In the midst of all the angst on display in the last article, correspondent, friend, and involved party Ian M included this comment:
…as GMs, Mike and Blair are very good at making sure even PCs that (by skillset, background or whatever) are more or less side-lined for a specific situation are still well-engaged.
While I don’t think there’s anything too radical or innovative about how we approach that, the fact that our technique is successful enough for a player to comment on it means that it’s worth examining for the benefit of others. Quite often it’s these little touches that seem so obvious that they don’t need to be explained that can really help another GM, and that’s what Campaign Mastery is all about.
I’ve divided this article into two parts. The first is general introduction and also deals with plot prologues; the second will be larger, and deals with engagement both in and out of the spotlight during the actual adventures within the campaign.
Spotlights & Stage Lights
A good start is to think of each GM as having a single spotlight that they can shift around, or can shut off to let the whole situation be viewed as though under general stage lighting.
Each GM can focus his attention on one PC at a time, or on the whole group or subgroup. Giving another PC or subgroup spotlight time means shifting that focus. It’s obvious that you should give each PC or subgroup of PCs their own share of the spotlight.
It’s very easy to have one main plot that serves as the central spine of the adventure and lots of smaller subplots involving the other PCs. But that’s a fairly basic technique that has inherent limitations; it means that while the main plot is occupying center stage – which it will, most of the time – non-spotlighted PCs will be marginalized. So, while we will still resort to this approach if we have to, we have developed better techniques that we employ by preference.
(N.B. I’ve had to phrase this section a little carefully because the Adventurer’s Club campaign is a Co-GM’d game, which lets us focus on two things at once if necessary. However, we usually operate as one GM with two heads who take it in turns to deal with game play. It’s all a lot simpler in the more traditional one-GM games.)
Individual Prologue Stories
First, we like to have individual prologue stories most of the time. These are minor incidents and events that represent a slice of the everyday lives of the PCs. Most important, we aren’t afraid to advance those personal lives either a little or a lot when that seems appropriate.
These individual stories help establish “normality” within the campaign, so that the main adventure itself is viewed as something extraordinary. They also give an impression of the passage of time, and help maintain relationships with key NPCs, especially those who haven’t had any spotlight time in a while or who are going to feature.
We usually put quite a lot of thought into these Prologues. Here’s a list of the usual considerations that we take into account:
- Firstly, one of the prologues will often lead into the main adventure. That requirement takes priority over everything else, though the other sources of prologue ideas listed below will often provide the vehicle or context.
- When NPCs known to the party are going to play a significant role in the adventure to come, we try and re-introduce them in one of the relevant “prologues”, unless their involvement is to be a surprise.
- When a philosophic or abstract perspective is needed to provide a context for how the PC should perceive events in the main adventure, we try to give them a starting point through an incident that is analogous to, or a metaphor for, that context. For example, if the main plot is all about forgiveness or setting aside past differences, we might have another smaller encounter with a similar theme, just to help the player view things with the appropriate slant.
- A Prologue can also be a great opportunity to go into any background on the part of the PC that is relevant to what is to come, which also provides context.
- Is there a logical development in the character’s personal life?
- Has the player indicated that the PC is going to try and develop a particular skill, or investigate a particular subject? Take these metagame instructions and show the character putting them into practice.
- Is there a recurring NPC who hasn’t been featured lately? If none of the above are relevant or sufficient, give such an NPC a vignette appearance with the PC.
- Connected World: Just because NPC “Charlie Donovan” (made up on the spur of the moment just for this example) is part of PC “A”‘s background doesn’t mean that PC “A” has to be the one that he interacts with; Donovan knows the other PCs by virtue of their relationship with PC “A”, and so could get involved in any of their prologue stories.
- Has one particular PC been having a gloomy time of it lately? It may be time for a little sunshine in their life, even if only temporarily.
- Conversely, if everything’s been coming up roses for the PC, it may be time to rain on their parade a little. Life’s like that.
