Story Arcs and Plot Structure

This article is an enormous slab of information.  I would have liked to break it up, but I could find nowhere to slice it that would not have diminished the whole.  Please don’t feel you have to read it all in one go.  Digest a piece and come back later if it helps you get through it.  Sorry I couldn’t make it smaller.

Previously (and subsequently) on Campaign Builder’s Guide …

Contents: (still subject to change)

Welcome back to the Campaign Builder Series.

In last weeks article, we looked at the principle “People are interested in People” and hence everything we do in writing our story should be focused on the people (especially the PCs) that it affects, rather than the events themselves.  We looked at a variety of story telling media – books, films, conversation and RPGs – to see how they went about achieving that goal.  Finally we looked at these media, and the way they go about encasing a story in a form accessible to the audience.

In the case of a Role Playing Game, we concluded:

The Encounter is any story event where a conflict occurs.  Any obstacle that falls in the path the PCs wish to follow that prevents them from seamlessly progressing to the end of the tale.  All the crunchy rules in any RPG are about the various mechanisms in that particular RPG that help resolve the success or failure of the PCs as they face and (hopefully) overcome that opposition

The Story arc is the loose binding of one encounter to the next.  It comprises the plotting and planning of the Players as they work out “where to go to next”, the plotting and planning of the GM as he provides hooks in the hope they’ll follow where he leads, exposition, interpretation (and more likely misinterpretation) of that exposition, the flow in information and new clues that open up opportunities for a new encounter to occur.

For the purposes of a Role Playing Game, story is driven forward by two things: Conflict and Information

Conflict with any external force (every bit of the world run by the GM) can constitute an encounter.

In some cases, the interactions with external forces are Friendly (A meeting with your contacts to get some information, re-supply, or grease the wheels of progress) or Passive (searching the site of a recent Cryxian Attack for clues to their motives) in which case they constitute role playing, or skill check encounters.  In many cases, the GM will want to use these to progress the plot, and so will not even require a skill roll to achieve a positive outcome (see later episodes in this series [LINK])  However, from a story point of view, these still amount to Conflict – which we will define and discuss in just a moment.

In other cases this conflict is Antagonistic – requiring the PCs to overcome this adversity – essentially to Fight, Run, Hide, or Deal (negotiate/bluff/bribe/whatever) with the Antagonist.  In this case, the crunchy rules mechanics of the game come in to play to determine the outcome.

Conflict between party members, or by a single party member with him/herself (internal angst and conflicting personal desires) can occur during encounters, or within the story arc between.  These still amount to turning points in the story, but are (usually) settled without resulting to GM intervention or use of rules crunch.

From the point of view of the progression of the story, information is a bottleneck.  A point the story cannot progress past until the critical piece of information has been attained.  For instance, the company cannot go to the infernalist’s hideout until they knows where it is.  In my experience, it is far harder to feed the PCs information and filter out the crazy red herrings they dream up out of the ether.  As a general rule, it is easier to feed the true information through conflict than by any other means.  Have them make a detect/research/social skill check, and tell the highest roller the information.  Or during a combat, at a point the bad guy thinks himself to be winning, Monologue about how your brilliant plan will bring about the hero’s inevitable downfall, or have a fleeing minion leave a path to the badguy’s secret hideaway.  There is a crazy tendency for PCs to believe any information they had to work to achieve.

Each of these events constitutes a Turning Point.  A place where the narrative path of the story can change and go down one of many paths.  In this article we’ll be looking at this narrative path – aka the Story Arc.  We’ll look at Encounters, Information and the nature of Turning points in a later article [LINK].  Today is about the Plot and Structure.  We’ll start with the two extreme ends of the structure spectrum


No Structure – the Plotless Dungeon Crawl

At one end of our spectrum, we have the Plotless Dungeon Crawl.  There may be some box-text at the start of the tale, where the objective of the dungeon crawl is outlined – maybe some information about what challenges the characters will face as they complete the quest, some of the roadblacks they might face (in the hopes that these don’t become sticking points where the adventure stalls), and maybe even the final goal with a hint at how the PCs will triumph in the end

Key features of this type of adventure include:

  • The order of encounters is determined by the order the PCs enter the areas the encounters exist in.
  • There is little or no cause and effect.  What PCs do in one encounter has little effect on the next.  Usually the only effect is the uses of precious resources, the gaining of new loot to use in subsequent encounters, and finding keys to roadblocks – keys to doors, vital information, McGuffin items that allow passage into or triumph in later encounters.

