I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question, three articles at a time – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the second of articles in the current trilogy and the planned half-way point of the series overall.
In the previous article, I looked at adventures and found (unsurprisingly) that they don’t exist in isolation; the campaign is ever-present, providing context to an adventure whether we plan for the campaign to be episodic or not. There are all sorts of metaphors that one could use to describe this – the campaign ‘providing the color palette in which adventures are painted’, for example – but the bottom line is that the campaign shapes and contributes content to any adventure, no matter how isolated, and most of the growth in expertise in adventure design lies in recognizing and working with that fact instead of fighting it or ignoring it.
This part of the series will look at the backbone of adventures, the plot, but instead of trying to look inward toward the content of individual adventures, it will deliberately look outward at that context, viewing adventures as the building blocks of something larger. And you know what? I predict that we will end up finding that you can’t do that without considering the internal structure of adventures.
The Common Development Path
As usual, I’ll start by looking at how most GMs progress from beginners through to experienced GMs. This ‘common development path’ might not be ubiquitous, but it’s certainly routine enough to be the lowest common denominator.
The Simple Adventure
In general, when GMs start off, they aren’t thinking about a campaign. Their attention is strictly focused on the adventure in front of them, and quite often that’s enough of a challenge. I’ve had several campaigns come about because I had an idea for an adventure – and the players enjoyed it enough that they wanted to continue on, wanted to know “what happens next?”
The Accidental Campaign
So there is a natural progression from no real campaign to a campaign emerging more or less by accident. And make no mistake, these can be quite successful for quite a long time; you can operate this way for years.
Static & Dynamic Backgrounds
Along the way, perhaps suggested by techniques that the GM has read about on sites like Campaign Mastery, perhaps inspired by progressive television shows (though the technique has become far more common in recent years/decades than it once was), the GM will transition from a static background to a dynamic one.
A static background is one that doesn’t change when the PCs aren’t around. It might not even change when they are around, but they are certainly going to be front-and-center whenever anything happens.
A dynamic background changes all the time, whether slowly or dramatically. In part, this is because NPCs begin to be assigned their own plans and agendas, that develop and mature over time; in part it’s repercussions from PC-involved events; in part, it’s the GM’s desire to ensure that the next adventure to take place in a given location puts the PCs in an interesting situation; and, in part, it’s because it brings a greater sense of the campaign world being “real” to the players.
Most will have had this experience: you go shopping in a given location for a while, but then – for whatever reason – you stop going there. Some time later – weeks, months or years – you return to that location and find that, while some of the shops are familiar, some are gone and new ones have opened. There are two forces at work: evolution and resistance to change. Some places are institutions and are highly resistant to change; others are semi-permanent fixtures and are resistant to change; and some are transient and prone to change at irregular intervals. But you don’t really notice the effects if you see them happening one at a time; only when there is some interval does the accumulation of change rise up and smack you between the eyes.
It was mid-2011 that I moved into my current accommodations (I can hardly believe that it’s been five years already!) and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes to the local shopping center. While some things haven’t changed, other stores have come and gone and so have the stores that took their place. I can count 40 or 50 such changes over that period of time – enough that if I hadn’t been here, the main shopping area of my suburb would be almost completely unrecognizable by now. I can think of only a handful of locations that haven’t changed, one way or another.
That’s what an evolving campaign background is like. The changes can be so gradual that you don’t notice them happening, but eventually something draws your attention to how much things have changed since the PCs first encountered it, and the difference suddenly seems enormous.
The Clumsy Campaign
Over time, the GM becomes aware of the issues and problems that come with having a totally-free environment, such internal contradictions, plot holes, forgotten characters and plot threads, or painting yourself into a plot corner. Or they are made aware that an undirected approach puts a heavier burden on their creativity and demands more game-prep, week-on-week. Or he simply gets a hankering to run a bigger, more complicated plotline.
The problem that most GMs experience is that they have run anything with this many moving parts before, so they try to look at the campaign as though it were just one big adventure, and that’s an invitation for disaster. There are so many different ways that it can go wrong but ultimately, it’s simply because the resulting game sessions are too much of one thing. There’s too much that’s all talk before there’s some action; there’s too much action before there’s some significance to it; there’s too much doom and gloom before there’s any relief. The gap between information being provided to the players and that information becoming relevant is too great. In a nutshell, if there’s anything that can go wrong with the pacing, it does.
