GM Tips: Explore the Structure Of Your Campaign Story

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GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week we talked about storytelling on a podcast, and since those require tight story structures, we put on our writers’ cap this week.

Story structure is a near-and-dear topic to any storyteller or gamemaster that is running homebrew campaigns. On one hand, the storyteller dictates the flow and pacing of the game, on the other hand, the players determine the final outcome. It’s a dance between creative ideas that hopefully result in a badass tale that friends can recount in a real-life tavern. Coming up with ideas for a story might be easy for some, but finishing them always seems to be the trickiest part.

In a roleplaying game, the conundrum is the players. If this was a simple novel, the storyteller could just craft everything the way they wished. (Writers note: this doesn’t actually work. My own characters often get into all kinds of trouble against my wishes when writing novels, but let’s just pretend shall we?) Since we have players that zigzag around us, we need to constantly update and erase our storylines, focus on ignored content, and keep everything cohesive.

Here’s some tips on that.

Player Agency, or the Illusion Of?

Dredd Kickstarter Robot Wars

Player Agency is vital to the campaign. Without it, nobody will feel truly comfortable playing the game that has become boardgame with larger character sheets. Player agency doesn’t mean your entire world has to serve their whims, and you can still structure your story around their actions. No plotline is ever ruined because of player choice, only enhanced. There’s an old storyteller joke about a GM who spent months working on a campaign that started after each player was to pick up a magical weapon that would fulfill the prophecy.

The players never touched the weapon and the GM pulled their hair out.

The storyteller could force the players and say they’ve gotta pick up the weapons, but then that ruins player agency. If, after all, the great evil doesn’t come until the weapons are picked up, then simply don’t pick the weapons up. The campaign need not end there, with a story structure reveal of this critical element, you can hash out an entirely other story based on the choice to ignore the quest. When you think of your setting as a sandbox and less like a linear road, player agency is maintained, while allowing you to keep story structure.

The Moment Of Despair

Eclipse Phase

After you’ve jotted down your initial plot outline or have a few clues about your upcoming encounter, check for your moment of despair. A literary tool also called the cigarette moment, or black moment, it’s the exact moment in the storyline where your characters feel desperate. It isn’t the hook to the adventure, that’s far earlier on, this is sort of around the middle, and maybe just a little past that. Crafting a good moment of despair is tricky for campaigns since you aren’t entirely sure where, or when to drop it when you first begin. For now, just scribble in “despair moment” somewhere after your second act.

Once actual gameplay begins, you might even forget you’ve had that note scribbled in. It could be weeks before it comes up again. Then one day, you’ll flip a page and see it there. Let the evil thoughts flow into you. Your party has made some enemy by now, wronged some person, or thought they got away with some crime—now is the time to bring that back. Any betrayer NPC’s have the perfect chance to stab daggers in the back during this. This is the moment you want to give the characters a true crippling challenge, that makes their goal seem farther away.

True heros will crawl through the mud and emerge victoriously, and it will create an emotional impact in your game.

Ripping Apart Modules

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Inside pre-canned modules, finding spots for both player agency and the moment of despair can be a head-scratching affair. The modules are written as a linear narrative path in most cases, so player agency dictates they will be led via the carrot and stick to the next hook. Since the writers of the modules don’t know the character who will be playing—they can’t write a proper despair moment.

Use sidequests.

You can’t have a proper story structure, or any classical hero’s journey, by lumping players together and assuming they all have the same motive. Mini-side scenes and side quests are a tool you can use outside of the campaign book to develop a personal character plotline. Things, like reporting to your thieves guild, or developing ties with NPC’s, won’t disrupt the story structure of a campaign book. It’s the best of both worlds.

When writing campaigns, what methods do you use for story structure? Let us know in the comments below!


Featured Image by:  Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000AD by EN Publishing
Image Credits: Eclipse Phase RPG, Dreamweaver RPG

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age Series, Dread Adventures, and a storyteller with a focus on D&D For Kids, Wraith: The Oblivion, Ravnica, and an overdose of LARPs. You can follow the game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook or reach out for writing at [email protected]

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