- We’ll also consider those last two points from the context of how the PC is likely to interact with the main adventure to come, and either foreshadow or contrast that interaction with the mood of their prologue, whichever seems most appropriate to us when writing the adventure.
Prologues are sometimes the first things we write and sometimes the last things. Often we will adopt a hybrid approach by outlining them at the start and writing any that lead to the main adventure immediately while leaving the rest until last, when we can see what else is required to balance the spotlight sharing.
What’s My Motivation?
Another key consideration in designing these prologue scenes is the answer to a simple question that we should be able to answer for each PC: What’s that PC’s motivation for getting involved in the main adventure? If, for example, their primary motivation is because of their friendship with another PC, then building that friendship through a prologue is definitely worth considering. Is it necessary, or is it well-established? If their motivation is to write a wrong, then touching on some wrong-doing or injustice outside of the situation and about which the PC can become indignant can be very useful. You can never establish a motivation for getting involved too soon!
A Party Divided
That means that effectively, the entire party has been divided, and each has his own little plotline running more-or-less simultaneously.
There was a time when this would have been considered absolutely verboten, and you can still read advice to that effect here and there. It remains one of the hardest things for a GM to do well.
Key to our approach is to spend only a few minutes, real-time, on each of these situations before moving on to the next, and working our way around the table so that we don’t miss anyone. You can read other techniques that are helpful in a divided-party situation in Ask The GMs: “Let’s Split Up.” – “Good Idea, we can do more damage that way!”
The Dynamics of a static environment
At all times, we want to progress at least one PC’s background situation through these prologues. For example, Father O’Malley resides in a vestry that he shares with a parish priest, but he has no parish of his own; instead, he acts as a substitute for any of the priests in the surrounding parishes as necessary, as well as filling in for his co-habitant, who is quite elderly. Over the last half-dozen or so appearances of that NPC, we’ve slowly been letting his health deteriorate just a little – one time, Father O’Malley had to take over a regular radio address for him, another time he had to perform services for the congregation on short notice, and so on. Where we will go with this plot thread – which has probably been so subtle that the player hasn’t consciously noticed it, but will now that I’m mentioning it – is completely undecided. He might get very sick. Another of the PCs (Doctor Hawke) may be secretly consulted, in strict confidence. The Priest might have to be sent away to convalesce. He might be far more ill than he’s been letting on, and suddenly go downhill, or even pass away, bringing in a new NPC who rubs the PC the wrong way. Or maybe he’s a hypochondriac. We haven’t decided yet.
The point is that it’s an evolving situation, and something that therefore takes a static situation (the micro-scale of the campaign world as applied to this relationship specifically) and brings it to life. Or, as I put it in another article, Time Happens In The Background.
It’s astonishing how much vitality you can give a campaign with just a little of this technique.
How long these should take to play out, game time, is a delicate question. The time scales should be as uniform as possible, unless the prologue leads directly into the main plot, in which case it may be an exception. If the spotlight of the main adventure is to focus more strongly or more often on one of the PCs than the others, something we generally try to avoid (and which is the main subject of this article), we will often give the non-focus characters larger prologue plots in compensation. As a general rule of thumb, we try to give each prologue at least 5 minutes duration, and have the total before the main plot gets underway be less than an hour – but if a prologue leads directly into the main plot, we will often only count half it’s anticipated duration toward the total, giving a little more time for the other prologues.
On top of all these considerations, we remain mindful of the overall pacing and emotional intensity of the main adventure, and adjust the prologues accordingly. If the adventure starts with a bang, shorter prologues are a better fit; if the adventure starts with a “slow burn”, longer prologues are acceptable.
When we had a string of adventures leading one-to-the-next, also known these days as the “Things Of Stone And Wood” plot arc, or the China expedition, we failed to include prologues after the initial “adventure” in the plot arc, and in hindsight, that was – not a mistake, but a missed opportunity. We could easily have had prologues relating to life on-board the ship, and the relationships between the PCs and the crews. This would have been beneficial because the prologues serve one other vital function.
