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Construct Your Campaign - With Meccano!

By Patrick O'Duffy


Structure. It's my big buzzword in gaming these days, the thing I'm most interested in; how to develop the 'shape' of a game. How to control the development of characters, of plot, of play; how to put in all the work before the game starts so the campaign requires just a light push now and then.

Structure can be considered in all the aspects of an RPG, such as character design - what else are classes and levels than a defining structure that shapes and guides how you build and develop the PCs? In this essay, though, I'm looking at plotting - how to use the ideas and guidelines of fiction writing and scriptwriting to develop and map out a campaign before the first session even begins.

(This is one for the story/drama types, I'm afraid. If you prefer games to be unplotted and naturalistic, I doubt you'll find much fun here. Thanks for your time anyway.)

Stealing From the Screen

While all strong fiction writing depends on structure to a certain extent, the place where structure is enforced most strongly is probably commercial screenwriting for movies. Books have been written just on the subject of how to structure and lay out a storyline, most prominently Screenplay by Syd Field. That book has absolute, unbreakable directions on where to put events in the movie, down to the minute! Even on a less extreme level, many major production houses such as Disney teach their writers and directors to follow certain structures, and to experiment only slightly with loosening the guidelines.

Why this emphasis on formula? Because these formulas and techniques have proven, time and time again, to satisfy audiences. These are the structures that give us enjoyable, memorable films - whether done as light entertainment or as serious art. Fool around with things, and people fell like something's missing; they talk about an 'unsatisfying ending' or a 'weak second act'.

In gaming, of course, we have more room to fool around and experiment, if only because the audience are also the actors, the writers and the directors of the movie we put together at the table. In particular, we can be more daring with our plotlines; I've never run a game that Disney would have approved as a film for any audience. But those structural ideas can still be of use, and by studying those rules - and watching a lot of movies - GMs can reach the players on a more or less unconscious level and make the game more involving and satisfying.

Oblivion City

As an example, I'm going to construct a campaign using these methods as I go along.

I decide I'm going to go for a sort of 'superhero-horror' game, borrowing ideas from Batman, Spawn, pulp stories and White Wolf's World of Darkness. It's going to be set in a gloomy, dangerous city called New Jerusalem - full of organized crime, freakish villains and equally freakish heroes, monsters and mystery. I'm also going to include some Christian mysticism and themes, because I'm fascinated with religion; I decide that this city will, some time soon, be the scene of Armageddon, the final showdown between Heaven and Hell. The PCs will be some of the weird superheroes of the city, and will be the ones who decide the final outcome.

Beginning, Middle and End

There's a giveaway right there - 'final outcome'. Because the first thing you have do when you start designing the campaign's structure is decide how it ends.

This sort of planning is a lot like building a house. It can be a big house; it can have three stories, a basement, and a swimming pool. But at some point, you have to stop building; you have to stick a roof on top and move in. Similarly, you can't effectively structure a campaign that's open-ended, because you never stop building a campaign like that. Those sorts of games don't want structure; they want a big open playground of possibilities, each of which can be examined. With a structured game, you're gathering up the best and most interesting possibilities and bringing them inside the new house.

So we need to start with the basics. Beginning, middle, end; where we start, where we end up, and how we get there. You need to have an idea about all three - you can't just ignore the middle. That's the easiest mistake to make; it's a problem I have with most of my design and writing.

The beginning is both the campaign's backstory and its 'opening scene'. You need to decide what the game will be about, where it happens, what the status quo is at game start - and most importantly, what kind of characters will be appropriate. Some of the beginning will be visible to the PCs and the players - but if, like me, you like mysteries and plot twists, you also need to come up with some of the secrets and revelations of the game now. Don't use them for anything; just come up with some ideas and put them aside.

Next comes the end, because you can only decide on the journey once you know your destination. How do you want the campaign to finish up - a happy ending, or a downbeat one? Big fight scene or moving reconciliation? What will happen to the PCs - it doesn't matter that you don't even have PCs at this point, just as long as you have some ideas about where they end up.

Finally, the middle. This is where much of the plot happens; this is where the changes, the revelations and the plot twists occur. It's also where most of the game's events happen. This bit has to be at least as interesting as the other two, and probably more so; this is your 'second act', and if it's weak or flabby, the audience (the players) won't feel engaged or interested in the ending.

Once you make some notes on these three stages, throw ideas around left and right. Bounce ideas off a friend who won't be playing; shamelessly steal ideas from other places. Then start moving the ideas around to see where they belong - are they setup, progression, or resolution? Most ideas belong in the beginning and middle sections, not the end; you don't want to introduce new material just before the climax (more on this later). The end is where ideas are wrapped up and resolved. Find out which bits you really want, and throw out anything that just won't fit.