Because most GMs try to get new campaigns off to a vibrant, intriguing start, these flaws are often not initially evident, and that only magnifies the appearance that the campaign is a catastrophic failure. To rescue things, most GMs abandon their plans and simply take the state of play at that point as a foundation, going back to the “accidental campaign” model.
What happens next depends on the analytic capabilities of the GM, or to someone pointing them at a resource that explains to them where they went wrong, or playing that role themselves. Many of them will simply give up and decide to stick with simplicity and emergent plotting.
Others will discover what went wrong, or have it pointed out to them, or simply come up with a solution on their own. Which brings me to:
The Emergent Campaign
The simplest solution that GMs stumble across or come up with on their own is to set things up waiting to be triggered by the arrival of the PCs, and let the campaign emerge of it’s own accord from this rich field of potential.
And for a while – again, potentially, years – this can be the standard approach adopted by the GM. In fact, some GMs settle into this technique quite comfortably and never leave it.
The Catastrophic Collapse
Eventually, though, one of their campaigns will experience a catastrophic collapse. None of the potential plotlines lives up to its promise, none of the ideas work out, the campaign goes over-the-top in any of half-a-dozen ways because of the lack of planning, or the campaign simply lacks impetus and just meanders from situation to situation. It’s like a half-hour TV show that’s been padded out to an hour – not enough density of engaging ideas to sustain interest.
The Locomotive Campaign
When that happens, the GM will inevitably reach the decision that a bit more planning is needed, the next time around. In fact, they usually go too far, forgetting what they have already learned about plot trains, and creating what can only be considered a plot train on a campaign scale. It happens to almost every GM at some point; it’s certainly happened to me, I was just lucky enough that it occurred within an established campaign that was strong enough to survive the experience.
A Happy Medium
There is a happy medium, an equilibrium between too much plot direction and too little. Although the plotting in the Zenith-3 campaign that I revealed way back in Back To Basics: Campaign Structures may seem like a locomotive campaign, in fact it’s not.
That’s probably the most misunderstood article that I’ve ever posted. The idea was to describe, in increasing order of complexity, a number of different ways to structure a campaign in terms of the adventure content, so that GMs could compare the techniques and choose the one that was most comfortable for them, given their current level of experience, and what the next most complex structural technique was. Some readers seemed to think that I was describing how a complex campaign was created, and getting themselves confused, or thought that they had to understand all of them – neither of which was the intention. Maybe it would have been clearer if I had dealt with each of them in an individual article. But it’s worth calling this out and clarifying it for readers at this point because it presents a different perspective on the subject matter of both this article and the previous one.
The approach that I used to plan the Zenith-3 campaign was to create a series of plotlines, break them up into a couple of thousand little jigsaw pieces, then figure out how to assemble them into a big picture so that as each of the plotlines evolved, the overall picture would change and evolve into a larger storyline. That becomes the blueprint that is used to create each adventure – but none of those jigsaw pieces or even the plotlines are set in stone until the adventure actually takes place that incorporates them. Any and all of them can be changed, events can be added or subtracted to adventures, and so on.
One of these days, when I get to a relatively small and compact plotline, I’ll do an article about how I translate those ‘jigsaw pieces’ into an actual adventure, just to complete the picture.
Taking A Shortcut
A lot of people have told me that they have been able to use the many articles on the subject that I have posted here at Campaign Mastery to short-cut their development process. While appreciative of their efforts, and acknowledging that this is the purpose of those articles, I’m always a little concerned that people are trying to run before they can walk. I strongly recommend that GMs select one of the intermediate plot structures from the Campaign Structures article as an intermediate goal, and especially employ the simpler planning techniques described in Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited for a while before trying to advance.
That said, if you don’t make mistakes, you can never improve (unless you can learn from someone else’s mistakes, of course!) – so if a reader is prepared for the up for the challenge, more power to them. You can always fall back to a simpler technique if you find you have to!
Depth In Plotting
The objective is to achieve depth of plot while avoiding the traps of being locked into a plot locomotive. This is actually much simpler than it sounds. There are two basic approaches to the problem, and innumerable combinations and variations.
