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While plotting the course of our "campaign", picking up adventure or story ideas, I have come to a point where multiple plots interleave. But not in the classic, homogeneous "adventure -> story arc -> adventure path -> campaign" way, with each clearly contributing to the layer above. Here's the situation:

  • We're playing The Dark Eye, the official publications of which offer a sort-of loose campaign setting, or maybe more of a theme / meta-plot, that will be recurring throughout this edition's official Adventures (Modules) and Campaigns (Story Arcs) to a sometimes lesser, sometimes more prominent degree. "Living Story" is what they call it. To make it an LotR example: If Middle-Earth at the end of the Third Age is the setting, don't think of the "Living Story" as the Fellowship's journey, but rather as the whole "War of the Ring" narrative.

  • I have a series of these adventures planned for the foreseeable future, which aren't directly connected, but make a good journey (i.e. their official recommended time and place fit well). Some of these offer (a bit of) "Living Story", others don't.

  • I have ideas to make several of these adventures into a story arc, by introducing additional NPCs and hints, loosely linking a number of those adventures and linking that arc to the Living Story. Each adventure will still be somewhat self-contained, but will contain information on, or somehow be caused by something from the arc. It's supposed to end with an official adventure that is the first major "Holy Cow!"-moment of the Living Story meta-plot.

  • Within this story arc, I have thought to place a small official story arc, which is from a previous edition and therefore entirely unrelated to the Living Story. But my group consists of new players, and it's a very nicely done introductory arc that introduces the different kinds of adventures (wilderness, diplomacy, crime story, infiltration) and elements of the game world (society, faith, politics, history,...). It consists of four short adventures which should be playable within 1 to 2 sessions, each. I intend to have a couple of links to my story arc.

So ultimately, what I have is:

  • A campaign/theme/meta-plot spanning years and years
    • A self-made story arc that:
      • is related to the meta-plot, but does not directly drive it forward
      • encompasses elements introduced to a number of (probably four) by and large unrelated adventures (of 3-5 sessions each) which themselves sometimes do, sometimes do not involve elements of the meta-plot
      • encompasses elements introduced to another smaller story arc which:
        • is otherwise not related to the metaplot
        • consists of another set of four mostly unrelated small adventures (2 sessions each), which will only really be brought together at the end of the small arc
      • will end with the first big moment of the meta-plot

Assume that each "parent" plot only really thickens when its "children" come to a close. So there will be hints, recurring NPCs, plot hooks, a sense of "something bigger going on", etc, but no major info dumps or complex interlinked subplots spanning multiple "children". Overall length might be somewhere between 20 to 30 sessions.

Is this too much for players to make sense of? Or to generalize: How many layers of loosely linked stories, spanning what time, can you have without causing confusion instead of excitement?

Bonus question: On a story arc/campaign scale, is it even feasible to have subplots which are not designed to serve the greater plot, but do so only to some extent/peripherally?

I'm looking for answers backed up by resources on story/campaign design, psychological phenomena/principles involved, personal experience and the like.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Icyfire, Oblivious Sage, KorvinStarmast, user17995, LegendaryDude Feb 24 '17 at 21:00

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The answers to this question are going to be 100% player-specific and generally non-transferrable to other groups. Some players might not tolerate even a little complexity, whereas others will love it. But perhaps more importantly, what are you going to do when your players do something you don't expect and derail your plot on session 2 of 30? \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Feb 24 '17 at 16:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire I'd expect there to be some principles from writing or psychology that are universally applicable or serve as rough estimates. Are there none that are used by authors of longer books or even series? Are they just stabbing in the dark and testing after the fact how much they can do and how often they recap? Concerning derailing: I'll adapt, of course. I don't mean to preplan it all, but longer plots need some initial outline and don't just exclusively grow session to session, right? \$\endgroup\$ – TheNickOfTime Feb 24 '17 at 16:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ My current campaign has a number of plots going on simultaneously, several of which we haven't learned much about yet. The main thing that helps our group keep track of everything is a.) the players taking notes as information is revealed and b.) the DM restating previous events at the start of each session. It makes it a lot easier to have multiple things going on at once (even if they develop at different speeds) and makes the world feel a lot more natural. \$\endgroup\$ – JBC Feb 24 '17 at 18:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Voting to reopen. Games like Microscope and A Thousand and One Nights handle multiple levels like this, not to mention campaign modules that serially advance the metaplot. \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Feb 24 '17 at 22:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @okeefe There's plenty of games that handle multiple layers of story, but do any of them actually say, objectively, that there's a specific upper limit on how many layers players can handle? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Feb 24 '17 at 22:44
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Generally…

The closest thing to a general, data-driven answer you're going to get is probably going to be from looking at guidance for TV writers. RPGs themselves are enough of a niche hobby that I doubt you'll find good research specific to the medium.