The setting does not have to be a typical dungeon.  It could be an occupied township, a pirate vessel,  a castle or fortress.  A Dungeon Crawl is simply any sequence of adventures with only loose connection between one encounter and the next, and the order is decided by the PC choice of location they go to.  There are even mystery/investigation variants akin to the Law and Order series of TV shows – where the PCs just decide which of the dozen leads available they go to next – ad infinitum until the have the key (enough clues to progress) to get past a bottleneck and into the next phase of the investigation with another dozen leads to follow up.

There is nothing wrong with this type of Adventure, and if it suits you and your group – then you’re going to have an easy time of it. The only things you need master are Map Making and Encounter building.  With those under your belt, you are all set to Dungeon Crawl

The limitation of this style of play is that the encounter behind the third door you kick down in the dungeon feels very much the same as the one hundred and third door.  Those Players and GMs who envisioned a roller-coaster ride of plot and intrigue will feel something is missing and will soon find their attention drifting as they try to figure out what it is.  The only variation you can inject into these cookie cutter encounters is the back story/box text at the start, some tactical variations in the locations (bridges, bottlenecks, deadfalls, difficult and impassable areas etc) and the types of bad guys.

In fact, the popularity of this type of campaign, with its need for large numbers of types of bad guys (in order to maintain the variety in encounters) explains the enormous number of Monster Manuals in most Role Playing games.  In stories that can create variety and complexity from more than just location and adversary, you can get away with a much more restricted cast of antagonists (and can begin to use recurring bad guys – as the variety in the scene is elsewhere).  Just look at the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  7 seasons.  Hundreds of episodes.  A small percentage had demons of varying type, but most have vampires as the sole antagonist – and of those they were either nameless mooks or recurring characters.  I’ll talk more on this concept in a later article.  [LINK]


The Railroad – Picaresque and Walking tour Adventures

At the other end of the plot spectrum lies the Picaresque and Walking tour Adventures.  Unlike the Dungeon crawl, these may have a little in the way of connection from one encounter to the next.  However aside from loot gained and resources expended (which are choices made by the PCs during encounters), these links are as cosmetic as boxed text, and are predefined by the adventure rather than invented or chosen by the characters.

They contrast with the Dungeon Crawl by, instead of having the PCs choose which door is the next to be kicked down, the PCs enjoy a roller coaster ride as they are carried from one encounter to the next on a set of rails.  The order of the encounters may or may not be narratively important, and the storyline can be rich and fulfilling, however it is the GM laying down the rails of which is the next scene that is encountered.

Again, don’t get me wrong – this is not necessarily a bad thing.  The rails can be so well laid as to be invisible.  The story can be engrossing.  There can be convoluted connections between the scenes that make the PCs feel like they are inside a well crafted movie.  It is also one of the easier adventure lines to create, so if it suits you and your group – more power to you – you will once again have an easy time of it.

If we map out the storyline, we get something like the picture above.  Each episode is discrete.  By finishing one episode, the PCs have the key (connections, items, information) to progress to the next.  A pre-set story is driving the encounter sequence, and there is not really the leeway for the PCs to leave the rails.  Often the PCs will not want to leave the rails – they make the choices that are predicted by the pre-set plot, and so feel like the driving force behind the adventure.  They may decide to go off on a tangent, and the GM may even decide to ad lib that tangent for a time (such as when they go to investigate the Steam worker’s union suspecting the Rogue warjack (that was intended as a hook to allow them to meet the Town Council) was in fact a complex distraction aimed to facilitate the kidnapping that was successful a few days later).  However, the plan is for the PCs to progress to the Cryx warrens and rescue the Mayors niece who will then lead them on to the next (per-destined) set of encounters.

