This is the fourth of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, how I create and manage subplots based on the ordinary lives of the PCs in my Zenith-3 campaign, how they connect seamlessly to the main plot of each adventure, and why.
My superhero campaign takes place in a big, hairy, complicated world. Magic works, time travel is… not routine but expected occasionally, extra-dimensional travel has become routine (and far easier than classical FTL), Demons are real, Heaven and Hell are real, and are just part of a broader cosmology that has places for everything from Norse Gods to Psychopathic Dreams!
Most of the campaign takes place in the year 2056, on a world in which the British Empire conquered half the world and still holds it. Every European nation, North & Central America, India, Australia, Africa, and about half the Middle East – all form part of the British Empire.
Each nation is a Kingdom in its own right, with its’ own rulers and government and laws – provided only that those laws are not overruled by the higher Imperial Law. But this is a Constitutional Empire in which the Throne, the elected government, and the ever-present civil service perform complicated dances of power with and around each other.
And the rest of the world? That is ruled by the sorcerous Mao, mysterious non-human beings who conquered it in pre-history and enclosed it behind a bamboo curtain which can only be observed by spy planes and satellites. Their technology is still that of the middle ages, but their power is comparable to that of the Empire.
Into this world have come a group of young superheros from another dimension, one which has endured the cataclysm of Ragnerok and recovered only to be in the process of tearing itself apart in global war, home to both a 4th Reich and a Fifth, in which a different America has seceded from the United Nations and been split down the middle by a new Civil War, as has a quite different England in which Two separate reincarnations of King Arthur struggle against the machinations of reborn Morgaine Le Faye, in which Japan has become New Atlantis, and Taiwan protects itself with Terminators. A hostile place that is far too dangerous for trainee superheros. About 20% of the groups adventures take place on “home ground”.
In such a fantastic environment, it’s critical that the PCs touch base with the ‘munadanity’ of their daily lives outside of the regularly-occurring crisis’s and calamities that form those adventures. But the means of organizing such is something that can translate readily to any other campaign, and that is the subject of today’s article.
I’ve written before about the campaign structure – see the most advanced mode discussed in Back To Basics: Campaign Structures – and don’t intend to chew on old soup in this article, though there will be some bases on which I need to touch. (I’m also going to reuse a number of the graphics from that article in this one).
The campaign consists of 36 plot arcs (well, it will, once they have all gotten underway) that are intended to weave together into a larger campaign-narrative. The campaign has been divided into 12 stages which have been grouped, terms of that larger narrative (called The Apocalypse), into 7 phases. The image above has the plot arcs running across the page while the phases and stages run vertically, and show which plot arcs are in effect in which phase/stage. A separate column over on the right hand side provides a tally of the number of standalone adventures that aren’t part of any plot arc, but that seemed like fun, that are scheduled. This was used as a planning tool, and then updated to reflect the planning results.
Each plot arc consists of one or more plot threads, or individual narratives. These have been individually numbered in the heading columns at top and bottom; as you can see (if you zoom in) the largest plot arc in terms of plot threads has 4, most only have one.
The wider narrative
Looking at the graphic, you can also see some overall patterns emerge. Most of the plot threads in place in the early campaign come to a conclusion by phase 3 (counting down from 9), while about half the total plot arcs don’t start until phases 7 or 8 and also resolve by phases 2 or 3.
It’s important to note that these phases are story-based and don’t represent equal amounts of time or equal numbers of adventures. In fact, as a rule of thumb, each row is shorter than the one before it, until phase 1, when each phase is one or at most two adventures long. You can get some idea of the relative dimensions (in terms of content) by counting up the number of active plot arcs and adding the number of standalone adventures.
What’s more, all it takes for a plot arc to get a white box (a yes) is for a character who appears to have it relate to his motivation, or for such a character to drop some information of relevance to it in the course of an adventure. So the involvement of any given plot arc in any given adventure phase is highly variable.
It’s also clear that the core of the campaign comes down to four plot arcs that, once started, persist to the very end of the campaign (if everything proceeds as planned, sometimes it doesn’t). Plot Arcs 3, 8, 17, and 25. You probably can’t read the labels attached to these plot arcs, they have been deliberately obscured to hide secrets from the players.