Russian Babushka Dolls
Method one is best thought of as a set of nested Babushka dolls. Each “doll” is a layer of plot, separated by a revelation, surprise, or plot twist. Let’s put one together to show you how simple it is.
The dominant element of this campaign plan is that every time the PCs think they have a handle on what the Campaign is all about, it changes gears on them. There are just two loose ends: the Kingdom of Skannex, which is used purely as a boogie-man, and where the Akhstones came from in the first place.
This is essentially the plotting technique that I use for the Zenith-3 campaign, in which there are a large number of distinct and separate plotlines in more-or-less simultaneous existence. Any given adventure advances only one or two of these plotlines at a time. The plotlines are based on the ambitions and plans of various NPCs and NPC groups. Concurrent with these plotlines are a series of character-driven subplots in which the PCs live their day-to-day lives; sometimes, these will intersect with the main plotline being developed, most of the time they simply provide context and continuity from one adventure to the next.
As examples of the latter, I have required the players to nominate hobbies that they want their characters to pursue; I have had them list skills that they want their characters to develop; and have added various official functions that they have to perform, such as regular media appearances, a favorite charity for which they will work publicly on a regular basis and for which they will generate publicity; and so on. The PCs are employed by a government agency that has embraced variations on the Japanese Management Techniques of the 80s – ‘these things are good for productivity, so you will do these things. These things have been shown to boost staff creativity and problem-solving ability, you will do these things.” This gives me a lot of things that I can show the characters doing, and I simply pick and choose the most interesting of them to actually show in-game; the rest are assumed to be happening in the background – at best, they simply rate a mention. “You are listening to an album of ‘electronic sound-scapes’ called Modus-5 by a Belorussian composer in 2022 – not because you like that sort of thing, but because it’s something you don’t normally listen to – when your comm-badge chimes….” and off we go into the actual plotline.
I won’t go too much more deeply into this, because it is described in detail as part of the article that I linked to earlier, “Campaign Structures”.
Everyone does it differently
“Where there is one solution, there are many” is a maxim that I apply regularly to problems presented to the PCs in-game, but it applies equally to problems of how to perform various tasks associated with being a GM, such as plotting.
Certainly, where there are two solutions to a problem, there are going to be more, and every GM will develop their own style and techniques.
Neither of the techniques described above match the plotting techniques that my co-GM and I use for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, because the Pulp Genre demands more straight-forward plots. At the same time, there are some elements of both the above approaches that are used; the personal-lives-as-subplots-as-continuity approach of Zenith-3 is a recognizable element of the Adventurer’s Club approach, and individual adventures will often use a simplified form of the Babushka Doll model as its internal structure.
Use these techniques as starting points to your own style and technique.
The New Beginnings Series
I should probably point out that the New Beginnings series assumes that a lot of these practices are going to be implemented. I talk extensively in that series about how to create a complex campaign based largely on the Spiderweb model, but with recursive elements from the Babushka model incorporated as well. I didn’t go deeply into why I was recommending certain courses of action in that series, it was going to be too long already – so you might find that this article provides context that helps you understand that series, or that the New Beginnings series expands your understanding of the contents of this article.
The Building Blocks Of Deep Plot
Ultimately, Deep Plots are just convoluted arrangements of pieces of adventure. To fully understand how to create a plotline of depth and substance, you need to understand how plotlines integrate with adventures, how one element of an adventure can shape and trigger the next. There are innumerable ways for these elements to be connected, but when you boil all the complexities away, you are left with two basic types of adventure structure (in terms of how the adventures integrate with the meta-plot), and two simple rules.
Some adventures are driven by the larger plot, and exist to advance it. Many of the later adventures in the Babushka Doll example fall into this category.
Others exist primarily for their own sake, as “something that is happening” while meta-plot events are taking place in the background. Take Adventures 5 and 6 of the Babushka example, or – for that matter – adventures 1, 2, and 3. At a meta-plot level, these do the following:
- Introduce the Crown Prince and the Political situation around the characters, and make both a part of the character’s world;
- Establish the personality of the Crown Prince…
- …so that when it changes, the PCs will notice;
- And finally, and very much under the radar, sneak in the clues that will lead to the final solution to the question of what has been going on.
