So, the past few posts in this series have been laying the groundwork for this stage. The Secrets Deck and Sandboxes give you the raw materials, and Watching Their Eyes lets you assess those materials. Now, you start making decisions and building the rough shape of the campaign arc that is emerging from your play.
Look at What You Have
First thing you need to do is take a look at what you’ve got. Now, if you’re like me1, you probably intend to take careful notes of all the information you’ve gathered through the play of the campaign, and you may have done so every now and then, but then life gets in the way, and you wind up with not as much stuff written down as you might want2.
Well, now you get to make up for the lack. I recommend sitting down and making a list of what you’ve got. What goes on the list? Here are some ideas:
- Villains the PCs hated
- Places that were cool
- Storylines that the players liked
- Things the PCs bypassed
- NPCs that the PCs liked
- Things that the players said they wanted to do but you haven’t got to yet
- Ideas you had for adventures that you never fleshed out
- Questions, themes, and situations that you laid in that never got explored
- Secrets the players are getting close to
- Sandbox elements that never came up
- Anything else that interests you or you have a question about
When I make my list, it usually starts as a compilation of the few times I’ve remembered to keep notes, written down on a piece of paper in no particular order. I try to scatter them all over the page3, for reasons I’m going to talk about next. Once I get the things from my notes written down, I start adding other stuff, brainstorming style – I write down whatever comes to mind , no judgment, no evaluation.
Often I find that one element sparks a memory of something else – these I try to group nearby on the paper, but I don’t worry too much about that. Sometimes it almost cascades, as one idea leads to another, and then another, and so on.
The page can get pretty crowded4, but that’s okay. You want a rich collection of elements to choose from, but you’re going to be picking and choosing later, so try not to pre-judge.
How much stuff do you want on your list? As much as is fun. As much as is useful. The amount is going to vary depending on your temperament and how long the campaign has been running. You want enough stuff that not everything fits together neatly. Don’t worry, you can ignore stuff that doesn’t quite work for you later, and you can add other stuff you think of.
Now, let’s talk about what to do with that list.
The Glass Bead Game
What I do next is look for something on my list that catches my eye: an NPC that I thought could have got more play, a location everyone thought was cool, an adventure whose outcome still bugs the players6. The goal is to grab something – anything, really – to use as the nucleus for the next couple of steps.
Once you’ve picked your starting point, look at what’s arrayed around it. If you followed my suggestions about creating the list, the elements you have near your starting point should be largely unrelated to the nucleus, and to each other7. Draw some lines between the elements, and play the Glass Bead game, as suggested in Rob’s blog posts.
This is an exercise in directed creativity, similar to William Burrough’s cut-up text and the core ingredients on Iron Chef. You’re taking a number of arbitrary elements, and combining them into something new, coherent, and interesting. It’s a way of coming up with connections that wouldn’t have occurred to you normally. When you’re playing the Glass Bead game with the elements you’ve chosen, you’re not really looking for similarities. You’re looking for connections – ways to fit the elements together into a story.
I tend to work with groups of five8 or six elements in the group. That’s plenty to build all sorts of interesting connections, but not so much that it gets muddy and (overly) complicated. Don’t try to connect every element to every other element, but try and build a network that connects everything. When you’re satisfied that you’ve got an interesting and coherent skeleton, put it aside9, maybe transferring the little diagram you’ve made to a separate sheet of paper.
And then do it again. And again. And again, as often as is fun and useful, each time with different elements. I recommend putting together four to eight skeletons in this manner, giving you fodder for the next stage.
At this point, I like to write a simple sentence or two to summarize the relationships within the skeleton that outlines the basic core of the adventure it presents. For example, in my old Broken Chains campaign, I had elements of anti-psionic sentiment in a nation, a conspiracy of psions, a powerful diplomat who was secretly a demon, elves agitating for an independent nation, and corruption within the church. These came together into a skeleton, and I wrote the following outline:
Lady Elorowyr, representative to the High Seat from NATION10, is actually a demon in the service of Lady Spite11, and is working to exacerbate NATION’s isolationist tendencies, playing on their anti-psionic sentiment. She knows of the Legacy, the remnants of the former psionic ruling families, who secretly control the non-psionic government of NATION, and encourages them to work against the elven populace, who wish to form their own anion within NATION’s borders. Her contact is a secretary for the Prelate of the Mother.
