Building on GM Fundamentals I – Plot Structure

The first in a (probably very) short series of suggestions for a GM planning a tabletop or PBeM RPG game. Oooh, acronyms!

When planning a new RPG campaign, you should start with having a goal for the game. What are you hoping to achieve?

In most games, the goal is to have a lot of fun playing characters while taking part in a good story.

There are two parts to consider here; players enjoying playing their characters, and players experiencing a good story.

To accomplish both of these goals generally means a single storyline campaign will last several game sessions, covering weeks and maybe even years.  

Your mission as GM? Prepare a story that will provide your players with short term enjoyment of playing their character each session, medium range enjoyment by giving them opportunities to advance or improve their characters over time, and long term enjoyment by giving the players a feeling that they have taken part in a rich saga with a fulfilling conclusion.

Sound impossible? Not really.

When you plan your plotlines, think in terms of a triple layer of overlapping plotlines.

  • A) Short Term Plot.
  • B) Character Growth.
  • C) Multi-Episode Story Arc.

Short Term Plot

Each game session should be considered a single encounter. For the players? No, for you! You have your own mission for every game session; that the players be presented with a challenge, work to overcome it, and then enjoy the results so they have a sense of accomplishment prior to tossing the empty pizza boxes in the trash and going home. 

The short term plot is nothing less than your plan for the very next game session. You should think of it in terms of having a start, middle, and ending. It takes place within the overall story arc, and drives the overall story forward, but is in all respects a mini-adventure.

The short term plot can be so many things, and often will be driven by the players themselves as they take the initiative to play their characters. Your purpose in this is to keep in mind that it is rewarding to have a sense of completion at the end of each game session. If the party has to travel over long distances, plan on having each game session start with traveling to set the scene, take them over a portion of the journey rapidly, and then engage them with whatever encounter you have planned, and deal with the conclusion before the end of your session. If at the end they are still traveling on, they will still feel a sense of accomplishment at having completed the mini-adventure.

Likewise on searching a city for information, or chasing a villain, or shopping for items in the bazaar. Plan for something short, brutal, surprising or urgent to happen that can be resolved in one session.

The purpose of the short term plot is to provide an obvious short term goal for the characters to achieve, and the characters should be able to defeat the villain/solve the problem using pre-existing capabilities.

Character Growth

In the Character Growth portion of your plot, plan in advance on building in specific minor challenges targeted directly at each character. Your players are actors in an ensemble cast, but every player wants to feel like a true star in the spotlight now and then.

Start by having your players write some backgrounds for their characters, and encourage them to put down a little soul searching as to the hopes and dreams, and fears, of their characters. You won’t want to plan to fulfill their every hope in the way they would expect, but you CAN use it as a starting point for finding ways to really give them opportunities to grow their own way. 

During the course of the game, take the time to let each player feel that there was a special moment where the success or failure of the group rests on them. Put the burden on them, let them feel that pressure, and give them a chance to either succeed or fail on their own. Either way, it usually results in that player feeling a deep sense of inclusion in the group.

For you, the purpose of the Character Growth plots are to encourage each character to develop a unique personality. They should not regularly be life threatening, or always play a major role in the Short Term Plot, but they can lead to bonus abilities, new contacts, or special knowledge if properly handled. If the player fails, it can often lead to new short term plot hooks for you!

Some examples of character growth planning are to provide times when special skills are needed to advance, and opportunities to learn new skills are offered… for a price. One character may dream of being presented to the royal court, and will pursue that goal if given half a chance, while another might wish for nothing better than to study under the greatest swordsmaster of the age. You have to tailor each character growth opprotunity to the character, but it is incredibly fulfilling when a player’s character becomes such a core part of the story.

Multi-Episode Story Arc

The final portion of the triple plot is the Multi-Episode Story Arc, also known as the big quest. What is the huge adventure everyone is on? What is the big goal?

This is usually the easiest part of the process. Most GMs have some idea of what they want to do for a big, awesome campaign story, in general terms. What you want to do is break that huge story up into episodes, in segments, the venerable bite-size pieces.

It can help if you think of your campaign as if it were a TV series, not one of those cheesy ones, but something brilliant like J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5.

Each night’s episode should be enjoyable all on it’s own in repeats, taken out of the story and made to stand cold and lonely under the spotlights of harsh examination. But if you put the whole thing together, there is a larger story that continues to grow, and gather meaning. Something your players move towards. Or away from. Or around in circles. Or blow up. Or join and become evil overlords and worry about changes to their tax base.

Best yet, along the way, each character has an opportunity to grow, and develop a richer, more interesting personality.

However you like to run your own campaigns, I hope that this has given you a few ideas to think about in planning ahead and making your own life just a little bit easier. And if you’ve already developed this technique on your own as an art form and never saw some git put it into words before, well then, I’ve done my bit to show that you can set rules to anything.