This is also where you come up with ideas for major NPCs. Many of these need to be introduced in the beginning section of the game - mentors, allies, maybe major recurring villains. Some will come up later in the game - especially if those pesky PCs kill off your big villain early on, so you need a replacement. Again, few if any NPCs should be introduced at the end.

Oblivion City

Well, the end is obvious here - it's the Big Showdown. I want something epic - armies of angels and demons warring, the city in flames, all the plot hooks and events being resolved in various tragic ways. And explosions; lots of explosions.

For the beginning, I need to map out some ideas about New Jerusalem - the gangs, the major villains, the power bases and secret societies behind the scenes. Obvious NPCs would be some monsters, heroes, villains, gangsters and Mafia members, cops (straight and crooked), journalists etc. I want to include a major villain somewhere here, but I have no ideas as yet; I'll leave that for a bit.

The middle is where all the adventures take place - confrontations with evil and stuff blowing up. I want things to go downhill as the game progresses; as Judgement Day approaches, the police station blows up, buildings collapse, villains and heroes fall. Some of this will happen to the PCs; other events will happen because of the PCs. I don't know what those events are, as yet - I just know that I want to raise the stakes as we approach the big finish.

Hmmm. Thinking about raising the stakes, it occurs to me that if I start with the PCs being superheroes, it starts the game at a fairly high level already, and I want to give myself room to grow in the middle. So instead, why not have the PCs start as normal people, and then become super-creatures as the game progresses? That's my middle; the growth of the characters as they gain powers and learn secrets, before realizing the truth about the city. With this, I go back and fiddle with the basic ideas a little.

Now the weirdness is a little more behind the scenes, rather than in your face; there are rumours and urban legends, but not televised battles between super-freaks on the evening news. The PCs can be cops, reporters, crooks and others who are coming up against the vice and corruption of New Jerusalem, but find themselves powerless to fix it - until someone offers them power. This is my secret villain, the Hanged Man - a cross between the Spectre and the Joker. He establishes himself as the PCs' mentor and ally, and arranges for them to gain superpowers - but he's really using them to help him win Armageddon.

Because he's really the Devil. And they've sold him their souls without knowing it.

Third Time's the Charm

Talking about beginning, middle and end segues nicely into the next structural tip. And this is probably the biggest and most important idea, as well as the easiest to implement - so important I'm putting it in italics:

Everything important breaks down into three parts.

Think of a joke, any decent joke; odds are it involves three guys, or three events, or three ideas. All good stories have three acts - beginning, middle, end. Every action movie has three major fight scenes; every romance movie has three major arguments. Hell, it was three blind mice in the song, not two or four.

Human beings are programmed to recognize patterns and respond to them - it's hardwired into our brains. One event is just that, a single event. If it happens twice, it's a coincidence. But three times is a triangle, a shape, a pattern, and we seize upon it and make it important.

The same thing happens with the structure of stories. Everything that matters happens three times; it won't happen exactly the same way each time, but we'll get the pattern. The first time the villain appears, he's a nobody, just some mook. The second time, he's a threat but not a noteworthy one. Get him in the PCs' faces one more time, and they'll be swearing on their mother's grave to stop him or die trying. If you want the players to care about an NPC, have him appear in three sessions. If you want them to get attached to their home base, focus on it three times.

Three's the magic number - no more, no less. After three instances, they've got the pattern, and any more repetition is boring. After the third instance, you've got to make major changes to the idea in question before you bring it back.

When developing the game, use three sessions as your basic period of development. The first three sessions of the campaign are key; that's the time when the players are excited and open to new things, when they're still looking for the pattern. This is when you show them the setting, give them an idea of the themes, get them used to their characters; it's when they learn to care about the game. The fourth session is when you start to make things change; you raise the stakes a notch. You play with that for three sessions, then you raise the stakes again.

You'd think it'd get stale, wouldn't you? But it doesn't. If you're worried that it will, all you need to do is vary the point in that third session when the plot twist or change in direction comes along. Sometimes it's best if three normal things come before a fourth strange thing; sometimes it's better if the third thing suddenly breaks the pattern with a twist. This is how it works in comedy; you get the audience expecting the Irishman to be similar to the Englishman and the American, but whoops! It turns out that the Irishman breaks the pattern halfway through! So put the twist in the middle of the third session, rather than at the start of the fourth.

(If you wanted to get really structured, you could break each act into three sub-acts, and then each sub-act into three-session chunks. Twenty-seven sessions is a decent length for a campaign. But even I might draw the line at going that far...)

Three-part structure is simple to implement and incredibly effective. If you take nothing else from this essay, just remember that one rule.

Oblivion City

Okay, I lied; I'm going to break the first act of my campaign into three sets of three sessions.

