This entry is part 4 in the series Lessons From The West Wing


In the first part of this article, which is only the first installement of a series, I discussed the delivery of uniqueness in an RPG campaign, and derived a definition of doing so to perfection that was achievable in more than a hypothetical sense, that was actually a practical goal:

“Perfection in an RPG is achieved when Player contributions synergise with the original vision to produce a sum that is greater than the sum of its parts”.

I then went on to list four elements that were required in order to achieve this goal. The second part of the article examined the first of these elements, the Initial Vision, and how to achieve it, before running out of room, and the third part examined the creation of a common foundation between players and GM on which to construct the campaign. In this penultimate part, I tackle the first of the two remaining elements, evolving the initial vision, and the campaign that has been derived from it.

(It should be noted that this article is a LOT bigger than was originally expected!)

An Evolution Of Vision

To some extent, I’ve already addressed this topic in a number of other posts here at Campaign Mastery, which gives me some small hope of being able to deal with it fairly succinctly. On the other hand, there’s a lot to say on the subject….

The initial vision created by the GM should be a starting point, nothing more. The status quo of the various relationships and populations and organisations should all evolve as the campaign progresses. The first wave of evolution should come from the characters created by the players and should do nothing more than ensure that one or more players are connected to everything significant that’s going on in the campaign world, directly or indirectly. If no PC connects to a campaign premise, then you either need to replace that premise, or insert a campaign element that bridges the gap. While it’s a little soap-opera-ish, you really do want one or more PCs to have a personal stake in every big issue that the party are going to confront (whether they know it or not).

Often, characters will have a choice of two or more allegiances concerning an issue. For example, if there is a developing schism in the church over the question “do abominations have souls?”, each cleric has the choices “yes”, “no”, and “undecided”. While some of these can and should be determined in advance of play, if necessary through discusssion with the GM, it is often preferable to place a scenario early into the campaign so that the character can make his decision in play. The big difference between doing it prior to game start or in-game is whether or not the other players are to be aware of the decision – if it ultimately is going to affect the whole party, then an in-game choice is generally going to be preferable.

Beyond evolving the vision to focus key parts of it on the PCs, there should be a natural evolution as time passes. NPCs should act to further their goals, other NPCs should react to those actions, which will in turn prompt further reactions, and so on. Ideally, you want to arrive at a situation in which the players slowly become aware of a developing situation and become embroiled in it just as it is coming to a head; achieving this requires planning in advance. A campaign is like a multi-course meal, all the parts have different cooking times, and have to be synchronised in order to put each course on the table at the right time.

In addition to that, you want affected groups – and their allies and enemies – to react to PC actions, which in turn will evolve the campaign and the context within which the PCs make future decisions. There’s little more satisfying than being able to draw a straight line connecting one event with another with another (and so on) that starts with the very first scenario of a campaign and links all the way to the inevitable consequence in the final scenario. “It’s all been leading to this!” is really enjoyable when you can show the players that the current snafu is their own fault!

While you can often get along well enough by simply updating the initial vision as PCs encounter aspects of it, I have found that a campaign is far better executed if you develop and maintain a campaign plan.

The Initial Campaign Plan

Hopefully, the result of the work that’s been done so far has generated a campaign plan in which a status quo is established for the PCs to get involved with. That campaign plan comprises a list of scenarios and plot arcs designed to reveal hidden information of interest to the PCs, to evolve the game setting during the course of play, and put the party and opportunities for adventure into the same vicinity on the game map.

In order to be effective, a campaign plan has a minimum of three supporting elements: a background description, a set of rules customisations, and a campaign concept:

  • The Campaign Background was described in the previous part of this series, where development techniques were offered for its creation. The Background provides context for the campaign plan.
  • The House Rules were compiled in several phases, also in previous parts of this series. They translate the background and concept into game mechanics that are compatable with the core rules of the campaign.
  • The Campaign Concept is at the heart of everything that this series of posts is about. Initially a bare-bones idea, it has been expanded and built apon through the course of the article series into a robust construction of cause, effect, concept, direction, background and rules.

