TinyPlots – A Way to Manage the Many Plot Threads in an RPG Campaign
There’s an archnemesis whose evil conspiracy has been hinted at since the PCs were second level. There’s the current adventure’s story, the seeds of which were sown in the last adventure. There’s the bard, who’s been searching for a family heirloom stolen by a golden dragon; the paladin is avenging something or other; the thief seeks the identity of his father; the wizard secretly wants to steal the Eye of Magorra for herself. How’s a DM supposed to keep it all straight?
Being a DM (or GM, or Narrator, or Storyteller) can be complicated. On top of designing the encounters your party will face each week (and keeping them balanced and fun, the hardest parts), you’ve got to weave it all into a story compelling enough to bring everyone back to the gaming table for something other than beer and gummy worms. To make it even harder, each player has a story they want to explore about his or her own character, which you need to flesh out and weave into the overall tapestry. It can be overwhelming.
A solution I’ve been using in our 4E D&D campaign is an idea I borrowed from MUSHes. A MUSH is a text-based multiplayer online game — basically, Zork meets World of Warcraft. Indeed, MUSHes are in many ways the progenitors of the modern MMORPG. I played a few MUSHes when I was in college, most notably Elendor, the Tolkien MUSH pictured above, and Star Wars MUSH.
In a MUSH, there is an overarching plotline, usually defined by the intellectual property the MUSH is based on. In addition to Middle Earth and the Star Wars universe, you can have MUSH adventures in the world of Harry Potter, Battlestar Galactica, the Transformers, or any number of original worlds. This “big” plot is propelled by the MUSH’s administrators, and for most players serves as the backdrop for their own adventures. Individual, low-level players might take the part of a goblin in Moria, an elf in Lorien or a soldier in Gondor. They didn’t typically influence the overall plot directly (it might never get anywhere near them), but they’d have daily adventures and role-play with nearby friends and enemies.
However, if they wanted to do something a bit more involved, they’d organize a TinyPlot, usually with the help of a regional admin. If some dwarves wanted to root out the goblins and retake an old underground stronghold, or some trolls wanted to stage a massive attack on the Ents, that would require some prior planning and the cooperation of a larger group of players than “whoever happens to be online that day.” That is, in essence, a TinyPlot. It might only take a few days between planning and execution, or it could build for weeks.
You can look at your pen and paper RPG in a similar way. You’ve got a broad plotline, which might be as simple as a theme (“We’re undead slayers”), a story arc that plays out over a section of the campaign (like the tiered campaign hooks in 4E D&D), or something that extends over the length of an entire campaign. The DM controls that plot and uses it to connect each week’s adventure. The smaller, character-specific storylines? Those are TinyPlots.
There are a few keys to using the TinyPlot model in your RPG:
- Each TinyPlot should be resolved relatively quickly. Some might occur within a single gaming session, while a typical TinyPlot might be tied to a single adventure. While the TinyPlot may have consequences that extend beyond it’s conclusion (or be based on seeds planted far earlier), there is a clear resolution.
- Don’t leave more than one thread hanging. Not every TinyPlot needs to have a neat and happy ending, but you don’t want too many messy, undealt with issues left over. Pick one thing to leave hanging. Maybe one character steals from another, and there’s a bunch of angst, rancor and a climactic swordfight. If one character leaves the party (so the player can try a new class, perhaps), there’s your one hanging thread. He might come back later, but the party doesn’t need to spend a lot of time and effort dealing with his absence.
- The players are responsible. The DM has her hands full. If a player wants to create a TinyPlot involving his character, he needs to outline it, tie it to some backstory, and present it to the DM. Then the DM can weave it into an upcoming adventure. That’s not to say that a DM can’t suggest TinyPlots and help plan them — the DM will be involved in coordinating things between players and figuring out how it all fits together. But players need to take charge of their character’s destiny and become a larger part of the collaborative storytelling experience.
- Reward the player. Going on basic dramatic principles alone, a TinyPlot should change something about the characters involved. Otherwise, what was the point? It’s even more true when a player has put in the effort to help craft a compelling part of the story. Grant their character a bonus feat or a unique magic item. It’s a great opportunity to hand out a divine boon. Or it could be as simple as a really cool looking scar.
If your campaign has any kind of narrative complexity beyond “Delve, Kill, Loot,” I think you’ll find the TinyPlot concept a helpful way to approach story design. Try it and let me know how it works on Twitter.