Long Story Arcs – 3 Tips On How to Finish
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #467
A reader wrote in with a request for tips on how to finish long plots. He just could not get closure. Following are three pieces of advice for game masters looking to run long campaigns to their natural conclusion.
More tips on how to finish long campaigns are welcome. Email me directly at [email protected]
Divide the plot into three smaller arcs
When tackling large plots, you get overwhelmed. There are too many branches, possibilities and details to manage. When overwhelmed you either give up or leave your planning for another day, and that day rarely comes.
So you get an unplotted game. How can you finish a plot if there isn’t one?
Solve this situation by carving your plot into three smaller chunks. You could call these sub-arcs, acts, stages, or phases, but divide your work into pieces you can handle and manage well.
The simplest way to structure these acts:
Act 1) Set-up
Establish the world and the PCs’ relationships in it. We learn who the characters are, their capabilities and some of their potential, and what drives them. Flesh out the setting by introducing cool elements and aspects of it through encounters and adventures. Watch the characters grow.
This could be a home base type arc, for example. NPCs become friends, rivals, dependents, enemies, useful. Players develop relationships with locations as well, such as their home base, favorite hangout, mentor’s home, and preferred vendors.
The PCs shed light into dark corners and eventually piece together clues about a great danger. This act ends with the PCs taking up a call to arms to defeat the darkness.
Act 2) Development
On the path of their mission, the group faces various challenges and setbacks, but makes progress. Players learn more about their characters and the depth of their strengths and weaknesses. The characters grow in power, ability, knowledge, or all three.
The development arc ends with the final goal in sight. The PCs have the information they need. They have come to the boundary where the last act begins, such as traveling to the evil fortress, gathering the army, or winning the support of the council.
Act 3) Resolution
The PCs pass the point of no return. They are committed now and in the greatest danger. They’re in enemy lands, the villain is actively opposing them, allies have all their hopes pinned on the group. The toughest challenges yet lay before them. How will it end?
When chunked out this way, each acts becomes manageable. Determine what requirements need to be met so the PCs can enter each new act. Armed with these details you can plan things out in batches or let gameplay inspire you. There are the usual pitfalls of planning things too rigidly, so do what’s best for you and how your group likes to game.
For more tips on this:
Create A Remote Villain – Move One Step Closer Each Act
Make the end objective to kill or nullify the villain. This generates a tangible goal. Players can grasp it easy. You have a clear picture of what a successful end looks like. Planning takes on a clear focus to help you and your group drive to completion.
Previous RPT readers have counselled making villains remote. Do not bring them into encounters. Do not offer up their lair location without a lot of PC effort. Instead, offer outposts and minions. This is excellent advice.
Pace your campaign by structuring it so a major victory represents getting one noticeable step closer to the villain. The PCs work their way up the command chain, or penetrate one layer deeper towards the villain base, or get one more ingredient in the recipe needed to win.
Keep the whole path to success a secret. This lets you steer things as the campaign develops any way you like. For example, a recent trap I fell into was requiring the PCs to find six pieces of a key. For various reasons we opted to end this campaign and switch games, but we wanted to finish the campaign off one way or the other just for closure. I was committed to the six-part quest, and it would have been weak to have the remaining three pieces fall out of the sky. If I had just said find all the pieces and not given a total, I could have engineered things for a much faster campaign conclusion.
How to Manage Loops Well
A loop is some unresolved issue in the game. It might be a to Do item for a PC, a quest, a mystery or unanswered question. Great games have many loops.
Managing loops well keeps games interesting but also gives you a clear idea of what needs resolution to finish a long campaign at any given time.
Step 1: Create loops
Open a lot of loops. Either let the players do it for themselves or you be the one to create them.
PC-based loop inspiration: character backgrounds, interests, relationships with NPCs, goals and conflicts, strengths and weakness
GM loops: quests and side quests; plot hooks; NPCs with goals, conflicts and hooks who tangle with PCs; encounter hooks
Lots of loops equals lots of choices from the players’ point of view. You are welcome to make loops lead to the same few encounters and adventures, but by having many open loops you cast a wide net that increases the chances of activating your plans.
Step 2: Manage loops
For every loop opened track it yourself. Do not rely on your players to record them as they will overlook some, forget a few, and misunderstand a few. It’s up to you to track open loops.
Do this with a simple list. I often use a plain text computer file, though I started using a spreadsheet of late.
In my spreadsheet I make an entry for each item and track its status (pending, open, closed).
Pending: yet to be unleashed on the PCs
Open: triggered and in play, but not yet closed
In my old plain text file, I had the same three categories and just cut and pasted items as their statuses changed.
This list will keep you organized without much effort.
Between sessions just scan it to see what was activated, what was closed, and what is still in the hopper waiting to be triggered. Update your lists accordingly. Also, add new loop ideas (pending) and new loops introduced (open).
