A long, long time ago, I teased this series about campaign building with an article called A Plot, B Plot; One, Two, Three Plot in which I talked about how to juggle multiple plot threads in campaigns. And I promised that someday, long, long in the future, I would have to revisit that idea when I was talk about campaign building. Well, that day is here! Hoody f$&%ing hoo, am I right?
Planning out plots is an ESSENTIAL part of writing your own adventures and campaigns. Now, in adventure building, I worked it into the background. All that s$&% about structure and how every adventure is a dungeon and all of that crap? Yeah, that’s what I was really talking about. And the reason I could get away with it is because adventures GENERALLY have very simple plots. I didn’t really NEED to make you understand plotting itself. But when it comes to a game you’re going to run for six months or a year or longer? Yeah, that plot s$&% becomes much more central.
Now, here’s the big ole warning label: this is going to be contentious to some people. See, there are some people out there who will tell you that plotting a plot makes you basically GM Hitler. Because it leads to railroading. And railroading is the most evil thing you can do ever. And like I always say when I warn you that there are going to be some people who will tell you – and likely tell me in my f$&%ing comment section – that plotting is evil. And they probably won’t even read the article. That’s because it is hard to read a website with your head buried in your rectum. Unfortunately, it doesn’t impede their ability to say anything because they have gotten good at talking out of their a$&es. So, here’s the plan: first, I’m going to define plot so you understand what it is THE WAY I’M USING IT – and I had to add that part because there’s always some goddamned pedantic expert who likes to pick apart my definitions so they can WIN the Internet. Then, I’m going to address the head-in-rectum people about railroading even though they won’t read it. Then, we’ll talk about plotting out a plot in terms of adventures and campaigns. And then, I will carefully watch the comment section and deal with the countless morons who argue that plotting is railroading using the arguments I rip apart until I can’t take it anymore and lock down the comments altogether. And then I will drink heavily.
Isn’t it nice to have a plan?
Needle and Thread
In that article I mentioned above, I made frequent use of two terms. Plot and plot thread. And I didn’t go to great lengths to define either one. Because I didn’t feel like it. Unless I actually did define them. I don’t remember and I don’t feel like going back and rereading the article. I’ve got enough to do just writing these articles. I can’t be reading and remembering them all too.
Plot is a story element. That is, it’s one of the ingredients that goes into making a story. This is super f$&%ing important because most people think the PLOT is the STORY. No. No, it f$&%ing isn’t! A plot is just a sequence of events. Things that happen in the story. And it isn’t even everything that happens in the story. It’s the major events that help get the story from the motivation and incitement (the things that start the story) to the resolution (the thing that ends the story). I keep going back to Star Wars: The First One: Not That First One, The Good First One: A New Hope because it’s a really easy, good example that almost everyone knows.
So, the incitement is this: Mark Skywalker ends up with a droid that has the plans to a weapon the Space Nazis built. It contains a message from a beautiful princess asking for help. Mark is bored with his life and wants adventure and he’s horny for the princess. So he decides to help by bringing the droid to Alderaan.
The resolution is this: Mark Skywalker, using magic and the secret plans, blows up the Space Nazi planet and wins the Star War. Hooray.
So, what happens along the way? Well, the droid leads Mark to Ben Canoli. Ben wants to take the droid to Alderaan. Mark’s family is killed, freeing him up from obligations. Ben and Mark hire Hank Solo and Wicket the Ewok to fly them to the Rebel Planet in the Aluminum Falcon. Ben trains Mark in space magic. They get captured by the Space Nazis. They rescue the Princess. Ben dies. They escape. They go to the Rebel Planet and plan an attack on the Space Nazis. Hank leaves. Mark joins the mission to blow up the Space Nazis. Hank comes back. Hank rescues Mark. They blow up the Space Nazis.
That’s the plot. Notice how it’s not every interesting. That’s because it’s just a sequence of things happening. It doesn’t have any of the cool stuff like characters, dialogue, emotions, scenes, conflicts, drama, tension, you know, the crap we want in our stories. That’s because it’s just an outline of the EVENTS in the story.
Notice also that the plot is just a series of steps. If you wanted to waste the space, you could write it out as a numbered list. Or a bulleted list. I don’t so I wrote it as a paragraph. The items on the list are what we call the plot points. It’s really just one big connect-the-dots puzzle. And like it or not, ALL stories are just all the crap that surrounds a series of connected dots.
