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Progressing Side Plots in the Background

When you’re using a campaign model like the octopus [1], in addition to a main plotline or two, you have a number of side plots going at any one time.

Side plots can be events that spun off from PC actions, threads that the PCs ignored (or missed) in favor of other options or simply background events — part of a living, breathing campaign world.

As a GM, I enjoy progressing these plots while the PCs tackle the main storyline, but I have trouble with two things: making the side plots matter to the main game without muddying the waters, and finding ways to show my players that there are side plots at all. And if my players never see them, do they really matter?

Do you keep smaller storylines running in the background in your campaign? How do you handle them? Do your players ever get to see or interact with them?

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#1 Comment By Telas On March 28, 2007 @ 7:42 am

I personally don’t use side plots as a way of saying “hey, don’t forget about this over here”. I prefer to use side plots as a “trial balloon” to see which way the players want to go.

Although once the characters level up a few times, an untouched side plot may recur with some more challenging consequeses.

Telas

#2 Comment By balrog62 On March 28, 2007 @ 7:52 am

I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “side plots”. If you mean alternate paths for the players to choose, then I somewhat do that so that the players have a choice and don’t feel railroaded. If you mean “life continuing on around them ” then yeah, I do that. In that case, I’ll always have a couple of “side plots” going on. In some cases, these actually do become new major plot themes. So that the players know that such things are going on, I put out a sheet before the game which lists events that have occurred which they could have overheard the locals talking about. Of course, this only works if the characters are “in town” between our gaming sessions. But I’ve been told by the players that such information makes the gaming world “more real” to them. And that always helps them to roleplay.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On March 28, 2007 @ 8:27 am

I always keep a running track of NPC’s and world events in the back of my head or on a separate sheet. That way the players can feel like the world is going on around them. Sometimes they hear about a dragon that took out a village while they were off fighting the Orc hordes, etc.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On March 28, 2007 @ 11:07 am

It’s been my experience that side plots tend to disrupt the game. By putting in additional storylines, the attention of the players is drawn away from the main plot. Worse, players often try to make all information fit into the primary line.

Your major story might be about an alien invasion in the not-too-distant future. Most adventures have revolved around recon missions at alien facilities to learn about their technology. Suddenly! the PC with the dark family past finds out his brothers have been kidnapped.

You the GM want the players to break from alien science by connecting them with human issues; the PC’s family links to drug dealing has finally come back to get them, and now everyone will be reminded how important it is to remember the ones they love in these dark, alien times.

It sounds cool and it might work, but it’ll probably confuse the players. They’ve been hitting these alien bases, so obviously it’s an alien abduction! Or maybe it’s a rival government trying to gain leverage over the agents. Etc, etc. The players will try to see every event as linked to the primary story line. If something isn’t, they may simply disregard it, or worse, they might follow it but be annoyed at having to keep track of even more information.

I’ve learned that if you want to have something resembling side plots in your game, these tangents must reconnect with the primary story. They should only appear unrelated for brief periods before the players see how tangent events actually link back into the campaign’s central plot.

Sticking with the same example, let the PC’s brothers be taken. Abduction might come to mind, but they learn instead that a private group, hoping to cash in on alien technology, hopes to hold the PC’s family ransom, hoping that their crimes will be laid at the feet of drug lords by the police.

You can still take advantage of the PCs’ backgrounds without getting too far off of the main event – make every branching storyline reconnect with the primary plot.

#5 Comment By brcarl On March 28, 2007 @ 11:25 am

I agree with Sarlax: if you present side-plots as something that seems important immediately, the players are going to feel torn. If this is something you want, that’s fine, but be careful of making the players frustrated that they don’t have enough information to choose what the “right” path is at the moment.

I also agree that if the players get “side tracked,” somehow that tangent must be tied back to the main story. Even if it’s just finding out that the mini-boss they just offed did work for the BBG, but had a separate agenda, that’s enough for them to think, “Cool, at least we put another chink in the BBG’s armor. Now let’s go git ‘im!”

I suppose another approach is to present a bunch of options and then automatically make the player’s choice be the one that is most important. This requires re-working non-pursued sub-plots to fade a bit, which can be tricky if you had something important planned and then the players don’t pursue it.

Another way to say this goes back to what Wolfgang Baur said in his Adventure Builder article series over on the WotC site: part of the job of DMs is to make the players feel like they have choices — even if they don’t. One way of maintaining this illusion is by making some of their choices fail. Another way is to structure your plot so that the finale can occur at the end of any of the branches.

As with most story/plot issues, all of this is a lot easier said than done. 😛

#6 Comment By Bryan On March 28, 2007 @ 12:37 pm

How about we call them “concurrent plots”?

I have multiple storylines going on at the same time. For instance, there’s the general-store owner trying to become Mayor of Startown — the PCs have met and interacted with her and even helped her along a bit. While they’re concentrating on the main mystery her story is still ticking along and I’ll update them whenever they would hear something new. But involvement with the Mayor story isn’t a diversion from the main storyline, it’s in addition to it.

On the other hand, the gunrunning storyline *looks* like a concurrent story but will come back and link to the main story later on.

I think this might be easier in a homebased campaign, where the PCs live somewhere and can’t be assumed to be on the job every second of their lives.

#7 Comment By drow On March 28, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

that’s assuming that you even have a main storyline. i’ve run a couple of campaigns where everything was more or less a side plot, and the main storyline was built entirely out of them. whatever side plots the party seemed most interested in, wherever i saw opportunities to link them together (or the party connected the dots themselves), that’s how it was built. the final results were pretty strange, and i had to think on the run a lot, but they were fun campaigns.

#8 Comment By Frost On March 29, 2007 @ 8:17 am

I typically only have side plots running that were spawned by players’ actions. They know they started that ball rolling and don’t confuse it with the main storyline. For example, one of the PCs intentionally freed a known criminal and murderer, even though it had nothing to do with the main story line. If they decide to deal with the NPC when he shows up again, they know it will take them away from the main storyline.

There is also a newspaper in my campaign setting that describes events taking places throughout the known world. The players might at any time decide to follow up with one of these stories knowingly taking themselves off the main path.

Quests outside the main storyline are important for my players. All of their PCs have agendas outside the main storyline to advance their careers. But again, these are player driven. When it’s happening, it doesn’t take any time at all for the players and their PCs to know they are on a tangent.

#9 Comment By Martin On March 29, 2007 @ 8:50 am

(balrog62) I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “side plots”. If you mean alternate paths for the players to choose, then I somewhat do that so that the players have a choice and don’t feel railroaded. If you mean “life continuing on around them ” then yeah, I do that.

A combination of both, but primarily the latter. If you’ve got stuff that happens in the background with or without PC involvement, those plots could have started out as either side plots, background elements or even foreground elements that got set aside.

Bryan’s term — concurrent plots — is really much better. 😉

Thank you for the excellent suggestions so far! Based on my GMing style, I think keeping track of concurrent plots in their own notebook/file (John Arcadian’s tip) and only starting up player-initiated concurrent plots (Frost’s tip) would really help me manage them better, and make sure that they had an impact on the game.