Your list of open loops will give you a sense of control and an easy checklist to plan with. It provides confidence while planning and makes preparation more efficient.
Step 3: Close loops often
It might seem backwards, but resolving a lot of open loops keeps games exciting and builds momentum. Closure gives players satisfaction and motivates them to stay active in play by opening more loops.
In long campaigns, good loop management keeps you motivated too. Closed loops show you progress made, which is satisfying.
The infusion of new loops gives you a creative outlet to stay engaged yourself – especially if you are the type of GM who gets lots of ideas and does not like being straight jacketed by rigid plans.
Dear RPT reader, I hope those three tips help answer your question about managing long campaigns and increasing their chances of closure.
RPT subscribers, do you have any additional advice? If so, email your tips to [email protected] Thanks!
A Brief Word from Johnn
A Bit Late This Issue
I just returned last night from a visit with my parents in Comox, British Columbia. It’s always great visiting with them, and my stay was far too short.
I took a flight to get there and back, and I always aim for a window seat. Looking at civilization and wilderness from thousands of feet above is great for meditation – and world building.
I was at airports for a few hours all told this weekend, and as always I had my notebook with me. When I needed a break from reading I pulled it out and started profiling travelers. Just from appearances and interactions I generated a number of new NPC seeds. Time well spent.
Hopefully you enjoy the tips this issue. We delve into a few tricky topics, including how to manage long running games well, some advice on recruiting your family to play RPG with you, and some GMing views from an old school gamer. An interesting mix!
Back Up Your Game Data
Just a quick callout to back up your game data. Don’t forget any online data, such as in Google Docs or a wiki service.
PBWiki users: did you know you can back up your wiki, even if you’re using the free version? Email me if you need help.
Losing game files and data is a horrible feeling. Backup at least monthly.
Getting Your Family to RPG
These tips from readers are in response to a request made in Issue #464:
“I am considering introducing my family to roleplaying. However, I’m not sure how to get the idea across to them as none of them have encountered RPGs before.”
From Angela R.
Although I am not interested in getting my family to participate in long-running campaigns, I have wanted to share with them the joys of my particular gaming hobby.
My plan is to get them there slowly, so they don’t even realize where I am headed. I come from a standard old-school gaming family. We have played numerous board games and party games and are always trying something new at each holiday gathering.
To start testing the waters, I got a couple of murder mystery box sets for us to play. This introduces the concept of inhabiting another character without a lot of work on the player’s part or complicated rules to learn.
Since then, I have run two different Dread scenarios (The Impossible Dream). Again, this stresses more character involvement and a very simple resolution mechanism: pulling Jenga blocks.
From there, I plan to try some more rules light games before I would attempt anything a role-player would consider serious.
Part of my success so far is I have focused on surroundings that I know the family would enjoy more – contemporary and science fiction rather than medieval fantasy. If I can eventually inch them into a D20 or similar rules engine, it will probably be Star Wars, Star Trek, or a modern spy setting.
Similarly, I would suggest you find out what kind of characters and time-periods your family members enjoy and try to inch them into a game doing some one-shots that are rules-light.
From Dragon Dave
I think careful consideration of what you’re running is key. If your parents will act silly, make the game a little silly – either throughout, or starting daft and becoming more serious. Also, consider setting the tone for the game with either an appropriate film at some point or music. If your brother is likely to power game and rules lawyer, make sure the system is both resilient to power gaming and promotes tactical cooperative play.
I’d argue that the new D&D is probably the best system to run in. He can help his parents make their characters more useful to him (and help them learn the system!) but the modular design of the powers and character roles means that characters excel at one field and perhaps dabble in another, meaning he can’t dominate the party dynamic.
It also has a large number of hints in the Dungeon Master’s Guide on a variety of useful topics, many relevant outside of D&D. I’d avoid ‘Stat+Skill’ systems (White Wolf, for example) since these seem to always have obvious and abusable loopholes.
However, the simplest thing to start with is What if? requiring no dice or character sheets; you can play it in the car with no real preparation.
“So, little brother, what would you do if we found the supermarket crawling with the living dead?”
“And where exactly are you going to get that shotgun from, hmm?”
“As you dive nimbly through the zombie hordes, searching for the cereal aisle, you hear a scream…”
These are just a few thoughts – you know your family better than anyone else. Make what you’re running suits them at first: if you have a dream campaign you want to run that doesn’t quite fit, run some shorter games to let them get started.
The golden rule applies to this as much as the rules of any roleplaying game – if you don’t think it makes sense for you and your players, junk it.
From Andrew McLaren
So you want to get a game running with your family, eh? Why not! Most families have played UNO or Monopoly and other board games, so RPG is something that could come fairly naturally.
