One of my players has been working on learning to GM and has been asking me questions about my writing processes.
I'll be honest, my processes are few - there's not much to my GM'ing beyond "tell a good story". The way I run my games varies pretty widely depending on the group, system and setting.
But on the other hand, I'm not the type of GM who believes every game should be run 100% on-the-fly. The last thing I want to do is sit at a table while the players are looking at me waiting for some kind of prompt for something to happen. It's far less stressful for me to adapt a story to the players than to improvise a story as we go.
The main story technique in my GM bag of tricks, which I've used to write some of my best campaigns, is to write the story as a process map. I use it every time I write a longer campaign of a dozen or more sessions where the story has to have a meaning (If I'm free-wheeling a sandbox campaign, I usually just make up the next adventure after each session). Having a plot beats map lets me pace the reveals in my story while still being completely open to improvise based on the player characters.
Here's how I do it.
Images are zoomable.
Before we begin, let me explain that this technique is not about railroading, it is the opposite of railroading. Prepping a story this way forces you to surrender a good deal of creative control to the players. You must incorporate player discoveries, expectations and character personalities into your plots if you write this way because it's all about beats and not "plot". Your work will be more about organizing events in a story than actual writing of the story. That probably doesn't make much sense, but I think you'll get it before I'm done. Just understand that this only works if you're willing to follow your players' lead with the story.
What is Process Mapping?
You've probably seen character nodal charts. This is a creative writing technique where each node on a flowchart represents a place or character, and the connecting lines explain how they're related. It's great for understanding the characters and their relationships but it does fuck-all for building a story.
A process map, however, is an actual, literal timeline. The structure we're going to be using is called a Deployment Flowchart, if you're tickled by that sort of thing. It's sometimes also referred to as a Swim Lane Chart. Really, it's just a timeline.
Each row of the process map represents one entity involved in a process, and each node on that row represents an event that has to happen for the process to be complete. You can see at a glance where each entity is at any node of the process, even entities not involved in that node. In story terms, you get see everything that's happening at any point in the story, even events occurring in the background.
The sample process map to the right shows the steps in getting a print order done at a print shop. It shows where each department in the shop is involved and what they're doing at each step. (Process maps typically run left-to-right, but for our purposes I'll be running top-down because I'll be using a spreadsheet).
Building a New Campaign
I always start my campaigns with some rough, longhand world building. I begin by free-associating everything I can come up with based whatever idea spark it was that I started with. I write down everything, no matter how silly or unlikely to appear in the game. Scenes, adventure ideas, funny/interesting characters - If it sounds cool, it goes in.
I'll use this list to answer questions about adventuring in the world of the:
What technology do adventurers have available to them?
What does that technology mean in terms of adventuring?
What are the ruling powers and what do they mean to an adventuring party?
What does the world smell like? Taste like? Sound like?
What makes this game world fun and interesting?
What style of adventures best fit this game world?
The answers to these questions help me iron out the setting. In the end, I'll have a decent idea of what I can accomplish with the story I'll be starting with these notes.
This is the point at which I'll go to my players and pitch my idea. I'll give everyone a rough overview of my ideas for the setting and what kind of characters I imagine them playing. If the players seem interested, I’ll try to find out what sort of expectations they have for that game based on their first impressions. Most likely, I'll draw up a Fear the Boot-style campaign template so I have their expectations on paper. What I want is to make sure we're all expecting the same kind of game, but what I value are the new ideas the players have that I hadn’t considered when doing my free-form noodling.
Creating the A Story
Now I switch to digital and start writing the beats of the A story. You might be familiar with those terms, maybe not.
The A Story is the main plot. Typically, in adventure campaigns, the A story looks like this - something is bad coming, the heroes get involved, the heroes overcome. If you want to walk the classic dramatic structure you can, but it's really not necessary in a gaming campaign because character growth happens because of player investment and not because of story.
A "Beat" is a step in the story - an action, character decision, or event - that alters the way the character moves through the story. You don't need a Creative Writing 101 lesson here, just think of your beats as the major events of your story - a fact is learned, a fight happens, an NPC is met, etc.
