Sunday, September 17, 2023

How I Craft a Campaign Arc

We recently wrapped up a pretty momentous arc in our Savage Krevborna game. This is a post about how I set it up; I'm making this post to show you the techniques that I used to make an arc that was both super-satisfying to my players (or so they say) and easy to implement on my end.

To sum up what this arc entailed: in an early adventure, one of the pieces of loot that the characters found was a chart of the cosmos. In a few of the adventures that followed, they discovered complimentary cosmic maps that could be overlayed on the one they already had; doing so changed the nature of the maps and indicated a location in the mountains connected to the mysteries of the cosmos.

Meanwhile, in a different adventure, the characters had taken a mysterious comatose woman encased in a glass coffin from an isolated lighthouse. They decided that they would attempt to lift the curse that was keeping her unconscious. When they accomplished this goal, the first thing the woman said was a warning that something ominous called "the Red Window" was opening. And it turned out that the location on their cosmic map was the site of the Red Window.

Everything came together, and they decided that their new goal was to shut the Red Window before something eldritch and terrible slipped out into their world.

In play, I think this felt very cumulative--like pieces falling into place as planned. Which means I must have had all of this elaborately planned from the start of the campaign, right?

Lol, lmao.

* * *

One piece of advice I give in the Krevborna book is this: "keep an eye out for the things that pique your players’ curiosity and catch their imaginations, then give them more of that. Shine the lantern’s light on the things that grab them." This campaign arc is a great example of that advice in practice. What it means is that you do not have to write a novel's worth of plot before you start playing; your players will gas up the car as they drive around in your sandbox.

Technique #1: When you're planning out the loot in your adventures, add a couple items that seem interesting, but that you have absolutely no idea what they're for.

The first cosmic chart they found was essentially a throw-away item. Just a star chart with some otherworldly atmosphere. Nothing to it. But one player immediately took an interest in it. Noting his excitement about this inconsequential item let me know that I should make it consequential going forward. Thinking on it between sessions pushed me to the idea that there were more cosmic charts that were additive with this first one. Note that I still didn't know that they would point to the Red Window. I didn't need to know that yet.

Technique #2: When the players set a goal, you follow it even if it leads to Hell.

I was surprised that during the lighthouse adventure the players ended up taking responsibility for the woman in the glass coffin's well-being. I'd run that adventure before with different groups, and they had all inadvertently killed Rebecca by shattering the glass coffin. But this group made it clear that they were going to find a cure for the curse keeping Rebecca in a state between life and death. They handed me a plot hook for future use; I could have made adventures that veered in a different direction, but that would have been folly. If they're hot on something, you should be hot on it too.

But I also gave them choices of where they could potentially go to seek help reviving Rebecca because this wasn't a railroad. They choose to travel to Creedhall and ultimately attempt to get Viktoria Frankenstein to aid them. 

Technique #3: Always cross the streams. 

I was already thinking about cosmic matters since they had an interest in the cosmic charts, so it made thematic sense to have the root cause of Rebecca's stasis to be eldritch in nature. When they effected a cure, Rebecca's first words tied everything together neatly: she spoke of an eldritch entity she had encountered while a soul was detached from her body inside glass coffin. And it just so happened that their cosmic charts were pointing them toward an encounter with that same entity. To move toward a conclusion, different strands need to entwine.

There were other small elements I also managed to tie in here. For one, they had made a mechanical NPC called the Widow their friend and companion, which let me slip in--via Viktoria Frankenstein--that the Widow's animating lifeforce also originated in the eldritch cosmos. This was connected to both the place on their cosmic map and to Rebecca's curse. For another, when they were in the process of stealing the third map they needed to complete their set, I had them discover that a noble was harvesting the brains of people who had been similarly afflicted with Rebecca's curse; in fact, he had a spot open for Rebecca's brain.

Technique #4: Add some urgency when it's time to resolve an arc.

Now that they had all the maps indicating a location and some basic knowledge about the Red Window and what resided there, all I needed to wrap this up was some anxious impetus to get them moving. The idea that the Red Window was opening, and that something really bad was going to come slithering out of it, put them in motion toward nipping that in the bud with some finality.

Technique #5: Blow your FX budget on the finale.

I wanted to make resolving this arc special, so I tried to give them a sense of being involved in grander things. The idea of leaving Krevborna to enter a tear in reality to another plane entered here, as did a set of otherworldly stairs leading up into the sky. And, of course, confronting the eldritch entity at the end of the rainbow had to feel BIG and WEIRD too. When they got there, killed the avatar of a cosmic horror, and accomplished what they set out to do, it felt like epic heroism on their part because they stakes were high and they had to sweat while doing it.

Bonus Technique #6: While you're resolving a set of plot hooks, keep throwing MORE plot hooks at them to see what sticks.

Even as we neared a focused goal for this arc, I kept seeding the game with potential hooks for future arcs. They met an NPC during their heist of the third part of their map who they now know has been kidnapped by their foes and is in grave danger. On the way to the Red Window they failed to stop a vampire lord from being released from her underearth prison; now they know she's sucking blood of innocents all across the land. They heard that one of their allies seems to be searching for something of great import. All or any of these might be the basis of the next arc.

Do I know what will happen? Have I got it all planned out in advance? Hell no, but I can't wait to find out what's going on and I can't wait to see how they fight their way out of the scrapes to come.