But, really, you don't need a general answer. You need an answer for your group.

Here are some suggestions for figuring that answer out:

  • Start by making sure you're all comfortable with the overall idea. Which is that you'll use pre-written modules modified to fit into a larger, web-like story. This game's not gonna be fun for you or the players unless you're all comfortable with that structure and invested in that.

  • How much plot-stuff can they tolerate? Look at their favorite TV shows. Are they obsessively knowledgeable fans of Game of Thrones or whatever? Figure they can probably handle a plot that's about that dense in the game, if you provide the same support for keeping track of it (e.g. recaps before/during play) and if they actually care about your plots. If they lean more towards episodic or single-arc shows, then maybe they won't really enjoy what you're trying to serve up here. (N.B. this isn't about their mental capacity, it's about holding their attention.)

  • How much complexity can you really tolerate as the GM? Whatever chart you've got at the beginning is going to be about an order of magnitude more complex in play, since you actually have to follow its evolution over time. So, if you're already feeling overwhelmed by what you've come up with, scale it back.

  • The bigger the structure, the more flexible it has to be. A big brittle web that expects the game to progress exactly from point A to point B to point C over 30 session will collapse way before you've gone through all of it. Be ready to rewire things and change your mind and react to the protagonists. Maybe even ripping up whole chunks of your plan if you have to.

From experience…

Personally, I've played two or three campaigns that fit your parameters — significantly scripted, multiple threads and layers, use of (often modified) pre-written modules for some of the content, about 30 sessions each — and here's what I've observed with my particular groups:

  • Two-and-a-half "layers" (levels of scope) is about the limit. I think this isn't so much driven by the group's ability as it is by the inherent differences in scale. We've got "what's going on right now," "how does it fit into our broader lives and the life of our communities," and then, only nebulously, "what's happening in the world that's causing this but too big for us to see directly right now" (that's the "half"). If you try to add more levels of big picture, what tends to happen is it just pushes "what's going on right now" to be bigger and more abstract — you're shifting a window rather than broadening it. If you're constantly thinking like rulers, you're not thinking about individual farmers anymore, in other words.

  • Within a "layer," two or three "plot threads" is comfortable, more requires careful management. Regardless of how I built them, most of my sessions ended up being about the interaction of two things that are happening right now, with a third thing kinda in the background. When the complexity rose above that, we basically ended up putting plots "in storage" and I had to do some narrative groundwork to revive one and dust it off so that it would be fresh in people's minds and relevant to the main story — their characters' story — again. Not just so we could remember it but so that any of us, GM included, would actually care again.

    • (Note that this extra groundwork puts a bit of a limit on how quickly you can "swap" plot threads, by the way.)

    • In my broader experience (from campaigns that don't fit your structure), the main way to get more "active" threads is to play a campaign that's not structured around grouping the PCs together into "the party:" scene-switching makes it easy to shift focus, and individual players help the group as a whole stay invested in "their" threads. But even in that structure, there are definitely sessions where some PCs are playing the role of supporting characters as the group as a whole zooms in on just one or two threads.

  • Leave yourself a lot of room to improvise! Because the players will do things you don't expect (and it sucks to rob them of agency), but also because you'll have ideas in the moment that just fit better than what you've written down. Ultimately both campaigns I played ended up with endings completely different from the ones I expected, driven by player choices and new elements I introduced halfway through.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Full disclosure: I eventually found this style of GMing to be a lot of work for not enough payoff, so I switched to not pre-writing anything at all. But those two campaigns worked out pretty well. (Much better than the games I played afterward, when I convinced myself I wasn't "pre-writing" but was still doing a ton of it without recognizing that's what I was doing, to be honest!) \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Feb 24 '17 at 16:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ The TV show analogy indeed fits well, I'm almost embarassed not to have noticed that! There probably is some difference between the passive nature of TV vs actively participating in driving it forward, which I'll put some thought into. Thanks for your personal insights, too. I'm having lots of room to adapt, it really is just a rough sketch of a framework that will be expanded on a per-session and per-adventure basis. \$\endgroup\$ – TheNickOfTime Feb 25 '17 at 9:29
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I will rephrase your question, and tell me if I have it right: "How many plot arcs can I have, and over how long a time period in real life, without confusing/boring the players?"

