Wednesday, June 15, 2005

In the Middle

"Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right..."

O.K. you've come to a point in your campaign where the P.C.'s know each other fairly well and get involved with one another's lives. They may not agree on everything but they can and do function as a team when the going gets ugly. This is usually indicative of a campaign that has moved into what I call the middle of it's life. To use the model of scripting a television show, the campaign has been picked up for a second season and some of the real storytelling can begin. The actors have a really good handle on who the characters are and what the other characters are like.

To use Star Trek the Next Generation as an example. Most of first season was fairly typical of a monster-of-the-week kind of television. However, at the very beginning of the next season much more personal stories started almost immediately. Babylon 5 is another great example of this. During season 2 the seeds began to be planted for the cataclysmic war between the Vorlons and the Shadows the didn't unfold until season 4

The Middle of a chronicle is the place where a characters depths get plumbed and where the stories stop being simple and start being complex. It is a place where humor,passion,drama and pathos all come out and it is here where the seed of the epic saga are sown. Here are a few tips for the care and feeding of the middle of a chronicle.

Focus stories vs. Communal stories

Hopefully, by this point in your campaign you don't actually have to create any kludged coincidences in order to have stories move along. ( " Why, look who else just *happens* to be here.")

If you still have to do this sort of thing a lot , you aren't at the middle yet. If however, the players are willing to go to one another for advice or help then the next step is very simple.

Each P.C. has particular goals, thoughts, ambitions, fears and troubles. These are what make them distinct from one another. In the beginnings of campaigns it is often necessary to create shared hardships and enemies in order to create relationships between the P.C.'s. but as you reach the middle it is now possible to create stories that only affect a single member of the group and see how the group dynamic responds to it. Let's say that a particular character has a sibling who is constantly in trouble or even addicted to some drug. While this has nothing to do with the group, it definitely affects the character and may get the group involved on her behalf. Once, getting the sibling out of trouble becomes a group project it enables them to really bond and has the added bonus of fleshing out one of the NPC's.

A sneaky way to get players involved is to lay out the situation for the player and instruct him not to tell the other what the problem is unless they force him to. Make sure that the players notice that the PC is silently suffering about something. Make sure that the player tries to pursue some course that involves extracting help from the other characters without telling them why. It'll drive them crazy and make for a good role playing experience for the player of the PC with the problem.

Try for equal time. Each PC has the possibility of some kind of focus story and some kind of personal struggle. Character's that lack this, aren't worth playing. Seriously. Some players may feel like their characters are too cool for personal struggle.
Such players may need to be gently instructed about the head and shoulders with the nearest heavy blunt object.

This is the point in the chronicle where you, the game master, should go through your characters sheets with a fine tooth comb and look at all their advantages and disadvantages and see how you can exploit them or use them as hooks into stories. Heck if you have time, do this for your NPC's too.


I've been told by my good friend Stacy that when Uncle Joe was writing Babylon 5, he created loopholes for each character so if one of the actors was fired or had to leave the show or died or something then at least the story could continue without being horribly crippled. It behooves the prepared GM to come up with such an out for players who move,die,turn out to be jerks, or get churched up and dump their gaming friends. This doesn't have to elaborate but it helps if there is something already in place and this is the time to start thinking about such. Such measures maintain continuity and anything that maintains continuity is golden in my book. DC comics may be able to completely rewrite histories of there characters without anybody batting an eyelash, but I'd lose all credibility. If I told my gamers that the last 6 game sessions were a dream or something like they did on the T.V. show Dallas they'd be liable to hang me up by my eyelids.

The Wish list

It is at this point in the game when it is a good idea to start polling the congregation and finding out what the gamers dig and what they don't dig so much. Ask your players what they want to do and what direction they want the game to go. Ask for short term character goals and long term goals too.

Be aware that you don't have to follow each recommendation but it is instructive to find out what the players perceive as being missing.

When asking your players for their wish list, be sure that you make them understand that it's actually better to ask for things that make the story better. Asking for things that simply make it easier to waste opponents is just counterproductive.

Campfire Stories

It is amazing how much sage wisdom can resemble being too tired. Once, during an ongoing AD&D campaign I forgot to plan my game and ended up with nothing to bring to my players. I suggested that the players were camped for the night and that they should while away the hours as most travelers did in those times, by telling stories. I suggested they tell stories about themselves and how they came to be there and how they met one another. By some miracle, this worked. While I sat and planned a wandering monster attack they got deeply into character and began to talk, laugh, argue and sympathize with one another. It was, to put it mildly, a defining moment for the game. It always gratifying to a game master when your gamers stop trying to impress you and start performing for one another.

