Tips on tabletop RP mastering.
September 24, 2012 1:37 PM   Subscribe

Game masters, dungeon masters, et. al. - lend me your wisdom and experience in constructing a cohesive and dynamic campaign storyline.

Last week you helped me with some of the technical details, now I need a hand with putting everything together in a cohesive campaign. It's D&D 3.5, but I figure these questions are applicable across the board. For tl;dr purposes, the basic questions are in bold. Assume all the players have at least two or three full campaigns under their belt (if not more), and at least half have DMed themselves.

So far I have:
  • Made a tentative map of the city (if you don't feel like reading the previous question, most of this will take place in and below an isolated city-state) with distinct neighborhoods.
  • Identified factions and important NPCs, and their respective loyalties and motives.
  • Went through sourcebooks to find beasties and loot specific to their context (e.g. Lovecraftian horrors for the mage academy, automatons for the contractor guild.)
On my to-do list
  • Identify specific buildings within each neighborhood.
Now, the way I want to run this is the way an actual city runs, but abstracted a bit. Let's say I have a half-dozen individual plotlines (ballparking that number.) The PCs can only participate in so many at once, however time inexorably marches on and their decisions in Plot A will have an impact on Plot F even if they don't encounter Plot F until several sessions in. My plan is to keep six separate Plot logs and, after each session, progress them via the PCs actions and the general outline of the game in my head.

Does this general mode of storytelling (multiple plots progressed in real-time with or without direct PC involvement) work? I've been RPing for years, but I've never actually asked a DM to see their notes or explain their strategies and I'm afraid that this may become overly complex and I will spend too much time trying to progress the initial idea rather than tell a fun story. How does a GM keep things cohesive but dynamic? An example of what I want to do is below:
The PCs help the Contractors' Guild Ward Boss unionize the exploited farmers, who strike and screw up the profits of the city's organized crime ring. Three sessions later, a month passes, the mob finally figures out what happened, and there's an assassination attempt on the PCs, to whom this should feel as if it is totally out of the blue until they figure out why they're being attacked. Meanwhile, the Mage Academy -- who laid claim to uniting the farmers for their own devices -- retaliate against the Contractors' Guild and the PCs (again, sessions later) witness an explosion in the factory district that they can choose to investigate or not.
Will that work or is there just too much to keep track of? Meanwhile, how much plot should I write out before the players make characters? I only have so much time to compose an adventure and I'd like to waste as little of it as possible. In that vein, how much of the whole story should I have done before starting the game? I know that campaign plans are like battle plans in that large parts will become irrelevant when the boots hit the dirt, but I don't want to be underprepared for the PCs deciding to knock on the door of the secret thieves guild entrance they discovered by accident, just to say hi.

The other issue is that I want to do a murder mystery (i.e. bodies keep turning up in seemingly random but actually linked places, PCs follow clues, slowly uncover a conspiracy which ties in with the other plot threads they are involved in.) How do you integrate a murder mystery without making it the whole of the plot? I've never actually played a game where detection was a significant aspect, and murder mysteries were never more involved than "Find Dead Body -> Locate Clue -> Follow Clue To Place -> Find Murderer In Place." Meanwhile, I doubt most of my group have watched nearly as much Law and Order and read as many mystery novels I have so how do I make a mystery fun without requiring people to be real detectives? Experiences and resources would be great.

Finally, many of the monsters the PCs will encounter are horrors. I'm not going to try to integrate sanity in any official stat but what are good ways to drive PCs mad, and what are fun consequences of being mad? I'm thinking hallucinations and paranoia as exemplified by minuses on certain rolls. More suggestions and gameplay dynamics welcome. Now, I don't want to tell my players what their character did. I know I can depend on them to RP status effects like that, but do I need to do things beyond saying "okay, from now on, you are going to be incredibly wary if not hostile toward any cleric you encounter"? How do I start the ball rolling on having the players RP their PCs' madness without telling them what to do?
posted by griphus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
A great resource for this is the book X-Treme Dungeon Mastering.

