“Is professor Yell doing this now, or wait, when did I plan to have him introduce that plot point. Oh crap, I was supposed to have the spider queen attack the group after they got the idol, not beforehand. Shoot! Who was it that sent the quicklings after the grey ladies!”
My latest game is NPC heavy, and almost all of the NPCs are politically motivated in some way or another. This puts an extra bit of importance on NPC actions and when they occur. There are a lot of balls I’ve got to juggle, so I’ve been looking for effective ways to do so. To keep things organized, I’ve been doing something that I call timelining.
Timelining, in my version of it as it applies to RPGs, is the act of writing out NPC actions and plans in a generalized order in which they will likely occur. It is drawing out the straight line of action for an NPC or NPC group if everything were to go according to plan.
This is different from merely plotting out an NPCs motivations in one key way. When you timeline an NPC, you begin by taking the PCs completely out of the equation. This gives you a view of their goals and actions, building a version of the character without tailoring them around the campaign or the PCs. You can watch the PCs intersect the NPC timeline and react to the actions, as opposed to building the NPC with the campaign in mind and being tempted to try to constrain the PCs to the pre-plotted courses.
Malvora the Spider queen is the main villain NPC in a space opera game I’m not currently running. I start by writing out Malvora’s Timeline in a very basic fashion. I set up her actions and plans beforehand, making sure to merely think about it from Malvora’s side and not accounting for any way the PCs might be invovled. This gives me an idea of what her actions are and what she is planning.
Malvora’s Initial Timeline (Sans PC Interference)
- Malvora hears about the Techtron Modulator, a device that works out the equations she has been missing for time travel drive her scientist’s have been working on.
- Malvora sends Denarius, her lieutenant, to capture the device. He ambushes Doctor Ferris at his lab one night.
- Encountering little resistance, Denarius brings the device back to Malvora.
- It takes her scientists 3 weeks to decode the device’s security and make the device ready.
- Federated Earth Council forces mount an attack against Malvora’s fleet, attempting to recover the device or destroy her fleet.
- An epic battle ensues, but Malvora is able to hold the forces off long enough to get the device working for one jump.
- Once the device is ready, Malvora is able to use her fleet’s flagship to jump her fleet through time. It takes a lot of effort and material to do so. She requires massive amounts of Macguffin X, a fuel that must be refined and is semi-rare, to do so. She jumps to a safe location and is able to stock up enough fuel to begin her universal time war.
- Malvora begins a conquest of planets, taking them over at the peak of their industrial revolutions. This gives her well developed slave planets who can work and have tech, but who are not at high enough levels to overcome her forces.
Ok. So we’ve got a timeline of Malvora’s plans without PC interaction. We know what her general plan is and what steps there are from the beginning to the end of Malvora’s plan. We have a general idea of other factions which might act against her and how that might go. The backbone of the next couple of sessions is built out, and ready to get decimated. She is a much more organic NPC than if we had written her out while thinking about the campaign and how she will act towards things the PCs are likely to do.
The PCs actions can intertwine and screw up Malvora’s plans all to high heck now, but we have a base for what Malvora intended. If we introduce the PCs to the game by having them foil Denarius’s theft, we can take this timeline and extrapolate the changes that the PCs bring. If they fail and Denarius gets away with the device, then we know that it will take the scientist’s 3 weeks to decode the security on the device, giving room for the players to pursue the action in their own ways or giving us hooks based on what occurred in the previous game. Maybe Dr. Ferris hires them. Maybe the FEC forces throw the PCs in jail, misinterpreting the situation.
With an approach like this, Malvora gets a chance to grow and be affected by the PCs actions instead of allowing predetermined outcomes to cage the PCs in.
An NPC’s timeline is fairly linear to start with, but as things get changed the
timeline becomes more of a flow chart. The NPC is still trying to fulfill their plans,
but they must accommodate for the the continual changes create.
