A Plot, B Plot; One, Two, Three Plot (An Ask Angry Special)

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So, this is another one of those articles that started because I was going to answer a simple Ask Angry question and the whole thing ballooned into something worthy of a full article. In this case, it’s related to a topic I haven’t even started to cover yet: how to build and structure a campaign. And this, thus article has forced me to create an entire new category of articles which will eventually have many, many more: How to Build a F$&%ing Campaign.

In the end, answering the question itself became sidebar examples and I rewrote the article to discuss the more general issues of building campaigns with multiple plot arcs.

Torg asks:

How do you balance a long-con type story (level 1 party unseals BBEG archmage, archmage steals part of their essences for nefarious purposes, party slowly builds up levels and intel to beat him) against keeping the players interested on a session-to-session basis? My plan is to slowly dole out the history of the archmage by having the players go to various different battlefields and archives where they can learn more about his identity, but I’m starting to worry that not only is that too repetitive a path but that it might struggle for airtime with another hook I built into the setting, a civil war between two competing heirs for a barony that’s split the country in half. When do you know if you’ve thrown too much into the pot, e.g. a civil war story and a secret emergent evil story? Do you try to weave it all together and hope it’s like poetry and they rhyme, or is this a lack of focus issue?

Okay, first of all, I saw the word balance and my brain immediately went “hhhhhhrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhhhh.” Not your fault, because balance has nothing to do with your question. At least, game balance doesn’t. The thing is, as much as I think game balance is an important and useful concept, I find that a lot of folks overestimate its value and become obsessed with “balancing” every aspect of their game. Did you know that for almost twenty years, game balance was referred to in the rules as “optional?” I s$&% you not.

But you’re not talking about game balance. You’re actually not talking about balance at all. Not in any gamey mechanically sense. Instead, you’re asking a far more interesting question about balancing the narrative between multiple plots. And, quite frankly, that’s a pretty cool question. Definitely worth a few thousand words. So, let’s talk about narrative threads. Or plot arcs. Or whatever else you want to call them.

See, when you get down to it, any given campaign… you know what? This drives me crazy too. The word campaign got broken somewhere along the line. Once upon a time, a campaign referred to a series of interconnected stories. And the word setting referred to the world in which the campaign took place. And no one had ever heard of the phrase “adventure path.” But WotC started calling their setting books “campaign settings” which literally means “a setting for a campaign” and Paizo coined the phrase adventure path to refer to a series of connected adventures that tell one master story. So now, some people use the word “campaign” to refer to the world in which the game takes place and “adventure path” to refer to the series of adventures. Not to mention the fact that some people say “adventure” and others say “module” even when the “module” is a homebrewed module and some other people say “scenario” instead of adventure. And that also drives me crazy.

Campaigns, Adventures, Plot Arcs, and Star Trek

So, let’s hash this out before I go any further. In my brain, a campaign is the thing you are talking about. A series of adventures connected together by common characters, a common setting, and a common narrative or plot. But that last part gets tricky because some campaigns have almost no story to them. Or rather, they have only a limited continuity. The trouble is, understanding how you’re structuring game is vital when it comes to talking about how to structure your game. Now, since I’m shortly going to use television as a way to explain the different ways to handle various plots, I’m going to define this in TV terms.

Take the Star Trek franchise. First of all, there is a specific setting in which Star Trek takes place. That is the far future universe where Earth has joined the United Federation of Planets and has become the center of the Federation and rubs shoulders with the Romulans and Klingons and Ferengi and the Borg and the Breen and the Dominion and the Cardassians and so on. That’s the setting. Star Trek is a setting.

Now, we have several different television series all bearing the Star Trek name. First, there was the original series, which was just called Star Trek. But now, we call it Star Trek: The Original Series. And then we had Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even though they took place in the same setting, they were about different crews having different adventures. Kirk, McCoy, Spock, et al in TOS and Picard, Riker, Data, et al in TNG. So, we can think of TOS and TNG as two different campaigns. You can even imagine that two different GMs running two different games set in the same universe, though at slightly different points in the timeline. We also had the adventures of Sisko, Kira, Dax, et al in Deep Space 9. AND NOTHING ELSE EVER. DO YOU GET ME?!

Trust me, this is all actually important to your question. I swear.

So, an individual episode, two-part episode, or movie in a given franchise is analogous to an adventure. So, Encounter at Farpoint and Space Seed and Emissary are all adventures within the campaigns of TNG, TOS, and DS9. So are movies like Wrath of Khan or First Contact.

Now, what’s interesting about Star Trek is that TOS and TNG had very little “continuity.” That is to say, they were very episodic. Each adventure was pretty much a self-contained story. You could watch MOST TOS or TNG episodes out of order and lose nothing.

The term for that sort of story is “adventure of the week” or “monster of the week” or “space anomaly of the week.” I like to use the word “episodic.”

Now, a few episodes do have SOME continuity. For example, the Original Series episode Space Seed introduced the villain Khan Noonian Singh who returned in the movie Wrath of Khan. And Search for Spock and Voyage Home were more strongly connected. In Wrath of Khan, Spock is killed and an experiment called the Genesis Project is introduced. In Search for Spock, the crew works to bring Spock back to life using the Genesis Project. But the Klingons try to seize the Genesis Project and ultimately, although Spock is revived, the Enterprise is destroyed. However, the crew of the Enterprise manages to steal the Klingon’s ship. And Spock is kind of missing half of his memories. In Voyage Home, the crew is stuck using the stolen Klingon ship, which is badly damage, to save Earth while Kirk and Spock struggle to rebuild their friendship in the face of Spock’s brain being a little broken.

