Johnn Four may no longer work on Campaign Mastery, but we still keep in touch from time to time. When he announced his recent plot seed contest for Roleplaying Tips, he asked if I had any links to articles on the subject at Campaign Mastery.
Of course, I responded in the affirmative, providing a number of links to such articles, but looking them over, I realized that there was not much on the site about how to use an idea seed, how to take it and turn it into a great adventure. I’ve nibbled around the edges of the question in articles such as Amazon Nazis On The Moon, and even more so in the two-part article on sequel campaigns Part 1 Campaign Seeds and Part 2 Sprouts & Saplings, but never tackled the subject in detail.
So let’s correct that omission right now…
Let’s start with the absolute basics. You’ve picked an Adventure Seed – it doesn’t matter where it came from. The first step to transforming that seed into an adventure that is everything you want it to be is to identify exactly why this particular seed has appealed to you. Not only do you want to be sure that you don’t mess with that in the course of developing the idea, but the resulting adventure will be all the stronger if you design it to use that quality as the central theme of the adventure.
I’ve identified ten possible reasons, which either individually or in combination should usually define the appeal of a particular seed:
A plot seed can be more than the idea it presents, it sparks new ideas of your own. Inspiration is a powerful reason for building an adventure around an outside idea. It can even extend, clarify, or reveal fundamental aspects of the campaign’s foundations – whether those be game physics, campaign philosophy, or campaign mythology.
A plot seed can be exciting, it makes you eager to play it out and see what happens, or it promises to be spectacular. Sometimes, it is simply that you know you have the right props and accessories to elevate a particular plot seed to a higher level – for example, an plot seed that takes place aboard a ship when you have some other game or game supplement that gives you a set of really cool blueprints for an appropriate vessel.
A plot seed can connect with ideas already in place within the campaign, bringing them out into the open or advancing them to the next step, or it can be the bridge between what the GM already has planned and what he wants to have happen next; in other words, it can connect with plots or background already planned for the campaign.
A plot seed can have ramifications for the future, creating the right environment for a renewal of a campaign that is growing a little tired or stale, or simply creating (either temporarily or permanently) the appropriate conditions for new adventures to take place – adventures that would not be otherwise possible because of contradictions to some established element.
A plot seed can take the players into an interesting environment that the GM would like them to explore, but for which he has had trouble coming up with ideas of his own. Or it can alter an existing environment in some way that is especially conducive to new adventures. Or it can simple be that the PCs are going to be crossing a particular environmental region and the GM has no ideas for what is to happen on that part of their journey; there are, after all, only two options: you either simply mention the geography in narrative (and expect it to be quickly forgotten), or you do something significant to make is memorable.
A plot seed can introduce an opponent that the GM finds intriguing, or can provide a plotline for an existing opponent.
A plot seed can move the style of the campaign in a direction that the GM finds desirable, or can represent a variation on the usual style of the campaign. Variety, it is said, is the spice of life – and it’s as true of variety in adventures as it is to anything else.
A plot seed can match a theme that the GM wants the campaign to have, or at least to touch on. It’s sometimes said that to consider something a theme, it has to recur at least three times before it becomes established – which can be a problem if the GM has only two ideas for showcasing that theme before it becomes important to the campaign. Or perhaps the theme was established a while back, and the GM simply wants an isolated example to make sure that it remains front-and-center in the players’ minds.
Sometimes a GM will throw a treasure into the game off the cuff – it happens to all of us – and then have absolutely no idea what to do with it. Other times, a GM will find that a treasure is far more overwhelming than he thought, and needs a way to “get rid” of it. On still other occasions, the campaign will need a particular set of circumstances to come up in order to make a future plot viable or just more dramatic. A plot seed can provide any of these opportunities. And sometimes, the plot seed itself will simply offer an opportunity that the GM had not previously considered, or had thought impossible to achieve, given everything else in place within the campaign.
Some ideas just have a jaw-dropping WOW! factor that can’t be denied, it’s as simple as that!
And finally, another of those very straightforward values: some ideas just sound like being too much fun for them not to be used.
Beware The Clever
A brief side-note: I’ve seen and employed a number of plot seeds because they seemed like a clever idea at the time. These adventures never seemed to deliver on their promise; they were, ultimately, too contrived. So if the reason you like a plot seed is because it seems clever, maybe you should reassess your choice.
So, you’ve chosen a plot seed and identified what it was about that plot idea that you want to focus on, that makes it appealing to you. The next step is to lay down foundations connecting that plot idea to various aspects of the campaign, in other words to integrate the plot seed with the campaign.
There are two aspects to having the plot seed put down roots. The first is the way the appeal of the plot seed can connect to various aspects of the campaign; and the second is the way the specific content of the plot seed connects to those aspects. The first is general, the second is specific.