I just want to make sure your motivations are right. I noticed you started your request with the words, “There are no gaming groups where I live, so I am considering introducing my family to roleplaying…” and that sounded some alarm bells in my head.
Any gaming group is doomed for failure if the players don’t want to be there, and I would suggest you to make sure it is not just yourself who wants to start roleplaying. Remember that it could be a big time commitment.
Perhaps the trickiest part about getting a family group together is the players are from different age groups and may not have the same interests and so it might be hard finding a setting that suits everyone.
Maybe mom doesn’t like sci-fi and dad thinks that fantasy is lame. I think a familiar starting setting that everybody can quickly get stuck into is the key, and so I’d recommend some sort of modern day police campaign. A team of specialist police investigators working together to solve a tricky case. Think “CSI” (only with more team-oriented field work, car chases, hostage scenarios – fast-forward straight past the lab work).
This is just a suggestion, but the point is to find a setting that everybody understands straight away without any sort of longwinded explanation of history. You’ll probably find that some sort of TV series that everyone in the family has watched will be a good starting point. You should keep the pace going quickly through the first session, without the players ever thinking to themselves, “What are we supposed to be doing now?”
When it comes to the actual mechanics, you should definitely go rules light. There are many rules light systems out there that you could use, and many systems that you may already own could be cut down to the bare minimum for this introductory game. Don’t bog everybody down with too many numbers and modifiers and such things.
Remember that the rules for Monopoly could fit onto one page, and you shouldn’t intimidate your new players. Keep the focus on the action, the story and on the characters.
Get past your first session and then re-evaluate whether everybody would like to play again some time. I wish you luck!
Great advice, everyone. Thanks very much for writing in! Here are a few additional thoughts.
Try D&D Basic. It’s cheap, classic, and great.
Harry Potter might be common ground. If your family has watched and enjoyed the movies, this might be a great combo of popular subject matter, fantasy, and shared knowledge.
You could try making your own version of the setting and premise – a magic school – adapted to D&D or game of your choice. You can tell everyone the game is like Harry Potter but you’ve created something a bit different.
Redhurst Academy is a neat product along these lines, if you can find a copy: The Redhurst Academy of Magic
Avoid conjuring up visions of a perfect game played by hard core players and using that as your benchmark for your family game. Do not worry if the game goes off the rails, or if your players do strange things some GMs might consider a bad move. Not only will you have a wide assortment of player types, but you have the whole family dynamic on top.
Your first session should have just one goal: to be fun enough that most everyone agrees to play session two.
If someone wants to ignore the villain and sail rubber ducks down the river, let it be – and make the duck scene fun. If someone else wants to play mean jokes on other characters, GM with a fair and even hand. If the adults want to talk with the bad guys to reason with them, roleplay with gusto.
Keep your family interested in playing, not by being an iron DM, but by letting them be themselves and playing the way they want. Make games fun enough so they keep coming back for more. After several sessions the rules and perhaps more traditional style of play you are craving might kick in.
If the words “you’re doing it wrong” are on the tip of your tongue, bite your tongue. Just let your family be, having fun. Be patient. Enjoy the GMing experience.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
How to GM Old School
From Michael Crown
Playing since I was ten, DMing since I was seventeen, now nearly fifty with a thirty+ year-old campaign. Credentials established for “old-school” (though being a good DM can be a VERY different thing), here is my advice on how to GM old school:
The value of a character grows with the degree of effort and risk put into them
If the player knows you are fudging, giving them third, fourth chances, changing rules to save them, ignoring dice rolls to be sure no one dies, creating characters at high level to start off, giving away magic items like candy, ANYTHING that reduces the actual growth that a character can go through, your players will treat their PCs like the paper they are, rather than the deep, creative, developed heroes that they are.
The heroes aren’t the ones the DM saves. The heroes are the ones that survive on their own. With simple characters who struggled in dangerous dungeons and everyone willing to die or create a new one for different adventures, the characters that survived became that much more valuable.
With modern PCs, they require great detailing, and the loss of even one is a tragedy for the min-maxer who created it. Simple to begin with is old-style, and it creates very valuable characters as they develop because they earned what they have; they weren’t just loaded up at the beginning (which is a fun style for short-term adventures, of course, or long-term where the DM is out to protect you from dying).
DMs can easily fall into the idea that they are the gods, that they have to step in and adjust things frequently, move the PCs toward an adventure, keep them moving toward the end goal.
As your world develops, as you get past module hopping because you have a collection of adventures, you will not need to move them in one direction or the other. If they miss an adventure, it doesn’t cost you twenty dollars.
Move away from the idea of interfering with time. This effect was gained in old-style games because DMs didn’t think twice about killing off the characters. Because of the upset due to the killing of carefully crafted powerful characters at first level, this practice was avoided.