Threaded Plot Bricks
Each plot arc consists of a number of plot “bricks” that connect to one another to tell a story. With all the plot bricks assembled in a sequence, you get a long ribbon of adventure content, which has been turned sideways in the image below and shrunken past the point of containing any meaningful information as to content.
This shows the entire planned campaign. If I zoom in on just part of this structure (and undo my rotation), you can see more:
This makes it clear that each row of the campaign plan consists of five main sections: White, mostly red and green, mostly yellow and blue, mostly red and green again, and another white section.
The central yellow section shows the main adventure and the PCs (and some major NPCs) who are expected to take part in it. Yellow is ‘yes’, blue is ‘no’. If I zoom in and show only that part, you can see that for the most part, there are no notations in any of the plot bricks – that’s because the key information on the content is all in the white sections to either side.
As you can see to the left, the first white block shows the phase of the overall campaign, the adventure number, the stage within the campaign, the plot arc that is to be involved in the adventure, and a “plot code” that indexes an individual part of, or event within, that plot arc. In fact, these were generated before this structural map was produced; this whole document simply indexes them chronologically.
Looking again at the diagram to the right, you can also see that there is one set of notations running across one row – that’s a character subplot that is intended to directly impact the course of the main adventure, i.e. two plot arcs coming together in a very specific way, usually as a complicating factor.
The red/green bands on either side of the main adventure sections show planned developments in character subplots that take place before, during, or after the main adventure. Some of these recur, some involve more than one PC, sometimes there isn’t one for a given character. Purple means they aren’t involved at all, red means there is no time for a character subplot and I should move directly to the next main-adventure plot brick, green means that there is some essential development, and white means that the characters are there but there is no important subplot involving them.
That’s where this article comes in. Those characters are always somewhere, doing something, even if it’s just lounging around the team’s headquarters soaking up the sunshine. They are, in other words, experiencing their character’s “ordinary life”.
What’s more, those essential subplots are often not enough to carry an entire scene on their own; they often need to occur in conjunction with an “ordinary life” scene, so – despite the green “attention-getting” flag, they are (in reality) mostly white, as well.
Aside from keeping the characters grounded in the reality around them, and permitting them to feel like they are actually living their lives rather than tuning in for “just the interesting bits”, there are often plot- and meta-plot functions that I want these subplots to perform.
- Where and when the PCs are: First and foremost, they establish where the PCs are when the main adventure starts and what they are doing, and any influences over their frame of mind at the start of the adventure.
- Campaign Background development: I use them as a vehicle for conveying developments in the game world, ensuring that the campaign environment doesn’t stay static, as per Lessons From The West Wing III: Time Happens In The Background. This might take the form of a conversation in which someone asks the PC, “Did you hear about [x]” or it might be a news story, or a magazine article, or something someone stumbled over on the internet, or something that someone sees first-hand.
- Character Development: If player X has told me that he wants to develop skill Y, I will look at how long that will take, and try to schedule at least one subplot that shows them studying that subject. Since that’s often a fairly dry and dusty subject, I will try to involve some character interaction as part of that – so the subplot might be their studies getting interrupted, or them overhearing/witnessing something, or meeting the NPC who is teaching them, or something happening just as they are finishing for the day. It’s a no-cost plausibility add.
- Relationships Development: Another key goal is for the PC to develop relationships, either with NPCs or amongst themselves. These shouldn’t remain static, and shouldn’t even experience their main development in the course of the main adventure; those main adventures usually represent only a small fraction of the time spent in each other’s company. I especially want each PC and key NPC to develop their own circle of friends and contacts, even if only lip service is paid to them thereafter and they never play a significant role in a main adventure. It makes the characters more “human” (even if they aren’t).
- Plot foreshadowing: Some subplots – especially the critical ones pre-programmed in – are hints and foreshadowing of future events. Like an iceberg, the true significance may be much larger than it seems at the time.