Evolve Or Perish

It is a popular saying amongst my gaming companions that no plan survives contact with the enemy. The same sort of phenomenon occurs with campaign plans once you actually commence play; they have to evolve to suit changing circumstances or the campaign will eventually become extinct (hopefully replaced by another). There are so many different events that require revisiting and revising the original plans: better ideas, forgotten ideas, logic errors, character action and reaction, evolving player wishes, evolving characters, players leaving, new players arriving, characters dying prematurely… I could probably spend an entire blog post talking about each of these exclusively, but I’ll leave that for another day or twenty, and limit myself to a more abbreviated examination this time around.

Better Ideas and more of them

The longer a campaign runs, the more likely it is that the GM will have some better ideas for plots and background events than those he incorporated into his initial vision. He knows the game world more intimately, he knows the players and their characters better, he knows where the House Rules have worked and where they have failed, and he has had to scramble a time or two to wallpaper over cracks and defects in his original planning. All this experience means that the GM is inevitably in a better position to create the campaign after the fact – but why wait? Even a partial tune-up is still an improvement; review and reasessment of the campaign plan should be ongoing throughout the life of the campaign, even if it’s only to junk the ideas that didn’t work and replace them with something better.

Forgotten ideas

It’s happened to me more than once: At the game table, you come up with a brilliant idea to advance the overall plotline in an interesting direction but you have to impliment it right now as the confluance of opportunities will not last – but by the time the next session rolls around, you’ve completely forgotten the specifics of your stroke of genius, or realised that the problem you’ve just solved was supposed to stay unresolved until later in the plan. It’s worse in my case than for most GMs because I have multiple campaigns that are always screaming for my attention, and because each one is typically only played once a month, but this is a problem that every GM will confront eventually. When it happens, there is only one solution: A Mea Culpa to the players, begging for a reminder of what happened last time, the recreation of the stroke of genius or something closely resembling it, and the revision of the campaign plan to take it into account.

Logic Errors

Sometimes, the logic that was used to connect circumstance A with events B will fall apart under scrutinity. This is usually the result of being so close to the initial concept that you can’t see the forest for the trees; it is often necessary to put some distance between the creation of the initial concept and its execution before these logic errors can become aparrant. The best solution to this ongoing and everpresent problem is, once again, a regular re-examination and revision of the campaign plan. If nothing else, it helps you keep the big picture in mind, which helps avoid some of the problem with forgotten ideas.

Character Action & Reaction

The characters have done something unexpected, often either brilliant or incredibly stupid, and as GM you’ve had to roll with the punch, forcing the campaign into unexpected directions. It happened at the start of the Zenith-3 campaign, where (despite all the players deciding that they wanted to initially adopt a low profile), one of the PCs decided to go trolling through Boston Common looking for muggers.

Sidenote: The player in question used to have a problem with refusing to take carrots that I dangled in front of him, something that I was able to exploit for many years to get things moving – and he could never figure out why his characters were always in trouble. He has been actively working to improve his gameplay in that regard ever since another of the players pointed this weakness out to him, and it has become an ongoing joke in many of my campaigns since. (I havn’t gone quite so far as to attach labels to a plot macguffin which read “Warning, Carrot!” but I’ve come close).

But there’s a corrolary to this behaviour: Because I could always use this technique to involve his character in whatever trouble was brewing, I had become a little lazy as a GM and found that whenever he offered up the opportunity, I would instinctively swing for the trees – even if that was detrimental to the campaign in the long run. When he tightened up his game, it forced me to get smarter, and better, as a GM.

This was one occasion when I couldn’t resist, in the heat of the moment, popping the slow ball that he served up for a home run – to use a baseball metaphor. Our costumed hero (in a world without costumed heroes) was accosted by a policeman patrolling the park (since muggers were few and far between in the 1950s-era of the game) and then dug himself in deeper and deeper by being evasive to the wrong questions and spilling too much when asked the right questions. Ultimately, he presented the other players with the choice of blowing their cover and any hope for a low-key presence and planned public debut, or letting him be carted off to the loony bin.

Here’s the point of this little parable: the players had wanted that low-key presence from the start, and I had planned to accommodate them – and both our plans had just gone out the window. The campaign plan needed an immediate rejig as a direct result.