Rather than give you my own thoughts, I will summarize the thoughts of the Angry GM from this excellent article about plots in campaigns, as well as his advice on how to write single-session adventures and oneshots.

What Is A Plot?

To get it out of the way: simply, it is a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

The Sliding Scale of Episodic Plots

In terms of continuity, there are two extremes Angry considers: a campaign with a single, strongly unified plot; and a campaign made of a series of completely unrelated adventures, but which form a unified story when put in the proper order.

A third classification is the "no plot" story -- just a story made up of mostly filler episodes that do not relate to the main narrative, interspersed by adventures that do.

This is important to discuss, as to answer the question "how many plot arcs?", we need to come to an understanding of what is a plot arc. The above is a description of how many arcs can be put in a single narrative.

An Alternative Classification

Now we "know" how many plots can be put in a story, let's describe the types of plots you might deal with by describing the relationships of the arcs with each other.

  1. Plots that have subplots which drift into and out of the main story

    • These stories have sub-stories which tie into the main plot in some way, but do not directly advance the main plot itself. The resolution of a subplot affects the main plot in some way instead.
    • Example: Deep Space 9
  2. Plots that evolve; Plots that thicken

    • These stories have a single plot "thread" which changes over the course of time. So, in the beginning you had to throw that Jewel into the lava, but now you've learned it also houses the Spirit of Love or something, you have to instead steal it and set that Spirit free.
    • Examples: How To Get Away With Murder, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things
  3. Plots that are completely episodic ("Monster of the Week" formula)

    • These are plots that have a self-contained story, and do not necessarily relate to one another in a sequence. Think, sitcoms. You can watch those episodes in any order and still get it, as each episode is a self-contained story. But these stories still clearly do have a main thread that directs the overall story as well.
    • Examples: CSI, Supernatural (1st season), Star Trek
  4. Plots that have "filler arcs"

    • These stories have multiple sessions where nothing is really advanced in the main plot, but you're resolving "filler plots" instead. Then, every once in a while, you have an actual subplot that does advance the main plot.
    • Example: X-Files

This is important to discuss as it lets you pry apart plot arcs from each other. For example, the story you describe sounds a lot like #1 and #4.

Why Do We Need To Talk About How Many Plots and How They Mix?

Well, for the simple reason that players want variety. You need serious plots and lighthearted plots, intense plots and relaxed ones, fast and slow ones. A single plot may get too jarring or monotonous after a while if there is nothing to spice it up, no variety to add to the mix.

Looking into the structure of many shows, you can see this principle applied. To quote Angry:

For example, I’ve been working my way through 30 Rock lately. I love that show. Many, many episodes followed a standard practice for TV shows by putting the two mainest of the characters, Liz Lemon and Alex Baldwin, into two separate stories. The show would jump back and forth between the Liz and the Alex plots, and they would both get wrapped up in the end. Friends and Grey’s Anatomy would both usually go further and have different groups of characters involved in three different plot arcs throughout and episode and bounce back and forth between them.

The idea is, pace and variety keeps players engaged. You do not want to bring only a single plot and drag them through it, as that can become monotonous. Now, I know you have multiple plots lined up already. This is more for clarification that we are on the same page, as well as for other readers of this answer. Knowing how many plots you have, and what your plots actually are, is important.

How Many Plots Should You Manage?

Now that we have a shared, intuitive understanding of what a "plot arc" or "plot thread" means, the answer will be more meaningful. After all, someone telling you "ten is the right number of plots" wouldn't make any sense without the prerequisite shared context.

So, here's the answer to your question. According to Angry, the sweet spot seems to be between 3 to 5 simultaneous plot arcs in your campaign. Less than 3 bores the players -- too little going on. More than 5 confuses them -- too much stuff happening. An easy way to achieve this number is to get each player's story (say, in a 4-player campaign), smack them altogether into a single campaign, and add a 5th story of your own.

Check this with your own experience and players, to see if the same is true for them. I personally have never been on a campaign with more than 5 plots happening at once, but I have been on some where there was only 1 or 2. I got disengaged from those stories rather quickly as there tended to be nothing "interesting" about them to me. But, again, check with yourself first if this number makes sense.