- Adventure foreshadowing: I like to drop in some connection to the theme of the next adventure for at least one of the PCs so that they are already thinking along “the right lines” when that adventure starts. If plot foreshadowing is an iceberg in the distance, this is an iceberg looming right in front of the players.
- Adventure context: The main adventure has to start somehow, and having it start as just another subplot, initially indistinguishable from the others, provides a seamless segue, making the main adventures an extension of the PCs ordinary lives. Occasionally, though, I want main adventures to come out of the blue – that also happens in real life, though the term “adventure” has to be applied a little loosely for most of us. This is an iceberg actually hitting the “good ship PC”.
- Post-adventure consequences: Some adventures have immediate repercussions and consequences. If those developments are not to have an immediate bearing on the next adventure, they are often better-handled as a post-adventure subplot. Sometimes, even if they will have an immediate impact, they are necessary to properly punctuate the end of the adventure.
- Post-adventure complimentary narrative/Epilogue: Sometimes, the deeper philosophical aspects of the theme or the adventure need additional exposition to round out treatment of the subject. And, sometimes, the true relevance/importance of events within the adventure are obscured by proximity to events and an epilogue subplot is necessary to give the ‘big picture’ perspective.
- Future-adventure teases: Finally, I might want to drop in a cliff-hanger ending or a teaser for the next adventure. This can even sometimes be something that I want the players to know but that their PC’s wont become aware of until ‘next time’. As the campaign continues, these will increasingly provide a launchpad into the next adventure with little or no room for pre-adventure subplots. And finally, sometimes I need to know where the players are going to be and what they are going to be doing before I can fully write up the next adventure; this gives an opportunity to capture that information in time to integrate it into prep for the next session of game-play.
As you can see, the subplots play a critical role in the campaign; in some respects, they can even be seen as doing more of the heavy lifting of making it a campaign than the headline plots do. Again, as things come to a head, this will change, but in the early phases of the campaign, it’s a definite fact of life – and one of the ways in which the importance of events in the main adventures will be felt by the players is as a result of the absence of these subplots. The focus will sharpen as The Apocalypse becomes the central fact of their daily existences.
The Events Table
So, how do I decide which aspects of the PCs lives each should experience as a subplot? Well first, I look at the needs of the main adventure and shortlist any requirements it presents. Sometimes, that will require a predetermined subplot, or there might be an option that explicitly satisfies those needs better than any other – choice made.
Most of the time, though, I use a random table that I have constructed and which slowly evolves as the campaign develops. Before I get into the table itself, I should explain how it was constructed (so that you can do one for your own campaigns if you like the technique).
I started by listing as many possibilities as I could think of. and classifying them into one of three lists: “Regular Event”, “Frequent Event”, “Other Event”. I continue to add to these lists, and even shuffle items from one list to another, as priorities change.
The current lists are shown to the left. Note the event codes which can be used in compiling a ‘note form’ outline of the complete adventure before I start writing it. I then convert each code into a sentence or small paragraph, arrange them into the order that makes the most narrative sense to produce a synopsis of the adventure, and then employ the writing technique that I described in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post to actually write the adventure.
There are a number of entries on the list that require additional explanation to an outside audience. First, the asterisks refer to notes that are attached to the lists as reminders to me:
* = first occurrence to be accompanied by an UNTIL Directive.
** = IMAGE mandated, first occurrence may be accompanied by an IMAGE Regulatory Update/Reminder memo.
*** = first occurrence to be accompanied by an IMAGE Efficiency Instruction.
These will have my players doing face-palm plants, I expect, but to most readers, they will also require explanation.
The first thing to understand is that the team are answerable to three different bureaucracies in two different dimensions of reality, two different parallel earths. There is their parent team; there is the UN organization, UNTIL, who sanction and regulate the parent team’s activities (and who pay wages to the team members); and there is the “local” authority, IMAGE, who sanction and regulate the team’s local activities. That means a lot of paperwork, first and foremost, and secondly, directives from these agencies sometimes conflict, or are impractical for a superhero team.