A good GM will adapt this to make the rails seem invisible, and have the PCs feel their decisions are driving the plot.

eg.  The plot called for the investigation of the spy who had facilitated the night-attack by the cryx, and the kidnapping of the Mayor’s niece to lead them into an intrigue laden ball at Town hall.  Instead the PCs throw themselves a red herring with the rogue warjack and steam worker’s union.  On the fly, the GM decides this is a great line of thinking, and so transplant the ball scene, instead having the intrigue play out in the political machinations of the union, which still leads them to the same cryx spy who it turns out had orchestrated the warjack attack.

This sort of adventure suits the walking tour type campaign.  PCs are shown a world and progressing plot.  They feel a part of it, and enjoy a great roller coaster ride.  It will appeal to the story teller in each of us, who loves to feel part of a bigger plot, and to the butt kicker in us – as the encounters will be well planned and action packed.  The Hardcore role player may rebel if they feel that the way the plot goes is not the way they want to go (e.g. the easily slighted mercenary who becomes antagonistic to the mayor in the second scene, and has no desire to rescue his niece).  Similarly the the tacticians may try to think their way around one of your carefully constructed scenes (such as by preventing the kidnapping), and will feel put out when they realise that the scene is in the path of the rails that they cannot leave.  For both of these type of players, you will have to work hard to make the rails as invisible as possible, or have them feel that their decisions led them to an unplanned scene, and consequence of their choosing.


The Branching Plot

The trouble then becomes – realistically what are the other options?

Some people believe that a GM should be responsible for generating an infinitely branching, completely prepared adventure – detailing every conceivable encounter and option available to the party.

Even just considering a small set of the adventure paths that begin at the rogue warjack from the above encounter, and ending at the Cryx lair, we find a flow sheet like the one below.

And this doesn’t include the millions of other branches and detours that the PCs might take let alone all the paths that end at other finishing points.  Taking them into consideration, after only a few branches you end up with a tree like this

or, knowing the way that RPG plots devolve, something like this

When you consider the effort that would be required to make even just this small set of encounters, and only a fraction would ever be played by the PCs, even considering this sort of structure sounds ridiculous.

And it probably is.  However it is important to at least think of it as existing, both because some people think that we should try to achieve this ideal (you shouldn’t, don’t have to, and shouldn’t try) and because in looking at what is going on in it, we can figure out some ways that it is possible to look like this is what we’ve prepared.

First, let’s look at it from the player’s viewpoint.  At the end of the game, the player has experienced a set of encounters with a fluid story connecting them.  They have followed the green path in this diagram

However what they have experienced is more like this

(Green story path connecting blue circle encounters)

Even though they knew or suspected there were other encounters to visit and other paths to follow, they didn’t follow them.  They took one path, and saw one set of encounters.  If we knew from the start that they were going to follow that flight path, we would only need to prepare those encounters.  We are not that prescient and do not have the ability or insanity to prepare every one of the options that could be taken.  Instead we need a structure that provides all the advantages of the branching plot, without the pain of generating it, or the illusion that it exists despite the fact it has not been prepared as such.


The Set Piece

A Set Piece style adventure is built around a sequence of climactic encounters that the group is guaranteed to pass through.  These are the set pieces.  There are, however, a variety of ways, for the party to pass from one encounter to the next.

The initial plot hooks lead the party into the first of these set pieces.  After an exciting escapade, they emerge from the encounter – successful or unsuccessful.  This then presents them with a variety of further plot hooks (which ones they find depends on how the first encounter was resolved, and how they progress from there).  However no matter which they choose to follow, and how they choose to proceed, all roads lead to Rome – or in this case, the second set piece encounter.  And so on.

It is a good idea to provide these hooks no matter what the outcome of any set piece encounter.  For instance : If they win, the party can interrogate the survivors – gaining some vital clues into how to defeat the next set piece.  If they win but capture no prisoners, they get clues as to where the antagonists came from, but no clues as to how they are set up.  If they run screaming from the encounter, they run into another victim of the antagonists who is arming to take them on, and provides a hint as to where he was attacked and hence allowing them to track them back to their lair.  Or something like that.

