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The Orbital Path Method of Plot Design

Posted By Patrick Benson On October 12, 2012 @ 12:00 am In Tools for GMs | 19 Comments

Plots for RPGs are tricky beasts to deal with. Too strict and the game is nothing more than a GM’s railroad. Too loose and there is no cohesion to the story for it to feel like it matters.

The ideal plot has structure, but unlike the plot of a novel a game’s plot also adapts to the player’s choices. At the same time these plots need to accommodate the GM’s desire to share his or her game world with the players.

Lately I have been trying to address all of these points by using what I call the “Orbital Path” for my RPG plot designs. To use it you simply draw a series of concentric circles and place points on these circles. Below is a sample.

GS_Orbits

Each circle is an “orbit”, which is a level of intensity for the game, and populating each ring are plot points or encounters. The outer ring might be populated with level one or easier types of encounters, and the challenge of the plot’s encounters would increase the closer the ring is to the center of the diagram.

Notice that the plot points are connected in two ways, with the first being the orbits and the second being lines that jump from one orbit to another to form a subplot. This way the players can move from one plot point to another, but the move does not always need to move the plot forward. So if the players are not interested in a subplot they have the option to move along the orbital path to another subplot at a challenge level that their characters are ready for. When GMing games like D&D, a single plot point can actually be a dungeon crawl that will level the characters up instead of just a single encounter.

The introduction to the plot begins with the GM using some kind of kicker event or meeting place that results in the players learning of some of the plot points in the outer orbit. To wrap up an entire plot or story arc the GM might decide that multiple plot points must be resolved. In the diagram above I show this by using the red lines, and the only way for the characters to progress to the root cause or final plot point of the plot is to complete all three of the plot points connected by those lines. You can also just have any one of those plot points proceed to the center as well. Just use whatever approach works for your group.

Numbering each plot point allows the GM to keep track of them in his or her notes. Here is an example of what I might have in my notes using this method:

Plot point 6: PCs are in town and are asked to vanquish a ghost in the old junkyard. PCs will learn of the former owner who went crazy and is now in the local asylum (plot point 5), as well as hear rumors about the demon children spotted in the woods nearby (plot point 7). If the PCs are successful in vanquishing the ghost, they will discover the Mayor’s connection to the murder that caused the haunting (plot point 13).

The orbital paths are very much a sandbox type of plot design, but I find that this tool helps me create more cohesive story-lines within the sandbox. The system is a little bit more rigid, but at the same time players have a lot of input with how the story will evolve. Of course you should feel free to abandon the framework that you created with the orbital paths if that makes the most sense for your game, but I have found it to be very easy to return to the framework following a session that broke away from it.

What about you? What do you think of this “Orbital Path” method of RPG plot design? What tools and tricks do you use to design a plot with for your games? Leave a comment below and share with the rest of us your thoughts and ideas on the matter. The more tools that a GM masters for plot design the better his or her games are sure to be!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "The Orbital Path Method of Plot Design"

#1 Comment By Lugh On October 12, 2012 @ 9:02 am

Are you familiar with Dave the Game’s 5×5 method? (http://critical-hits.com/2011/03/04/the-5×5-method-compendium/) It’s pretty much the same concept. It has a grid format rather than the circular format, but that’s largely cosmetic. The big difference is that Dave’s is player-driven rather than GM-driven. That is, the players set goals for their characters that fill in the nodes, and the GM is just responsible for keeping an eye on the matrix and enabling movement from one node to the next.

I really like the orbital format. Especially because I believe that it could be used very easily with a mind map of the plot.

One of the huge advantages to these kinds of plot structures is that it provides a large tool for the GM to handle players going off the rails. If they mis-interpret a clue and head to the wrong city (as in my recent Dark Conspiracy game), you just move them to one of your other plotlines. You may not have a full adventure planned out there, but you at least have an idea of what is going on and how it can tie back to the center.

#2 Comment By Knight of Roses On October 12, 2012 @ 9:18 am

Nice idea, multiple routes to the same information and end point is always useful from my experience.

Is there a program to generate that sort of plot map? My drawing skills, not so god.

