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Planning a Non-Linear Adventure Path

Today’s guest article comes from reader BryanB, who tackles one approach to running non-linear adventures in a comprehensive, usability-focused way. Thanks, Bryan!

I used to use a fairly linear approach to adventure design, much like the writers of a typical module utilize. I’d often do a painstaking amount of detailed game prep. As many of my players tended to go off path during an adventure, I grew tired of seeing more than half of my preparation effort never see any use at the table.

A GM can plan six different outcomes for a plot arc and the players will usually find number seven — the one that the GM didn’t think about. Around fifteen years ago, I was completely burned out and tired of the linear approach. It just wasn’t working for me any longer. So I came up with a new way to approach my adventures. I didn’t know that I was stepping into a “sandbox” when I did this, but in retrospect that is pretty much what I did.

This method is something I refer to as the “Matrix Method.” Using this approach has saved me a lot of time when planning an adventure series or campaign. It has worked for Star Wars, D&D, Top Secret S.I., and just about anything else I have ever run.

We’ve had a lot of good articles here on the stew about the sandbox form of adventure design: Nonlinear (Sandbox) Games [1], Dynamic Sandboxes [2], Connect the Dots and Get to Work [3], You Can Use Your Sandbox Too [4], In Defense of Railroading [5], and Nice Myth, Ugly Truth: Sandbox Games are Better [6]. This article comes at running a sandbox game from a different perspective.

I have tried to break it down as simply as I can. The level of detail you might use may be different than the level of detail that I or others may use. Detail is often a matter of personal taste. Many of my past players have asked me how I get my games to contain so many “wheels within wheels” subplots, deep conspiracy elements, and webs of political intrigue without having copious amounts of detailed notes or fully fleshed out plot trees. This is how I do it.

The Matrix Method

While each genre has individual characteristics to consider, the basic planning of an adventure can follow a similar approach. Obviously these methods work best for a series of linked adventures, since a one-shot or convention event game is constrained by being a single game session with no long-term story development over time. The Matrix Method might help a GM sort out his thoughts for a one shot game, but the time limits involved must be taken into consideration.

To me, the interaction of PCs and NPCs is the fuel that drives the roleplaying engine. The key component of that interaction is motivation. Great players need great adversaries. Nothing captures the excitement of the roleplaying medium better than an epic villain and his minions being challenged by a band of heroes. Like the best movies, the players must have an antagonist or two or three or however many make the game most enjoyable. The PCs also need an ally or two to offer guidance or direct assistance. To use the Matrix Method, we need to know who is going to interact with the player characters.

When I sit down to work on a campaign, the first thing that I think about after genre and premise has been chosen is something similar to what detectives do when they work a crime scene. The basic thought process follows this pattern: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?


Thus the key first step in the process is called the “Who” step. You have decided the genre and setting that you want for your campaign. You have decided on a basic premise (mercenary band, outlaws, knights, spies, etc.) for the overall adventure series. But you need the movers and shakers for your adventure path. I make a list of all the major NPCs that spring to my mind as potential allies or enemies at the start of the series. This list does not have to be overly detailed. You can fill in the details as needed.

Let us keep it simple and say that you have listed ten major NPCs for the series. Now, you have a list of ten NPCs. You have a name, perhaps a profession, a title, their gender, their race, and perhaps a snippet of information on their appearance. It is important to make a note if any one of them knows one or more of the others. You now have the major players for the area, town, city, or a galactic star system. These are the important NPC cast members for your series. Each of them probably has numerous flunkies, agents, guards, thugs, or whatever you want to classify them as.

Alright. You’ve got some great NPCs created. This really isn’t that uncommon a planning step right? What makes this any different from a linear approach?


The next step in the Matrix Method process is the “What” step. What is each of these NPCs currently doing at the start of the campaign? What have they done recently? What are their short term goals? What are their long term goals? What is their current agenda? Having already listed the major NPCs for the series, you simply give each NPC their own notes covering what they are doing.


