A well-crafted campaign – or video game, novel, TV Show, movie, or short story – is composed of multiple layers acting in harmony and in concert. This is a simple point that is often overlooked, especially by novices or those focusing too intensively on a single medium, and not looking at the wider world around them.
Although there are many ways of dividing and structuring the layers within a single adventure or story, and many more ways of prioritizing and delivering each layers component of the overall story, I normally consider seven specific layers as the scaffolding apon which the specific elements of a particular story or adventure are erected:
- Action Narrative Layer
- Tactical Structure Layer
- Plot Narrative Layer
- Relationship Layer
- Character Narrative Layers
- Context Layer
- Background Layer
What are these layers and what goes into them?
The Action Narrative Layer
The Action Narrative Layer contains characters doing things. In a game, this layer is subdivided into two sub-layers, one for PC actions and one for NPC actions; in other media, these merge. That’s because there is a qualitative difference between the two insofar as one is under the control of the GM/author and one functions completely independently of that individual. This also contains any narrative describing the immediate, physical, consequences of individual actions. A GM who knows the PCs and knows the players of those characters can sometimes anticipate what the choice of actions will be and can plan accordingly. Railroading occurs when choices in this domain are constrained to an unrealistic degree.
Without the Action layer, we would transition immediately from a character who has decided to act into the consequences of those acts; while such telescoping of action can sometimes benefit a written story, and even can be sometimes handwaved in an RPG, it is more common to describe the action layer content in a flashback after characterizing the results: “It was a disaster. The team had made entry by stealth, only for…”
It is still more common to simply continue directly from the setup for the action that is to take place into a description of events as they unfolded. “The team make their entry by stealth. Suddenly…”
The Tactical Layer
This layer serves as an intermediary between other layers and the action layer. It contains descriptions of the circumstances which direct and constrain the choices of action, and narrative elements located within this layer are frequently concerned with motivations for specific actions, and are goal-oriented. Connections from this layer to the action layer specify what the broad action is intended to achieve by the character performing it. Connections from the Action layer to the Tactical Layer describe changes to the tactical situation that occur as a consequence of the action. In a story without personality, or a narrative without a story, these two layers can be entirely self-contained, resulting in an extremely shallow experience. In some stories, there may be no action layer at all, and even no tactical layer. These signify that both antagonists and protagonists are helpless to act in the face of events, and once again these stories are usually completely unsatisfying, though there may be exceptions.
For example, I once read a brilliant short story that gave a first-person tour of the protagonist’s madness. The character never did anything, and neither did anyone else, because actions were both completely abstracted and subjective; they could more properly be described as stimuli that were completely contained within the character’s perceptions of events (I can’t remember either name or author or I would cite them). There were never any descriptions of events, only descriptions of his perception of events. That alone was enough to provide a skew to the writing, a disconnection between a more subjective vision of reality and the insanity of the character that put the reader off-balance immediately. Just as in a sensory-deprivation situation, people will latch onto any source of stimulation, it created an immediate connection between the skewed worldview of the character and the reader that served the overall concept very well indeed. That was what made the writing brilliant. But I’m not convinced that this could be sustained over any larger work, or that it would serve at all in a roleplaying context.
This layer contains the meaning of events, all of which occur in the action layer. The motivations, and how the consequences have changed the situation in which the characters had found themselves prior to the events taking place. Without this layer, the action is mindless and exists for its own sake – something that RPG Wandering Monster encounters are plagued with, a subject that I addressed in my article series on that subject.
The Plot Layer
The Plot Layer contains the overall structure and goal of the overall story. It can be completely self-contained or it can connect to the plot layers in other stories or adventures to form a larger structure. Every story should, well, tell a story; it should have a beginning, middle, and ending. It may have one or more reverses. It may be divided into two, three, four, or five acts.
Stories that seem muddled, or directionless, or pointless, are all deficient in their Plot Layers, or missing these altogether.
It should be noted that not everything needs to be resolved within the one Plot layer; the function of continuity is to bridge the gap from the Plot layer of one story to the Plot Layer of the next. Only in strictly episodic narratives should such a line between plots be drawn, dividing one adventure from another. This also mandates static characters that never grow and change, so most RPGs violate the “strictly episodic” concept at a fundamental level even if the plots themselves are self-contained.
