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Short Sessions: Managing Subplots

As I said in the first Short Sessions post [1], subplots can eat up a lot of time and hijack the entire session. As subplots tend to only involve one or two characters, this could also sideline a good chunk of the party while one or two players hog the spotlight. To much subplot time can also drag out an otherwise tight adventure.

However, as Troy pointed out in the previous comments, cutting out the subplots also cuts down on a lot of character interplay and development. Some players only make time for short sessions because they really enjoy delving into their characters; robbing them of this opportunity will only make the session less fun. Good subplots also add interesting dimensions to the campaign, and you don’t necessarily want to remove them.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned when incorporating subplots into a short session:

Begin with the subplots. Subplots can be great tools for providing hooks for the rest of the session. Need a PC downtown when the demon runs amok? She’s meeting the old college ex-boyfriend for lunch. The PC needs obscure information? His roomate, from whom he is trying to keep his magical abilities secret, has an uncle that owns a used bookstore in the university district that just happens to have a decent occult section. Starting with subplots allows the players to do a little subplot development from the outset and funnels them right into the meat of the session.

Thread subplots into the main plot. Subplots can be satisfying for players without distracting from the main adventure. They also make excellent complications. Does a police detective have an axe to grind with one or more PCs? Have him begrudgingly work with them to defeat a supernatural threat.  Is a PC superhero trying to keep his identity as a U.S. Senator secret? Have him be part of a Senate delegation kidnapped by supervillains.  Is time of the essence? Have a recurring adversary choose now to interrupt the PCs. Using subplots in this way allows you to advance a subplot without taking time away from the adventure.

When subplots do crop up, concentrate on the purpose of the scene and handwave the rest. In a short session, you don’t have much time for Decker Syndrome*.  Unfortunately, advancing a subplot can be the most enjoyable part of a session for some players, and they will want to address it and milk it for all they can. In these cases, I use a method adapted from Primetime Adventures. I’ll ask the player what she hopes to accomplish in the scene and concentrate on that. Once the purpose is addressed (which I try to limit to a few minutes), I’ll handwave the rest of the scene.

Use subplots to give a distanced PC something to do. Sometimes, a situation will pop up that keeps some of the PCs from participating in a scene. In a Delta Green campaign, for example, maybe only the government agent PCs can attend the briefing or investigate the initial crime scene. Subplots give the other PCs something to do in the meantime.

Set aside the occasional session for subplot development. Since you’re running short sessions to begin with, taking two or three hours to focus on subplots gives the PCs a little room to breathe and adds character development. If there is a player that isn’t into subplots, you could always give her a quick solo mission while the other PCs advance subplots (I’ve found that many players enjoy being able to influence another player’s subplots).

How about you? How do you use subplots in short sessions?

*In classic cyberpunk settings, a computer hacker (“decker” in Shadowrun parlance) has the ability to jack into a virtual world and confront other programs to accomplish goals. The rules to accomplish this are usually complex, resulting in the computer hacker PC effectively going on a solo adventure for a big chunk of real time while the rest of the PCs wait around (mainly because its happening in microseconds of game time). In my gaming circles, I’ve coined “Decker Syndrome” to mean any part of a game session where one PC is catered to for a significant period of time while the other PCs have nothing to do.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Short Sessions: Managing Subplots"