While it’s better than nothing if these connections are also generic, the more specific they are, the better. What you are defining is how these campaign aspects will relate to the plot, and how the plot will relate to the campaign aspects.
I’ve identified five attributes common to all campaigns that might serve as the basis for such a connection. I think of these as analogous to the nutrients that are going to feed the adventure; the more of them that there are, the better adapted the resulting “plant” – the adventure – will be to the environment of the adventure, i.e. the broader campaign.
If you think of the plot seed as the outline of a script for a TV show, and the PCs as the stars – with the contractual capacity to rewrite their parts as they see fit within the limits imposed by the executive director (the GM) – you have a reasonable analogy for the situation in most RPGs. The Executive Director can over-rule any specific script change, and can enforce some consistency of characterization, but if he pushes the stars too far (and they can sometimes be prima donnas) they may well walk. You’re pitching the plot to the stars of the show, and the first thing they are going to want to know is “how does my character fit into this story?” The more characters who can be given an answer to that question that is unequivocal and uncontrived, the better,
I use a fairly structured process to look for answers to this question. Passes one and two seek explicit answers; Passes three and four look for possible implied answers; and Passes five and six look for general answers. Each pass involves working down a list of the PCs and major NPCs in the campaign and asking the question, “how does this character connect to the plot in terms of [this way]?” – and making notes next to the name.
- Pass One:: What connections are there between a major character and explicit content within the adventure seed?
- The plot might involve slavery, and one character was an ex-slave. Or it might be about magic, and one character being a mage – or being suspicious of mages. You want as many of these specific connections as you can get. But because most adventure seeds are minimalist – to say the least – you probably won’t get too many of them.
- Pass Two:: What connections are there between the “liked element” and the major characters?
- Again, the technique is to go down the list of characters. Where you already have some notes, this helps put them into context; where you don’t, you have the basis for additional plot elements that can connect the character to the plot, when they weren’t by virtue of existing specifics.
- Recording: Passes one and two produce answers that aren’t likely to change, so I write them in pen.
- Pass Three:: What explicit possible connections are there between implied plot elements and the major characters?
- An implied plot element is something that has to be there, but that isn’t explicitly stated in the adventure seed. All plots take place somewhere, for example. They all involve a circumstance or event. They all involve an opportunity for some, and a danger for others. They all involve reactions to those opportunities and dangers based on past relationships and rivalries. Most will have someone who will function as an antagonist to the PCs as a group. And so on and so forth. Any of these not explicitly stated as part of the plot seed has the potential to be an implied connection.
- You are quite likely to end up with a lot of speculative answers that aren’t yet set in stone, and many of them will also be mutually contradictory. That’s fine – this is looking for possible connections, not definitive ones.
- Pass Four:: Which of the possible connections between implied plot elements and major characters are reflective of the “liked element” of the plot seed?
- This is all about selecting which of the possible preferred answers actually match what you liked about the adventure seed. Some of them will, some of them won’t. Eliminate any that don’t satisfy this criterion, at least in part, or that contradict another implied element that is a better fit to the liked element. Cross them off lightly, because you might have to go back to one or more of them.
- Remember, too, that we have two different criteria. One set of assumptions may yield a number of connections of acceptable quality, while another might only yield a few – but ones that are far more strongly resonant of the “liked element”. And there’s a lot of room in between these two “acceptable” alternatives. Choosing between them can be done by instinct, or it can be done with some additional hard work in prep; my preference is to use the second approach if I think I have the time up my sleeve to do so.
- Passes three and four produce answers that are very likely to change (and may already have done so), so I write them in pencil – and as lightly as I can get away with, without compromising legibility. After pass four, any implied elements that I feel certain enough of to lock them in stone – if, for example, only one location survived pass four – I will go over the pencil notes in pen, preferably a different colored ink to those of passes one and two.
- If you’re producing the documentation electronically, I use pale colors instead of pencil. That usually means that they aren’t actually legible until selected, but that’s something I’m willing to live with if I have to. There are a few colors, notable reasonably light grays, that are still legible though, and I will employ them in preference.
Pass Five:: What other connections are there (in general) between the major characters and the plotline?
- Ignoring anyone who has something written in pen in their notes section, or who at least has something in pencil and not crossed out, it’s time to look for and list any vague general connections between the remaining major characters and the plotline including any specifics noted in pen. In particular, I look for a character’s personality and how they will react to events even if they don’t affect them directly. Even if the character is neither particularly threatened or spies a particular potential advantage in the events, they may seek to deny an enemy a potential advantage, or they may have a specific normal response to the unexpected, or any of a number of other possible reactions implicit in their characterization.
- Pass Six:: What other connections are there (in general) between the major characters and the “liked element”?