The first point in the plot is the incitement or inciting incident. It’s the thing that provides the motivation and kicks the story into action. The last two points are usually the climax and resolution. We could write a whole damned article about what all of the other points are, but RPGs tend to be messier than movies in the middle. But we’ll get to that in a second.
Now, while it’s common for a single story to have one major, central plot, ongoing works like franchises, TV series, and RPG campaigns tend to have multiple plots. That is to say, there are MULTIPLE motivations, MULTIPLE resolutions, and multiple connect-the-dots puzzles joining them. That is to say, each pair of motivation and resolution in an ongoing story is tied together by a sequence of events. The sequence of events that ties a given motivation to its resolution is what I call a plot thread.
It isn’t usual to think of it this way, but a classic example of a plot thread is the character arc. For example, in Star Wars, Luke begins as a bored teenager with no direction other than a desire to escape. Then he sees a hot princess and wants to help her. Then he learns that his father was a Space Wizard and he might be a Space Wizard too. Ben tries to teach him, but Luke is too focused on the physical world and on mundane concerns. He gets frustrated. He doubts the magic. Then Ben dies. In the last moment of the big battle, Luke feel’s Ben’s presence watching over him and demonstrates faith in the Space Magic. It works and he wins. Thus, Luke becomes a Space Wizard.
But character arcs aren’t the only plot threads. And RPGs are generally lacking in character arcs because character arcs rely too heavily on the players GROWING INTO the character they want to play instead of starting there. And players are idiots who don’t understand arcs, growth, and dynamic characters. They just want to have fun adventures. Lots of sitcoms (and other TV shows) have multiple concurrent plots in each episode. In a typical family sitcom, for example, there might be two or three different plots, each one involving different members of the family.
The point is, a plot thread is just a sequence of events that connects a given motivation and incitement to action to its resolution. An adventure or campaign might have one plot or it might have several concurrent plot threads. Got it? Good.
Plotting is Railroading and Other Bulls$&%
Say it with me: “if you plan out a plot, you’re railroading your players.” Now, punch yourself in the throat for saying it. I’ll wait.
Look, this is the conventional wisdom. If you plan out all of the events that are going to happen in an adventure or campaign, you’re forcing the characters to follow a specific plot. You’re taking away their freedom to choose. Or to determine their own outcome. Or whatever. Let me quickly explain why that’s bulls$&%. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but if I spend NO time on it, I can’t be righteously indignant at any head-up-the-a$& commenters later.
First of all, I’ve mentioned before that there are multiple types of freedom and agency in any given RPG. Choosing the sequence of events – the plot – is just one type. But there is also the freedom to engage with different obstacles and different challenges in different ways. Take the same basic plot point: rescue the princess from the stronghold and give it to three different groups, and each will have a different solution. One group might use a frontal assault, slaying the guards, and dragging the princess out with violence. Another might use stealthy assassination and sneaking. The third might disguise themselves as a repair crew and smuggle the princess out in a wheelie bin filled with spare interocitor parts. Now, part of that relies on the GM designing or running the game in such a way as to allow that kind of freedom. And part of it depends on how detailed the GM’s plot actually is. But we’ll come back to that idea. And even beyond the freedom to engage, there is also the freedom to fail. That is to say, the party might fail to rescue the princess. That will either change the game or end the adventure. Yes, that’s a kind of freedom. And an important one.
Second of all, a plot is just an outline. It’s a game plan. But it is by no means a straight-jacket. Look, no one would argue that figuring out a strategy for the monsters in a combat is railroading. That’s because you accept that the strategy just represents the ideal. The thing the monster will want to do if it’s allowed to. If they monster CAN’T execute its strategy due to the actions of the players, the GM will come up with an alternate plan on the fly. And just because the strategy might be thrown away, that doesn’t mean it has no value. Improvising a NEW plan is easier if you had an OLD plan because you don’t have to design the new plan from scratch. You just have to change the parts of the old plan that no longer work. The same is true of a plot. If some event doesn’t – or can’t – happen because of the player’s actions, the GM will work around that. But it’s far, FAR easier if the GM already knew the plan to begin with.