Regarding Mysteries. I'm not sure where I got the following advice, but I thought it was pretty great. What you do is introduce a character who has access to all, or most of the clues the players should, even if they've forgotten about them. It sounds like in your campaign a police investigator, or a reporter checking on the events the players are involved with would work. Then, once you're frustrated your characters aren't figuring anything out engineer a scene where that character approaches the players with questions about their own investigation where they layout all the clues the players have gotten.

A police investigator can even have the literal board with the clues pinned to it. Seeing all the clues together, plus whatever secret knowledge the characters have, can get them rolling.

Why the reporter may ask something like, "Hey, can I see that death note you got [and promptly forgot about], I want to follow up on where it came from." This should prime the characters to think, "Oh wait! I should follow up on where it came from!"

And remember, the characters can't see anything. You can always highlight something by rolling dice behind a screen and saying something like, "You just noticed that the wood the cart is made from matches the wood at the burned down building", or whatever other important piece of information you want to rub your players nose in.
posted by bswinburn at 2:06 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

-"Why the" + "While the"
posted by bswinburn at 2:07 PM on September 24, 2012

God, they never ever do what they're "supposed to." Don't script it out tightly. Instead, have your city factions worked out and have the players interact with them and have the factions and NPC act as your notes say they are motivated.

Also, if you do want to "make" them do something use a hostage situation, or imprison a PC in the "Gem of Sados" (or some such made up artifact), which can only be broken by the "Hammer of Gandor", which is only findable once they solve the murder mystery, etc.

don't script too much, is my main advice. They're playing a game, not acting out a novel you write.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:08 PM on September 24, 2012

I DMed a set of incredibly elaborate D&D campaigns (Second Edition, 3rd Edition, and 3.5) for about ten years, and I have a few thoughts in response to your first few questions. The big one is: Don't develop too much of the plot before the players start playing.

Here are two specific thoughts about how to keep things flowing coherently while you do that.

One, have some interesting characters, effects, settings, etc. ready to integrate into whatever it is the players end up doing-- even if you originally planned to integrate them somewhere else. If the players knock on the door of the Thieves Guild you haven't thought about at all, maybe now's the time to whip out the Wererat Den you were trying to entice them into visiting a week earlier.

Two: my other main trick for the players-investigating-something-before-you're-ready trick is to quickly make up the basics, leaving yourself plenty of room to develop things later. Maybe in the Thieves Guild they immediately meet a curmudgeonly Elven locksmith/safecracker. That character might be interesting enough to distract them for a game session, so you can think about who and what that character answers to before the next session, forewarned that the players are potentially interested.
posted by willbaude at 2:10 PM on September 24, 2012

If you want some advice on city-building, Damnation City is focused on White Wolf games and more modern times but I found it invaluable for making a believable city, just in terms of what things to think about.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:16 PM on September 24, 2012

Figure out what the sewers are like and how buildings connect to them. People always end up in the sewers eventually.

Same thing for rooftops, just in general whether they can be crossed from one building to another or not.

How flammable is the local construction material?

Think a bit about the legal system. Would the PCs get in trouble for detaining the guilty murderer without some sort of deputization/bounty hunter license? What consequences would they face if the person they detain is innocent, or "innocent because they didn't collect enough evidence"?

Related to the last one: what counts as "acceptable property damage" when taking out a den of eldritch horrors in your world? It can range from "nukes are okey-dokey" to "don't mess up the wallpaper".
posted by BeeDo at 2:24 PM on September 24, 2012

The best laid plans will be foiled by any good group of players.

As has been said, above: Outline your factions and low-level operatives abstracted far from the cores of those factions. Place them about the city in social environments.

Your players will be casting about for purpose unless you've put some specific goals in front of them. While casting about, they can encounter these low level operatives, and use their wiles and diplomatic abilities to weasel their way into the factions that they find the most engaging or relevant to their personal goals. Basically, the player running the Bard is going to be busy.