- We’re really scraping the bottom of the relevance barrel at this point, looking for any possible connection to the plotline as it currently stands that we can build on. Ideally, every listed character will have something listed at this point (that isn’t crossed out); but for any that don’t, this is the final chance at this point in the plot evolution to fill any such gap. It’s also always possible that absolutely nothing will come to you; if the character is not a PC and you find yourself in this situation, I then look at whether or not a position of neutrality is unusual for the character, and if it is, I make a note of that being the character’s policy in this adventure. Any remaining key NPCs then receive the notation, “get them out of the way of the adventure”.
- Once again, these notes are not likely to change, so they get recorded in pen, or in dark colors. Ideally, I would use a third color of ink if possible, simply to distinguish between the different grades of information; if that’s not possible, then I have to be a little more explicit in my notes.
I employ a similar process to look at the campaign history and how it might connect with the plotline or the Liked element. Having outlined the procedure in detail under the “Characters” heading, I’m not going to go into it once again, it would quickly grow repetitive. Suffice it to say that every key item and individual within the plotline needs to have a history, and some need a connection to that history; but a whole history would be incredibly boring and tedious. This part of the process is meant to extract the relevant high points and at the same time connect the adventure to them. What’s worth noting is that if the GM has done his job right in the past, his PCs and key NPCs are also connected to that History and therefore can be connected to the adventure by means of that common link.
If the plot seed involves a magical artifact, for example, there’s the history of the artifact, its construction, its previous owners, who used it last, other notable times that it has impacted history, and so on.
Each time I add a new notation here, I look back at the empty slots in the preceding sections, looking for secondary connections. If there is a historic connection between impending plot events and elves, for example, or one can be created and inserted, and one of the characters with no notations is an elf, this provides an opportunity to pull that character into the plotline.
Most usefully, this can create different perspectives on the plot within the party. Campaigns often work best when the PCs are a representative microcosm of the campaign as a whole, with divergent views on many of the controversial or central topics within that campaign. This enables the PCs (and hence the players) to interact with each other in a manner that is meaningful relative to the world around them. What might be dull exposition by the GM becomes vital dialogue between the players.
I not only would never pass up an opportunity like that, I will (and do) go out of my way to seek out such situations.
After (brief) descriptions of each historical element of the campaign that is going to be linked to the plotline, I note those PCs whose peoples or professions will have strong perspectives on the history.
It’s especially important to determine what the consensus overall will probably be, what the PCs consensus will probably be, and what the differences are between those. If either consensus opinion is not going to be what is required/most interesting for the adventure, it may be that additional notable individuals or circumstances will need to be added specifically to sway things one way or another.
As was noted in the section on characters, everything needs somewhere to happen. But some plot seeds call for many places, and transits between them. It’s time to decide:
- where the initial situation (from the plot perspective) will occur;
- where the initial situation (from the PCs perspective) will occur, if that is different from the first;
- where the plot conclusion will play out;
- where the PCs will be when that happens, if that is different from the plot conclusion location;
- any way-points where significant events will occur;
- whether or not the PCs need to be in attendance for those significant events or if they can simply hear reports of them (or some similar contrivance);
- and, finally, to map out the travels of all involved parties and list any major locations in between.
Knowing where the action will take place, at least on a first-draft basis enables a rough map and hence a rough timetable of events to be drawn up. Both are vital to the finished adventure.
From connections to historical events it is only logical to progress to considering contemporary events within the campaign. A lot of this work will have been done in the previous section, but it always pays to examine what is going on in the game world and how it might be impacted by, or impact on, the plotline. Nor do these connections have to be actual; characters might assume connections and impacts where none actually exist.
For example, if we have a major villain who is opposed by the PCs, and who is of the megalomaniac bent, and the plotline involves the discovery or return of some lost power from the past, is he going to take an interest in it – if he gets to learn of it? You bet your socks he will! The players are likely to assume that he is going to take an interest in developments simply because he’s their enemy, even if there is no interest on his part beyond that. Some events may even make them temporary allies!
But it’s not just existing conflicts. A kingdom or city on the verge of financial collapse will always be interested in any new form of wealth, any new resource, that is discovered. A kingdom or city on the verge of starvation will care about new sources of food, or perhaps in new foodstuffs that can grow where existing crops have failed. There are any number of possible situations that would make the plotline relevant to something already occurring within the campaign.
Not to mention that one of the possible criteria for choosing a particular plot seed can be the way it connects the current situation within the campaign to desired future events!