In fact, the first five or six adventures all establish background. You could just as easily start the campaign with adventure 7, and fill in the rest in the character briefing – “You are in the employ of the Crown Prince, hired as a group to act unofficially when official channels are blocked or inappropriate. The Crown Prince established himself as an honorable man and a good ruler who cares for his subjects, but lately, something’s changed that has you suspicious.”
There are only two problems with cutting the campaign in half in this way: first, the whole thing lacks the impact that seeing it first-hand would provide; and second, it hides the essential clue from the players, turning the campaign into a plot locomotive over which they have little, if any, control. In comparison, the complete campaign as outlined may anticipate what the players will do, may even bait hooks to lure them down certain paths of their own free will, but at no stage actually forces them to follow the script; it’s just that it gives them no reason not to.
Rule One: Make the adventures fun
…and interesting, and unpredictable, with characters that the players care about, and care about playing; and,…
Rule Two: The Forest Mandate:
Always keep one eye on the Bigger Picture by stepping back and thinking not about the adventure you are creating now, but about how that adventure relates to the ones that have preceded it and to the ones that will follow.
When you get right down to it, that’s all that deep plotting really is: making sure that no matter how much attention you pay to the trees, you are always aware of the shape of the forest, and striving to make that interesting as well.
Campaign Outlines: objects of study
I’m going to end this article by pointing you at a couple of other campaign outlines that I have provided in the pages of Campaign Mastery in the past. I recommend studying them, looking not only at what I have done with each adventure described, but why I have done it – bearing in mind that my story-telling and plotting skills have also improved over the years!
- The Frozen Lands – This article spells out the campaign premise of this near-future Sci-Fi/Pulp/Action-Adventure campaign but doesn’t actually break it down into adventures.
- All Is Three – Again, this doesn’t break the proposed D&D/Pathfinder/fantasy campaign down, focusing more on the development of a campaign from initial premise. That said, all the ingredients are present for this to be a deep plot full of twists and turns, symbolism and meaning.
- The Remembrance Of The Disquiet Dead – This horror-fantasy mini-campaign could be made part of a larger plotline or could be run as a standalone. It goes into details of the content of the plot-driven adventures and encounters, but doesn’t list any of the adventure-driven plots that would be needed to flesh out the concept. Because it offers four radically-different solutions as to what is happening and why it is taking place, it contains a lot of flexibility.
- Control-Alt-Delete – This article spells out not only the campaign premise for this near-future Time-travel/Sc-Fi/Action-Adventure campaign, but also the first 20 adventures in varying levels of detail. How many more adventures will follow is up to the GM; I called a halt to developments when I reached the point where the PCs are about to know what’s really been going on and can start deciding what to do about it. I would suggest a minimum of 2 more adventures (one investigation and one action/resolution) but you could lump the whole thing into one big adventure or break it down into 5 or 6. This was presented to illustrate how to go from premise to deep plot, so it’s completely relevant to today’s article, and utilizes a hybrid of both Spiderweb and Babushka structures.
- Yesterday Once More – And here’s another sci-fi/time-travel/pulp/action-adventure campaign consisting of 14 adventures, each spelled out in a fair amount of detail – more than I have used in the example offered in this article, for example. It employs a simpler plot structure than either of the deep-plot techniques described in this article while incorporating elements of both Babushka and Spiderweb approaches.
The last two are important, I think, because they not only show that there’s more techniques to deep-plot structuring than the two simplified models I describe in this article but illustrate how most of them are actually hybrids of the two, and that you don’t have to have a really complicated structure to have a rich, complex, plotline.
The plot structure that you employ should always be the best one for the plotline that you are comfortable with as a GM.
Too many GMs, especially beginners, mistake complex plot structures with complex plots; they focus on the way the parts of the puzzle move and not what the finished picture will look like. That’s a sure way to get yourself lost in complexities and drowning in details.
Instead, GMs (especially beginners) should think about the complexities of their plotline, and their current level of expertise and experience, and – if necessary to the delivery of that plotline – deliberately choose a simpler plot structure so that they can focus on the things that actually need their attention.
The final part of the current three-part block of this series is due to follow in two weeks’ time, when I tackle the often-contentious subject of Rewards…