For my money, I love Scrivener, as it most closely emulates the notecards I used to create in the 1980s, and the hackneyed basic html websites I created in the 1990s. A 30-day trial period will addict you, I assure you.
posted by thanotopsis at 3:15 PM on September 24, 2012

ditto on not putting too much investment in plot up front. Sketch out your main NPCs, get an idea for their agendas and their relationships, then get ready for your PCs to catalyse whatever catches their attention. Nail down the details for what you expect to do in your first session, have a few ideas about what you'd want to do in the upcoming sessions and drop hooks for it during the first one, but don't spend too much time thinking about details for three or four sessions down the road.

I'd channel the time spent doing tight plots into building a set of modular adversaries that you can swap from one plot arc to another. A particular crime boss' thugs might happen to have the same stats and equipment as another nobleman's bodyguards. The big dire boar that is lurking in the forest, guarding a lost treasure might be remarkably similar to something the PCs might have to fight if they find themselves in one of the illicit fighting pits deep in the city's sewers. That way if your PCs do go off plot, you don't have to scramble to re-stat your encounters.

I ran a 3.5 system that was focused on one city for the first few sessions, but then expanded to a regional series of adventures then world-saving quest, and having a stocked library of templated encounters and creatures saved me more times than I could count with respect to keeping up with my players. I also wove in a bunch of "news of the day" / "rumor mill" moments to give the players a sense of time moving forward and chance to pursue opportunities or plots as they presented themselves. There were also high-level adventurers who were working behind the scenes as either colleagues, rivals or just flavor. Like, to save the world, the PCs had to enter another demiplane where a pantheon of gods had been trapped, and the only way to do it was to use a gate that had been discovered by another group of adventurers, but had to be activated with a crystal that was in the PCs hands.

It gave them a sense for the world as a living thing, and also added incentive for succeeding at their adventures (because other peers/partners off camera were relying on them), and you don't have to make your plots contingent on having players follow a tight script. Not interested in going into the lich-king's tomb because they've gotten kind of tired of dealing with undead? That's fine, another group can check it out while you guys go off and hunt down a rakshasa demonologist.

The other neat thing about it is that we're probably going to replay that world again, but in the role of one of the other parties, allowing the players to experience more of the world and have the pleasure of dealing with their old characters as NPCs.
posted by bl1nk at 3:25 PM on September 24, 2012

Nthing the dont plan too much, but have ideas, and you sound like you are on the right track with your plot logs. I would probably identify your plotlines and then sketch out a very rough timeline of nefarious deeds that will occur if entirely neglected so that you have that as a reference to adapt from and to make sure that your city and plot without the PC's would hang together. Then, before each session just re-adjust this timeline with a current state-of-play and each organizations opinion of the party and likely actions/reactions (encounters) towards the party given previous events to improv off of again. As part of your to do list, in addition to the major ones I would also generate a bunch of minor NPC's, locations, and encounters with maybe a line of personality to ad lib off of for when you need to pull someone or something out of a hat. Add plot hooks/encounters as seens appropriate.

The biggest danger I have seen with this sort of thing is you want things to feel important (schemes afoot!) but no arbitrary when some plot point comes to fruition that the PC's kinda ignored (why did big bad thing happen for apparently no reason?) because yeah, things that shouldn't be important will be perceived as such and vice versa. for a particularly bad example, If something bad happens (zombie takeover by cleric necromancers) you either want it to be the eureka moment of plot hooks the PC's *remember* (ah, so thats why that cemetery desecration was about that we thought was just the thieves guild being thieves and never got back to since we were deconstructing the clockwork army ...), or a plot hook in and of itself for more investigation. The bigger an event, the more leadup it should have, so the more of a eureka it should be if they weren't actively investigating it. Perhaps things start innocuous, get bad, and then if ignored a dire thing happens. And you cant railroad without it feeling contrived with a bunch of interacting consequences between competing factions and goals. As things happen make sure to account for what each of your city's organizations/factions/citizenry react to them.

