Scenario and Campaign Arc Building Tips, Part 1
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #345
- Hipbone’s Connected To The Thighbone: Scenario and Campaign Arc Construction
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Hipbone’s Connected To The Thighbone: Scenario and Campaign Arc Construction
From Mike Bourke & Blair Ramage
Last year I started co-GMing an existing campaign. Initially, I was brought in because I had more experience with the game system, but I soon began assisting in scenario design. As a result, I became aware of several techniques I had developed instinctively over a period of time. This article is intended to describe and pass on those techniques, and hopefully they will be of use to you in your campaigns.
Part one this week deals with the elements of a scenario or campaign. Next week, we assemble these elements into scenarios, plot arcs, and campaigns.
Start With A Scenario Idea
Write a succinct, one-sentence statement describing the events or rough plot the PCs will need to deal with during the scenario. This gives you something specific to focus on, get inspired about, and flesh out.
- “Mad scientist invents a weapon that destroys gravity.”
- “Mischievous imps torment a small town.”
- “Ships are vanishing in the Caribbean after sighting a ghost ship”.
Twist The Tale
A good story has a twist of some sort. The key to twists is the difference between initial perceptions and “reality”. Add to your one sentence scenario idea a twist.
Twist formula examples:
- A difference between what seems to be happening and what is really going on (a plot twist)
- The difference between who seems to be responsible and the real cause (a character twist)
- The difference between the expected outcome and the actual consequences
State your twist in a single, succinct sentence.
- “The weapon is actually storing gravity and will eventually form a black hole.”
- “The imps are illusions to conceal an invasion of dopplegangers.”
- “The Haitian Army is capturing and refitting ships using hallucinogenic gas to enable a coup.”
The Stimulator, The Foil, The Detective, And The Driver
Think of scenarios in terms of four primary functions, or roles, the PCs need to perform:
- The Stimulator is most connected to what is apparently going on. His job is to get the party into the scenario; he creates a natural, PC-driven hook.
- The Foil is going to make the discoveries that uncover what is really happening. He also has the function of getting the PCs past any roadblocks in the plot.
- The Detective takes the discrepancies discovered by the Foil and makes sense of them by virtue of his experience in a realm most connected with what is really going on.
- The Driver has the determination and motivation to see the plotline resolved.
A single PC can have multiple functions in a scenario, and several PCs can share the same function. An analogy from the stage is useful here. These roles should remain consistent within each act of the play, but can swap around between acts.
Television uses the same analogy. An extreme example that comes to mind is Law & Order, where half the show is the detectives and precinct, and the other half is the lawyers and courtroom. Your scenario should not be that extreme, because the PCs should all be involved throughout the scenario, but it hopefully gives you the idea.
Revelations Occur One Step At A Time
Map out a path of breadcrumbs to lead the PCs to the true nature of the mess they’re in. Ask yourself what are the most likely steps for the characters to take while investigating and resolving what is apparently going on.
Consider what the results of those steps would be if the superficial plotline was what was really occurring, and how the results will differ due to what is really going on because of the plot twist.
Each time the plotline leads the PCs to a character they can question, you need to decide what that person knows, what they are going to lie about, and how and if the PCs are to discover and confirm the lie.
Every PC Should Contribute
Every PC should contribute something to the success or failure of the mission. This is important. If you have assigned the role of Foil to Character X, but Character Y is better at the skill or ability required to fulfill the role, then you need a complicating factor to keep character Y busy somewhere else doing something else at that point in time.
Compile a list of the NPCs you will need for plot purposes. Each NPC should contribute something to the plot, be it a piece of the puzzle, an introduction to the situation, a complicating factor, or a motivation to the Driver.
Use the following questions to help pinpoint what NPCs you need, and what or how they will contribute to the plot:
- Who knows what? (As related to the core plot.)
- Who else would be interested?
- Who else would do something about the apparent situation?
- Who might catch wind of the true situation and what would they do about it?
- Once the PCs get involved, how will the various factions involved react?
- Is there anyone who would complicate the situation just because the PCs are involved?
- Who will the PCs want to interact with?
- Who will want to interact with the PCs?
It’s important not to let these NPCs be walk-on/walk-off roles if they would logically do more than that. It’s also important to make sure these NPCs don’t overshadow the PCs. You might have to devise events to get NPCs who would make short work of the problem out of the way. Part of the function of the Driving character is to ensure the PCs don’t just sit back and let someone else solve the problem for them.
For each NPC, make a quick note about why they are needed in the plotline, how the PCs are going to come into contact with them, and how you are going to write the NPC out of the plot (if necessary) once they have fulfilled their function. You also need some idea of where the NPC can be found.
