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World Building 101: Best Laid Plans, Part 2

posted Thursday, September 23rd 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

To continue our examination of campaign planning methods and approaches, it’s necessary to understand that flowcharts, while useful, come with a number of inherent weaknesses as planning tools. They are fairly rigid, ill suited to sudden alterations, and require a lot of work in advance. While it never hurts to be prepared, it’s important to remember that no plan survives first contact with the enemy—or in D&D terms, with the players. What other methods can be used to plan, then?

I have had the good fortune to have been a player for at least as much of my gaming career as I have been a DM, and have seen a variety of different styles in use by different DMs. One particular friend who spent a lot of time in the DM seat was free with his advice for planning—the method he used for planning his games is one that has proven quite valuable. Essentially what he would do is to enumerate each of the major NPCs and their overall goals, as well as their methods of pursuing those goals, and what the outcome would be without the player character’s interference. From there, he said, the trick was simply to react.

This can be an excellent way to give the players both the freedom to act as they wish within the world—simply narrate the logical results of their actions and adjust the plans and reactions of the NPCs to compensate. It is important to make sure that the players have some stake or incentive to participate when you use this method, of course, but that is always true. Unlike flowcharts, there’s no real visual component to this method, either—barring a list of who is doing what, when, and to whom, of course.

One of the potential problems with this technique is that it’s not well suited to every style of game. A campaign focusing around dungeon crawls and exploring as the primary goals would be very difficult to organize in this fashion, and it can fall apart if the player characters chase red herrings or ignore the machinations of the antagonistic NPCs for long enough that the NPCs are able to carry out their plans, it can result in the players becoming frustrated or feeling like they were destined to fail. Also a danger is forgetting that the NPCs are not omniscient—if they react to the interference of the player characters by retaliating against the character’s family or loved ones, that’s all well and good, but only when they can be expected to be sufficiently familiar with the character to know of their ties.

Another approach is to use a matrix of scenes, hooks, and characters that are tied together only loosely—this is similar to drawing a flowchart, though it removes explicit relationships between steps on the path to the goal. Given a starting point and an ultimate goal, you give the players a number of options and let them choose how to proceed through the different scenes and ideas to get the information, contacts, and items they need to ultimately achieve their goal. This method is much more flexible than the flowchart, and lends itself more readily to dungeon-crawl style games than the method discussed above.

To use this method, create a grid of different leads and scenarios that can be approached in basically any order, and let the player characters decisions dictate which of the possibilities from any point on the grid they use to get to the connecting points. You might think of it as a board game, with each square representing a scene or encounter—the players start on one “square” of the grid and move to any of the adjacent squares, following hooks that you include in each scene to direct them closer to the ultimate goal. This allows them to proceed through a potentially nonlinear path, and is less complex than a flowchart detailing every possible relationship between the leads the PCs may follow.

In the sample matrix below, a small town is rocked by the disappearance of a young noblewoman. The players may choose to begin their investigation at any of the points at the top—the girl’s family may know something helpful, or the creepy old man who seemed to be following her around, her boyfriend, or the last spot where she was seen before she vanished. They might follow any path through the grid—including lateral motion—to reach the ultimate conclusion of the adventure, discovering that the girl and her boyfriend were engaging in forbidden dark magics together, and the old man was a travelling cleric who had suspected this truth and was seeking proof.

The missing girl’s family The creepy old man The girl’s boyfriend The scene of the crime
The diary summons a ghost! Attacked by zombies, the old man in danger! After leaving, skeleton ambush! See the girl in the distance, running away!
The old graveyard! The ruined library The local witch A scary cave!
The royal crypt is inhabited by spirits The boyfriend has learned necromancy, and guards his secrets jealously The girl was secretly studying magic, but has learned the witch’s true name and controls her! The magically defended hideout!

The advantage to this method is that it ensures that there will be multiple possible paths for the players to follow—unlike using a flowchart, it is impossible to have a straight-line progression from scene to scene. Wider or deeper matrixes are also possible; the above is a very simple example at best.

These are only a few possible planning techniques—many more exist, and you may find that a mix of any or all of the tools described here works best for you. Very few DMs can run a good adventure with no planning whatsoever, but it can be surprising how little planning becomes necessary once you’ve got the hang of it. Planning ahead lets you incorporate your setting much more deeply into the adventures you run, since it gives you the chance to scribble some notes for each scene or character that tie into your campaign setting and give that little bit of extra detail that makes the world of your game feel alive.

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