In a previous blog, I’ve written about my Superhero campaign currently facing a big finish (A Grand Conclusion: thinking about a big finish). This post will be a sequel of sorts, because any big finish naturally invites the question, “what’s next?”
In this case, “next” is a sequel campaign. Many of the preceeding characters will make the transition, but two of my players are taking advantage of the natural discontinuity to introduce new characters.
So the campaign parameters are pretty well established, and I’ve been feeding my players the campaign background in dribs and drabs for the last 8 years or so. I’ve also been starting a number of subplots in the current campaign that will only bloom in the next one, and otherwise making various moves aimed at positioning established NPCs where I want them to be in the new campaign. All that means that campaign planning is pretty advanced.
There’s an art to the next stage of Campaign Development that I’m still trying to master, even after all these years. That next stage is:
- planning the campaign,
- breaking that plan into discrete scenarios, and
- sequencing those in a way that is both flexible and entertaining and logical.
There are so many competing factors to take into account, and so many ways of accomplishing any given goal. And, while there is lots of help out there in various sources and places, both wood-pulp and electronic, for getting this far, information on the best way to approach this next stage is in relatively short supply.
Player Characters & Key NPCs
It’s simply not possible to write this article without introducing the characters who will occupy the centre stage of the next campaign. I know – I’ve tried three times to do it, and every time, it ran aground like a rudderless yacht. So here goes:
- St Barbara: Team leader and most experienced member. Flight + Energy Projection + Force Fields. Danish porn star in her teens who lost her dreams of representing her country at the Olympics as a result; later became a UN field worker in Africa where she became caught up in a number of bloody insurrections and revolutions. Naturally charismatic, level-headed, and uninhibited, she never wanted to be in charge but was thrust into command by her teammates and has proven good at the job. Being a hero is her personal validation. Character created & Played by Blair Ramage.
- Blackwing: Team strongman. A dimensional boundary controlled by the mind of the person who he thought he really was, giving him immense resiliance, strength, and shape-changing powers. Suffered a massive fall from grace in the current campaign, from which he is slowly rehabilitating himself and coming to terms with the fact that he became everything he hated, and his own worst enemy. Character created by Nick Deane, reconcieved by Jonathon Windybank, and revised by his current player, Saxon Brenton. Being a hero is his path to redemption and the source of his temptations.
- Runeweaver: Mage and new Field Commander. A member of an elite paramilitary force assembled to fight Ragnerok, questing for Asgard, which was cut adrift and lost at the height of that cataclysm. Currently suffering from a growing addiction to mana-boosting events. Character created & Played by Nick Deane. Being a hero is a reflection of his quest for a purpose.
- Vala: New character created by Ian Gray for the campaign. Non-human Psionic. (Many, many details withheld to ensure the other PCs are surprised).
- Unknown: New character to be created by Steve Beekon. No details known at this time.
- Hevth: A Kzin Martial Artist who hates the team (and all humans) but who’s planet was saved by them, and who feels the need to repay the debt. Hevth is a new NPC who will be joining the team, having been trained by one of the team’s ex-members, Dragon’s Claw. Being a hero is a debt of honour.
- The Bright Cutter: Starship and AI, existing NPC. The Bright Cutter’s personality is somewhat happy-go-lucky and has been slowly developing from an initially very naive, child-genius state. Notable as the only character that every team member, past and present, have gotten along with. Being a hero adds excitement to logic.
- The Knightly Building: The team’s new base also has an AI, one whose external interface can be customised to suit the individual residents, but whose personality core remains the same. Being a hero creates an intolerable degree of chaos but he will simply have to live with it, because that’s what he was created to do.
- Karlos Green: A mid-level administrator in an organisation called IMAGE, who will be posted to the position of liason to the team, seconded from the Office Of Eccentric Affairs (a department within IMAGE). Practical, efficient, dispassionate. Being a hero means projecting hope and idealism into an atmosphere of cynicism and despair – it complicates his life immensely, but someone’s got to do the paperwork.