The final place to look for places to put down roots from the plot seed into the campaign is in the campaign’s future, and how the possible consequences and ramifications of the plotline can play into those. Sometimes, an entire second adventure will be needed to restore the status quo afterwards! The time to determine those basic requirements is now, so that the prep work for anything that needs to occur after the fact can be prepped and incorporated into the current situation. This is also the time to think about the ramifications if the PCs foul up and don’t achieve what the GM expects them to – how can he engineer a 13th-hour chance at rescuing the situation if that should prove necessary? Is he prepared to modify the rest of the campaign to accommodate the fallout from their failure? Or does he need some magic reset button – without incorporating an unjustified deus-ex-machina? If you’ve been reading Campaign Mastery for a while, you’ll already know my view on those. But for those who don’t,
- A Monkey Wrench In The Deus-Ex-Machina: Limiting Divine Power and,
- Deus Ex Machinas And The Plot Implications Of Divinity
will get you up to speed.
What you have so far is like a set of ingredients for making a really fancy soup. There are some ingredients that you know you are going to use, some ingredients that you might use, and some ingredients that exist just to partner other optional ingredients. You might use a beef stock, and burdock, and white pepper; or vegetable stock, and chicken, and black pepper. But you know that your final soup is going to have carrots, and celery, and leeks, and mushrooms (though you aren’t sure which of the three varieties of the last that you are going to select from your shortlist).
To abandon the soup metaphor, and revert to the general one that I’ve been using throughout, it’s time to plant these copies of your idea seeds and see which set of roots yield the best crop of sprouts.
This is most easily done electronically, due to the capacity to copy-and-paste that comes with that approach.
Another way of looking at the situation, and one that explains the process more clearly than either of these metaphors, is to consider what you have currently as a polympsest in which several different versions of the text have been recovered and are now overlaid on one another on the one sheet of paper. What you have to do now is to extract each of these versions and see which tells the most complete story, which fits best with the campaign, and so on – and then to choose between them, and fill in any conceptual blanks that may remain.
If you are exceptionally lucky, you may only have two or three versions to compare. If you are a little less lucky (because it leaves you without choice), you may have only one. And, if things have gone rather messily so far, you may have many different options and combinations to consider.
The Common Ground
The parts that each combination will have in common are, of course, the notes that you have written in pen. But it’s not a matter of simply recapitulating these; you want to order them in a rough sequence of events. A happens, character 1 reacts like this, character 2 reacts like that, character 3 reacts to character 1, character 4 acts to prevent character 5 from benefiting; B happens, character 3 does this, character 2 does that, and so on.
You won’t be able to synopsize the whole story. There will almost certainly be gaps. We’ll get to filling those in a little while.
Once you have the central core of common ground, add some blank lines at the end – about half-a-dozen, so that it’s clear that this is not just a gap to be filled – then copy the whole thing and paste as many copies as you need into the working document. You should create as many copies as you have lines in pencil – even though this is more than you will actually need, because some of those pencil lines will be mutually compatible. Label the first copy “Master” and the rest, “Variation number 2″, “number 3″, “number 4″, and so on.
- Add the first penciled notation to the first copy.
- Then look at the next penciled notation. Does it fit everything in the first variation, or is there something that doesn’t make sense? If the former, it goes into variation#1; latter, it goes into variation #2.
- Look at the third penciled note; does it fit the first variation? If so, put it into variation #1. Does it fit the second? then add it to variation #2. Is it incompatible with both? Then it goes into variation #3.
….and so on, until all the penciled notes have been placed into one or more variations. Note that I use a different font color for the additions so that they are easy to spot and easy to count.
As soon as you have a variation with more than one penciled note added, you run into a fresh complication; future penciled notes may fit one of the penciled notes already added but not the other. If this happens, then you need to create a new variation that contains the new compatible combination, without the older contradictory element.
What you have here is the number of combinations of N elements taken up to N at a time – where N is the number of penciled notes that you originally made. The master will have none, some others will have one, a few will have two, some will have three, and so on.
It should be fairly obvious, reading over the variations, where the gaps are. There will be characters, locations, unexplained events, and plot holes which will be filled in some and empty in others. The goal of this process is to fill in these gaps and come up with a number of variations on the story until you find a few that work, that tick all the boxes. So the first step is to order the variations that you have put together in sequence of most complete to most incomplete. This is easy to identify because of the different color used for the ‘penciled notes’ in the previous stage.
Once you can prioritize your efforts on the most complete ideas, it’s time to fill the gaps. There are three basic sources of material to draw upon, each with strengths and weaknesses.
By far the best answer is to come up with your own ideas. They will almost certainly integrate with the campaign more easily and be more consistent with the established campaign, bringing with them some of the flavor of past adventures (and future adventures) that are completely your own ideas.
Resurrecting The Abandoned
Of course, if you have an idea from earlier in this development process that was rejected because you couldn’t see how to make it work, sometimes you’ll have a moment of inspiration to fill that credibility/practicality gap.
