I enjoy GMing but I much prefer to to have some sort of long running plot (or meta-plot) rather than having a series of unconnected unfortunate events afflict my PCs.

For example, I would love to get a Dresden files game running--but I think the game needs an overarching plot that makes many seemingly unrelated events are in fact related and important to one another. And I am intimidated by the thought of keeping all those balls in play and coordinated. I have been burned trying to run something like that before.

  • \$\begingroup\$ But a series of unfortunate events can be so much fun. In all honesty I'm working toward the same thing, good question. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Jun 17, 2011 at 12:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am accepting an answer but I hope to see this topic to still get updated. \$\endgroup\$
    – YuriPup
    Jun 17, 2011 at 13:23

5 Answers 5


Little By Little

I am, in fact, running a Dresden Files campaign right now. We're nearing the end of our third "book" - we've arranged the game in books and I've got some things I've learned that might be of use to you. But as the title says, the way to do what you want to do is little by little.

First of all, forget about plotting RPGs. The plot of a story is the list of all the things that happen. But you can't plot, because you can't predict what any of the main characters will do at any time. Which is great. Because you have a bunch of smart people (your players) taking care of that for you, so you can concentrate on other stuff! All you can do is provide instigating events for them to react to. In other words, you can't plot, but you can plan.

By the Book - how the system can help you:

The Dresden Files RPG has some great features built in that are going to make some of this easier. It's got a great city-creation system that will help you make sure you've got a city full of interesting factions and characters. And I don't know if you've played FATE-powered games before, but you're going to end up knowing a lot more about the PCs than how hard they can hit something.

Begin by Ending - how to get started:

If you wanted to drive across the county, you'd never try to predict exactly what you would do at every step. But you would want to know what city you intended to drive to before you started, right?

Before the game starts, I talk with my group about what we're going to be doing in general - I make sure that I'm not set on an all-Nevernever-smackdown game if the players are more interested in playing cat-and-mouse with mortal authorities while hunting Lawbreakers for the White Council. Once we're on the same general page, I would do the city and character creation. Then, I have a fantastic resource at hand: The PCs and the city. Those are like a mad scientist's control panel, full of buttons to push, levers to pull, and dials to twist. The players have just given you the keys to the characters. It's up to you to drive them! Pick a big bad that will push those buttons - activating he Aspects of characters and city alike.

Now, jump to the end. Decide what would happen if the PCs weren't there. What is the thing that your players are averting? Make sure it will make the PCs take notice. It doesn't have to be the end of the world, but it has to impact the PCs somehow. Take this consequence of inaction as an example:

"If the PCs don't intervene, the municipal pools will have their hours reduced."

Some groups may not think that's worth getting out of bed to prevent. But if your PCs all grew up poor in this city and have aspects to reflect it, this may provide plenty of motivation.

Usually, of course, the consequence of inaction is bigger.

"If the PCs don't intervene, the swing voter on the city council will be a Red Court thrall,"

for instance. But bigger isn't necessarily better. Harry Dresden goes to tremendous lengths to prevent small tragedies sometimes.

Once you have a Big Bad and a goal for him / her / it / them, you can try to see how the Big Bad's agenda coincides with or crosses the agendas of the PCs and the city factions you defined above. That will give you some insight into what could happen in the future - but you don't need to get it all pinned down yet. You know the endgame and the primary actor. That's enough for now.

It's also possible to have endgames that don't have actors - inexorable threats like asteroids are essentially timers for this endgame:

"If the PCs don't intervene, the city will be blasted into a crater by an asteroid."

But villains are generally more interesting for you to play than forces of nature are. Asteroids don't cackle and tent their fingers.

One Bite at a Time - how to eat an elephant:

Here's how I handle planning a given episode: Take a notebook and make some columns on it with these headings: Who, Wants, So. Use a notebook. It helps keep you organized. Write longhand. It helps, I promise.

Now, take that notebook and write a name in the Who column. It can be your villain, a PC, a city faction, an NPC, or whatever. You might write "The Red Court" in your Who column.

Next, write down what they want in the Wants column. Wants should usually be short term - so the Red Court is going to put their puppet on the city council. Their want should be what they want next - like "The Red Court wants to get the councilman addicted to Red Court saliva."