Using my scribbled list and the player contributions, I'll make a list of 12-15 major events for my main story line. I'm keeping it simple - no worrying about having a monomyth progression or foreshadowing. I just want the most basic progression from introducing the characters and the threat to the climax of the story, all in noun-verb-subject sentences.
“The gang acquires a nuke”
“The volcano erupts”
“The orcs kidnap the king”
I'm focusing entirely on things that happen rather than things the party will do.
My sample notes above revolve around the NeXT battle armors, a complete and total ripoff of the Centurions toys from the 80s, so my A story beats are all about that - the party are chosen for the NeXT program, they train in their new power armors, some villains show up for the party to hate, intrigue happens that the party will get follow until the true villain is revealed for the end of the story. I'll throw in some ED-209 style robots to act as foils early on, maybe make a Robocop conflict between the NeXT armors and the robots.
Once I've got a list of events that I think should happen in the story, I put them in chronological order.
B & C Stories
Now I've got my A story, but it's pretty bland. I'll make the game more interesting by introducing a couple B stories.
A "B story" is what happens alongside the A story. It usually involves interesting NPCs or exotic locations that don't necessarily directly affect the A story but provide information and tools to the characters that help them deal with the A Story. In adventure games, a B story should always leave the PCs with a new tool or bit of information that they can use in the next part of the A story, even if they don't immediately realize it.
B stories are much shorter than the A story. I'll usually try to write two or three B stories in my campaign of 3-6 beats each.
C stories happen completely outside of the A and B stories. They either include things that I want in the game because I think they're fun or interesting or they are one-shot adventures on their own. C stories are usually one beat - single-session adventures, events with funny recurring characters, non-sequitor head scratcher events, etc.
The number of C stories I use depend on how many actionable events there are in the A story. For example, say I have a campaign where the characters are private detectives. The A story revolves around subterfuge that the detectives slowly get caught up in; the beats are mostly fact reveals about the villain's plot rather than actionable events where things happen. In that case, I'll move the action of the campaign to the C story column by making each C story beat an individual case for the detectives to solve while the A story builds.
In our sample campaign, however, the story builds over a series of fast, actionable beats that all take place in the A story. The C stories then are limited to fun things I want to throw into the game just to lighten the mood and keep the pace from being too intense. Maybe I've got an idea for a fun combat around the Statue of Liberty. Or I've got a funny survivalist character I want to be a mentor of sorts for the party. These things will end up in the C column.
Putting it All Together - or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Throw Out the 3 Act Structure
Ok, I've got all my story beats in my spreadsheet and I've ordered them chronologically. The next step is to organize my columns so that they happen in conjunction. When an A story event happens, where are we in the B stories? Where are the C stories at that point?
I'll start by putting my B stories in actual order. While I want the B stories to run in sequence, there are things that may have to happen out of that sequence - a beat from my second B story might need to occur before the first B story is over, for example. I'll shuffle up my B stories so that they mostly happen consecutively.
Next, I want to line up the beats from each story so that each stage is the same in each column - the event at stage 10 in the A story should happen just about the same time as the event at stage 10 in the B story column.
If each stage of the timeline represents one session of gaming, the events at that stage have to happen in the same session. To keep my games from getting choked with story, I've developed a 2-beat rule - no stage can have more than 2 beats on it from any column.
I'll be trying to order my beats so that one column has an event that is the main focus of the session, and if I add a beat to a second column it must either compliment that main event or exist in such a way that it can be logically introduced while that main event is occurring. If I can't find two beats that line up, I'll have a line with only one beat on it.
In the end, I'll have a story timeline; I can pick a point in my story and see what's come before it and what's being set up.
Now I'm ready to game.
Running This Game - or, The D Column
Well, for this part.
No, I couldn't sit down and run this as it is, and that's the point. What I can do is write an opening for this campaign using this story structure, and each week I can write the next session by combining the next beat or two with everything that's happened in the campaign story so far.
My opening is going to be 3 or 4 short "get to know you" adventures - simple, flimsy things that barely consist of more than the most basic problem solving. I know I can write these safely because, in the beginning, the story beats are usually light fluffy things, so I don't need story complexity. I want these early adventures to help get the players into their characters and to give me a feel for the way the campaign will go. Think of these early adventures as the first few scripts of a new TV series - we have a good idea of the setting, but the actors haven't fallen into how they'll be playing their characters just yet.