The plot layer contains plans that a character makes to achieve some goal, and the goal itself; the plan manifests as a plot connection to the Action layer via the Tactical Layer, and may be discarded or fail, while the goal itself persists. Other characters may act, or implement plans to achieve goals of their own, that may reshape both circumstances (the tactical layer) and alter the goals of the first character. In other words, the plot layer is objective-driven, and those objectives should be manifestations of the interplay between character and environment.
The Relationship Layer
This is where all character interactions take place that are not actions. It is where, unsurprisingly, relationships between characters are described and where they manifest and change. It is also where changes in relationships as a consequence of interactions (including Actions) take place.
Because each participant can have a different perception of a single relationship, relationships can be thought of as a property of the participant, moving much of the content from this Layer into the Character layer below it; but the fact that the relationship is a shared interaction, and can therefore be described by a hypothetical super-observer (even in a first-person narrative) as an independent entity linking the characters concerned, means that this layer can only be removed if the relationships within the plot never change in the plot. Even confirming or reaffirming a relationship is enough to mandate a relationship layer.
The true significance of this layer, though, lies in the connections from the Relationship layer to the Plot and Tactical Layers. Only if the relationships never shape or steer events within the plot are those connections absent, and when this is the case, characters appear wooden and lifeless no matter how well-realized they may appear. It’s one thing to create an interesting character, but such interest is superficial and hypothetical until it manifests in that character’s interaction with other characters in the story/adventure.
The Character Layers
The Character Layers are where the Personality and Capabilities of the character live. Changes in either of these, or in the character’s awareness of these, take place at this level. While it can be occasionally convenient to consider these to be one large layer containing all the characters within a story, it is usually beneficial to divide this Layer into sub-layers.
If characters never change, never evolve, never discover things about themselves, this layer is missing. That also means that relationships are frozen, so the Relationship Layer is intimately connected to these layers.
I usually classify the character layers into four groups:
- Color & Support Characters
- Exposition Delivery Characters
Each Protagonist should have his own layer. Using our dictum of a good story having some development or event in each layer of a story, that’s the equivalent of saying that each Protagonist should have some unique contribution to make to the story. This is a principle that has been a deliberate policy in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, and that has immeasurably strengthened that campaign. It is also a general (but sometimes unstated) guideline in my other campaigns.
If a PC doesn’t have some unique contribution to make to an adventure, he needs some subplot of his own within the adventure. If he doesn’t have a subplot of his own, he should at least have some development in his personal life – the establishing of a new relationship, a development in an existing relationship of importance to the character, or some personal discovery or change in ability. That then becomes the subplot. Without these things, the PC is just another warm body.
Sometimes it can be difficult to accommodate something for each character, especially with a large cast. This is especially true of episodic TV, where some characters might be superfluous to this week’s story (even completely absent) and where time constraints preclude expanding the canvas to cover the absence.
Things are often simpler in other media where there is only one protagonist.
Antagonists should never exist in isolation; they should always have some connection or relevance to the protagonist. That relationship – even if the two have never met, and don’t even know of each other’s existence – is what makes the antagonist matter, and what stimulates the Protagonist to care about the Plot. What’s more, the Protagonists should be shaped, influenced, and perhaps even transformed, by the relationship.
Additional life and interest can often result from considering the antagonist to be another protagonist, with all the privileges and responsibilities that go with a starring role. “Q” from Star Trek The Next Generation fits that description.
Still more depth can be obtained by a less stereotypical view in which a character has an antagonists relationship with one protagonist, has a support character role with another protagonist, and is occasionally an protagonist in his own right. “Quark” in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and “Charles Emerson Winchester III” in MASH both fit that description. “Winchester” also gains in comparison with the character that he replaced, Frank Burns, who served as Antagonist throughout his run, and is clearly one-dimensional in comparison to the former.
Color & Support Characters
Some characters are simply present to make situations more interesting, more realistic, or for the protagonists and/or antagonists to interact with, usually to display some aspect of the personalities involved. The more seamlessly these functions can be incorporated into the narrative, the more seamless and flowing the story becomes. These characters have no need to change and evolve, and are often static – though permitting them to do so gives a huge boost to the verisimilitude of the story and its setting. Sometimes, these can evolve to become minor antagonists in their own right, sometimes they were always intended to serve in that role; that occurs when the dominant characteristic of the minor antagonist is his role in the ambitions and plots of the major antagonist.
