Last time I talked about allowing the structure of a session or campaign to arise organically, as opposed to imposing it in advance. Let’s drill deeper into that idea with some techniques and examples.
Organic structures are built on disparate story threads that eventually converge. The best source of story threads are your players. These can be woven into your series as you go along. To get the ball rolling, though, encourage your players to provide you with inspiration for these threads.
A story thread implies action or interaction. During character creation have players indicate their characters’ goals. Where goals are vague, ask them to refine them, so you can broadly envision the types of actions they’ll be undertaking.
It’s normal for some character goals to overshadow others in the course of a series. Some players provide strong hooks that everyone latches onto. If you build or refine characters together, which I highly recommend, players will spontaneously find ways to interweave their various goals. If one player proposes that his PC is the exiled prince of a kingdom taken over by undead, another may tie his goal of becoming a general to him: “I have pledged to restore his throne. In so doing, I will raise and command an army, covering myself in glory.”
Players needn’t weave equally strong ties to the central narrative. Certain participants in your game may be casual players or kibitzers. Expect them to give you vaguer goals, but to fit themselves happily into whatever plots the more plot-oriented players pursue.
Start by picking the low-hanging fruit. If one player supplies you with a vivid goal that’s easy to put into play, use that. Other players with less obviously active goals are likely to hone them over time, in reaction to what happens in your series.
It’s also useful to set up a few threads of your own devising right from the start. These will give you a fallback when you find yourself needing to generate a plot. For example, a player crucial to a dominant thread may fail to show for a session. Then you can return to your designated plot line to keep things moving. For example, the ongoing D&D game I occasionally blog about includes the conflict between heroic adventurers and sinister, knowledge-hoarding scholars that is central to the upcoming Raiders Guild line from Axe Initiative. This was my predetermined contribution to the inventory of plot threads. I’ve let it slip to secondary importance, but the thread shows up every now and again to provide variety and add shading to the world.
In a truly collaborative game, your players will also seize on threads and build on them, weaving their own connections to the greater whole. For example, you might set in motion a sequence in which the characters meet up with an obscure deity. This might inspire a player to abandon his previous goal in order to become a worshiper of the strange god. The player’s choice creates the feeling that the characters can be changed by their experiences. It also lends what might have been a one-off sequence into one that appears in retrospect to be a major turning point in your campaign. The process of building and reacting goes both ways.
Eventually a long-running game will accumulate what seems to be a long and apparently messy list of untapped plot threads. Though this appears to be a problem, it’s really a resource you haven’t used yet. Keep a list, mental or literal, of the various characters, conflicts and portents you’ve introduced into the storyline. When the current plot stalls or flags in interest, check your list and see which of them can most easily be reintroduced.
Players may help you do this. They might actively seize on inactive threads and bring them back to the fore. Forced to seek new information, they may seize on the one-eyed vendor they memorably interacted with a couple of months ago.
Search your plot thread list to find ways of crossing apparently unrelated threads. Your main plot may revolve around the struggle against the undead to restore the exiled prince to his throne. However, when the the party found itself at loose ends in the early going, it decided to go off on an orc hunt. Since then, the orcs and undead have alternated as antagonists. The easy way to tie these two threads together is to have both forces team up as enemies for the group. Instead, you seize on a choice offering more varied opportunities for future developments: one tribe of orcs turns out to be foes of the undead. The group can ally with a faction they once fought, while still battling the orcs who’ve sided with the zombie king.
Often the moment when a large number of disparate threads comes together occurs as a flash of inspiration. As if they’re pieces in a puzzle, you see a way to react to player choices by fitting them all together. The elf sorceress’ need to redeem her soul may connect to the orc plot when her priest tells her to adopt an orc foundling. The worshiper of the weird god may experience a disturbing vision of an orc child. This in turn may send them to the headquarters of the evil scholars.
After multiple plotlines merge into one, you may need to introduce new ones to keep the possibilities bubbling. Another way to keep them fresh is to look for ways to turn them on their heads. The undead occupiers might fall prey to a greater evil. The priest urging the orc adoption turns out to have a surprise agenda. The obscure god vanishes from heaven. Thus you preserve continuity with what you’ve done so far, while at the same time keeping the players off-base and guessing.
Twists like these must be inserted with care. There’s a thin line between surprising the players and pulling the rug out from under them. Use them when a complication seems naturally in order. Allow players a victory or two under the status quo before altering it with a big revelation.
Next: What is Beat?