It’s also important to have some NPCs present in the plotline purely for comic relief if the scenario is particularly grim.
Roadblocks Are Inevitable
There are three types of roadblock that can occur in the course of a campaign:
- Roadblocks that result from an NPC’s deliberate interference
- Roadblocks that exist to give a PC something to contribute
- Roadblocks that result from the PCs missing or misinterpreting a vital clue
The first type should be deliberately built into the plotline as a result of decisions NPCs have made (as per the NPC Reactions tip). The second type should also be built into the scenario as a result of decisions made in previous steps. The third type of roadblock is the one you don’t want; for every vital clue, there should be a plan B for how the characters are to get the information.
Every Problem Has A Solution
You need to give some thought to how the scenario can be resolved. Never lock the PCs into a plot train where there is only one outcome to a situation. If you have to, let the bad guys win and develop a sequel scenario to set things right.
Your players will respect you a lot more if they have to live and die by their own decisions instead of having the solution handed to them on a silver platter, or having the problem resolved by a deus ex machina not of their making.
Note: It’s fine to let the PCs create a situation in which a deus ex machina solves their problems if they know that’s what they are doing, however. You hand them a problem with a rogue god? Then the problem the PCs have is not how to beat the god themselves, but how to release the other gods from whatever is stopping them from solving the problem, then step back and let nature take its course.
A lot of my scenarios are designed in the form of, “Give the PCs a Problem. Let them solve it.” The problem might be a bad guy trying to take over the world (or the kingdom), a corrupt official or government, a shortage of money, or whatever. Most scenarios can be described in this way if you try hard enough.
To make some problems challenging enough to entertain the players, it might be necessary to introduce complicating factors that rule out the obvious solutions. I always make sure there is at least one solution to the problem, then referee on the basis that where there’s one solution, there are going to be several more, and it’s up to the PCs to find a solution that satisfies them.
Automatically, there are two approaches to such situations: the PCs can find a less-obvious solution that avoids the complication factors, or they can find ways to overcome the complicating factors so that the obvious answer can be employed after all.
However, I have learned the hard way never to give the appearance of an insoluble problem, even if this appearance is misleading. The act of discovering the reason that the problem isn’t insoluble after all always feels like a plot train. You have to always give the bad guys an obvious weak spot, or their plan an obvious vulnerability, no matter how difficult it might appear to exploit it.
Note: It’s fine to have villains taking steps to overcome or protect themselves against these weak spots and vulnerabilities. In particular, smart villains will not permit themselves to be overcome the same way twice (dumb ones can keep making the same mistake over and over again, however.)
Next week in part 2, we discuss methods for how to put all these ingredients together to form a scenario or campaign. Stay tuned.
A Brief Word From Johnn
MyInfo Requesting RPG Feature Requests
The developer of MyInfo is right now crafting a roadmap for the next version of their organization software. They would like to know if you have any feature requests that would help you GM better or be a better-organized GM.
For example, I’m going to request some graphics features for mapping and running adventures. You can already paste graphics easily into MyInfo, such as maps. I would like to be able to add on top of pasted graphics linked hotzones, mouseover notes, and basic drawing tools so that maps can be interactive, labeled, and linked to documents (i.e. encounter notes) and such.
If you have any feature requests, send them in and I’ll forward the whole batch in a couple of weeks to the developer.
ICON March 24 & 25
ICON is a virtual game table convention being held online March 24 & 25. If you would like to check out Virtual Gaming Table applications such as Fantasy Grounds, MapTool, Battlegrounds, Klooge.Werks, and others out there, now’s your chance. For info, visit:
Thanks for Jason Sandeman for letting me know about this.
Have a game-full week!
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Use D&D Collectible Mini Pics For Tokens
From Michael Lee
When using Fantasy Grounds to run virtual pen and paper games, I craft tokens from the D&D minis pics at Wizards.com. I make PNG versions with transparency for cast shadows and bases.
Tips For GMing With Fantasy Grounds
From Michael Lee
I find that games often go faster using Fantasy Grounds than in face-to-face sessions. When I DM with Fantasy Grounds, I keep all my encounter notes offline. I do rolls offline, and I keep encounter descriptions and dialogue on voice chat. Everything I can do offline is kept offline.
Players only enter the character information I need, such as detections, resistances, AC, SR, DR and HP. I ask them to set quick buttons for attacks and certain skills. Players still roll attacks, checks, saves, and damage in text chat.
This all amounts to the players having a hard copy of their character sheet, and only sharing pertinent details with the DM – sort of like an initiative card at a table game.
We use maps and tokens as you’d expect at a table game. The story, dialogue, rules adjudication, and general goofing around is handled through voice chat just like a table game. It makes for a very fast and fluid game.