As a Diagram, the structure would look something like this…

The Iron Kingdoms began with one of the greatest examples of Set Piece writing – the Witch Fire Trilogy.  After each action packed encounter (or set of encounters) it would provide the GM with pages of plot hooks to lead the party into the next.  Although the flight path was set – by a combination of the adversary’s time line, and the need for the party to achieve a set objective – the methods they could choose to achieve this, and how much faffing about between scenes they wished to do – was entirely in the hands of the PCs.

The Set piece design provides a number of great strengths.  The most important of which is initially hidden from view:

The PCs want to find adventure.  If you build it, (and provide a good hook or two to allow them to get there) then they will come

Players are not wilful miscreants bent on destroying your carefully crafted adventures for their own diabolical purposes.  They will frequently be mislead, follow false trails, or interests of their own choosing.  They will have their own agendas, and ones hell bent on role-playing to the bitter end may baulk if what they need to do is not in keeping with their concept of character.  However, at the end of the day, they are looking for a great adventure – the same as you.  If you provide enough hooks that they can stumble across one or two, and follow them – seemingly in the right direction – to reach the next encounter, then chances are they will reach that next encounter.

The second great beauty of the Set Piece is that because there are so many ways to reach that next encounter, they will follow their own path – hence feeling like they have complete autonomy, and infinite choices, and that they have chosen to reach the next set piece of their own volition

Finally, the improvisation and characterisation your entire group – you included – do in the paths between the set pieces is fantastic fun, and great practice at improvisation – which will stand you in great stead when you choose to ignore the path to the next encounter, and instead let the story off the rails and into the wild blue yonder


Puzzle Piece

In many ways, the Puzzle piece structure is more of an improvisation technique than a planned adventure format.  Don’t let the word improvisation scare you off.  The story is there, and all the planning is done ahead of time, so the need to think on your feet is minimised, and the risk of having nowhere to go / stage fright almost absent.

The structure of puzzle piece adventures is built around resolution of story line.  It goes like this…

  • In a story, stuff will happen.
  • It will happen to people.
  • Cause will result in consequence, opening the way for more stuff to happen.
  • If it all points in one direction that the PCs are willing to follow (and they will – see above), then it will all converge on the climax of the story

Now if we know

  • The cast of characters (NPCs)
  • What they want and how they will go about achieving their goals
  • The timeline they will follow, and how it will divert as it is interrupted (by the PCs or the actions of other NPCs) 
  • An idea of where the scenes will play out – ie your Plot Outline

Then we have all the pieces of an adventure.  The GM and PCs put together this jigsaw as the adventure plays out – the conflict with the NPCs as they go about their nefarious schemes being combined with location, motive, information and resources to generate encounters as the PCs come to them.  The GM has quite a lot of control over the progress of the story both at the writing and play at the table stages through the presence of natural roadblocks in the plot, and dispensing the key to these roadblocks.  For instance

  • You can’t confront the villain until you know who he is and where he is
  • You can’t thwart the theft until the bad guys make their move to steal the McGuffin
  • You can’t recognise the traitor in your midst until after he betrays you

In fact, this is probably the most critical step in planning out your Puzzle piece.  I always find the hardest thing to do is give the PCs all the information they need without it being lost in a sea of false leads and crazy theories they generate for themselves.  The thing is – you as GM have an overview of the plots and plans of all the NPCs, and a single map of where things are going to go.  The PCs have to dream up this map for themselves, and so will be able to come up with a wider variety of possible threads.  In fact, they have about 5 times the brain power to come up with harebrained false leads, so will invariably be constantly misleading themselves.  As such, you need an excess of information snippets, clues, hints, hooks and leads to steer them back towards the rails, and will probably need to throw them out at every possible opportunity.  The ONLY exception to this is when the clue is the final piece needed to break through a roadblock that you don’t want broken yet.

You do not need to complicate your plot to slow down the PCs.  They will do that for themselves.

