Training Bra Plotting: How to Plan a Campaign (Or Adventure)

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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.

Yeah. Right.

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.

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23 thoughts on “Training Bra Plotting: How to Plan a Campaign (Or Adventure)

    • The articles might well benefit from some additional proofreading, but I’m not entirely sure that this comments section is the place to advertise a product…

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I have downloaded the Grammerly plugin and have started using it. If the free version works out, I’ll hit up a premium subscription. It was very helpful.

  1. That is usually my preferred method of campaign construction. Build a bare bones railroad, a rough NPC timeline, and a smattering of hooks. Then just add to it as needed. Some people freak the hell out when I mention the railroad. Just because you build a railroad doesn’t mean you are forcing the players to ride it, it’s just the easiest way to plan.

  2. Working on a campaign right now, this was super helpful. Like all great insights, the whole article *seems* like it should have been obvious, yet I’ve been paving the road for weeks now.

  3. Be careful with injecting plot points.

    One time I ran an adventure where the PCs were supposed to stop the villain from getting an artifact but the PCs missed some hooks, never took note of the villain, and decided to go after the artifact for themselves.

    No problem, I thought, I’ll just invert my planned adventure. Let the adventurers be proactive for once and have the villain racing to stop them!

    Of course, when the villain did show up to try and stop them from getting the artifact at the last moment PCs thought it was a grudge monster designed to punish them for straying off the railroad or, as one of them called it, a giant F U monster that I pulled straight out of my behind, only she didnt say behind.

    • Looks like you forgot the base: set the goal at the start. The players should have known that the purpose of the adventure was not to get the artifact but to prevent the villain from getting it.
      If they don’t seem concerned about something important in your plot then you MUST make them realise it’s important. When you start an adventure you make a recap of important things they have seen that concern that adventure (see Angry’s article about recaps somewhere on this website) and that when you should have mentioned the villain: even if they didn’t care about him before, the fact that you mention him at the start would have at least prepared them to the fact that they could face him.

    • So your players didn’t know about the villain’s existence until the final showdown? That’s a DM problem, not a player problem. Once the villain knew that the PCs were after his artifact, I’m sure he would’ve reacted. Sent some goons to ‘deal with them’ as they slept… or killed an NPC family member or friend and scrawled a message of warning in their blood… sent a spy to gain their trust and learn more about them to report back… etc. Throw subtleties out the window – let them know that the villain exists and he is angry well before they ever meet him in person.

      • Oh no, they not only knew of the villain’s existence, they had met him several times before. I left tons of obvious clues that he was up to no good and that the PCs needed to stop him up to and including him kidnapping and brainwashing several of the PCs allies.

        Afaict The problem was, in hindsight, they they were so used to being reactive PCs that they focused all of their attention on accomplishing their goals and never dreamed that someone else would be the one trying to stop their evil schemes. I literally don’t think I could have been more pbvious without out and out railroading or having the antagonist drop by for a James Bond villain monologue, but the PCs just didnt take the hooks.

        Basically it was an evil game, I set it up like a standard game, and then wheh the PCs decided to be villanous and double cross the quest givers I tried simply inverting the game I had planned.

        In essence the PCs acted like the cliche villain who sits on his dark throne scheming and ignores the upstart heroes who start taking out their lieutenants until said heroes drop into their throne room for a boss battle. Although it wasnt my intention it was a pretty solid reversal of standard tropes, but the heroes got mad that they didnt have time to prepare for the boss battle when the boss came to them.

        Note that the PCs didnt lose to the boss, it was a perfectlY winnable encounter for them, one of then simply quit the campaign on the spot after the reveal and the game pretty much died after that.

        • Edit: Also, I don’t really agree with your premise. I have used plenty of surprise end bosses over the years to almost universally positive effect; the protections on a dungeon being made not to keep treasure hunters out but to keep something else in is an old classic.

          What happened here was, IMO, not a lack of foreshadowing but a lack of trust. The PCs though I was made at them for “jumping the rails,” and being “overpowered,” by getting an artifact that they “weren’t supposed to have,” and they felt that I responded by making up a grudge monster to “punish them,” or take the artifact and “cut them down to size,” when I was actually just introducing the enemy that I had been planning to have them fight as the end boss the whole time.