“When” is the next step in the planning process. This is an important step. This is where you create a timeline of pre-planned events. “When” relies on what and who to create the campaign’s projected timeline. You know who is doing things and you know what they are planning to do. When do they plan on doing these things?

When will each step fall into place? This timeline is flexible. The character’s actions could totally alter this timeline of events. If the player characters choose not to act, an NPC’s actions could continue towards completion! If two NPCs are in league with each other, what will happen to their plans when a part of their plan has to be altered?


The next step in the process is “Where.” Where are these events taking place? Obviously, this is dependent on what is planned and who is planning it. These notes are placed alongside the “When” notes. You now know who is involved, what they are doing, when they are doing it, and where they are going to be when it is done.

How are they going to do it? This is our next step. “How” is tied to the “What” more than anything else. You know what the NPC and his associates are going to do. You already know when these events are projected to occur. How will they carry these events out? How do they accomplish each step in their plan? How do they deal with the PCs aiding or hindering their plans? How will their resources be distributed?

And Why?

“Why” is the final part of the Matrix Method planning process. Why is the NPC doing these things? “Why” is where we note the NPCs motivation. Why are two NPCs allied? Why are two NPCs blood enemies? Why does that NPC want to plot his what, when, where, and how? You can get a lot of mileage out of this step for if you know why someone is doing something, you can easily determine their reaction to being interfered with or perhaps aided.

An NPC example:

After creating this information for each major NPC in a series, I will have a plethora of ideas for how the series or campaign can flow. Thus a “matrix” or web of campaign events is set in motion. If needed, I can make adjustments on the fly simply by checking an NPC’s motivations (Why). All I need to do to get the characters involved is to set the table with an opening adventure hook. The conflict or cohesion of NPC motivations and player motives/actions will take care of most of the rest of my session planning.

It is the players that will have the greatest impact on the story arc, since it is the players that decide their course of action or choice of inaction. This is a very flexible planning method but it requires at least some of the group members to have a pro-active play style to achieve the best results.

I hope this gives you help in your planning of a sandbox type of campaign or at least gives you a few ideas that will spark your own methods or approach.

Author’s note: I once posted much of this information on the gaming forum RPGnet under a thread that I started using the user name PaladinCA.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Planning a Non-Linear Adventure Path"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On February 13, 2012 @ 8:48 am

As a professional journalist, I very much approve of the use of the 5Ws + H method of organizing — all our best stories start that way. I’m impressed with how you link them together.
One observation that is spot on — when you point out that “how” is tied to “what” in the interaction phase — that’s truer than you know. That’s the really the hand-and-glove of getting to the next step.
I really enjoyed this article and your insights into sandbox-style planning. One question: Are you able to keep all this straight with simple lists, or do you employ flow charts?

#2 Comment By BryanB On February 13, 2012 @ 9:51 am

I came up with a construction sheet that has 5 NPCs to a single page. From that point I add depth. I either give each NPC a 5×8 note card or a computer printout (depends on system).

I do use a flowchart of sorts to track the relationships between NPCs and their planned activities. Example: Sometimes “NPC A” will need “NPC B” to accomplish what they need to do before “NPC A” can proceed with their agenda. If the PCs gum up the works for “NPC B,” then this will likely alter the situation. Perhaps “NPC A” will aid “NPC B” directly and try again or maybe the PCs killed “NPC B” and “NPC C” gets a promotion from “NPC A” in order to deal with the situation. There can certainly be a lot of variables. The opposition might even hire “NPC D,” the most notorious Assassin in the galaxy and a new mission is then added to the flow chart (Kill PCs).

When there is any doubt about how the flowchart should flow, an NPC’s motivation will be the key factor. The flowchart is always flexible and subject to change. It largely depends on the PC actions or inaction.

I will typically follow this pattern for “scenes:”

Scene A: The Hook – This is planned out. It gets the series rolling. This is fairly linear in nature but does not have a predetermined outcome.