Of course, the other side of this coin is you can blatantly steal ideas from your PCs.  They will spend quite some time discussing where the plot is leading them, and what a given clue, hint or factoid might mean.  Listen closely.  If they have a good idea, jot it down.  Use it later in a similar scenario if you want to, or if they decide to investigate it, see if you can change your plot to make it the new truth and abandon the old plot line.  The PCs will have a great time realising they “figured it out”, you have a stronger plot for it, and have the joy of sharing the creation of the story with your PCs – after all – it’s about time they did some of the prep work too.

The great strengths of the puzzle piece is you have effectively created a true Branching path adventure with the bare minimum of excess work to do so.  The PCs are truly playing in the complete sandbox of your world, and can go to new locations or chase other goals without messing up your pre-planned plot the way it would in a set piece adventure.  It becomes very easy to graft a piece of the ongoing plot into a new location of the PCs choosing, or to have an impromptu encounter provide another vital clue, hint, re-direct or key to a roadblock that brings the party back onto the track the GM planned, and the PCs wanted to follow before they managed to lose themselves.  Unlike a set piece adventure, where the rails become very obvious if the PCs try to leave them, and are brought back to them with any heavy handed device, the Puzzle Piece adventure has a ready answer to any time the PCs try to leave the rails, and it if usually child’s play to help them to steer themselves back onto those rails.

The down side is that it does require a flexibility and willingness for the GM to let go of the rail road, be ready to improvise changes into the plot on the fly.  It opens far greater opportunities for the PCs to fail – especially if you stick to the original timeline you planned.

From the story side, it becomes a bit harder for any encounter to achieve the grandeur that you can manage with a true Set piece adventure.  Climaxes become more difficult to engineer, and if the PCs actively leave the tracks you have laid, it can really throw a spanner into the works that you’ll need to work hard to salvage.

A sample Puzzle Piece Plot Outline might go something like this:

  • Karlos Dacero (our spy) is an Ordic merchant with his fingers in many many pots.
  • KD has been sourcing somewhat corrupted jack cortices from a Cryx contact, and has been using Jake Caruthers, a Cygnaran smuggler in the area to infiltrate them in town.
  • KD has payed off James Bryce, a senior engineer in the steam worker’s union to substitute these for high grade Cygnaran cortices, which he then has smuggled back out of town and sells at a profit elsewhere.
  • KD’s various other business interests have ingratiated him to the town council.
  • KD has recently found out from his Cryx contacts that they plan on kidnapping a town councilor’s niece Jayne Silversan – believed by them to soon be due to manifest powerful sorcery (the detail are for another adventure)
  • KD has supplied them with a detailed plan of attack, but it is flawed.  In the confusion he plans on kidnapping her for himself.
  • John W Michaelson – head of the steam worker’s union has been noticing some irregularities with some of their latest series of jacks, but is a petty, political pedant, and doesn’t want things to reflect badly on him, so will try to put bureaucratic entanglements in the way should he be investigated.  JB will hear of any encounters he has with PCs and will move to intervene to protect himself, throwing KD to the wolves if need be.
  • Tara Franks is the captain of a local division of the SteelHeads, and has been contracted to police trouble with the local urban gobber population.  She is against other Merc charters honing in on her turf, but is always on the lookout for fresh talent and recruits.  (Potential contact, patron or adversary.  Will become recurring character)
  • Urban Gobber Population is being upset by influx of tribal gobbers from the woods.
  • Woods Gobber population mobilising due to Cryxan activity in prep for attack
  • TF is currently looking into why the increased gobber trouble – but more to better prepare her troops, and possibly to maintain this lucrative work than to stop it.  She is barking up the wrong tree – thinking it is JC and his smuggling operation.  She has not told any officials of her suspicions (or of the existence of JC)
  • PCs enter story when a Warjack with a corrupt cortex goes rogue.
  • Town council become interested in the PCs heroics and suggest employing them as TF does not seem to be improving the situation
  • When Cryx make their night attack, KD makes his move.  He is not seen, but fails and is injured when JS manifests her sorcery.  This alerts the Cryx, who then succeed in kidnapping her.
  • Optional Ball scene after the attack with politics, many of the major players, and a chance to point the PCs to any clues they may have missed.
  • Potential trails to the Cryx warrens via:  KD, who is now injured and leaving lots of clues.  He may also throw JC to the wolves if it will get him off, Cryx captives, Woods Gobbers, Smugglers, etc
  • Woods are infested with the forces of Gobbers (ambivalent) Smugglers (evasive, scared, and wary of PCs) and Cryx (hostile)
  • Cryx take JS in their warrens in the woods from where they plan to ship her to the Sharde islands once preparations have been made

This short set of points contains enough to be going on with for a few months of play, and gives plenty of scope for the PCs to get lost, make friends and enemies, investigate and get into a wide variety of fights.  Added hilarity if you can generate a romantic entanglement with Tara.