By the time I've run these intro adventures, I'll have a good idea of how the players are approaching the campaign world. I'll know not only what their capabilities and preferences are but also how they're going to play their characters - do the players enjoy their characters on remote missions or do they prefer to stay around HQ? Is the party digging on sneaky prowly missions or combat fighty ones? Is the party full of gruff and brash heroes or a band of smart-asses with guns?
This is the foundation on which I'm going to write the rest of the campaign.
As it plays.
The rest of the campaign is going to be written weekly. A few days before each session, I'm going to look at the stage of my timeline and I'm going to write up an adventure based on the beat(s) there. I'm going to incorporate everything that's taken place in the campaign before this, including player preferences, and adjust the story for consistency.
And this is where the D column comes in.
Yes, there's a D column. Of course there's a D column.
D column beats are either based on player character actions or they're followups to emergent events from past game sessions. If a player drops a bit of interesting character backstory, or character story happens as part of the order of play, I'm going to try to bring that flavor into the campaign by adding D column beats for it. Or if something interesting grows organically out of actual game play that I think deserves a second appearance, that'll get onto the D list as well so we can circle back around to it.
And, yes, the D column beats can violate my 2-beat rule, but only if it works.
Our example campaign ended up being about 25 sessions long. And if you follow the steps I gave above - a 12-15 beat A story and three 3-6 beat B stories - you'll end up with a campaign just about that length. For my group, that's a short campaign; it might not be for your group.
If you want a campaign much shorter than that, process mapping might be more work than you need in order to accomplish your goal. While you can certainly benefit from mapping an 8-beat A story with one B story, but you don't need to. You can probably keep that straight in your head or penciled into a notebook.
If you want a campaign that's longer, I wouldn't recommend adding more stories, I would just add more beats to the stories you have. Your A story can be padded to 15-20 beats and still be pretty playable; anything more than that and you're probably going to be adding unnecessary fluff that would be better off as B or C stories. And you can stretch a B story out to 6-10 beats before it just becomes its own campaign arc. It's the C and D stories where you can really stretch out a campaign. C stories can be stand-alone adventures, and you can add as many of those to a campaign as the players will tolerate. And D stories are just good campaigning - you should always be giving callbacks to NPCs and events that caught the players' interest.
Final Wordy Bits
You might already see the value I find in a process map style of design, but I’ll put it out bluntly anyway.
Writing this way frees me from worrying about whether the party will do the “correct” thing to get from point to point in the story. I don't care! The story I've written doesn't rely on them and is actually quite dependent on them in order to be interesting. It's purposefully designed so that, without player input, it sucks.
When I write each week's session, what I'm writing is based entirely on what the party have already done. Yes, I've got beats to work in, but that's pacing. It just keeps the story moving forward. The game, however, emerges from the players and characters.
It's half pre-writing the campaign, half improvising. It's the best of both styles. It's pre-provising. Or impro-writing. Or something.
The story exists in a pre-written form, so I always have an idea of where it's going. But because it's written in a way entirely independent of character actions, it's 100% adaptable to those same actions. Character choices are meaningful because they are literally driving the plot. The story will still unfold, but it's following the players' lead.
The story writing doesn't stop until the campaign ends, so it stays fresh and interesting. And the best part is that I may know what story beats are coming up, but it's always a surprise how we get there.
One last thing - there's a reason I work digital for my timelines and that's because I can cut and paste on the fly. I can add to the timeline with D story callbacks, but I can also directly edit the main stories at any time. Part of my session prep for a campaign will be flipping through the upcoming story beats and looking for ways to sharpen the story based on the previous sessions. If I see a better way to introduce a beat, I make changes. If I think a beat will work better in a different order, I move it. If I see a beat or B story that's not going to fit - either because a previous session failed to set it up properly or because the players just weren't interested in it when it was set up - I'm going to remove it.
Process Mapping a story might be a goofy way to write campaigns, but it really works for me and I think it's made me a better storyteller and it's definitely made me more collaborative with my games.
Hopefully, you've picked up at least one idea from my method to make your process better.