I love a good domino theory. They keep things nice and tense within the campaign, are a fertile source of adventures as people try to break the connection between desired action and undesired consequence, and are almost guaranteed to blow up spectacularly in due course. But that doesn’t make them easy to do, never mind to do them well. In this article, I’m going to look at how to create the most spectacular domino-theory chain reactions of events within a campaign, what can go wrong, how to use them to create adventure seeds, and – ultimately – how to ride the whirlwind as the dominoes start to tumble.
Creating Domino-theory chains
I’m going to start by looking at how to create a domino-theory chain – and I’m going to begin by asking the very basic question: just what are they?
What is a domino-theory chain?
When a force within the game – be it an individual, a race, a society, or whatever – wants to carry out some act for some reason, but cannot do so because of an undesirable consequence, they can be said to be connected to that consequence. When a second force – be it a group, an individual, or whatever – wants to do something for some reason but can’t because the undesirable consequence of doing so will be to remove the inhibition upon the first force, then that second force can be said to be chained to the first – if the second force do what they want, there will be a chain reaction (albeit a small one) that ends with the first force doing what it wants. So A does B which makes C do D which makes E do F which makes G do H which…. and so on. Each Domino triggers the next one in a chain reaction that ultimately can only end in disaster, or redemption, or – at the very least – change.
These aren’t as easy to put together as they might at first appear – not if you want a really lovely interlocking web of triggers and consequences. Any hack can put together a simple chain like the one above – but putting together something more interesting is a lot harder.
Creating your initial state of tension
The place to start is by defining your initial state of tension. This is your initial “A wants to do B but can’t because C”.
- The first step is to create an initial force (A) and decide what action they want to do (B).
- The second step is to create a reason why they can’t do what they want (C).
- The third step is to decide what they are doing about this problem (D).
- Finally, decide what they are publicly doing in the meantime (E).
Those five facts are the things that need to documented for every force or faction that is part of the domino-theory chain: Force Name, Objective, Hindrance, Plan, and Cover.
If you want to be especially complete, you could add things like Motive and Reputation but while they might help characterize the Force, they aren’t necessary to the construction of a domino-theory chain. It’s far more important to make sure that the logic of (C) is absolutely iron-clad.
Creating your initial connecting link
(C), (D), and (E) – Hindrance, Plan and Cover – are what I think of as “loose ends”. These are threads that can connect to other forces and other groups without forming part of the primary chain. “Loose ends” work to form secondary chains, which are what really make a great domino-chain so much fun. So important are they that I’ll come back to them in a later section.
The next step is to create a second group – one that is blocked from doing what they want to do because of one of these loose ends. The best approach is to decide which of the loose ends you are going to use and then choose all the other parameters of the group to fit. Again, the critical thing is that the logic be ironclad.
- If the force one Hindrance (C) is also the reason Force two are blocked, the two groups have the potential to eventually form a working alliance, or to compete with each other to be in position to take advantage of their goals when (B) eventually becomes possible.
- If the force one Plan (D) is the reason Force two are blocked, then the two Forces are in opposition, but only Force 2 necessarily know it. Remember the old saying, “before you can stab someone in the back, you first need to get behind them?”
- If the force one Cover (E) is the reason Force two are blocked, then the two forces appear to be in opposition, but in reality, force one is exploiting that apparent position to disguise their true goals. If force two recognizes this, there is scope for a secret alliance of convenience between the two while they maintain public opposition; if not, force two will genuinely oppose force one, while force one takes advantage of force two.
Adding further connecting links
Continue adding links branching off from the initial chain. That means that force three should be linked to the Hindrance, Plan, or Cover of force two, and then force four to force three, and so on. For every group, you get three loose ends and use one of them, so if you draw it as a diagram – an approach that I encourage – you can draw your initial chain as a long vertical strip with the unused links hanging off each side from each group.
The image to the right illustrates this. It shows a primary chain of 9 Forces (numbered), with 1 connected to 2, which is connected to 3, which is connected to 4, and so on, leaving two links – labeled a and b by number – to each side of each of the groups. Note the unused third connector from group 9.
Personally, I don’t recommend chains anywhere near this big. Four or five links in the primary chain is plenty. I also recommend that at this point you draw up a matrix with each force across both the top and down the left so that you can document the relationships between the additional forces as you go (using the example offered in the previous section).
