Scenario and Campaign Arc Building Tips, Part 2
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #346
- 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 week, the first half of this article discussed the components of a scenario and some ideas for generating them. This half is about putting them together.
Compiling the Plotline
By now, you should have all the pieces of the plotline. The next step is to string them into some form of overall structure. TORG used the stage metaphor, and it’s one of the best going around. Divide the scenario into acts, introduction, and (if necessary) epilogues.
Each act is divided into scenes, each of which contains a single plot development.
Think of your scenario as a TV episode:
- You have the teaser, or “Hook” to get the characters into the plotline.
- You have a development stage when the full situation as it appears to be is revealed.
- You have a reactions stage in which the characters react to the developments by doing things, and overcoming roadblocks and setbacks along the way.
- This leads to the revelations stage when the real problem is uncovered.
- Then there’s a denouement stage in which that problem is solved. Epilogues hint at the consequences of that solution.
There are a number of ways to end each Act:
- A decision
- An announcement
- With an apparent resolution++
(++ It can be great fun to have the PCs appear to solve the problem quickly and ride off into the sunset only to discover in the next act the Bad Guys faked their defeat to get the party out of the way.)
Each act should define, by the nature of the events within it, what character is performing what function within the plot. The reason for assigning those functions to PCs in the first place, instead of letting the plot developments assign them, is to enable you to design scenes that involve multiple PCs instead of risking one character be the focus of attention while everyone else sits around twiddling their fingers.
Write a single paragraph – a couple of lines at most – describing the overall sequence of events of each act, and who is supposed to do what. Then break the events down into individual scenes, describing each with a one line sentence.
Review The Plotline
Read over the plotline from the point of view of each of your NPCs. You don’t have to take a lot of time for this – the major thing is making sure that what the NPCs are doing makes sense.
NPCs should always react to what other characters are doing. Sometimes, the referee gets so focused on what the PCs are doing that he forgets to have the NPCs react to what other NPCs are doing, and vice versa. It makes no sense for the master villain to try and assassinate a key NPC two scenes after he would have learned about that NPC’s death.
Once you have made sure NPCs are behaving consistently and reacting to what’s happening around them, read over the plotline one more time. After each sentence, ask yourself, “What could go wrong here and how can I solve it?” Don’t write anything unless there is a major risk of things going off the rails at that point, but at least devote a little time to considering the problems in advance.
This is also worth doing just before you run the scenario, as it will help you react immediately when the PCs do something unexpected (or unexpectedly stupid).
Patch The Holes
Quite often in the course of reviewing NPCs and plotlines I’ll discover that an alternative course of events is far more likely than what I had planned, or that something just doesn’t make sense.
It’s easy to develop tunnel vision when thinking up a plotline. The scenario reviews shine a light on those cracks in the plotline so you can insert additional scenes to patch over them. If a character is being inconsistent – not doing something they obviously would do, or doing something they normally wouldn’t – ask yourself why that character might possibly be behaving that way. Add and subtract scenes and plot points as necessary.
Draft Key Speeches
As much as possible, create NPC dialogues on the fly rather than locking yourself into something that might not be correct in light of in-game events. It’s usually enough to jot down one or two key phrases or statements, at most.
However, there will be times when NPCs have to give prepared speeches, and these are better written in advance as much as possible.
The main purpose of these speeches are:
- Non-interactive characterization
- Plot development
- Conferring information to the PCs
Non-interactive characterisation speeches consists of dialogue between NPCs in which the PCs cannot interfere. These should be avoided as much as possible, or the PCs can end up feeling like voyeurs in the game instead of participants.
Plot development speeches are more important.
- The President gives a speech to announce his resignation, or the creation of a new government agency that’s going to impact the PCs, or that the country is now at war.
- The CEO announces a takeover bid.
- A reporter announces some event or occurrence of interest to the PCs.
- The King issues a proclamation.
It’s often easier to provide these in text form to the players so they can read them at their own pace, or even just to have a single copy that gets passed from person to person.