Trust me, I’m still building toward a really good answer for you. Well, actually really good food for thought for lots of GMs based on your question. Because that’s what I do.

We might refer to the story of Khan as a plot arc. Albeit a short one. And the stories told in Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock, and Voyage Home also make a plot arc. Now, TNG introduced several more plot arcs. And some were looser than others. And that starts to get to the heart of the matter. For example, numerous episodes involved the mischievous Q testing humanity’s worth by proxy through Picard and his crew. And, in fact, those episodes created a framing device for the whole series given that the first episode of the series introduced Q and the last episode resolved the plot with Q. Likewise, the story of the Borg and the Enterprise’s encounters with them formed a plot arc that began in the episode Q Who and carried through several episodes and into the movie First Contact.

Deep Space 9 had even more continuity. In fact, while many episodes were episodic, there were some major plot threads that ran through many episodes and those stories drifted into and out of contact with each other. In the first episode, for example, we meet the Prophets or Wormhole Aliens that exist outside of our space-time and serve as the “gods” of the religion of the Planet Bajor. The main character, Sisko, is chosen as their emissary. Numerous episodes deal directly with the Prophets/Wormhole Aliens, Sisko’s role as the Emissary, the evil Pah Wraiths who work against the Prophets, and the religion of Bajor. Many other episodes deal with the ongoing efforts to rebuild the planet Bajor after its occupation by the Cardassians who totally WEREN’T space Nazis. Later on, we meet an interplanetary alliance called The Dominion. And ultimately, a war breaks out between the Dominion of the Federation. And that becomes a massive plot thread that consumes many, many episodes. All of these separate stories wander into and out of contact with each other.

Now, you can go even stronger with your continuity. And, what’s funny is that I had a hard time coming up with a television example and so I had to draw on another expert: my girlfriend – the Tiny GM. And she suggested Stranger Things, a recent series I don’t give a s$&% about that appeared on the internet or something. Apparently, it begins with a boy going missing, ends when the boy is found, and everything that happens in each episode ties into that mystery in some way. Of course, it was popular, so they will be making another season and I can’t say anything about that yet. But, that’s an example of a very strong continuity. The Lord of the Rings movies is another example. Basically, it’s all about defeating the Darklordsaurus. Even though different groups are doing different things, in the end, it all comes back to stopping that flaming eyeball who, spoiler alert, is not actually a dinosaur.

So why did I bother summarizing three different series’ of Star Trek AND also talk about Stranger Tides and Darth Lord Sidious and the Lord of the Hobbits? Well, because there’s a very important bit about game structure running through all of them. And it’s the idea of plot threads.

A plot arc refers to a larger story that runs through a connects several episodes. Some people refer to them as plot threads because of the way they tie stories together. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and (so far) Stranger Things have single, overarching plot arcs. They begin with a conflict (evil dinosaur conquering the Midwest and child going missing) and end when that conflict is resolved. Everything that happens in between is somehow tied to those main conflicts. Deep Space 9 has several plot arcs. The Prophets, Bajor vs. Cardassia, and the Dominion War. Some episodes deal with the Prophets, some with the Bajoran Reconstruction, and many with the Dominion War. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a couple of plot arcs (Q, the Borg, the Maquis) that crop up from time to time. And Star Trek: The Original Series really doesn’t have any major plot arcs at all until after the series was over and the movies started happening.

And these are all valid ways of structuring a campaign. If you know how to work with them.

The ABCs of Plot Arcs

Let’s talk about plot arcs. A plot arc is basically a complete story with a beginning, some middle, and an end. But what makes a plot arc a plot arc is that it exists within a larger work. When a story only has one major plot arc, we just call that “the plot” or “the narrative” or “the story.”

But, what you’ll find is that it is extremely rare for anything longer than a short story or miniseries to have a single plot arc. Especially nowadays. Even individual TV episodes rarely have one plot arc. If you watch an episode of any TV drama or even any sit com, you’ll find there are usually two or three different plots going on in the story. For example, I’ve been working my way through 30 Rock lately. I love that show. Many, many episodes followed a standard practice for TV shows by putting the two mainest of the characters, Liz Lemon and Alex Baldwin, into two separate stories. The show would jump back and forth between the Liz and the Alex plots, and they would both get wrapped up in the end. Friends and Grey’s Anatomy would both usually go further and have different groups of characters involved in three different plot arcs throughout and episode and bounce back and forth between them.

Now, in many shows, the separate plot arcs are equal in weight. Liz and Alex each had a problem and had to overcome numerous obstacles to resolve them. But in some TV shows, one plot was much more important – and consequently had more screen time – than the other. And that is where the phrase A-Plot and B-Plot showed up. The A-Plot was the main story. The B-Plot was a side story. Often, the B-Plot is thematically similar or tonally similar, but the stakes are lower and the conflicts less complicated.

But, over time, the idea of lettering the plots as A-Plot, B-Plot, C-Plot, etc. has become less about rating the importance of the plot and more about just showing that there are several different plot lines going simultaneously.

But why?

Well, the main reason for running multiple plot lines is for variety’s sake. See, in order to enjoy a story, people need the tone, pace, and weight of the story to vary somewhat. If the story is just heavy and dramatic and slow the whole time and it feels like the end of the world is coming, people tend to get mentally fatigued. And juggling several plots is the way to avoid that.