When you feel that the primary chain is long enough, it’s time to start adding Secondary chains.
A secondary chain is exactly the same as the primary chain in its construction except that it hangs off one of the unused branches of one of the primary chain and will use one more of those unused branches for one of its other connections. If you are really creative, you might be able to use all three connections from the new group to cross-connect, but two is good enough. Keep adding secondary groups until all the chains have a force relating to them. It will often be the case that you will need to build a group that connects from one secondary group to another in order to achieve this.
Think about what that means for a moment. Every Force that forms part of the resulting complex matrix is connected to three other Forces, each of which is also connected to three Forces. All of them have an agenda, something that is preventing them from acting overtly on that agenda, a plan to overcome that problem, and something else that they are doing in the meantime.
The Web Of Catastrophe
I call this a “Web of Catastrophe”, because any change (perceived or actual) will bring the whole structure crashing down as a chain reaction, one domino falling after another. Enter the wild cards: the PCs. If this describes the state of affairs within the campaign, whether we’re talking about the internal politics of a single noble Court or the relationship between multiple rival nations, or something in between, any change will have repercussions felt a long way away.
As a general rule of thumb, I find that having as many Forces involved as their are players, or less, enables the players to grasp the totality of what is going on, often before the GM wants them to. Having more, by one or two, makes the totality easily-grasped, but not immediately obvious – but it can still come out before the GM is ready. So I recommend, as the minimum number of Forces, three more than there are PCs. This is analogous to achieving a Critical Mass of plotlines within the campaign.
It’s also easy for there to be too many factions, something that confuses the players and causes them to blur one group with another. In my experience, most players can cope if there are somewhere between two and three Forces at work per player – with the exact number varying from individual to individual. This number is often reduced dramatically if a player has not been present for the entire campaign – though it can sometimes be increased by the external perspective that comes from not have sat through the events, and being presented with an overview.
Once a Force has done it’s “job” within the plotline – something we have yet to generate – if there seem to be too many cooks for the players to keep up with the recipe, feel free to annihilate that Force. Purge, Zap, Delete – they have performed their role in the cosmic scheme of catastrophic chain reaction, and are now superfluous. If you can make the PCs the instruments of that destruction, so much the better – a victory now and then does wonders for player morale!
A segment of example
This might not be totally clear from the abstract description of the process that I have provided, so here’s a small piece of a small example to try and clarify matters.
- Force 1: The Incarnum, a conspiracy amongst mages in the Kingdom of Truleth.
- Goal: Ban Clerics and Clerical Magic from the kingdom of Truleth.
- Hindrance: They have the political connections to do so but cannot employ this power because the NGaryth secret society of Demon-worshipers would gain ascendancy.
- Plan: Construct a Divicula, an arcane device theoretically capable of driving out demons.
- Cover: Advisers to the court of Truleth on all matters arcane, and strong proponents of law & order.
- Force 2: The Ngaryth Secret Society
- Goal: The resurrection of the mad God Dwarla to subjugate the other faiths of the Kingdom of Truleth.
- Hindrance: They need the Ring Of Tyanthomath, a lost clerical artifact, to find and awaken the Mad God.
- Plan: Use demons belonging to the Demon Prince Chasis to search for the Ring in return for the society’s aid in Chasis’ war with his rival Plicianth.
- Cover: A secret society within an association of mercantile leaders.
- Force 3: Dirim Harzer, Commander of the standing army of the Kingdom of Truleth.
- Goal: To invade the neighboring Kingdom of Coalinth.
- Hindrance: The Elvish Army allied to Coalinth.
- Plan: Bribe the Troll Gaurdurk and his Army to invade the Elvish Forest to distract the Elves
- Cover: Invent a Necromantic Secret Society to justify increased funding for the army to cover the diversion of funds from the military budget.
- Force 4: House Matron Zilvani of the Drow
- Goal: To use the Army of the Kingdom of Truleth to wipe out the Elvish Forest without risk to her own forces.
- Hindrance: The Kingdom of Coalinth are historic enemies of Truleth and the alliance is too strong for Truleth to defeat alone; furthermore, they are more likely to attack Coalinth.