Flying From The Outside
The final source is from the outside. Maybe you can steal part of the plot from a published adventure, or from your own unused ideas file (you do keep one, right?) But the first place that I look is wherever I got the adventure seed from in the first place. There are times when two plot seeds can be hybridized to compliment each other perfectly, each filling the gaps in the other perfectly. Back when I reviewed Eureka, I suggested using the idea seeds to construct character backgrounds. That notion can be adapted to service some of the gaps in the plot seed that you are trying to implement here. For example, if your current adventure seed needs a Barbarian, you could look at barbarian plot seeds for ideas to use to plug that gap. If your plot is all about Dwarves and you need an interesting location for some plot development, look at “Dwarves” plot seeds for ideas.
I know I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s a tale worth repeating because it takes this approach to an extreme I’ve rarely seen before. In a previous phase of my superhero campaign, I had a rather large plot hole to fill and no time to fill it. The premise and ultimate conclusion were mine, but essentially there was an opportunity for someone to acquire ultimate power and a massive scramble amongst various forces, factions, and cosmic entities to claim it, or to deny it to their rivals – with the PCs in the middle. Throw in a cosmic cataclysm and Ragnerok and you can see how massive the plotline was. The problem was that while I knew who was going to win if the PCs got everything right, and I knew one or two of the contenders, I needed a whole heap more. So I dropped a published adventure from another game system into the hole. But that created another plot hole, So I dropped a couple of connected third-party adventures into that slot – but that created a couple more plot holes. By the time I had finished, 46 complete third-party adventures – some with a bit of rewriting, others with quite a lot, and a couple with virtually none – from six different game systems and six different companies – had been welded together with multiple cross-connections in a complex flowchart to form a single epic plotline. It was just a matter of modifying these outside adventures so that whatever the goal was of the antagonists, it would arguably put them into a position – if they succeeded – to claim the ultimate prize.
I want to reiterate: you don’t want just one answer. You preferably want two or three, and as different as you can make them. More is a bonus.
Once you have a few options to compare, it’s time to assess them. I score the complete plot outlines by eight criteria. Let’s look at each of them:
(i) Compatibility with the Seed
It’s very easy to dilute or over-complicate the original idea. So I score each of the draft plot outlines out of 5 for the purity of expression of the original plot seed – high being very good, low being poor.
(ii) Expression of the “liked element”
It’s vital that the reason you liked the original idea remains strongly expressed in the finished adventure. That’s why I put so much effort into identifying the reason or reasons in the first place. Once again, a score out of 5, with high being good.
(iii) Campaign Integration
It’s also important that the resulting adventure feels like it’s part of the campaign and not a “filler” episode. I rate each idea out of five for campaign integration.
(iv) Star Participation
Does every “star” of the campaign – the PCs and the leading antagonist(s) – have a substantial part to play in the plotlines that you are proposing? A rating out of five is called for, but I measure this against a fairly strict scale. A five is a “yes” to the question. I deduct a point from the score for one major antagonist not involved, or two if more than one are not involved. I then cut another two points off if there’s one PC without a substantial interest in the plotline, or three points if there is more than one. The result is a maximum score of five, and a minimum of zero.
(v) Internal Logic
How well does the plotline hold water? Are there any soft spots, is “coincidence” or some other relatively weak justification needed for anything? Does the reasoning stand up, or is someone doing something the hard way and ignoring an easier option without adequate explanation? I rank the internal logic out of five, with high being excellent.
Are there likely to be any undesirable outcomes? Is there any adventure detritus that is potentially campaign-wrecking? Is the adventure going to create headaches in the future? Outcome assessment is worth another five points, and I’ll take one or two off the ideal score if undesirable outcomes are possible, depending on how likely they are to eventuate – neutralizing that penalty if I have an idea for a subsequent adventure to undo the potential damage.
But even worse than a potential undesirable outcome is an insipid one. If there are no stakes, what’s the point? They don’t have to be world-shaking stakes, but the outcome of the adventure has to matter. I will absolutely eviscerate the points score of an adventure if the outcome just doesn’t matter.
(vii) Liking The Soup
How much do I like the overall end result? Do the mix of elements create interest? Does the adventure shed light on an otherwise dark or obscure corner of the world, or of the campaign background? Does the climax of the adventure satisfy? A score out of five measures my overall impression.
(viii) The Food Critic
Finally, I’ll run through the same list of things that I might like about the end result as was used to analyze the initial plot seed – and I’ll score one for each tick that I can give to say “this adventure has that”. Ten possible reasons for liking the end result, giving a score out of ten.
Since the plot seed is one that you liked at the start, and I’ve made strong efforts to retain that particular quality in the draft adventures, each one gets a starting score of 60. I add up the five-pointers from (i) through (vii) for a possible further 35 points and add the score from (viii) out of ten to get an absolute maximum result of 105.