Now that you know what they want, write down what they'll do as a consequence in the So column. They want to get the councilman addicted, so...."They arrange to have a fundraiser at a Red Court stronghold where they can get a little face time with the councilman."

Now you've got a strongly motivated action for the bad guys to take - repeat this until the "prods" for your upcoming game start to take shape, and then you're done with the "What's going to happen?" part of prep!

All you need then is to sketch out people and places you think will be important. Don't go nuts - you'll be wrong about some of them and don't want to waste the work. And a lot of games (and DFRPG in particular) make creating these things on fast and simple enough to accomplish on the fly. I just ran an awesome session with a rescue mission / fight in a burning, collapsing warehouse full of nasties that I built right there at the table while everyone else was grabbing a bathroom / soda break.

And that's it. By keeping this in a notebook, you can flip back a page or two and see if there are any loose ends from last time, or any previous time. If a couple of sessions back you said that

The mayor wants to make his mistress disappear so he encourages her to return to her drug habit, hoping she'll OD by herself.

but you never got around to dealing with that, you've got yourself a nice loose end to pick up and tug on.

Here are the advantages I have found to using this method in my fairly long-running DFRPG game (and others before this):

  • You never need to envision the plot in its convoluted, interwoven entirety. You just need to plan the ending - what happens if the PCs don't get involved - and then take small steps from where you are towards where you want to go.
  • The campaign builds itself organically. The past informs the future in a gripping, well-motivated story.
  • You never have to railroad your players. The Big Bad will adjust his plans as his first attempts are foiled, instead of trying to make your players fit a cast-in-stone plot.
  • You get to look like a genius at the end. I have had things I forgot about become hugely important when the players get a great idea about how to use them. Then they say, "What a great plant! It was so subtle!" I just smile and try to look like I deserve it.
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a great and encyclopedic answer--unfortunately I put the system agnostic flag on it and I feel there is a bit too much DF stuff in it. (Though I think you just got me to get off my butt and run my game too.) I think I am going to post a Dresden files specific one just so you can cut and paste (and link back to the agnostic parts of this one). \$\endgroup\$
    – YuriPup
    Jun 16, 2011 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @YuriPup - Except for the city creation and aspects, I use this same technique for lots of games. It's just that with DFRPG (which, as I said, is my current game) I noted how nicely the city creation and Aspects meshed with this approach. Also, the system-agnostic and dresden-files tags can peacefully coexist on your question. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Jun 16, 2011 at 16:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ I made the changes for now--but I think that it really could be one master question with a lot of system specific questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – YuriPup
    Jun 16, 2011 at 16:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvoted for the "start at the end" - the best adventures I've ever run could be summed up as "this is what's going to happen if no-one interferes" with some notes on how people react when someone does interfere. Oddly, they're sometimes easier to run as well. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2011 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wish I could give more +1, but in general I've found out the same thing in doing an incremental discovery/overview of the 40k universe via a DH game. You def can't teach players new to the setting all about Imperial hierarchy and how the warp works in one campaign arc, so it has to be built up over time and the connections between seemingly innocuous things must grow organically. Also for preparing situations, not plot. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2017 at 19:22

Quest Method

The whole point of the adventures is the quest. Have it take several sessions to complete a minor goal and many minor goals to complete the overall quest. I like to have end each adventure with a push toward the next on and a start with a pull. IE refer to a scholar in another town, Then scholar has been kidnapped. If the party strays off course have a 3rd party complete the task and get great rewards but use it to push the party to the next step.

Multi Threaded Plot

I create these by writing up a time line. I figure out the main events and figure out what key players in the events are doing. I build my villans(and outside heros) paths backward. I like to cross paths almost incedentally through out the campaign. I like the final villans henchmen to be involved in different ways as every thing from ally to foe in different adventures with out letting the party know their true goal. I love having the party unknowingly help complete some task toward the villans end while thinking they are working against them. And have them only find out in the final adventure. This requires alot of thought and planning but if its done well the results are worth it. Remember to use the art of misdirection shine the light on the right hand while the left hand does the work. Your party will figure some things out. And they will try to go off track so some ability to guide them back on track with out it seeming too forced is good.
It is important to integrate events happening outside of the party's sphere of influence. A house was blown up a week ago bring the villan to justice. The house was actually blown up on accident while working next door on a plot to assinate the mayor. But the mayor thinks of the party as rival political party operatives and wants them gone. And the mayor is being killed to bring a rich relitive here for a funeral so his home can be robbed for an artifact...