Evolving player wishes

Once again, this is something more of a problem for me because of the long half-life of my campaigns in real time (as opposed to measuring them in game sessions), because player personalities and desires evolve in real time. When your hack-and-slash advocate unexpectedly matures and wants to get involved in campaign politics and social development, it can blow all your plans out of the water. In ANY campaign, the players can get tired of what they are doing and want to persue something else – which is a problem if you’ve got 17 sessions of ‘more-of-the-same’ already in the pipeline.

This problem can also arise if the players have not been sufficiently clear about their likes and dislikes from the start. I have one player who is a big fan of space opera (the fiction genre) but dislikes “cosmic” scenarios. I knew the first, he didn’t tell me the second (or didn’t know, himself) – and the campaign plan goes immediatly off the rails because all the scenarios expected to appeal to him are now things that he has to endure.

The only viable response to such situations is to evolve the campaign plan.

Evolving characters

Character evolution happens in all games, and sometimes it presents opportunities to the GM that he had not expected. And sometimes, it gives the player options and insights that the GM was not expecting the character to be able to take advantage of! Either way, the fundamental foundation of what the character is capable of changes, and the campaign plan has to evolve to take these new potentials and interests and capacities into account, or your big menaces will fall flat on their faces.

New players arriving

I’m a strong believer in entwining character development into the campaign plan – if a player tells me that he wants his character to be able to do “X,” then I will do my best to write in an opportunity for him to be able to do so, or to gain the power to do so. That means that with every new player joining the campaign, the plan has to evolve to integrate the personal journey that the new character wants to undertake.

Players leaving

The converse of that problem is when players drop out of a campaign. It MIGHT be possible to simply drop that character and his related subplots out of the overall plan, or it might be necessary to keep the character around as an NPC for a period of time, or even to have a new player take over the character (if one is available, interested, and willing). One particular character in the Zenith-3 campaign has had three different players, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs; another started as a will-be-a-PC-when-the-player-becomes-available, became a PC, then became an NPC, and then became a PC controlled by a different player, whose psychology and abilities never quite gelled with the capabilties of the character – turning what should have been a heavy hitter into a fairly mild team member. All of these changes mandate revision of the campaign plans, sometimes extensively.

Characters dying prematurely

And the final category (appropriately, given its nature). A character dying unexpectedly can be the most traumatic event a GM ever experiences at the Gaming Table; depending on how irretrievably the character was linked into the campaign plan, the loss might throw the whole thing into the shredder. Of course, if a character is that important, the DM can find some means of ressurecting him, but this carries inherant ethical questions and can ultimately do just as much damage to the campaign. The best answer is to write some rescue-from-the-afterlife scenario by means of which the character’s ressurection can be earned, or for one of the surviving characters to take on the burdon of seeing the character’s lifework through. Any solution other than a duex-ex-machina ressurection requires revision of the campaign plan, sometims quite substantially.

The Structure Of A Campaign Plan

There are a lot of ways to organise a campaign plan. The most straightforward is a simple list of scenarios with a 1-line summary and supplemental notes on the significance; the list serves as both index and plan simultaniously. Johnn has (I believe) suggested in times past using an Excel spreadsheet – column 1 for scenario number, column 2 for scenario title, column 3 for a brief synopsis, column 4 for the first plot thread connecting two scenarios, column 5 for the second plot thread, and so on. I have also seen html tables used in a similar fashion; and finally (perhaps strangest of all) a pencil-and-paper version using an exercise book or (3-ring binder), a book for recording phone numbers, and an address book.

Sidebar: Okay, someone is sure to be interested in the mechanics of that last approach – which does have its advantages, I must admit. You start by numbering the pages of the exercise book from 1 to whatever, in the top right corner. Number every page. If using a 3-ring binder, number the first 100 pages – and plan on only writing on one side of each page.

Page 1 gets titled “Index”.

Each scenario gets a page, and the titles and scenario numbers get written into the index as well as at the top of the page dedicated to that scenario. The first thing that gets written under the scenario title on a page is the synopsis of that scenario. Whenever you have something to note about a scenario, it gets jotted down on the relevant page.

Whenever a page is filled, the next available page number gets written in the bottom right corner, preceeded by an arrow, like this: “>15″, which indicates that the content continues on that page. If using a three-ring binder, you can actually insert a page and add a sub-page number to it – “15 (cont) 1″ or “15-1″ or “15.1″ or “15/1″ or whatever takes your fancy – just be consistant.