Frankly, if I get a total of anything less than 85, I’ll cross that draft off the list unless that’s the best score of the lot – and even then, I would be tempted to throw it away and start again from scratch.
A score of 96 or better is good enough to run, so it’s ready for the rest of the process, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first, a score of 85 to 95 suggests that the adventure could be improved – so it’s time for a little remedial action.
Tweaking The Mix
If the score shows the adventure is almost there, but not quite as good as it might be, it’s useful (while the scoring is fresh in mind) to review the adventure with a view to tweaking it to raise up the lowest scoring contribution. It makes good sense to sacrifice one point in one rating e.g. complexity if you get three or four in another, and possibly an extra one in the final section. Adding an extra complication to make sure that every PC has a vital role to play is well worthwhile.
Hopefully, you will have ended up with two or three adventure outlines that have confidence-inducing scores. But, even if you only have one that is a clear winner, you can have confidence in the outline that you’ve produced, because you’ve checked that it has everything that matters.
Of course, the process of turning a plot seed into an adventure isn’t finished quite yet…
There’s only “a little more work” involved in taking the adventure synopsis and turning it into a great adventure:
- Ordering Ideas
- Initial Situation
- Educating Players
- Educating Characters
- Introducing Characters
- Geographic Logic
- Building Complexity
- Building Suspense
- Building Drama
- Setbacks follow Successes
- Emotional Flow
- Plot Twists
- Final Stakes
- Big Finish
- Ongoing Aftershocks
Yeah, that won’t take very long at all. (it won’t, honest!)
The first step is to get the ideas that comprise your synopsis into order. I start with a rough sequence:
- Before the PCs
- PC Intro
- In-adventure events
- The path to the climax
- The climax
These six categories permit me to take the synopsis – which is still pretty much a loose collection of ideas that add together to describe the key events of the adventure, in no particular order – and start putting some chronology into it. This is a trick that I discovered while building a bubblesort routine – ANY type of rough sort will increase the efficiency of the final sorting exponentially.
Once the rough sort is done, I drag-and-drop the notes in each section into a rough chronological order, or – if the note is about the background to events – to the first chronological point at which that note has an impact on the plotline. I will also make some additional notes as I go in some sections, so let’s look at each of them briefly:
Before the PCs
What happens before the PCs get involved? These events will all need to be told in flashback, or told to the PCs by an NPC, or otherwise learned by the PCs as the adventure unfolds. Chronology will be in the order the PCs are to learn of them, breaking ties using the order that they will be noticed by others, and breaking any remaining ties in the order the events actually occurred. Then I will number them according to the order in which they will have actually occurred. I will pay special attention to any event that the PCs may have become aware of without knowing its significance, through some mystic sense or prophetic vision or whatever – I either need to build a prelude into the adventure to accommodate that, or I need to insert the event into a prior adventure, or I need a flashback sequence somewhere in the adventure. The last choice is, by a LONG shot, the least-desirable, because players can always complain that they might have made subsequent choices differently if they had been aware of the event at the time. I tend toward continuity-rich campaigns, so the second option is my favored choice; those who prefer a more episodic approach should use the first as their default.
Notes relating to how the PCs get involved in the adventure. Where does the initial event or encounter happen, what happens, who is involved, and how does it point the PCs at the adventure itself?
These notes all pertain to the PCs figuring out what is going on while coping with the side-effects of whatever is happening. This can involve a lot of exposition if not handled properly, which is why I deal with it separately in a later step; for now, put the notes into some sort of logical order.
The path to the climax
Once they know what is going on, they have to do something about it. Which means they need to work out what they can do about it. These notes all relate to how the adventure will unfold.
What’s going to happen at the end? Notes about plot twists and the climax go into this section, as do any revelations that are to take place either just prior to the climax or in the course of the climax, and any information about who the ultimate antagonist is that aren’t in either of the preceding sections.
Finally, any notes that pertain to the long-term effects of the adventure on the campaign, generally divided into immediate, short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Immediate is fairly self-explanatory, short-term is days or a handful of months at most, medium-term relates to 6 months in duration up to a couple of years, and long-term means the consequence will last for years – all unless something can be done about them, of course. But here’s the thing: doing something about an immediate problem will have consequences that will show up in the medium-term; doing something about a medium-term consequence will have ramifications in the long-term; and so on. Furthermore, wise characters may be able to anticipate some of these consequences and prepare in advance to minimize them. So, as soon as I have the list of direct consequences, I start adding more notes about the reactions and indirect consequences. This can quickly become the largest section of notes about the adventure!
