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I've been GMing/DMing on and off for years. I prefer playing. Mainly because when I run a game, I'm more a fly by the seat of your pants kind of dm, and it works sort of..

My problem is that, while I can come up with a grand sweeping overarching campaign plot pretty easily.... I have great difficulty coming up with stuff to do in the individual sessions at all, let alone ones that work along with overarching plot without either leaving it behind or rushing it forward.

So I guess my question is this, how do you come up with stuff for the players to do in individual session. Being able to roll with the punches and keep things moving Im pretty good at, but I could really use some advice on what are good ways to come up with the "individual chapters" of the story.

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The word I like to use here is "scenario". It avoids the railroading connotation of "plot", is more general than "adventure", and doesn't imply that it should be limited to a single session of play. Also: good question. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 6 '11 at 22:13
    
My answer on this question is an easy, step-by-step way to create session scenarios that might help. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 17 '11 at 17:16
    
I think this answer of mine might provide some useful insights and techniques. It's got some Dresden Files-specific elements because of the question, but it's the technique I use with every game I run, so I know it's universally applicable. –  gomad Nov 9 '11 at 16:40
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4 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

One word: conflicts. Conflicts drive action and plot.

It sounds like you already have a grand scheme, but you want to drive the day-to-day adventuring within it. To get there, I'll build an example as we go. We'll look at three levels: the grand story, the region, and the local neighborhood.

The Grand Story

Let's assume the overarching Grand Story is a conflict between good and evil. On the Good team, you have the various armies and powers of mankind; and on the evil team, you have the armies of orcs led by an ancient dragon. A major battle between men and orcs would advance the Grand Story, just like an important artifact or location changing hands between them.

But the players don't have anything to do with this, at least not at first. For them, the Grand Story is present, but out of their control. So let's break it down further.

The Forces of Good

The good guys consist of three main groups:

  • the kingdom of Bohania
  • the principality of Tolbag
  • the elves of the Wulu Forest

All three of these groups have long-standing conflicts with each other that have never been resolved. The only reason they work together at all is because the Evil Team is such a great threat to them all. Some conflicts here:

  • Bohania claims that Tolbag is a rebellious province that ought to rejoin the kingdom.
  • Tolbag depends on their income from logging, which is impinging on the Wulu Forest.

Local Conflicts

The players start off in Tolbag, as very minor forces for good. In their local neighborhood, there are other conflicts. Elements of the local neighborhood are:

  • the baron of Wildan, a vassal of the prince of Tolbag
  • the major landholders of Wildan
  • Sir Goring, an old knight, a hero from the last war, who holds a small castle in Wildan
  • the bishop of Wildan
  • a settlement of goblins in the nearby mountains
  • the nearby border crossing with Bohania, manned by soldiers of both Bohania and Tolbag

All of these elements have a stake in things, and they all have conflicts with other groups. For example:

  • The baron resents the prince calling up so much of the baron's forces, leaving Wildan nearly undefended.
  • Sir Goring is publicly agitating for another war against Bohania. He's popular with the people, so the baron can't easily silence him.
  • The bishop of Wildan is trying to locate the Wand of St. Gifful, a powerful holy relic.
  • The goblins aren't good guys, but they want nothing to do with the orcs, and would rather stay neutral.
  • The local landholders aren't too pleased with the goblins' raiding their farms, though.
  • It's rumored that several regiments of Bohanian soldiers are massing at the border, supposedly to invade orcish territory.

What the Party Can Do

Now even a low-level party can make an impact on things. They could go and fight the goblins (possibly driving them to ally with the orcs) or try and negotiate a peace treaty with them on behalf of the baron. They could work for the baron to help defend the barony. They could go and scout out the Bohanian forces across the border. They could go off looking for the Wand of St. Gifful.

None of these actions are likely to have much impact on the Grand Story, but they might have some impact on Tolbag, and they're very likely to affect the barony of Wildan.

If you're looking for a very open, sandbox kind of game, just set up the competing elements and let the party loose. They can intervene or not as they see fit, and the Grand Story goes on with or without them.

As the party goes up in abilities, they can begin to get involved in higher and higher conflicts, eventually finding themselves as major players in some great war as part of the Grand Story.

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This is something I've been struggling with as well... So this will be less an answer, and more a collection of thoughts on the direction I'm going. Hopefully someone with more experience solves it for both of us :)

The first note, is that having a campaign where every session deals directly with advancing the plot is a valid way to do things. However, this will make for a very focused story, with less of the sandboxing and exploration commonly associated with RPGs. If you go this route, I'd recommend keeping it relatively short, and giving it a distinct beginning and end (think movie, rather than TV series). If the players fall in love with their characters, you can always write a sequel or move to a more traditional format afterwards.

