Plots for RPGs are tricky beasts to deal with. Too strict and the game is nothing more than a GM’s railroad. Too loose and there is no cohesion to the story for it to feel like it matters.
The ideal plot has structure, but unlike the plot of a novel a game’s plot also adapts to the player’s choices. At the same time these plots need to accommodate the GM’s desire to share his or her game world with the players.
Lately I have been trying to address all of these points by using what I call the “Orbital Path” for my RPG plot designs. To use it you simply draw a series of concentric circles and place points on these circles. Below is a sample.
Each circle is an “orbit”, which is a level of intensity for the game, and populating each ring are plot points or encounters. The outer ring might be populated with level one or easier types of encounters, and the challenge of the plot’s encounters would increase the closer the ring is to the center of the diagram.
Notice that the plot points are connected in two ways, with the first being the orbits and the second being lines that jump from one orbit to another to form a subplot. This way the players can move from one plot point to another, but the move does not always need to move the plot forward. So if the players are not interested in a subplot they have the option to move along the orbital path to another subplot at a challenge level that their characters are ready for. When GMing games like D&D, a single plot point can actually be a dungeon crawl that will level the characters up instead of just a single encounter.
The introduction to the plot begins with the GM using some kind of kicker event or meeting place that results in the players learning of some of the plot points in the outer orbit. To wrap up an entire plot or story arc the GM might decide that multiple plot points must be resolved. In the diagram above I show this by using the red lines, and the only way for the characters to progress to the root cause or final plot point of the plot is to complete all three of the plot points connected by those lines. You can also just have any one of those plot points proceed to the center as well. Just use whatever approach works for your group.
Numbering each plot point allows the GM to keep track of them in his or her notes. Here is an example of what I might have in my notes using this method:
Plot point 6: PCs are in town and are asked to vanquish a ghost in the old junkyard. PCs will learn of the former owner who went crazy and is now in the local asylum (plot point 5), as well as hear rumors about the demon children spotted in the woods nearby (plot point 7). If the PCs are successful in vanquishing the ghost, they will discover the Mayor’s connection to the murder that caused the haunting (plot point 13).
The orbital paths are very much a sandbox type of plot design, but I find that this tool helps me create more cohesive story-lines within the sandbox. The system is a little bit more rigid, but at the same time players have a lot of input with how the story will evolve. Of course you should feel free to abandon the framework that you created with the orbital paths if that makes the most sense for your game, but I have found it to be very easy to return to the framework following a session that broke away from it.
What about you? What do you think of this “Orbital Path” method of RPG plot design? What tools and tricks do you use to design a plot with for your games? Leave a comment below and share with the rest of us your thoughts and ideas on the matter. The more tools that a GM masters for plot design the better his or her games are sure to be!