I have a long list of scenario ideas, comprising:
- fifty standalone scenario outlines (usually just 1-2 lines) that are just plain interesting ideas;
- 30 new villains to feature in various (unwritten) new scenarios;
- a number of established villains who will be making return appearances because they are so much fun;
- a plot arc* to resolve Runeweaver’s Mana-boost addiction;
- a plot arc* to complete Blackwing’s Rehabilitation;
- a series of small plot arcs* focussing on St Barbara;
- a plot arc* to focus on Vala’s problems with the theological authorities;
- a plot arc* to deal with Vala’s origins;
- a plot arc* to resolve Hevth’s animosity;
- a plot arc* to develop Bright Cutter’s Personality;
- a plot arc* to stabalise relations between the team and Karlos Green;
- a major plot arc* to deal with an anti-royal conspiracy within the Civil Service;
- a plot arc* to resolve the search for Asgard;
- another major plot arc* entitled “The Apocalypse”; and,
- aproximatly 30 plotlines that have been left unfinished until I get a good idea for the resolution.
All told, that should add up to around 150-200 scenarios, each lasting an average of 2.5 playing sessions, which (at a rate of one per month) should be enough for around 36 years of play – by which point I will be in my early 80s (and one of my players would be approaching a century of age).
Clearly, no-one in their right minds would plan on such a scale, and neither have I.
* A “plot arc” comprises a number of episodes of subplot which may eventually lead to one or more full scenarios. Small plot arcs might be nothing more than a subplot played out within 2-4 other scenarios, standard plot arcs provide subplots for 6-10 scenarios and then culminate in 0-2 scenarios in which they are the featured plot, and a major plot arc comprises episodes of subplot lasting 10-20 game sessions and may provide the central focus for at least three full scenarios.
Each represents one journey of transition or development for a character; some are designed to bring the character full circle, having no direct lasting impact, while others are designed with the cooperation of the player to make some lasting change to the circumstances, psychology, or personality of the character at the heart of the plotline. Most of the plot arcs listed above are of the latter type, and I’m not going to specify which ones aren’t in case my players are reading.
Overlaps and Cuttings
There are several reasons why such a mammoth scenario list is practical. First, I expect that not every idea will work out; in fact, probably 1 in 5 will not make the finish. In the current campaign, I had a major villain organisation set up called “The Deathmurken” (Deathmark, in German) – the name sounds cool, and I had an interesting backstory for them – and never thought up a decent scenario in which to use them. Result: they are still sitting on the shelf.
Then there’s the question of overlaps. Counting each item sequentially the way I did for that estimate is not all that accurate; there will be a LOT of overlapping. That should drop the number of scenarios that I get from the list by another 20% or so.
A third factor is that characters change, players come and go, and what seems like a brilliant idea right now might seem passe or downright idiotic by the time we get to it. Add to that the fact that the players will determine the outcome of scenarios and can derail the best-laid plans through brilliance or abject stupidity or simply wanting to get involved in something else. That should kill off 10% of the remainder – and it would be higher if the players weren’t active participants in much of my planning (sometimes without knowing it).
Pacing is another consideration. You don’t want your big scenarios to be an anticlimax, and you don’t want them to be predictable. Some ideas will get cut because they will impart just such a negative effect on a scenario that is more important to the overall campaign. Since I can’t always shuffle the order of events to salvage the idea, or incorporate it in another scenario, the result will inevitably be another 10% culling.
Finally, there’s the fact that in a lot of cases, what’s been counted as “a scenario” in the first tally will in fact be nothing more than a subplot within another scenario. As much as 70% of the total will not have enough depth or substance to comprise a full scenario on it’s own.
36 years times 80% times 80% times 90% times 90% times 30% gives about 6.2 years worth.
There are also a few considerations to go in the other direction. I almost always underestimate the number of game sessions a scenario will involve – by about 50%. There will be sequels to a number of scenarios – one of the new villains turning up more than once, for example – which should be another 20% increase. And finally, it’s a sure bet that I’ll think up more scenario ideas in the meantime, even though I’m not trying to – so add another 10% for that.
6.2 years times 150% times 120% times 110% gives a bit over 12 years worth of play, once a month, in the new campaign. That’s about what I was expecting, and what I was aiming for.
So I have about the right number of ideas on file for the new campaign.
Which brings me to the question that is at the heart of this post. What I don’t have yet is any sort of plan or structure for how these are all going to fit together, what order they will happen in, and where I can build in the flexibility for the campaign to grow and evolve in it’s own direction. That’s what this post is all about: how I go about resolving that lack.