Why I Find It Useful
Timelining out an NPC’s plans this way is much more work than I normally do for NPCs, and it does create more work as the game goes on. However, it has one huge advantage to me: The NPCs grow along with the PCs. They aren’t static creations meant solely to hinder the PCs. In a game like the one I am currently running, that is a wonderful thing. The players know that the NPCs aren’t merely foils to their plans, they are living and evolving characters whom they can interact with.
From my perspective as the Game Master, I know the NPCs plan out to the end. I know their end goals and what they were aiming for. When the PCs interfere, I can accommodate and change things while still aiming for the end goals.
Malvora might decide to use her resources to covertly hire the PCs to work for her rather than try the head on approach if they prove overwhelming to her militarily. Maybe she will decide the Modulator is too troublesome and send her minions after a supercomputer, one that has more raw power but is not built to the task. I can merely timeline out her plans for that in a basic way and then figure out how the PCs would encounter those.
Doing It Yourself
Timelining an NPC’s (or many NPCs) actions might not work for every game or play style, but it has some nifty applications. The process is also a fairly simple one.
- Take an NPC and write down, in a very brief way, their goals and actions as if the PCs didn’t exist.
- Make sure to include interactions with other NPCs or NPC groups. Don’t be afraid to use words like Might, Should, or Will Likely when intersecting multiple NPC timelines. (When Malvora and the FEC fight, it is likely that Malvora will win, but the course of the game and the PC interactions will definitely change things.)
- Plan the generalities our far head, but not the details.Knowing the generalities, especially the NPC goals and their attitudes, is what will help you modify the timeline as you go along.
- Start the game. As the PCs actions intersect with the timeline/s of NPCs, determine how they deviate and if/how the NPCs will still try to reach their goals. Abandon later game changes if they don’t seem in line for the changes that have occurred. Get ready to modify. Remember, it’s not a static railroad, but the NPCs plan.
2 Columns/Index CardsÂ – When I do this for my current game, I generally use 2 columns on a 1 page sheet or 2 index cards. In one is the initial timeline and goals. In the other column (or other card) I place checkmarks if things went according to plan or I write notes and draw lines to point to where things lead. Here is a recreated version of what happened in the Malvora example (apologies for the handwriting and shorthand).
FlowchartsÂ – One thing that works well for timelining NPCs are flowcharts. If you can do it electronically, you can really modify things as needed and keep things neat. It works really well, especially if you have multiple NPC timelines in play.
Gliffy — I used Gliffy, a mostly free online flowchart maker to do the flowchart example above. It worked really well, but Kurt “Telas” has used it for extended periods and mentions that it gets nerfed after a 30 day trial. 0
Dia — Dia is a freeware flowchart maker that I’ve heard highly recommended on many forums.
yEd — Another free flowchart program that I’ve heard recommended.
The big downside of this approach is constantly updating the timelines. The big upside is having a concept of the NPCs and their goals that you can deviate from to make the NPCs feel more organic. Malvora’s example is very general, but I’ve got about 6 timelines going in my current game that help me conjecture on how one NPC will feel about another NPC being defeated by the PCs, or how linked plot points are affected by PC actions. It helps to keep the chaos of the multiple PCs under control, and when I’m at the actual game I’m in total improv mode. I know how the NPCs feel, I know what goals they are working towards, and I don’t hear that wiggling little voice saying “That will totally destroy Suvid’s plans!!!! Stop him!!!”.
Do you think that timelining an NPC out would benefit your game or would it be too much work? How do you generally plan out NPC motivations and actions?
This is really an awesome organizational tool. It reminds me a lot of how Paul Levitz did his breakthrough character plotting during his 1980s run on Legion of Super Heroes. He used timelines like you’ve described to help keep track and write interesting story lines for all the various members of the Legion.
This is a very nice idea. I remember seeing a similar article on here a few months back which detailed a West Marches style campaign where you plan out what will happen if the PCs don’t intervene. This is definitely how I will be running my up-coming WFRP game 🙂
I do this sometimes, but not just for villains. In a game with politics and intrigue, it’s useful to track what other factions & leaders are up to while the PCs are dealing with their rivals.
