Man, I’m not in the mood for this s$&% today.
Okay. Padding. Let’s do it.
Yeah, I’m talking about padding. And this has nothing to do with the bras at a junior high school beauty pageant. And if you think that joke was tasteless and terrible, you should see the one the editor made me cut. It involved feminine hygiene.
You hear people pissing and moaning about this a lot when it comes to video games. They often refer to it as “artificially lengthening gameplay.” It’s not a nice thing to say about video game design. Basically, the idea behind the complaint is that the designers of the game felt as if there was not enough content to fill the game. Rather than add more content with actual value, they have used other tricks to make the game last longer. Giant a$& maps that take forever to cross filled with minor nuisance enemies – or nothing. Pumped up statistics on end-game enemies requiring the player to spend hours gaining experience by grinding through the same foes. Hidden artifacts required to unlock the final door scattered across the entire game world that force the player to backtrack and scour areas that offer no actual gameplay challenge. And lately, the complaint about padding is often combined with the complaint about microtransactions. Which is why Star Wars: Battlefront and Shadow of Mordor, games I loved, will never have sequels in my head canon. After all, if you offer people the option to pay to skip your content, you now have what economists call a “perverse incentive.” Basically, it’s to your benefit to make that content crappy enough that people WANT to skip it.
That crap aside, the real point is that padding in video games is generally seen as a bad thing. Because it’s about adding non-content. It increases the LENGTH of the game, but it doesn’t add actual story or gameplay CONTENT.
Now, let me blow your f$&%ing mind. If you’re a creator GM – that is, if you write your own encounters, adventures, and campaigns – padding is actually a really valuable skill. In fact, it’s required. Because padding is what creates the only real difference between an encounter, an adventure, and a campaign. I s$&% you not.
But to understand that, you must first understand that the video game definition of padding is wrong. Padding can be a very good thing. That’s why mattresses are padded. And why football players wear pads. All video games are padded. Side quests are padding. Scavenger hunts are padding. Hell, any open-world sandbox game is basically nothing but padding. But we don’t call it padding because we save that term – when it comes to video games – to boring crap that provides an obstacle between us and the end of the game.
Why are we talking about this now? Well, if you’ve been following along with my series – even though it’s kind of laughable to call something that gets an entry only once every second or third month a series – if you’ve been following my series about campaign building, you should have reached the point where you have a general idea about what sort of campaign you want to build. But how the f$&% do you turn that into a campaign? Well, you have to pad that idea the f$&% out.
The Same, But Padded
I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time discussing the various elements that make an encounter and encounter (dramatic question, conflict, etc.) and the ones that make an adventure an adventure (motivation, resolution, structure) and the ones that make a campaign (shape, glue, and plot threads). And while those things are very different and are designed in different ways and play out differently, they are born from the same seeds. When it comes to creating this s$&%, the first few steps for building encounters, adventures, and the plot threads that will hold campaigns together? It’s all the same.
See, all those things begin with the end. Adventures begin with the goal. The resolution. Encounters begin with a dramatic question. And that’s just the goal of the encounter restated as a question. And a campaign plot thread begins with the end of that plot thread. And if you don’t believe me, I can prove it.
Let’s take a campaign based around a simple premise: a bunch of dwarves lose their homeland to a dragon. A group of their heroic descendants, years later, after living in exile, vow to slay the dragon and retake their homeland. That’s a nice, straightforward noodle campaign, right? There’s just a single plot-thread that shoots through the whole thing: go kill the dragon.
Now, the campaign will involve many adventures. Maybe the dwarves will encounter some trolls on the road. Maybe they will evade giants in the mountains. Maybe they will be waylaid and dragged into a goblin city. Maybe they will have to fight their way through a spider-infested haunted forest. Maybe they will have to escape from a wood elf fortress. Who knows? All that stuff sounds cool. And each one of those is an adventure in the campaign, right?
At the end of it all, though, is the LAST adventure. The one where they descend into the ruins of the ancient dwarven city and do battle with the dragon. That’s assuming they aren’t a bunch of a$&holes a let a midget and a ranger who thinks he’s a bard do all the actual work. Could you imagine what a s$&% end that would be if the dwarves weren’t the ones to kill the dragon? It’d be horses$&%.
But you’re a good GM. So, the final adventure involves the dwarves descending into their ancestral halls, seeking out the dragon’s lair in the ancient throne room, and having an epic knock-down drag-out which leaves the dragon dead. And then they claim the treasure and rebuild the kingdom and drink heavily and live grumpily ever after. Because there’s no good reason to pad out the ending. That would also be stupid.