More importantly, satisfying stories – whether they are in the form of a movie or an RPG campaign – have a structure to them. They have a starting and ending point, rising and falling actions, and all that other crap I’m constantly yammering on about. That s$&% doesn’t happen by accident. Well, it does. Sometimes. It can. But having a plot planned – assuming you do it right – means your game is more likely to have a fun, satisfying structure. Your players will never notice that structure, but their brains will. Even if you have to deviate from the plot for reasons, you still have a sense of the general shape. If your climatic battle can’t take place the way you planned it, at least you know you need SOME KIND OF CLIMAX now.
Third of all, just because you plan a plot, that doesn’t mean it has to be a linear plot. It can be. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH A LINEAR PLOT. But it doesn’t have to be. You can build branches it at key decision points. And, the thing is, no matter how many people piss and moan about how their players “go off the rails,” the truth is, most players who aren’t giant disruptive s$&%nuggets aren’t actually THAT unpredictable. If you present them with reasonable choices, you can pretty much guess the two or three likely choices they will make. Once you’ve gotten to know your players, you can pretty much design plots they WILL follow even though they technically COULD deviate from them at any point.
So, let’s have no more of that “plotting is railroading” bulls$&%? Okay? Now onward.
Plotty Plans and Points
In an RPG, a plot is just an outline of the adventure or campaign. Take for example, a simple plot. Let’s say the lich king has set up a lair on the border of Fluffy Bunnington, the Realm Where Everything is Always Nice. The players are motivated by motives to defeat the lich king. The adventure is resolved when the lich king is defeated, the heroes are dead, or when the lich king’s armies have razed Fluffy Bunnington and burned down the capital of Sunny Meadows. So, what’s the plot?
Well, it could be a simple one. While visiting Fluffy Bunnington, the heroes are attacked by zombies. Then, they learn that the zombies have come from the tomb of the lich king. The heroes march of the tomb of the lich king. They fight through the hordes in the tomb until they locate the lich king’s crypt. They face the lich king’s death knight bodyguard while the lich king tries to escape. Then, they chase down the lich king and destroy him.
Notice that it’s just a step-by-step sequence of events that carries the PCs from the incitement to the resolution? Of course. Because that’s exactly what we said it was. A plot is just a plan for how the adventure should go assuming everything goes perfectly. And notice that the plot tells you exactly what things you need to be ready for as a GM. You need to design that first attack. You need to figure out a way for the PCs to learn that the zombies come from the tomb of the lich king. You need to have the tomb ready and the zombie hordes. You need the death knight. And you need the lich king.
Now, you could be more granular about it. For example, you could specify that in the tomb, there are four keys needed to open the central crypt. Each key is guarded by a different undead menace. Gathering each key becomes another plot point, another step between start and success.
But what’s interesting is that there’s probably going to be a bunch of scenes that AREN’T plot points. And that’s totally normal. For example, the brunt of the adventure will probably take place in the lich king’s tomb. As the part explores it, they will probably have numerous encounters, deal with traps, find treasure, and so on. Strictly speaking, those things aren’t plot points. They aren’t integral dots on the line between start and climax. Some would argue that if a scene isn’t a plot point, it shouldn’t exist. But some also argue that orange shag carpeting is pretty cool and that plotting equals railroading.
Non-plot-point scenes serve many purposes. They can provide additional background information, they can help control the pace of the adventure so that it feels good, provide space for other plot threads – especially character arcs – add optional rewards, or they can just be fun. After all, this IS a game and it IS fun to play in-and-of-itself.
But the plot points are the essential elements without which the plot just couldn’t get from beginning to end. Without the zombie attack, the party would never know about the danger. Without the scene identifying the lich king as the source of the zombies, the heroes would never know how to resolve the adventure. You could argue the death knight isn’t essential. But the death knight serves a purpose by denying the immediate climax and raising the tension by allowing the lich king to attempt an escape. And that provides the true climax. It’s a fine point, honestly. And in the end, that’s the art of it. Deciding what is and is not a plot point.
The Points of Plots (In Simple Adventures)
Although you can argue whether a given scene counts as an essential plot point without which the adventure or campaign wouldn’t be the same, plot points in RPGs generally fall into one of three different types.
First of all, an objective can be a plot point. An objective is a specific goal that the protagonists have to accomplish to move the plot along toward its resolution. In fact, objectives are the most common plot points. For example, locating the four keys and entering the central crypt in the tomb of the lich king are all objective plot points. Objectives serve as nice plot points because they provide a feeling of agency and of accomplishment. And moreover, they work a little bit like bread crumbs. They guide the party through the adventure but they leave the party feeling in control of the plot. They also break the adventure down into manageable chunks. Acquire the first key, acquire the second key, acquire the third key, acquire the fourth key, open the central crypt, defeat the lich king. It’s a step-by-step process the players can follow.