Enumerating The Ideas
I start by enumerating the ideas – scenario 1, 2, 3, and so on. When it comes to plot arcs, I count tbe number of major scenarios that are involved and assign each of the preceeding subplots a lowercase alphabetic subdivision – so a given plot arc might have scenarios 4 and 5, and preceeding subplots 4a, 4b, 4c, 4d, 5a, and 5b. I’ll also enumerate anything that is clearly missing from the campaign plans – for example, I have no idea as to Steve Beekon’s new character, but I’ll want at least one plot arc involving that character.
Next, I’ll rate each idea for a number of factors – emotional intensity, action, ‘cosmic’ content, scifi content, fantasy content, and mood or tone. Some of these factors are standards, employed every time, some are unique to this campaign. I usually use a 1-5 scale, but in some cases a 1-3 scale might be more useful. This permits me to ensure that the campaign never becomes too monotone. The final factors are rated on a scale of 0-9 – and they are Priority (how important it is that the scenario happen early in the campaign) and Importance (how important it is that the scenario happens at all). I will sometimes assign a negative value to Priority if it’s important that the scenario come at the end of the campaign.
I’ll then add to the list of numbered scenarios by looking for establishing requirements. If a scenario involves the Lunar Colonies (one does) then I may want a preceeding scenario or subplot to establish them – depending on whether or not the existing idea already leaves time enough for the characters to get used to them. Adventure settings, key NPCs, important themes – these may all need to be established in advance. The ratings previously assigned will be a major factor in these decisions; if a scenario is slow-moving, the last thing it needs is establishing requirements to further slow it down, but if it has a lot of action, then some slower material to give the characters a chance to catch their breaths can be useful – if it fits the internal logic of the scenario that the characters can TAKE that time.
The next step is to construct a sleletal outline of the campaign, by listing the scenarios in a particular order. The order in which they are scheduled to occur is dictated by the priority, and the order in which they are placed on the list is dictated by the importance rating – first, all the scenarios rated 9, then the ones rated 8, and then the ones rated 7. That’s where I will stop. I’ll also juggle these as necessary to ensure a logical flow – if there’s a risk of the Lunar Colonies being destroyed in a scenario, I’ll want to schedule that scenario after any other scenarios that I know will be set there!
I’ll then look at the other ratings for these scenarios and determine how many intervening scenarios I think are necessary to seperate those which are too similar in the other ratings. This step is so important that I’m going to go into more detail on the subject for each of the ratings.
Emotional Intensity (1-5 rating)
I use a rule of thumb in scheduling these: The number of scenarios on either side of a high-rated scenario on this scale should be (at least) equal to the rating minus 0 at the start of the campaign, minus 1 in the middle, and minus 3 at the end.
That means that for scenarios rated a ‘3’ on this scale, there should be at least three scenarios rated 1 or 2 before and after each, at the start of the campaign, at least two in the middle of the campaign, and I don’t need any gap at the end.
For scenarios rated a ‘4’ on this scale, there should be at least four scenarios rated 1 or 2 on this scale on either side at the start of the campaign, at least three with a low rating in the middle of the campaign, and at least 1 low-rated scenario at the end of the campaign.
For scenarios rated a ‘5’ on this scale, there should be at least five low-emotion scenarios on either side at the start of the campaign, at least four in the middle, and at least two at the end.
Level Of Action (1-5 rating)
The only rule that I follow here is that there must be at least a gap of 2 or more in rating sequential scenarios. At most, then, to seperate high-action scenarios, I’ll need one low-action scenario. I’m also more willing to ignore this rule at the end of a campaign if necessary.
“Cosmic” Content (1-3 rating)
While most of my players don’t have a real problem with large-scale epic scenarios, at least one has a noted dislike for them. To accommodate him, I space these out in a similar manner to that employed for emotional intensity. In fact, I usually double the rating and then apply exactly the same rule of thumb.
“Fantasy” Content (1-3 rating)
Okay, so what exactly do I mean by “Fantasy” in this context? I mean, “High Fantasy” would normally be covered by “Cosmic” content!