Re: Sanity - you don't control the characters, but you may control what they see. Maybe the shadows in that alley start looking threatening and they get into an (entirely fictional) fight with a beast of smoke and shadows in a dark alley which is only later (or, much much later after many such encounters) revealed to have been a hallucination by an incredulous barkeep(no more alchohol!)/paladin(are you possessed? you were cursing demons, but there is no evil around!) or whatever. Or, people might briefly take on hideous forms upon first glance before appearing as a regular person. Or phantom screams in deserted parts of the city. You give them sense motive checks or results of a paranoid person, or etc. Maybe the PC's find hints of meaning in a (legitimaely) insane beggar. You could also combine this with increasing will saves against these sorts of occurrences as the horror mounts. This kinda depends on the party whether they would enjoy it or not, but you make them start going crazy and it lets your party RP the consequences as at first everything is presented as legitimately happening and then the players start getting clued in and they get to sorta meta-control their pc's descent into madness or salvation therefrom.
posted by McSwaggers at 3:57 PM on September 24, 2012

Do not script too tightly, or too far in advance. Only write out details of one or two sessions at a time.

Here is what will make you look like a genius: as the game progresses, certain characters or events will be more appealing for the players and you than others. Make notes on who they are into as you play.

Then when you're filling in the details on future sessions, reuse them. That shopkeeper who was supposed to be a minor stop, but expanded when the players decides to shoplift from him? Maybe he is the guy that is fencing the stolen artifact from a nearby dungeon, instead of this other character you had sketched out.

Leave pointless mysteries in every session. Have a magic chest that the players never open, men in black who they see from the shadows, references to shadowy conspiracies or growing evils. You don't actually need to know what they are or even have any plans to do anything with them. Sometimes players will glom onto them, sometimes they won't care. If they decide to chase after one of them, run them into a dead end, then pick up the campaign. Between sessions write in some more clues for the one they took an interest in. Never give them The Answer, and follow every reveal with another question.

Callbacks like that are one of the story telling tricks that writers of serial fiction use. It presents the illusion of a densely connected world and plot which doesn't actually exist.

Read some interviews with people like Neil Gaiman or jj Abrams for more tips.
posted by empath at 4:08 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

this was written before having seen a lot of these replies (empath's in particular), but just to add on:

Ditto others saying don't plan too much.

Things I would set up:
1) A reason for the players to get involved. I would wait to see their character backgrounds so as to pick something appropriate. A bunch of scoundrels may not be motivated by tales of a downtrodden underclass, while a bunch of dogooders may not be tempted by the promise of riches.

2) One "set piece" location for a fight. It's fine to have the odd scrap in the middle of the street or whatever, but an interesting location can liven things up. For instance, the second story (or higher) of an entirely wooden building could be a dicey proposition for a party laden with magical fire attacks.

3) One interesting non-combat activity. This could be a puzzle, negotiation, investigation, what have you.

The key for 2 & 3 is to have the npcs and particulars of the context be vague so that you can slot them in no matter which direction the pcs decide to go. You want principally to give the impression that had they chosen some other path, there would have been a different set piece fight/investigation activity waiting for them. But your trump card is that if done right, they should never know that you didn't have such a thing ready (and you only ever need to stay 1 session ahead of them). Seed incidental details into the enemies/npcs/groups encountered such that if you find it's conventient for that encounter to have been totally random/unimportant the players are apt to just dismiss the detail as description, but also if you want to forge a connection between people/events, it's there for you to use as a callback. (for instance: a distinctive ring, scar, peculiar scent etc).

Things I would not set up before the first session:
1) Who the big bad(s) are

2) What their reasons/plans are

This is maybe not so important if you don't care at all about pulling off a betrayal/reveal/twist, but if you do, it's better to let the players speculate out loud (see what they are thinking) before you commit to anything. Have enemies off themselves or get assassinated before they can be questioned etc.
posted by juv3nal at 4:50 PM on September 24, 2012

oh, the other bit of advice that I'd give after re-reading more of your question --
how much plot should I write out before the players make characters? <>
I'd hold off on fleshing out NPCs fully until after your players generate their characters. If possible you'll want to be able to plant hooks into the NPCs that will draw your characters in so that it provokes interesting role playing from them and possibly results in a good stream of inspiration between the both of you.

