Plot Management for Those Who Like Storytelling: Nine Events to Configure

By Michael Garcia

Today we have a request for help from Gm Micheal Garcia, who is seeking advice on how to make his campaign reach a truly memorable climax.

We played D&D Friday night again. Our campaign is really picking up speed. It’s starting to hit the point of critical mass, which I enjoy a great deal. Plot lines that were long in the making are all converging and occurring almost simultaneously, so the PCs are now running to and fro like firemen (and it’s just beginning).

I’m certain that I have more than enough to keep them busy and having fun, but I wouldn’t mind some advice on exactly how to order the unfolding drama. I know there is no right or wrong way to order events, but some ways are more exciting than others. There may also be DM-like considerations I’m not thinking about, so I ask for your feedback. I only have one shot at this, so I want to do the best job possible.

I know I should be flexible. I know there is no set way or best way. I would like feedback from DMs and storytellers on what would make for, in their opinion, the most interesting story.

For example, would it be more fun to be hunting down the Black Hammers, while civil war is erupting and mobs are running through the streets, or would that take away from the main plot?

Would it be more exciting if the PCs hunted down the Black Hammers in the Crow’s Nest Tavern, killed them all, and later went up to the Castle of the Saint to mop up the Yepiskop’s men? Or would it be better if the Hammers (the big bad guys) escaped the Crow’s Nest after a brief engagement, thereby making the Castle of the Saint the final showdown?

Background

The PCs came north to the frozen region of Isenwald months ago.  About 20 years ago, the Strakannian Crown claimed a vast chunk of this wilderness and spent the next seven years conquering much of the coast.

The PCs are mainly southerners, working for a rich merchant lord named Martinengo Deltini (picture a Medici ruler of Florence, but reformed in his old age and now a philanthropist as well as a businessman).

To break into the northern markets, Deltini has partnered with a humble Strakannian merchant, Master Ludwig Krueger.  Basically, Deltini provides the coin and Krueger the needed membership in the trading confederation, the Norhansa.

When the PCs came north to the small town of Arianport, they placed themselves in Krueger’s service.  Their primary mission was to guard against sabotage by Deltini’s arch-rival, the nefarious merchant lord, Varro Marchesi.

Both Deltini and Marchesi maintain small private armies (Deltini has his Triton Company and Marchesi his Black Hammers), and the two groups loathe each other.  Three PCs are Triton Company members, one of which is Deltini’s bastard son and the party leader (Diego).  For months, the party saw and heard nothing of Black Hammers.  They had various advanetures, aiding Master Krueger or aiding the local baron on Krueger’s behalf.

The PCs

Diego (Fighter 8, Triton Company member, Party Leader)

Simi (Fighter 7, Triton Company Member, Diego’s Master-at-arms)

Sir Tomo (Fighter 7, Triton Company Member, Kuldaran Knight)

Darocles Soterion (Rogue 3, Aurelian Sage 8, Diego’s advisor on nautical affairs)

Gabriel Lucien (Rogue 7, Royal agent investigating the Horned God Cult)

Ogedai (Ranger 6, newly acquired henchman of Master Krueger)

Plot Lines

Black Hammers
The Hammers have actually been in Arianport almost as long as the PCs.  Knowing how much this northern connection means to Deltini, Marchesi sent one of his finest Black Hammer teams to sabotage it.

The team has six members and another 20 goons to back them up. In short, they first purchased a seedy bar by the docks to serve as their HQ.  Not long after, they discovered a local smuggler ring.  They decided to crush it and take it over, thereby providing themselves with a revenue stream to finance their operations in the region.

They also discovered a defunct assassins’ guild that the Baron crushed about 15 years ago.  Even better, they found that one of the seven town councillors had a connection tot his guild before it was crushed.  This Guild Master of Dyers and Weavers is extremely ambitious, or noble birth (lesser gentry), and very corrupt.

