How To Run Several Plots At The Same Time Without Stress
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1045
Players love it when their characters get special side plots built just for them.
Side plots hook your players and get them involved in your campaign.
Side plots allow PC growth and development in ways character sheet upgrades cannot.
And side plots make your campaigns feel deep and personal.
Problem is, with one side plot for each character, plus your main plot arc, you have at least five plates to keep spinning.
How Do I Manage All My Plot Threads?
With one side plot per PC and at least one main plot arc, that’s a lot of spinning.
How do we manage all these plots without causing a horrific crash?
Do these four things:
- Get clear on Character Goals and Player Kicks
- Use Loopy Planning
- Borrow from TV series episode structure
- Cross streams Ghostbusters style
Let’s go into a bit more detail for each step.
Get Clear On Character Goals And Player Kicks
We talked about these before in the tips on Character Stories — How To Keep Players Highly Engaged.
Help each player develop an External Conflict, an Internal Conflict, and a Philosophical Conflict for their character.
Turn character conflict into goals.
And each goal becomes a story climax or a 5 Room Dungeon room #5.
Use Loopy Planning
Build a table or list of plots.
Give each plot a name.
Give each plot an end state, goal, or grand finale idea. Update these once in a while as character actions change the game.
And give each plot a Next Move. What action will the villain or plot antagonist take next to get closer to their goal — the plot’s end state.
The key to Loopy Planning is the Next Move. Translate these into encounters. Play to find out what happens. Then plot your Next Move based on game outcomes.
Borrow From TV Series Scene Structure
He describes running multiple plot arcs in a session like how TV series edit their shows.
Take the average TV series plot and it’s pretty thin. Mostly a sequence of simple plot developments, one per scene.
It would be boring to watch a basic plot unfold one simple development at a time.
So TV producers create two plot arcs per episode and alternate scenes. This gives the illusion that each plot is deeper and more complex.
For example, the episode opener starts with a victim being attacked. A gruesome scene.
Next scene, the show’s heroes arrive and examine the murder. They talk clues and theories. Scene ends with next steps discussed.
Then the episode turns to a personal development plot for one of the characters. Their father has a health event. Siblings emerge and deep family frictions reveal themselves.
We switch back to the murder plot. The bad guys behind the murder deliver a warning to stop the investigation. Exciting gunfire gets exchanged with thugs. The heroes realize this case has deep underworld connections.
New scene. Dad’s health gets worse. Family tensions escalate. The main character involved has a tense argument and storms out, leaving everyone in chaos.
And so it goes. Scenes switch back and forth, one per plot arc, giving us variety, cliffhangers, and continual plot developments that keep us hooked and watching to find out how (or even if) everything gets resolved.
This format works awesome for us too.
We’ll call your main plot arc Plot A.
Character plots are B through F.
So you’d try to run a session with encounters that feature plots in a sequence like this:
- Encounter 1 — Plot A
- Encounter 2 — Plot B
- Encounter 3 — Plot C
- Encounter 4 — Plot A
- Encounter 5 — Plot C
- Encounter 6 — Plot D
And so on.
Cross Streams Ghostbusters Style
With several character plot arcs, plus at least one main plot arc, it’ll be tough trying to fit each plot into sessions often enough to keep momentum going.
If you average 10 encounters per session, for example, and you have 6 plot arcs to juggle, that means some plots potentially get no screen time in a session.
The best solution is to put two plot arcs into one encounter.
Not only do you get faster plot progression this way, you also get a richer story.
We do this by sharing NPCs, locations, items, and situations between plots.
For example, Roghan’s side plot involves tracking down a family secret. You spot an opportunity to link a clue’s location with the villain’s next move. Two plot arcs converge.
Note that you aren’t trying to merge plot arcs, though you can do so if it makes sense. I don’t force plots to merge because it can seem fake or forced. But if a good opportunity hits, go ahead and merge.
Otherwise, aim to make plots converge for a single encounter or 5 Room Dungeon. Then they diverge again.
In TV this technique gets tired fast. Audiences pick up on it and it breaks their sense of belief.
But we’re not writing a TV script here.
For roleplaying games, the opposite happens.
Plots crossing streams makes your world feel connected. Recurring locations and NPCs give players familiar hooks for play. And shared encounters let players team up.
Plot Your Heart Out
Remember that plots aren’t static.
What’s been played remains canon. Keep these details consistent and on-hand.
What’s playing right now deserves your best GM attention. Act, react, improv.
And what might happen next can change however you like based on what you’re seeing from gameplay.
Go ahead and give each character a side plot that players care about.
Keep each side plot running in its own thread, but only worry about staying one or two steps ahead using Loopy Planning.
Look for ways to combine NPCs, locations, items, and situations from two plots into the same encounters.
This approach give players fantastic side plots while keeping things organized, progressing, and exciting on your side of the screen.