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Forging Personal Plots

Posted By Phil Vecchione On September 21, 2012 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

I like to have personal plots in my campaigns; plots that focus on a single PC at a time. I like to weave the scenes for these personal plots (or stories) into the overall fabric of the game, and typically have a “round” of personal stories come up between adventures/missions. This stretches out the personal plot over a longer period of time (see The Carter Way). Sometimes coming up with a personal story for every player is easy, and sometimes a bit harder. Looking for an excuse to put my Story Forge Cards to use, I came up with a way to cast the overall plot and come up with a scene for each of my players.

One Scene At A Time

When I do personal stories, I like to do just one scene during a session. This way I can do a scene for each player, and not use up the whole session. Often I use the rest of the session to either resolve the past mission/adventure or to set up the next one. In a campaign, this type of session comes up every 3-4 sessions.

Sometimes there is an obvious personal story that I can mine from a player’s background, and in those cases I just need to come up with a single scene that supports that. When I can’t find one in a player’s background, then I need to craft both the overall story, and the scene to kick it off.

I always find that starting a story is the most difficult, because it comes to being without any prior lead-up. You have to start it in a somewhat cold manner, and once its up and running, it will take on a life of its own.

Forging Story and Scene

Previously I mentioned the Story Forge cards that I got from backing the Kickstarter. The cards are awesome for jumpstarting your imagination, but the arrangements of the cards that are offered in the instructions are more for full-length stories or in-depth backgrounds. They don’t address a single scene, which was more of what I needed. So I decided to come up with my own arrangement for the cards for casting a scene.

I wanted to create a single scene that had the following basic structure: PC meets NPC somewhere to discuss something. I came up with 5 elements that would make up the scene:

  • What is on the mind of the PC?
  • What is on the mind of the NPC?
  • What person/force is effecting this interaction?
  • How is that (above) being expressed?
  • What happens while the two are meeting?

Different types of scenes may require different elements, which would require a different arrangement of cards. That turns out to be easy to do, as long as you know the elements you want to define with the cards. I figured to try it out the first time, I would keep it simple and use the framework mentioned above for all the scenes.

So I set up my arrangement to look like this:

Then I pick a PC that I want to write for and cast the cards. When I read over the cards, I recall the background of the character and think about how to bring the elements together in a story.

Forge One On The Spot

Ok lets do one right now. This is not rigged, I am going to make this up on the spot. First we need a PC and NPC. I randomly grabbed two from Masks. The Mask’s Ally Sanida Aemountu (Miserly Adventurer, Female, Masks: #290) will be our PC, and the Neutral Captain Alvina Ardecorn (Cautious Guard, Female, Masks: #201) Will be our NPC. Both are fantasy characters and we will assume a default fantasy-type world.

The casting of the cards gives us:

To make it clear if you cannot read the cards:

  • What is on the mind of the PC? –The Outsider
  • What is on the mind of the NPC? –War
  • What person/force is effecting this interaction?–  Chastity
  • How is that (above) being expressed? –The Samaritan
  • What happens while the two are meeting? –Alliance

Putting that together I come up with this…

Sanida, a former slave and now devout warrior (from Masks) (Outsider) is meeting with the Captain of the guard Alvina to discuss plans of an immanent attack on the town (War). Alvina has shown an attraction to Sanida, but Sanida’s pledge to the church has prevented her from returning the feelings (Chastity). Alvina has gone out of her way to make sure that the church has any of the supplies it needs for the coming battle (The Samaritan). In the scene, Alvina is hoping to convince Sanida to have the church followers join the active defense of the town (Alliance), and not hide in the church.

Depending on when I choose to have the attack occur on the town, I not only have the scene for my upcoming session, but I have a story that I can further develop after this scene has been played.

No Forge? No Worries

You don’t need Story Forge cards to do this kind of exercise; though its a lot of fun. All you need is to understand the elements required, and have a way to randomize those elements. A traditional Tarot deck would work (since it was the inspiration for the Story Forge cards), so would a random list of feelings, locations, and events.

Once you have the elements randomly defined, it comes down to seeing how the pieces fit, then crafting the story and the scene. If you are practiced in this type of brainstorming, then it should feel pretty natural. If you are not skilled at doing this, personal stories are a great area to practice, since they are not the main parts of your campaign.