- Plan: Leak intelligence to the Kingdom of Truleth suggesting that Gaurdurk The Troll is about to secretly ally with Coalinth, forcing them to attack the weakest flank – the Elves – before Coalinth becomes invincible.
- Cover: Mentally dominate the Princess of Coalinth and cause her to send emissaries to Gaurdurk so that the alliance looks like a Coalinth idea.
- Force 5: The Servants Of Dwarla (Half-elves and the real acolytes of the mad God)
- Goal: Resurrect the Mad God to “purify the impure”
- Hindrance: They need a Divicula whose purpose has been corrupted during construction, and don’t have the expertise to create one.
- Plan: Trick the wannabe worshipers of Dwarla, the Ngaryth Secret Society, into retrieving the Ring Of Tyanthomath and attempting to use it, corrupting the Divicula being constructed by The Incarnum according to plans “fed” to them by the Servants.
- Cover: Use Plicianth The Demon (clever but without high rank) to trick Prince Chasis (not clever but with the rank Plicianth thinks he deserves) to find and retrieve the Ring.
That seems like a deliciously-tangled web. It actually shortcuts the process a bit – there really should be an entry for each of the Demons – but it’s quite complete enough to yield plenty of fun and games.
The other thing that I would note, if I were preparing to GM this, is that everyone has their actions circumscribed by their circumstances, with one exception – the Troll Gaurdurk. Outside of the PCs, this is the only character with any freedom of action – and he’s being Feted by two different sides, while being manipulated by a third. If anyone deserves an entry of their own, he does! As things stand, he is a frayed end – pull on it and the whole carefully-knitted structure will fall apart.
On the other hand, having him at loose ends makes him a Trigger. Whichever side the PCs ally with, Guardurk can either ally with the same side or with the enemy, whichever looks like creating the most fun. So the occasional frayed end can sometimes be useful.
Source Of Illumination
With the construction process detailed and illustrated, let’s start talking about using this structure as a source of adventures.
The Status Quo
The collection of cover stories represent the apparent status quo within the campaign. So the first adventure or two (or more) that you derive should be only indirectly connected to the Domino Chain, and should establish and educate the Players as to whom the in-game players are.
Secrets Have A Way Of Getting Out
Additional adventures should be scheduled to bring any secret groups or organizations to the PCs awareness, even if they don’t know what the objectives of such groups are.
Warning: If any of the groups have a desire or need for secrecy as their Hindrance, these revelations may trigger the chain reaction if the GM is not very careful in planning those adventures. In particular, he needs to ensure that either the secret group don’t realize that their secrecy has been compromised, or he needs to ensure that the PCs have reason to keep the existence of the group secret and that the secret organization knows it.
Reactions To PC involvement
Whichever group the PCs interact with, the allies and enemies of that group should notice, and react appropriately. Each of those reactions can form the basis of a subplot running through a subsequent adventure. What’s more, some of these can then become the foundations of spin-off adventures.
There will be all sorts of forces not articulated in your chain reaction. The example makes no mention of the Dwarves, for example. If the PCs become affiliated with the Elves, or with the Kingdom of Coalinth, in the example, then the other of those two allied parties can ask the PCs to look into rumors that the Dwarves are allying with the Kingdom of Truleth (which seems to be where the money is). In fact, the Dwarves might be up to nothing of the sort.
The Direct Plans
Each and every Plan listed then becomes a potential adventure as it is put into motion or begins to work its way towards fruition. The question is, in what order should they occur?
Some of the chains of dominoes eventually run out of steam, come to a conclusion that leaves some of them still standing.
Others cause one imbalance after another, creating the explosive reactions that will plunge the game world into chaos – unless the PCs intervene.
In other words, you can yield the entire plot potential all in one big bang, or you can dribble it out a bit at a time and get multiple smaller adventures instead of one all-or-nothing potential cataclysm.
The choice is up to you, but if I had put that much work into setting up a finely-balanced infrastructure like that, I would want to get as much bang for my buck as I could. Just as the PCs deal with one problem, the repercussions of that resolution should knock over the next domino, and bring about the next adventure. In other words, we want an explosive reaction – but not one that proceeds too quickly. The goal; is an controlled explosion.
