Long Story Arcs - 3 Tips On How to Finish

From Roleplaying Tips Weekly #467 by Johnn Four

Long Story Arcs - 3 Tips On How To Finish

A reader wrote in with a request for tips on how to finish long plots. He just could not get closure. Following are three pieces of advice for game masters looking to run long campaigns to their natural conclusion.

More tips on how to finish long campaigns are welcome. Email me directly at johnn@roleplayingtips.com

1. Divide the plot into three smaller arcs

When tackling large plots you get overwhelmed. There are too many branches, possibilities and details to manage. When overwhelmed you either give up or leave your planning for another day, and that day rarely comes.

So you get an unplotted game. How can you finish a plot if there isn't one?

Solve this situation by carving your plot into three smaller chunks. You could call these sub-arcs, acts, stages, or phases, but divide your work into pieces you can handle and manage well.

The simplest way to structure these acts:

  1. Set-up
  2. Development
  3. Resolution

Act 1) Set-up

Establish the world and the PCs' relationships in it. We learn who the characters are, their capabilities and some of their potential, and what drives them. Flesh out the setting by introducing cool elements and aspects of it through encounters and adventures. Watch the characters grow.

This could be a home base type arc, for example. NPCs become friends, rivals, dependents, enemies, useful. Players develop relationships with locations as well, such as their home base, favourite hangout, mentor's home, and preferred

The PCs shed light into dark corners and eventually piece together clues about a great danger. This act ends with the PCs taking up a call to arms to defeat the darkness. 

Act 2) Development

On the path of their mission, the group faces various challenges and setbacks, but makes progress. Players learn more about their characters and the depth of their strengths and weaknesses. The characters grow in power, ability, knowledge, or all three.

The development arc ends with the final goal in sight. The PCs have the information they need. They have come to the boundary where the last act begins, such as traveling to the evil fortress, gathering the army, or winning the support of the council.

Act 3) Resolution

The PCs pass the point of no return. They are committed now and in the greatest danger. They're in enemy lands, the villain is actively opposing them, allies have all their hopes pinned on the group. The toughest challenges yet lay before them. How will it end?

When chunked out this way, each acts becomes manageable.  Determine what requirements need to be met so the PCs can enter each new act. Armed with these details you can plan things out in batches or let gameplay inspire you. There are the usual pitfalls of planning things too rigidly, so do what's best for you and how your group likes to game.

For more tips on this:

Campaign Structure Part I

Campaign Structure Part II

2. Create A Remote Villain - Move One Step Closer Each Act

Make the end objective to kill or nullify the villain. This generates a tangible goal. Players can grasp it easy. You have a clear picture of what a successful end looks like.  Planning takes on a clear focus to help you and your group drive to completion.

Previous RPT readers have counselled making villains remote.  Do not bring them into encounters. Do not offer up their lair location without a lot of PC effort. Instead, offer outposts and minions. This is excellent advice.

Pace your campaign by structuring it so a major victory represents getting one noticeable step closer to the villain. The PCs work their way up the command chain, or penetrate one layer deeper towards the villain base, or get one more ingredient in the recipe needed to win.

Keep the whole path to success a secret. This lets you steer things as the campaign develops any way you like. For example, a recent trap I fell into was requiring the PCs to find six pieces of a key. For various reasons we opted to end this campaign and switch games, but we wanted to finish the campaign off one way or the other just for closure. I was committed to the six part quest, and it would have been weak to have the remaining three pieces fall out of the sky.  If I had just said find all the pieces and not given a total, I could have engineered things for a much faster campaign conclusion.

3. How To Manage Loops Well

A loop is some unresolved issue in the game. It might be a To Do item for a PC, a quest, a mystery or unanswered question. Great games have many loops.

Managing loops well keeps games interesting but also gives you a clear idea of what needs resolution to finish a long campaign at any given time.

Step 1: Create loops

Open a lot of loops. Either let the players do it for themselves or you be the one to create them.

PC-based loop inspiration: character backgrounds, interests, relationships with NPCs, goals and conflicts, strengths and weakness

GM loops: quests and side quests; plot hooks; NPCs with goals, conflicts and hooks who tangle with PCs; encounter hooks

Lots of loops equals lots of choices from the players' point of view. You are welcome to make loops lead to the same few encounters and adventures, but by having many open loops you cast a wide net that increases the chances of activating
your plans.

Step 2: Manage loops

For every loop opened track it yourself. Do not rely on your players to record them as they will overlook some, forget a few, and misunderstand a few. It's up to you to track open loops.

Do this with a simple list. I often use a plain text computer file, though I started using a spreadsheet of late.

In my spreadsheet I make an entry for each item and track its status (pending, open, closed).

Pending: yet to be unleashed on the PCs

Open: triggered and in play, but not yet closed

Closed: resolved

In my old plain text file I had the same three categories and just cut and pasted items as their statuses changed.

This list will keep you organised without much effort.

Between sessions just scan it to see what was activated, what was closed, and what is still in the hopper waiting to be triggered. Update your lists accordingly. Also, add new loop ideas (pending) and new loops introduced (open).

Your list of open loops will give you a sense of control and an easy checklist to plan with. It provides confidence while planning and makes preparation more efficient.

Step 3: Close loops often

It might seem backwards, but resolving a lot of open loops keeps games exciting and builds momentum. Closure gives players satisfaction and motivates them to stay active in play by opening more loops.

In long campaigns, good loop management keeps you motivated too. Closed loops show you progress made, which is satisfying.

The infusion of new loops gives you a creative outlet to stay engaged yourself - especially if you are the type of GM who gets lots of ideas and does not like being straight jacketed by rigid plans.

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Dear RPT reader, I hope those three tips help answer your question about managing long campaigns and increasing their chances of closure.

RPT subscribers, do you have any additional advice? If so, email your tips to johnn@roleplayingtips.com


Copyright 2009, Johnn Four, RoleplayingTips.com

All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with Permission

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