In the first section, we meet the PCs, and establish the setting and tone of the campaign. The PCs all want to clean up the city or get revenge on the criminals who've affected their lives. Over three sessions, they examine a few mysteries and get into a few fights, and the players get the feel of their characters; similarly, they get to know some of the recurring NPCs. I also feed them hints about the weirdness of the city, and occasional glimpses of a shadowy figure with a noose around his neck. But after three sessions, the PCs still haven't accomplished much; they've solved some minor crimes, but they know it's not fixing the problem.

In the second set of three sessions, the PCs come face to face with the weirdness - super-freaks, monsters, craziness and even a few bizarre 'heroes'. Their investigations are revealing secrets, but no-one in authority will believe them - worse, they believe them, but refuse to help. They're getting nowhere, and now they know they might be able to do more if they got get behind the scenes. At the end of the third session, the Hanged Man appears and tells them he needs their help - and if they help him, he can help them...

In the final set of three sessions, the PCs go on a 'quest' or two for the Hanged Man, and learn more about the secrets of New Jerusalem. In the final session, he puts them through rituals and torments to give them supernatural powers (and, secretly, to claim their souls). At the end of the session, those characters that survive get powers; I sit down with the players to design suitable and spooky abilities, and we move into the second act of the campaign.

Platforms and Tilts

I've talked about 'raising the stakes' a few times now, and that forms the centre of the next structure tip; establishing platforms and implementing tilts.

A platform is the status quo, a stable idea. Those first few sessions where you develop the style of the campaign? That's building a platform, creating an idea in the minds of the players of what the game is about. These periods of stability give you a chance to explore the game and setting, and form the foundation for events and plots.

A tilt is a change or upheaval; you grab the edge of the platform and give it a good hard push. You raise the stakes, you change the parameters, you move things into a new dynamic - and in doing so, you establish a new platform. The transition to the next act is a tilt, and smaller tilts will also occur within each act.

To keep that control going and get a good momentum going, use three-part structure. You need to explore a platform for at least three sessions, naturally; you can go longer, if everyone's enjoying themselves, but you risk losing momentum. If people are keen on staying with a platform, find out what element they particularly like - then tilt the platform, but keep that enjoyable element going through the transition into the next platform.

This pattern - establish status quo, explore it, fundamentally alter it, then create a new status quo - repeats over and over in a structured campaign. It's the essence of plot; what we're doing is codifying it rather than stumbling onto it an random. We're also controlling the movement; as GM, you decide how long to keep the platform stable and how you tilt it, then work with the players to establish the new platform.

Oblivion City

As we can see, the above example followed a platform/tilt pattern quite closely; get used to things, then raise the stakes. The biggest tilt was at the end of the first act; now the PCs have their supernatural powers and a chance to get things done.

In this middle section, we want to keep things going on the same pattern, but we want to push up the volume some more. The tilts in the first section were small; now we want bigger tilts, and more unusual platforms.

The first platform will be the PCs exploring their powers and encountering the monsters as equals. Raise the stakes; now they have to get out there and mix it up, solving crimes and fighting their enemies. The second platform will have them establishing themselves as important characters in the New Jerusalem underworld; I'll also take the opportunity to drop some hints about Armageddon and the real secrets of New Jerusalem.

For the third platform - I'm sticking with the three-part structure - I don't just raise the stakes, but shake things up as well. Get some big plots going, some big achievements; the PCs start making a real difference, defeating their enemies, and changing the face of the city. I'll actually keep this section going for more than three sessions, because I want the players to feel confident and to enjoy taking control of the situation.

But when the section ends, I throw in a massive tilt - I blow up half the city. I kill off major NPCs. I throw ten tonnes of bad-guy arse at them, and maybe a PC dies. Armageddon is on its way.


Russian playwright Anton Chekov (The Cherry Orchard) once said something like "if you see a gun on the wall in Act One, it better get used to shoot someone in Act Three". This is foreshadowing; dropping hints and allusions in early scenes to events that will occur in later scenes. It comes back to the three-part thing again; for us to care about an event or plot twist, we need to see it three times. Or rather, we need to see the beginnings of it twice before it actually happens.

You can foreshadow almost any event - from the appearance of a long-lost cousin to the destruction of a planet. It stops the players from feeling cheated by the plot, as if you were springing things on them from nowhere; after all, you warned them twice that the city was going to blow up into race riots.

The hard part is working out where and when to 'place' your foreshadowing in the campaign; that depends so much on plot, tone, your players and lots of other factors. Still, you can use common sense; it's no good to drop hints in the first two sessions if the foreshadowed event doesn't appear until the final session six months later. Similarly, if the revelation of event is important, players won't be satisfied if you only drop hints in the session beforehand. A good rule of thumb is to divide the length of the campaign before the event into three, then stick foreshadowing in at the division points. So if you want a revelation for session 9, you foreshadow it in sessions three and six.

