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About story arcs and how to make them


Been noticing a trend in my campaigns -- my first was a sandbox merc game without much connection between the episodes, the next three I ran were "official" published adventures (Beltstrike, TTA and SotA). I want to plan my own campaign to break the mold, but I don't want it to be another sandbox with no story arc.

So... to have a story arc we would need to define factions and their long-term goals. I've detailed the following campaign synopses that would mainly involve one other faction (besides the PCs and the faction they represent):
1) They are working for a faction and are involved in a long-term project (colonization, mining, exploration, warfare etc).
2) They stumbled upon a mystery or enigma regarding a faction and they look to resolve it.
3) They have the faction as an enemy and are trying to resolve the problem while fending off attacks.
4) They are stranded in one place and are working towards eventual escape while trying to complete their initial job for a faction that got them stranded here. Or alternatively, the faction is preventing their escape.

About 99% of all published campaigns I've ever read or read about are combined from elements of the above. So, what makes each campaign unique? Besides the scenery, I mean.

Obviously, the fact that the player characters aren't the only ones on the scene. Let's detail that other faction and see how we can tangle it with the four cases above.

Firstly, the favorite tool of all Referees, a (mega)corporation.
#1 goes nicely with players working a project for one corp while avoiding the rivals' meddlings and local troublemakers / natural hazards.
#2 is for corporate intrigue; players get a clue to something happening and they become motivated to uncover the whole picture and then profit from that knowledge.
#3 is when a corp tries to bury an incident and the PCs are witnesses.
#4 is "stranded survey team scenario" which could easily stretch into a long campaign with overarching plots from the other three arc types. The alternative makes it a campaign where the PCs are barbarians and the corp is working their homeworld.

Secondly, Imperial authorities.
#1 could be a bounty hunter campaign, with eventual build-up leading to larger scale operations and hidden connections between enemies.
#2 governments have their dirty secrets too. Could be revolving around potential Imperial intervention, or working to avert some disaster that's due to happen.
#3 is your classic "on the run from the law while trying to prove your innocence" campaign.
#4 just look up Prison Planet

Thirdly, indigenous populations.
#1 could be a logical extension of a classic "help the rebels" merc ticket into a wartime campaign.
#2 just look up Safari Ship
#3 could be a logical extension of a classic "squash the rebels" merc ticket into a wartime campaign.
#4 is basically another "stranded survey team scenario" except this time they are caught in local politics of the natives instead of it just being natural hazards.

There's obviously more. Crime syndicates, religious organizations, the Zhodani...

Just putting my thoughts up here, maybe someone will find this useful or want to add to it. More campaign synopses/more complex campaign synopses/faction ideas are always welcome.
I flowchart my campaign arcs. The players always have several branches they can tangentially charge off into, yet all the branches eventually trace back to the original plot line. I write the whole thing out as it would happen if the players never entered into the scheme of things and then turn them loose. Essentially, I know how it will start, how it will end, and where I can (if I have to) nudge them gently back on course....how they get from A to B is up to them and it is in constant flux as the players chase down rumors, facts, lies, etc..

In mystery games I've even had the players come up with the wrong theory about what is happening and it has been more interesting than my original plot - so I toss mine and work theirs into the campaign with added bits to keep them off balance.

I come from the realllllly old school of RPG's - like the year they hit the market. None of us wargamer types knew how to play them 'right', and the games back then where a heck of a lot more open-ended than today. You've seen the original LBB's...D&D was even sketchier. But what we always came back to was the group story-telling thing. It meant we had to (as a ref) not be so caught up in our awesomeness that we wouldn't give part of the stage to the players. They are the stars after all.

I still do that today, which is a huge reason why I never moved beyond CT (I like its generic open nature) and only ever ran a couple of the published adventures. I like to have enough info out there that the players "live" in the campaign, yet not so much as they know it all - and more importantly, I like to know everything in advance and have minute control over it all so I can run things off the cuff.

Allowing player suggestions and ideas - even if 'wrong' a little into your game starts to help make it their world, too. The more they play, the more their adventures will affect the NPC's, great and small, in the campaign. Players will want a few places to hang out at most of the time, places conducive to their needs. Make a few. Tell them what they are and establish that those have been their hangouts all along, but if they change to somewhere else let them. As you play you'll need to add more "regulars" as NPC's. I classify them in three tiers: bullet-magnets get walk-ons, semi-regulars provide useful skills and a few lines but may not make it past the first game or two, and guest stars who have a full a background and personality as any PC.

Once the players get established the adventures really become self-generating as the tick people off, save others, seek help from a patron who then comes to them for a favor which then gets them involved in more nonsense with guns and lasers.....it goes on. The key to all that for me has been to write a framework for the arc, then just modify it and let it all grow organically as things progress. By then end of every session I usually have ended up with two or three new things to tack in somewhere as the players stir the pot. So long as I have the barest framework of a plot I know at all times where things need to go eventually, and since the events tied to time tables are tied to NPC's and not the players, it rarely matters if the players hit the marks. If they do, great its adventure time. If not, then the ripples will probably catch up to them directly or indirectly (via another NPC) and then it will be more adventure time.

