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Waypoints: Shorten Your Game Prep with This Conceptual Tool

Posted By Martin Ralya On October 21, 2008 @ 5:14 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

I have no idea if this concept has been floated before, but it’s new to me — and it’s been enormously helpful over the past couple of weeks.

As my Mage game draws to a close, I’m working towards a specific ending scene. I don’t know what’ll happen in that scene — more to the point, what the PCs will do — but I know what I want it to look like. What I didn’t know was quite how to get there.

So with three or four sessions left to go, depending on how things shook out, I got an idea: I jotted down the ending, and asked myself how to get there. What immediately popped into my head was the concept of “waypoints” — crucial scenes or game elements that needed to happen in order for us to reach the ending I had in mind.

After writing down a sentence about the ending, the waypoint that led into that scene came to mind immediately. I took a few notes about that one — whatever I thought of, unfiltered — and then was pleasantly surprised when the next waypoint back in the chain came to me just as quickly.

In less than 10 minutes, I had three sessions loosely mapped out: the second to last, based around one waypoint; the next to last, also based around a single waypoint (and connected to the prior waypoint); and the finale, which was reachable by hitting both waypoints.

You could look at it like this:

  • You know the starting point (wherever you left off last session)
  • And you know where you want to go: the end of a campaign or a story arc, or just the next major plot point

So you jot them down and try to connect the dots with waypoints. It’s really just brainstorming with a light conceptual framework wrapped around it — a little structure, which I often find useful.

The end result is:

Starting point > Waypoint > Waypoint (repeat as needed) > ending.

Prep usually takes me a long time, so anything I can come up with — or read about, or steal from another GM’s bag of tricks — that saves some time is a blessing. Much like shower insight and clearing GM’s block, the idea of waypoints is something that just works for me.

Since your brain works differently (lucky you!), this technique might be totally useless for you — or, conversely, it could be just as awesome for you as it’s been for me. I hope it’s the latter!

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Waypoints: Shorten Your Game Prep with This Conceptual Tool"

#1 Comment By jonathan On October 21, 2008 @ 6:17 am

Not to be too snarky… but isn’t this a bit like the often used (and terrible) mechanic called “railroading” ? I mean… of course you could adjust your diagram to include a network of interconnected “waypoints”, but as presented it just looks like, no matter what the players do they are either going to succeed at each waypoint and move on to the next one, or stop (die). Comments?

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 21, 2008 @ 6:37 am

Yep, it is. That’s because I don’t think railroading — or “linear games,” if you prefer — is automatically a bad thing.

We’re all adults with limited time (that seems to get more and more limited the older we get!), and there’s a lot to be said for having a focus every night we play.

I know X will happen — but not what my players will do about X. And I think that after X happens, Y can happen next session; I could very easily be wrong, and if something the guys do changes that, I’ll roll with it.

But for me, at least, I need a plan — and in the case of this game, a degree of linearity.

#3 Comment By SmallBlueGod On October 21, 2008 @ 7:06 am

I use a very very similar trick. Or at least initially. I set up “Events triggers” which may or may not be attained/set-off. However if a player character triggers the Event by doing whatever it is that sparks the event then the scene plays out. It’s entirely up to the players which way the story goes but I still get to play out really cool & inspired scenes.

It’s a shame they don’t all get triggered but that’s ok. There are all kind of triggers, the easiest are time based triggers in which case I give the players “Freeplay” time where they tell me what’s going on in their life. Then when time plays out Event happens!

I learned this style by trying to the metaplot of Old World of Darkness as a massive set of Event triggers. I can totally understand why people hated the oWoD metaplot, but played like this with most of it in the players hands and me itching for a witty adlib scenario, I can’t help but adore it.

I am careful not to use this style to railroad the players (personal style) but I (and they) do take it as a challenge to out wit them, and they me. When they win it usually means I’m forced into an adlibing situation which I absolutely adore. Yeah their hard but it seems the world/plot really takes fun & amazing twists & turns once it comes time to adlib and outwit one another. But it helps to know where to stop. I have fun players who want to hear a story & by making them part of it I keep them involved no matter where it goes.

I have noticed that done like this one event completely rewrites or at least tweaks all the events to come. To me this gets downright exiting as the plot thickens of it’s own accord. Write triggers and horrible (or good things) to happen, give players ability to roam ‘sandbox style’ and viola! Cool stuff happens. :)

#4 Comment By Starvosk On October 21, 2008 @ 8:06 am

It’s not really railroading. Railroading is forcing your players down a specific path and punishing them when they deviate. This is just a planning tool. While it’s certainly possible not to have any plans, to a certain degree real life -is- planned and everyone has goals.