The other function served is to support the protagonist by taking any activity that is going to be dull, or beyond the capabilities, of the protagonist. He becomes, in effect, an extra pair of existential “hands” for the Protagonist. I would argue that Lestrade is such a character in the Sherlock Holmes stories (as are most of the other police officers).
Exposition Delivery Characters
The final category takes exposition out of the province of some omniscient narrator and delivers it by means of some distinct individual who exists for no other reason. The current plotline being prepared for the Adventurer’s Club campaign includes, by necessity, a couple of Guides whose job is simply to enable the characters to travel from point A to point B. Having done so, they become superfluous to the plot (though my co-writer and I have not yet decided what to do with them). Having given them interesting personalities for the PCs to interact with, at least enough to sustain interest for the extent of their involvement in the plot, we found that they made a convenient conduit to explaining the hazards of the environment in which the adventure takes place and exposition about the location.
It’s still the GM talking to the Players, but it is also the Exposition Delivery Character talking to the Protagonists, and that makes the content more interesting. It’s the difference between “show” and “tell” – there is an interaction and a relationship between the EDC and the protagonists. It might take an extra minute or two to impart information this way, but it is far more likely to hold the players’ interest.
Oh, and the duller and more technical the exposition, the more eccentric and vibrant the messenger needs to be. And the longer the exposition, the more you need to break it up into digestible chunks with something else happening in between. These days, I consider a full page of 12-point type to be the absolute limit (and the extreme) for exposition. A four- or five-line paragraph is better. If the exposition is going to be longer than half-a-page, it’s often better to provide it as written text instead of reading it aloud (because most people read faster than they speak).
The Context Layer
This Layer is often unnecessary. Like the Plot layer, this is about the bigger picture of what is going on and not the immediate interplay of action and reaction. Tone and style can sometimes be thought of as properties of content within this Layer.
If I had to encapsulate the content of this layer (and I do), I would describe it as the wider meaning of the plot. Subtexts and ironies, metaphysics and themes, morals, and insights, also lurk in this layer, running beneath the surface, as it were. The deeper and more complex the content of this layer, the more significant the writing is considered by literary critics; no matter how entertaining and popular, movies that lack a substantial Context Layer usually fare poorly at the stuffier (more formal?) awards shows. Die Hard doesn’t have much of a Context Layer. Fun movie, though.
A context layer that is antisocial in some respect can have profound impact on the reception of a work – for example, all the noise that was made about the Grand Theft Auto series a couple of years back, and more recently, Soldier Of Fortune. Whole articles could be devoted to the context layer elements that are inherent within games like D&D and Champions.
Like the Tactical layer, the Context Layer also exists to function as an intermediary, this time between the Plot Layer, the Character Layers, and the Background Layer. The characters have to emerge naturally and organically from the Background; they must have experienced the events that took place in that background prior to the opening of the story, and have been shaped by them. The plot should emerge organically as the inevitable consequence of the Characters and the Background. If either of these is not true, the character will be less than compelling, and will seem two-dimensional (no matter how complex it might be); and the plot will seem superficial. The more concrete the developmental connection between these elements and the background via the Context Layer that shapes and nuances them, the more real the characters and plot will feel, and that results in greater engagement in the end result.
The Background Layer
The Background Layer is the place for history, for events that are not instigated by the Characters, for the stuff that just happens. This content can be vague, muddled, misinterpreted, inadequate, misleading, or simply mistaken, but it can never be absent. It can be static and unchanging; but stories are always more interesting when the characters discover things about their world that they did not know, or did not previously understand. These discoveries can be so profound that they radically alter the character, or they can explain traits that the character did not understand.
The Background is the foundation, the bedrock, of the story. It’s “how everybody got here” at the start of a story.
It can also be frighteningly dull if imparted in a story or adventure from an omniscient narrator. When dealing with the Blog Carnival series on ‘My Biggest Mistakes‘ in September of ’09, I addressed this problem directly in the article Information Overload in the Zenith-3 Campaign. On the occasion that I discuss in that article, I tried to spice up the presentation of the campaign background by putting it into the mouths of various NPCs, each of whom had their own interesting delivery method to dress up what was otherwise a dull recitation of facts and figures, and while that helped, it was nowhere near enough, because it was still one character, always played by the GM, lecturing the players.