Now, that’s kind of a long outline12, but it sums up the situation, and gives you the foundation you need to start building adventures. The other thing writing the summary does is show you the stress points of the skeleton – the things that don’t quite fit and don’t quite work.
When you spot a bit that doesn’t quite work – like the idea of the contact in the summary above – you need to decide if you’re going to fix it or cut it out. Fixing it takes some rethinking, but if the element adds cool things to the overall skeleton, it’s worth the work. On the other hand, sometimes the problematic piece doesn’t add anything13, cut it out of the skeleton and route around it.
At the end of this process, you should have a small stack of little mind-maps that lay out the relationship of your selected elements, and a couple of sentences summarizing each skeleton.
Mix It Up
So, now you’ve got a small stack of skeletons that you can use to build a campaign arc. It’s time to take a look at them, and see how you can mash them together.
Look for similarities and overlap in the skeletons, both in the elements and in the relationships between them. See if there are recurring themes within the summaries. Look to see if there are ways that you can combine two or more skeletons into a larger one that still makes sense and is cool. Check to see if there are weaknesses in one skeleton that another can shore up, or strengths in one that another can enhance. Draw new mind-maps. Write new summaries. Play with the ideas until something clicks and you find the ultimate cool factor.
One of the things I like to do at this point is look for a twist in a skeleton: something that I can use to pull a bit of a bait-and-switch on the players14. For example, in the situation from Broken Chains I outlined above, it looks like the nobility of NATION is really anti-psionic and oppressive to prevent the abuses that ancient psions committed in the past. But really, the non-psionic nobility are manipulated by a secret society of psions to continue the oppression and prevent powerful psions from usurping the society’s power and influence. See? Twist!
What you’re aiming for is one solid skeleton to carry the campaign arc. When you think you’ve got that, move on to the next step.15
Now you’ve got your rough plan. Time to see if it fits into the rest of your campaign.
One of the nice things about using this method is that all the elements came from your campaign, so the arc you come up with is pretty much guaranteed to fit into the game theme-wise. It’s still a good idea to check to see if you’re maintaining the mood and feel of the game so far, or that you’re changing it in a direction that you and your players will be comfortable with. This is just a gut-check, but it’s a worthwhile thing to think about.
The other fit you need to think about is whether it’s going to absorb as much of the remaining game as you want it to. Think about how much longer the campaign is going to run16, and how much you want the game to focus on the campaign arc – that is, do you want everything to be about the arc from now on, or do you want to have some unrelated adventures sprinkled in?
The nice thing about the summary and the skeleton is that they can expand or contract as you require, and as your desired pace indicates. If you want things tight and short, look at removing some of the elements and complexity. If you want things to be longer and more complex, look at adding some elements to extend things and act as screening elements and red herrings.
Only you can decide when you’ve got the right amount of stuff and detail in the skeleton for your campaign arc. Build in as much or as little as you need. Then on to the actual structure of the adventures.
Making Your Map
At this point, you’ve got a solid idea about what the arc is. Time to get things ready for the players to come and mess stuff up – which is another way of saying that you need to rough in the adventures.
Look at your skeleton, and find a good adventure. It doesn’t need to be the first one – though that’s where I often start – or the last one – which is the other place I most frequently start – but it needs to be something you think is cool. Write a couple of sentences summarizing the plot, adversaries, outcomes, etc.17 Then find another adventure and do the same. Keep doing it until you have all the adventures you want or need for the arc.
Two adventures are critical: the adventure that hooks the players in, and the climax adventure. As noted above, I usually start from one end or the other, and usually do both before I start trying to fill in the middle part. The main goal of the hook adventure is to be cool enough that the characters are interested in continuing to follow the threads you give them, and the main goal of the climax adventure is to be cool enough to put a satisfying cap on the entire sequence. That’s why I like to have a solid handle on those two adventures before the middle ones.
With the middle adventures, you need to decide if the arc is going to be linear or sandboxy18 – whether the adventures run in a straight line, or if the characters get to pick and choose a bit where they go next. I tend to make mine a combination of the two. By putting the summaries for the adventures on index cards, you can move them around and see which arrangements work best for your arc and your players.