  4. Padding+railroad in the same article! I wish I could see all the insults you’ll get with this.

    I did exactly that in my last campaign and it worked pretty well.
    However some checkpoints were tied to specific player characters which proved to be a problem for two reasons:
    – you gotta keep that player alive at all costs
    – the player has to be here for his own checkpoint adventure which works better with some players than others..

    So my suggestion for whoever cares about it is is to treat character background plots as diversions rather than checkpoints. It might seem obvious if you think about it for a couple seconds but until Angry put words on things all I had was a campaign and a bunch of adventures that concerned either the plot or some alternate plot threads, so it wasn’t that obvious.

    • I had the same thought – mine the character backstories for plot points. Though, done right, it doesn’t matter of the specific player or character is still with the party. Two ways (I can think of) to handle it are:

      1. Don’t make it immediately obvious that this plot point is sourced from a character backstory. Build the motivation with all the players and if the one player is smart enough, he’ll remember his backstory and help solve the mystery. If that player isn’t around, oh well. They missed out. If it’s the character that died, maybe the motivation includes getting justice for their fallen comrade.

      2. Find a way to include the character’s backstory into the main campaign plot. It doesn’t have to be major. Suppose in the character’s backstory, they tell the story of how their village was pillaged by orcs and how he and his family escaped. Perhaps those orcs were under the control of Big Bad Evil Dude. If they return to the runes, the one character may find some detail that connects the orcs to BBED – like an emblem or the heraldry painted on a shield. It’s not a show-stopper if it’s not found (or doesn’t happen), but it gives the players the feeling their backstories contributed to the main plot.

    • Just because one has written down a plot point in one’s campaign outline — even if it’s a checkpoint — doesn’t mean that plot point has to be used. A player dies? Cross off the checkpoint. A player’s absent for a few weeks in a row? Insert a new plot point ahead of it, or find an excuse that whatever was a checkpoint is now a diversion.

      This is another great reason to make a rough outline and not flesh out the specifics until a session or two before. Crossing off bullet points that you thought might be cool but never got around to working on and don’t fit the campaign anymore? That’s not too hard. Crossing off an entire session you fleshed out with NPCs, traps, dialogue, monsters–that’s harder. And that’s precisely the kind of railroading people dislike–forcing your players to do things that you planned that no longer fit the session or where they want to go.

    • I like tying checkpoints to some character backstories for two reasons: it rewards players who have developed their character backstories by making them feel these choices matter and it encourages them to become invested in the overall plot because their characters have personal stakes in it (though it should be obvious these kinds of hooks work only for particular kinds of players, and that’s okay).

      That said, I’ve encountered the above problems, especially the one related to player availability. Although one solution could be to relegate character background plots from checkpoints to diversions, I also think another easy fix is some checkpoint flexibility.

      A particular checkpoint can be tied to a character’s backstory, but if that character dies or their player is missing, perhaps you already have a plan B on how to reach that checkpoint even if said character isn’t involved, or a different checkpoint that has a similar effect in the campaign.

      Couldn’t you just start with plan B as a fail-safe sort of plot point? And, are character-linked checkpoints really more trouble than they’re worth? It’s just more flavorful, in my opinion, and I like that sort of thing in my game. Character-driven diversions could be a good kind of middle ground, though.

  5. One point I figure a lot of people will miss: your example campaign outline actually isn’t very linear. The tracks lead from an introductory adventure to an investigative adventure to a big cloud of adventures that could be completed in any order to a final showdown adventure. People only think of “collect the X MacGuffins” as linear because most video games that use that trope are designed that way.

    Of course, in a campaign of this nature, information management becomes very important. The famous Three Clue Rule comes into play here. Personally, I’d have the investigative adventure include four possible ways to learn that there are six phylacteries in particular and also include a way to learn that info in three of the six MacGuffin adventures, because that detail is just that important. I’d also include two clues pointing to each of the six MacGuffin locations in the second adventure, which adds up to twelve “where to go next” clues (as well as a potential obscure fifth clue in that adventure that there are actually a lot of phylacteries, if they find enough of them). While that’s less than the requisite three for any one location, it’s still so many that it’s hard for me to imagine they wouldn’t figure out one to three locations of the six, which is all they need to continue into the cloud section… and then there’s just making up more clues as you go if it makes sense. I’d also add two clues to each of the six phylactery adventures, each pointing to one other such location — twelve more planned clues in all, and four planned clues total per phylactery location. The diversion adventures should probably have a few phylactery location clues near the end each as well, not just to give players more of a fighting chance but to remind them of what they were doing in the first place right when they need it. If all that plus your improvisation skills aren’t enough… well, you might have players who don’t understand that clues are meant to be used, thoughtfully discussed, and/or acted upon, not just collected and reported.