“Fantasy” in this context means a lot of things. If prophecies, or dream sequences, or the supernatural, or anything similar play a key role in the scenario, it will get a high rating. If the scenario is about sorcery, or horrors from the unimaginable depths of time and/or space, it will get a high rating. If the featured character is a mage, it will at least get a moderate rating and more often than not, it will get a high rating. And if there are major elements from mythology, I will give it a high rating.
In general, I prefer to space these out. To achieve this, I’ll determine the gap using the same rule as for “Level Of Action” and then double the interval.
Mood / Tone (1-5 rating)
I generally use this to rate the grimness or seriousness of a scenario – high means life-or-death, high drama, and deadly seriousness. Low means lighthearted, a scenario in which liberties can be taken if they are entertaining enough. (I once ran a scenario in which the PCs were trapped in a deadly snack dispenser! But a “Light” scenario could be an ordinary bank robbery or other routine superhero outing. Or it might have little or no combat. Another scenario from the current campaign was about the lengths that some students would go to in order to cheat on a critical exam; another was all about character’s secret identities.)
I follow a completely different set of rules in scheduling these. There can never be two scenarios in a row with exactly the same rating (exceptions grudgingly made for the end of the campaign), and there can never be a jump of more than two between the ratings of any scenarios in a sequence. That said, I tend to prefer keeping scenarios in tonal “groups”, with 3 being the dividing line. So a 1-3-2-3-2-4-3-5-4-5-4-3-1 pattern would be acceptable – the campaign would be relatively light-hearted for a while, then become more serious for a while, and then go back to being relatively light-hearted again.
The reason for this arrangement is that too big a jump creates a discontinuity in the campaign feeling like it’s all one big story, while having identically-rated scenarios side-by-side creates a monotony. At the moment, the PCs have just moved from a fairly grim and serious scenario involving alien nanotechnology gone feral and eating people into a medium-serious scenario involving a baby with the powers of Black Bolt).
Constructing The Skeleton
A word processor is perfect for this, because inserting a gap is simply a matter of positioning the cursor and hitting the “enter” key. However, later steps become a lot easier if I use tabs to create a new column in which I specify what has to be IN the gap.
I use codes of “L” for “Low” (1-3 out of 5, 1 out of 3), “M” for “Medium” (2-4 out of 5, 2 out of 3), and “H” for “High” (3-5 out of 5, 3 out of 3). A Dash indicates that no specific value is required.
Here’s what it might look like:
NB: I would not normally spell it out and space it nicely and tidily like this, I would be far rough-and-ready, and it would look more like this:
This example shows three scenarios – numbers 21, 14, and 45 – with gaps inserted that would be appropriate for the middle of the campaign. As you can see, pacing these according to my rules of thumb defines another 16 scenarios around them to at least some extent.
Scenario 21 has a high emotional content, ie it’s very important to at least one of the characters. That means that the four scenarios on either side of it should have low emotional significance.
Scenario 14 has a medium emotional importance, so it only needs a couple of intervening scenarios. In fact, it’s the other two scenarios that are dictate the gap, because they want to be farther away from any high-emoition scenarios.
In terms of action, Scenario 14 is a high-octane action-adventure scenario of some sort, while the others fall into the low or medium range. This sets up an alternating high-low repeating pattern.
Notice that because Scenario 45 is intermediate in this respect, it breaks this pattern – the scenario that follows it could be either High-action or Low-action, and this would start a new sequence of high-lows. Similarly, if any of the blanks were assigned a scenario with an action level of 3 out of 5, it would disrupt the chain that follows, all the way down to scenario 45.
Level Of Cosmic
“Cosmic” is a big thing for scenario 45, but because scenario 14 is low it doesn’t force an increased gap between the two. It does dictate that scenario 14 be preceeded by a “low-cosmic” scenario, and extends the number of scenarios to follow scenario number 45 by two more than the emotional content required.
Level Of Fantasy
This only really mandates the values for a couple of entries on either side of scenario 45.
Finally, it can be seen that this phase of the campaign starts off very grim and serious, lightens up a bit after scenario 21, lightens up considerably more after scenario 14, and then starts to get serious again.