Keep playing with the arrangement until you have a sequence that you like, and then take a good look at the hook and climax summaries, to see if anything needs to change, to be added, or to be removed. Look at the arc as a whole, and make sure it’s doing what you want. If it’s not, play with it some more. As I said previously, this is a tool, not a test. You get as many do-overs as you want19.
When you’re happy with the overall arc, you’re done. I recommend writing down the final form of things, because I always manage to forget something. This process gives you a map of adventures that you’ll need to flesh out for actual play, but you don’t need to do that right away20. I suggest leaving the thing alone for a couple of days so that you come back to it with fresh eyes before starting to build the adventures21.
On The Fly
The above process assumes you’ve got a good chunk of time to do your prep, and that you like having things mapped out in a pretty concrete manner. Neither of these assumptions may be true, so I’m going to give a quick rundown about doing a lot of this stuff on the fly.
- Still make your list, but only put the coolest stuff on it. During play, add the coolest elements that come up.
- Make just one skeleton based on the coolest element on your list.
- Come up with a good hook and an idea about the climax.
- Build the hook adventure and, as you run it, look for a logical next step to take you towards the climax.
- Add elements to your list during play, and adjust your ideas about the climax based on the coolest of these.
- When you get to the climax adventure, give it your all!
That’s about all22 I’ve got to say about Making Connections. We’ve got two more posts to go: Give Your Head a Shake and Discard Liberally. I hope to have the series wrapped up by Christmas.
See you next time.
- And god help you if you are. [↩]
- Quick tip: if you haven’t taken notes of what went on in a game session – say, by publishing it on a blog – take a look at your adventure notes to jog your memories. It’ll also help to remind you what you didn’t use. [↩]
- Actually, I use two different approaches here. One is to do the scatter list, and the other is to put them in a numbered list so that I can randomly pick elements later using dice. The goal is to use some method to help you make associations and links you might not otherwise. [↩]
- Seriously, use a big piece of paper. You’re making a mind map with lots of different elements, and will be adding to it as you go, so give yourself room to sprawl. [↩]
- Another great example of this kind of adventure-building tool is in Jeremy Keller’s Technoir, which bakes in this kind of scenario construction right from the start. [↩]
- And by this I don’t mean they all went, “Man, that ending sucked.” I mean one where they went, “Okay, we stopped the bad guys here, but I just know there’s more of them, and they’re up to something.” [↩]
- If, on the other hand, you’re going with my numbered list suggestion, then just roll a few random items on the list and scatter them on a piece of paper. [↩]
- Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia! [↩]
- If the end result is not interesting and/or coherent, abandon it and start again. No pressure, no fault. This is a tool, not a test. [↩]
- Whaddaya want? It was years ago, and I don’t have my notes anymore. I can’t remember the name. [↩]
- The big evil goddess of the trinity of evil gods. [↩]
- It was built entirely of items from the Secrets Deck of for the campaign, which already has some strong narrative elements in place. [↩]
- More to the point, you can’t think of a way to use it to add anything that’s cool and isn’t brought in by another element. [↩]
- Not maliciously. Not a gotcha. But a real twist: you thought A, but now you see it’s really B. What are you gonna do now? [↩]
- What about the leftover skeletons? Hang on to them! They’re good idea fodder for smaller adventures, or expanding the skeleton, or even just for the next campaign. [↩]
- I’m assuming a finite campaign, here. If the campaign is not finite, think about how much campaign time you want this arc to take. [↩]
- I like to use index cards for this. [↩]
- It’s a word if I say it’s a word. [↩]
- And remember, this is all supposed to be fun. It’s a game. If you’re not having fun at any point, put it aside and walk away for a couple days. And also? This isn’t the only way to do this kind of thing. Just one way that I do it. [↩]
- Except for maybe the hook adventure, if you’re in a time crunch. [↩]
- This also gives you a little time to bask in the well-deserved satisfaction of having built a campaign arc based on you players’ choices and preferences, tailoring the game to them. You rock as a GM. Enjoy that feeling, because it’ll probably go away five minutes into playing the first adventure. Sorry. [↩]
- Like I’m not running off at the mouth. [↩]