And THAT is why you tend to find that the longer a series is meant to exist, the more plot threads and arcs are shot through it. A movie trilogy or a miniseries can get away with being mainly about one plot. Sure, the pace and themes and stakes still vary within the story, but people aren’t likely to get fatigued with the plot as long as it’s a bit of a roller coaster. The problem arises when the roller coaster gets too long. No matter how many dips and turns and loops and slowdowns and sudden swerves and braking sections and smooth corkscrews and rough switchbacks there are, eventually, people realize they are still riding the same damned roller coaster and they get bored.

And so, you find that most longer series’ do one of three things. Either they have multiple plot threads that drift into and out of the story OR plot threads evolve OR they remain highly episodic. DS9 is a good example of the first thing. And TNG and TOS are good examples of the last thing. That middle thing is closer to a series like Farscape or Heroes where each season had a different major plot and as one big plot was resolved, a new one arose to take its place.

X-Files: The Non-Arc Arc

One other thing that deserves a special mention is the X-Files approach. If you ever watched the original X-Files, which was a TV series about a pervert conspiracy theorist basically solving supernatural crimes with Jodie Foster’s character from Silence of the Lambs, there’s another structure you might be familiar with. It’s the A-Plot, No-Plot structure. See, X-Files had one ongoing story about aliens who might have been invading Earth using black goo and smallpox vaccines and kidnapping people and the government might have been involved or covering it up or fighting back. That was the A-Plot. Uncovering the conspiracy. Or failing to. Because it NEVER F$&%ING MADE ANY SENSE. But it was still an A-Plot. And about one fifth of all of the X-Files episodes related to that A-Plot. The rest of the episodes were just “supernatural problem of the week” type episodes with no relation to anything.

Now, that’s similar to what we talked about with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mostly, the show was episodic, but a few plot arcs popped up occasionally, advanced, and then vanished again to return later. But with X-Files, there was just one plot arc that really was underlying everything, but most of the episodes weren’t related to it.

Fans of the show took to calling the episodes related to the plot as Mythos episodes. And the rest were just episodes. Some folks call them One-Offs. I call them Non-Arc Episodes. Or I just call them Filler Crap.

Episodes vs. Arcs

When you’re creating a campaign, then, the first thing to decide is how episodic you want your campaign to be. Lots of RPG campaigns are episodic. An adventure arises, the adventurers adventure it until it is adventured out, and then the adventure ends. And then a new adventure arises for the adventurers to adventure.

Episodic campaigns have a lot of advantages, but one of the major disadvantages is that they don’t feel like an ongoing story or struggle. Episodic campaigns don’t feel like they are building or growing toward something. And that can be a drag for players who like to feel like a part of something bigger.

Alternatively, a campaign can have a unifying plot that connects it all together. In that case, there is a conflict that sets the campaign in motion that has to be resolved. These feel like more coherent stories, but they have disadvantages too. They are harder to plan and build and rely heavily on continuity. Players need to keep showing up regularly with few shakeups in the roster. And when problems crop up (such as all of the characters dying), they can be hard to recover. And if the group breaks up, retires, or gets bored before the end, they can leave everyone feeling unfulfilled.

If you decide on an episodic campaign: good for you. That’s easy. You’re done. But once you decide to have a continuity, you’ve got to figure stuff out.

To Juggle or Not to Juggle

The next question that you have to deal with is how many plot arcs will you have going on in your game and how will you structure them. You can have one plot arc or you can have several. If you have one, it can be the focus all the time or it can be the focus some of the time and the rest of the adventures are just episodic adventures. If you have several, they can evolve from one to the other or you can juggle between them with different adventures relating to different plot arcs. And even with several plot arcs, you can still have one-off episodes sprinkled in. And if you’re going to juggle multiple plot arcs, with or without one-offs, you can decide that one plot arc stands out among the rest as a major plot arc, while the others are less important and involve lower stakes and simpler conflicts.

Now, I could say there’s no right answer. And there isn’t. But I’m going to do something I rarely f$&%ing do. I’m going to say what I think is best without really being able to explain it. Because it’s part gut feeling and part raw experience. I’m not sure I have any good theory to back it up.

Unless you are running a short campaign (three months or less of weekly games), one continuous plot-arc is just not enough. You will fatigue the f$&% out of your players. Don’t do that. It CAN be done. But it takes a lot of finesse. And usually, it just isn’t worth it.

If you are running evolving continuities, the plot should evolve every three months, but sometimes, you can stretch it out for six. Basically, that’s twelve to twenty-four sessions focused on a single plot arc.

Weirdly enough, you might notice that that’s the length of a standard, US, TV season. 12 episodes for a pilot or short season, 24 for a standard season. Yeah, I don’t think that’s accidental.

If you are going to run completely episodic, that’s cool for six months to a year, but expect people to want to shake things up with new characters now and then. Episodic gets boring too. It doesn’t last forever.

But, if you’re going to run a good, long campaign that keeps people happy for more than a year, you want multiple plot arcs that you juggle. And here’s where I just say what I think is best with no good reason other than my gut and personal experience. First, you want three to five plot arcs. Second, episodic episodes count as an arc by themselves. That is, one of the arcs is the non-arc. Third, you really don’t want more than two major arcs. Ideally, less than half your arcs should be major. And really? Working with more than ONE major arc can be extremely tricky. And you CAN choose not to designate any arcs as major arcs if you have four or five. I’ll tell you why major arcs are important later and what they do. I promise.

