Spreading out the story

Some discussion has popped up in the WoTC boards with a group I am part of. One poster was really excited about starting up his own campaign and wanted a little advice. A lot of people dispensed their words of wisdom, and I had my own advice. Mulling over what I posted, I thought there were some points I should expand on a bit.

One campaign technique I am a huge fan of is spreading out the story. The basic idea is planning out the main story elements of your campaign in small steps. Instead of running your sessions with each plot point being sequential (A, B, C, D), spread out the story shuffling smaller, one-shot adventures in between each element (A, 1, B, 2, C, 3, D). Gnome Stew had a post which is a great example of this. Something I’ll quote a bit here:

“…After some brainstorming the main outline looks like this:

  • The Cult attempts to kidnap the Captain of the Watch
  • The Cult infiltrates the Thieves Guild
  • The Cult smuggles a set of religious artifacts into the city by ship
  • The Cult kidnaps the Princess
  • The Cult attempts to open a portal to their deity using the artifacts and the Princess in a ritual

…Now, Using dilution, we can lengthen the story arc with some individual stories:

  • The Cult attempts to kidnap the Captain of the Watch
  • The Heroes rescue some merchants who have been attacked by bugbears
  • The Heroes help an older mage collect some dangerous spell components
  • The Cult infiltrates the Thieves Guild
  • The Heroes go on a quest to find a friend who has gone missing
  • The Cult smuggles a set of religious artifacts into the city by ship
  • The Heroes find a lost wizards tower
  • The Cult kidnaps the Princess
  • The Cult attempts to open a portal to their deity using the artifacts and the Princess in a ritual…”

This is a fantastic way of building up your campaign to something truly epic. There are a lot of ways to add small adventures to your campaign. Dungeon Delves and Side treks (out of the Dungeon mag) are great resources for this. Whipping up a small sidequest using encounter templates, even using a random dungeon can work.

The key to using these adventures in spreading out your main story, is to work for small, concise adventures that can be completed in 1-2 sessions. These smaller sessions revolve around a simple objective or quest. You don’t need an intricate background story to run these. After all, they are just filler adventures for your main arc.

Once you get the hang of running these type of sessions, you can expand your story and weave other main arcs into the campaign. You can end up having 2-3 main storylines going on simultaneously. But be careful having too much going on at once, or spreading out your main arc too thin. You’ll end up having to spend 15 minutes recapping each session with highlights from the past. And likely have your players forgetting pertinent details from something that happened 5 sessions ago.

A cannot stress enough using this technique for running your campaigns. It adds some intricacy to your plot and helps give your game breadth. There are some great points by stretching out your story:

Makes good ideas last – Week after week, planning for your next sessions, you are going to hit a creative roadblock. By introducing smaller adventures, you have more time to pick up another idea and flesh it out. If you are doing things right, you’ll have interesting villains and NPCs dotting an exciting adventure. The constant pressure of keeping things fresh and new can lead to creative burnout. Spreading out the story gives you some breathing room to think of your next big arc, and utilize those story elements as long as possible.

Provides an expansive story – On paper it may not look like much, but through your player’s eyes, they will feel like they’ve saved the world 10 times over. Once the arc is completed, they can really savor the victory because of all the things they went through getting there. They won’t necessarily feel like they’ve been lead along step by step, and have had the opportunity to explore other options. They can get the experience that they’ve really grown and explored a world, rather than doggedly running after the footsteps of a villain.

Dispenses small victories – You might have a main story where the players fail again and again, only to be redeemed at the last session. Yeah, that makes for a great campaign, but sometimes players need little victories. Having small adventures where heroes can do some good, and accomplish a small goal keeps them in the game. Players need to feel like heroes once in a while. If your main arc can’t accommodate that, then you have an alternative. Okay, so in the big story, they suffer setbacks continually. After a while the players may feel disillusioned and struggle with why they are even bothering trying to stop your baddies. Little victories can help keep up the group morale, and the spiritual fortitude to keep after the main bad guys.

Fodder for future stories – Once you are nearing the end of your main arc, you now have a ton of material to draw from for your next big story. You can expand on past adventures and revisit old NPCs. Best of all, your characters have already crossed paths with certain locales, NPCs, and villains, to make moving on the next arc a lot easier.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of spreading out the story. It is a simple, effective way to get a lot of sessions out of your main story idea. Give it a try and I’d be interested to hear folks experiences if they’ve done something similar.


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