Plot Arc Scheduling
The next step is plot arc scheduling. This starts with any of the scenarios listed in the skeleton that are part of a plot arc – let’s say that scenario 21, with it’s strong emotional involvement, is just such a scenario. The first thing that has to be done is to add any preceeding whole scenarios from that plot arc, and the skeleton has to be extended accordingly.
There are two key questions to consider. The first is the length of interval that seems appropriate in between the two (or more) major scenarios within the plot arc. In some plot arcs, the two should be virtually immediate, one after the other – often signifying cause and effect. In others, some time may have to pass between the two in order for the consequences of the earlier scenario to plausibly result in the second scenario of the plot arc.
The other factor is the rating of the scenario to be implanted into the schedule. Unless it would violate the interval established by the preceeding question, the new scenario should fit the “requirements” – assuming that this is scenario 20, and it has a rating of 21315xx, then it might fit immediatly prior to scenario 21 or two scenarios before that, both of which have a requirements code of LH–H. Or it might have to be even earlier in the schedule, if the two-scenario gap doesn’t seem to be enough. I like to actually group all elements of a plot arc in their own columns, because it makes life easier later on.
When a scenario is placed, the requirements for the surrounding scenarios are reassessed, and the campaign becomes more precisely structured.
Once the major scenarios of the plot arc are in place, it’s time to schedule the subplots leading up to those events. Again, the question of how much interval to leave comes up; all that can be stated in general terms is that they will happen prior to the scenario that they lead into.
A “plus sign” in front indicates that the subplot is to be a factor added to some other scenario, the absence of that sign indicates that a standalone scene in the middle of an unrelated scenario is called for.
Assuming we place scenario 20 in this way, and have both scenarios 20, and 21, and subplots 20a, 20b, and 20c in place accordingly, the top of the skeleton section might now look like this:
Note that this is a LOT faster buildup and resolution of a plot arc than I would usually use in real life!
It’s also worth observing that one scenario can have multiple subplots from different campaign plot arcs, but it’s important that the two not conflict. In general, it’s ideal to have a development in SOME character’s plot arc in every scenario, and to spread them out fairly evenly. But sometimes that’s not possible, and sometimes there aren’t enough subplots for them to come that thick and fast.
Filling Out The Skeleton
Once all the important scenarios and the plot arcs are in place, it’s time to fill as many of those empty spots as possible.
That’s done by looking at all the unscheduled scenarios, in order of importance. Starting at the top of the skeleton, I locate the first one into the first empty slot that matches its characteristics. There are a couple of caveats to bear in mind: the scenario has to fit any subplot that’s scheduled for that scenario; if it doesn’t, for whatever reason, then that slot is rejected for that scenario and I move on to the next slot that matches and try again to place it.
Eventually, all the scenarios will be placed, but there will still usually be gaps.
Completing the population
That’s where I will unlimber the technique I described a little while back (Vocabulary Hijinx: Using random word pairings for inspiration).
I can generate scenario ideas using it and match them to the criteria for a given vacant slot. If no ideas work out, I can always skip an empty slot and insert any subplots into the next scenario to take place, even if the fit isn’t quite right, but I will leave the space open until the last possible minute.
Sometimes, those vacant slots can also be filled with return visits from characters that were fun the last time around. On such recurring villain is named Jamison Riddle – sort of “The Joker” with Cosmic Powers – who is always fun, and whose name my players will recognise immediatly.
I will usually use an extra column to specify these just in case something better occurs to me at a later date.
A logical and comprehensive campaign structure
The result is a campaign plan that’s organised logically, that has sufficient contrasts in style and content to keep everyone happy without being jarring, that establishes important locations and characters before they become significant, but that is flexible enough for additional encounters to be inserted as good ideas present themselves.
This approach uses the tools of narrative and fiction writing to strengthen the campaign in ways that are otherwise a LOT more work. You can sneak clues to later scenarios into the early stages of a campaign, foreshadow important developments, and keep your supporting cast growing in realistic ways in response to events.
The system is far from perfect – in fact, it’s downright fuzzy in some respects – but it’s the best solution that I’ve been able to come up with, in terms of organisation. It’s also surprisingly fast and flexible.
But the biggest advantage that it provides is that by mapping out the key beats and turning points, I can give the players complete freedom and still hit those important events that keep the campaign going somewhere specific.