That said, if you want a more traditional semi-free-form campaign, here's what I've been able to scratch together.

Structure

A lot of my inspiration for this sort of thing comes from reading about how TV series are put together. Looking at it this way, it seems like there are three major types of adventures you can have:

  • "Tent poles" -- These are the major turning points in your narrative. The epic battles, the betrayals, the triumphs, and so on. If you were to write an outline of your plot, these would be the bullet points.

  • "Canvas" -- For lack of a better term. These are the work-a-day adventures that deal with your central plot. The battles with the villain's henchmen, pawns being moved into place, and so on. Their ordering and timing isn't as important as the tent poles.

  • "One-shots" -- Adventures not related to the ongoing plot. These help provide a rest from the main plot, and help demonstrate that there are other things going on. You can help integrate them by providing an encounter or two related to the main plot... But the focus of the night should be elsewhere.

Planning

Ideally, you should have your tent poles planned out ahead of time, along with a bank of canvas adventures and one shots to draw on as needed.

You may also want to plan a handful of individual plot-related encounters to help populate one-shots that need to be generated on the fly ("Um, you weren't supposed to tick that village off, but whatever.").

As a practical matter, I've always had a weakness when it comes to planning, so I usually get by with a couple of tent poles and a few canvas and one-shot adventures thumbnailed (i.e. only planned as a one-sentence description) at any given time.

Threads

I like to have a couple of major plot threads going at any given time. This helps give me material to fill in dead spots, and adds a bit of depth to the world. It also helps provide continuity from one major plot to the next.

In planning out threads, remember that it isn't necessary for an antagonist to be completely eliminated for their thread to end for a time... But when they are defeated, be sure and give them some time out of the spotlight.

Pacing

From there, it's a matter of mixing up the types of adventures you provide to the players. Work on the plot, but don't let it dominate the table to such an extent that it feels like the PCs are being singled out. Mix in one-shots to help establish the setting, and to give the players a chance to define themselves as individuals rather than strictly as opponents of the villain.

If the players are actively striving along the plot, use traveling and new locations as an opportunity to mix in the one-shots. If the players are wandering, and waiting for the plot to come to them, try to find ways for the players to tangentially encounter what's going on (so it doesn't seem like the plot is actively trying to fight them).

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No plan survives contact with the enemy (read: players)

I find that the more you focus on what the players will do, the less prepared you are. So do not waste time doing that. Instead look at what you control: your NPCs. What are they doing today? What plans do they have to advance their goal? Each of those plans needs henchmen, preparations, and a flawless execution. Of course, their plans do not survive contact with the enemy. In this case, the enemy are the PCs.

Your NPCs will have goals in line with their secret faction, personal goals, and official goals. This gives you at least three avenues to come up with thing that they can do. For example: the local Sheriff has been changed into a werewolf by $badGuy. He is trying to find a cure to control his rage. Meanwhile in his daily job he is becoming more and more violent and irrational. The PCs can notice (maybe the Sheriff's sister, an inn owner) can hire the PCs to help if they do not spot it themselves. Why did $badGuy curse him? That links to your main plot: the $badGuy needs a repressive police state so that the population will rebel and cause chaos. This, right here, gives you other ideas: slumlords, rise in gangs, corrupt tax collectors... It all links back to a shadowy group called the Circle of 9. Why do they want a rebellion? Well, clearly to depose the current king. Who, BTW, is not the rightful heir to the throne -- that's $badGuy who happens to be the younger brother of a PC. Wait, does that mean that this PC should be king?...

Having a clear idea as to what the story of your world will be if the PCs were not there will help you immensely. Of course, as soon as the PCs mess things up, the NPCs will have to react -- this is why you need to change things between sessions.

As a side note, the players will be talking about things, coming up with plots and reasons why things are they way they see them. Listen carefully. Maybe they will come up with a much much much better explanation than yours. If you can retro-fit it to your game, it could be awesome. Beware that this may introduce some inconsistencies in your world. Be careful with it.

Look at how TV shows such as Burn Notice or Human Target or House MD or Buffy or Angel or Firefly or Babylon 5 structure their episodes. You have the over arching plot of the season and the plot of the week. Sometimes, the two intersect, sometimes not. Have a look at how they deal with the main plot. Things get revealed at a slower pace, the main character have a feeling of something important creeping up but somehow the information they gain from that one episode only make them thing that there is more out there. Yet, we the viewers, feel satisfied because we know more. The same thing can be true of books and plays although generally have one big arc within each of those.