The thing where gaming comes into its own on this, and beats out fiction, is that you don't have to deliberately place foreshadowing material in the game; you can just reuse things that you threw out earlier. If the players decide that a character or idea is interesting, file it away and make it more important; that friendly taxi driver turns out to be the master criminal they were hunting all along! Very few elements of your game should be disposable; every character, location and idea can be altered behind the scenes to make it useful or significant later, and the players will never know that you hadn't planned it that way from the first session.

Oblivion City

With its reliance on revelations and twists, this game needs lots of foreshadowing. Some examples:

The Hanged Man crops up in session six to offer the PCs power. I decide to have him appear for a moment in session 2 - a strange reflection in a mirror that vanishes when you look to see who's there. In session 4, a thug mentions that a man with a noose is a power-broker and figure of fear in the underworld. Come session six, the PCs are fired up to meet the guy.

Of course, the Hanged Man is really the Devil, and I can't just spring that from nowhere. That revelation comes late in the third act of the game - but I can't really allude to this before the PCs have a chance to meet him. So I'll put two instances of foreshadowing into the second act. First, there's a fight in St Augustine's Church early in the act, where the Hanged Man is supposed to help the PCs - but he never shows up, because he can't enter holy ground. The PCs don't know that that's the reason, but it places a seed of doubt. Then towards the end of the second act, the PCs meet the ghost of The Flail, a dead crime-fighter; the ghost tells them that he can't rest because he sold his soul to Satan, but never gets a chance to tell them who the Devil really is.

During the first act, the PCs investigate a mob enforcer called the Blind Assassin and think he's pretty cool. Now, I need a representative of Heaven for the final battle at campaign's end; using the Blind Assassin in this role makes for good 'recycling'. So I decide that the Assassin is really the Archangel Michael, here to fight the Hanged Man during Armageddon - and probably to fight the PCs as well. Come to think of it, I need a venue for that final battle - why not bring back St. Augustine's Church? It makes a second appearance early in the third act, where the PCs accidentally deconsecrate it in a battle; now it's all set for the final session showdown.

The Weaknesses of Structure

I've waxed lyrical about structured plotting for a few thousand words now; I think it makes for satisfying campaigns. But I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the two major flaws of the technique.

The first is predictability - not of the plot, necessarily, but of the development of the plot. If your players get the feel of your patterns, they'll start to feel like they know what happens next. They might not know what plot twist is coming at the end of the session, but they're sure that there will be one - because that's the same pattern you've used before.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course; I mean, we know from the start that Romeo and Juliet ends tragically, but that doesn't make it any less interesting. Anyone used to this sort of structure knows that most movies follow the pattern, and can pick out when twists will occur - but if the twist is interesting, it doesn't matter if you knew something was coming. If the plot and ideas of the game are fun, your players shouldn't really care if they can start to see the structure behind it. If they do, though, start mixing things up a little; foreshadow things that turn out to be anticlimaxes, develop something for four sessions rather than three. Messing up with the details won't invalidate the basic principles.

A bigger concern is railroading - making the players feel like you're controlling the plot and their characters, and that there's no way to get away from your plot. This is always a concern for any drama or plot-heavy game, of course, but structure can make it worse - because there is a plan, no matter how sketchy, and moving outside the plot's structure can weaken or damage the plan and the plotline.

There's no real solution here; if you don't want to ever direct the plot or the characters, you wouldn't structure games like this in the first place. The best thing to do is make your game so goddamn interesting that the player's don't care if they're being pushed in one direction, and don't want to gallivant off to another country to avoid their problems. Yes, it's a railroad, but the carriages are really comfortable, and the destination is really interesting; tell them they'll enjoy the ride, and that their characters actions really do matter.

(And mean that too; even a structured and directed game revolves around the PCs. They should be the stars of the game, and everything they do matters to the plot.)

Roll Credits.

To sum up, there are three basic rules of structured plotting:

  1. Do everything three times in order to make the players interested.
  2. Let people get comfortable, then change the parameters.
  3. Foreshadow everything important in the game (and reuse ideas whenever possible).

All the other rules of screenwriting structure are really just variations on these themes; hell, foreshadowing's just a variation on the three-part rule. Use these rules to develop the main plotline of the campaign (and the minor ones) and you should end up with a storyline that satisfies the players, and that's easier to run - because as long as your ideas are interesting, the execution almost takes care of itself.

Patrick O'Duffy has been gaming since he was 12 years old; you do him no favours by mentioning that that was almost 20 years ago. He's a freelance writer for White Wolf Games, but suspects that the real reason he was asked to write for PTGPTB is because he lives in the same suburb as the editor. He really must do something with that Oblivion City idea one day.

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