Forging New Stories

Personal stories are a great technique to really connect players to the overall game. They are also great techniques for showing the passage of time, and the effects of time on other elements of your campaign world.

Sometimes coming up with a story for a PC is a snap, and other times it needs a little jump start. Having a method/tool for being able to jumpstart that process insures that you can always come up with a story for any player.

Do you run personal stories for your players? If so, what are your sources of inspiration? What are the most important benefits of running personal stories in your own campaigns?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Forging Personal Plots"

#1 Comment By MuadMouse On September 21, 2012 @ 7:23 am

I always run personal stories for my players, it’s what keeps everyone (especially me) engaged with the story. It’s hard to refuse a quest whose success or failure have personal ramifications – no amount of gold, credits or other loot can compete with that!

Mostly I just look at the dynamics between PCs and NPCs, and go with what looks the most promising. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with players who are always eager to attach their characters to NPCs on an emotional level. Therefore, personal stories tend to advance without active GM interference.

This, of course, can lead to spotlight management problems, but that’s a whole other discussion.

I don’t know how intricate the backgrounds in other groups are, but we tend to go into considerable detail. Most of us have a background in Cyberpunk 2020, so randomly generating back stories is something of a hobby in and of itself. This is a godsend for GMs, as everyone already has plenty personal story hooks from the start.

When it comes to the backgrounds of NPCs and places, I tend to play with cards as well: it’s faster and let’s me interpret the results more loosely, making it so much easier to tie them into the setting and the PCs. It also eliminates redundant information – whatever you draw, you know you’re going to use.

My general go-to deck is the Once Upon A Time story-telling card game. Simple fairy tale archetypes are clear concepts to handle and twist, and are adaptable to any setting. Whatever my question, I usually draw three cards and combine them in some fashion, whether as past-present-future, physical-mental-social, adjective-noun-verb, or the like. I enjoy being challenged by the deck, it forces me to come up with solutions I’d never have discovered if left to my own devices. Once Upon A Time solitaire is an entertaining random adventure generator, as well.

For more in-depth background I go for the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. I usually just do a Celtic Cross spread and connect the dots. There’s quite a bit of detail there, and often the cards turn out to be obvious representations of other characters.

In space opera games I often use Race for the Galaxy cards in the same manner. The art on those cards is so evocative that not being inspired would take conscious effort!

Since I ended my Cyberpunk 2020 game, there’s been talk of a campaign about student commune, and I must say, I can’t wait to get to use Chez Geek as inspiration!

#2 Comment By shortymonster On September 21, 2012 @ 11:08 am

In a long enough campaign I’ve found that personal plots happen with very little effort. I can put in a tiny little seed and then just see where it goes. In short games it tends to take a bit more effort, as players don’t always get into the characters as easily.

#3 Comment By PurdueBrad On September 21, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

I am a big fan of the Story Forge deck and love this new use for it. Thanks!

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 22, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

I do personal plots, but nothing like this. I pick an element from the character’s backstory, or from something (or someone) that they’ve dealt with since the campaign started, and go from there. Sometimes they’re a single session; sometimes they’re an entire months-long plot arc.

One trick I’ve learned is to leave a few loose ends untied as a story progresses. Those loose ends make great plot threads.

#5 Pingback By Friday Knight News – Gaming Edition: 28-SEP-2012 | Game Knight Reviews On September 28, 2012 @ 5:02 am

[...] you want more story in your campaigns, you might check out the article from Phil Vecchione @ Gnome Stew where he describes some great ways to use Story Forge …. I have a set and have only used them once so far, but was impressed with the way they helped form [...]

#6 Comment By 77IM On October 2, 2012 @ 8:07 am

I finally got the Story Forge deck, and it is totally awesome! The ideas and story elements are generic enough to be cross-genre, yet specific enough to be very useful. I am pretty sure I first heard about the deck here on Gnome Stew a while back, so thanks for the heads up!

#7 Pingback By Story Forge – Dört Kartla NPC | Babil Kulesi On February 24, 2013 @ 5:37 am

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