Let’s See What Happens: Emergent Campaign Storylines

Let me get this out up front: I like campaigns that tell a story.

When I create a campaign, I always try to have it tell a story ((Though, to be fair, it’s usually more like a series of books with a through-line of metaplot than like a single book, if you see what I mean.)). Sometimes, as with my Broken Chains campaign, I know what the end of the story is when I start the game, but sometimes, as with my Armitage Files campaign, I don’t.

But I need to.

Once upon a time, I ran an Unknown Armies campaign. It went very well, right up to the last few months, when it suddenly lost steam and petered out. In retrospect, I can see what the problem was: I had reached the end, but didn’t stop, and so the game lost power, motivation, and direction. I wasn’t able to provide a new direction because the story had been told, and I didn’t have another one to tell right then. I hadn’t recognized the end when it came up and bit me ((Really, I mean, I should have seen it. The PCs brave the mystic gates of Central Park to retrieve the gun that killed Dutch Schultz from the Lady in the Lake and deliver it to the True King of New York. Along the way, they face their deepest selves, and manage to destroy the doppelganger that had been haunting them since the first session. How did I not see that was the end of the story?)), and so the game died an ignominious death, rather than going out on a high note.

That’s why I need to have an end.

But what if I don’t have one when I start?

The Secrets Deck

Ray Winninger wrote a series of articles in Dragon magazine many years ago that should be required reading for anyone starting any kind of campaign. It was called Dungeoncraft ((I’m not going to include a link here, even though I think everyone should read it, because I’m not sure who owns the copyright to those articles. That said, thirty seconds worth of searching will find them on the web.)), and while it dealt mainly with D&D, there was a lot of great, solid advice in the series for anyone running any kind of campaign.

One of the best pieces of advice in those articles is the construction of a Secrets Deck. This is a simple idea: for each major thing that you create for your campaign world, come up with at least one secret about it, and write it down on an index card. Once you’ve done the initial brainstorming for your campaign, you should have a healthy little stack of cards. Then, when you come up with a scenario, give the cards a shuffle, draw one (or maybe two, if it’s going to be a big scenario) and work a clue about that secret into the adventure.

Now, how big a clue you work in will depend on how big and cool the secret is. If it’s something that affects the whole campaign, you’ll want to be subtle and careful with the clue, so that you don’t blow any big surprises. If it’s something that only affects a small portion of the campaign, it can be more blatant, and can lead to a short series of adventures as the characters follow it up.

I used the Secrets Deck extensively during Broken Chains, both working it into the adventures, and in the in-game newsletter that I distributed before every session ((This was called The Gazette, and had a number of news stories, a Q&A column, articles on history and legend, and a recap of the last session. Yeah, I made a new one before every session. I had a lot more time back then.)). It provided a number of side quests during the campaign, and helped me fill the time until the characters were tough enough to take on the big bad at the end of the story.


Providing lots of options is also important in developing the campaign storyline. The Armitage Files is a brilliant example of this, throwing mountains of unexplained clues at the party. City creation in The Dresden Files RPG does this in spades, and incorporates a heaping helping of the next couple of topics, as well. Now, on the surface, it seems kind of counter-intuitive to provide too many options when you don’t know where you’re going, but the reality is that it both reinforces the feeling that the world is bigger than the characters, and provides players with a sense of self-determination.

This latter bit is especially important as you start gearing up to a finale. If players can look back and see places where they could have made different choices, then they don’t feel railroaded into the climax ((This is true whether or not the choices would have made a difference or not. It’s all about the perception of free will. Which may be a topic for a future post.)). That, in turn, gives you player buy-in, and a much more satisfying finale.

Having lots of choices for players to explore also gives you plenty of places to seed in your secrets from the Secret Deck, which leads us to the next topic.

Watch Their Eyes

Once you’ve got your secrets and your sandbox set up, let the players loose, and pay attention to what catches their interest. See what clues they pick up on, and whether or not they want to follow up on them. After a few sessions, they should have enough hints that they start really paying attention to one or two specific threads that you can then flesh out, building them into more explicit ((Not that kind of explicit!)) scenarios. The smaller secrets may get resolved this way, and the bigger secrets can reveal more layers to themselves.

Don’t discard things that they didn’t pay attention to, though. Keep those in your back pocket for when you need them. There’s a special kind of GM glee that comes only when you trot out a plot development that you hinted at ten sessions ago, but no one paid any attention to ((Is this making any of my players nervous, yet?)).

It may seem obvious, but I better say it right out. If you collect the threads that your players like, you will have a collection of threads that your players like. Picking from these for the next step makes sure that you’ve got emotional investment in whatever your story turns out to be, because they’ve already bought into the constituent pieces.