What I tend to do is give the villain a plan (They always have plans, that’s generally appropriate) and if the players, or someone else doesn’t stop them, it generally happens.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 21, 2008 @ 8:14 am

This initially sounded similar to the “Plot Point” concept that a lot of Savage Worlds settings are using. The Plot Point setting have certain events that will happen, whether or not the characters are directly involved, and those events will have far-reaching implications. It’s like a game set in WWII – D-Day, etc will happen, even if your team isn’t there.

The “Waypoint” concept seems a lot more small-scale and personal, almost like a flowchart. As paths are chosen, other paths are closed off, and “the next step” becomes more obvious (at least to the GM).

And here’s another vote for “Railroading =/= Bad”.

#6 Comment By LesInk On October 21, 2008 @ 8:19 am

I’d tend to agree that this is a planning method more than a railroad method. The GM is hunching that the players really are going the way they say they are going along with a bit of pointed direction of what they need to do to get to the end.

@Martin: I will say that when I first read your article, I wanted to say, “That’s what I’m doing”, but now that I think about it, no that’s not what I’m doing. I’m still planning waypoints for the characters to reach, but I’ve been doing it from the now -> forward viewpoint. I think what you are helping us with is the idea that it makes perfect sense to start from the end and work back to the present. In truth, I need to do THAT more for my current game and get the game more on track instead of bumbling along (only complicated by the fact that the characters were supposed to bumble along in the current campaign until now).

I would also point out that just because a GM has waypoints planned to the very ending, that doesn’t mean the GM has to fill out the adventure completely when the ideas hit. In fact, I would recommend NOT filling it out until the next session is coming up. Those waypoints can definitely be easily ‘realigned’ to the new/changed goals of the players.

#7 Comment By deadlytoque On October 21, 2008 @ 9:50 am

I use a similar system myself, and (at least the way I do it) it could never be mistaken for railroading. What I do, rather than plan -where- and -when- something must happen, I just try to have an idea of -what- should happen, and then no matter what my players decide to do, that will happen — it’s just a question of whether they are there or not, and what order. It means that I can script interesting dramatic scenes in advance, but don’t have to worry about one leading to another.

Improvising the transitions from scene to scene is always my favorite part, and letting my players pitch potential outcomes to any action is half of the fun.

#8 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 21, 2008 @ 10:53 am

Your flowchart reminds me of Monte Cook’s suggestion on how urban adventures should breakdown, which he devoted a chapter to in his Ptolus book.

Basically, urban adventures flow as:

Interaction/investigation > interaction / investigation > interaction/ investigation > big fight.

He opposed this by the typical dungeon crawl, which is alternating periods of exploration and small fights leading up to the big fight encounter.

#9 Comment By nblade On October 21, 2008 @ 11:15 am

The overall concept really reminds me of the “nugget” format of some of the Mega-Traveller Adventures.

I agree that this isn’t railroading in the traditional sense but rather a framework that a GM can work with to know where the part is in relationship to the entire story arc of the adventure. This can be a great boon when dealing with NPCs, If players have skipped certain elements and then came back to those elements later, the NPCs may have vastly different opinions and interactions with the PCs.

#10 Comment By jonathan On October 21, 2008 @ 11:40 am

ok ok… railroading it is not. I guess I’m a bit more of a scatterbrain then… my flowcharts for campaigns endup looking like network maps for the internet… dozens of arrows pointing to waypoints, and each waypoint has mutliple arrows pointing away from it. from a code point of view … its like a huge number of “if.. then.. else..” statements.

but in general, this is good way of going things. The alternative Fly by the seat of your pants GM’ing is just so damn difficult to manage at times.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On October 21, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

@jonathan – I think you’re right when you fear railroading from this approach. In a careless GM’s hands (or, even more commonly, in a module writer’s hands) preparing one line of events encourages the GM to steer the players towards the “right” (= prepared) path.

Like everything else in the world, it’s a trade off. If you love prep, preparing several branches of events encourages flexibility– but guarantees you’ll waste prep, since the PCs won’t go down both paths at your branch points. And even if you’ve put in the effort to prepare three branches of events… the players will often come up with a fourth path! If you have a barebones path or series of events, it’s very likely the PCs will deviate or require space to get back on the path after their encounters– but if you’re comfortable improvising, you may find improvising between their stops [so you only have to keep the next big event in mind] provides a good tradeoff between flexibility and reduced prep.

#12 Comment By Eclipse On October 21, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

I like the idea of waypoints, and tend to do something similar when planning my own sessions. The only difference for me is I don’t use them as points that must be reached, but rather, as mentioned earlier, as triggers for events if they are reached.

The exception is the ending, but I usually have at minimum a “good” and “bad” ending planned, and expect I’ll hit something in the ballpark of one of my planned endings. It usually needs to be heavily modified over time in response to player actions, but that happens over many sessions anyway, and isn’t a big deal until it’s almost time for the campaign to end.

#13 Comment By peter On October 21, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

the background story of my games are mostley plotted by the “bad guys”. They have a plan and a schedule and if they are not stopped, they will succeed. and it is up to the pc’s to try and stop them, or not if they don’t want to do that. but they have to face consequences. the world is a big place and it is not revolving around them.

so my prep kinda follows the groundplan you described in your first post.

