Dave Chalker over at Critical Hits has his 5X5 method to flesh out a campaign, and it is a pretty neat idea. The skinny on it is taking 5 major quests, then assigning 5 steps (mini-quests) to complete each major quest. You end up having enough quests out there with players running all over the world doing different things. All at the same time however, the group is ‘on the map’ of the DM storyline, despite the possibility of them being all over the place geographically with various plots and quests. Pretty neat stuff.
That got me thinking of ways to sketch out a campaign. Usually it is easy enough for me to get the big idea of a campaign, identifying the main villains as the ‘Who’ and their nefarious plans as the ‘What’. I typically then fill in the ‘How’ with a series of quests and tasks the villains are set to complete as different branches converge. The PCs then are led into certain encounters to thwart them at those steps. Sometimes the group succeeds, and sometimes they fail (leading to further branches in the story arc). Those results then morph the overall plans of the villains until things boil to some conclusion ending the campaign (or at least that major arc).
Now for a lot of fun, I try to keep 2-3 major milestones of the villains going at once. So that continually, players have a few choices to make. I try to set things up so they have opportunities to foil all the different villain’s plans, but sometimes give a hard choice of an either/or situation. It works pretty well, but it makes it a little harder to recover if they really go off the track and in a completely different direction. Things can get a little convoluted.
Another big problem I tend to have is getting a tidy ending to the story. Things are sketched out, but the details are usually lacking. I sort of like this as the campaign has an organic feel to it, constantly growing and adapting to the characters actions as they progress. Overall there is a general theme and a main plot, but it is more of an outline rather than a strict doctrine.
Granted if you have a lot of time to run your campaign, it can be fun. However, if you know you are running a game for a set amount of time (say over summer break, or for 6 months), you might want that strict outline for a campaign. In that case, you may want to lay out exactly where the characters should be after X amount of sessions in the campaign.
Another way to think about plotting a campaign is assume the players have won at each step. Rather than think what the villains are planning to do, approach the story that the characters have all ready been successful foiling them at the campaign end. Now it is just a matter of working backwards to see how they got there, and figure out at what other previous steps were they successful.
So the group has defeated the huge villain and lived happily ever after. They arrived at that point by stopping the villain from casting ritual Z. They found out about the ritual from exploring dungeon Y. They found out about the dungeon as they had managed to foil the villain from obtaining artifact X, etc.
This leads to a very linear story, but if the players get off track it is easy to jump back on. You simply work on a few side quests to move them onto the next plot point. Failure is always an option, but you have a good guideline where the players can slide into the main storyline (and still keep everything on track). The biggest challenge is just figuring out a new way to give them an opportunity to succeed at the next plot in the campaign.
For a campaign on a tight timeline, I might have to give this a whirl. So what have other folks done to keep short campaigns on track?