Your world should be rich. That richness is what the PCs will interact with and peeling layers upon layers will get to the main plot: the why and how and who of the matter. Now, they should be able to find a way to stop/join/replace/run away/etc... whatever is happening.

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Good advice. I learned very early on not to do too much structure and developed the ability to just go with things. I've gotten pretty good at dealing with the wrenches they throw into the works. My problem tends to lie in coming up with exactly what scenarios to put in front of the players on any given session. –  Arr MiHardies Oct 7 '11 at 16:45
    
+1 for paraphrasing Sun Tzu –  Pulsehead Oct 10 '11 at 12:54
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"No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength" -- Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Chief of Staff under Bismark during the Franco Prussian war. I do not recall a similar paraphrase from Sun Wu but it has been some time since I read it. –  Sardathrion Oct 10 '11 at 13:48
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Campaign Roadmap

Here's what I do. I have a large scale conceptual roadmap for my campaign, where I have major phases defined. Each arc roadmap is a Word doc with a laundry list of specific adventures and ideas I'm thinking of creating or including (I do a lot of weaving products together). I put it in an approximate likely chronological order/power level, without getting too tied to it. Whichever adventure they go into, I weave some threads that may bring them to one or more next ones. A description is short, it might be "The PCs have been causing too much trouble, so the city's crime lords have a sit-down and vote to have them assassinated by wererats, run a wererat ambush using that goblin wererat the PCs encountered before," or "Salvadora Beckett approaches the PCs and needs their help investigating some occult slayings, if they agree run Carrion Hill." Some are longer term contingencies without any necessary order, like "if Sindawe ever follows up on that treasure map his father gave him, it leads to the Sun Temple Colony (see Lost Cities of Golarion p.XX)." I'd come up with more about that if and when it happened; no sense over-planning things that may not come up (and certainly won't come up in the space of the next session).

The Session Sheet

Then as the PCs approach an adventure's start point (like if they go to Nisroch and I have an adventure or adventure idea to happen while they're there), I prep one or more session sheets. This takes me an hour per hour of game I'm going to run. Each session sheet has three parts. An adventure might be "run this published adventure, but the bad guy is the head cultist from the PCs' last adventure instead of the provided guy." Or it might be "here's a random dungeon I printed out," or "here's the set of random encounters and events for their travel."

The first part of my session sheet is the Cast of Characters, and lists all the NPCs the party is likely to come into contact with. I note small stats/descriptions inline, or refer to page numbers, or append PDF character sheets (usually made in Hero Lab) depending on the detail needed. I am a very character drive DM and find that if you have a bunch of good characters around, the rest tends to unfold without a lot of work. This is often nearly a full page of content.

The second is the Adventure, where I have specific things that could happen. Listed items could be "if while in port they go to the Gold Goblin, run the 'Cheat the Devil and Take his Gold. adventure from Second Darkness Chapter 1: Shadow in the Sky." Or it might be character interactions, random monster/event tables...

The third is Notes, blank initially, where I take notes about what happened in this session specifically with an eye to how the world, NPCs, and the plot may react to their actions. After the session I revisit the plot arc and determine which things have to change or become more or less likely to happen next. By taking elements from previous sessions and putting them into future sessions, you create a coherent plot much more effectively than coming up with a plot you are trying to "keep the players on."

My whole session sheet is usually 2-5 pages (not counting Notes) depending on how much is completely original work vs using parts of published products.

Obviously often chunks of a session sheet aren't used; they get bumped to the next session or abandoned as appropriate. And it relies a little bit on the players being forthcoming about what they are interested in doing next; if they don't want to say and just want to run in a random direction when the game starts to see what happens, you have larger problems. I don't railroad, but I find that once you have compelling plot threads and personal relationships with people/places/etc in the game the PCs' actions are pretty predictable as to what adventures they will be following up on next.

Anyway, this is how I prepare sessions. See my much longer blog post inspired by this question for a much more detailed look at how I do it.

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+1 I used to do things like that before I swapped to what I do now. I found that it took too long and I did not have the time to do a good job of it. –  Sardathrion Oct 10 '11 at 13:50
    
Hmm, from reading your answer I'm not sure I do a lot more than what you do. –  mxyzplk Oct 12 '11 at 3:47
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