Eventually, the Hammers plotted an ambitious plan to destroy Krueger and give them control of a barony.  They eventually assassinated the Baron and framed both Master Krueger and the Captain of the Town’s Guard, the Baron’s bastard son, Thorbrand.  In time, the false evidence was found, and Krueger and Thorbrand arrested on charges of murder, conspiracy, and treason (the Baron being a royal official).

Strakannian law requires the trial to begin within a fortnight of arrest, and if convicted, Krueger will lose everything–his life and all his property.  His membership (via Krueger) in the Northern trading confederation will be lost, so Deltini will be locked out of northern trade and be out a ludicrous amount of coin.  That’s the easy part.

Better yet, with some proper bribes and a kidnapping, the Hammers believe they can get the Regency Council (the Town Council takes temporary control of the Barony until another baron is dubbed) to elect the corrupt Guild Master of Dyers and Weavers, whom they have made their puppet.  If all goes as planned, he would become Baron and have the benefit of their aid during his rule, while in return he would give Marchesi an inroads into the north.

The Yepiskop
This Orthodox bishop is corrupt as sin.  At the end of the last module, the Yepiskop’s men and the PCs contested the rights to a local silver mine.  I thought this a nice twist, for though the Yepiskop is wicked, his men are not.

The PCs had to compete for ownership without killing these lawful good rivals.  The PCs won, and the Yepiskop has hated them and Krueger ever since.  In fact, he has hated all Strakannians or outsiders since the Strakannian invasion about 20 years ago since he has steadily lost privileges and power to these outsiders.  In this module, he has done very little, but he remains at the top of the PCs’ list of suspects for the Baron’s murder and Krueger’s frame job.

Norhansa Politics
This plot line was recently closed out.  In short, most of the module thus far has centered on an internal vote by that northern confederation–to reorganize or not.  That was the question.  This led to much politics and side adventures.  All good.  The vote went through, which is good for Krueger, but they have to wait and see how the other 100+ settlements vote.

The Duelist
This is a small one.  Holgrim the Duelist lives in a nearby city, but he has to leave town from time to time to let the dust from his handiwork settle.  While he was in Arianport, he was hired by a merchant to kill a friend of the PCs.

The PCs believe that this duelist, about whom they know very little, is connected somehow with the Baron’s murder.  He is not.  Yet, after he killed their friend, one of the PCs went about town calling him a coward and a poor swordsman.

The PC and paladin wannabe was looking to draw the duelist out.  At this point, the PCs learned that Holgrim never actually left town as was initially reported, yet I think they forgot about him or at least pushed him far down on the priority list.  As for Holgrim, he was paid well for his last job, but dealing with this PC is a matter of professional pride.

He spent the last few days asking about the Pcs and finding out where he goes day to day.  His only concern is getting him alone, for the duelist cannot tackle an entire party (and it’s doubtful that the party would sit back and let the PCs duel without interfering).

The Grimvalings
Grimvalt the Forester is a mysterious mountain man who lives on the frontier north of the barony.  Though crude, curt, and misanthropic, Grimvalt is brave, strong, and very protective of his household.

He lives with his wife, Bricta (a druidess and pagan cultist) and their many servants, the Grimvalings.  At the very outset of the module, I threw a small encounter at the PCs.  It quickly spiraled out of control.  The Grimvalings had a minor scuffle with some of Krueger’s servants, damaging some goods.  Krueger, angry, sent the PCs to obtain recompense.

They were treated rudely by the servants and told to leave his land immediately.  Even Diego, the most diplomatic party leader in D&D history, finally lost his cool.  Looking back, the party realized that they overreacted.

They stormed into his dacha, got into a scuffle with his huscarls, and eventually came to blows with Grimvalt himself.  The floor dropped out when Diego scored an instant kill, severing Grimvalt’s neck.  Battered an bloody, the PCs were chased from the house and returned to Arianport.  Master Krueger chastised them for their actions, especially with all the politics going on in town at the start of the module.

The PCs accepted his correction, but forgot about the encounter.  Bricta, heart-broken and furious, washed her husband’s body and prepared a powerful ritual, which she eventually performed in a sacred grove Samhain.