Let’s take Torg’s question as an example of ONE WAY to handle this. It’s just an example. There’s lots of different ways. If I were Torg and I had two plot arcs I was thinking about: Dark Magician and Civil war, I’d probably add Non-Arc Episodes as, effectively, a third arc. The Dark Magician should be a major arc and the Civil War CAN be major, with the Non-Arc Episodes as a minor arc. But if you really want two major arcs, you should add another plot arc to serve as another minor arc. To me, though, it sounds like the Dark Magician is the major arc, what with the protagonists being robbed of their essence as they unleash the evil of the Magician on the world – whatever the f$&% all that means.

We’ll talk about what that means in a second and how you would actually build that campaign. But first, I want to point out something: the five arc thing seems to be pretty universal, as near as I can tell. Groups can handle three to five arcs and stay interested and keep track of them pretty much indefinitely. Less than three, they get bored. More than five, they get confused. But what’s interesting is that it doesn’t matter what those arcs actually are. And one of the neater ways to structure a campaign is to base some or all of the arcs on the different PCs. Because you often have five PCs. So, you can take the backstories and goals and motivations of your PCs and design three to five plot arcs to capture all of that crap.

In point of fact, this is a lot of what I do when I decide where a campaign is going to go. I talk to each player about their stupid character and then I work out a few plot arcs. In my last campaign, I had two heroes whose major concern was opposing an evil empire, two who were chasing a serial killer cultist, and one who – bless her f$&%ing heart – was searching for her weird monk order’s history. I added the non-plot-arc plot arc and wham, four plot arcs.

What to Do with Arcs

Once you’ve figured out three to five plot arcs (which might include a Non-Plot Arc Adventure Arc), all you have to do is keep a list. I mean, you SHOULD probably do more. But you don’t have to. Some GMs like to prepare the backstory for each plot arc. Like, the story of the evil wizard and the story of the civil war and so on. And they like to plan out some specific characters tied to that arc. And maybe figure out some of the major plot points that are coming along with it. But, all you need at this stage of the game is a list of arcs.

Now, when it comes time to write an adventure for this week’s game, all you have to do is select an arc to advance and write an adventure that moves that plot arc along. It’s as simple as that. Each adventure gets a designation as a Dark Magician adventure or a Civil War adventure or a Non-Arc adventure. And it’s as simple as that.

Sort of. Because there are a few complicating factors.

You see, if you’re juggling multiple plot arcs, you actually DO want to juggle them. That is to say, you want to keep bouncing back and forth between them. This week is Dark Magician, next week is Civil War, and so on. That comes down to good story pacing. The general rule is that MOST OF THE TIME you don’t want two adventures in the same arc to follow each other. And THAT is why it’s helpful to have a Non-Arc arc unless you have four or five plot arcs to work with. Because you also don’t want to establish a pattern.

But establishing a good pace is about more than just jumping back and forth between your arcs. And NOW we can talk about the difference between major and minor arcs.

Why Are Some Arcs More Major Than Others?

As we mentioned above, you might designate one (or two) of your arcs as Major Arcs. If you only have three arcs, only one should be Major. If you have four or five arcs, two COULD be Major, but really one Major arc is still best. A Non-Arc Arc should never be Major. And you can decide all of your arcs carry equal weight, especially if you have four or five arcs. But what does that decision mean?

As I noted above, a major arc is one that is larger in scope, scale, and consequences. But what does that mean? Well, roughly speaking, a major arc is one that – when it’s over, the campaign is over. Essentially, it’s the big one, the one the game is really about, the one the players think is most personal and important. It’s the one that defines the last boss of the game. Or the final obstacle. It’s the one that requires the ending the most.

Now, here’s where things get weird. Because ALL arcs need ends. Satisfying stories need conclusions (except Non-Arcs) or resolutions. Without them, they feel unfinished, flapping around at a loose end. But once the major arc has concluded, the game feels over. So, if there are a bunch of unfinished arcs when the party finishes the major arc, you have a problem. Because, on the one hand, it will feel like continuing the game is pointless. On the other, it will feel like things are unfinished. It’s kind of like those video games that let you keep playing after the end to finish all of the side quests. Without the looming main quest, it feels like a lot of busy work.

So, the major arc is a pacing tool for your campaign ending. The end of that arc is the end of your campaign. And before you end that arc, you’d better wrap all of the other ones up.

So what if you have two major arcs? Well, the thing is, once you finish a major arc, you’ve lost some of the weight of the story. See, one of the big reasons to have two major arcs is to make the players feel overwhelmed and divided. It’s a great tool for increasing the tension in your story. But once one of those arcs goes away, it signals that your story is on the way out. So, once one major arc finishes, the other one needs to finish very soon thereafter. Personally, I like to wrap up a minor arc, then a major arc, then wrap up any remaining minor arcs, then finish the last major arc. That way, the end of the campaign feels like “major victory, clean up, conclusion.”

Speaking of conclusions, one of the neat things to do – especially with two major arcs, but it works with minor arcs too – is to have the conclusion for one enable the conclusion for the other. For example, in Torg’s campaign, the Dark Magician is probably the major arc. The Civil War is a minor arc or it might be a concurrent major arc. Either way, imagine if, by that point, the Dark Magician is entrenched and has a fortress and an army. If the party can resolve the Civil War, they can unite the nation. Thus, they might end up with an army of their own that can distract the Dark Magician’s army while they enter his fortress and destroy him once and for all. Alternatively, if the Civil War ends up happening and the nation is in shambles – which counts as a resolution – the Dark Magician’s army marches in. The players are then forced to infiltrate the capital and slay the Dark Magician in the castle that was ruined during the final major battle of the devastating Civil War.

See how this works?