Japanese Management Techniques
I was working for a large organization when these became a big thing in the eighties. In a world without a Japan, with minimal Eastern philosophy of any sort, how long do you think it would take the locals to develop these concepts on their own initiative? In the British Empire of Earth-Regency, they are the hottest thing since sliced bread, and tasked with integrating them into the functions of all organizations within the Civil Service (including IMAGE and it’s subordinate, the team) is Division Commander A. Featherington-Hughes.
I was going to provide a sample that you could read as part of this text, but with the tables themselves taking up so much room, the results weren’t legible, so I’ve done the next best thing and provided a PDF of the sample, which you can open in a new tab or download by right-clicking on the icon to the right.
So, an hour a week spent listening to music, another spent in artistic endeavors, and so on. These do two things: first, they provide talking points for conversations between a PC and one or more NPCs; second, they let me throw in cultural elements from the game world that the players can’t know (it’s 2056, so I have to make them up).
The team get around a lot of laws, rules and regulations by virtue of being classed as “Registered Eccentrics”. The Imperial government long ago recognized the social value of satirists and gadflies as checks against the excesses of the other branches of government, not to mention the “bread and circuses” value of keeping the citizens happy, and so developed laws to protect cartoonists and comedians, public commentators, and other notable figures from prosecution for speaking their mind or behaving outrageously. This status is not conferred for life; you have to continually earn it with relevance and appropriate media appearances. Nor can they represent any sponsor or organization which is not exclusively constituted of such eccentrics.
The team’s sanction to operate, in other words, without worrying about traffic laws and the like, and without being members of the Imperial Police Force (and without being constrained by their requirements for due process), depend on them making regular media appearances and being publicly visible. That doesn’t mean that they can ignore these laws, rules, and regulations with impunity; prosecutions and evidence can and will be thrown out of court if it is illegally obtained, for example. But it does mean that in an emergency, they can take the appropriate action and worry about the niceties later. Neither are the Imperial Government responsible for the team’s actions – if they capture a villain, he can’t sue for illegal restraint, for example. So the team make regular appearances both individually and as a group.
Meeting the social obligations that go with being a registered eccentric is partially achieved by each team member having one or more nominated (registered) charities for which they perform volunteer work or fundraising activities. They each got to choose a cause that they could get behind and for which they wanted to generate media exposure.
There are various ways in which the team’s operating costs, including the rent on their multi-billion dollar state-of-the-art interactive skyscraper headquarters, get defrayed, while also keeping their celebrity profiles high. One of these is conveying guided tours through the public parts of the facility, posing for photographs with the tourists who have paid for the privilege, and so on. The Imperial Government likes to encourage international tourism, as it helps foster a view of the Empire as a united whole in the minds of citizens, so on top of being a tourist attraction in their own right, the team will (in the future) get to visit and publicly review/endorse various vacation spots.
Other high-profile events to which they receive invitations are always on the must-do-if-at-all-possible list. Movie premiers, the opera, Broadway shows and plays, and other cultural events provide a confluence of public interest and media interest that must be exploited to keep their media profiles high enough. Such celebrity appearances form a self-fulfilling prophecy: the media and public are attracted by the celebrities, which makes these activities more of a public Event, which makes it easier to attract the media and public. There have only been a few of these so far in the campaign – one character got to throw out the first pitch at a major baseball game. Part of the value to me as a GM is that this puts the PCs out amongst the public in locations at which their appearance is public information, giving me the opportunity to bring adventure and PC together.
On top of all that, there are various causes that the Imperial Government promotes through named days, weeks, and months – “Frostbite Awareness Week” and so on – in which team members must occasionally take part. A recurring one is “Cuisine Discovery Day” – once a month, Imperial Citizens are encouraged to sample a meal that they’ve never tasted before. This has been mentioned once but hasn’t actually played a role in an adventure to date. Part of the ‘obligation’ is to review the meal and source on social media – again to encourage cross-cultural links within the Empire.
