View Full Version : DMing: From campaign concept to plot

2012-09-11, 02:02 PM
I'm an experienced DM trying to create a campaign arc, something I've always found difficult. I'm very good at running adventures, but not so good at plotting a campaign.

By the way: This is the campaign that started in Dawnforge, took a break in Dungeonland while fighting slaadi and is moving on to (sort of) Eberron. If you're reading this and are one of my players, please stop here!

I know the basic background of the campaign; it involves a long-forgotten Big Bad who has infiltrated a lot of various groups in the Eberron campaign world to bend the world towards madness and destruction. I also have an initial adventure planned where the PCs run into the Big Bad's agents making life miserable for people, opening gates to various horrible dimensions, etc. The Big Bad's agents have strong hypnosis/charm-type powers, making them rather hard to spot. The PCs will presumably defeat the Big Bad's agents and find a few clues that will start leading them towards a discovery of the bigger picture--whom do these agents serve, and why? What was the point of opening up these gates? Etc., etc.

My dilemma is that I don't have a plot. When I think about what's going to happen in the campaign's future, I just come up with something like this: The Big Bad has flunkies/agents/cultists/whatever. Some of these flunkies stir up trouble--maybe they start driving part of a city insane, maybe they're finding some MacGuffin buried in a dungeon somewhere that will make them more powerful in the Big Bad's service, whatever. The PCs find these flunkies and defeat them, leveling up and finding out about another group of flunkies doing something else. Rinse and repeat until the PCs are high enough level to defeat the Big Bad.

The problem, as I'm sure you can see, is that this is very repetitive. The Big Bad knows what s/he wants (madness, mass destruction) and has agents doing verious things to accomplish that goal, but I don't get the sense of an overall story developing out of this.

I'm being deliberately vague about the exact details of the plotline and of my campaign world (which is a variant of Eberron), because I'm trying to ask a very high-level question about DMing: Given a world, a villain and the PCs, what is it that you do to make the players feel that they're in a developing plot where they can make a difference and where the plotline develops to a big showdown, rather than a plotline that involves wandering aimlessly from adventure to adventure until the PCs are high enough level to take on the Big Bad?

As a final note, my players are very clever, with interests leaning towards the combat side. They're not particularly interested in sophisticated, complicated backgrounds for their players. They are perfectly happy with more role-playing-oriented episodes (talking a reluctant NPC into giving help, laughing their way through embarassing hijinks, etc.), so long as some combat is mixed in. In general, they're much happier being fed adventures ("here's a goal to accomplish, here's where you go, here's the person sending you on the quest, go do it") than trying to strike off on their own ("OK, the King needs help fighting the forces of the Big Bad, you need to start searching the world for a MacGuffin that may or may not exist, and the conflict between Duke X and Baron Y is getting out of hand. It's up to you. What will you do next?").

By the way, this is a sort-of-new campaign. Specifically, I'm taking over from another person who stopped DMing. The players are 10th level and are basically being dropped into Eberron from a completely different campaign world. I'm planning on spinning the PCs' origin (from another world entirely) into a major plot point.

Thanks in advance for any ideas.

2012-09-11, 02:48 PM
Perhaps the key with them then isn't to explicitly give them story, but rather have it filled in by what they do anyway?


Big Bad's flunkies are looking in Such'n'such for the MacGuffin. Your players swoop in and stop them from removing it.

Little do the heroes know, however that the MacGuffin is something the flunkies are putting there, to further promote the goals of Big Bad.

This helps you give them some of what they want, while at the same time, putting the heroes on a path that will lead them (eventually) to Big Bad.

2012-09-11, 04:08 PM
Okay, so you've got a premise. And you've got a destination. Getting a plot is simple. Play the damn game! Going from point A to point B is the plot. It's okay if the players are the ones pushing it forward. In fact, if too much of the plot is thought out ahead of time, you'll find that it's yoru plot and not the players' plot.

Anyway, it sounds like you also need some cohesion between your adventures. What sort of adventures are you running? To keep things vague, my adventures feel like part of a story when they're urban and they feel independent when they're subterranean. If you put the players in a city, they're surrounded by NPCs. They know what goes on. After the adventure, those NPCs are still there. They may even have opinions of the PCs based on the actions of the PCs.

If you stick the players in a hole for three months, how can you expect them to be involved in anything even resembling a plot when they come out? None of the city based intrigue permeates into the dungeon. Even when it does, the players are usually stuck there. When they leave, the only thing coming with them is loot. The rest of the dungeon stays behind. In this sort of adventure, there's little cohesion.

Even if you keep the game urban, if the PCs are on the run from city to city, they still won't have anything keeping the plot going. You need a touch stone for them to return to at the end of the day. Maybe they have a fully manned ship carting them around. Maybe they're working for a certain church and end up working with several priests who are all in contact with each other. Maybe the important NPCs travel just as much as the players. At any rate, you need a metaphorical or physical home base the players can return to between adventures.

Finally, I think it's important to be aware of the scope of what the adventurers are doing. One of the bad lessons of Legend of Zelda is that it's okay to put the seven pieces of the MacGuffin in seven temples across the world map. Yes, it's a good excuse to write seven dungeons, but from one dungeon to the next there's no plot progression. If a player leaves town for a month and comes back having missed the entirety of a dungeon, they won't have missed much. You tell them the players beat the fire temple and that's all. There's no elevation of the scope of the game.

I don't think I explained that well (stupid headache), so here's the example of what I think works better. Bad guy wants the MacGuffin. Players try to get it. There are two obvious outcomes. 1) The bad guy gets it first. 2) The players get it first.

If the bad guy gets it first, the game changes. He has something that makes him that much more powerful and can move on to the next phase of his plan. Maybe that MacGuffin is the source of the hypnosis/charm powers you mentioned his agents having. Now anyone can be an agent and things have shifted.

If the players get it first, the game still changes. Now they aren't just hitting up a dungeon. They've gotten the attention of the big bad and he's actively sending people after them. If the game is broken into two phases, pre and post MacGuffin, they have to happen in this order. It wouldn't make sense for the players to be hunted first and then traipse around dungeons. From one adventure to the next there needs to be a logical progression.

In case you were curious, there are also some non-obvious outcomes for the MacGuffin plot. 3) Somebody else got it first. Who is this third party? 4) MacGuffin doesn't exist. WTF happened to it? 5) MacGuffin was a ruse to throw players off the real trail. 3 and 4 progress the game. 5 less so.

2012-09-11, 09:32 PM
Thanks, valadil and Lentrax. So you two together are saying:
1) Throw in twists (the stated objective of the adventure isn't the actual one, or the PCs misunderstand what the bad guys are up to, or the bad guys aren't bad guys).
2) Have a "home base" of NPCs--perhaps in a city, perhaps in a ship, perhaps following the PCs around for some reason, but have the NPCs and their surroundings show up again and again to provide continuity and plot hooks.
3) Make sure that the PCs' failures and successes both have proper consequences.

This is a good place to start. I'll be thinking about this. Another suggestion I read about: Don't have only the end goal in mind; think about what steps will lead the PCs to that goal, and don't reveal too much information too soon.