With the notes ordered and structured, it’s time to actually convert them into plot sequences. I’m going to assume that no prequel is needed; if one is, I’ll tend to leave it until last, anyway, so that I can be sure that it is consistent with everything else in the adventure.
No, I start with an outline of the initial situation as the PCs will experience it – where, when, who does what, and so on. None of the background to the plot seed is to be covered, that is all dealt with subsequently.
This takes the notes from the first section, PC Intro,, and converts them into an actual encounter or event that will kick-start the entire adventure. And I’ll also make notes on what to do if the players don’t take the bait.
Next, it’s time to start work on the second set of notes, In-adventure events. These fall into several categories, and rather than work through the notes sequentially, I deal with each category separately, for two reasons: to make sure that nothing gets left out, and to make sure that the content is spread out through the course of the adventure. What I DON’T want is for all the exposition about campaign history to happen at once, for example. There is too great a chance that it will be forgotten. It’s far better to operate on a just-in-time approach, where the players learn what they need to know just before they need to know it. Where it is logical for the players to get all their information in one lump, I’ll tell them that they have so received it, and even hit the high points at the time of that encounter, but spell out the relevant details using flashbacks to that briefing scene when necessary.
The first category looks at the question, “What do the players need to know?” This is information that their characters supposedly have – well-known bits of history, etc – but that the players haven’t been told about or might have forgotten. I need encounters that will educate the players, divided 50-50 into those that have some accompanying roleplay or action sequence and those that will actually advance the plot.
So I create a list of such encounters and what they are supposed to teach the players. Some will obviously be of one type or another, others are more flexible. What I am actually creating is a list of scenes that will need to form part of the final plot, but I’m not yet attempting to put them into any particular order.
After thinking about educating the players about what their characters already know, it’s time to look at the information that the characters don’t already have but will acquire in the course of the adventure – especially any that they need in order to get to the end of the adventure!
This information is handled in exactly the same way as the preceding category – encounters, types of encounter, etc. However, very little if any of this information should be handed out on a silver platter; there should always be some sort of challenge to be overcome. That might be winning the confidence of the NPC with the answer, or it might be recovering some lost tome, or doing some task in recompense for the NPCs time, or defeating some enemy, or whatever. I still aim for a 50-50 mix of roleplay and non-roleplay challenges, but I’m prepared to accept a much wider swing in this category.
This also adds to the mix the notes from The path to the climax.
Aside from the PCs and the antagonist, there are all sorts of characters now involved in the adventure. Those that hinder, those that help, those that seek to gain, the enemies of any of the above, and those with the answers – and that’s probably just scratching the surface.
Some of these characters will be known to the characters already, but the rest will need to be introduced. These introductions aren’t about the first encounter between the PCs and the NPC in question necessarily – it’s more about how they know that NPC “X” has information that they need.
Finally, I think about what will become my touchstone for ordering all of these encounters and introductions – the geographic logic. If you know that the characters are starting in location A and have to travel to location Z for the final confrontation, what lies in between? Which of these encounters can be assigned to a specific location between A and Z? Can any of the encounters travel to the PCs? Can the information to be provided travel to the PCs?
I always try to bear in mind what the NPC will do if he knows he has vital information concerning what’s going on. Very rarely will he sit and wait for someone to come and consult him! The NPCs personality and motives therefore have a direct impact on how their encounter will connect to the plotline. Some may send word that they have information, others will try to act on it, and so on – but they will almost always do something about it, unless they don’t appreciate the significance of what they know.
This forms a central spine to the adventure, one that can be complicated if the players don’t know that Z is their ultimate destination early on.
With the central spine of the adventure – the geographic logic – in place, it’s time to put all those encounters into the sequence that they will occur in the adventure. It’s important to avoid the semblance of plot trains, or even a trail of breadcrumbs, so the logical sequence is not always the best road to follow, though most encounters will occur in such sequence. From time to time, though, have the encounter precede the reason that it is significant.
I make a copy of the results from the sections Educating Players through to Introducing Characters and then use drag-and-drop to impose a more-or-less logical sequence. I add in false trails, characters who aren’t where they are expected to be, and so on; sprinkle with minor side-encounters that have nothing to do with the main plot; spice things up with encounters that serve to introduce the character of each significant location; and so on.
With a breakdown of everything that leads up to the climax, in other words everything that is supposed to happen in the course of the adventure, it’s time to read it in sequence. I’m looking for two things: always, does it make sense, and secondly, does it ramp up the suspense before critical encounters? I will tweak the sequence of events accordingly.
Then I’ll repeat that process, this time looking at the building of drama.
Setbacks follow Successes
Every time the PCs score a success, there should be a setback, however minor. The easier the success, the more strongly this rule-of-thumb should be applied. If necessary, I will insert additional encounters.