So, now you have a campaign that started with “kill the dragon” as it’s first principle. And you have an adventure that starts with “kill the dragon” as it’s resolution. And when the party gets down to the final showdown, you have an encounter whose dramatic question “can the party kill the dragon.”
But that’s not just a product of that specific campaign. It’s a truism. Any seed, any basic idea for an encounter OR an adventure OR a campaign plot thread COULD serve equally well as any other thing. Some parties really do just encounter dragons during completely unrelated adventures. Room 33 of the dungeon of Unrelenting Screwjobs just happens to be the lair of a dragon. Some parties are hired by townsfolk to kill unruly dragons that have been plaguing the countryside. And some parties spend their whole campaign building themselves to the point where they finally have the means and opportunity to kill the dragon.
This is one of those things that seems obvious after you hear it, but the implications are often lost on GMs who think there is some huge difference between encounters, adventures, and campaigns. Or at least on the story elements therein. The only difference between the three of those things is the amount of padding.
Plot Points: The Perfect Padding
Now, keep in mind that we’re only talking about plots here. Sequences of events that are likely to happen in an encounter or adventure or campaign. The things we might call the storyline or plot thread. The thing that provides the narrative motive to move from the beginning of the story to the end. Obviously, the actual conflicts in an encounter are very different from the structure of an adventure. And campaigns are made up of strings of adventures, each of which has a structure of its own.
So, given that, why are we talking about this crap? We’re talking about it for one very specific reason. We’re talking about it because it can be very hard for a GM to go from “I have an idea for a campaign” to “I need to come up with HOW MANY adventures?” And that’s where padding comes in.
Essentially, padding out a plot is a matter of putting PLOT POINTS between the beginning and the end of the plot. A plot point is simply an event which provides some kind of turning point in the story. In an encounter, a plot point is a source of conflict. In an adventure, a plot point is an encounter. And in a campaign, a plot point is an adventure. And it’s that fact that makes the art of padding so useful. Hell, padding is basically just synonymous with game design.
Crazy? Maybe. But think about it. Let’s say you’re writing an adventure in which the players are going to kill a dragon. You have your resolution: kill the dragon or see the village destroyed. You have your motivations: the greater good, the dragon’s treasure, and the fun of killing of a dragon. You COULD stop there. Realistically, that is a complete story. The heroes arrive in a village, discover the village is being tormented by a dragon, and they decide for various reasons to kill the dragon. They confront the dragon, have a big-ole fight, and then they win. And hopefully there is cake. Done and done.
The problem is, that feels a little anemic, doesn’t it? It doesn’t exactly fill a whole session with adventure. And from a game design standpoint, it isn’t a well-designed challenged for a game like Dungeons & Dragons. It also lacks gameplay variety. There’s only one thing going on: kill the dragon. So, to make it a good game and a good story, you need to add a bunch of other crap. You add scenes in the village to get the players emotionally invested. You add a dangerous wilderness between the village the dragon’s lair to whittle down the players and add tension. You add hazards and traps to the dragon’s maze-like lair. Maybe you even give the dragon the chance to escape from the battle and force the PCs to pursue it back to the village. If they don’t hurry, it will raze the village. That adds tension and uncertainty to the outcome and a sudden reversal of fortune.
Guess what, bucko? That’s padding. Except for the fact that you’re adding actual, enjoyable content that enhances the experience, you’re padding your game out as surely as EA or Ubisoft do. And really, the only real difference is that, with each addition to the game, you’re asking yourself “does this actually make the game or just make it longer?” Well, you should be. To be frank, some GMs don’t ask that question and they end up with a bunch of grindy garbage that bores their players. We’ll come back to that question.
Here’s the point: when you set out to design an adventure or campaign from whatever idea it is that starts the whole process off, it’s far, FAR easier if you treat the design process of a matter of padding with plot points. And how do you do that?
Checkpoint, Obstacle, and Diversion
There are three basic kinds of plot points you can use to pad your plots. Let’s call them – because I love having terms for things – let’s call them checkpoints, obstacles, and diversions.
Checkpoints are plot points that represent intermediate steps toward the larger goal. Each checkpoint brings the party closer to whatever goal they are pursuing. They are steps in the process. For example, suppose that the party is trying to defeat Shrub Niggurath, the tentacled plant-lich aberration. Being a lich, Shrub Niggurath has concealed its soul in six different magical gems hidden throughout the Toroidal Forest Demiplane. The party literally cannot kill Shrub Niggurath permanently until those six phylacteries are destroyed. Thus, those phylacteries are checkpoints. Basically, they are points through which the plot must pass to succeed.