What I've done successfully in the past is to lift a plot from another piece of media (video game, novel) and have it happen around the PCs. The quests they're sent on and the activities they get up to often have nothing to do with the "main plot," the daily activities of the campaign accumulating as they do from the session-to-session interests and adventures of the gang. But that core plot forms the spine of the campaign, and gives me a central point around which to weave together all those disparate happenings.

My general method for keeping all the events of my background plot straight is to focus on the villains/other major NPCs, and what everything looks like from their perspective. Usually I have one or two major characters driving the plot, and between session upkeep on that side of the game is generally just a matter of considering the events of the last session from the perspective of those NPCs, and come up with their plans for the next one based on that.

Depending on the plot, you wouldn't even necessarily need to do this with an NPC -- you could use a force or an organization instead. As long as it has some kind of motive and/or particular method of operating, it should work. Generating a plot based on the actions of a zombie horde, for instance, would simply be a matter of determining whether anything that happened last session helped or hurt the horde, and what they're likely to destroy next session (and whether its in a place the PCs will notice, or pure background events).

I like to do this all in my head or with a few scribbled notes, but especially if you're keeping several separate groups/timelines straight you might want something more structured. All you'd need is a few pieces of paper with each plot/NPC as the header -- just write down session reviews and planning notes in chronological order as you go.

One important note to keep in mind is that your background plot does not have to be complex. The players will add all the complexity they need to it themselves, either through their antics or just through viewing the events of the game through their own necessarily narrow, warped lens. I find that it's best that what I'm doing on my own remain fairly simple, so I can weave in all that player-generated complexity as needed.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ =1 for looking at it from the villain's perspective and for letting the players add the complexity! \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Jun 17, 2011 at 13:27

I think you already got wonderful answers here, but here's my two cents.

First of all, you must have a clear view of the plot, the NPCs motives and what they are going to do to achieve what they want. That said I usually use mind maps for this kind of planning. There are a lot of apps there to make them, but normally I stick with the web-based Mind Meister.

That said, you should not only have a general overview of the situation spanning some sessions long, but it may help to have an immediate overview too. Guess what? I use the same tool to plan for a session, here's an example from my current adventure (Wilerson, keep out of here or spoil yourself). After a little you get used to write it in a way that it may be exported as a plain text.

The next tool I absolutely suggest you to use is what I call XP report. After the session, when you distribute the XP take a time to explain the players why they have received each parcel and include comments about what they should have done to avoid loosing and/or earn additional XP. That may seems simplistic and unrelated to your question, but is a terrific tool to remind them of the plots and incentive in character thinking and acting. I believe it's easier to maintain the plot if the players are involved with it.

As a final counsel I say "prepare to be flexible". Don't invest your time planing and treasuring all details of the complex plot of yours. It's not a romance, it's a RPG campaign so get used with players coming with innovative perspectives or just wandering around and spoiling everything. It happens often and you should be prepared for it. I am currently DMing a campaign where the players missed a very important detail about the main plot and got to hate a minor villain of mine. I went all the way for it, made this villain a major NPC and used him to lure the players back to the main plot.

Last second note: Think about the clues you are giving about the plot mysteries and check if they are enough for the players to reach the right conclusion. If they are, add a backup plan for them to get the clue, if they are not, go back to your campaign planning.


"Premature optimization is the root of all evil" is something that most programmers have heard and agree with (http://ubiquity.acm.org/article.cfm?id=1513451 is a good discussion about this) and is a pretty good rule of thumb.

In RPGs a similar rule is true about plot. "Premature plotting is the root of all Lawful Evil" (in quotes as I just said that out loud) might be a way of saying it.

You can plot out story arcs, plot lines, intentions, background etc. but the detail can be left to the point when is it is needed. This gives you the flexibility to invent things on the spur of the moment, change your mind, fix things that are broken without breaking too much else and use your player's own ideas when they are better than or inspire yours. It also means you only have to set a few plates spinning at once and worry about a limited subset of them.


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