So what is the RIGHT answer?

As motivational as this picture might be, the fact is that there is no right answer.  You need to come up with the best solution firstly for you, and secondly for your group.  Furthermore, there is no reason you can’t pick and choose components of these structures to fit any given segment of your game as best suits your purposes.

Autumn’s View of a Campaign

Here is where I expose myself to risk and critique.  So to try and deflect some flack, I’ll begin by saying that this is just what works for me.  It may not suit you.  I am in no way saying this is the right way to do it, nor is it the the way you should do it.  I am quite comfortable with ad libbing, improvising entire campaign arcs, and winging it on no notice.  This may not be you, and so what I describe may not suit you so well.  I just figure that after waxing lyrical for so long about what you can do, I should “show don’t tell” and let you know what, in an ideal world, I aim to do when I plan out a game.

Let’s begin by looking at how I view the campaign as a whole.   I subscribe to the sandbox view of a world to adventure in.  Though I may lay down a rough trail for them to follow and have a plan of how the plot may go, I by no means lay down rails for them to follow.  I am happy for them to reach WHICHEVER destinations they want by WHICHEVER routes they choose to follow.  It would be nice if they choose the paths I lay for them.

I place a lot of faith in my players to be working with me to tell an engrossing story, and so over the entire campaign I set a number of beacons – rainbows striking a distant peak in the endless desert that is my sandbox.  If they find themselves at a loss for what to do, or having completed their own individual quests feel they have reached a dead end, there is always a few shining lights for them to turn back to north and chase the original path I laid down when we began the journey. I trust them to eventually turn back to this path and follow it to its climactic conclusion.

Tangent time! – but a tangent with a very important point.  I’ve written more than my fair share of comedy.  Revue skits, comedic songs, even a full length stage play or two.  My process for that is the same as when I write articles, lectures or adventures.
The likes of Seinfeld established that you can ramble about nothing for an hour, and still be entertaining.  However even he always finished with two important features.  His finish always linked back to the message brought forward at the start, and it was the funniest, highest point of the show.  Since we know we must end with a punchline, why not plan it out from the beginning.  Trust me – it makes things easier to know where you’re going, and trust me further still, it’s hard to add a good punchline at the end of a tale if you haven’t got it planned out from the beginning.

When I begin crafting a campaign, I’ll start with the climactic end to the campaign.  It may be as simple as a concept, or as complex as an entire scene, but I will know where I am going.

Next I’ll divide the overall course of the campaign into sections – usually about three, and usually these will correspond to the three arcs of character development.  Becoming who they will be, defining their place in the grander scheme, and then chasing a goal greater than themselves.  This corresponds nicely with the three tiers of IKRPG – Hero, Veteran and Epic.  I will then create the three broad arcs of what will happen during and at the end of each of these arcs – (and hence what will be occurring at the start of the next arc) – and how each arc introduces the direction the next arc will take.

Notice that each of these arcs focus in on defining the PCs – not the plot or the world.  Of course I’ll be working on the narrative thread as well, but always think of it in terms of how it will define the characters…

  • Becoming who they will be – At the end of this, they will have a firm view of who they are and what they stand for.  The world is theirs for the taking, and all they need do is reach out …
  • Defining their place in the grander scheme – in this arc, they need to convert what they know themselves to be into what the world knows them to be.  In the course of this they also uncover secrets revealing the world to be a darker place than they first thought
  • Chasing a goal greater than themselves – With something greater even than their own selves at stake, PCs sacrifice what they thought mattered in the first two arcs to achieve what they now know to be a greater goal

People are interested in people – especially themselves (or their characters) – so keep the focus of the arcs on them. They are the center of the world after all

With the start and the end of each arc defined, I’ll then proceed to ignore the whole of the veteran and epic tier.  That is months and months away, and will probably have changed by the time I get there.  No sense in wasting planning time now.  I know where to light those beacons in my desert, and at this distance, all the PCs will see is the beacon, not the path leading to it.

