Today I want to share a simple and fast way that makes planning easier. I was going through old gaming papers recently and came across a partially crafted plot flowchart. This would be a short plot in Myste Cryk, a home-base type campaign that ran 2005-2006. As the blog carnival for September covers preparation, I thought I’d roll out a picture of this flowchart and talk about it.
The plot flowchart
Let’s run through the diagram. Click on the image to see the full-sized version. Unfortunately, the picture is blurry and hard to read, and I’m sorry about that.
The plot kicks off with a funeral – the bubble near the top left. During the funeral there will be a spider attack. This was to be a set piece encounter, and the plot was to have a hard-edged start. However, if there had been dependencies or specific triggers, I would have noted those with connecting nodes.
The details of the funeral are in a My Info file – a daughter of the local village elder had died from a spider bite. I initially brainstormed them out into bullets, then used the diagram to clarify plot development timeline, options and situations.
So, during design and while GMing I would have my notes handy and use the flowchart as my controlling document. The diagram pares away details, leaving you with a clear picture of what is happening and what might happen at each stage.
Creating the diagram itself helped me plan things out better than if I had just left things at the brainstorming stage, and I remember it took me about fifteen minutes. As a bonus from this exercise, I get a useful diagram and valuable GMing tool out of it.
Spiders attack the mourners. The PCs kill the critters or drive them off. What would they do next? I figured there were four options:
- Track the spiders back to a dungeon tunnel
- Lose the track and/or explore the forest in general
- Talk with NPCs
- Do nothing or fail – life back to normal
If the PCs find the dungeon, that adventure leads them to the villain, a neighbouring baron intent on ruining the fortunes of the village for the benefit of his own domain. He sent a spider to attack and poison the elder’s daughter, then he sent larger spiders to attack people at the funeral. The rest of the diagram assumes the Baron escapes, which is erroneously not noted on the Discover Baron bubble.
The scroll is key but flexible
Written on the connector line between Tunnel to Dungeons and Wizard is Find scrolls; Wizard reads. There was actually just one dungeon and one scroll in the end design, and I see a couple other minor typos in other parts of the diagram as well. I guess that’s why I prefer pencil to ink. :)
The Scroll is written in a foreign tongue. In my My info notes I had described the Scroll as instructions to use “my minions” against the villagers, to send Erechitl the Small to poison and kill the daughter, and to send Perechitl with his warriors to attack the funeral. The note was signed The Governess.
A few clues can be deduced from that note:
- There is another villain, The Governess.
- She has control of spiders.
- The spiders are named, so the relationship between The Governess and her minions is more than just simple summoned creatures or pets.
- If any spiders survive the PCs, the group could try to parley.
- The PCs could possibly use these names for leverage in the future.
My players are smart and would have picked the Scroll apart and come to most of the same conclusions, and perhaps several others I have not thought of.
The Scroll is placed on the connector line because its location is not fixed. As it’s a key element, I was prepared to put it in the dungeon for the PCs to take to the wizard for translation, or the Wizard would give it to the PCs, which would lead them to the Dungeon. (The Wizard was an ally previously established in the campaign.)
You see another note between Life Back To Normal and Bullies: catch PCs when together. That label lets me know a dependency on the Bullies encounter. I wanted the encounter to be a group one. Labeling connector lines like I’ve done with the Scroll and Bullies encounter is an efficient way to remind yourself about dependencies and triggers.
After the Funeral, if the PCs explored the forest they would encounter Elves, a Ranger’s Secret Cave and an Abandoned Fort. Each of these bubbles would explode into separate diagrams as I had intended those to run about a session each with several encounters. There were to be links from each to either the Baron or The Governess, but I had not finished drawing those out so the connector lines are missing.
The Bullies were a one-off encounter, but with potential to create recurring NPCs if any survive the encounter. The best option was to make them Governess or Baron minions, but I was waiting to see the results of the group combat encounter.
Two unconnected boxes describe miscellaneous encounters to flesh out game sessions with. I prefer not to have every encounter in my games revolve around the plot as time delays between plot related encounters gives you various storytelling options and opportunities.
Deserted Part Of Town ‘Dungeon’ was to give the PCs options to explore ruins and encounter beasties and traps. Various Townsfolk Various Missions was to give the group several short quests. As always, I had a list of encounter ideas and seeds in another document, and I would just keep fluid with these, bringing them in as needed or when inspiration struck, connecting them to other diagram bubbles or not, as game sessions played out.
The larger picture
As you can see, the Wizard is key to the rest of the plot diagram’s development. He was more of a sage than wizard, and he would lead the PCs to the Blackmarket whenever the timing seemed appropriate after the PCs performed a number of other missions for him. Various Missions would use my encounter seeds list, but I had also planned on sketching out a half dozen key encounters relating to The Governess on another diagram, but did not get that far in my planning.
Eventually we reach The Blackmarket. It is in a nearby city. I should mention that Myste Cryk was a Birthright campaign. My long term goals were to bring the PCs up “through the system” to eventually become leaders of various guilds, armies and factions within their domain. The Blackmarket was to lead the rogue PC to the Thieves’ Guild where he would earn membership, rise through the ranks and someday become leader.
Overall, my plan was:
- PCs level 1-8 as adventurers
- PCs level 8-15 as faction members climbing up the ranks
- PCs level 16+ as leaders and switching to the Birthright rules for seasons and actions; spawn a new group of 1st level PCs to repeat the cycle, but players would play both sets of PCs
This was ultimately a simulation type campaign that started out as a home-base campaign. I figured experiencing the land, its peoples and its challenges through the eyes of PCs-as-villagers who become powerful figures and eventual leaders would have more meaning for the group than just starting out with leader PCs calling the shots.