The key attribute of such speeches is not the announcement, but the impact of the content on the PCs. If you simply stated, “King Julian proclaims an increase in taxes,” then the PCs will react to the outcome alone. However, if you read a proclamation stating that, “Due to increasing incursions by ogres in the southern regions, it has been decided to increase the size of the army; accordingly, an increase in the tax rates has been decreed this day,” the PCs will focus on the cause (the ogre incursions) more than the consequence (the 10% tax hike).
Conferring information is arguably the most important function of prepared speeches, and the only reason to prepare these in advance is to permit the research necessary to get the technical details right: descriptions of places, the setting of tone, facts, etc.
It’s far easier to digest a prepared narrative than to comprehend a list of dates and events. The key is to do as much as possible in small chunks and key statements and phrases rather than writing out the whole dialogue.
Prepare Key Notes
There are three ways you can present information that one character is entitled to (for whatever reason) and the others are not.
- Announce it to all and sundry, making it clear that it’s only character X’s knowledge
- Take the player aside
- Hand over a prepared note and let the player read it while you get on with doing something else
As much as possible, the first choice is the best choice. It’s faster and easier. Only when the character is likely to want to keep something secret, or the interaction could influence what the other PCs say or do, should you choose the second or third methods. The third method is good for technical information, where the character will need to remember specifics later; the second is better for PC/NPC interactions.
Hint, Background Development, Subplot, And Plot: Creating Story Arcs
Story arcs do wonderful things for campaigns. By linking several scenarios together, and building on the consequences of scenario outcomes, they add a level of growth and development to the campaign that is difficult to achieve any other way. It’s the difference between the chapters of a novel and a collection of short stories using the same characters.
Scenario arcs are constructed by taking a scenario and splitting it up into a number of events and plot developments that are separated in time, then including those events and plot developments in the middle of other scenarios. You can have whole scenarios whose ultimate purpose is nothing more than achieving a particular consequence that will become significant further down the track.
Since we’ve already discussed the creation of plots, this section concerns itself with breaking them apart into smaller pieces and integrating them into other scenarios to form an overall story arc.
These are about getting the foundations of your over-arching plotline into place, including introducing NPCs important to the plotline, and helping the PCs become familiar with the key organizations involved.
Sometimes, the only reason for a scenario to exist is to introduce and establish an NPC who will become important in a scenario further down the track. Hints don’t involve the PCs directly in the overall plotline; they just prepare and establish pieces of the eventual jigsaw puzzle.
These are more substantial. Something happens that affects, but does not involve, one or more PCs, and that is incidental to the scenario in play. A plot development, in this context, changes some aspect of the game environment for the PCs without requiring them to do anything about it. There will often be a number of plot developments before the PCs get involved in an actual scenario that is part of the overall storyline.
These take things one step further, and actually involve one or more PCs in a plot development, but that stop short of being the major plotline of the scenario. Subplots are mini scenarios within a scenario. They require a character to do something that interacts with the game environment.
At most, a subplot should be 40% of the main plot of a scenario, and more typically, 5-10%. Sometimes a subplot will lead directly into a scenario that resolves the overall plotline; at other times, the event can just sit there for weeks, months, or even years at a time. Most of the time, subplots will involve only one or two PCs.
Sooner or later, you will get to a plotline whose main purpose is to advance, or even resolve, the over- arching plotline.
You can extend these principles in a couple of ways to create a whole campaign. Babylon 5 did just that in creating its five year storyline.
The two most obvious ways are to overlap a number of plot arcs, so that one is in the hints stage, another is in subplot stage, and a third is taking centre stage.
Another is to have a series of plot arcs either leading to some overall, campaign-wide outcome, or with some common theme – the equivalent of a series of novels combining to tell a larger story.
To some extent, the construction of a campaign will come naturally by re-using NPCs and keeping track of them further down the plotline.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Issue A Bit Early
Due to the Family Day long weekend here in Alberta, this issue is out a bit early.
Another Character Bites The Dust
In our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign last night, another character perished at the hands of evil. It seems the bargain they struck with cunning lizardfolk against a mutual enemy came with an unexpected surprise. Whether it counts as betrayal or honest omission, I’ll leave it to the paladin to carve that decision.
Unfortunately, in the scuffle with a magic-suppressing tentacle creature, poor Morlach, elven hero befriended by the tolerant, suffered his last suppression.