Stay tuned for my next exciting episode, where I explore the joys of recurring NPCs… the good, the bad, and the just plain annoying.

9 thoughts on “Building on GM Fundamentals I – Plot Structure

  1. My 5 cents – do not plan too much story from the start. It lets you start thinking “players have to do A, then I will do B which causes them follow with C…”. In my experience players will always do Z when you want them to do A. At that point you have 2 options. Either stonewall or let have it. As player I felt never really happy with an unclimbable wall (oh how I hate those in WoW), so my solution ended up with “there is no preplanned plot”.

    Instead I start with a world, create my important NPCs and decide which goals they have. During the first few sessions a number of plot hooks will turn up – without really showing the strings attached to them. Simple example: a travelling artist is attacked, group manages to save her but in the end no one has a clue why someone went to a great deal of trouble to hunt down a girl who has never harmed anyone. Much later the group will discover a lead via a painting, and suddenly notice the girl might have painted something else….

    Another thing I try to do is “create challenges, not solutions”. Put on the table a problem you yourself have no idea how to solve. I admit this works only in very creative groups, but suddenly all the NPCs can be real advisors, and even as GM you can play along and try to find a solution.

    Rauxis, chosen of CAT


  2. BBB, Thanks mate. I’ll take your advise and try to work from that point of view. It sounds so logical i cant believe i havent tought of it 🙂



  3. Jinkx, that could probably be a huge series of posts all by itself, talking about working through all those issues.

    What I did was start with what kind of setting I wanted to eventually have, and then worked backward. Just in general; medieval cultural situation for humans, the existence of other humanoid races, even other biologies.

    Then i worked backward, starting with the soul and the existence of life after death. For your world, does the soul of a person exist after they die? Can it return? Can the living still find ways to communicate with the spirits of the dead, and if so, what would those spirits say? What IS an undead? Is it a corrupted soul returned to a body, or is it dead flesh given animation by an external powr that has nothing at all to do with the soul, an empty vessel?

    Was there a “creator”, or a pantheon of creators? Are there beings that take the place of gods such as a pantheon of some sort, and are they truly gods, creators that are possessed of cosmic power and can see everything, know everything, and do anything at their whim, or are they merely very, very powerful beings? If they are very powerful beings that people look upon as gods, can they interact with your world directly, interfereing however they wish, or are they limited in some way and can only “interfere” in the real world through mortal agents? If they can interfere only with mortal agents, can they appear directly to anyone? Can they only appear in dreams? Can they grant some of their power to their followers? Ifd so, what do they get out of it? And if they are not the creator (or creators) of reality, do they even KNOW who is? And again, when a person dies, does their soul pass beyond the reach of even these immortal gods, to wherever the true afterlife is?

    Figuring out the answers to these questions can, themselves, form the history of your world and shape how the races came into being and how the civilizations formed and grew, or fell. If you even go back to Tolkein, he had the fundamentals of the immortals and the creation of the world worked out, and the drama and conflict from the creation of Middle Earth, and the first race, the elves, informed everything else that came after. And what was one of the most important aspects of the story we read in Tolkein? That here there was a race, arising as if from nowhere, these hobbits. And all the great and mighty ignored them, for they had not been created during the initial conflicts and rising of the world. But Gandalf looked at these hobbits with wonder, for he asked, if the other immortals did not create the hobbits, from where did they spring? It influenced his interest in them, because they did not fit in with what any of them knew about the formation of the natural world.

    Once I had answered for myself all of these questions, I had one hell of a creation story of the earliest years of the world, and the foundation of the origins of the elves. I built from there, and every once in a while I pick a different era and delve into it in more detail.

    If someone were to travel in time in the world, it should be consistent. If someone were to travel to other areas in the world, it should be consistent. And if someone were to do what explorers love, and delve into archealogy and the fall of ancient civilisations, well, the details need to be there.

    One of the most fun aspects as the GM for my current story, is knowing not just WHO Gavin the Hammer is in Jessie’s story, the being who is in the back of her head, and the other soul as well, but WHEN they are from in the real world. And what they are, and how they tie into a far larger story than even they would dream. I’ve alluded to it a little, in sharing with Jessie Gavin’s confusion that the worship and communion with Tyr that Gavin is familiar with from his own time is so utterly absent from Jessie’s memories of modern day life. Gavin knows that something momentous had to have happened, that Tyr no longer interacts directly with his followers, and that even the champions of Tyr that travel the land do no more than act as learned Judges or Marshalls to administer His justice to the best of their understanding.

    And yet, it was a throwaway line in their conversation, buried under other more pressin matters.

    That’s where a lot of the fun for me comes from. Having such an incredibly rich history as a foundation for story hooks. Layer on layer of bad shit, AND good shit has happened, and much of it stems from human pride and greed. And heroism and selflessness, as well.