Every NPC that appears also gets a page, with their name, location, and title (if any) listed in the index. An entry for the name and title is also made in the ‘phone book’, providing an alphabetical list of characters and an index to the page on which they are written up. If characters use both christian and surnames, they should be listed both ways just to make them easier to find.

Each location that appears in a scenario gets it’s own page for description and history and the page numbers of significant NPCs to be found there. A thumbnail of any map can also be pasted in, which can come in handy when you’re in hurry. The locations get listed in the main index, of course, but they also get listed in the address book together with a map number and grid referance, so that you can immediatly find them on your campaign maps.

One advantage of these tools is that you will never forget the name of an off-the-cuff NPC again. But the big advantage is that they are living documents which can be updated in the course of play to reflect every broken window and burnt-down mill that the game creates. Yes, these things can all be done electronically – but it’s far faster to flip through pages looking for a specific page number than it is to scroll through an electronic document looking for one particular entry. On the other hand, electronic documents can be searched – so it’s probably six of one and half-a-dozen of the other which is the better choice.

Assuming that you are setting up this campaign plan before play actually starts, there will be a logical sequence in which pages will appear. The first page will get the overall summary of the campaign concept; the next pages will describe the key scenarios and plot arcs that make the world beyond the PCs dynamic, and provide the opportunities for development; the next section will logically be a whole-world map if you’ve done one, with any notes; that will be followed by the setting of the first scenario, then any key NPCs from that first scenario, and so on. Skimming the first twenty or so pages, just reading over the first paragraph of each, gives you the foundation of the campaign.

One final tip before I close this sidebar: I’ve identified 3 types of information above; more can easily be added. I like to preceed each entry in the main index with an “icon” indicating what the index entry relates to. The ones I use are:

  • an asterisk for scenario planning & notes, with a circle placed around it when the scenario has actually been played;
  • an empty square for a location, which is filled with an angled slash (“/”) when the PCs have actually visited it, and a slash angled the other way if they have made a significant impact on it (whether they have been to it or not);
  • a small open circle for an NPC, divided vertically into two semi-circles, which gets filled in on the right-hand side when one or more PCs actually meet the NPC, and gets filled in on the left if they have actually had a significant impact on the character (whether they have met him or not);
  • a wavy line for any notes regarding house rules;
  • an @ sign for a “to do” page.

Updating a Campaign Plan

I’ve talked a lot so far about creating and structuring a campaign plan, and about the reasons why one might have to be updated, and one good reason for that is that I’ve been (subconsciously) trying to avoid this section of the post, simply because the subject is so broad I’ve had trouble boiling it down into succinct paragraphs. But I guess it’s time to bite the bullet…

Despite the many possible causes of updates to a campaign plan, the changes can be categorised into four basic types: inserting something into the plan, cutting something from the plan, replacing something in the plan, and fine-tuning something in the plan.

Inserting something

When you boil it down to its most elementary units, the campaign plan exists to connect events and circumstances to one another in order to produce in a Subject (PC or NPC) one or more reactions or responses, each of which then becomes a new event. The key to using a campaign plan is to utilise those connections to stimulate the PCs into action, so that everything that they do has consequences within the campaign, and so that the story that the GM has created in the background matters to the PCs and provides a context to their own struggles and challenges.

It follows that inserting something into the campaign plan is a process of searching for those connections, and assessing the impact on other parts of the plan of the additional game-time delay that the events of the inserted scenario(s) occupy.

Establishing the connections is a three-step process, but is generally much the same procedure as that described in the second part of this series.

Go Backwards

You start by going backwards in time, looking for events and circumstances that would have been affected by (or worse, are contradicted by) the new insertion. You have three choices in dealing with unwanted impacts:

  • introduce a corrective plot mechanism to specifically constrict the impact of the change you are making;
  • introduce a deception plot mechanism by which the changed events can be misrepresented in history as the unmodified event;
  • change the rest of the campaign plan to accommodate the changed event.

Each of these is about the same amount of work. I personally dislike the first option once a campaign is underway, as there is an inherant risk of further unwanted consequences, and of undermining the change that you are actually desiring to put in place. It’s also very easy for these things to snowball – you make a change, then another to limit the impact of the first, then a third to increase the significance of the difference, and so on and so forth. It can quickly grow out of control by the time all the side issues are resolved, and it’s too easy to miss something important.