#3 Comment By DocRyder On October 12, 2012 @ 11:45 am

I recently rediscovered a friend’s lengthy hardcopy notes of a similar discussion back in the late 8os of a similar idea called “the Onion.” The idea is for a similar diagram, but with each orbit beyond the center being subdivided into a number of sections, with the innermost layer getting four sections, the next eight, etc., doubling each time. Then you fill every section with a tag or note to tell you what the players discover that leads them towards the center, the root cause as you have in your diagram. It can also be used to diagram cell based organizations (“You don’t get to talk to Mr. Big ’til you talk to me!”).

I’ve never found much success with these, as I find if I spend to long figuring out all of these possible start points, I never actually get started. I tend to run more seat-of-my-pants, having an end goal in mind and let the players kind of find the clues that point towards it at appropriate times.

#4 Comment By BishopOfBattle On October 12, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

I run a much more structured Shadowrun campaign, but I’ve been making use of a similar system for this last campaign. In my case, I’ve divided the overall arc into several sections and they’re presented with several different kick off missions to choose from. During the next session, they can continue with that particular sub plot or they can go to one of the other kick off missions and jump around between plots until they are all resolved. Once a section is complete, they move onto the next batch of plots which are closer “orbits” towards the center climax.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 12, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

I am familiar with 5×5 method, but for me the grid is not very useful. It is just how my brain works, and it is nothing wrong with the method itself. Plus while I recommend getting player input I don’t like to use it in that manner. Player input is a seed, but not an absolute IMO.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 12, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

I use a program called Paint.Net for creating the diagram with. GIMP or InkScape would also work. All three are free software that run on Windows, and the last two are supported on other operating systems as well.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 12, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

If your system works for you than stick with that. Never give up a working solution in the pursuit of improving your game.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 12, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

I really like allowing for seamless shifting between subplots so that the players do not feel like they are being railroaded. It is a simple tactic that makes a big difference.

#9 Comment By Shawn Gaston On October 15, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

I dig it. I’d love to incorporate this in to the plot points for the Clockworks Savage Worlds setting book I’m currently writing, if you’d be willing and with credit for the format.

#10 Pingback By Links for the Week of October 16 | intwischa.com On October 16, 2012 @ 8:03 am

[...] The Orbital Path Method of Plot Design [...]

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 17, 2012 @ 9:02 am

As long as you credit myself as the author and Gnome Stew as the original source I’m cool with you using it. :)

#12 Pingback By Friday Knight News – Gaming Edition: 18-OCT-2012 | Game Knight Reviews On October 19, 2012 @ 5:00 am

[...] Patrick Benson @ Gnome Stew offers an interesting approach to plot design this week… An “orbital path” method that uses the size of the orbit to increment intensity (smaller is more intense) and offering “jumps” to go from plot points at one level to a more intense level quickly. Might have to try this! [...]

#13 Comment By tzunder On October 22, 2012 @ 1:20 am

I have never been wholly comfortable leaving a traditional scenario design for some scribbled notes and non linear planning but this has me thinking. I want to run a non linear Traveller game in the Trojan Reaches starting December so I think I’ll compare this and the grid and see which one to use.
Thanks.

#14 Pingback By The Alexandrian » Blog Archive » Check This Out: Orbital Path Method of Plot Design On October 22, 2012 @ 9:01 am

[...] at Gnome Stew, Patrick Benson has proposed the “Orbital Path Method of Plot Design“. I know I’ve said in that path that you should never prep a plot, but you might want [...]

#15 Comment By Keith E. Clendenen On October 22, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

I really like this approach. It is well described and I believe would be easy to implement.

#16 Comment By danvolodar On October 31, 2012 @ 3:42 am

I too GM sandboxes, but I mostly use character relationship graphs like this one: http://danvolodar.ru/files/CP%20cast.jpg
I give my players some initial info, and based upon their further actions, use the map to calculate the reactions of the other characters. Then just reiterate :3

#17 Comment By sarkadark On November 25, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

I really like this idea. I’m GMing a campaign for the second time (and the first one only lasted a couple sessions before I decided I wasn’t ready to GM yet), and this looks like it could be really interesting. I do wonder about how to represent time in a diagram like this, though.

#18 Comment By Piikki On March 28, 2013 @ 5:24 am

I have now been using this method for couple of adventures and campaigns and I like it very much. I just wanted to thank you for bringing it to my attention.

#19 Pingback By Preview: “Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management” — Critical Hits On June 2, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

[...] book is that I was hoping for a few more direct, specific tools in campaign planning. Gnome Stew has a few that I’m fond of, and was hoping for a bit more of that fleshed out for the book. Still, that’s pretty minor, [...]


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