We’ve discussed how we structure campaigns before. In that post, I drew the analogy of a book, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. Actually, almost all fiction is like this. There’s a specific narrative arc with a climax and a denouement. This is a healthy shape for a story to have and, remember, our philosophy is that RPGs are about telling stories together (in addition to escapism, etc.). This is the shape that has arisen from people having told each other stories for the entire history of human communication. So Stewart and I see no reason not to plan for that shape.
The Way We Don’t Do Things
The antithesis of this shape is what we’ve experienced and heard about in other games: There’s a group of people who’re working together for more or less well explained reasons towards more or less well explained goals and they go about bumping into exciting situations and resolving them until people get bored. Each adventure is generally self-contained with the only things that seem to carry over from one adventure to the next is loot and characters (plus some experience points or whatever equivalent in the system in question). The power level creeps up over time and eventually, the story jumps the shark.
The reason behind this inevitable shark jumping is that the narrative arc wasn’t considered from the get-go. What I’m asserting, here, is basically that the Campaign be scaled down (from a theoretical infinite duration) and the adventure be scaled up such that the entire Campaign is one big adventure. Rather than a TV show with an episodic structure where each week’s installment has it’s own little arc, think of the campaign as an entire season of something highly serial like Lost or of a feature length movie. I’m not, by the way, ruling out the idea of sequels (or additional seasons), here. Stewart and I haven’t experimented with that idea, but we’ve discussed it and that’s another post.
Playing in Three Acts
Stewart and I also talk a lot in terms of three acts (I’ve heard screen writers talk in these terms, too). The first act is generally about the PCs reacting to events that’re happening to and around them. You might call it the Reactive phase. The players are still learning the campaign world and their character’s place in it. Thus, the characters aren’t taking a whole ton of initiative. You’ll know that you’re still in this phase if you keep having to plan for new things to happen to the PCs. By that metric, some campaigns never leave this phase, which is a symptom of campaigns that aren’t using the narrative arc.
The second act is about the PCs discovering details of What’s Really Going On. You might call this one the Discovery phase, even though that’s not an adjective. The players will start showing some initiative, but it’s mostly in investigation type tasks. Often, the players (or characters, depending on how you look at it) will want to know something or get something done, but not be sure how to get it done yet. There tends to be at least a little bit of player thrashing, which I don’t view as evil in small doses. Not only will you have to plan less things to happen to the PCs, you’ll be less able to plan ahead and that ability will diminish as you approach the third act.
The third act is where the PCs really get some solid handles on affecting events. This one’s the Active phase. They know who the major players are, know (mostly) what those people want and how it differs from what they, themselves want. That’s key: the PCs know enough to have set a pretty specific goal for themselves. This won’t be “Defeat Professor Squid.” It’ll be something like, “Steal Prof. Squid’s Freeze Ray (not an Ice Beam, that’s all “Johnny Snow”), find a way into his secret undersea lair and wait to use it on him until after he’s prepped the explosives on the moon so that we can secretly use them to threaten the President if he doesn’t change his anti-Supers policies.” This plan of theirs is basically what they spent the entire second act building up. This act includes, perhaps obviously, the climax and denouement.
The acts don’t have to be of equal length or even have clearly defined boundaries; they’re a planning tool for the GM before hand and a management tool while you’re running the campaign so you know how to adjust pacing and things. Don’t get too caught up in which events fit into which acts, but pay more attention to how the PCs are acting and what they need from you based on that.
What You Get With Your Purchase
I find it really helpful, personally, to have a finite scope. If I have some boundaries, it helps me figure out what all the coolest parts of the campaign world are and work them in. It ensures the highest density of rockmost. If you come up with a cool idea, you figure out where to put it, rather than maybe putting it off for later because you want to space out cool events.
Additionally, I like to play in different settings and switching settings after a satisfying ending is much better than just after the previous one kind of petered out. Knowing the ending is coming lets you know when to start planning the next one, and sets everyone up in the mindset that there’s new stuff coming. Players might have suggestions on this topic, etc.
Relatedly, if you’ve got this central conspiracy or plot the ending of which is tied to the end of the campaign, it creates a nice arc that can act as a framework for each of the characters to build their own arc off of. It encourages and allows–some might argue demands–character development. With an end in mind, you can aim to help one player tell their character’s Coming of Age story and another’s Learning to Trust story and the third’s Self Discovery story.
The reality is, your campaign will end. It just can’t go on forever. If you plan the ending and have it in mind as you go along, you can use it as a tool to make your campaign better.