Also as an exercise to get your players to immerse themselves in your world is to ask them to tell you about a couple of background NPCs that might be important to their players (ie. mentors, old friends turned bitter rivals, a gruff law officer from their past, etc.) That gives you a small stable of ideas (without having to commit to actually introducing any of these into the game until you wish to) and some guidance as to what sort of NPCs the player might be likely to interact with. Don't make it a required task though, player can be busy, but offer, say a small roleplaying XP bonus if they deliver.
how do I make a mystery fun without requiring people to be real detectives
offer multiple methods for solving or arriving at a conclusion about the mystery. If your characters wind up chasing a red herring down a crazy rabbit hole, and if their theories are actually kind of entertaining, then why not figure out a way to substitute that into their plot? Remember that a mystery is, in many ways, a story that is uncovered rather than told, and if roleplaying is, in many ways, collaborative storytelling, then why not let your mystery be something evolves in interactions between you and your players.

Also, use the characters skills (ie. Spot/Listen/Search/Sense Motive) to give them hints when necessary. Finally, try to offer multiple opportunities to keep all of the characters engaged. With mysteries, your rogue types can be engaged with skill checks, and your spellcasters can find opportunities to use spells to unveil clues, but your mundane, low skilled warriors may not have as much to contribute if they can't hit someone. Maybe let them use their comprehensive knowledge of weapons or combat to deconstruct a crime scene ("this is no ordinary sword wound") or let the quarry be somehow related to their background ("in the struggle, the murderer left behind a pin that belong to a former adversary from the fighter's old mercenary company/barbarian tribe/street gang, etc.")
posted by bl1nk at 8:44 PM on September 24, 2012

I was just rereading this today: Don't Prep Plots -- Prep Situations. You may also like to see the author's other advice, like node-based-design and the three clue rule.
posted by Zed at 1:01 AM on September 25, 2012

Zak Smith has some great advice about running mysteries. (Note: some content on that blog may be NSFW.)

The same guy also published a book about running city adventures called Vornheim: The Complete City Kit. It's an unconventional RPG book, but it has some novel ideas for running city games, ideas that could save you a lot of prep time if you embrace them.

Plot-based games are hard to handle in a way that doesn't railroad the players. It you want to go down that path, I'd suggest making a calendar for each plot or major baddie. Note what happens in a particular day or week, and review the calendars after each session to see if the PC's screwed up the villains' plans.

The players will certainly confound your plans, so don't invest too much time on prepping elaborate plots. The less time you invest in that stuff, the easier you'll find it to let go of your plans and let the players follow their own interests. I wouldn't plan more than 2-3 sessions worth of material in advance.

Never make plots that require the PC's to do or go anywhere for the plots to move forward. NPC's may react to PC actions, but NPC's lead lives when the player characters aren't around. It's OK for villains to react to PC's, but the PC's shouldn't spend all their time reacting to the latest plot point dropped by the DM.

Let the players tell their own story during play. As DM, just give them a backdrop and props. Story is something that happens during the game, not something you plan.
posted by paulg at 6:55 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Beware of Analysis Paralysis. Too much planning, or even information, can cause the party to lock up and the game to end.

We had a great Shadowrun campaign that ended when the final mission to several years of plot involved so much data, planning, and possibilities, that the players grew frustrated and quit. The final mission never happened, simply because the game was no longer fun - it had become a nightmare to manage from their perspective.

From the viewpoint of someone watching a movie or TV series - at some point, things get explained. Sometimes it's cliche and over the top (i.e. - "Before I kill you, let me tell you my plan..."), sometimes it's more natural and believable. The reason for this is that if the story isn't explained, there's a chance of losing the interest of the "players" (audience).

I like the plan that the various factions move forward on their own, with or without PC involvement. But make sure that if the PCs need to find out something, they have a simple, effective means to do so - a contact, someone who owes a favor, a spying mission, etc. - to help guide them without railroading them completely, and without overwhelming them with so much raw data that they give up.
posted by GJSchaller at 8:58 AM on September 25, 2012

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