But major arcs are about more than just how your campaign ends. Major arcs also help you pace your game. When you’re designating adventures as part of this arc or that arc, it’s important to remember that major arc advancements should be rare. Paradoxically, whichever arc is your major arc is the one that has the fewest adventures about it. USUALLY. But not always. We’ll come back to that.

And THAT is why the Non-Arc Arc is so useful if you only have three arcs. Most of your adventures are Non-Arc adventures. Then, a bunch are about your Minor Arc. And then a few are about your Major Arc. See, the problem is that too many adventures about your Major Arc makes your story feel rushed and it also increases the chance of story fatigue (as we discussed something like 3,000 words ago). And it can be hard to fill years of a campaign by focusing on one Major Arc. That’s also why it’s almost meaningless to have two Major Arcs if you only have three arcs in your story.

That is also why major arcs tend to be simpler and more straightforward. It takes less adventure to wrap them up, see? And why most major arcs tend to be looming threats that occasionally explode out of nowhere and cause some major problems and then vanish again. Which brings us to an interesting structural tool.

The Godzilla Arc

Okay, so there was this giant radioactive monster called The Tarrass… I mean Godzilla. He slept underwater near Tokyo. And every couple of years he would suddenly wake up and destroy the f$&% out of everything. And then, either he would destroy everything or save everything or he would be finally driven off. And then he would go back to sleep.

What you tend to find is that, in stories with multiple arcs – major and/or minor – that every so often one of the plot arcs suddenly bursts out of the ocean and starts consuming f$&%ing everything. And then there’s a major victory or defeat and the plot arc goes back to sleep. And in long stories, that can be an extremely satisfying occasional pattern. What do I mean? Let’s take Torg’s example campaign.

We have these three arcs: Dark Magician, Civil War, and Non-Arc Filler. Most of the Dark Magician adventures involve the heroes gradually learning about their nemesis by uncovering his history. Here and there, they discover an ancient battlefield or an artifact or consult a seer who can help them if she is cured of a mysterious plot-related illness or something. But every so often, the Dark Magician will launch some kind of actual plan. He might try to capture a Child of Prophecy. Or he might send his army to destroy a Shrine and steal a weapon that was once used against him. Whatever. Big, villain s$&%. Now, those could be single adventures. OR, they could take up several adventures. Sort of like big, multi-part adventure gangbangs. The party resolved the big conflict and then the Dark Magician arc goes to sleep for a while. The players feel like they won (or lost) something big, and for a time, they don’t deal with the Dark Magician at all. They get distracted with other stuff.

A lot of TV shows do this. Suddenly, a bunch of episodes in a row deal with a major arc. Usually, this happens toward the end of a season. And then, there’s a big, epic confrontation. And then the major arc goes to sleep again.

But the Godzilla Arc isn’t the only pacing game you can play with plot arcs.

The Gray Goo Arc

Let’s talk about Nanomachines. Nanomachines are robots the size of molecules or body cells or something else similarly small. In theory. We’re still working out the technology. But the theory goes that eventually, we’ll be able to build these teeny weeny little robots that perform various functions for us. But they will also be designed to break down resources and build more of themselves. So, imagine you want to build a house. You spray a cloud of Nanomachines on the ground and they start eating the dirt and rock and wood and whatever and build a whole bunch of themselves. And then, when there is enough of them, they start building the actual house. And then, when the house is just about done, they start eating other to finish up the house. And finally, the last few of them go die or shut down or go back in the can. Sounds pretty neat, right? But there’s this doomsday scenario about what might happen if the Nanomachines decide to instead just keep making more of themselves and don’t ever bother building the house. If they can eat anything on a molecular level to make more of themselves, they will gradually consume everything until the whole world is just a cloud of Nanomachines. Basically, a puddle of Gray Goo.

An alternative to the Godzilla Arc is the Gray Goo Arc. A Gray Goo Arc is a plot arc that stays quietly in the background for a while, eating dirt and building houses. But slowly, it starts to consume the campaign until eventually all adventures are about the Gray Goo. The Dominion War in Star Trek DS9 was like this. It started building in the background until, finally, two and a half entire f$&%ing seasons were almost entirely about the Dominion War.

Again, taking Torg’s example campaign, the Civil War plot might be like a Gray Goo Arc. In the beginning, the party is dealing with minor squabbles between rich and poor, between noble houses, and dealing with minor acts of seemingly unrelated banditry. But gradually, all that crap coalesces into national tension. And then Civil War breaks out and suddenly EVERYTHING is about the Civil War.

Plot Arcs, Pace, and Overall Structure

The Dark Magician as major Godzilla Arc, the Civil War as a major Gray Goo Arc, and Non-Arc Filler Crap actually lends itself to a nice structure for Torg’s campaign. In the beginning, the party awakens the Dark Magician and has their essences stolen. They are searching for the identity of the Magician and the cure for the essence thing. But in the meanwhile, as they travel around the kingdom, they occasionally deal with the first signs of civil unrest. They also deal with a lot of Filler Crap. Because they are adventurers. And, in fact, they probably can’t tell the difference between Civil War and Filler Crap. Occasionally, the Dark Magician Plot wakes up, breaks a bunch of s$&%, and has to be dealt with, reminding the party of the threat. That can be anything from the Dark Magician’s growing forces doing something evil or the curse on the PCs suddenly taking a dark turn and they need to find a way to stave off the symptoms of Essence-itis or whatever. Meanwhile, the Civil War stuff starts to grow in the background. At some point, the Civil War explodes onto the stage, consuming everything. By that point, the party is dealing almost exclusively with the Civil War. Once that’s dealt with, they have the resources to actually deal with the Dark Magician once and for all. Or the stage is set for the Dark Magician to gain a major victory. It depends on how that Civil War thing turns out. And then the campaign can end.