Objective plot points can be handled in a linear fashion (find the tomb, locate the central crypt, defeat the lich king) or they can be branching or open (find each of the four keys). They can provide freedom for the players to decide how to engage with them (fight the undead in the tomb OR sneak around using magic and stealth, etc.) or they can be straightforward (find the key to open the crypt).
Second of all, an event can be a plot point. An event is something that happens in the game that the protagonists have to deal with. The protagonists generally don’t have any agency over the event itself. They just have to deal with the event. Usually, an event happens at a specified time or when a certain condition is met. Sometimes, when the players deal with an event, it will provide them with a way to move toward the resolution they want. Most of the time, however, the party is trying to deal with an event to avoid the plot advancing toward an unfavorable resolution. Consider, for example, when the zombies attack the players at the start of the adventure. If the players succeed at defeating the zombies, they are now motivated toward protecting Fluffy Bunnington. That advances the plot. But also consider the sudden appearance of the death knight that covers the lich king’s escape. If the party succeeds in the best way possible, they avoid being slowed up. That’s all. But if they fail, they move firmly toward the undesirable resolution of the heroes being dead.
The point is, unlike objective plot points which pretty much always advance the party toward the desired resolution, event plot points can either advance the party toward the desired resolution OR toward an undesired resolution. And that brings us to the third type of plot point.
Third of all, a villainous plan can provide a plot point. These are the rarest of the three types of plot points, but they are actually extremely useful. The easiest way to understand a villainous plot point is to imagine that an adventure’s villain is the hero of his own story and he is trying to advance his own plot toward a particular resolution. That is, the villain is working toward whatever resolution the players DON’T want to happen. A villainous plot point is basically an objective plot point from the perspective of the villain. A step they need to accomplish to advance the plot in the direction THEY want.
To the heroes, though, a villainous plot point looks just an event plot point. It is something that happens outside of their control that they have to deal with to avoid the plot advancing toward the undesirable resolution. The difference is that event plot points are usually objective. They will happen at a specific time or based on specific conditions unless prevented. But they can advance the plot toward any resolution. Villainous plot points, though, tend to be more dynamic. The GM invokes them as part of playing the villain. And the GM can often invent and modify villainous plot points on the fly. I discussed this s$&% at length when I talked about the villain as a plot device.
Villainous plot points are often forgotten, and that’s a problem, because they are usually the plot points that help define when the adventure is lost. And a lot of GMs have a problem when it comes to defining WHEN the adventure is lost. In the lich king adventure, for example, the villainous plot point is when the lich king’s hordes make their final attack on Fluffy Bunnington’s capital of Sunny Meadows. If the heroes haven’t defeated the lich king before that attack OR they don’t help protect Sunny Meadows somehow, the adventure is lost.
And this illustrates another point: what keeps the lich king from just attacking RIGHT F$&%ING NOW AND WINNING THE ADVENTURE? There’s got to be a reason right? Well, that reason might help define further villainous plot points or event plot points. For example, the lich king might be biding his time and building his forces. He wants to make sure that once he attacks Fluffy Bunnington, his army is strong enough to defend him from the rest of the world’s armies. After all, he’ll be announcing his presence to the world. So, maybe he’s conducting a secret ritual that will open the gates of the Land of the Dead Bunnies. It will be completed at such-and-such a time or it requires X components and so on. Or maybe he’s biding his time, but when he realizes heroes are poking around in his dungeon, he’ll decide he has to attack now. So, once the heroes “raise the alarm” somehow in the tomb, they have a time limit (whether they know it or not) before the lich king’s armies reach Sunny Meadows and begin razing it. And they might only discover they were too late when they get back. Because that would be f$&%ing hilarious.
But thinking through that brings us around to…
By The Power of Plot (In Complicated Adventures)
So now we come down to how to actually plot out one or more plots for BIG stories. Stories like complex, multi-part adventures or like campaigns.
