot event, which is followed by another five character main plot event in which subplots complicate the situation. This is the plotline with the “Major Journalists”, which might give a clue! (No, i’m not giving anything away – on learning that their [NPC] predecessors logged each encounter with the media as though it were a combat mission, the players’ comments were, “very sensible of them!” They already know that they will have to feed the voracious press machine regularly and often – or the media monster will eat them alive…)

Complex Structure Interactions

Another way of looking at a campaign structure of this type is as a function model.

  • The subplots form an initial set of conditions.
  • The introduction sets in motion two or more parallel functions that will modify those conditions in some way that has been defined as ‘interesting’ by the GM.
  • Each major NPC, and the PCs, represents an individual function. These parallel functions collide and either oppose each other or unite, coalescing into larger functions; if they interfere with each other, then each confrontation forces the weaker function to to give way to the stronger.
  • Because each function is altering the conditions within which the adventure simulation is occurring, the conditions that exist after each interaction are different to those that initially existed – the background situation is perpetually evolving in response to the functions.
  • This means that the actual conditions that surround the final climax are different to those which existed when characters made their initial plans; plot twists are inherent within this structure.

“My Campaign’s already running…”

It’s not too late to implement this sort of plot structure, to whatever depth you want to take it. The secret weapon that makes it possible are index cards – or a virtual equivalent.

Make up one card for each of the PCs. It should consist of just the name and any ambitions that character wants to satisfy in the course of the campaign. Code each by an abbreviation of the character name, just as I have used “St B”, “V”, “BW”, “RW”, “K”, and “BC”.

Next, make up a card for each major plotline that has developed in play. Use about half the card to synopsize the plotline – you want only a very brief description. Focus on the current situation more than the ‘how did we get here’. Give each plotline a one-or-two word title, and a code that consists of an 2-character alphabetic abbreviation of that name.

Add another card for each trend that you have observed developing – is there a general rise in anarchy or are taxes getting out of hand? Again, give each a one-or-two-word title and a code based on it. If you already know the cause, synopsize it.

Finally, add cards for the major villains, NPCs, and organizations. Note any involvement or responsibility they have in any of the cards by listing the relevant codes. Synopsize any major ambitions or plans they have, and their current status within the game.

Playing The Cards You’re Dealt
  1. Arrange these index cards in four neat stacks, each stack consisting of the card categories described above. It’s time to play ‘spot the correlation’.
  2. Take the first card – it will be a PC card – and place it to one side. Now go through the rest of the cards trying to think of any way to involve that character’s ambitions to the material on the other cards, and if you find it, add it to a list. That list should have the primary code (the character code from the first card), the code of the ‘matching’ card, and a synopsis of the way or ways they can combine. Leave a tiny bit of space to the left, you’ll have an additional number to write down later.
  3. When you’ve tried to match that first card with all the other cards, return the other cards to their stacks.
  4. Set aside the first card and repeat the above process for the second card. Continue until you have listed all the ways the existing plotlines can interact and intersect. At first, you may find this process slow; it will quickly grow very rapid.
  5. Do some quick tallies of the number of times each code appears. You are looking for the code that appears most frequently. It can be preferable to list the top three or four.
  6. As a first cut, the most-connected code will be the overall plotline and the source of the campaign’s climax. If it doesn’t seem sufficient dramatic for the purpose, try the second most-connected code, then the third, and so on – unless some master plan has started fitting itself together in your mind while you’ve been examining your campaign from all angles, which happens more frequently than people might expect.
  7. For each card, draft a plotline to resolve the storyline, using – as much as possible – the plot ideas on your list. Plotlines should be listed as a sequence of events, none of which have to be carried out by the PCs – it should all be either information the PCs learn, or something an NPC does. Events should be listed in the most logical sequence, and given a code number that consists of the alphabetic code plus a two digit number. If you have to, insert additional logical steps.
  8. It should now become possible to construct a concordance for the rest of your campaign, and from it generate a master list of events.
  9. The players don’t have to follow your proposed schedule. Your list of linking events serve as stop signs; the players are free to proceed as far as they want to in each of the plotlines you have running until they reach a stop sign – at which point, get out the other card indicated and make sure that any events required before the stop sign occur before permitting the players to take that next step. Refer to the diagram below, and it should be immediately obvious what this means – the characters are free to follow plotline#1 until they reach the stop sign (p1e05), at which point an NPC or outside circumstances have to push them to complete the unresolved events of plotline#2 to the same stage – that’s P2e01 and 02.

The wrapup

That’s everything you need to know to create complex and inter-entwined campaigns. With these organizational principles, it all comes down to how good and creative your plot ideas are.

But wait, we’re not quite done yet….
Next time, in part three, I have a couple of practical examples to offer that just wouldn’t fit, this time around: The White Tower and The Belt Of Terra!

In the meantime, as promised, I am closing this blog post with a list of my past articles on the subject. The list starts by dealing with adventure creation – items that probably should have been included last time, but I ran out of time to compile it. Later entries deal with campaigns and how to connect one adventure to another using these adventures as logical units. But there’s a lot of overlap between the two subjects. Links will open in a new tab or window.

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