#14 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 21, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

@SmallBlueGod – Re: your last paragraph: Hell, yeah! I definitely haven’t planned this whole campaign using this approach, just the last few sessions. The organic growth of a campaign over time is one of my favorite aspects of GMing.

@LesInk – Thinking from the end backwards is new to me, too. I think that’s why these two articles (this one and the one I linked to, about planning endings) are connected in my mind.

It’s cool to hear all the formal and informal systems this idea is similar to — I didn’t think I was breaking new ground. I definitely want to check out a Savage Worlds setting now, too. Any recommendations, or is that too broad of a question?

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 21, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

@Martin Ralya
What is a Plot Point setting?
http://www.peginc.com/plotpoints.html

It depends on what you want; one of the beauties of Savage Worlds is that the ruleset is pretty generic. Shaintar is classic epic high fantasy: Good fights Evil in a desperate battle. Slipstream is 1930s pulp sci-fi, complete with rayguns and finned spaceships. 50 Fathoms is fantasy pirates. Rippers is Victorian horror/adventure. Necessary Evil is supervillains fighting off a galactic invasion (the superheroes having died in the initial battle). There are more…

#16 Comment By calico_jack73 On October 30, 2008 @ 6:46 am

I use a similar technique when I am running an adventure of my own design. I come up with several “Scenes” that I want to make sure get into the game which lead to the finale. The trick is to keep those scenes flexible enough that they can be inserted in such a way that doesn’t appear to be railroading. Personally I have nothing against railroading… anyone who has ever run a module is “guilty” of railroading. I think players understand that when they deviate from the planned “Plot” of an adventure that the GM has every right to end the game session so that they can prepare for the unexpected direction the players have taken. If I am running a module I’d tell my players that they are deviating away and I have no doubt that they’d be kind enough to change their course of action to stay on track. Sandbox style roleplaying is IMHO the only style of play that doesn’t involve some form of railroading.

#17 Comment By alabaster On January 28, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

Of course the granddaddy of this was the wonderful Ravenloft campaign, which introduced many wonderful concepts.

Coming from a storyteller background, and having long gamed with writers, drama majors, and others of similar mindset, the idea of a core storyline with flexibility on when events happen is something that appeals to me, and I’ve used a similar approach for a long time. There are things that need to happen for a story to work, and an open-ended random series of combats just doesn’t appeal very much. That said you need to balance the narrative with freedom for the players to create as well.

What works well for me is loose storyboarding, with a few fixed elements and a lot of flexibility.

For example, I structured one memorable adventure out of an extended chase that was intended to end with a major battle on a cliffside. The players were in pursuit of a particular magical artifact, and had finally located it — only to discover that it had been stolen about three hours prior. Of course they set off in hot pursuit, but were limited in speed because they didn’t know where the bad guys were off to.
The first encounter was simply to give them the chance to learn about their enemy — so they nearly caught up, but one of the team (who was never intended to be in the boss fight) had the job of stopping the party and buying time. This was a minor encounter, so i had the mid-level mage charm a bugbear tribe into attacking. I didnt’ need to roleplay that part or roll for it; that was all setup. The players of course were frustrated that the main baddies got away, but got to beat up on bugbears and the mage who’d riled them up, which was satisfying for them. It also forced them to stop and heal, and locate fresh horses.

The second encounter’s purpose was to give them an item they’d need later and allow them to cut off potential bad-guy reinforcements. The baddies once again dispatched on of their number to misdirect the heroes and meet with a bandit leader. That fight was built around an illusion that ran them afoul of a local militia, who they didn’t WANT to kill. They had to roleplay through that and were ingenious enough to send some of the party after the bad guy, where they were successful in intercepting the bandit leader (denying reinforcements) in a mini-combat. However the bad guy got away — now they had a face to hate, and an enemy who was personally angry at them to fight later.

The flexible third encounter was where they’d lose the trail and have to find it again, while dodging what appeared to be random encounters. However, I’d only mapped out one — a pair of giants — who *could* under some circumstances told them where the baddies had gone, in the off chance that they weren’t able to make the rolls they needed to locate the trail again. They ended up fighting the giants early (the ranger hated giants and couldn’t be talked out of attacking them), and then blew a roll or two looking. I’d timed it so that the combat took place at twilight, if it took place at all. Beating the giants netted them a few useful trinkets but also cost them healing resources. And the delay meant more and better prepared baddies to fight at the end.

For longer adventures, I typically plan out at least one or two “random” encounters — usually either a minion dispatched to harass the party or a truly random encounter that may provide useful info. Such encounters can be used to redirect the party (the captured orcs trade information about the other party’s destination for their freedom), exhaust them to buy you time to rethink the next bit, or otherwise accomplish story points.


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