Behind the Screen: Zen and the Art of Plot Building…

2009 June 2
by Dante

Over the weekend, I undertook an endeavor that I’ve not done in quite some time: I put together my own extension of a campaign setting plot. I was using Keep on the Shadowfell as a trial of the 4e D&D rules, and to whet my appetite for adventuring once again and it worked beyond my wildest dreams.

I spent a significant amount of time on Saturday reading through the initial plot notes and encounters that I had created for one of the best campaigns that I had ever run. This inspired me to really put some effort into my fledgling campaign that is just getting underway.

Keep on the Shadowfell gives you a loose campaign setting with some local color around the city of Winterhaven that was begging for me to add some elements to it as I hatched my own plot. I elected to do just that!

The Process

I always start with the important things first: the plot. With the help of my occasional co-DM Kanati, I laid out the general plot points that I want to unfold. From there, I worked backwards to higher level encounters – the bigger fights/events – that would define this plot. After that, I worked back to some glue encounters, which are smaller encounters designed to get the players on the appropriate path.

Encounter Design

All of these encounters are designed in such a way that the players can ignore them or come across them in nearly any order and they still lead them somewhere. A few of them they can explicitly derail and affect the plotline, however based on experience I suspect they will derail some other areas of the plot along the way and that will also change things.

To me, the worst possible thing a DM can do is make the players feel like the plot is unfolding despite their actions. For this reason I use events that are predetermined to happen sparingly in my plots, because in the end the players and their characters should be the focus of the campaign and not the campaign itself. That doesn’t necessarily mean the plot revolves around the players, but the main takeaway is that they should get to affect change within the story.

Last, but certainly not least, I have designed a few encounters entirely for fun and some character development. These are usually true episodic content, designed to be entirely modular and able to be dropped in whenever the fun is lagging or the players need some roleplaying time. These run the gamut from random encounters with friendly NPCs, to random encounters with unfriendly bad guys that can lead to a subplot, to the dispersal of one of the legendary Chuck items created for a specific member of the party. I’ve found that if you want quality roleplaying to happen, this is usually the type of encounter to foster that behavior.

Doing it is all of the battle

For me, the hardest part of doing this process is actually DOING this process. It’s hard to find the time to sit down and plan out plot related elements, let alone design encounters of the varying types I mentioned above. My advice to you is to spend an hour this weekend and try putting your plot to paper.

Work out the motivations of your bad guys, the places they will enact their plans, and some of the collateral damage they will do in the process. Then start stitching these elements together and I will bet you will find success.

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