Alas, the campaign ended with a TPK. The PCs were 7th level and were on a mission in the capital city for their village and drowned in a flooded ship hanging from a crane 50′ in the air.
I was possibly delusional in thinking the campaign could progress as far as I envisioned with a second generation of PCs lead by the first, and should have just started the PCs as leaders. However, if I had to do it all over again I would do it the same way (cause I’m stubborn and stupid that way, just ask my wife :). I consider this one of my dream campaign concepts, and I’m keeping it in my back pocket to run again some day.
Long term planning
Back to the diagram. A perk of encountering the Blackmarket is access to cool magic items and equipment. The PCs had accumulated quite a lot of money during their adventures, and would get more as they worked through the plot diagram. However, they were cursed because they had nothing to spend it on. Their little village and nearby villages were markets too small to offer them opportunities to buy powerful magics. This was done on purpose for campaign balance.
With the Blackmarket, the PCs could finally blow their wads and buy cool stuff. Then, onto the Thieves Guild, with various possible missions stemming from them, and then onto the official Resistance lead by an Anti-Paladin minion of The Governess.
The Resistance would lead the PCs to The Mines, a Dungeon Adventure, and possible Capture. It would also pit them against the Anti-Paladin and a plot twist. The Baron ends up being a sympathetic figure and potential ally because his only goal was greed. Once he realized the bigger schemes of The Governess, he wanted nothing to do with that and was planning on going to the PCs for help in defeating her.
Unfortunately, he would be captured and held prisoner in the Anti-Paladin’s dungeon. Ideally, the PCs would come along, defeat the Anti-Paladin and rescue the Baron. The Baron, privy to The Governess’s plans, would lead them to the next stage boss – the Hill Giant King.
The diagram ends here, but my plans were to run the PCs through the Against The Giants module series. The Governess was actually Lloth. I have only once completed GMing the whole Giants-Drow adventure series. My goals for Myste Cryk were indeed probably too large for success, heh.
You might have noticed the diagram starts out detailed, including specific encounters and notes. Then it gets high level and vague, with a single bubble representing many sessions. This was done intentionally, as I prefer to plan in detail for the short term, but to just track a general desired vector for the long term. If the campaign had progressed, I would have created more diagrams for the various bubbles and connected them up.
The diagram is unfinished, and needs more connector lines and notes, as well, for it to serve to its true potential as a GMing tool.
Encounter design checklist
Note the words in the top left corner:
- GM Fun
That is a checklist for encounter types. As I outlined in an old Roleplaying Tips encounter planning article, I give encounters a type and try to make them live up to their type. If I can have an encounter serve multiple types, that’s even better. For example, an encounter might have combat and puzzle elements, and tie into one or more PC goals. The list is just shorthand, and I use it when designing or GMing new encounters on the fly.
A brief history of campaigns
Ironically, this was the last plot diagram I would sketch out for several years. After the Myste Cryk TPK on that fateful Saturday, we paused for lunch and discussed what we wanted to do next. It was one of our rare all-day sessions that started at 10am and was planned to run until midnight. As we ate we weighed bringing new PCs into Myste Cryk or starting with a fresh new campaign.
We voted to switch to a new campaign, and the players asked me what I wanted to GM. (My players are awesome and very thoughtful that way.) I laid out a few modules I was itching to play: the Shackled City adventure path, the Night Below Boxed Set and the Temple of Elemental Evil.
We voted and Temple of Elemental Evil was picked. The players rolled new PCs while I prepped. I have run Temple now nine times, and finished it three times. Alas, while the Homlet portion was epic and probably my group’s greatest sequence of sessions, I called a halt to it a year and a half later in the third dungeon level beneath the temple due to grind fatigue (and an itch to play the newest kid on the block: D&D 4E).
So we quit Temple and started a D&D 4E campaign that ran about a year. I used published modules for the most part. Then we voted 4E off the island and switched to our current campaign, Riddleport, using the Pathfinder rules.
From the time Myste Cryk ended to the start of Riddleport, a period of several years, I used published adventures and did not need to create flowcharts and diagrams (though I should have in some cases, as a couple of the modules I used were a bit disorganized and I struggled to figure out how things were supposed to move along).
Back to homebrew planning and design
Which brings us to today, where I’ve pulled out this old diagram and kept it because it’s time for me to starting using this tool once again. For Riddleport, except for the general city and game world details, my players are at the mercy of 100% Johnn Four lunacy. Woe to them. I should start using a DM screen again for when the dice fly at me.
I recommend drawing similar diagrams and flowcharts to help you prepare for and run smooth game sessions. They are quick to make and help organize your thoughts plus give you a handy reference on how things connect and flow.
Riddleport is a character-driven sandboxy campaign, so I do not need to sketch out an overall plot. However, I’m using diagrams to plan out faction actions and individual encounters. I tend to keep my notes light, in bullet lists and idea buckets, so diagrams help eke out a bit of structure when and where I need it.
iPad app for plot flowcharting
My tool of choice these days is the iPad mind-mapping application iThoughtsHD. Click on the image below to see a recent flowchart for a quest the PCs undertook. I’ll do a review of iThoughtsHD for iPad in the future.
Do you use flowcharts and diagrams to help prepare and run games? If so, what has your experience been with them? What software do you use, or do you prefer pencil and paper?