Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Narrative Focusing

So this post is going to be about how I go about preparing narrative/plots for a story arc. This is different from my writing process or how I take notes, or how I do game prep. But they are related to all of those. I call this process “narrative focusing”. Essentially, narrative focusing is an outline for your campaign story arc to make sure all the elements that you’ve incorporated get to shine and/or get used. A lot of the time during game things I want to do can fall by the wayside as I get more in the moment. This can be great for the short-term, but terrible for the long-term. Most players that sit at my table do so knowing that I’m going to pull out all the stops and string together individual sessions into something bigger. This is a consequence of my GMing style more than any hard or fast rule of gaming. I like things to matter. I want the things in the beginning to have weight when it comes to the end of an arc. Plot is sometimes considered a “four letter word” you shouldn’t say at the game table, but I think that’s crap. Plot is how you get things done and focus players. It’s also how you keep them invested. If you’re like me, this is important. So here are the important elements of a narrative focus sheet:

  • Mission Statement: A short concise statement about what the general thrust of the narrative will be. For example, if the campaign is about ninja taking vengeance on their destroyed clan I might write something like “The Kurokaze and Kamaitachi clans were all but destroyed by the Shinidoku and the survivors seek to redress wrongs with their allies.” That’s it. It’s simple. It gets to the point and provides a coherent base to stack everything else on. From the mission statement flows the narrative.
  • Story Mold: This is where it can get complicated. This is the actual narrative you’re trying to GM out. It’s very important that you do not overwrite this section.I’m going to say that again with emphasis: Do Not Overwrite This Section. It’s that important. You want enough details that you can push the story to the players without railroading them. Yes, I’ve talked about railroading before and how it’s not always a bad thing, but in this instance forcing the players to watch as you tell a story without them is a GMing sin. It’s the one most players hate and its how plot rails get their bad name. Write down the important parts, but leave blank how the PCs get their. Find the form in the formless. I like to call this a “story mold” – the PCs auctions are the plaster or clay and while I’ve provided the initial shape they are the ones who give it details.
  • Important NPCs: For the major NPCs I like to give a two or three paragraph each and describe them, their personalities, and their important GURPS stats. I may or may not write them up later on depending on if its needed. Being important doesn’t mean you need a character write-up!
  • Important (Fixed) Events: I try not to use more than one such event per sheet, but sometimes you need them. Fixed events are things that will happen in game barring serious intervention from PCs. I prefer not to tell the PCs with overt dialogue about what will happen and instead just do it. Be prepared to change these “fixed” events – players are notorious at knocking down the blocks the GM is playing with. Don’t get mad when this happens. Every time the PCs change things like this it present an opportunity to hone your pantsing skills. Do it often enough and you can start guessing what your players will do and adjust accordingly. Do not kill off PCs in this manner! If a PC is to die (or look to die) first get with the player and explain as much of the situation as you’re able. Most players will jump at the chance to play rearguard or sacrifice themselves to save the others. Again, use this sparingly and don’t be a jerk about it.
  • Important (Unfixed) Events: Like fixed events, but telegraphed to the players that they can be changed. This is where things can get wiggly. If you have something you want to happen or not happen you should be noting what effects this will propagate throughout your plot.
  • Important Places: For things important to the plot they should be lightly described and have their location on a map be noted as well.
  • Important Objects: MacGuffins. Nuff said. They can be important and the less game description you have the better. Like an NPC write up what an important object is, where it came from, and what it can do. Otherwise, fill it in using game sessions.
  • Timeline: Sometimes the narrative happens on a timeline with opposing forces making moves at fixed points. Since the players can’t be everywhere this can lead to some high octane action as PCs try to outthink the antagonists and be everywhere at once. I like to use a notation like “-3 hours after Foo, Bar happens” and have a single fixed point that the timeline can radiate from.

And that’s it. If you do it right it’s maybe one to three pages of material that you can focus on so that your players can stay focused. It should be said that a good GM can adapt to player rhymes-with-muckery, but at the same time he shouldn’t completely upend the story he wants to tell with his players. That leads to no fun for anyone.

Picking Over the Bones

And that’s how I do it. It’s pretty simple for the most part, but it’s sparseness really helps to get your brain on task before you starting running your campaign. I like to reread my narrative focus sheets before each game session and right before I start working on anything plot-related to the campaign.

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