The rite brought her husband back to life–sort of.  He’s not undead.  He’s alive, but it’s as if the spirit and the flesh have some sort of disconnect.  He is now clumsy, dimwitted, and almost primitive in his mannerisms, yet his strength is terrible to behold.  His flesh is healed, but he has scars from his last battle and large stitches all around his neck.  Bricta, her heart blacked by hate, has been planning revenge.

It just began.  First, wolves attacked some peddlers entering Arianport.  Then a brown bear attacked some royal officials just outside the city.  Then a diseased horse showed up riderless at the gates, a note attached to the saddle, blaming Krueger for the murder of Grimvalt.  Another diseased animal followed with a similar note.  People are in a near panic at the idea of plague, and town officials are demanding answers.

Events Just Concluded

Raid on the Smuggler’s Lair (42 Autumn)

While conducting their own investigation into the Baron’s murder, they traced the assassin back to an old abandoned house on the cliff, overlooking the sea.  They found it to be the lair of smugglers (Black Hammers).  Some of the smugglers escaped,a nd they found little evidence of value, though they found hints that the smugglers are from the south.  They did find that the smugglers ship is due for its next drop in a few days.

Raid on the Seegeist (45 Autumn)

In our last session, the PCs raided the smugglers’ ship.  They took the ship after along battle and finally found the evidence they need–concrete proof that the Hammers are in town, that they are behind the Baron’s murder and Krueger’s framing, and that they are laying low in a tavern (they didn’t get the name).

Events To Come

The following are the nine events I would like to see played out.  The best order in which to present them is the question.   It’s like playing with a puzzle.

By the way, the current date is 45 Autumn (goes up to 90).
Krueger’s Trial Begins

I’ve been using the threat of this event to pressure the PCs.  There is no jury.  The local magistrate is pretty black and white in his outlook, and he is also merciless in upholding the law.  In short, the trial didn’t look good for Krueger until the PCs recently found the Black Hammer’s logbook on the ship.

Just having it, however, is not enough to dismiss charges.  The trial must happen for the public, and the information in the journal must be made public.  Building up to this, I have told the players that ethnic tensions between the Varyag majority and the Strakannian ruling class are really strained at the moment.

The yepiskop has been stirring the pot whenever possible, hoping to eventually start a civil war that will oust the Strakannians.  The Yepiskop knows that other heathen forces to the north of the Barony are looking to invade as well, so he’s trying to coordinate the invasion with the outbreak of civil war.

Perhaps a verdict of innocent would be enough to get the mob going.  “Certainly, if a Varyag were accused of murdering a Baron, he’d have been dead already.”  If not the break point, this may be the one just before it.

The Hammers Strike At The Party

I decided that the Hammers would leave the PCs be for a while, so as not to reveal their presence.  Even after they raided the smugglers’ lair, the Hammers were patient.  They lost their revenue stream for now, but the trial was just about to happen and their puppet was soon to become baron.

They could sit and be patient.  Let the authorities think that a small smuggling ring had been crushed.  So what?  However, when the PCs decided to hit the smugglers’ ship, the Hammers decided to turn up the pressure (they have a mole in with the party).  On the night of the raid against the ship, Hammers will set fire to the PCs’ hunting lodge, set fire to their stables, and poison a bunch of their staff.

The thought is that this will keep the PCs chasing their tails until the new baron is named. Then the Hammers would use their pawn’s legal authority to crush the PCs.  Since the Pcs just finished their raids on the ship, I thought that they would finds out about the sabotage as soon as they returned to the Krueger estate.

It should be a shock, and unlike the attacks of most other foes, this one should hurt.  What the Hammers did NOT expect was for the PCs to be abel to take the ship.  Now, they are worried, for they know that the PCs may have evidence of the plot.  What to do?

Holgrim Fights With Sir Tomo

I imagined that when the PCs return to the estate and find the sabotage done, Krueger’s eldest son will ask Sir Tomo to fetch Father Johann of the old Parish Church since they have a rapport.

