Jan 17, 2020

Planning a Campaign as a Series of Decisions

Back in January of last year, I wrote what is rapidly becoming one of the most popular posts on my blog, The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions. One of the things I mentioned there was planning sessions and campaigns around reaching decisions instead of the referee pretending they were writing a novel's plot that the PCs imperfectly realised. I say a bit more about why one ought to do this in the anti-narrativism post I wrote years ago, but I also had a request to demonstrate the practice of planning this way.

As background, it would be helpful to read the Alexandrian's post Don't Prep Plots. I also believe in preparing situations (or problems) instead of plots and consider my decision-based method to be one way of doing so.

The method I'm going to describe is intentionally quite sparse when compared to other methods of preparing. I use it because it is "low prep" and undemanding.

You generate a handful of key decisions, assign elements from the campaign world and specific adventure to one of the possible branches of that decision, and spend most of the time between any two decisions playing out the consequences of the previous decision and setting up the next one.

When you start to get towards the end of the chain of decisions, you either extend the chain further, or conclude it and move to running downtime before setting up another. You can run multiple chains of decisions at once if you so please, so long as you make it clear to players which decisions are associated with which chains.

Here's an example:

You have four PCs: A, B, C, and D, playing in a Necrocarcerus campaign set in the Ooze Salient. The PCs are freebooters and camp followers hanging around the Association of Useful Citizens' military base. You want to run them through a scenario where they are hired to break into an abandoned incarnation temple in no-ooze's-land, steal a load of nepenthe (memory-juice) crystals, and then escape before either side can capture them.

The first step is to break this into a series of discrete decisions and graph out answers where you can:

Will they take the job? (Yes / No)
How will they get out of the military base and into no-ooze's-land? (Stealth / Talking their way out / Fighting / Magic)
How will they find the temple? (Guided by something / Searching the area)
How will they secure the nepenthe? (Not my problem)
How do they escape without getting caught? (Fleeing / Killing / Trickery / Magic)

The answers don't have to be complete lists, but it helps if you have a rough sense of the most obvious options PCs tend to employ. The important thing is really to get the questions rights rather than the possible answers, because the questions form prompts you can ask the players directly at the table.

I write these on index cards, but there are fancier technical ways to do it. I then line them up left to right, in order, from the first problem to the last problem.

The second step is to generate a bunch of elements that can feature in the adventure. You're going to want at least two for any given decision point, but more is better. I encourage you to recycle things, but since this is a mock example rather than an ongoing campaign, here are some ideas based on regular fantasy stuff:

Ooze-knights on motorbikes
A Cuban communist air-pirate + her air ship
Somebody's specific memory-juice in a reusable thermostat
A twelve-armed demon who is chief marketing officer of an "Uber for dental hygiene" start-up
Cyber-trolls that all started off as one troll
A dog with strong opinions
A cool magic tank that shoots lasers but not from its gun
The prophetic intestines of a guy named "Joseph Blankenwell"
A boiling cloud of acid with a New York accent and a heart of gold
A skeleton rights activist who is also a cleric of the Big Fire
A giant wolf-spider thing who works for an insurance company
A Jacobin golem with wheels
Thousands of obols
Cyberbullying
Schistosomiasis
A nuclear reactor on tank treads with a giant glowing crack
A 33-gallon fishtank with no top that's full of expired fireworks
Six ghost paladins on a holy quest that's kinda sketchy and low-key racist
An EDM dance party club
The colour "red"

I write these on post its or cards, one per post-it or card. At this point, if you're still jacked full of energy, you can pick a few of the cards and sort them under each problem like a curator. Or you can just shuffle them and stick few under each until you get a good combo.

The pile of cards are the relevant elements that you're going to introduce that can be used to solve the problem. The PCs can introduce their own elements of course, and you want to hold back a few cards so that if they come up with an idea that depends on them knowing something or dealing with someone, etc., you can whip out an element card to slot into that proposed solution.

If you want to get clever and run a "living world" you can also foreshadow elements under the next card or introduce them as Chekhov's gun type thing, and you can allow elements from previous problem cards that weren't used to recur (I just grab the unused ones that seem interesting and stuff them into upcoming piles). As elements are revealed, feel free to throw the cards onto the table for them to keep track of. You can write the name or location or use or whatever else they need to know on the other side of the index card. You can also write up new cards as you go.

For example, if the PCs want a guide to the incarnation temple and the dog with strong opinions is the thing they need, you could write "Imprisoned within the heart of a giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond" so they remember that they have to break into the heart of the giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond to free the dog so it can show them the way.

I suggest badgering the PCs with the questions periodically because they'll forget them and get off-track. If you let them get off-track frequently, you're running a "sandbox".

You can change specific questions ( and create more or remove others) as PCs progress through them and gain or lose interest in them, and move everything around - this isn't meant to be a rigidly mechanical system, but precisely the opposite - a way of condensing one's focus to only spend time on what one needs to in order to move things forward.

I hope this helps illustrate the idea that campaigns can just be series of decisions of varying scope via the demonstration of one technique of planning and implementing such a campaign.

8 comments:

  1. Why isn't this considered a plot? All questions rely on the player-characters doing pre-determined things in a pre-determined order. So the choices appear to be mostly cosmetic. Which I'm totally fine with and is probably the main benefit of linear adventures (you know you're gonna escape, so what's at stake is whether you can make it look cool or not). But it's very much a plot.

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    1. Because the answer to the questions that the players choose is unknown until the choice is made.

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    2. It's not a plot for a couple of reasons, but I can understand the confusion. What this method involves is essentially taking a basic planning tool used for plotting in other media and then arresting its development at a key point before a plot arises.

      As Huth indicates, the answers aren't given or forced on the players - rather they are simply contingencies the referee might expect and prepare some content for, which is why they are so general rather than specific. The answer to "How will they secure the nepenthe?" is meant to be exemplary of a problem where the referee doesn't need to plan to introduce anything in particular and can simply throw that back onto the players to solve on their own. Frankly you could leave every answer blank if you're good at winging it.

      Similarly, the questions are lined up for ease of comprehension but don't need to be posed in a strictly sequential and exclusive way, and can of course be altered and changed quite easily. If anything, I find lining them up allows one to do this more easily than more abstract planning methods. Once again to refer to the "How will they secure the nepenthe?" question - this is something that will only come to a resolution later on (thus its position) but that could be posed to the PCs much earlier on (back during the planning phase).

      Hope that helps clarify the difference in this method vs. typical plots.

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  2. This is really solid and should be turned into a framework that I can buy on DriveThrough RPG>

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  3. Really thank you for this post!! Used the method for my last session and it was a blast! Easy and fun!!

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    1. I'm glad to hear it works well for you. Let me know what your experiences with it are like, I'd love to know if you run into any challenges or difficulties in implementing it.

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  4. As someone new to RPGs I'm so glad I found this blog. Great post! I could also see how the technique here is applicable to writing for novels, Tv, and films!

    I do have clarifying question(s) on the second step. You said the (random) elements are to solve problems. Would these "problems" be the questions raised in step one? Do you determine the problem then randomly select an element as the solution?

    Thanks!

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    1. Ah, and could you give an example of foreshadowing one of the random elements? Just trying to visualize how it would be done. How exactly would one "foreshadow elements under the next card...". Not sure I completely understand that part. Sorry and Thanks again :)

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