Just don't be so invested in reams of fine print detail so you have flexibility. You don't want to paint yourself into a corner in case the players are a little thick. Always smacking them with a cluebat just makes for a frustrating game for everyone.

For example: in my new campaign I want the players to eventually hook up with this rich dilettante type who has built a fancy exploration ship. Eventually I want the players to crew that ship and do some exploring in some areas along the frontiers looking for artifacts. There are others doing the same so its a sort of race once the players become aware of it, or the NPC tells them if they are not getting it. Eventually this leads to some secret about one of the races in my game that could shatter their culture if they find out - because these aliens don't know this thing about themselves and it is a doozy for them. Now some of the aliens in this race do know the secret and most of its implications: to the race and outside it. This secret will also unlock three subsectors across a 12 parsec rift that is something new for me to run. The unlock will be pretty scary, involve a missing Imperial expedition, and has implications for the entire Terran Empire's survival.

Now that's a lot of stuff. If I wrote it out in detail I'd just publish it as a book. Instead I have a chart, timetable, lists of NPC's and where they are that know something (or not, or guessing, or scamming, or all of the above), and a couple of pages of background for the players so they understand how the universe they've lived in for thirty years has worked. Now it will be up to them to help me fill in the details as they move around in that universe. By the time I'm done with one of these (one lasted two years - about 50+ sessions) I kinda have that book compiled. Lots of new NPC's. Lots of worlds fleshed out better than before.

Anyway, that's how I do it and my advice. It is no doubt worth what this virtual ink cost but the above has worked for me for several decades in all manner of RP genres.
Here are some ideas.

First, one thing is to consider how deeply your players roleplay.

A great driver of human choices is human needs. Needs make people willing to take risks, like looking for the Big Score, breaking someone out of jail, guarding bigwigs on a dangerous journey, performing security in a crappy counterinsurgency, etc.

* Taking care of basic needs (not wanting to scavenge through Startown garbage cans for food).
* Paying bills (we need to maintain our ship so we don't get stuck on this rockball)
* Working toward personal goals (I want to save enough money to start a business on a nice world so I can have a family and not spend another week after week in jumpspace listening to the same arguments and stupid jokes, and then dying in some forsaken low tech hellhole trying to break someone out of jail)

Another driver is relationships. The player characters might not want risk, but people they won't let down need their help.

* The Big Score. Someone they care about is going after the Big Score. He has the money, he has a good plan, but he wants them to go with him. The characters know he won't make it without a loyal crew, and they don't want to let him down.

* Stand By Me. There's trouble on Planet X. Business associates, family members, whoever is in trouble. This could be political harassment, criminal attacks, unethical cutthroat business competition, etc. The antagonists have to be beaten, or the associates will never be safe. For a tradewar, the story arc could go:
1) open up new markets to bring in much needed profits to stay afloat
2) spy vs. spy to discover who is the competitor out to destroy the associate
3) tradewar action against the competitors who are out to crush the characters' associates
4) going undercover for the MoJ
5) humanitarian action to help the people affected by the trade disruption
6) the final conflict (military, a gangfight, a stock buyout and dramatic confrontation, etc.)
7) resolution (the associates are ok and now the characters have a partial stake in the business.

Unfortunately most player characters are psychotics who don't have needs or relationships and live for their next fix of violence.

So here's another one, the impersonal forces of history.

There are events in motion which are bigger than they are and don't give a damn about their plans. Examples include:

* The subsector where they operate is riven with political strife, and no one will be allowed to stay neutral. If the characters don't pick a side they'll be enemies of both sides. Imagine one noble against another equally ranked noble for control of the subsector. The conflict can be violent or focus mainly on intrigue with occasional shocks of violence. Was one noble's main banker killed in a Solomani extremist bombing, or was it a targeted assassination under a false flag?

* New commerce routes open, leaving marginally profitable planets to fend for themselves. Profiteering free traders are draining them dry and laughing about it. The characters, for whatever reason, are convinced to work with the affected planets to build up their own industries, survive and prosper.
Another method is to have a storyline that focuses on one or two of the players with the others having to contribute to their success.
This is like in a story or novel where you have a main character that drives the story.
You give the main character a quest / mission of some sort and then set the outcome dependent on that character getting the help of the others to succeed.
If you have all the players focused on some personal goal for their character alone you end up most times with chaos. The problem is getting a group together who are narcissistic psychopaths who see the answer to everything as using their fusion rifle and grenades as the solution.

Adding small side stories to allow all the characters some action helps. Using players other than the main character to obtain critical information means more party interaction. Does the ship's engineer share what he learned in a bar with the party or not?
No? Then it may impede success. Yes, it might lead to new problems.

Never make the story line black and white. Always leave some doubt about things for the players to resolve on their own? They need to be the ones deciding to take a chance or not.