Because we have kept the number of Forces to a manageable number, it’s not too difficult to set up theoretical trigger events and see what happens. A trigger is one of three things:
- A Direct Plan succeeds
- A Direct Plan is discovered by the PCs and stopped, forcing the Force behind it to come up with a New Plan (and possibly exposing them);
- An internal schism occurs within one of the Forces when someone gets a clever idea that promises a quicker success.
Three possibilities for each Force.
- Start with the first one, and with the first possible outcome of their plan, and see what happens. Does A set off B, which sets off C?
- Then look at the second possible outcome, and see what happens if the group gets revealed or taken out of the picture, presumably by the PCs. Does that release B to act overtly, which sets off C, and so on?
- The third possible outcome from the first group should then get assessed. Same question.
- Then repeat this three-step examination with the second group, and then with the third, and so on.
It will soon become apparent which thread to pull – which chain gives the greatest combination of length and control. Ideally, the choice should be one that will trigger the next event in the chain whether the PCs succeed in stopping the current plan or not. But there is a caveat, which brings me to:
The biggest peril that you face when creating such a web of concatenated consequences comes in the form of a premature detonation. Each time you introduce the players to another element within your grand scheme, you run the risk of someone pulling a Sampson and bringing the house down – with the campaign inside it.
This danger can never be completely avoided, but it can be mitigated. The easiest preventative measure is to introduce another Force into the picture – one which exists to maintain the status quo, stamp out potential explosions before they happen, and who view the PCs as disruptive, meddling, troublemakers. That last is very important, since eventually you want the dominoes to fall and the PCs to have to deal with each of these groups “making their move”.
Nevertheless, having a group that can parachute last-minute assistance in for the PCs to use to deal with whatever problem they have set off, can be a game-saver.
The second biggest danger is the wet firecracker. This occurs when the order in which you set off the chain reaction is not right in another respect: it’s no good having a full chain reaction if later explosions are an anticlimax. No, you want the stakes, the difficulties, and the drama to continually rise with each domino.
To some extent, these things are scalable. The ultimate confrontation of the example might be the PCs vs the Mad God, or the PCs vs one of the Demon Princes, or War between the two city-states, or war between the Mad God and one of the Demons, or even War between the two Demons with the PCs holding the balance of power – and their home base as ground zero. If the Demons aren’t in the ultimate fight, you can dial them back to more individual efforts and make it a Mano-e-Mano confrontation between them (with the PCs in the middle, of course) rather than hordes of subordinate Demons battling it out. The Mad God can be scaled back by only releasing one of his Foot Soldiers – the plan to release the Big Guy can fail. And so on.
But if scaling won’t work – and for some items it won’t – you need to ensure that things happen in the right order. Your first choice for the chain of events might not fit this criteria – in which case, you need to junk that starting point and look for another, continuing the three-step assessment of direct plans, and possibly even compromising the length of the chain reaction.
Once you have the basic outline of events – “A does B to C, which enables D to do E to F, which…” – it’s time to tie the whole bundle together. Remember how I said that each Force you had identified would react to what the PCs did? Well, they are also going to react to whatever any of the other Forces do, too.
Again, the best way to organize this is with a table. Across the top, we have the names of the factions, while each event in your domino chain gets listed down the side. The Force performing the action just gets a star in it, unless you think that they might have a range of internal responses. Factions within a single Force have proven the undoing of political parties and governments in the past, and will again, and it’s not exactly unknown for an organization to have a coup when the current leadership is betting the farm on a pair of sevens, either.
It’s important to note that you have to make an assumption about the success or failure of the action. As a general rule of thumb, if the PCs are in a position to intervene, I assume that the action will fail; if the PCs are not, I assume that the action will succeed unless I don’t want it to for plot reasons. I note the assumption in brackets at the end of the action description which will be in the left-hand column.
The group responsible for the next link in the chain is designated the primary reaction – just put an asterisk in their column, because you have already defined how they are going to react. I then work my way through each of the other groups.
- Are they threatened by the action?
- Do they benefit from it in some way?
- Is there some other change in their circumstances because of the action? – An alliance broken, or an alliance strengthened?
- Is there a way for them to further their own agendas using the action?
- Is there a way for them to inconvenience or disrupt an opponent using the action?
- Can they at least ‘spin’ the action to generate propaganda for their own agenda?
Only if the answer to all these questions is “no” do I write “none” in the appropriate space on the table and move on. If the answer to any of them is “yes” then the group have to react in some way to the event.