I’ve written a couple of articles on emotional flow. I don’t want the adventure to be emotionally monotone; there should be moments of sadness, moments of nostalgia, moments of tranquility, moments of fear, and moments of excitement. More rearranging. If necessary, more added encounters.
The majority of plot twists should emerge naturally from play; if you aren’t railroading the PCs, and they aren’t following a trail of breadcrumbs, there will be times when they go off the rails. They will make assumptions, and act on them. They will misinterpret events and information, and act on their errors. They will confuse one motivation with another, and weight the value of the information they receive accordingly (I love putting vital information into the mouth of a congenital liar every now and then). Everyone will have their own agendas, and those can be misidentified and misinterpreted. Priorities can be set incorrectly. And that’s without taking misinformation and misdirection on the part of the bad guys into account!
Whenever any of these happens, I ask myself whether or not the character would know better. If so, I tell that character flat-out that they have made a mistake. When that isn’t the case, I play along for as long as possible. I will revise NPCs to fit the incorrect assumptions. I will revise encounters, likewise. I don’t change the real antagonist, or his motives and objectives, but everything else is fair game.
There are always certain key events that signpost the path to the correct correct solution. Until the adventure reaches the point where the PCs can proceed no longer without discovering the truth and getting back on that path, I let them go whichever way they want. The PCs in my Shards Of Divinity campaign are under the impression that their employer is testing their skills and reliability. Whether or not he is, or the testing stopped some time back and they are now working without the safety net they think they have, remains to be seen!
Every one of these mistakes becomes a plot twist, whether it be major or minor, when handled this way.
What you have laid out so far is the fastest route to the truth. Taking these possibilities into account creates multiple branches for the PCs to choose between. Beyond making sure that any essential information that gets lost along the way is available by some other means, let them diverge from the path prepared for them as much as they want.
That is made a lot easier by having some rough plans in place in advance.
When you have a plot twist generated by player error, the truth always comes as a revelation. But these revelations always need some sort of delivery mechanism. That could be a character behaving in a way that makes perfect sense if the truth is known, but that is contradictory to the player error; or it could be some sort of confrontation; or the recovery of vital records and documents. More than once a character has delivered vital information from beyond the grave by means of his notes or diary or records, or even a ghostly apparition.
As soon as I identify a point at which the players go off on a tangent, I begin preparing the plot twist and associated revelation.
It’s important that everything make sense in the end. This is especially true when the player confuse themselves, and even more-so because players are more likely to remember their pet theories as the truth, even when it is directly contradicted by subsequent events. A key element of the buildup to the final confrontation is always the achievement of clarity.
The other thing that’s vital is making sure that the final stakes are both important enough to justify all the effort that’s gone into reaching the climax, and that the stakes are clearly understood by the players.
Next, I outline the big finish. In particular, I want to make sure that the climax is suitably cathartic, suitably dramatic, and suitably balanced. This should be the payoff for everything that’s happened in the adventure.
Whoops, I almost left out something vital. I always check for any possible way to tie in any goals that the PCs might have. I’ll do this repeatedly during the process, as part of each major step in the planning.
The adventure now exists in note form. C follows B which follows A. All that’s left to do is to make notes on the various places and NPCs involved, and prepare any narrative that is needed to describe events, places, and people.
Finally, I prepare an annotated version of my campaign notes that spells out the actual after-effects on the campaign. These are the things that subsequent adventures have to take into account. Until the adventure concludes, I will keep using the old ones; the new versions won’t come into effect until the adventure is complete.
A note on scale
Some adventures are bigger than others. This procedure is designed to cope with adventures of the grandest possible scale; smaller adventures may not require anywhere near as much development. Some steps can often be done simultaneously, or skipped altogether. At its smallest, all you really need is to know what’s really going on, and how the PCs are going to become involved; everything else can be created as needed on the fly. Knowing what procedural steps can be skipped or shortened is one of the key skills of an experienced GM.
This procedure gives you everything you need to take that one- or two-sentence plot seed and turn it into something as big as The Lord Of The Rings, or as small as a one-room dungeon. The scale of the sapling that sprouts is inherent in the idea seed itself; some ideas are more epic, more sweeping, than others. The time to realize that this adventure is going to be too big for you is before you start play, because that gives you time to start on a different idea.
When I first mooted the idea of Ragnerok in my superhero campaign, I expected it to follow in about a year of real-time, two at the outside. Instead, the buildup took most of a decade; I kept putting it aside, as it grew too large to be completed, and concentrated on building the foundation to it in smaller adventures along the way. Because it’s better to do something else than to perpetrate a half-baked adventure on the players.
Use the tools provided to take an idea you like and expand it to whatever scale fits your available time. If it’s too big, break it into smaller adventures and develop those. You can build a mighty forest, one seed at a time.