It’s simple enough to imagine how you might plot out an adventure as a mix of objectives and events. The simplest structure is “an event to get things starting, an objective to finish things off.” That’s actually most adventures. Most adventures are just an inciting incident that establishes a goal and a motivation and then a bunch of adventure between the heroes and a distant objective. Various events or objectives might happen on the way as well as the sort of normal adventure filler that actually makes the adventure fun and challenging. Some adventures are actually just two plot points (inciting event and climax which leads to objective) with fun adventure filler in between. And you know what? That’s totally f$&%ing fine. Those are fun. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.
But when you are plotting out a big story, things get a little more complicated.
For example, take a look again at the lich king story. Once we add the bit about the lich king destroying Sunny Meadows, the plot becomes complicated. Because there’s actually two different plot threads going on. Let’s assume that we decided to go with the most complicated story: that the lich king needs to do several things to open the gates to the Land of the Dead Bunnies. Let’s say he needs to secure the Carrot of the Dead, he needs to kidnap a pure soul to sacrifice, and he needs to conduct the sacrifice by the dark of the new moon. Now, let’s look at our adventure.
The heroes are attacked by zombies. Then, they learn the zombies serve the lich king who resides in a nearby tomb. To defeat the lich king, they must penetrate the tomb. Then, they must locate the four keys to the central crypt. Then, they must defeat the lich king’s death knight. Then they have to defeat the lich king. That leads to the favorable resolution: the lich king defeated.
Meanwhile, the lich king wants to destroy Sunny Meadows. He sends agents out to steal the Carrot of the Dead. He also sends agents out to kidnap Bunnyanna, the purest soul in the land. Then he waits. When the new moon rises, he conducts the ritual and throws open the gates to the Land of Dead Bunnies. He then leads the Dead Bunny army to raze Sunny Meadows. That leads to the unfavorable resolution: Sunny Meadows destroyed.
Now, the lich king’s plan only serves as a timer on the adventure, right? Well, technically, yes. But what if the party somehow LEARNED of the lich king’s plans. Say, while wandering around in the tomb, they have the opportunity to reach the lich king’s diary. Then, they have several different opportunities to disrupt those plans. They could stop the agents from stealing the Carrot of the Dead. They could stop the kidnapping. If they are too late to stop the kidnapping, they could free Bunnyanna before the ritual. And if all of that goes down before the party finds the central tomb, they can hurry to Sunny Meadows and try to fight off the army of Dead Bunnies. Or, the party could simply try to defeat the lich king BEFORE he finishes his plans by invading the tomb, finding the keys, etc. They can decide whether to slow up his plans to buy themselves time or just go for the quick kill. Or, when it looks like time is running out, they can come up with an alternative.
That’s a really complicated adventure, isn’t it? Except it isn’t THAT complicated to run. It just has a lot of different ways to play out. A lot of different outcomes. What do you really need to run that adventure? Well, you need the initial zombie attack. A scene where the players learn about the lich king. You need the lich king’s tomb. You need sets of stats for the lich king’s agents. You need the resting place of the Carrot of the Dead. And you need Bunnyanna. There’s really only three extra things you need to prepare THAT adventure over the simpler dungeon crawl. But suddenly, your adventure has a lot more possibilities.
And THAT is the magic of plotting the plot. By highlighting the key plot points in the story that lead from the motivation to the resolution – and more important to EACH resolution – you identify the minimum amount of stuff you need. More importantly, you have an outline that lets you run the adventure dynamically, responding to character choices, without having to spell out every goddamned detail. And you can adapt. For example, if the heroes manage to capture the Carrot of the Dead, now you know the agents of the lich king have to hunt down the heroes and steal it back. You have their stats already. You can handle that on the fly.
And it doesn’t even have to be villainous plots, though they do provide the most dynamic of dynamic plot threads. You could do several threads involving strings of objectives and events, or a string of objectives alongside a series of unfortunate events. Whatever.
The key is just to spell out the major objectives, events, and villainous plans that lead from the start of the adventure to each resolution. Figure out what you need for each plot point to play out. Then fill in the space in between with whatever fun adventure bits you think you need (or none at all if you want to keep things simple and straightforward).
Plotting Big (Campaigns)
Now, everything we’ve talked about above is about how to plot out the events for simple or complicated adventures. But plotting campaigns is a bigger and more different kettle of fish or whatever metaphor I’m using. The basic approach is the same, but there are some key differences. And, unfortunately, they are big enough and key enough to demand a follow-up article all their own.
CLIFFHANGER! Come back next time!