Since then, I have always tried to inject that possibility into my games. I'll have NPC's with detailed histories that they "almost" never talk about. I'll try to fix it so that each character has gaps in their history that they can fiddle around with in conversation. I honestly don't mind a little impromptu storytelling as long as it doesn't go too far afield.("Did I ever tell you about the time I killed a demigod?") The best thing about this sort of play is that it can entirely improvisational insofar as you can turn to one of your players in the voice of one of the NPC's and say something like. " You know, this is a lot like that time I had to break you out of that jail in Nogales. You remember that?" Sometimes the look you get from their faces is priceless.

"Blue booking" is a time honored tradition in gaming that has only gotten easier with the advent of E-mail and instant messaging For players and GM's who might have trouble dealing certain types of themes.,(heavily emotional stories and romantic storylines tend to be the hardest) this is a good way not to clutter up the actual game session. I also think it would be useful for the player who wants to spend a great deal of time researching some new spell or creating some new magickal item. This way, that player doesn't spend precious game time doing something only he can do. It's also a good way to tell solo stories that involve a character going off alone and dealing with some personal problem or other.


Now you can start fooling around with advanced plotting techniques. By this point of the game you should be able to assume that you can have fairly steady turnout for your game and that your players dig it at least enough to come back each week.

As your game moves into it's Middle, you can begin to create threads that are long lasting and far reaching. You can introduce characters that are destined to die horribly saving your players or make NPC's who will inevitably betray them some 6 months to a year down the road. You can have a game session where you can plant the seeds of plots that will bear fruit some time down the line.

My friend Jenna is a master at this. She has a happy facility for creating problem that the players only realize they have been battling for months until it's almost too late.She's caught me that way a time or two. Once, with my help, we created a character in a game who was a colleague of one of our PC's(played by Stacy). Several months later, Stacy realized that this same person, a fellow cop, was in fact a serial killer that had eluded capture for a number of years. To this day, the mere mention of that NPC provokes a stream of profanity from her that is truly awe-inspiring.

You can even create events that are seemingly completely unrelated to one another and then slowly over time begin to reveal that they are symptoms of a much larger problem. Or conversely, you can create several problems that are completely unconnected and then make it seem that they are. This is extremely fun to watch.

You can begin to run adventures that last a few months instead of one or two sessions thus giving you players a greater sense of being part of an ongoing story and making them want to show up because they gotta know how it goddamn ends!

The Voice of Destiny

Since you and your two sisters and doing a bit of weaving anyway.... It is at this point that you might begin to let it slip that the players are in for big things in the future. The key to this sort thing is not to be to heavy handed about it. Hint. Suggest. Be as oblique, obscure and arcane as you can manage. Point at the future but draw no map. Let the players do that for you. Go three or four games between portents.Make them wonder when the other shoe is going to drop.

The Hand of Destiny has seen fit to bring the proper people together, but Destiny can only take you so far. This is the time when the players are being forged to be the instruments of fate. The challenges they face now are mere inklings of the horrors they will someday face. Foreshadow those horrors for them but tell them nothing else. Give them dream sequences which could be vitally important clues...If only they could understand them.

The reason that you tell the gamers precious little is twofold. If you lay out their destiny ahead of them, they will move heaven and earth to invalidate it somehow. It's just innate player perversity.It's not even something they are necessarily aware of or can help. The second reason is that it leaves your options open in case you come up with a better idea or some better opportunity presents itself.

If you tell them nothing else, tell them only that what is coming is big. Since the nature of prophecy is such that most people don't understand it until it's almost too late, the best way to go is to create a situation that you can lead them into without them realizing that this is what you've been hinting at until it's basically a Fait Accompli. Too late to turn aside from the path now. Sucks to be you.

The Garden

O.K. let's get practical again. You might want to create a new document for your files which I've come to call the Garden. I call it this because as you reap, so shall you sow....

This is basically a long list of potential plot threads. Antagonists and their plans, events that are happening offstage that may affect the plot, consequences of past actions of the players that can and will come back to haunt the players at the worst possible time. Dead antagonists that may return to life, that sort of thing.

if you ever get stuck for a plot.,a document like this can be an utter godsend. Just root through the list until you find the perfect inconvenience and turn it out of your pockets like a hoarded sweet. It can also be used to pepper and salt complications into an already developed plot...("Oh my god! Not HIM again! Don't we have enough problems without Dr. Neutrino showing up?")

You might even consider using this in conjunction with some sort of divinatory device like a tarot deck,computerized I-ching, or Magic 8 ball. ( "Is it time for another visit from Chicken Man?" >shake-shake-shake< "Oh you poor bastards...")

Sono Finito


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