And THAT is how you use plot arcs and structural tricks to figure out a campaign. But, there is one last little fun game to play. And I’m going to briefly mention it and let you all work out how to play with it.

When Arcs Collide

The simplest assumption is that every adventure advances a single arc. But it doesn’t HAVE TO be that way. An adventure can involve multiple plot arcs. Multiple opponents can team up or multiple forces can compete against each other alongside the PCs. The PCs might discover something related to one plot arc that helps them advance another. Or, bad timing might just force the PCs to deal with two different problems that strike at the same time.

This can be especially useful when you have two major plot arcs that are both moving toward a wrap up. Star Trek DS9 saw multiple crossovers between the Dominion War and Prophet/Wormhole Alien plot arcs. Ultimately, both of those plots were resolved somewhat simultaneously.

Even when they aren’t part of the ending of the campaign, Colliding Arcs can be exceptionally tense and dramatic events. They, again, can make the players feel like the odds are against them and they are facing truly epic challenges, and any victory achieved during a Colliding Arc adventure – or across multiple adventures in a Colliding Godzilla Arc – seems especially awesome. Colliding Arcs can also force the players to make hard choices and set priorities between their conflicting goals, emphasizing the importance of their choices.

Of course, Colliding Arcs feel special when they are rare. But special mention of Colliding Arcs should be made when it comes to campaigns that involved four to five Plot Arcs all of equal importance. In such a campaign, Colliding Arcs could be quite the norm. Especially when the arcs are all based on individual character goals and stories. Each adventure might involve two arcs, helping unite the characters. In that situation, single arc adventures become rare and special. They are akin to those TV episodes that focus solely on one character’s development.

In point of fact, in a Five-Arc-of-Equal-Weight campaign, you could actually challenge yourself when writing adventures by assigning each of the arcs a random die roll (e.g.: roll a d10, 1-2 is arc 1, 3-4 is arc 2, etc.). Roll twice before you start writing an adventure and whichever two arcs you roll, those are the ones that collide. If you roll the same number twice, you get to write a single arc adventure.

Players of Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age might think that sounds a little familiar. Essentially, that’s what Icon Relationship Rolls are. Sort of. I mean, like everything in 13th Age, they aren’t explained super well and I’m fairly sure that each of the people involved in 13th Age had a different understanding of them. Or no understanding at all. It’s hard to say. 13th Age is kind of a mess.

But even in a campaign with just three arcs, like Torg’s, Colliding Arcs can still create exciting moments. For example, there might be an adventure during which the Dark Magician recognizes that a Civil War is brewing. He begins supplying a noble house with magical constructs or mercenaries or weapons or some other advantage. That house uses their newfound power to start trouble with the king’s forces. And the players get involved. At first, they might think the noble has just found some source of power and they are trying to take him down. But then, the Dark Magician’s forces start interfering with the players’ investigations. And eventually, they realize the Dark Magician is behind the power play. But even if they rob the noble of his newfound power, tensions might rise dramatically.

If the Civil War happens and the players rack up too many losses, another example of Colliding Arcs might be found in the conclusion of the campaign itself. As the nation is ravaged by bloody Civil War, the Dark Magician uses the opportunity to seize power, pulling the whole nation under his thrall. He is well protected in the palace in the capital by his own powers and the military forces that he has managed to take control of as he finishes whatever it was he stole the PCs’ essences for in the first place. Using whatever ragtag forces they have managed to hold on to from the disastrous Civil War f$&%up, they have to infiltrate the palace and stop the Magician before it’s too late.

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32 thoughts on “A Plot, B Plot; One, Two, Three Plot (An Ask Angry Special)

  1. Dang, man. Speaking as someone who has trouble keeping arcs clear, this is really handy. Thanks :). Just started to pick apart the thread of my current game to give them all some direction, so this is perfectly timed for me!


  2. After you said “or i do my work or i quit because i cant keep money for not working regularly” i was really scared about an angry burnout. Then today i check the site and a new series appears?! Thanks Angry!! You can’t imagine how I appreciate your effort!

  3. Great one, i’m looking forward to this new serie of articles. The Mega dungeon and the stuff about NPCs is awsome but this where you are at your best. i.e. Explaining core mecanics like no one else ! Thanks. By the way I think the type of episode you describe is ‘Standalone’ at least the anglicism exist in french so i guess it has the same meaning in english… i could’nt find it on Wikipedia but there is a reference to in on tvtropes…

  4. Super awesome article, very useful way to look at things. I’ll need to find ways to advance the minor arcs more in my game; I’ve been focusing hard on the major arc lately.

    Only thing I don’t get is why Filler Crap is being almost recommended. Historically, when the tension needs to drop in my game to keep good pacing, I drag out the denoument for a victory the PCs recently had. Or I hand out some exposition on things the players are interested in, or that is important for an upcoming challenge/adventure.

    I feel like here you’re recommending I make entire adventures, several sessions’ worth, just completely trivial and unimportant. What huh?

    • The key is Filler doesn’t mean unimportant. It lets the PCs show off other aspects of themselves, or gain a benefit/ally that proves useful in a more important arc. Think of it like a vacation or time-off for the PCs: it may not be directly contributing to their main job, but it still builds out their characterization.

    • I often take the “filler that isn’t” approach. Example: The party needs to acquire something on their quest. It could even be mundane.