That’s why, for the new Zenith-3 campaign, I adopted a different approach: providing most of it in the form of articles that could be read at leisure, and building still more into adventures in small chunks. Some adventures in the planned campaign exist for no other reason than to place an interesting framework around some key piece of Campaign Background.
Every development or event in one of these layers should have connections to one or more other layer. Nothing should exist in isolation. Reaction should follow “action” of any sort. Each of those reactions should then be considered an “action” in its own right, connecting with still more layers. This is what forms the narrative or plot. It is these connections that give rise to the “scaffolding” analogy that I employed at the start of this article.
More to the point, after each “action”, the author or GM should examine each of the other layers and ascertain positively what impact, if any, that layer’s content experiences as a consequence. Character development should be an outgrowth of experiences, not independent of them; if character growth appears divorced from experiences that are a principle element of the plot, then a subplot should provide the experiences that makes them internally consistent with the overall plot.
This is both easier to do, and harder, than it might at first appear. Easier, in that the larger task is – by virtue of the layered approach – broken into simpler sub-tasks; Harder, in that it becomes easier to lose track of the overall structure in focusing on one small part of it. When writers speak of their characters seizing control of the story and moving it in unexpected directions, this is the phenomenon that they are discussing; some sub-task’s result has introduced a development or reaction that is not in keeping with the direction of the intended overall action. Unless they can pinpoint exactly what the rogue element is, it is often easier to let the story evolve in a new direction. When we’re talking about RPGs, with the protagonists placed by definition beyond the control of the “author”, the phenomenon occurs all the more readily and regularly; “Sandboxing” is all about confining the scope of such changes to a manageable level. Sometimes, logic flaws in the original plot emerge as the reason for the change in direction; this is another way of saying “given these characters, this background, and these events, the outcome will be at variance to what was expected.”
Often, the easiest way to proceed is not to have any fixed destination in mind in the first place – placing “these characters” in “this situation” and seeing what happens, using the context, plot, tactical, and relationship layers as guides to how to shape future events.
The Action/Reaction Cavalcade
Some events are so drastic and dramatic that they reach into virtually every layer, changing personalities and relationships and objectives. Such watershed events are usually the focus of the plot in and of themselves. Consider the murder of Doctor Kimble’s wife in The Fugitive – is there a single character or relationship that has been established within the movie who is not touched or transformed as a result? It creates new relationships, connecting new characters (such as the Tommy Lee Jones character, Gerard), with the Protagonist.
Using the Layers
The layers are a planning and character development tool. They should be used to plan what an antagonist will do; how events should be shaped, when the GM/Author has a choice of outcome or reaction; and how to phrase and deliver context. Given a preexisting set of protagonists (the PCs), a GM can work backwards from desired action to motives & goals, to Antagonist via Background. The way the layers interconnect defines what is needed within a narrative to advance the story in the most effective manner, though some “layer developments” will have such far-reaching consequences that there may still remain the choice of sequence and manner in which these simultaneous reactions are described. As a general rule of thumb, the immediacy of any action in consequence should be coupled as tightly as possible to the reaction that caused that action, but there are so many reasons for violating that general rule that it is often little more than a vague intention.
A barely-adequate example
Let’s consider a simple plot to see how it works: “Stop The Bad Guy”. I’ll assume three protagonists.
What are the logical steps to the plot?
a) Protagonists become aware of Antagonist’s scheme
b) Protagonists stop the scheme
c) Protagonists locate the Antagonist
d) Protagonists confront the Antagonist
Right away, it can be seen that there are three action stages (b, c, and d). So we can tailor antagonist and scheme to give each of the three protagonists centre-stage in one of these stages. Protagonist 1 is central to stopping the scheme, Protagonist 2 is central to locating the Antagonist, and Protagonist 3 is central to the confrontation.
Why should they care? “Because the antagonist is an antagonist” is a superficial answer; the story would be far more powerful and interesting if one of the PCs was personally affected, and that drags in the other two by virtue of the relationship between them. This motivation should emerge as quickly into the plot as possible, so that tells us that the scheme personally affects one of the characters in some way. It might be Protagonist 1, who is instrumental in stopping the scheme. It might be Protagonist 3, who has a relationship with the Antagonist by virtue of the confrontation that is to come. It’s not likely to be Protagonist 2, because finding the Antagonist is not as sexy as stopping him or his scheme.
