Have you ever designed a long, intricate campaign only to have it fall apart before it ever came close to seeing fruition? I know, it’s a rhetorical question. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to end a campaign far short of where I’d planned to end it. It can be frustrating to leave plot threads dangling, especially if you’d put a lot of work into it.

I was reminded of this frustration with my current campaign, where I’ve specifically outlined my main plot points to be vague and malleable to suit whatever direction my players go and my end point is easy enough to move forward if we have to end early. Not only has this taken a big weight off my shoulders, but it’s given me the freedom to change things up as I go.

I’d love to share my campaign with you, but some of my players read this site (imagine that!), so instead I’m going to provide a similar example. I’ll begin this example the same way that my campaign started, with a particular concept.

For the example, the concept is the players being a group of low-powered superheroes helping bystanders and being part of a resistance group in a city under the control of alien invaders. I have visions of a war-torn city where everyone’s movements are monitored and ‘trouble-makers’ are arrested and imprisoned. The enemy is strong, and the world’s best heroes have already been incapacitated or stuck fighting elsewhere, leaving the city in the hands of the PC heroes.

At this point, I don’t even need to define the nature of the enemy beyond broad strokes, since I have to get the PCs to that point. I decide that the aliens want to soften resistance first, so they help local supervillains make trouble and slowly diminish Earth’s defences, one major superhero at a time. The aliens are also infiltrating governments to aid in the invasion. I also know that, at some point, the PCs will be able to mount an offensive to defeat the invaders.

So, in broad strokes, I have four major arcs: the Infiltration, the Attack, the Occupation, and the Final Battle. I also have a general idea of what power level the PCs should be at when they start each arc, but this is only a guide. Each arc can actually take as long or be as short as I need them to be.

For example, in the beginning, the PCs are dealing with empowered supervillains and changes in government (perhaps the aliens decide to push an international “superbeing registration act” in order to gather intel on all the known superpowered characters in the world – they start manipulating votes to ensure the right leaders are in power). If my players really enjoy this arc, then I can string it out as long as I like. If they don’t, then it’s easy enough to move up the invasion timetable.

Laying out the arcs in this way also gives me outs if the campaign has to end quickly. Perhaps the PCs were able to stop the invasion once the aliens realized they were discovered, or maybe the invasion itself is unsuccessful thanks to the PCs.

Keeping things fluid also enables me to shrink an arc that turns out to be un-fun for the players. This example started with me wanting to put the PCs through an occupation. If I get the feeling that my players aren’t enjoying this, then it’s easy enough to get the tools they need in their hands (powerful allies, an opportunity to free a stronger hero, an obvious alien weakness) to jump right to the Final Battle.

Another benefit in keeping arcs vague is that I get to be creative. I can introduce new NPCs and plot elements on a whim, since I know where I’m going but I haven’t completely mapped out how to get there. This enables me to remain creative and work with my players, riffing off what they are enjoying. Maybe they really get attached to an NPC that I hadn’t planned to do much with, or they come up with a cunning plan that liberates their city a little early, requiring the aliens to try and retake it.

So how about you? How do you plot your campaigns? Do you keep it fast and loose or are you a heavy plotter? Have you ever been really surprised at a direction your campaign went? Did it end up better (or worse) than you’d expected?