How Much Time Should Each Story Cover?

Again, falling back on Angry's wisdom, we can observe that the average length of a short US series runs 6 months, and a complete series runs a year. Thats 12 to 24 episodes -- 12 to 24 sessions, for your RPG -- IF you're running an episodic campaign. This number is based only on his experience and gut feeling, however, Again, check with your own experience.

The bigger point is, every plot arc has a timed life. If you want to run your game for more than a year, be sure to evolve the plot. In your case, since you are planning on what looks like an episodic plot, the 6 months to a year window seems to be the right fit for you.

Bonus

Yes, it is feasible to have subplots which are peripheral to the main plot. These are plots #1 and #4, which sounds like the campaign you've already designed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your rephrasing sounds about right and opens a bit of a wider perspective on the issue, thanks. I only recently learned about AngryGM, but he's quickly becoming an invaluable resource! As there's not a whole lot going on in terms of personal PC plots, yet, it even sounds like a good idea to introduce an additional layer or two to tie things together and have something going on between the immediate and the elusive toplevel meta-stuff. Thanks a lot for the work you put into this! \$\endgroup\$ – TheNickOfTime Feb 25 '17 at 9:12
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From personal experience? It's pretty heavily dependent on your players. There may well be some upper practical limit to complexity, but to even get that far, you're going to need to have players that are interested in following, understanding, and considering your metaplot as something more than just a curiousity. In particular, this depends on how much attention your players spend on the campaign when not actively at the table, and how often you meet. If everyone has to remind themselves of recent events when they sit down at the table, they're not all that likely to be tracking on long-running subplots.

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There are some good answers here already (@Alex-P) but I just want to toss in my two cents as someone with a background in creative writing and an experienced RPG gamer (tabletop and online)...

First, you mentioned that you have a few "mini-arcs" that are designed as introductions, so my suggestion would be that instead of trying to fit those into your "big" campaign that you instead do a quick "trial" campaign first. That way you can get the group together, give the new players a chance to see how it works and everyone goes in with less expectations/pressure because you all know it's a short "throw-away" just to test the waters. It also saves you the trouble of having to fit it in and will help a lot with making decisions regarding what your group can handle for the larger campaign.

Second, even if you have serious role-players who want a lore-heavy game there is a limit to what people want to have "dictated" to them. So the challenge when handling complex plots and worlds in a gaming setting is being able to give them enough info to move the game along without having to read long scripts and paragraphs several times a session just to set the stage. In my experience people want a fairly brisk pace, you don't have an entire page to describe the clearing where a battle is going to take place... remember: less is more.


Regarding complexity, I would say that having a vague overarching plot is fine as long as you're somehow connecting and referencing it often enough to keep it in the back of the players minds. The challenge is what your group can handle beyond that...

To give an example: let's say we're a group of warriors that have been wrongfully exiled from our kingdom while an evil advisor plots to murder the emperor. That might be our vague overarching plot (find a way back to save the emperor), but our first real layer of story would be "how do we survive in a new kingdom".

That's pretty simple to come up with concepts for:

  • What do we have for food/money/weapons and how do we obtain them
  • Do we know anything about this land and it's politics
  • Does anyone here recognize who we are and would they want to harm us


And so forth. So from there it would be pretty easy to add in things to touch back to the overarching plot: assassins from the advisor, a "quest" intended to subvert our progress, propaganda being spread against the party, etc.

Where it gets complex is when you add in story-lines that only impact the new land. Does the party care about the new land? What is their level of investment in helping people that don't immediately forward their goal? Do they even WANT to go back to save the emperor or do they decide they feel betrayed?

Once you start down the rabbit hole it gets harder to climb out so my advice would be to go no further than a single level of quests in the proverbial "new land" so 2.5 or 3 layers depending on how you count the overarching vague plot. That is still manageable without excessive structure but gives you enough depth to make it interesting.


Finally, just a piece of storytelling advice: remember that players will (intentionally or not) FUBAR all your plans. Every. Single. Time. I was always happy to help with story, but my group was particularly good at completely screwing up the plot and it's one of the reasons I never particularly wanted to GM myself. I always thought the most fun campaigns were the ones that had story but were largely improvised by experienced story-tellers who were able to "roll with the punches".

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