Colin Powell quotes (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93). At present, US Secretary of State, 1937)
How true. Plans never survive. Just the good bits, the parts that allow for adaption and alteration. Good plans have contingencies, trap doors and well allow for a degree of failure so you may win another day. This is true in everyday life, war and research (I can hold my hand up and proudly say that unexpected results and major barricades to progress have led to better things coming out of my work than initially expected).
So how about his in the realm of gaming?
I am a firm believer that my history with wargames and ccgs has led to a good ability to plan, but more importantly, not act rigidly with the constraints of these plans and even throw them out of the window when the chips are down and the shit hits the fan and spatters! How many times have I seen a spell fail to go off and leave my charge in tatters only to then leave the enemy with the initiative but also forgetting the potential for a flanking maneuver by my own forces. Or what of the times I have played magic only to see a combo get annihilated but leaving the opponent short of the cards needed for defending against a lowly grunt who proceeds to grind them into submission. Sometimes things happen unexpectedly but in such a way to offer new options, options only realised and utilized if you have the courage to fly caution to the wind and grab a hold of that chance.
Table top roleplay games need this attitude. You can plan a story until the cows come home, and it will never come out how you expected when the story is attacked by your party of players. But then that is how it should be. It is their world, their story as much as yours and they have to make their own choices. This is no Fighting Fantasy adventure.
Now every rpg book has a proportion of the GM section devoted to hints on how to design chronicles/campaigns and the individual stories. So I am going to try and be concise here and give my own tips on chronicle design and cover the story/episode design next time.
So where to begin? Episodic or not? I run episodic chronicles, and everyone I have gamed with does the same. What would I say the advantage of this is? Well the first is forward planning. Each episode has a purpose, to tell a specific part of the story, to offer particular revelations and information while presenting new questions and mysteries. Additionally using such a structure allows for some episodes to be stand alone, while remaining part of the larger setting, offering light relief from the main plot of the chronicle and giving both players and GM the chance to tell more varied stories. This is equally true of all episodes, just that the plots of these episodes can be tied together further to tell a larger story. Ultimately each episode gives the sense of progress, revelation and accomplishment, while also giving the chance for dramatic cliff-hangers and also serving to give the game a sense of pace and urgency.
I feel open ended chronicles. Those with no specific episodes and so no specific milestones means that there is a danger, in the wrong hands, for the game to stagnate and lose a sense of purpose or pace. If anything it means more book keeping to track where PCs and NPCs are at each session, while in episodes and between them, you can easily state what actions have passed without the player’s knowledge, since this NPC actions have to occur for the next episodes to occur. This actually makes more drama for the players as they are able to potentially, under their own ingenuity and pro-activity, to influence these events, and vice versa.
Ok so with that out the way how do we structure the chronicle? What story do we want to tell? We begin with the pitch. This is the 'big idea'. At the end of the chronicle a particular story has been told. If we go back to my Vampire: the Requiem chronicle the main pitch is simple. It the story of the Carthian power struggle and the reform of the politics of the Kindred Society. This immediately means that at the end of the chronicle there are consequences, both for the NPCs (one person is elected the other not, and the reactions to these) and of course the players (did they make the right choices, do they gain power and influence and at what cost). Layered into the chronicle can be smaller plot arcs concerning each player character but that again should follow the rules of change and consequences. The worst stories are those where at the end nothing has changed but the PC stat lines. That is not a story. That is glorified dungeon grind.
So let’s go back to the chronicle structure. We now have the main plot and the smaller plots and ideas for some other stories we want to tell. How do we string this all together? Let us assume there are 10 episodes for the chronicle. We need time to plan ahead for the plots that involve specific PC details so we shall allow these plots to begin development in the later portions of the chronicle. So the first 3 episodes are best suited to being devoted to the development of the main plot, essentially allowing for us to introduce the players to the game and the setting. It is during these initial episodes that the PCs can begin to get a feel for the main plot. Initial mysteries are introduced and NPCs. During this initial phase revelations are limited to revealing information that allows for progress of the mysteries, the presentation of enemies (those that are obviously enemies) and the presentation of allies (well both those that are true allies and those that are in fact using the PCs). In Chess terms these are the opening moves. Defences are tested, alliances are determined, traps are laid and initial pawns are put onto the front lines. Going back to Vampire in the first episode the PCs are introduced to the city and the Kindred, gain initial employment and make allies and enemies while performing a simple 'retrieve the dingus' mission. In the second episode the PCs are given another job which furthers their career progress while introducing new elements of the setting, allowing for a bit of exploration of the particular PC traits (in my case we looked at the systems for spirits and introduced elements of the Circle of the Crone when the majority of the game is Carthian centric.). Episode 3 focused more on a murder mystery, introducing more NPCs and setting in motion the main plot of the chronicle and allowing the PCs to choose a side and gain further prestige and enemies while introducing the more social elements of the setting.
Following these initial episodes the middle part of the chronicle serves to propagate the main plot, introduce elements of sub plots and allow for an episode or two to focus on other stories ideas. Now some of these plots can occur within the same episodes, thus allowing the PCs more options while also allowing for them to naturally get distracted as plots progress in the background if they choose not to pursue some. There is a danger though that an episode might contain two or more dramatic conclusions. This is in fact not useful as it can ruin the pace of the story, but it can also be used to add tension as the players feel that they have two or more things to solve at the same time.
Finally the last two episodes should lead to some form of finale, with plot points tied up (though not all have to be, just those critical to the story the chronicle is telling) so in my case the election of a new leader of the Carthians and some form of political reform and the resolution of the situation involving the Ordo Dracul. Other plot points can be resolved if the players determined them to be important, but then it is worth maybe keeping a few unresolved ready for a sequel chronicle. Also keep one episode in the last three episodes free so the players can be proactive and resolve plot points, thus furthering the feeling of control on their part.
So in summary the structure for a chronicle looks like this;
1 - Introduction - Introduce settings, NPCs, PCs, potentially main plot
2 - Settings Exploration - Further setting elements showcased, NPCs elaborated upon, PCs further explored, potential main plot started
3 - Escalation point 1 - Setting should be fully showcased by this point and the main plot started and escalated
4 - Main plot exploration
5 - Sub plot introduction / Freak of the week
6 - Main plot and sub plot continue/ sub plot ended/ sub plot 2 started
7 - Escalation point 2 and sub plot conclusion
8 - Loose Ends - open episode for PCs to pursue the clues they have and so influence the last two episodes
9 - Finale Preparation - Sub plots end and PCs can start to plan for the end based upon results of tying up loose ends from last episode
10 - Conclusion - Grand finale, plans are executed and events lead to a setting change and changes for the PCs.
Next time I will look at how we take a chronicle concept and apply it to this structure