Prologues as Punctuation
Because they were part of an established pattern of structuring adventures, it wasn’t all that clear to the players that these were separate adventures; instead they tended to view them as being one very big adventure. This had an impact on their thinking, because it made the adventure seem to drag on a bit. In fact, it took about 1 1/2 years, real time, to complete.
The down-time represented by the prologues punctuates adventures. If we had included them, the adventures themselves would have been perceived as far more discrete elements, and the players would recognize that we had simply made a temporary change in the campaign setting – instead of being based out of the Adventurer’s Club in New York, their home base was now the Antares, the freighter owned and Captained by one of their number.
For the record – it will be useful as an example in part two – here’s the actual breakdown of that plot arc, showing the individual adventures, and (for the first one, as an example), a complete breakdown of the structure – and note the usage of prologues:
Things Of Stone And Wood
- Adventure 1: An Asian Affair
- Act 1: Shadow Of The East
- Scene 1.1: Prologue: Captain Ferguson’s Telegram – recruits PCs for adventure.
- Scene 1.2: The 54th Street Mission – Father O’Malley Prologue, Hints Of trouble in China.
- Scene 1.3: A Private Airfield in Maine – Tommy Adkins Prologue, Hints Of trouble in Asia.
- Scene 1.4: The Offices Of John Macenhay – “Mac” Prologue, not played as player had retired from the campaign to pursue his university studies. Instead, i think we improvised one for new PC Dr Hawke, though I may be confusing the timeline on that point.
- Scene 1.5: Gather Ye Rosebuds – Captain Ferguson gathers the other PCs.
- Scene 1.6: Briefing – Warnings of trouble in China & Japan, PCs Sent to rescue Archaeologists.
- Scene 1.7: Bargaining – Ferguson decides whether or not to take the offer and how much he will charge. Preliminary plans are made.
- Scene 1.8: Preparations & Shopping.
- Scene 1.9: Departure, Planning en route (approx 14-21 days).
- Scene 1.10: Scouting – Only to be played if Tommy Adkins had decided to scout ahead in his airplane. I don’t remember if he did or not, to be honest. But we were ready, just in case.
- Act 2: Hong Kong
- Scene 2.1: Harbor – arrival, get instructions for secret rendezvous.
- Scene 2.2: Leung Fat’s Tavern – Secret Rendezvous for updated intel.
- Scene 2.3: Increasing Urgency – Receive and analyze the updated Intel.
- Scene 2.4: Brawl – a brawl is started by people in overalls.
- Scene 2,5: Ferguson Alone – the brawl was a distraction to permit the kidnapping of Captain Ferguson. In this scene, we brief him on his situation.
- Scene 2.6: One Of Our Sea-Captains Is Missing – PCs and Crew of Antares realize Ferguson is missing, begin thinking about what to do about it.
- Act 3: Rescue
- Scene 3.1: Dragon Lady – Ferguson discovers his kidnapper to be his arch-enemy and would-be love interest, Tomoko Kasugi.
- Scene 3.2: Offices of The Hong Kong Times – a friendly editor interprets the clues that the PCs have after the brawl and kidnapping.
- Scene 3.3: Hing Cho Pow Warehouse & Cargo – PCs raid the warehouse whose logo was on the overalls of the people who started the brawl.
- Scene 3.4: Ransack – PCs search the warehouse, discover evidence of piracy, one of Ferguson’s buttons, and get the phone number of the “Management”.
- Scene 3.5: Descent – Ferguson & Tomoko Kasugi, scene ends when he spots a possible chance to escape.
- Scene 3.6: Dinner & A Show – PCs At the Jade Palace, a nightclub owned by the Kasugis and used as a front for various criminal enterprises, and the place which belongs to the phone number found at the Warehouse. Without warning, the nightclub comes under attack by a third party.
- Scene 3.7: Release – Before he can take advantage of the chance to escape that he spotted, Tomoko Kasugi releases Ferguson in repayment for his saving her life in their previous encounter at Formosa. He returns to the Antares to find that the others are gone and about to put their heads into the Lion’s den.
