November 23, 2011

How to Plot A Novel/Campaign in 5 Steps

While doing some research on yesterday’s article about to how to take the World of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron and turn it into an RPG campaign setting, I came across the author’s blog. Of particular interest was a post she made on How I Plot A Novel in 5 Steps. While there have been other articles detailing how writing novels and RPG campaign design are very similar, I still enjoyed her thoughts and felt there are a lot of good points to be taken away from her post. You can find the article here.

I’ll copy over some of the better parts and take a look at them from the point of view of someone working on designing a campaign for their RPG game.

Step 0: Decide what book to write!

"Is this actually the story I want to spend my time on?"

Often assumed, there are times when we can forget this point. I know I have myself built and run a game I did not personally want to. One of my groups really wanted a Shadowrun campaign. I do not particularly like Shadowrun as a GM (though I love it as a player). I find it difficult to set up encounters that are hard enough to challenge the characters, but not so hard that the party dies. However, I built up a campaign of intrigue and combat only to see it die when my initial enthusiasm died as the problems I have with Shadowrun began to rear their heads again. In the end the campaign died too soon and went unfulfilled.

Step 1: Get Down What You Already Know

“…the first thing I do is write down everything I already know about the book (campaign). These are usually the ideas that exploded into my mind and made me want to write the story (campaign) in the first place.”

I like to do the same thing. It is that initial burst of inspiration that can carry campaign design forward. It is also where the most clear ideas can also be found as to theme and style of the campaign. Sometimes the more we work on a campaign the more it can diverge from the initial concept, so having something to look back on is helpful (unless you happen to really like where it has all gone).

Step 2: Lay Down The Basics

“…I'm not doing detailed character sheets yet, I'm just getting down the basics - names, what they want, and the general sense I have of them as a character.”

This is her discussing her “power characters”, those that drive the player characters. All she is doing is giving them names and a basic understanding of what they do. In an RPG campaign this can be applied to organizations as well. Having these set up is a good way to provide mentors or antagonists for a party.

For Plot, I need: The end and the beginning, in that order. After I've got my start point and my end point, I set down the major twists/scenes/climaxes I've already thought up. I don't worry about how all these thinks link together, or even if the events are in the right order.”

There are two interesting ideas here. The first is defining the end of a campaign. This could be as simple as ‘Orcus dies’. By having an end result in mind it makes it easier to flesh out the beginning and middle parts. Instead of a mysterious group of cultists attacking the town, it now becomes a group of cultists dedicated to Orcus attacking the town.

The second thought is about not worrying how the various encounters link together. Often a DM working on his campaign will have scenes and encounters in mind, such as ‘fighting an Avatar of Orcus over a lava pit while balls of fire land in the area’. It is possible to create these encounters without linking them into a railroad, where one encounter leads to another encounter regardless of characters actions. This concept leads to…

Step 3: Filling In The Holes

Sometimes, though, I get really stuck. Like, I have no idea how two scenes are connected, or how I can possibly get from the middle of the book to the end. When this happens it's very tempting to think the plot is completely borked, but here's a trade secret: there's no such thing as an unfixable plot.”

A GM has his core concepts in mind of what encounters he would like the characters to face or must face to move the plot of his campaign forward. As we all know the players will often do their own unexpected thing. This is similar to the writer getting stuck in their story. The author does two things that a DM could use when his characters are moving away from his plot.

“…you just need to discover why something isn't working and the solution will simply appear… When a plot won't move forward, it's because there's something you don't know. Figure out what that is and you can unstick even the most stubborn plot.”

Why are your players off your plot-line? Perhaps all you need to do is wrap up their side-project. Maybe you need to figure out a connection between what the players are doing to what you want them to do; in effect create a connection that was not there before.
For example: If your players are intent on helping a good band of knights destroy some trolls instead of the pursuing the cultists of Orcus, there is nothing to say you can not have the good band of knights be cultists of Orcus in disguise.

The second thing the author does is…
“…I let the plot go and start working out other things.”

Let the players go and pursue their side-projects for a time. There is nothing to say they can have to pursue your plot-line 100% of the time. Let them wander around and eventually you will find an opportune time to bring them back into your campaign plot. That time does not have to be Right Now.

This now leads me straight to her final part…

Step 5: Start Writing!

Chances are the plot will change as you write… Never be afraid to let go of your plans and just roll with things. After all, the real purpose of planning is the acquisition of knowledge. If that knowledge inspires you to make a better decision for the book later down the line, then go with it. Never let your planning hold you back.”

If the character’s actions ‘derail’ your plotline, sometimes it is wise to let it go. After all, your campaign is meant to entertain your players. You can improve your game and campaign by adapting and changing to the desires of your players. It’s not that your campaign is ruined, but rather, you are now providing an improved game.

There are other good points in her article that can be transformed into RPG advice. You’ll have to read those for yourself.
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