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Parallel Stories

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On January 28, 2010 @ 6:57 am In GMing Advice | 6 Comments

As a GM, you have access to a lot of information the players never see. This can be mutually frustrating, because you have ideas and concepts you never get to illustrate, and the players may have holes in their picture of the game world that they would like to understand. One of the less common techniques for giving the players a broader view of the world you’ve created is the parallel story, a story that runs adjacent to, but never touches the players’ story.

A parallel story is one set in the same campaign setting, with a plot or arc similar to the plot or arc PCs are currently experiencing. By the strictest definition, the plot or arc is exactly the same, only the PCs and immediate setting are different, so if the PCs are currently engaging in guerilla warfare against the overlord’s troops in Stromgaarde, the parallel story might feature another group of freedom fighters opposing the overlord’s troops in another town, but this formula is by no means set in stone.

For our purposes, an adventure is composed of the four distinct elements of players, opponents, location, and plot. In a parallel story, the only one that must be changed is the players. Not changing the players means you’re not running a parallel story, you’re simply running another adventure. Of the remaining three, the ones you keep the same are the main subject(s) of the parallel story. Each aspect of the adventure allows you to reveal details and history you otherwise couldn’t.

Opposition

  • Display new strengths and weaknesses
  • Reveal personality traits
  • Show history
  • Reveal connections within the setting

Location

  • Show missed areas
  • Reveal inaccessible areas
  • Display history
  • Connect locations

Plot

  • Players try different approaches
  • Use different details

Alternate Timeline Parallel Story
Parallel stories are a great way to show past events; showing a location, or NPC in an earlier time, or showcasing significant moments in history. Showing the answer to “What happened here?” is an excellent use for the alternate timeline parallel story.

The Parallel Campaign
While some campaigns with a high mortality rate come close to it, specifically designing a campaign to be a collection of parallel stories instead of a traditional holds unique rewards. This could be something as simple as a giant dungeon that different parties explore one after another, sometimes seeing different parts, sometimes seeing evidence of each other, but could be as complex as a series of diverse adventures set around a single city, or a set of adventures all opposing a world-spanning foe or organization. As the GM, you have to create less, though what you do create will eventually have to be more detailed. In return for a smaller scope, you and the players get a more intimate familiarity with the subject material

Running parallel stories is a great way to add depth to your creations and the players’ experience, reveal details and aspects the players might not also see, and make use of additional details that you created during planning, as well as opening up some interesting campaign models.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




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6 Comments To "Parallel Stories"

#1 Comment By Jagyr Ebonwood On January 28, 2010 @ 7:31 am

A device suggested for the Cortex RPG system (which is meant to model movies and TV shows etc) is similar to this.

During most movies/TV shows, the camera doesn’t only follow the good guys. It may spend most of it’s time with them, but every now and then we cut away to a quick scene showing what the bad guys are doing.

Assuming you can handle the inherent metagaming risks, doing the same thing in your game can let the players know that they’re on the right (or wrong) track, as well as getting a chance to show off particular story elements that the PCs might otherwise miss.

#2 Comment By Lee Hanna On January 28, 2010 @ 9:44 am

I’m confused. Are you advocating running separate games, with the players running alternate PCs? Or verbal cut-scenes, wherein the GM narrates someone else’s story? Or a written short-story, to be distributed on paper/email/whatever?

#3 Comment By callin On January 28, 2010 @ 9:51 am

My wife has been running two 3rd edition Gamma World games for the past year or so. Both groups are in the same setting, but with different players and characters (except for me). Both groups are engaged in the same plot: restore the orbital satellites providing atmosphere to the planet; destroy the evil mutant rats; bring technology back.

The two parties have never met face to face, but their paths have crossed. One is the cousin of another. One party left their group symbol on the ship of the other party. As the two greatest adventuring bands, there is competition as each seeks to outdo the other-one discovered 500 working robots and gained control of them; the other saved the home village of the other party from marauders.

Each group acts to help the world, trying to accomplish the same end, but each group does it in their own way.

My Blog- http://bigballofnofun.blogspot.com/

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On January 28, 2010 @ 11:07 am

This is something that always sounds cool, but I don’t know how I’d go about presenting it to my players. Do I run it as a one-shot with pre-gens, which is a lot of work to add to the GM in the middle of a campaign? Do you set it up as its own ongoing storyline, so the GM is now running two campaigns instead of one?

The effect sounds cool, and I can imagine it working very well, but I don’t know how I’d sell it or keep the prep reasonable. Any advice on those fronts?

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On January 28, 2010 @ 11:29 am

@Lee Hanna
Sorry I was unclear. Though all of those you suggest are good ideas, I’m referring specifically to running a game session where the players take the roles of new characters and run through an adventure similar to a recent one.

@Scott Martin
I’d imagine pre-gens, and I’d just steal them from another source and maybe tweak them a bit. I wouldn’t sell it per se. I’d just start a session of an ongoing campaign by handing out the pre-gens and saying something along the lines of “Today we’re running a one-shot in the same setting but only tangentially related to our main story arc.” It’s not as though it’s a common occurrence. Unless you mean “How do you sell the parallel campaign?” in which case that answer is: I have no idea. It’s one of those experimental things that will either appeal to your group or not.

#6 Comment By penguin133 On January 31, 2010 @ 8:41 am

Best parallel story I ever did was when our Western characters went to the Yucatan in search of the treasure buried by their ancestors, our Pirate characters!
Ian Winterbottom


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