That leaves options 2 and 3 as the preferred solutions. Both have their advantages, but I have a slight bias toward answer two – not only is it a common aspect of human behaviour to put ‘spin’ onto events, but establishing that a group has been meddling with the official records gives other incongruities a plausible explanation when one is needed at short notice. It also limits, slightly, the amount of work needed to integrate consequences into the campaign plan; anything that derives from public perception or motivation is unlikely to be changed, only planned elements that rely on the actual outcome of events are affected (in general). So you work backwards, looking for imnplications in the past, then work all of these fowards and watch them sprout consequences in the modern campaign and into your future plans. The one thing to be especially careful of is to look for any impact on your final scenario, the campaign’s big finish – which (at this point) should probably be nothing more than a list of uncorrolated ideas. The final advantage to this is that it immediatly begins feeding plot elements into the campaign’s future, as you need some means for the PCs to uncover the truth (or at least uncover the fact of a deception).

That’s not to say that Option 3 doesn’t have its merits: There’s no need to differentiate between motivation and outcome in circumstances, so it can actually be more straightforward to integrate into the campaign. It keeps a complicated plan as straightfoward as possible, so if things are already a juggling act, this option can prevent the campaign from becoming overwhelming to manage and bogging down as a result. If the change has been chosen with care, it can also simplify an overcomplicated campaign, taking the place of one or more additional background elements that can be made redundant – though that’s rare.

Go Forwards

As implied above, the second step is to work forwards from the beginning, tracking the changes made and all the implications. It’s vital not to make any changes permanent at this stage; often, unwanted and undesirable consequences will result from your first attempt. The one thing that you can’t do is change anything that has made a difference in actual play to date; these events and circumstances are canonical and should be sacrosanct. If you can possibly avoid it, the second thing to avoid is changing anything that’s fundamental to an existing PC’s construction without their express permission (unless the change is being introduced to fix a percieved problem or imbalance that’s causing them dissatisfaction. Even if your change doesn’t succeed in fixing the problem, players (like anyone else) respond well to a genuine attempt).

Outside those two restrictions, you can change anything so long as what is left unchanged still makes sense.

Connect to the PCs

Once you have made your changes to the campaign background and to the foundations of the campaign plan, the next step is to connect these changes to one or more circumstances to affect PCs in the future. Ideally, if the change is to campaign hosue rules, you want to demonstrate (and live-test) them as quickly as possible, and it can even be worth inserting a 1-game-day miniscenario purely for that purpose. Equally, if the change is to one of the published campaign precepts, you want to at least consider making the impact more obvious within the campaign, either by bringing forward a scenario planned for later (if that’s possible) or by dropping in a miniscenario.

Cutting Something

This can actually be more traumatic than adding something. There’s usually a good reason for something being there (if you’ve done your planning right), and it can’t be cut without the care and precision of a surgeon. This is especially true if what’s been added are circumstances and connections to integrate a new character into the overall campaign plan, and sometimes it can be better to retain such characters as NPCs or even give the characters to a different player rather than damage the overall campaign.

Another sidebar: I know these are supposed to be “Lessons from The West Wing”, but this is a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way over the last few years. A couple of years ago, I resolved that it was going to be my practice to take a lesson from Babylon-5 to heart, and ALWAYS have an exit strategy in place for every PC in one of my campaigns. If necessary, that would be the NPC solution, or another player, but to always be ready for someone to call it a day.

Johnn wrote about the dangers of retconning your way out of trouble not too long ago in Retcon Rightly and cutting something out of a carefully-crafted campaign plan is one time when those dangers are at their most extreme. The process of doing so is relatively simple; assume that the item has already been cut and assess what impact this change has at the current time within game; then check EVERY future event, and EVERY event that has already taken place within the game, to determine whether it, or any of the circumstances and assumptions that led to it, or the consequences that flow from it, have been affected. If nothing else has been altered beyond rational measure, then the item can be cut. If this is not the case, a better option is to replace the item, following the procedure given in the next section.

Sounds like a lot of work? It is!