In that case, one needs to be careful not to overdo it, lest you spend all your time working out those actions.
@Troy E. Taylor – The DC Comic? Always liked that one. I actually was thinking about timelining like this again after reading through some of the Dresden files stuff. An element from the first and second books came back to the 12th or 13th book, but it felt like it fit too well. As if the opposing character was built perfectly to realign with Dresden at that point, which of course he was. It wasn’t bad writing by any means, but coming from an roleplaying mindset it struck me as odd. The opposing character’s plans couldn’t take Dresden’s entire life into effect for his endgame, so the plans must have modified after including Dresden.
@Ben Scerri – Thanks. I went looking for the West Marches one and found a few things talking about West Marches games, but nothing about a timelining like thing. Do you remember what article it was?
@Lee Hanna – True. You don’t want to inundate yourself with all the planning and plotting for factions and avoid any actual playing. In my current game, I tend to revisit the timelines every few sessions and redo them based on the ripples the PCs make.
I am starting up a noir style Burning Wheel game this Saturday. With the nobles, crime families, and corrupt officals and watch members, this may be something I can use. All most the whole city-state is looking for the silver-dove, an item that is said to lead to the next rulers of the city.
Having some of the big names in a timeline would be something very helpful as they plan, backstab, buy-off, and maneuver themselves to power while hunting for the silver-dove.
@John Arcadian – I believe he’s talking about this post. I thought of it, too…
I wrote something similar on my own blog, but in less detail, mainly just reminding myself that I need to do it, but a little on my technique. Here: http://docswyrdscience.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/time-keeps-on-slipping-into-the-future-from-the-past/
@Razjah – Ahh the Silver dove, the stuff that dreams are made of… 🙂
@HappyFunNorm – Ahh. There we go.
I do a lot of this sort of messing around in my Delta Green game, and my experience has been that once NPC timelines intersect life can become intolerable when the PCs are added in. It is essential not to work too hard on such stuff, especially not to do so into the far future of your game (as has been said here before).
An NPC timeline can also remain undamaged but become entirely irrelevant.
Case in point: I am running Red Sands, a Savage Worlds Space 1889 plot-point campaign. A plot point campaign is in many respects not very much different to the NPC timeline concept you are showing us.
In fact I am running two parallel games of Red Sands, and one is about to go off the rails so completely that I shall be struggling to get the storyline back on track for a Big Reveal.
This would not be so ironic if I weren’t running Red Sands specifically because it promised to be a “prep lite” experience for me, what with most of the work already done. Now I shall have to work overtime just to stop the game going Wahoonie-shaped bigtime.
Not a world-ender by any means, but it does illustrate that even well-conceived NPC timelines can end up being nothing to do with the players.
I’ve recently been using a tool recommended here to sort out the tangled web of NPC shenanigans in a Delta Green episode of my own creation and would like to re-recommend “Scrivener” to one and all as worth the money.
And don’t make the mistake that was made time and again in Call of Cthulhu campaigns of the 80s – tying key events in the campaign to set dates on the calendar. Just like when designing web pages, a relative reference is often much more robust than an absolute one. “Event X happens three months after event Y” rather than “Y happens on the 25th of July, X on the 25th of October”. That way when the schedule begins to slip it is no big deal.
What I love about this approach is that it really spotlights the PCs. By creating a paradigm without the PCs, you ensure that when stuff goes unexpectedly, it’s because the PCs have mucked up events.
@HappyFunNorm – That’s the one 🙂 Thanks for digging that up for me!
Awesome article; I’m going to bookmark this one and digest it, as my campaign is just starting to reach that ‘too many spinning plates’ phase, where NPC actions start to get tangled.
FWIW, I used Gliffy to create a flowchart for my Savage Worlds Incapacitation house-rules. It worked perfectly. The free plan gives you 1 user, 5 diagrams, 2mb storage, and your diagrams are public. I believe the 30 day trial gives you more diagrams and the ability to make them private.