The process of creating complex intertwined plots can be daunting to even a veteran GM or writer. Trying to allude to events yet to come, trying to introduce major NPC, trying to keep track of 17 different threads at one time can overwhelm even the best of us.
I have come up with a simple system that creates the illusion (to the players or readers) of a very complex plot: The Three Layer Design.
Campaign Layer: This is a plot/theme that will span the whole campaign. It is the glue that binds the arcs and stories together. It represents the BBEG’s plot to take over the world; It represents the Force trying to re-balance its’ self; the rise and fall of the man who would be Emperor. In the early stages of writing this plot can be simple as it will develop complexity as you explore other arc and stories. As the campaign progresses, the heroes will interact and be affected by this plot/theme more and more.
Arc Layer: Are longer plots/themes that span multiple stories. They are reasonably self contained and have a beginning and end within the scope of several stories. Arcs plots/themes cover the BBEG’s plans to build and army, then the BBEG’s attack upon the heroes homeland followed by the heroes quest to gather the artifact that will defeat the BBEG. In a well known movie Sexology (though it was to be 9 movies originally) the arcs are: The rise of the Emperor/fall of the Jedi; The defeat of the dark side is the second arc; and the final arc (not yet filmed) covers the return of the republic and it’s struggles against the remains of the empire. In RPGs this is a unifying theme that will link several Adventures or Dungeons together.
Story Layer: Story plots are well defined and short in scope. The current story will need to be front loaded with detail and NPC as heroes will interact with this plot immediately, though the other stories do not need to be planned until they are needed. In an Arc involving the BBEG quest to build an army: the stories would be along the lines of: Monsters raiding a mine; Investigate the disappearance of a village; and defending a frontier settlement against a Zombie horde. In RPG’s it is represented by The Adventure or The Dungeon.
Planning the Session
When planning your session simply pull one or two details from either the Campaign or arc layers to include in your story. Allowing the heroes to interact with these details, locations or NPCs will allow the heroes to develop a relationship with them.
Secret Sauce: Story plots, Arc plots or Campaign plots do not need to be related to each other. You can introduce an Story or Arc NPC’s or locations in supportive or neutral rolls that are unrelated and uninvolved in the current story. Then when the NPC shows up in opposition to the heroes the reaction should be visceral.
Example 1: A classic D&D series
In the classic G1-3, D1-3, and Q1 modules from TSR (now wizards of the Coast/Hasbro) brakes down thusly:
Campaign Plot: A demon queen is trying to take over the world (at least in the reprint).
Arc Plot 1: Giants are attacking human settlements.
Arc Plot 2: Decent into the Underdark and beyond.
Stories: Each of the published adventures is a single story plot, as they feature NPC from the future and past stories.
Example 2: The Cranston Campaign
Campaign Plot: Bug from the impossibly distant future sends a parasitic fragment of its’ self back to the heroes present with the goal of opening a gate to the future.
Arc Plot 1: (unrelated to the Campaign Plot): A war between a Voodoo Priestess and a horrible creation called a Skin Changer.
Arc Plot 2: Fun with time travel
Story 1: Intro Adventure: A party where the bug shows up and chaos ensues.
Story 2: Investigate the Cranston building
Story 10: The smiling man (skin changer) tries manipulating the Heroes into killing the Voodoo Priestess
Story 12: In which a future version of a hero comes back in time to kill an NPC.
And so on.