Quite honestly, I don’t have the kind of time that this requires. I put a lot of hours into my gaming, but there are limits to the available time and this goes a long way beyond them. The only time that I consider it viable to simply cut something is when I have built in the facility to write the item out at any point, in advance – and making such plans and keeping them up to date is a waste of time, most of the time. The only occasion when making such plans is warranted is when we’re talking about a PC leaving the game for some reason and leaving some future plot development without a connection to the players.

Under all other circumstances, I will generally just assume that the item can’t be cut from the campaign plan and look for other ways to make it relevant and/or manageable.

That said, some items are often included in a campaign plan simply as filler, or because they are interesting ideas, with no significant connection to anything else happening in the campaign. These can be safely excised and never missed. Whenever I place such an item in a plan, I ensure that I can immediatly recognise it as “safe to remove” by prominantly including an appropriate notation in the notes concerning the scenario. If, at some future point, the scenario assumes a more significant role in the overall plan, this notation can be crossed out; in the meantime, it avoids all that work, while preserving the notes itself for later recycling if I find I need a filler scenario.

Replacing Something

This is one of the most common forms of surgery that has to be performed on a campaign plan. In the first Fumanor campaign, a major subplot concerned the corruption of the Elves and their society; this subplot was to revolve around an elven PC. When the player in question left the campaign, it became necessary to replace everything relating to that subplot with something else. I couldn’t simply cut the subplot altogether because it was a key element of the big finish planned for the campaign – remove it, and that big finish would no longer make sense, and all the other campaign plot threads leading to it, and which the characters had already been discovering, would collapse.

The easiest solution would have been to replace the PC with an NPC, but that would ultimately have been unsatisfying because decisions made by the character in dealing with the subplot would narrow the choices available to the whole party in resolving that big finish; having an NPC make these decisions would have made this subplot a plot train that the players had to ride. The only acceptable solution, therefore, was to find ways to connect the subplot with other PCs who were still members of the party.

In part, this was achieved by considering the secondary impact of the developments within the subplot on other populations within the campaign; in part, it was achieved by changing the focus of some of the developments from a racial to a religious or political foundation to subjects of interest to other PCs; and, in part, it was achieved through the hoary old device of a dying companion begging one of her comrades to finish her life’s work and save her people.

And that is the key to the process of replacing something: you need to identify a stimulus that will achieve the same effect in campaign terms as that which had originally been planned. Depending on how much foundation you have already layed, this might be easy, or you might already be pretty solidly locked into using particular background elements, as I was – in which case they need to be tweaked to focus on another PC.

There can even be occasions when one character has become so central to the ultimate conclusion of the campaign that it is necessary to either find the character a new player, or to employ a deux-ex-machina to restore the dead character to life, or whatever; both are manifestations of a common solution, the need to undo the circumstances that have led to the need to change the campaign plan in the first place.

Refining Something

By far, this is the single most frequent form of change that will be made to a campaign plan. “Refining” something, in this context, means making it relevant to more elements of the campaign, or fleshing it out to add more elements that can be used to create verisimilitude. As any campaign proceeds, you will get a better grasp on who particular NPC groups are, their modus operandi, and so on – and inevitably, you will find that some have reason to intervene in a situation. If a campaign event is impacted by a past campaign development, that’s a connection; if it provides motives or inspiration or resources that can be used by a group later in the campaign plan to achieve their ends (or at least try to achieve their ends!), that’s a connection.

It is for this very reason that I try to avoid actually finalising a scenario until the last possible minute. The PCs are continually evolving, the world around them is continually evolving, and therefore the maximum potential for establishing connections is immediatly before the scenario in question commences. Prior to that, the best you can do is a quick summary of what you want the scenario to achieve.

As part of my post-play wrapup, I like to read over the remaining campaign plan and look for any way to connect what has taken place in the course of the day’s play with what is to happen in the future. This is when the events of play are freshest in your mind – even the next day can be too late!

Campaign Evolution

The more interconnected campaign elements are; the more they entwine and collide and coalesce – the more strongly the players become aware of their choices and decisions having repercussions and ramifications. This makes them feel more solidly part of the campaign. A campaign plan is not a plot train to be foisted onto the PCs, it’s a way of making sure that the campaign world always presents opportunities for adventure while the campaign world evolves in response to the choices and actions of the PCs. And it’s a way of keeping all this manageable.

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