  4. BBB, how did you start at developing a world? i have been trying for several months now and have the physics,, astronomy, terra-layout and stuff like that figured out, but i have no idea how to start the social culture, races and stuff besides the obvious dwarf/elf/human stuff. I have this project planned as something that can take years for all i care, but i hit a brick wall now.
    I already tried to implement a few core concepts and go from there but i find myself going haywire on the powerlevels of my races. They either have no reason to have survived and be top-of-the-food-chain, or are so over the top they can go bicker with the gods 🙂


  5. That got posted because I made a critical fail of my own last night. I have this “game” folder, wherin I had nested folder after folder of RPG stuff.

    Whenever I had time during lunch at various places of business, I would write about the RPGs I was running, I would write guides, just stuff about my hobby. Things to help me, things to help friends. PLotlines and background and histories and such. The vast majority of it was for the current world environment.

    Sometimes, heck frequently, I would copy folders and bring to work, update stuff there, email files back and forth. When I’d leave a place of employment, I’d take the folder of all my stuff with me… and place it nested in my overall gaming folder.

    About 20 years worth of work. I’ve got typed transcripts of handwritten notes that Cassie made for me from notebooks over 12 years ago.

    Last night, I went into that folder thinking, “Why not see what’s in there?”

    Several hours later….

    It’s interesting trying to compare 10 files of the same name when you can’t trust the last saved date as to which is most current. Why? Because some that are older might have different information in them than newer ones, especially my “History of Felwaithe” series and timelines that span more than 50 pages and 8000 years of drama across, oh dear lord HOW many files?

    Anyway, as I was opening each file to read and see if it should be saved, sorted or tossed into oblivion, I came across an old “triple plotline” reminder to myself I wrote long, long ago, and thought, “Hey, that could be posted.”

    So, I did.

    I didn’t start writing with this blog. Before I had a blog, and wrote about my hobby as a Bear druid, I wrote extensively in notebooks and on my computer about role playing games and my world environment. I have no intention of posting all that stuff here, but some of it ought to be fun.


  6. I messed around with paper and pencil games a few times long ago. Never very seriously though. I always had more fun making the characters than I did playing them. I do fondly remember one session we had in the dorms at the juco i went to. I hung out with the theater troupe.. (big shocker there, I know.) and we had one plebe that was as bright as an infra red LED. I still can’t believe that the moron “filled” the water fountain with the bucket we provided him.

    Anyway, we were playing one night, and as usual he was being a complete tool. (He played a paladin if I remember right.) I’ve always preferred dual classing mage and rogue. Somehow we ended up in combat against some nasty critters and he critically failed to the point of his protective spell ended up on the critters.
    The rogue side of my character became dominant in that moment, walked over and shanked him. We left him lying there on the floor.


  7. Very nice description! I can totally relate to the sessions I’ve had, not as GM but as a player. Our GM really pushed character development, which is the best part of an RPG according to me. An awesome and exciting plot always helps, ofc.


  8. I tend to start writing campaigns based around an overall concept or saying. The “best” game I had was one called The Downward Spiral, which was themed on the slow but steady corrosion of personal values of the players and npcs, until they found themselves acting against the principals they began with. Being that the theme was well understood I gave the players a vary large amount of latitude to pick the starting points of a personal moral code, and then how deep they wished to go, and how early they’d be corrupted. Short (1 to 2 page) backgrounds formed the basis for the codes, and also for points where story hooks could be drawn into the game. Typical stuff.

    Some players proved to be solid and never really took a bite from the apple. Others ate the apple, the fruit basket, and then went shopping at the supermarket! It was of course both in public display and at other times very personal. I knew the players personally in real life so we both knew which social triggers would snap them to attention, and which were for kicks; and they seemed to respond well.

    An unhappy side affect of this is that beyond the odd random event, or prolonged stroy arc from early in the campaign, there was very little in the game that was not directly related to a particular character’s background. Their character lives became why we played each session, and the side affect was some sessions were not exciting for everyone involved. Game ran for about 1.5 years, playing once every 3-4 weeks.

    I’d do it again tomorrow if I could get the time.


  9. oooh recurring NPC’s!

    A friend of mine who dm’s regularly has an npc called by all of us: Habib. He is always a tradesman of sorts and usually appears in a helpfull, tough annoying fashion. He is one of those types you meet ingame and go “Ruuuuun!”.
    The weird part is that one day im driving trough Brussels (outgame, IRL) and see that they are opening Habib’s bank of commerce and insurance two blocks from the buildings of the european parlement. Let me tell you for a moment there i really had the shivers.

    When i DM i have an NPC called Jeeves, always in a servants form, be it a butler, a steward,…
    He is always ready to hear the wishes of the people he serves and interpret them in his very own way 🙂

    Every DM needs a recurring villain… euhm NPC


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