(as a side note, I am likely to have dreamed up a fairly impressive set piece for the end of each of these three arcs as well at this point.  This is subject to change or refinement, but, although it is not a necessary step of the process, does help me form the lead up, and plant all sorts of clues and hints, omens and forewarnings ahead of time)

I’ll now map out the first arc, again dividing it into a series of smaller arcs.  Again usually three.  The reason I choose three (though any odd number will do) is this:

The three scenes correspond to stages of personal development.  In the first scene, the characters begin with great promise (their individual personal qualities and a certain heroic flair) and during the first scene, they gain success.  They may have to make compromises, dirty short cuts, and some less than heroic actions, but in doing so, achieve some degree of success.  In the second scene, their success becomes the seed of their undoing, and greater external forces come to bear and bar their way.  They however persevere, and through their other qualities, triumph, though it is a hollow victory, as they loose some of their initial shine.  In the third scene, they turn their losses into gains – due to the peaking of their other personal qualities, and decide what they will sacrifice, and what they won’t to gain their success, and carve out their niche – and the world had better look out.

No – it does not have to follow this graph – it is just an example – but it illustrated the point I want to make.  The success will vary – as often based on the plot arc you map out as the PCs choices.  But there will be other factors at stake here – the PCs personal qualities, esteem, integrity, position in society, creativity, knowledge, heroism, pluck and luck.  It is this purple line that defines the heroic tier as they define WHO THEY ARE.  The whole success thing is just a plot device and by product.  Don’t let the PCs know.  They think they are playing the game for money and reputation.  You know it’s a different game, and they are playing it for their soul.

With a pattern roughly like this, I’ll now dream up the three arcs that will take them through heroic tier – usually just concentrating on the situation they will be in at the end of each arc.  Will they be rich? Respected?  Have people they can rely on?  Wide reputations, or good standing with a few that matter?  Necessary information to understand the horrific truth?  and of course location and progress towards the  beacon at the end of the heroic tier.  Beyond an idea of where each of these arcs will take them, and where they will stand at the end, I’m unlikely to detail them too much further.  I now have all I need to start dropping clues, warnings, omens and forebodings of what is to come.

Let’s review:

I now have a vast sandbox.  Within it, there are a few beacons – targets that all the hooks point towards, and that the PCs are likely to head towards.  Within the nearby sand there are the three arcs of the heroic tier.  In the distance you can make out where the beacon at the end of veteran may lie, and in the very far distance, the glowing mountain at the end of the campaign.  From this perspective, it looks a little intimidating, but we aren’t expecting to fill this desert any time soon, just get a feel for the lay of the land.  A birds eye perspective helps a lot with this.

The bottom red circles are the ends of my Heroic arcs, the green the end of my Veteran arc, and the blue, the grand climax at the end of Epic

Even though the white circle maps out all that could happen – it is very rare that a group will try and stray that far from any decent story line the GM lays down.  If they do, maybe you should re-consider your story line as it clearly doesn’t suit this party, or this game.  As I voiced in the Set Piece description, I trust my players to work with me to tell an entertaining story, and for the most part they won’t maliciously derail.  It will rarely follow a straight line, but with beacons lit, or hovering over the horizon as they march through my desert they will meander towards the light.

The ends of arcs often act as bottlenecks to re-gather and re-collect the plot, and the general trajectory holds.  They may take any of the red (heroic), green (Veteran) and blue (Epic) paths shown, but they tend to head in the direction the story leads.  There are two points of note on this map:

A:  Sometimes the PCs will want to head out on a side quest.  Some part of the world, some part of the story, or some story that had occurred to them has taken their interest – even though it has nothing to do with your carefully thought out plans.  I encourage you to indulge them. As it runs its course, try and work in pieces of the ongoing plot, or visions of what is happening because they are neglecting the ongoing plot.  Once it has finished running its course, there is the shining beacon still sitting at the end of your carefully planned arc, waiting for them with open arms and waiting handcannons.