Now, some GMs are really down on checkpoints. They see them as chokepoints in the story. They see them as failure points. After all, if you fail to locate one of the gems, you can’t succeed at the goal of killing Shrub Niggurath. And, yeah, that can be true. But it doesn’t have to be. After all, if the party KNOWS there are six phylacteries and KNOWS they can’t kill Shrub Niggurath until they destroy them all, they won’t TRY to kill Shrub Niggurath until they KNOW they have destroyed the phylacteries. And a well-run campaign will offer the players a chance to make up for a failure by allowing them to find another way to succeed. And, this is where padding on the fly will be extremely important. We’ll talk about that below.
Obstacles are plot points that just get in the party’s way. Unlike checkpoints which are plot points through which the party must pass to move closer to their goal, obstacles merely prevent the party from moving toward their goal. If the party deals successfully with an obstacle, they aren’t really any closer to their goals. But if they fail to deal with an obstacle, they suffer some sort of setback or consequence. For example, during their various adventures searching for the phylacteries of Shrub Niggurath, the party might end up wandering through the lands of The King in Saffron. He lures them to his Tesseractical Hedge Maze wherein he feeds off their emotions as her terrorizes them. The party – if they want to continue their adventures – must escape. If they fail, they will eventually be drained of their wills and become a part of the King’s collection of lawn ornaments, retaining all their senses, but unable to scream. If they succeed, they can continue on their way.
Now, it’s important to note that obstacles do not have to be failure points. For that matter, neither do checkpoints. But, to qualify as a plot point, something in the story must change because of the party’s successes or failures. Or both. A checkpoint represents a change to the story because the players cannot succeed until they have dealt with the checkpoint. That’s a pretty big change. An obstacle represents a change because the players are very likely to succeed until the obstacle confounds them. But good plot points provide more turns than merely “you can’t continue your adventures until you do this” or “you did this so now you can continue your adventure.” The longer the party remains lost in the King’s maze, for example, the weaker they might become. Or the more powerful Shrub Niggurath might grow. Or the more towns and villages might fall under his thrall. Or the more widespread his armies might be. Whatever.
Just as with actions, plot points must have consequences that ripple through the plot. Otherwise, the plot really isn’t turning around them. And death and/or failure don’t have to be only consequences.
Finally, you have diversions. Diversions represent side quests. They represent departures from the main story. While searching for the phylacteries of Shrub Niggurath, the party might have the opportunity to explore the Inverted Pyramid of Some other Punny Chthuloid Name and obtain the Sword of Winning or whatever. I don’t know. I’m sick of coming up with names. That’s a diversion. Another diversion might involve going into the Fortress of Someplace Else and rescuing a bunch of prisoners from the Cult of Kidnapping.
Like checkpoints and obstacles, diversions must have an impact on the plot. But their impact isn’t necessarily tied directly to the party’s primary goal. The Sword of Winning makes the party more powerful in general. It will certainly sway their final battle against Shrub Niggurath, but only in a tangential way. As for rescuing the prisoners? Well, the prisoners might have useful information or reward the PCs with something that affects their power level or chance of success. Or the party might do it because it’s the right thing to do. Or because someone they care about was kidnapped. And the diversion may have consequences. Again, spending time on side quests might allow Shrub Niggurath to do all those things I mentioned he might be doing behind the scenes.
How to Stuff Your Plot
Checkpoints, obstacles, and diversions. Those are your three basic plot points. And depending on what you’re designing, they can represent encounters, adventures, or even adventure arcs or adventure paths. The important thing bit is that they are things you inject between the beginning and the end of your story. And you can inject as many or as few as you want. And, even better, you can always add more.
For example, let’s say I start with that Shrub Niggurath thing. There’s an evil lich plant aberration doing evil things and the heroes need to defeat it. That’s the basic seed for my campaign. But, to run a campaign, I’m going to need some actual adventures. And those adventures are plot points. At this stage of the game, I don’t have to think too hard about things like how the plot is going to turn on the points. I just have to spitball ideas for the plot points.
And I’ve got a bunch, right? The six phylacteries, the Hedge Maze of the King in Saffron, the Cult of Kidnapping, and the Inverted Pyramid. That means that my campaign already has ten potential adventures in it. If you’re only counting nine, you’re not GMing right. But let’s say ten isn’t enough. Well, maybe there needs to be an adventure right at the start that introduces Shrub Niggurath. Rather than just saying “this is your quest,” I can start with an adventure in which the players discover a prophecy hidden in an ancient tomb or something that talks about Shrub Niggurath. And maybe I want a second adventure in which they must learn more about Shrub Niggurath, his demi plane, and the phylacteries. That’s twelve adventures.