    • There may be some linearity, depending on the game system.
      In D&D and Pathfinder, if one phylactery is well-guarded by CR 7 monsters, another CR 3, and another one near the end at CR 12, then the GM will have to telegraph that, heavily (e.g. “No, seriously guys. Death Mountain is infested with dragons the size of houses. You’d die.”), be REALLY quick about managing the challenge ratings of the monsters (doable if the monsters’ strengths weren’t predetermined, can be aided with some swift padding to give the GM some time to prepare), or find some way to railroad players away from it without coming off as too nonsensical, even if it IS pretty blatant.

      In that system, even a minor miscalculation can spell a TPK.

      In Savage Worlds, for another example, the heroes are likely going to feel a bit stronger as they gain Advances, but never to the Dragon Ball Z extent that D&D characters have where the players start yawning at liches and have to be forcibly kept awake when an ogre shows up, and only a select few monsters don’t have to be wary of the heroes, even novice ones.

      There, you can definitely have players wander around a bit more. They likely won’t feel as disappointed about going back to goblins after fighting a drake as a Pathfinder character would, especially if there’s a Wild Card.
      One of the reasons I love the system, the other being the ease of monster creation and modification.

      • That sort of thing can be worked around even in D&D and its kin, though. Just think up ways to scale the dungeons. If the players are that hellbent on heading to Death Mountain first, you’ll need to rework it into a stealth mission. If your players insist on leaving the bugbear warren for last, that gives the one of the main villain’s lieutenants time to train the bugbears and warp them with horrid experiments, so instead of fighting vanilla bugbears with a single class level on top, you’re fighting Plant Abomination Bugbears with five class levels each.

      • I agree with the previous poster, I would just word it differently.

        Let’s say you have several locations they could all reach and hence chose from. Why not scale them all originally roughly to the players’ level? One could still tend to be easier than another, but each could be distinct and themed.

        Now, as the players explore the world, they change the world. Parts of these changes could ripple through the world and affect these other locations, like antagonist moves. Your location itself may not change that much, but in the original difficulty the raiding party was elsewhere and now they’re back and it’s a tougher place. Reinforcements from Villain HQ show up. A location has been deserted and the bugbears have taken the MacGuffin to their ancestral mountain fortress and the players need to track them there, find a way in, and battle them differently in one big multi-staged encounter or even force their surrender, etc. Even if an adventure is no longer scale-appropriate, introduce something that makes it feel like not doing that one first had a consequence. Letters on desks. Major NPCs that left for more important places. Etc.

        With this mode you would have to have some idea of how escalation happens in response of the player actions. They don’t just sit there, waiting for the players to show up, do they? Scaling the monsters or encounter sizes creates this feeling (in some players) that it doesn’t matter where they go. But seeing antagonist moves play out? In direct response to your last two raids? Oughta transport an entirely different message. 🙂

    • while i admire this approach.. i often have huge writers block coming up with proper clues. They either turn out too vague or too obvious. As a general rule of thumb, players don’t catch subtle hints or clues, i have adopted the neon signs instead. In fact in my current campaign i am trying to design it so that they don’t even have to put clues together, they have superiors that gather their intelligence loot, sort it and turn it into missions for them to choose between. They are allowed to peruse the loot ofc.. and draw the conclusions they want and they have already on the first mission debrief requested to be sent on mission to a specific location mentioned in some of the intelligence loot they found. I opted to try this out for 2 reasons: 1) in general the party have big problems deciding on what to do, where to go etc… 2) i wanted them to see their actions affecting the world. So while they see and are informed of all the intelligence loot they find, the burden of putting it together correctly is not theirs, instead they decide which intelligence they hand over to their superiors and then maybe one or two sessions later that intelligence has unlocked a new mission, location, npc, faction etc… I’m hoping to kill two birds with one stone so to speak 🙂 But clues have always been hard for me, i struggle to find that middle ground of information where it’s not too vague and not too obvious. Coming up with twelve… well… just coming up with one to three can block my prep for weeks..

  6. Just finished a 8 year camping… Going to be starting two more here pretty quick; and while I feel that after all these years im pretty good at what I do, I’m not foolish enough to think I know more than nothing. This is perfect timing for me Angry! Thanks for the work!

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