If Tomo goes alone, I’ll have Holgrim waiting on a street corner for him (having learned that he stops by the Church frequently).  This is just straight up combat–one on one.  The player has been looking fort it for some time.

The PCs Raid The Hammers’ Lair

Now that the PCs have evidence of the Hammers plot, they may seek to finds them and kill them.  Knowing my PCs, they may go off half-cocked and raise 5-6 different taverns (this should get them into trouble).

If they think, they’ll hire an expert to help decipher the script, thereby giving them more clues, like the name of the tavern.  Once they get it, I imagine they will get guardsmen to assist them in raiding the place.  My initial thought was to make this the battle royal with the Hammers.

However, the PCs had earlier discovered a wooden castle in the hills far to the north, called Castle of the Saint.  Two PCs snuck in and rescued someone from here about a month earlier.  The PCs correctly believe that the Yepiskop runs this place and is using it to muster troops for the coming invasion/civil war.

Thus, that place could serv as a good place for a culminating battle (on the villain’s home turf, so to speak–where no town guardsmen can help them).  IF I go with this, the Hammers may flee from the tavern after a few rounds of combat with PCs.

The Yepiskop Parades The Icons, Civil War Erupts

I am leaning toward the Yepiskop inciting civil war ( I always want to run a small scale war–with units of 8-12).  I told them last time that the Yepiskop (who hated the Baron) is putting on a good public show.

He’s declared a day or morning for the fallen Baron, and the sacred icons will be paraded in his honor.  What the PCs don’t know is that he has been gathering malcontents from the outlying villages for miles around.

Most of the Varyags parading through the streets that day will be ringers brought in to start a civil war.  The trigger is easy enough.  One ringer will fire and arrow or throw a rock at a guard.

When the guards respond, the mob rises and rampages through the town.  The mobs will fall back to prepared positions, where the Yepiskop has been hoarding weapons.  I have a small-scale battle system ready to go, maps, unit counters, etc.

What I can’t figure out is WHEN to have this erupt.  Should this happen after the PCs have their battle royal with the Hammers, before, or simultaneously?  Obviously, if the Hammers are still around and have been exposed, they will rally to the Yepiskop, significantly boosting his chance of success.

PCs Travel To Grimvalt’s Dacha

Krueger is already accused of murdering his friend, the late baron.  Then diseased animals began plaguing the town and notes accused him of murdering Grimvalt the forester. I can put great pressure on the PCs via Krueger’s eldest son.

He would want this to go away asap.  yet, it would be hard for him to justify doing anything along these lines BEFORE dealing with the Hammers, who are responsible for framing his dad and killing the Baron.

Perhaps this should be handled after the Hammers are chased out of town but before the PCs ride north to attack the castle of the Saint?  I want to keep the pressure on them, but not to the point where the PCs feel the need to split up (I think).

Brcta Ambushes PCs On The Road

Bricta will prepare an ambush for the PCs once they set off north to Grimvalt’s dacha.  She can use divination to get the timing right.  This encounter is meant to soften them up.

Second Assault On The Dacha
The PCs will arrive at the dacha during a thunder storm (summoned by Bricta).  Hopefully it will be at night, but if during the day I can have the clouds block out much of the sun.  I’m going for a bit of a horror effect here.

The PCs will fight off archers, a Brown bear, and a seething druidess.  When the battle is nearing its height, I’ll unveil the frankenstein-esque figure of Grimvalt the Reborn.  This should creep them out.  This event should tie up this plot line.

PCs Raid The Castle Of The Saint
This will probably be the culminating battle.  If the civil war has failed, the Yepiskop and the Hammers (if still around) will fall back to this stronghold.

Here the PCs would take on dozens of the Yepiskop’s Oprichniki goons, a demon-worshipping abbot (supervisor of the castle), his two assistants, a northern mercenary captain (there to negotiate a contract for the upcoming invasion), a rebellious jarl and his huscarles, a Varyag skomorokh (rural nature priest) and his trained brown bear, and an assassin from the Cult of the Horned God.