Now, I don’t need to work out all the details for all those adventures right now. After all, I’m only going to run one adventure at a time. But what I now have is an outline for my campaign. It’s loose, sure. It’s just a list of plot points. But it is enough for me to write adventures as I need them. When the party is getting close to finishing one adventure, I can start writing the next one. I can pick an adventure off the plot-point list. And I can figure out things like how the plot turns on that adventure. When I’m ready to trap the party in the Hedge Maze, I can figure the consequences of their being trapped for however long and what it costs them.
And, of course, once I do pick out a plot point to write an adventure around, that plot point becomes the resolution for my adventure. Recuse the prisoners from the Cult of Kidnapping, for example. From there, I figure out the motivation and how to introduce that motivation. And then I come up with a bunch of plot points for that adventure. And those plot points become the encounters.
And thus, from some very simple ideas – and a little creativity – I can turn a basic goal into an outline for a campaign. And the outline provides the goals for various adventures that will make up the campaign. And I can turn each of those goals into a full adventure by injecting plot points between the beginning and the end. And the entire process becomes one big exercise in padding out my story with plot points.
And THAT – very basically – is how you build and run a campaign. Of course, in upcoming articles, we’ll build on this a little more. But this is the basic framework. Okay?
But before we wrap this s$&% up for today, let’s talk about how the practice of padding with plot points also helps you deal with failure, build consequences into your game, adapt to changing situations, and react to the players crazy whims and stupid failures. Let’s talk about padding on the fly.
Padding on the Fly
It might seem like plotting out your campaign as a series of points of padding is a recipe for building only the simplest of linear, step-by-step adventures that basically serve as a Final Fantasy XIII-esque plot corridor. And it might also seem like that list of checkpoints and obstacles builds all sorts of failure chokepoints into your campaign so that one f$&% up will ruin the party’s chances of every succeeding. And if you’re like most panicky Internet GMs, you’re probably sweating profusely right now, and your hands are shaking while you try to form a coherent comment explaining how terrible everything I’ve said is player freedom and agency and all that crap.
Well, calm your tits there. Because plot point padding doesn’t do any of that. In fact, it empowers you to actively avoid any traps like that.
Until you actually run an adventure, that plot point list is just a f$%&ing outline. So, really, there isn’t any reason to panic. It’s just f$&%ing notes. Now, of course, you’re going to use some of those plot points to foreshadow various events or provide goals for the players. For example, you’re probably going to want to tell the party pretty early on about Shrub Niggurath having six phylacteries. You might not lead with that. It might be something they discover later. And hell, they might not discover there are six of them until after they find the first one. That’s all fine. But having a roadmap for your campaign in the form of an outline empowers you to lay some things out for the players and you’d be a moron not to take advantage of that.
But the point is, it’s still just notes. Suppose the party really does f$&% up recovering one of the phylacteries. Say you decided that, in this adventure, an agent of Shrub Niggurath was racing the party to the phylactery. And, whoops, the f$&%wit players failed and now Shrub Niggurath has his own phylactery somewhere. Campaign over, right? Oh well.
All you have to do is insert a new plot point that represents an opportunity for the party to recover the phylactery they lost. Now they must follow Shrug Niggurath’s agent to the Monastery of Who Gives a F$&% What It’s Called and break in and steal it back so they can destroy it. Easy peasy.
The thing is, once you get good at injecting plot points into your campaigns and adventures, it’s really easy to just squeeze more in whenever you want. Party fails an adventure? Add a plot point. Party does something unexpected that creates crazy consequences? Add a plot point. Suddenly have a cool idea halfway through an adventure for a neat rival NPC? Add a plot point. Party wants to chase that rival NPC and confront him as a diversion? Add a plot point.
And it’s this bit of subtlety that really explains the difference between the way most GMs plan out their stories and the way I’m telling you to do it. Most GMs either start with the beginning and plan out the story from beginning to end like they are paving a road. Some GMs don’t plan more than one step in front of their players because they think that empowers them to more easily adapt to their players and avoid running overly linear adventures. I’m telling you to figure out the end. Then figure out the beginning. Then just start squirting plot points into the middle. Do some right off the bat. Add others as you need them. And don’t add any more detail than you must. Until you have to.
That gives you the best of both worlds. You have a plan. You’re never struggling with a blank piece of paper trying to figure out what happens next. But you’re not tied to anything and you’re always free to add, remove, or change ideas.
And that’s the power of treating your campaign like a training bra.