Make Connections

Once you’ve got a good idea of which things your players are interested in, take a look at them for any common elements or themes. There’s usually one or two underlying similarities that can let you turn four separate mysteries into one grand conspiracy worthy of being the main storyline of the campaign. For example, in Broken Chains, I was able to tie corruption in the church, discrimination against psionics, and legends of an ancient kingdom into a single plot that had a demon backing a psionic clan secretly controlling a nation renowned for their tendency to burn psionic-using creatures at the stake. All of a sudden, three different problems came to a head in one vast conspiracy and a battle against a demon and her construct built of thousands of self-aware psi crystals ((Remember that one, guys? That was fun.)).

Once you’ve got an idea of what the main thread is, look at the other secrets – the ones the players didn’t pay attention to. See if any of them fit in, or could be made to fit in. Don’t go too far with this, though; it will start to strain verisimilitude if everything odd in the campaign traces back to one source. But look at rival factions, or themes that contrast nicely to accentuate the main theme. Look for something that you can tie retroactively into the main story, so that your players see that the threads reach all the way back to the beginning of the campaign.

Some themes are spelled out at the beginning of the game – DFRPG city building does this explicitly – while some emerge during play, like the ideas of higher dimensions and the nasty observer effect that’s coming up more and more in my Armitage Files game. Either way, you’ll see some commonalities coming up, so make note and use them. This lends your game consistency of theme, mood, and flavour ((Which is not to say you can’t break from these commonalities from time to time, but you’ll do it more deliberately, and everyone will recognize when you’re back on the main track.)).

Give Your Head a Shake

Once you’ve got that worked out, take a step back and look at your central story objectively. Does it work? Is it cool? Does it require stupidity on anyone’s part ((This is a surprisingly important question. Plots that require someone to be an idiot are bad plots. You will run up against players who will ask, “Yeah, but why don’t they just do X?” and all of a sudden you clever conspiracy is revealed to be completely hopeless. Rule of thumb: compare it to the Evil Overlord list, and look for similarities.)) ? Shore up the weak bits, add cool as needed, and pull out the stupid. Be ready to kill your darlings if they aren’t working, and always, always, always keep both the characters and your players in mind as you examine the idea for cracks.

I like to run through a few cycles of the Walt Disney Method with my fleshed out idea to make sure it’s workable and fun.

Discard Liberally

When you hit the play button, be ready to toss out a lot of what you’ve done. Players will, as players do, come at your story from an unexpected angle, with a strange plan, and completely unforeseen resources. They will bypass sidelines that would have given them fresh information, and run into areas that you haven’t planned, or even thought about.

If that’s the case, why do all the work? Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless. Planning is essential.” That pretty much applies here. With the planning you’ve done, you’ll have the foundation you need to adjust things on the fly, moving important elements into place for players to encounter them, and improvising with confidence when you get caught off-guard.

So, What Have We Got?

I find that, when I through the steps I’ve talked about above, I wind up with a campaign storyline that has emerged during play, and has the following advantages:

  • It fits the game that we’ve been playing. Because it’s come out of play, it’s got roots in the game, and everyone can see them. It also can look as if I had the whole thing planned all along, which just reinforces my sense of GM omniscience.
  • The players are invested in the story, because I’ve drawn it from the things that I’ve seen that they’re interested in during play.
  • There is less sense of railroading, because at least the early choices in the campaign were completely free. Characters remember that, and later constraints on their choices seem more like consequences of their actions, rather than GM fiat.
  • It’s flexible enough to handle what the character throw at it, because I’ve been paying attention to how the players play, and have a good enough idea of what’s going on that I can adapt it at need.

Last Words

Once you’ve got your storyline, that’s not the end of the job – it’s the beginning. The end comes when you and your collaboratively play through the story and find out what really happens.

Anyway, that’s my take on it, and what works for me. Anyone else have any tricks for pulling a throughline out of a campaign in a similar fashion? Let me know below.

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11 Responses to Let’s See What Happens: Emergent Campaign Storylines

  1. Rel Fexive says:

    Wicked cool.

  2. Fred Hicks says:

    Permanently. Bookmarked.

  3. Mr Sleep says:

    “Permanently. Bookmarked.”


  4. Walter Bishop says:

    You have a lot of great advice here, but can you add specific examples? For example, you have obviously used the Secret Deck tactic with great effect in a campaign (Broken Chains)- can you walk us through how it worked for that campaign? I guess I feel like I understand what you *mean*, but I can’t visualize how it would actually *work*. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you were touching on some really good campaign development suggestions here. Thanks!

  5. Rick Neal says:

    First off, let me say that I’m gratified so many people seem to like this post – traffic on the site is higher than any time in site history, with the exception of when I was doing the DFRPG Q&A. Thanks for stopping by, folks.

    @Walter Bishop:
    I can certainly provide some more specific examples. I didn’t want to get too detailed in the original post, just in case no one cared. 😉 Look for a follow-up post where I take you through the process. I hope to have it up by next weekend – the following Monday, at the latest, because I leave for GenCon on Tuesday.

  6. Pingback: What's He On About Now? » Let’s See What Happens, Part Two: The Secrets Deck

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  9. Pingback: What's He On About Now? » Let’s See What Happens, Part Four: Watch Their Eyes

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