Of course, there are restrictions on how many hours people can work. In an emergency, those restrictions can be ignored/bypassed, but without good reason, the PCs are expected – even required – to spend a certain amount of each day sleeping and a certain amount on things that they do purely for their own personal enjoyment. This is largely about getting the PCs out-and-about and interacting with people and places rather than being holed up in their headquarters all the time.
Health and Safety Activities
These haven’t bitten the PCs much yet, but will eventually – annual medical checks, eyesight checks, and – the one example that’s occurred so far, marksmanship qualifications. Of course, those rules weren’t written with superheros in mind, so the qualifications had to be with a standard police-issue weapon. Some members of the team with military or police training breezed through, others struggled a little more.
Another of those “efficiency doctrines” is that people with hobbies are more creative at solving on-the-job problems, and that hobbies frequently provide other unexpected skillset and social benefits to both the individual and society as a whole. Guess what that means? Another hour a week, with the civil service bureaucracy keeping track of it. What’s more, once a month, you have to try a hobby that you’ve never tried before…
Fan mail (Mailbag)
While the team receives far too much fan mail to answer it all personally (or even read it all), the clerks who respond with pre-packaged ‘thank you’s are encouraged to extract any items of significant merit for more personal attention. Members take it in turns to respond to such, or at least they will – so far this subplot hasn’t shown up in actual play.
Many players, if they had their way, would develop no abilities or skills that were not of direct benefit to the character. Part of the rationale at a metagame level behind many of the above activities is the encouragement of characters to develop things that do nothing but make them more rounded individuals. But that needs to be balanced with things that the players actually want their characters to learn or get better at.
Some of these are more easily learned or accessed because of the game date, or are, at least, no harder; others require a cultural reference back to the group’s original homeland. Various correspondence courses are made available through both the supervising organizations, while the team members are also free to seek out appropriate tutors.
The Random Subplot Table
I started with the base table below.
As you can see, it gives a 20% chance of an “other” subplot, a 33% chance of a “frequent” subplot, and a 47% chance of a “regular” subplot.
But it also self-modifies – every second “other” event reduces the chance of future “other” event by 3%, allocating 2 of those percentage points to a regular subplot and one to the chance of a frequent subplot. So far, the vagaries of random chance have allocated 19 other events, 34 frequent events, and 47 regular events (I keep track so that I can backtrack if I have to).
That, with the resulting working, produces the table below:
The cumulative net effect so far has been for frequent events to become +5% more likely to result while other events have become less likely. Since ‘frequent’ events split their adjustments evenly between other and regular subplots, this will eventually manifest in a recovery on the part of the other category and a boost to the regular events, which in turn will eventually boost both frequent and other categories.
It’s worth noting that I have rolled subplot choices a long way in advance of where we currently are in the campaign! That gives me time to plan each, and even override the choice if that fits the main adventure better.
Once I know which list to draw from, I roll a d20. On the regular list, that means that I reroll 18-20 results, because there are only 18 events listed there. Item zero is one that can only be selected manually and deliberately, because it fits the plotline especially well; you can’t roll a zero on an unmodified d20! On the other two lists, there are more than 20 results, so each result that gets randomly selected gets rotated to the bottom of the list – I re-sorted the list I’ve shown you all above, the current one bears little resemblance to it.
The other reason for making the roles in advance is that a number of them require me to produce “memos” to the team, of the type shown as an example earlier.
The first ten subplots allocated randomly using this system are shown above.
The first decision. once a subplot has been identified, is how much screen time to allocate to the subplot. I talked about that in the previous offering within the blog carnival, Blog Carnival November 2016: The Extraordinary Life of a Fantasy PC. The principles are the same: Major Subplots, Minor Subplots, and so on.
I’m never afraid of starting a subplot in the middle, or of starting one and then switching spotlight to another, rejoining the first at a much later point in time. The goals are to spread the spotlight around as evenly as possible, from a PC point of view, but also to keep it moving – every two-to-five minutes, and aiming for the short end of that range, the scene should shift to someone else. I’ll make an exception when the PC in the subplot decides to interact with another PC as a result – one memorable sequence recently had St Barbara trying to work on the assignment for her creative writing correspondence course, only for one thing after another to interrupt her.