These also assume that the group knows about the event. That sometimes gets forgotten, we’re so used to instant news in the modern world. Everyone is constantly acting and reacting to yesterday’s news – or last week’s, or last month’s. Smart people will tend to take that into account, while ideologically-driven people will tend to assume that things will work out according to their ideological interpretation of the world.
It also assumes that the news of the event is accurate, and that can be a bigger deal than people realize a lot of the time. Accidental error, exaggeration, rumor, and deliberate misrepresentation of the outcome are all possible. But this is the correct assumption to make, as you will see in the next section.
Color-Coding the entries
I also find it useful to use some legible but distinct color for events that have not yet occurred in-game, and the reactions that they produce. Blue would be my first choice in this context.
When a planned event actually occurs, the text gets changed in color either to Black or to Red. Black means that the outcome was as expected, and the reactions and subsequent events can unfold into their next step as planned. Red means that something unexpected has occurred (and that usually means the PCs have somehow gotten mixed up in things), and that means that every subsequent line of both the plan and the table of reactions needs to be reevaluated.
As mnemonic device, I will usually change the color of those subsequent lines of the table to Fuchsia and change them back to blue, one by one, as they get updated.
Updates to allow for the unexpected
The first question that always needs to be asked is whether or not the unexpected outcome alters the next step in the domino chain. If it does, news of the event needs to be misreported or misrepresented.
Any of the reasons previously listed will work, but my first preference is to look for some group that might deliberately distort the reports of the outcome for their own benefit. A deliberate act by someone is always more plausible than any sort of coincidence or random chance that just “happens” to keep the GM’s plot running. And my second preference is to invent someone to deliberately cause the misrepresentation of the news.
Any such misreporting represents a complication of the situation that the GM can take advantage of. Groups can react to either the truth or to the erroneous reports – again, whichever creates the most fun. You can even have some groups having it both ways: “if the reports are true, then… but I think it more likely that…”
Why This Is Not A Plot Train
It should be observed that despite the domino chain representing an overall plotline assembled by the GM, it is not a plot train, or at least it doesn’t have to be. The PCs have complete freedom of choice – this plan is all about NPCs and what they plan to do. The PCs can alter the outcome of individual events – and the GM simply updates his plans to accommodate those changes.
The “Orcs & Elves” Connection
Anyone who went to the effort of reading the lengthy “Orcs & Elves” Series – I know some did and some didn’t – will recognize that the Elvish History presented therein is very much this sort of chain reaction. “A happened, and the Orcs did this as a result, and the Drow did that, and the Dwarves did the other, and that caused the Elves to do this other thing, and that meant that when the Orcs did their next thing, the result was an opportunity for the Drow to do their next action,” and so on. That story was all about opportunities: making them, seizing them when they occurred, and guarding against others having them. Several times the Elves seemed to have everything under control, their lives as good as they got – only for them to be blindsided by something they didn’t see coming. Very little happened in a vacuum, it was perpetually about the intersection between past experiences, future goals and ambitions, and the opportunities that arose in the present.
If anyone wants a more substantial and complete example of this plotting process, that’s where to find it. This article is, at it’s heart, a formalization of the plotting process that was used for that mammoth slice of campaign background.
The dominoes have fallen, and lie strewn all across the table. A chain of events have led to an apocalyptic finale. It’s human nature to ask, “what happens next?”
You have two choices: an Aftermath within the same campaign, a denouement to wrap up plot threads and loose ends, a coda to the cataclysm; or a sequel campaign (part one of a how-to), part two is here.
Either way, the starting point is still the same:
- Which Forces survived?
- How have their agendas changed?
- What opportunities exist for them to further those agendas?
- How has their public perception changed?
- What are their immediate problems?
- …and so on.
Half the work has already been done for you. You still have your list of Forces, and you have established what they wanted and how they went about getting it. They will learn from their mistakes and try again, if their agenda has survived intact. “They all lived happily ever after” might be fine for a fairy tale – this is a Roleplaying Game. So line up the dominoes, and let them fall…
Finished at last! It’s a little late, but here it is… I actually wrote this article from start to finish (in my head) on my way to Gaming over the weekend (a trip of about 25 minutes by bus that completely wipes out my back for the following day). It seemed a lot shorter until I actually started putting words on digital paper…