When I write tabletop campaigns, I tend to write in two layers, which I’ve touched on briefly before. I’ll write the background layer, all of the stuff that’s happening behind the scenes that may affect what’s going on with the player characters, but likely won’t be seen directly until the very end of an arc. I’ll then write “moments” that intersect with that background narrative, and generally just enough connective tissue to link those moments together.
I tend to structure my tabletop RPG narratives in arcs, which are big sweeping stories with some major change or victory (or defeat) at the end. I break these down into Acts, which establish a kind of temporal lockstep with my background narrative, and then each Act is made up of scenes, which are the moment-to-moment bits that get strung together. I tend not to be picky about the order in which scenes show up, as long as they make sense within the Act.
Scenes are there to move the story forward, establish a bit of the setting, offer choices to the party, or resolve some conflict. They’re my little hints at the overall background story, and their outcomes affect how that background goes. The nice thing about breaking things down this way is that if the party makes some choice I don’t expect, I’m very rarely put in a position where I don’t know what to do next– I just pull a different scene out to move things forward. In a sense, I’m always fanning out a bunch of cards and letting my players pick the next one, at which point I set off whatever chain of events makes the most sense.
As a bit of an example, this weekend’s session of Star Wars was five scenes– two major ones, two minor ones, and one throwaway. Having acquired a starship, the group is working their way towards a particular location in the Deep Core. I figured they would either go straight for the Deep Core or take a side trip to better establish themselves. Each of these was set up with pros and cons– going straight for the Core would have gotten them closer to their goal quickly, and they’d at least be able to approach while under the Empire’s radar, but they’d be going in to a very dangerous area mostly blind. Going for more supplies / establishing relationships gets them more XP and resources, but increases the chances that they’ll do something that calls attention to themselves.
The first scene played out twice, as throwaways, and involved simply transmitting codes to Imperial checkpoints to get past. Pretty simple, but there’s still the possibility they could choose to do something crazy. Mostly it sets the scene for checkpoints as a regular occurrence. The second scene was a hyperspace interdiction– the party’s ship got pulled out of hyperspace by pirates. This could have played out in a variety of ways; it could have gotten them salvage, it could have put some damage on their ship, they might have gotten ahold of a rare and extremely valuable interdiction device, or (what they did) was talk their way out of it with some pretty fantastic social rolls and a bit of blind luck. Bel wanted his character to have something of a reputation for being bad luck, and a couple of deception checks and a name-drop later (and a successful Underworld Knowledge check on the part of the pirate captain), the party got away scot-free.
The third scene was a major one, as the group made a contact within the Rebel Alliance. This is where I start weaving in the background narrative, and the various things that are going on in the background. Their contact was intended to come off as sharp and perceptive, but friendly, and send the party on a side mission while she looked into some of their interests for them. She’ll be doing background checks on them and getting them resources in exchange for a search-and-rescue job on Nar Shaddaa, leading straight into the last major scene of the session: the rescue mission. This was interlaced with the last minor scene, another Imperial checkpoint but with a much more hostile agent. Nothing unmanageable, but not trivial either.
One of the things that I’d been tracking was the time spent by the party, both traveling and otherwise, mapped against the timeline of the background narrative. In this case, it’s the original series, so I’ve been keeping an eye on when specific major moments in the OT occurred, and what the party was likely to be doing at that time. In a delicious (for me) twist, the destruction of Alderaan coincided with the party’s rescue mission. I had a feeling it was going to occur, but I wasn’t sure how the group was going to approach the rescue. When they went in guns blazing, I knew things were going to be interesting. They did have the foresight to jack into the area’s cameras and get a view of where their enemies might be, though, which likely helped a lot.
About three rounds into combat, I asked everyone (in a party of force-sensitives) to make a Presence (Willpower) check, and got a few horrified sounds at the intense difficulty of the roll. A few people were getting a bad feeling about things when they saw the roll, and only two of the group managed to pass it. Then:
“You feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were silenced.”
Psychic backlash is a real jerk, and I considered that in the original movies, Obi-Wan Kenobi was nearly incapacitated by the wave sent out by the destruction of Alderaan, and he was a serious badass. For my (much less powerful) party, anyone failing the check instantly passed out from the shock. Bad times in the middle of a firefight, but the party pulled through and made their rescue.
Now, it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with the aftermath of all of that, and if anyone will consider that they didn’t turn off those cameras. Hopefully no one of importance will happen upon a recording of an apparent gang fight where lightsabers got drawn and a bunch of people pass out at the exact moment a nasty ripple through the Force occurred. Surely there’s no one out there who might put two and two together…