#1 Comment By BryanB On May 16, 2008 @ 9:00 am

I have often managed to integrate most subplots into the main story arc with some form of linkage. Often times, this doesn’t have to be a direct link at all, yet a direct link can be an effective method. I have examples for what I mean by a direct link and an indirect link.
In my last Star Wars Mini-Series, our Noble character (Jaris) had a sister named Katrina. Katrina was a bit on the wild side, hanging out in places that their Senator step-father would never approve of. Katrina was Force Sensitive and had fallen under the influence of Duron Dronos, the principle villain for the opening mini-series. Katrina eventually appeared in the game as a prisoner of some ruffians, the proverbial “damsel-in-distress.” In truth, she was actually a Sith Adept under the watchful eye of Dronos. She became directly involved in the story and Jaris made it a priority to save her from the dark side. Katrina was a direct link subplot (tied directly into the main plot).
Our Scout character (Doumar) was from the planet Taris. Taris had been devastated by the Sith during the Jedi Civil War. Doumar had spent a couple of years on Taris looking for his family. At the beginning of the game, Doumar was certain that his parents and sister were long dead. During the series, Doumar encountered a Transdoshan pirate/slaver captain that thought he “smelled” a lot like a female he had captured on Taris and had sold as a slave. Doumar also discovered that the likely owner was a former employer that had left him for dead. Thus Doumar uncovered two indirect subplots: his sister was alive but “who knows where” and an old enemy was likely in possession of her. The old enemy eventually emerged as a direct subplot as he was loosely connected with Dronos’ schemes, but Doumar’s sister wasn’t seen until the very end of the mini-series once she was found at a secret smuggling base on Tatooine.
I think sometimes that indirect subplots become direct subplots based upon the player’s focus. If Doumar had convinced the rest of the group to drop everything and find his sister, then it might have become a direct subplot. But Doumar and Jaris agreed that they would try to save Katrina (immediate peril) first, while meeting their obligations to the Republic, and then find Doumar’s sister at the earliest opportunity. So really, you might say that the player’s decided which subplot stayed indirect or became direct.

I hope that made some sense. 🙂

#2 Comment By Grogtard On May 16, 2008 @ 9:38 am

For most games, we’ve gone with a sort play by email system for subplots that involved a single PC. Other subplots get rolled into the main plot.
For Cyberpunk and Shadowrun, I house ruled that deckers and hackers were npc’s only. It prevented the side adventure effect plus as a GM it let me have a little better control over when the PC’s would the valuable clues and other information.

#3 Comment By Tommi On May 16, 2008 @ 11:02 am

I try to make the subplots the actual plot; in all likelyhood, players care more about them than anything I would have done, so I’ll just let them do what they want and poke them if things slow down.

#4 Comment By BryanB On May 16, 2008 @ 11:19 am

TOMMI – Nice way to say what I was trying to get at in a much more simple and concise manner. 🙂

As page 290 of Spirit of the Century says, “Whatever the players are interested in is more important and better than anything you came up with. If your ideas are so good that player input ruins them, you should be writing novels instead of playing roleplaying games.”

#5 Comment By MoonHunter On May 16, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

We solve the subplot problem in many cases by two mechanisms

Orbit Characters: These are the extras and minor characters that “orbit” around a player character or NPC. These are co-workers, land lords, bosses, the receptionist, the grocer down the street, the barista he flirts with, cab drivers, all those other lab jockeys, the other librarians, etc. Players who are not involved in a current scene are often assigned to “play these” characters. They are given any information or motivation they might have, and they are let loose to interact with the PCs. The players are awarded extra eps/ bonus dice/ something extra to reward them for playing out these scenes with othe other players. Those bonuses are applied to any one of the player’s characters.

Players like reprising their roles. (And most players like it when other players reprise the roles). In fact, some will even stop playing their main character a moment, just to run their orbit character. Some will take their EPs earned and apply them to the orbit character. It is a fascinating thing to watch.

The Second are Enhanced Minion. Often times a character is inovled with a minor conflict elsewhere which excludes everyone else int he group. To solve this, the GM assigns players, who are not going to be inolved in what the GM is running, are assigned to various Villians and Minions dealing with this side conflict. (Even if the opposition are just mooks (low level bad guys), someone actually running them with sound tactics and such can make them much more formitable. ) They play out the conflict and do a great job of roleplaying it. (Earned EPs are duplicated between players rewards and villian rewards). The GM can focus on the scenes and plot lines that most of the players are involved in, but not sacrifice the subplot conflict the other PC is inovlved in.

Both Methods allow you to keep players engaged in the game, and still allow the GM to keep the story going for all the players simultaneously.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On May 16, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

Your solution is a great one Moonhunter. It just takes a group that’s willing to step into other characters. It seems like a group full of GMs is a great place to try the technique. Is your group full of GMs?

#7 Comment By sarasuperid On May 21, 2008 @ 11:52 am

One thing we have done, is to have other players take on a temporary GMing hat and run a side subplot scene with the other players. It keeps the excitement factor up, and only requires a few minutes between the temp GM and the main GM to set up.

#8 Comment By age On May 23, 2008 @ 2:15 am

WALT: I like the idea of using subplots to give a distanced PC something to do. I sometimes find that in some sessions, only certain Players are actually “participating” and others become merely “bystanders.” I must remember to keep track of individual character tangents for such times.