B:  Sometimes this alternate course they pursue is actually better for the story than what you had worked out.  If so, then embrace it.  Transplant what you need for the ongoing plot, and allow it to become the new beacon.  Reasons it is better can vary but may include:  It is what the PCs are interested in.  They thought of a better plot than you.  Previous derailments make this more satisfying.  You see a way to make the next part of the path even more bitter sweet as the horrifying truth comes to light.

The reason these beacons tend to end up as bottlenecks is simple narrative imperative.  They tend to be either important events in the story (attacks on cities that occur at a specific time and location, a critical murder, a contract finishing, the defeat of a villain), or the climax results in the party gaining the key to a roadblock that will bar their way unless they pass through the beacon.  PCs may think their way around these roadblocks, or come out of them with a different situation, reputation, allies and resources than what you had planned, and if it is wildly different you may have a situation like B above, but more often than not, PCs will reach and pass through the beacons as you had planned, and of their own free will

That’s it for the macro-planning I’ll do at the start of a campaign.  I’ll re-visit this map from time to time as the story progresses, adding in bits here and there as they occur to me.  Beyond this, I’ll be concentrating on the session by session micro-planning.  I know where things are heading, what the critical info and keys to roadblocks coming up will be, and am ready to drop those hooks into the plot should opportunity become available.

At the micro level – ie in a single session – I aim to get through two big encounters.  Often it’ll be only one with a lot of faffing at both ends.  Sometimes I’ll get through three.  It’s usually pretty predictable from the previous session what the first encounter will be.  In fact, I’ll often play up to the next encounter then end the session so we can commence with a bit of conflict, and so I can build an awesome Set Piece start to the session.

From there, I can make my best prediction for where things will go, and so prepare a great set piece for the second and usual final encounter of the session.  I’ll also make some plans for what if they take this or that path, or decide to veer off on this or that tangent.  Maybe so much as figuring out bad guys, NPC personalities and goals, a map if I’m feeling that way inclined.  Or maybe I’ll just wing it if I’m not feeling creative, have limited time, or have just had a pig of a week.  I’ll review where I stand on my plot path, and sketch out the plot-outline this session is likely to work in.

In the structure language I’ve laid out earlier in this article, the opening and (predicted) closing encounters are laid out as Set Pieces.  The story arc bridging them is laid out as a Puzzle Piece.  Often the tangents from where I predict the story will go are only laid out as Puzzle Pieces as well.

I feel with this approach, I get the benefits, with very few of the limitations of what I find to be the two most effective and realistic structures – the Set piece and Puzzle piece.  It has been a very very long time since I have been accused of railroading my PCs while using this approach, and I play with players very sensitive to the railroad.  (We feel it a lot when we use bought modules for the games we play).  The big limitation that I must state clearly is that I feel quite comfortable – even enjoy – ad libbing. I often do ad-lib, and my players are kind enough to tolerate my gaffs as I  improvise.

Using this approach, with a creative few hours at the start of the campaign (you have to be in the right creative mood), and again before commencing each arc; plus an hour or so before every session, you can play out an entire campaign, you and your players can have a rollicking good time, an engrossing story, and feel like it was the complete railroad free, branching plot package.



Until next time, Happy gaming!


Autumn Stone


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  1. doom_of_the_people said:

    Wow, that is some in depth deconstruction. The last time I ran a campaign it was set up as episodic encounters with an over-arching plot. I treated it much like a season of television with a built in break for the mid-season cliffhanger and star cameos’. This article make me want to take up DMing again. Perhaps I will give the new rules a look. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

  2. Orius said:

    Great series of articles!

    My group just started a new IK campaign and our first game did not go so well for many of your reasons laid out. Our GM was hell bent on his “plan” and did not flow with the players to achieve his goal for our first session. We are going to be switching off Gming so i am taking notes on all you laid down! beacons!!

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