Integrating Essential Subplots
A critical related decision is how the pre-specified subplots are going to integrate with what everyone’s doing. Are they big enough to stand on their own, or do they need to integrate with a second minor subplot, and – if so – which is best suited?
What Is Everyone Doing?
To some extent, each PC’s subplot is assumed to be occurring simultaneously, but we’re only human and can only assimilate one scene at a time. A key consideration is always the way these subplots should be presented sequentially. I always give this careful thought; if I can use one as a “backbone”, a through-line to establish where each is up to, that lends cohesion to the whole process as it is experienced by the players. Things cease to be a series of isolated events and become part of a larger whole.
How Does The Adventure Start?
The other thing to which I will give careful attention is the answer to this question. Every adventure has some trigger event, the first spot of rain before the deluge. What is it, and which PC will experience it? Note that if it’s an NPC who experiences it, that still has to get relayed to the PCs so that they can get involved – which merely changes the nature of the trigger event. The question is always how the PCs will get smacked in the head with developments, or – more frequently – how one of them will be subjected to the revelation of the situation and will get the rest involved.
Adventure Conflation and Integration
You may have noticed earlier that a given adventure may comprise many lines of the planning chart. Where adventures can be linked thematically, and can complicate each other, I have no qualms conflating many events into one larger adventure. The current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign, which I described in detail as part of Blog Carnival November 2016: The Everyday Life of a GM, consists primarily of three inter-connected ‘adventures’ – Holo, Swarm, and E-III/Vossen, the last of which has complicated both of the first two.
The fact that these chapters in the more complex whole are separated from each other in game time gives rise to the potential for more subplots, these occurring mid-adventure.
The decision as to how heavily to feature these is always twice as difficult as any other planning question. I have to factor in anything that the PCs have said they want to do, and how much time I want them to have to reflect on the current situation – balanced against the risk of them coming up with some clever idea that I hadn’t prepared for, and in particular, against the risk of them learning something prematurely. Discovery can be exciting, confirmation (usually) has all the impact of cold spaghetti.
Although I dislike doing so, I will have to sometimes resort to game mechanics; having characters roll to keep their thoughts on whatever they are supposed to be doing instead of brooding while secretly hoping that they succeed, and doing everything I plausibly can to enhance the likelihood of success, for example. Equally, if I want them to brood, I can try to encourage the opposite likelihood. But, for the most part, I prefer to let the players make such decisions about the way their characters react without interference from me.
Metagaming for added value
Another thing that I am always on the lookout for is the ability to incorporate added meaning to the subplots by relating them to the themes of the campaign and/or the campaign. I don’t always see the need to make those connections obvious, either. Again, you can see some examples at work by studying the discussion of the current Zenith-3 adventure through the link offered above.
Conclusion: A World Is For Living In
I once heard someone describe a game world as ‘a place for the PCs to stand while they are experiencing the adventure’. I can’t tell you how strongly I disagree with that statement. The game world in question always felt like a cardboard mock-up of the real thing, not only to me, but to the other participants. This encouraged them to think of ways of gaming the system to their own advantage; their characters were just proxies for what the players felt like doing. There was no immersion, and the campaign had no more depth than a boardgame, and a not particularly engaging one at that.
I’ve always felt that the more concrete the world feels, the more into character the players can and will get, because of the strength of the interactions between character and environment. My GMing techniques are all aimed at creating engaging plotlines and letting the players interact with those plotlines, my plotting and prep are tools to facilitate this level of interaction.
A world is for living in. Your adventures can be as spectacular as you want, but your campaign should always be about the characters as elements of that game world and how the two evolve in response to each other. My sub-plotting technique is a way to educate players and facilitate the engagement between world and PC, as the players live vicariously through their characters. It’s an approach that works – with appropriate modifications – regardless of genre. If it’s not what you do currently, I urge you to at least consider the approach in future – within practical limits, of course; twenty players with separate PCs would make the game more than a little subplot-heavy. Practical limitations aside, it can be said that the true test of skill of a GM is how well he creates, incorporates, and manages his subplots.