Initially, there will be some set-up and settings tweaks with your voice chat software. However, once it gets going the FG game moves faster than a regular table game, probably because players are more focused while sitting at a computer.
At first we tried to put everything in FG. I put all the dialogue, boxed text, creature stats in – everything. It just felt clunky and slow. I gradually moved FG elements offline, then decided to approach FG from the other direction. I thought, “what do I absolutely need to have in FG”?
So, we only use the features of FG that we need. I’m sure other DMs’ tastes will vary. My group has been playing for years, so it’s generally accepted that as a DM I will not cheat. Everybody is fine with DM offline rolling because the game moves faster. We’ve been running a 16th level D&D campaign. It’s very fluid, and the play experience does not lack for excitement online.
Use FreeMind For SRD Import
From Scot Newbury
I caught your tip about importing the SRD into MyInfo and then pulled out my copy of FreeMind. As it would turn out, the same version of the SRD makes for an excellent import into FreeMind as well and it’s very easy to do.
After downloading the SRD and unzipping it I opened up FreeMind (I’m using the 0.9.0 beta 8 version) and then clicked File -> Import -> Folder Structure.
In the dialog box that came up I selected the SRD\SRD directory and then clicked Open. FreeMind then creates a mapping and hyperlinks to all the files. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pull the content directly in, but it does make it easier to find things.
Freemind is available free at:
Here’s a screenshot of the result in .png and .jpg format:
Gritty Fantasy With The Black Company RPG
I keep seeing mention in your weekly Roleplaying Tips emails of how to make D&D games more low fantasy or gritty, particularly in relation to combat. I think the solution is simple: adopt Black Company campaign setting rules. I stumbled upon this campaign setting by accident through a friend who works in a gaming store.
Here’s a synopsis:
- No races. There are no races in the BCCS. Instead, they use Backgrounds, each one granting 4 skills that become class skills, a bonus feat, and often a ‘racial’ benefit. Each level, one skill point may be added to one of those background skills. This replaces the 4 bonus points, bonus feat, etc. of choosing human in a standard D&D setting.
- Classes. The classes have been changed and added to, removing all spell-like abilities and spell abilities from classes and replacing those abilities with other abilities. For example, the Jack-of-All-Trades class (Bard) has no magic abilities, but gains a bonus feat every two levels. Additionally, a JoAT gains the ability to emulate feats and skills. Only one class has access to magic.
- No Alignment. Instead, PCs choose Allegiances, which can be to players, societies, nations, groups, ideals, causes.
- Combat. Lots and lots of changes here:
- Damage Threshold is now Constitution + character level, getting rid of the slow whittling away of enemies over 20 rounds and forcing players to abandon such meta-game thinking as, “I’ve got 54 hit points, what’s a dagger going to do to me?”
- Grievous wounds and infection. Certain attacks can cause grievous wounds (crits, single attacks that go over damage threshold, etc.) causing temporary or permanent damage to a character. Infection impacts heal times.
- Surprise. Gaining surprise has distinct advantages. Not only do you act first, but if you land a hit against your opponent, they automatically have to roll as per Damage Threshold rules.
- Three kinds of combat scales: Character (standard), Company, and Army. If your characters are involved in a war (e.g., something like Helm’s Deep), you can start with Army scale to resolve the mass conflict, move to Company scale (e.g., breached wall defenders), then down to Character scale for personal exploits. Or, simply do Character scale but resolve Army scale behind a DM’s screen.
BCCS is the most intelligent and well-thought-out campaign setting I’ve seen, runner-up being Iron Kingdoms. It’s perfect for a DM who wants to introduce a gritty, low-magic game. No need to keep the setting…just take the rules and you’re still using 80% of the book. (And, it was written for D&D 3.5 rules).[Comment from Johnn: here’s a shameless plug that’ll save you some money if you are interested in the Black Company RPG after reading Patrick’s tip. The book is currently half price for a limited time at the Roleplaying Tips store: http://roleplayingtips.rpgshop.com/product_info.php?products_id=36142 ]
Campaign Ideas Survey Example
Here’s a campaign survey I put together for my group. The responses provided us with a new type of campaign. I tallied the results and then we had a big discussion on what everyone rated as important for the new campaign.
I felt it was important to stress the survey was for the next campaign – not necessarily what is the best campaign you would like to run, but what is the best campaign you would like to do next, at this time, with this group.
Given we were previously working on a campaign that involved very high ideals of good, it was not surprising that the responses for a new campaign hinted at darker themes. We ended up with a group that are working for a mob-like family in a large fantasy city. Campaign Ideas Survey