The feel I’m going for here is something like a Russian version of Jabba’s Palace from Return of the Jedi.

From my notes above, you can see that some events logically go before others, but many are still set in mud.  Anyone want to suggest a sequence of events or provide other feedback?

For those of you that had the patience to read to this point, I thank you.

  • http://www.dvoidsystems.com Da’ Vane

    It’s tough to decide on an ultimate climax, especially since this is the point that the storyline should have been leading up to, and you really need to give the impression that you’ve been planning this all along.

    First of all, the main advice is to make sure that whatever happens, the PCs are in the middle of it, and in a position to act and resolve events. Let the PCs decide how the campaign ends.

    What sort of effect do you want to go for? If you can handle it, why not try to run all nine simultaneously, rather than in a neat fashion?

    The race against time for the trial is a good key – the PCs should be able to dramatically produce the log book at some point during the trial, so if this has been threatened, then maybe have the trial start as the PCs return, and have the PCs race to produce the evidence. Alternatively, they may have their own agenda and opt to suppress the evidence from the trial, especially if they fear that it might cause civil war.

    This can be heightened by having them deal with increasing violence as an outbreak to war as they return to the city. While the trial wages, violence would ensue between mobs, and not only would this slow down the PCs getting to the court to save an innocent man, alert them to the possible outbreak of civil war when it is produced.

    The enemies of the PCs could use the increased tensions and violence to try and openly confront them, but have their actions dismissed as simply more mob violence. Likewise, those that are looking to incite civil war for their own purposes could be looking to cause violence early, adding yet more tensions.

    You could have the PCs get involved with the Civil War, and try to calm it down, but if they have evidence of instigators and incoming invasions, and that the populace has been played, charismatic PCs may even be able to turn the Civil War against the antagonists, and incite the roused mob to rise against the Castle of the Saint in classic torches and pitchforks horror.

    If this does happen, this gives the PCs the allies they need to take on an obviously armed fortress, and they can either go in mob-handed and face the antagonists, or use the ensuing siege and violence as a cover while they infiltrate it and take out the leaders.

    In general, your order seems like a logical way for it to work, but because this is a culmination of a lot of threads, unless the various antagonists are working together and have means to coordinate with each other, it makes more sense to have things get a little crazy and start running away from them a bit, so that the background of civil war becomes a double-edged sword which both sides need to deal with.

    There’s not really any need to wait for one event to end before the other starts – if this is the climax, then in reality, it is more like one big event in it’s own right.

  • http://www.campaignmastery.com/blog/ Mike Bourke

    There have been a couple of posts I’ve done at Campaign Mastery that might be helpful:

    A Grand Conclusion: Thinking about a big finish
    http://www.campaignmastery.com/blog/thinking-about-a-big-finish/

    and Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow
    http://www.campaignmastery.com/blog/structuring-campaign-flow/

  • josh

    It sounds like you have done a great job with plot hooks and keeping the Pcs busy, having lots of fun in the process. I would just offer a few words of advice in closing your campaign with success…

    first, remember that the PCs need to be able to affect change. Be careful not to really plan out what exactly is supposed to happen… if you do that, you may risk the temptation of forcing a pre-determined fate onto your party, and that is exactly what you do not want to do.

    Second, try to incorporate some personal drama. are there particular NPCs that the PCS feel rather attached to? Try to include them in the events so that it becomes personal to the PCs.

    Most of all, just remember to have fun. Your final battle might take awhile, so make sure not to hurry through it just to get it all done. It may very well span more than one session… so just remember that there is nothing wrong with that. good luck… I am sure that however you plan to end the campaign will be a success as long as you let nature take it’s course. Also, rememeber that leaving a tail on the end ( so that there could be a sequal), is always a good way to leave it. Maybe a cut scene where an enemy who they thought was dead limps away into the shadows, or a particular magic weapon that they thoght was lost gets picked up by a new villain that the PCs have not encountered yet. I love ending campaigns this way :)