- Scene 3.8: Let’s Get Ready To Rumble – PCs have to decide which group they will help, or will they simply try to take advantage of the distraction to search for Captain Ferguson. Either way, a complicated 3-way fight results. The new hostile forces are ID’d as “The Brotherhood Of Kali”, a band of Assassins.
- Scene 3.9: Rescuing The Rescuers – Both the Kasugi forces and the Assassins prove more dangerous than the PCs expect. All sides are being worn down when Ferguson leads reinforcements into the fray, defeats the Assassins and extracts the PCs.
- Epilogue: Get Out Of Dodge – PCs bring each other up-to-date and depart for China before they get held up by official inquiries and awkward questions.
- Act 1: Shadow Of The East
- Adventure 2: The Mysterious Orientspotlight-320755-m.jpg
- Arrive China, deal with Port Officials, Encounter another of Ferguson’s old enemies, Travel upriver, Encounter “pirate” fort which has constructed gates that block river traffic, raid fort, attacked by peasants, discover that the leaders of the peasants are wearing Jade (a still-ongoing subplot), escape and travel upriver, encounter a supernatural river-monster establishing principle of distance from civilization, defeat it, reach destination.
- Adventure 3: Chrysanthemum Palace Temple
- Make Landfall, Village, Fight off Dinosaur Raiders, Reinforce principle of distance from civilization, Climb The Alps, Reach & Climb the stairs to the dig site, find the ruins of “The Chrysanthemum Palace”, find that there’s a shortage of archaeologists but plenty of signs to say they were there, enter the Temple, bypass traps, Meet the archaeologists, get rudely interrupted by Nazis holding automatic weapons.
- Adventure 4: Ice Storm One
- Nazis (“Ice Storm One”) capture the party, Taunt the PCs, Show off for the PCs, PCs escape and defeat Nazis, but not before the Nazis awaken the Jade Dragon, sorcerer and last Emperor of the Chou Dynasty.
- Adventure 5: The Jade Dragon
- Jade Dragon reanimates his statues, PCs and fleeing Nazis play tag with the statues in the shadows as they flee, Form temporary alliance with the Nazis of Ice Storm One, Archaeologists and PCs figure out the secret vulnerability of the Jade Dragon, defeat him, capture the artifacts that can again restore him to life, and plan to dump them in the deepest part of the Pacific en route home.
- Adventure 6: Bloodsuckers & Bureaucrats
- Travel downriver, battle with Chinese Vampire, defeat Chinese Vampire, reach Port, battle Ferguson’s old enemy who has turned Bureaucracy against them, expose corruption, learn of imminent attack on China by Japan being fueled by Yakuza who have employed Ferguson’s old enemy.
- Adventure 7: The Gaigin Rebellion
- Enter Japan, undercover contact with Embassy, get intel, observe newspaper headlines critical of the rush to war, decide to contact the editor, discover him to be a rival Yakuza head, attacked by Ninja in the service of the Enemy Yakuza Boss, drive off Ninja, forge alliance with “friendly” Yakuza boss and his Samurai principles, supernatural attack repelled, discover Ally has been poisoned, save his life, receive intel on Enemy Boss’ fortified island base, plan raid, execute raid, penetrate fortress, discover that he has demonic ally, defeat demon, get proof that enemy boss was pushing for war for his own greed and power and planned to overthrow the Emperor of Japan, escape with the evidence, give evidence to ally who publishes it.
- “Adventure 8”: Epilogue
- Depart Japan, prepare to dump artifacts but some are missing, deal with archaeologist trying to hide some of them because of historical value, evidence that Jade Emperor is already beginning to re-manifest, dump artifacts (hopefully ending the threat), return home.
Plot Prologues: Conclusion
If you don’t employ plot prologues, you’re missing a great opportunity. While they might not be for everyone or every campaign – I don’t use them in my Fumanor campaigns – they are definitely worth trying if you haven’t done so before.
This was just the Hors d’oeuvre – the main part of the article is here!