In fact, Protagonist 2 is a little underdone in this outline. So let’s redress the balance by making him the conduit to plot stage a – he’s the one who becomes aware of the antagonist’s scheme and tells the others.
Continue to fill in the blanks. Having beefed up Protagonist 2’s role, whichever of the other 2 is NOT directly connected with the antagonist will be relatively superfluous in comparison with the other two. Throwing in a transportation requirement between the “locate” and the “confront” stage might resolve that. But, since we want the action relating to any given protagonist to be distributed as evenly as possible throughout the narrative, this argues against the candidacy of Protagonist 3, who would feature in two successive stages. So the transportation has to be attached to Protagonist 1, and therefore the personal connection is with Protagonist 3, and is part of the climax of the plot.
So we’ve got something in the Action layer, the tactical layer, the plot layer, the relationship layer, the character layer, and – by definition – the background layer. At the moment, the character layer is weak (only one protagonist will be influenced significantly), and nothing at all in the context layer. Filling in those blank spaces requires expanding on the simple plot, defining the antagonist, and connecting everything to the background via a context. But its getting hard to continue developing this example in the abstract, because the protagonists involved will shape the antagonist and both the protagonist 1 and the antagonist will shape the scheme. We’ve now reached the point where specifics are required.
From those specifics, you can address the great unanswered questions of “how”. How is Protagonist 1 central to stopping or undoing the scheme? How does Protagonist 2 track down the Antagonist? How is Protagonist 3 central to the confrontation?
Using the principles of having a central plotline (and this example is terribly vague), established protagonists and background, and an equal share of the spotlight, every plot can be broken down this way, and any blank spots identified and filled.
Creating a coalition
For example, let’s say that this is the first adventure of a campaign, and that the PCs have no reason to be connected. The antagonist and his scheme can be the glue that brings the Protagonists together – simply give each of them a personal involvement in the scheme. One might have a support character with whom he has a relationship involved directly, another might be involved directly himself, or have a professional interest in the nature or subject of the scheme, and the third could have a personality trait that compels him to get involved. The outline that we have of the action makes it clear that the antagonist is remote to the scheme, and initially anonymous or hiding behind a false identity of some kind, which makes him quite likely to be a mastermind, using a flunky to execute the scheme. One of the Protagonists – probably number 2 – might recognize the flunky as being formerly associated with the mastermind, with whom he has a past protagonist-antagonist relationship.
Using the layers with the Amazon Nazis campaign planning technique
Just over a month ago, I described a simple campaign planning technique in Amazon Nazis On The Moon that dovetails nicely with this structured view of adventure development. That approach was to come up with an adventure idea or outline, and determine which PCs (protagonists) would logically feature in that adventure because of who or what they were. The rest of that technique related to planning and sequencing the adventures, which doesn’t matter to us right now.
From the perspective of the layers approach, that gives us a content description for the plot layer, identifies the protagonists, and connects one or more of them to the plot, from the outset. From that point on, it’s just a matter of breaking down the plot into logical stages and steps, and filling in the blanks according to the principle of equitable screen time. (Unfortunately, the example for which that article was named doesn’t feature any PCs outright, or I would be able to demonstrate). As it is, one of the PCs in the campaign is a female, and a fairly liberated one for her era (ex-Mountie, member of Canadian Intelligence on furlough) – a connection to the Amazons would not be too hard to establish. The biological aspects of the Amazons could be a connection with the Doctor who is a member of the party. Another member of the party is probably the best brawler, and could be given a starring role against the Nazis. He is also an uncomfortable passenger when it comes to flying, so there’s the scope for some interesting character development when confronted with a Rocket Ship. That leaves only the Priest and Paranormal Expert of the group in need of a share of the prominent spotlight. Perhaps he has a contact who can get the PCs into Germany without arousing suspicion, another Catholic Priest for example.
All you have to do is connect a plotline to the protagonists, use that plotline and its context to derive the nature and characteristics of the antagonist (or the nature of the antagonist and the plotline to come up with the context) and fill in the blanks, proceeding systematically through the narrative, until you have not just an element within every layer, but a development of some sort within those layers, as part of the story.
Action, Plot, Relationships, and Characters – the more closely connected to the story these are, the better the story that results. Something worth aiming for, don’t you agree?