When creating a campaign you have a story you want to tell. This will have its own rising and falling actions, but, if you’re designing this week to week, it becomes near impossible to find ‘act breaks’ and make it fit well into the tropes of a nice classic three act structure. The best structure for planning long campaigns I’ve found is to follow the pattern of TV shows or comics, for example Saga, Babylon 5, Farscape, and Leverage.
The structure is simple. Each campaign is a season which has a piece of the ongoing narrative allotted to each adventure that the players go on. The campaign plot being added to each adventure becomes the B plot, the main adventure is the A plot. The A plot is very much what you’re focusing on to guide the players through and have fun with, but the B plot still needs to be there giving the little clues to allow the better twist or change at the end.
Once you have your main idea for a campaign you need to figure out what segments are needed to complete it. I’ve found that what works best is a quest or mystery style story that the players then have to work towards completing. Having several stages to completing the campaign is crucial; otherwise it’s just an adventure that’s really long. The reason you want to break it into several pieces is that it allows the players to start to figure out what’s there and come to the realization that something bigger is going on.
When the players start to realize they’re dealing with ideas that are bigger and more dangerous than the usual floating from adventure to adventure they started off with, it can bring a huge new level to the campaign as a whole. You’re not hitting them over the head with plot points, but they come slowly initially and picking up pace. It is crucial to an overarching plot that the B plot is given room to breathe; taking too much focus from the session to session adventures robs them of their importance.
Finding Things in Common
Every adventure in a long running campaign can be related, even telegraphed from the end of the previous one, but they don’t have to be. Each major adventure should be a separate section that can stand on its own and could be run again at a table with only slight rebranding. My decisions about what I run for each adventure and the main plot for each is based on the needs of the B plot. When the B plot has the need for the characters to be in a certain situation, the A plot then requires the characters to go there for some completely unrelated issue.
Letting the two plots be unrelated can make it much easier to highlight the singular point that’s needed for the players to really advance the major plot. The big problem with unrelated plot lines is that the players quickly start to wonder why they are continuously encountering different situations. Why is the Duros in a very wide brimmed hat following them? How is it that we keep running across merchants with Thieves Cant on their back walls? What are these mad scribblings on the boarders of the last three wizards spell books we’ve run across?
Creating a theme for the ‘villains of the week’ allows for the two plots to brush up against each other in a much more elegant fashion. This works if, for example, a high ranking member of an organization that has been causing the PCs woe is calling the shots and providing the impetus for the adventures the players find themselves on, perhaps through the offices of a more common villain as a mini-dragon. The idea also works for characters that haven’t been all that careful in their past dealings and have attracted a hunter of some variety, such as a paladin or bounty hunter, who now follows them.
These bring the main plot of doing different but connected things into line and allow for a campaign to be formed around them, giving the players hints at what is to come but not stating explicitly what is there. It’s the hinting that is crucial, being too obvious can get into the realm of actual railroading as opposed to a more linear adventure path.
Why Make it Complex
My desire for doing this style of campaign and putting much thought into how to write it and teasing the hows and whys out of long form entertainment has to do with my desire to run mysteries and deep campaigns with many pieces at work. Little hints that are there don’t always show up as hints in the moment but can arise from how people react to an initial challenge.
My most recent case of possibly being too subtle involved my players trying to reroute a ship and a crew and it’s cargo. They attempted to hack into the computer system of a very large shipping organization. The difficulty to do what was needed was much higher than they expected. From a post-game perspective I was being a little too hard on them by applying daunting checks. The hacker was very good but there also was a story reason why the hacker was running against such a secure network. The business was directly related to the Rebellion and needed to keep Imperials out. Sure, it’s a rationalization, but it’s also taking a flub and turning it into part of the ongoing story which gives the players something to look back on and have an A-ha moment.