You can regain this by having clear rules, clear odds, and going with the dice so players know they actually risk something each adventure. There is no value to an award that everyone receives. There is no value to a character you know cannot die because the DM will save it from the odds.
With all the things TSR/WotC put out, it’s always interesting to see players act like they are owed the newest, the coolest, the best of the newest classes, races, etc. They aren’t, they never were. Set your limits.
You’ll lose some players but save yourself immense grief. At the same time, put those new elements somewhere, so the players have to work at getting them.
The excitement of finding out where half-dragons actually live and spending time there until one of the characters dies so you can create a half-dragon is priceless. Giving your player a piece of paper with the half-dragon on it just because it’s been printed? Worth very little.
Players who can step into a game, use the DM’s limits in character creation with a cheerful smile, and make it work are priceless. Keep them close. Those who think that the DM is unjust because they don’t include “X, Y, Z” are a dime a dozen. The risk? You end up with fewer players. But in the end, the experienced players choose your game, and the inexperienced players choose other games where they learn why you do what you do.
Modern adventures are a long way from the old-school dungeons we had. Everything now has to be detailed, explained, fit into a larger world, etc.
The fun of the old dungeons was that there was always something in the next room, always a new treasure, always a new monster, or some interesting twist that made you appreciate an old monster more.
A good way to make that happen is to get a map, fill it with at least one monster, one treasure, one detail (like cracks in the walls, dripping water, a fountain, etc.), then go back and think of why those things are there. Then remove those that don’t fit your ideas, and detail.
Sometimes, when designing things, we over think. We try to fit everything in according to a plan, and the result isn’t a realistic adventure, but a feeling of some master planner manipulating the players toward a final end.
Give them some unexpected things. Don’t be scared of wandering monsters – a dose of the randomness of reality can add a lot to a campaign.
Don’t try to develop the PCs right at the beginning
Think of your game and the PCs as part of a developing novel. You don’t start the novel knowing everything about the main character. Develop them through events. Don’t make your PCs into twenty page novels to begin with, just the beginning of one.
Same with your world. Pick some aspect of your PCs, of your world, and add details to it through discovery, not narration. No one likes the narrator who tells half the story at the beginning of the movie. This effect was achieved in old-style dungeons by simply not bothering. You can make it deliberate and effective.
Don’t try to cheese your character
Half the fun of old-style characters was that they started generic and you MADE them unique.
Make your skills part of your personal development. TSR started the practice, but WotC took it to new heights. Looking at PCs, they developed at different rates. Fighters were tough from the beginning, wizards weak. Later, wizards pass fighters by quite a margin.
For long-term campaigns, it’s worth it to play either one. For short-term campaigns, which is what draws new players in, it’s a real pain to watch that fighter kill everything before you can cast a second spell.
So TSR started creating sub-classes, started giving benefits to low level wizards, but they also gave powers to fighters, with the result that new players still had the same problem. WotC cut to the chase and simply made the PC classes as equal as possible, but the result is that they made them power heavy at low levels and gave more power all through their development.
That’s not the same game. Instead of soldiers heading into battle, you have veteran Navy Seals going in for the kill. That can distract from the development of a character for those used to earlier systems, so they lost many old-style gamers.
3rd and 4th Edition D&D are both great systems, in their own way, just as the earlier systems have their flaws and benefits. But if you want believable characters, don’t load them up. Let them develop.
There are lots of ways to do this with the newer systems. Don’t offer everything in the books to begin with. Let them find it. Much of that was accidentally occurring because the extra books came out every week and it was like a constant treasure hunt for new abilities and items.
Have fun, all.
PCs Do Not Always Know How Things Work
From Mike Garcia
Rather than telling a player it is the DM’s fiat, try instead, “You haven’t yet figured out quite why it works that way.”
If a player demands to know your DM reasons, just tell him that you won’t meta game. If he wants to figure it out or get answers, he’ll have to do it in-game. There’s no guarantee the PC will get an answer, but he can try if he thinks it’s worth it (and that usually costs time and money).
I’ve found that most players will drop it. Others might persist, but you’ll have time to develop an answer, if you wish to provide one.
Lastly, this in-game investigation often allows the PC to explore more of your world, regardless of whether or not you eventually provide an answer. You may even provide him with an in-game reason why something is inexplicable, and he may swallow that easier than DM’s fiat. It’s worked for me so far.
Palm and Online Dice Rollers
From Eric Basir
Here is a die roller for a PDA (Palm): http://palm.dahm.com/roller/roller.html
Web based die roller. You can try it online or download it. You can choose any type, quantity and color for the dice.
Get Ideas from Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real
From Jesse C. Cohoon
There was a recent special on cable called “Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real.” Watching the program can give ideas about how to run and play, plus some adventure seeds.