Scene B, C, D, E, F, G: These are scenes I anticipate happening based around key NPCs and what they’re doing and how they are all connected. The order that I arrange them in is how I think the order will most likely take place. I am almost always wrong. 🙂 Scene B through G can take place in nearly any order, depending on what the PCs choose to do first. Changes might take place to the scenes should PC actions or inactions cause them to be altered.

A Final Scene: Certainly not laid down in stone. What might happen if the NPC antagonist succeeds at every possible turn (not likely). I don’t even plan this finale until our actual play events take the series to this point.

#3 Comment By Razjah On February 13, 2012 @ 10:15 am

I’m going to give this a try when I prep for my campaign this week. This looks interesting, and very useful for an NPC heavy campaign.

#4 Comment By BryanB On February 13, 2012 @ 10:53 am

[7] – I’d love to hear how it works out for you.

#5 Comment By Johnn Four combatmastery.com On February 13, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

Great GM advice, Bryan! I like the approach. Have you tried starting with Who then Why? What was that like?

#6 Comment By BryanB On February 13, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

[8] – Thanks. I don’t think it really matters how you order the questions as long as you cover them for each NPC. Why? is certainly a key question that should be asked of just about every important NPC.

We could even ask “Why?” more than once for the same NPC. Why did this Jedi fall to the Dark Side of the Force? Why are they going to destroy the population of a large city with a super bio weapon? The two “Whys?” might be related or they may not be. 🙂

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 13, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

[9] – Is your five-NPC sheet just a sheet with room for WWWWW x5, or is it more complex than that?

I can see tracking this with relatively brief notes for each W meshing well with my GMing style. I’d also like to see this approach in conjunction with a campaign wiki, updated as needed during the game.

#8 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On February 14, 2012 @ 6:51 am

Great article!

I use a simpler approach, but it’s only simpler because I do some of your steps so intuitively that I don’t realize that I’m doing them.

My basic model is “every NPC has a story,” a reason for being in the game. This reason is separate from their job or role in the story. The PCs can pick up on this story and run with it, leave it be, or handle it later as they see fit.

I also give each NPC a quirk, something I can lean on when roleplaying him or her. In addition, I’m a big fan of attaching real-world actors to NPCs.

#9 Comment By BryanB On February 14, 2012 @ 11:48 am

[10] – The five NPC sheet is what I use to brainstorm, so it has the 5 W’s and the H for each NPC being created. It also has a small section for NPC relationships. I can send you a copy if you like. From this sheet, I then go into details on each NPC. I’ve been thinking about using Masks for inspiration, in which case I would fill out the sheet after reading a particular NPC in Masks.

I think a campaign wiki would be an excellent way of showing a series using this method from conceptualization all the way to completion. If only I knew how to do that….

#10 Comment By BryanB On February 14, 2012 @ 11:52 am

[11] – Thanks Walt. I agree that every NPC has a story. When PCs and NPCs collide, we get to experience the meshing of those motives and histories. I just love that.

I’ve started using photos of different actors to represent the faces seen in my games. It seems to help had some depth to the NPC in that a picture is worth a thousand words (of description).

#11 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2012-02-17 On February 17, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

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#12 Comment By Scott Martin On February 19, 2012 @ 9:35 pm

The Matrix is a great system; perfect for when you’re inspired and looking for a way to take notes to keep things in line.

I’ve started this process with an interesting where or when in the past. If you enjoy research, you can pick a city at random and read up on its history. In no time, you’ll have characters and situations that demand PCs to fix them! (Plus, villains to continue making things miserable…)

#13 Comment By BryanB On February 21, 2012 @ 9:17 am

[12] – Thank you Scott.

I once started a Greyhawk Campaign by randomly choosing a country on the map and then choosing a starting point in that nation. I then filled in key details using the Matrix Method. It worked quite well, at least until the game ended with a TPK. 🙂