      Let me give you a crappy example that just popped into my head (sorry it’s not better). You need to acquire a special sword in order to continue your quest, but it can only be made by the town’s master blacksmith. But his daughter was kidnapped. He is in shock and complete dismay, refusing to help anyone with anything until he is assured of the safety of his daughter. You save the daughter from bandits, and he agrees to make you your special sword. Or whatever.

      So, now you’ve got a mini-side-quest type thing to do. It’s still involved in the story line, yet altogether isn’t–juuuuuust enough to halt thing to fill time, so to say.

      Again, not my best example, but it’s Friday. It’ll have to do.

    • Far from expert here…but consider random X-Files episode 39.

      Something real and bad happened to innocent people. Mulder and Scully investigated and were in real danger. Scully totally almost got eaten/bred/married to weird space alien inbred vampires. Great episode…very important to the series in retrospect, very important to the characters involved. Just because Cigarette Smoking Man didn’t drop by and inject the SAIV with smallpox ooze doesn’t mean the episode was trivial or unimportant. It just didn’t advance the mythos storyline.

      Heck, it made us care MORE about Scully.

      The standalone adventures could really be key to character development. Or provide resources or tactical knowledge that will indirectly help the characters in the big arcs. They might build the characters in other ways as well…and those ways might become important because we can’t script everything.

      So Filler Crap does a real disservice to the concept of its own value as a categorical title…but it advances the characters independent of advancing the Major Arc storyline, provides some opportunity for adventure that is perhaps of a different style/theme that the main arc(s), and gives a different beat to allow the main arc(s) to remain fresh while still being active play (not just a long sigh of victory).

  5. This article actually hits upon a problem I’ve found in many recent campaigns: the World-Saving Arc. Namely, a major arc that is so overwhelming the players have a hard time justifying taking any time off it to focus on other arcs, which leads to them causing their own burnout if it’s sprung too early in the campaign.

    I was in a recent campaign that self-destructed because the World-Saving Arc was launched just 6 months into the campaign. We felt we HAD to pursuit it, to the detriment of all the arcs we were personally invested in, because if the world blew up nothing else we did would matter, and we doubted we would EVER have a chance to finish up our personal arcs because the campaign would end once the world was saved.

    I walked away from the game when it seemed like completing the World-Saving Arc would require my PC to abandon his personal arc and let his nemesis conquer his kingdom. Saving the world just wasn’t worth it anymore.

    • Actually thinking about it, I’m reminded of 2 games that handled dealing with smaller, more personal arcs in the shadow of an overwheming arc exceptionally well:

      Crono Trigger had a prophet explicitly state that solving each character’s personal arc would help them out in the final battle. There was also no time limit on when they had to initiate the final battle; they literally had all the time in the world due to time travel.

      Mass Effect 2 put a huge emphasis on building up your team’s morale so they are more effective before initiating the suicide mission finale, which meant helping them resolve their personal goals first.

      Analyzing the two, they have two things in common:
      -Emphasis on completing the smaller arcs aiding with the bigger arc.
      -Decreasing the urgency of the bigger arc enough that players feel comfortable spending time preparing for it.

      • I think this is a big problem for all video games involving any kind of side-quest, especially JRPG style games. The story line’s pacing gets all screwed up because of the need to stop and do side-quests, or the need to stop and train-up your characters before actually going up against that final boss. I mean, he’s just sitting in that one room in the castle waiting for you to get to him, right? I recently started playing Skyrim again, and my character is level 33. I JUST got the horn of Jurgen Wind-Caller (that’s like 4th main quest) because I sat and spammed stealth, conjuration, and heavy armor. It makes me laugh when the world hangs in the balance as I tralala killing rats in basements.

        But, this is something I love about D&D. If I put time constraints on the ‘oh-god-the-world-is-dying’ storyline, i make them clear and realistic. Me: “You’ve got 10 days, plus or minus a day or two to figure this out.” Them: “Okay, DM says we have 8 – 12 days to get stuff done. I think we’ve got time to save the cat stuck in the tree if we plan accordingly.”

        • I don’t like that because the ruthlessly pragmatic thing to do is to ignore the cat in the tree and focus on saving the world (unless the cat helps save the world). But doing the ruthlessly pragmatic thing (usually) leads to a more boring game as PCs prune off side jobs and shove aside personal quests to focus on the big branch.

          Handled poorly, save-the-world plots become a Godzilla running roughshod over PC motivations, goals, and ethics. They aren’t saving the world because they’re personally invested in it, they’re saving it because it’s a requirement for anything else they do to matter. It’s essentially the GM stating “do this OR ELSE I BURN DOWN THE CAMPAIGN”.

          • Also, I just realized that nowhere in the article did AngryGM mention anything about a straight-up “save-the-world” arc, probably because by definition every other plot arc is minor compared to “save-the-world”. It makes it extremely hard to balance its urgency or even let it fade into the background for a bit.

          • Actually, I have been running into this same sort of problem as the GM, though slightly reversed.

            My group was heading on a pair of airships to a remote mountain range in order to flea from an impending war, to start a new life. During this time, the major arc reared its head and one of my players suggested that they used the airship as a bomb to buy themselves some time.

            Well, this was met by quite the show of insanity, as the player at the helm took the airship into a dive and spin, being its owner. Frankly, I should have killed everyone due to this, rather than saving them with the second airship.

            Long story short, player buried their head in the sand every time I tried to steer the plot on course, so the campaign became very convoluted as I tried to scrape together the plot after it got smashed continuously. Maybe I just need to remove ‘problem’ player from the group and try again.

            Either way, Player screaming “No want!” and burning down the campaign.