There is hope though. Due to the unexpected brilliant actions of the dwarf Brottor in freeing a tortured dwarven ancestor enslaved by duergar, Brottor’s god has granted him one wish.
Brottor, if you are reading, I have only this to say. Remember Morlach. Remember his terse elven ways. His bad accent. The dwarven insults. Remember how tall he was. And do not forget his constant requests for healing. When pondering your wish, Brottor, I say go for a magic hammer.
Online Dice Rollers and Dice Roller Apps
I’ve had a few requests recently for dice rolling programs, services, and web tools. I’ve used Excel in the past, and I pointed out a dice tool in a recent issue, but I know there are many options and would like to build a list. If you use a digital dice roller of some sort, please drop me the link. Thanks!
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!
Creating A Session Summary And Prep Notes
From John Eikenberry
“Ummm, what happened last game? Was Makrolon still alive?”
One of the more useful things I did for a long-running campaign a few years back was the creation of Session Summary/Prep notes. After each game, I would go through any notes I wrote and write down a high-level description of what happened. After a while, this became a fairly good chronicle of the game.
I divided the sheet into 3 parts.
- Summary section – a short synopsis of what happened last time.
- Preparation section – a writeup of what is most likely to occur in the next section.
- Reference section – information that is needed repeatedly throughout the game. For me, usually names of the kingdoms, copy of the coinage system, the calendar system, etc.
- Date of the game session
- Who attended the game
- What time period in the game was covered in the session
- Summary of last session – a nice reminder to the GM of what happened so the action can continue. O GM Notes – usually just a listing of what was awarded last session o In-between game discussion – summary of any discussion that happened in-between the game sessions o Timeline – what happened in the last session
Periodic information useful to each session. I had a table that covered the next 6 days – usually plenty of time to cover one session of play.
- How bright the moon(s) is (for the night-time adventures)
- What the weather is like (in general)
- High/Low temperatures
Next steps – what encounters or events are most likely to happen. This way I could jot down a few notes and have them ready for the next session.
Current events – what things are going on and where? Which ones might involve the players and how?
Future items – things that might be needed for upcoming game sessions. Usually, listening to the players say things like, “We should find the druid and talk to him about the Sage.” This is a handy place to write down those thoughts so they come up again in your thoughts and planning.
- A list of the important NPCs the players might meet up with – names, mannerisms, notes.
- A list of any information that might be needed relating to the entire campaign.
- A to-do list: a list of those things I need to complete in support of future sessions, e.g., finish the dungeon at Elkabar.
Here is a copy of a filled out prep sheet from a long-ago campaign:
Modern Apartment Building Floorplans
From Chris Heismann
To find some modern floorplans, I did a search for “new condominiums aurora colorado”, which gave me a bunch of links that weren’t relevant, but one was called Coloradonewhomes.com. This had a page with links to Colorado’s developers, both of homes and condos. I was able to pick out a couple that I knew built condos:
I also did a quick try on illinoisnewhomes.com and chicagonewhomes.com and got links to more developers, though I didn’t follow those links to see how relevant they were.
Players In World Creation
Here is an interesting idea a friend is using to create a world. He is putting some of the world creation tasks in the hands of the players. By involving them in the process they have a vested interest in the project, and they also know a part of the world very well to start.
Here is a breakdown of what he is doing:
“In creating a world I start by making core races, each with at least two sub-races. I then set out their particular niche in society. This set out how they interact and socialize. Then I make their deities and set everyone’s territories on my map.
Now I give each of my players a task: design 5 creatures of which at least two must be monsters, and detail one race (or create or “redesign” a race). I hand each of them a map with only my kingdom boundaries showing. With this they are to designate the boundaries of their kingdom, detail its government, break it down into manageable chunks (i.e. states), detail its ruler(s), designate enemies/truces, and give its alignment and why.”
If you have seasoned gamers this might be fun to try.[Thanks for the tip, Darryl. The old D&D Companion Set module, Test of the Warlords, was a great way to referee player-driven world designs.
Burning Wheel also involves player world creation.
Does anyone else know of games or products that indulge in players creating or co-creating their own game worlds?]