Ophelia by John William WaterhouseLast time we looked at how to construct three-act subplots, and I used three example subplots from my own campaign. Remember, you are not limited to any number of plotlines. It’s just a question of how many balls you can keep track of.

Layering the Subplots in a Three-Act Structure

Using the examples from my campaign, here’s how I would layer the three subplots together in an overall three-act structure.

Act One

  • Learning about the Revenant threat and a few first encounters (Subplot C, Act 1)
  • Heroes discover that the hated Council Leader has something shady going on (Subplot A, Act 1)
  • The Redcloaks raid the Hero’s home, forcing them to go on the run (Subplot B, Act 1)

Act Two

  • Hunted by their foes, the Heroes search for a safe shelter (Subplot B, Act 2)
  • The Heroes hunt for an ex-henchman with dirt on the Council Leader (Subplot A, Act 2)
  • The Heroes attempt to track down the source of the Revenants (Subplot C, Act 2)
  • After much searching, the henchman’s daughter agrees to help them (Subplot A, Act 2 High)
  • A minor Council Member takes them in (Subplot B, Act 2 High)
  • They follow a Revenant to an arcane machine producing the foes (Subplot C, Act 2 High)
  • The henchman is murdered before passing along the info (Subplot A, Act 2 Low)
  • Betrayed by her brother, the Council Member is arrested; Heroes almost captured (Subplot B, Act 2 Low)
  • Heroes reveal that many Revenant machines are hidden across city (Subplot C, Act 2 Low)

Act Three

  • Learning the daughter has the info, the Heroes rescue her and get the info (Subplot A, Act 3)
  • The Heroes confront the mastermind behind the machines in his lair (Subplot C, Act 3)
  • The Heroes rescue the Council Member, evade the Redcloaks and get a new base (Subplot B, Act 3)

Layering Subplots in a Staggered Structure:

Now these examples are designed from the start to work together in a three-act structure. Sometimes subplots don’t need the overall structure, though. An example is in an ongoing campaign with no real end point. In those circumstances, you might want to stagger or offset the plot points.

Let’s pretend that the examples from my campaign had nothing to do with each other. If I were to put them in a staggered structure, I would place them where things felt right depending on the Player’s actions.

It could look like this:

  • Learning about the Revenant threat and a few first encounters (Subplot C, Act 1)
  • The Heroes attempt to track down the source of the Revenants (Subplot C, Act 2)
  • Heroes discover that the hated Council Leader has something shady going on (Subplot A, Act 1)
  • The Heroes hunt for an ex-henchman with dirt on the Council Leader (Subplot A, Act 2)
  • The Redcloaks raid the Hero’s home, forcing them to go on the run (Subplot B, Act 1)
  • Hunted by their foes, the Heroes search for a safe shelter (Subplot B, Act 2)
  • After much searching, the henchman’s daughter agrees to help them (Subplot A, Act 2 High)
  • The henchman is murdered before giving the info about the Council Leader (Subplot A, Act 2 Low)
  • Learning the daughter has the info, the Heroes rescue her and get the info (Subplot A, Act 3)
  • They follow a Revenant to an arcane machine producing the foes (Subplot C, Act 2 High)
  • Heroes reveal that many Revenant machines are hidden across city (Subplot C, Act 2 Low)
  • The Heroes confront the mastermind behind the machines in his lair (Subplot C, Act 3)

You’ll notice that the subplot about the friendly Council Member didn’t make it into this version of things. Perhaps the players never made that contact or didn’t trust that NPC enough to make that subplot make sense. Instead of forcing it to continue, I just dropped it.

Don’t Railroad, Adapt!

I’ll say it again in a bold font: Don’t railroad your players. You want them to think they have choices and options and that, indeed, the whole campaign is guided by their actions. So you need to “float” or be flexible as to when each subplot moment occurs.

Nothing is written in stone. The ability to adapt plot points on the fly will greatly aid you in keeping the subplots on track while preventing the Players from feeling abused by the plot. This way, when your players do something unexpected or put two and two together much faster than you thought, you can easily adapt the next subplot moment to fit the current circumstance or even abandon it completely.

I admit, this can be very difficult to pull off, but when you do it, those moments will be the RPG moments your players will talk about for years to come.

Next time we’ll investigate the importance of noncombat conflicts because, hey, it should never be easy for the player characters.

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