When I was a younger GM, I ran a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles campaign.  I came up with a lot of great story arcs, but I would get so excited about them, that I ran them too fast. I burnt through several storylines so fast, that I had to reboot the campaign five times. Call it excitement, call it youth, but I got so excited about the story arc that I created, that I would take something that should have lasted a few months, and run it in just a few weeks.

For years, this lack of story pacing plagued me as a GM. Everyone liked my stories, but my campaigns never lasted very long because of the speed at which I ran though my plots. I would go through all my great ideas in a few months, and then burn out. It frustrated me, because I never could get that long campaign that I always wanted.

All that changed for me in the early 90s when I found my guru of story pacing:  Chris Carter. You might remember Mr. Carter from a little show called “The X-Files.”  Love it or hate it, “The X-Files” is a great model for campaign pacing. So, let’s take a look at how pacing was done in “The X-Files,” and then we can see how it applies to your own campaign.

The Truth Is In There

X-Files episodes fall into two types of episodes:  The Mytharc, or Mythology, and the Monster of the Week. The Mytharc centered around the conspiracy that Cigarette Smoking Man, Mulder’s father, and the original Deep Throat were part of, and how it related to the disappearance of Mulder’s sister. The Monster of the Week episodes were often just single episodes that contained unrelated stories.

If the Mytharc episodes had been done back to back, it is doubtful that they would have made up more than 3 seasons of episodes. Instead, the show lasted 9 seasons. How did 3 seasons of story last 9 seasons?  Dilution.

What Carter and the X-Files writers did, was to space the Mytharc episodes out by putting Monster of the Week episodes in between. The effect is that the Mytharc story arc was diluted and went farther.

Diluting Your Plots The Carter Way

How do you take the concept of Dilution and apply it to your campaign?  It’s going to take a little upfront planning. The first thing you need is an outline of your major story arc, broken out into 5-7 sessions. Then you are going to need a short list of individual stories; things that you can run in 1-2 sessions.

As an example, let’s look at a story arc that involves a plot of a religious cult to release their deity from an ethereal prison. After some brainstorming the outline looks like this:

  1. The Cult attempts to kidnap the Captain of the Watch
  2. The Cult infiltrates the Thieves Guild
  3. The Cult smuggles a set of religious artifacts into the city by ship
  4. The Cult kidnaps the Princess
  5. The Cult attempts to open a portal to their deity using the artifacts and the Princess in a ritual

Taken back to back, there are only five sessions for this story arc. If you are playing weekly, this is just over a month’s worth of story.  In a bi-weekly game this would be just over two months of story. Not bad, but this is an intricate plot and one month does not do this type of story justice.

Now, Using dilution, we can lengthen the story arc with some individual stories:

  1. The Cult attempts to kidnap the Captain of the Watch
  2. The Heroes rescue some merchants who have been attacked by bugbears
  3. The Heroes help an older mage collect some dangerous spell components
  4. The Cult infiltrates the Thieves Guild
  5. The Heroes go on a quest to find a friend who has gone missing
  6. The Cult smuggles a set of religious artifacts into the city by ship
  7. The Heroes find a lost wizards tower
  8. The Cult kidnaps the Princess
  9. The Cult attempts to open a portal to their deity using the artifacts and the Princess in a ritual

Now with the addition of four individual stories we have stretched out this story arc.  Run weekly, and we now have over two months of stories.  Run bi-weekly we have 4.5 months worth of story.

Advantages of Dilution

Diluting your story arcs has the following benefits:

  • Less Brainstorming Needed–with your story arcs lasting longer, you won’t have to brainstorm new ideas as quickly. This will aid in preventing burn-out.
  • Creates Anticipation–spacing out story arcs makes the players anticipate the next episode of the main arc.
  • Increases Player Investment–when players have to wait to confront their enemies it increases their emotional investment in the game .
  • Creates a Sense of the Passage of Time–by spacing the individual stories out, you create the feeling of the passage of time.  For more complicated plots, having that feeling of the passage of time often makes the plot seem more realistic.

Advanced Dilution

When you have the Dilution technique worked out, and have tried it a few times, you can try the more advanced version. Dilute one story arc, with another story arc, in essence braiding two story arcs. Get real fancy and into the braided story arcs, sprinkle in a few individual stories and your campaign stories not only last longer, but your campaign becomes more complex, in a good way.

Go Forth and Dilute

The Dilution technique is an easy way to get more mileage out of your storylines and to stretch your your plots so that you do not burn through them so quickly. It requires a small bit of upfront planning, but that planning can provide you months of story ideas.  Now take that great story arc that you just came up with and dilute it out.

Tell us about your experiences with story pacing.  Are you using dilution or another technique?