          • Bennytops: Is it the entire group or just that single player? If it’s just a single player, I’d bet money he had a disastrous campaign with a previous GM that gave him a phobia of major threats or something. I’ve heard a few horror stories about campaigns that basically scarred their players for life.

            As for the lethalness of the airship divebomb, I would’ve saved everyone that didn’t consent to it. Nothing sucks quite like your entire party being TPKed solely because one player went stubbornly suicidal.

          • MLemmer,

            I only brought up the Save-the-Wolrd arc because you did, but I do see the problem with the unfortunate feeling of a “rail road”. Though, as Angry has discussed before in other articles, all story lines have to be forced on the characters in some kind of way.

            Plus, the save-the-world arc doesn’t need to be done with every single adventure (which is what I feel like WotC puts out in books every time, be it elemental princes or giants).

            As far as “do this, or else i burn down the campaign” goes, you as the GM still have to at least steer your players in the direction they need to go. Them screwing around is their choice and affects the world with their choices. Is anyone really ruthlessly pragmatic? The paladin? One could argue that the same ruthless pragmatism causes him to save the cat so that its owner has that much more time with her.

            If the players are arguing what to do because they want to stop to do something else that’s fairly minor, the GM need only say “don’t worry, you’ve got time.”

            Bennytops: definitely take that player to the side and talk one on one and see what the heck is up. Maybe it’s just their play style? Maybe they need to know that they’ve got to tone it down?

          • Several thoughts about this.

            First is that you can have a main plot ‘about’ something before letting the players in on the world ending consequences. Ramp up the tension, know that they are trying to stop the BBEG, but don’t let them know how it important it is till the ‘shit just got real’ moment in the second act.

            The second is that you can stall the main quest line by putting timers on stuff. The next thread is that the BBEG is holding a ritual with unknown people at a known location in the future. The potion of door opening won’t be ready for 10 days, so the party has time to kill before heading in. The BBEG is raising an army at the keep and needs to be stopped, but it’s going to be several weeks before everyone is there. You know that Bob has the book of secrets, and your agents are looking for Bob, but haven’t found him yet. In short, add ‘breaks’ in the A plot so that players can’t necessarily advance it at will.

  6. This article explained to me why I’m so sick and freaking tired of the current plot arc in the game I GM. It’s become a gray goo arc where I’ve done ten episodes of the same arc in a row (stop the BBEG from using the thing and destroying the other thing and rule everything). Once the players knew where the things were and that the BBEG was going for them it didn’t make sense to stop and do anything but go towards the thing as fast as possible. I could jam in a plot arc about protecting family but nothing else was important enough to detract from the plot. I should have planned the story out with natural stopping points to give time for the other plots.

    I think that I will be able to turn this gray goo back into a godzilla though. The BBEG will succeed or fail at using the thing and I will force a pause in that plot arc so I finally have time to return to the other arcs. And if it does come up again I’ll be smarter this time and include natural stopping points between episodes of the BBEG.

    • Maybe you should time-jump (maybe even get a few rolls for things to happen within that jump) to fast forward and see where everyone is after the gray goo.

    • These comments about world ending arcs, the need to break them up, and the difficulty in doing so, reminds me of the ‘gating’ concepts in the Megadungeon articles.

      In the Megadungeon, without gates, and with information that the BBEG is the demon (and will destroy the world), the characters would be best served by heading straight there, ignoring the plant boss, the dragon, and the corrupting spirit. This is especially true if DM’s feel compelled to make sure all combats are ‘balanced’ so that players can always succeed.

      This is the same as ignoring all side quests/alternate plot threads. Perhaps thinking about the campaign progression with some of the gating tools from the Megadungeon would help

  7. Thanks. I think this and your “What is an NPC” from July are the reasons I find most published adventures more work to run than rolling my own. Very few published adventures seem to make a point of making the the plots and the people who drive them easy for the GM to understand.

    • Most published adventures are, in my opinion, sort of worthless. You basically have to dissect and study up before you can run any kind of session.

    • Agreed. Im DMing PotA now and its more work than the homebrew campaign i run. And it seems nearly impossible to incorporate backstory arcs unless i put the module on hold.

  8. I love the large BBEG plot intertwined with the backstory plots of the PCs, and my current campaign is a bowl of spaghetti when it comes to following the different threads. So this is something I have wanted to read from you since I found your site. Excellent macro level guidance for campaign structure! Thank you again for the millionth piece of advice that has fine tuned my GM capabilities!

  9. Right now, my campaign is jumping all over the timeline. Basically, I committed at the start of the campaign to giving each player in the starting party their own personal dream-sequence/flashback. My initial plan was to run these modules during Extended Rests, so that rests had a special quality to them.

    I overestimated how often our group would meet up. It always seems to be less than you think it’ll be. I can’t recommend this unconditionally.

    Pros: 1) If a player can’t show up, you can still run a flashback module with the remaining players. 2) The characters have their own individual throughlines that I can draw on. The A-plot is the main quest– the party wandering around the Tablelands performing quests, fighting monsters, and generally just surviving and thriving. The B-Plot, C-Plot, and D-Plot are the party’s personal throughlines, what brought them into the current situation. These plots give me NPCs and enemies that I can throw at them whenever need be, and give their characters a place in the game world outside of the context of the current party.

    Cons: 1) The campaign’s progress slows the f$@# down. 2) The timeline starts to get really confusing. I’ve had to go back and date my campaign log.

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  12. I really love Angry’s writing but I hate how I can only get about 1/4 the way through a post before I get distracted by cat pictures or something shiny in my room. I do manage to make it all the way through it just takes me about 6 tries. Great post as always.

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