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Pack Tactics Advice: I’m a homebrew GM. How do I make sure my plots aren’t too convoluted?

Pack Tactics Advice: I’m a homebrew GM. How do I make sure my plots aren’t too convoluted?

It’s time again for the Kobold Press advice column, Pack Tactics!

Our roundtable experts this month are Ben Eastman, Basheer Ghouse, Ben McFarland, Brian Suskind, and Mike Welham.

You might recognize some of these names from Kobold Press products such as the updated Tome of Beasts 1 and Campaign Builder: Cities and Towns. And as contributors to this very blog!

Whatever questions you have about running a game, handling tricky metagame traps, and ruling edge cases, they’ve got an answer. Sometimes several!

Anonymous GM asks . . .

In the campaign I’m running, I have a vision for how it will end. I say “vision” because I want to keep details flexible to coincide with whatever decisions my players take in getting to that ending. My problem is I keep getting excited with ideas on what to put in between them and the ending. What can I do to ensure I’m not making the plot too convoluted?

Basheer Ghouse: If I knew how to stop making my campaigns too convoluted I would be a much better GM!

Given my similar experience, I recommend you try taking some measurements. Over a few sessions you should be able to gauge how much plot development you get done in, say, a month of playing your game. Put a number to that. Now you have a unit of plot you got through.

Take that number and multiply it by the number of months you want to be running this campaign. Then refuse to complicate the plot in ways that will take it past that. Expect some flex, but this should mean your campaign ends eventually instead of growing forever.

Ben Eastman: Don’t get married to the ending you envisioned, by the way. Plot rarely survives first contact with the players.

Brian Suskind: Right, and speaking of players, an important element is to gauge your players. Some groups are very cool with dragging things out, spending more time on side quests and personal roleplaying goals. Others are more focused on completing the overall storyline.

At the end of each session, take a moment to get a feel if your group is sort of done with the current thing and want to move on. If that’s the case, cut the section short and move on to the next one. Always save your stuff, however.

Basheer: When I have ideas I need to cut, I put them in a google doc to use later. When I start a new campaign, or when I’m doing prep after a major milestone in a campaign, I raid the doc for ideas.

Brian: That’s a great idea. If it’s a long-term campaign, you can throw most (if not all) of the things they missed into the next section with a bit of reskinning.

I fell into the “too complicated plot” pit with one of my campaigns. At one point I realized that I had thrown enough plot hooks to fill up a page of text. That’s way too many. In general, I like to have one or two major plot hook (tied to the overall plot line), and then one side hook for each character (usually linked to their backstory). Anything more than that becomes too hard for the players to track, and a pain in the butt for you as GM.

Mike Welham: I admit I’m a pantser when it comes to campaign planning, so my style is very loose. But I also have a general outline of steps to get to the culmination of my plot. If the players decide to chase butterflies, I’ll rearrange things to get them the information they need or to the next major combat to advance the plots.

Ben McFarland: Embrace the convoluted! Just keep good notes. The world is a tangled, complicated mess of factions, splinters, sects, and spin-offs. It’s ok to have dead ends when players don’t follow up. It’s even better when you build a plausible bridge between plotlines and faction-based events.

You just have to be willing to keep the notes, to allow it to contradict when it needs to, and revise it when you want. You’re the lens through which the group views the world, and that works to your advantage.

Mike: Ben is correct. You can never have enough complication in your plots. It’s easier to walk back from something that ends up too complicated than it is to introduce twists after the fact. In my experience, the players will let you know if they’re in over their heads, either directly or by snarking about all the things to keep track of. Invariably, someone likes to get out the corkboard and string to follow along with your machinations, so a complex plot rewards that player particularly.

Brian: I’m not 100% sure I agree with that, Mike. I had the experience of throwing too many plot hooks at my players—so much so that they were almost paralyzed in opportunity—

Mike: How dare you question me! Seriously, though, I get that. I often did keep secrets for my campaigns because I realized it would be too much to spring on players.

Brian: It’s still good to have all of those plot hooks/complications. But the trick—and there is a trick to it—is to hand them out carefully. Only give players the amount they can handle.

Also it behooves the GM to make it clear the “seriousness” of the hooks/complications. Some should have more weight than others. You could even overtly weight them by classifying them as “side quest” versus “main quest.”

Ben E: Split the difference between Brian and Mike . . . plan plot twists for when you might need them, and deploy plot twists when you do need them. Also, save and reuse those unused twists.

The trick is not to overplan, because you’ll frustrate yourself by all the good ideas lying fallow.

So like, maybe a rule of three? No more than three planned twists?

Mike: Agreed. Start with three. Leave your plans flexible. There have been so many times players ignored the thing I thought was crucial to the campaign in favor of something I mentioned in passing. I don’t like railroading my players, so I’ll incorporate some of their fascinations and theories in my ongoing plot.

Brian: Players ignoring your hints and hooks? I’m shocked!

Mike: “Has this ever happened to you?”

Ben Mc: I’m still on my love of complication. I want complication. I want details. I want a delicious baklava of a plot, layered and sweet and sticky and chewy and nutty. I want a gordian knot of plot threads that leave players wanting the next session with rabid ferocity.

And if there’s a tremble of paralysis, then send mooks through the tavern door with crossbows to shoot their beloved trivia night mascot and leave the bloody-nosed bartender to blubber a relayed warning.

No, you can’t have too much complication in your plots. Even if those gears simply turn in the shadowy background to create side events they barely seem to notice, when you finally bring about your endgame, when your villain springs their trap, the players will cheer at the clockwork masterpiece you have unveiled. And even if the table crumbles, your efforts will fuel the next and the next, until you finally bring a story to its glorious conclusion. Never fear complication, embrace it, glory in it, wrap yourself in it and fly that flag proudly.

What Do You Think?

How would you handle this situation? Let us know in the comments!

Do you have a question for the pack? Let our pros weigh in on your tough questions. Then check back first Friday of each month for more Pack Tactics!

about Jeff Quick

Jeff is Senior Editor at Kobold Press and he runs the blog. Most recently, he was lead editor for the Tales of the Valiant Player’s Guide.
He has his own entry in Wookieepedia.

2 thoughts on “Pack Tactics Advice: I’m a homebrew GM. How do I make sure my plots aren’t too convoluted?”

  1. Don’t forget the journey. Its the meat. The ending is just a pull through the journey with possibly a satisfying wrap up. The complications are the texture of the journey and the place where emotions are engaged and memories forged.

  2. Still new to DMing but I already have in my own homebrew campaign a major side plot that may or may not become relevant.
    If the players continue forever with the main quest than it’s simply going to be a good reminder for me about some of the NPCs and why they are the way they are and that’s fine.

    But if the party ends up either abandoning the main quest entirely or solving it way earlier than expected, or get bored or something, than the accident waiting to happen in the secret lab under the city where the Mayor and some others run experiments on necromancy will happen. A few undead creatures invading the city and a mystery about their origin should be a good enough twist if the party needs new goals. And they’ll be very impressed if they notice that I had planted seeds for it in the Mayor’s attitude before (even if I didn’t plan anything in details beyond who’s involved)

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