Story arcs are vital for RPGs or really any form of storytelling medium. Finishing an arc gives players a feeling of accomplishment and is a great way to let them know, “Hey you’ve finished the objective, congrats! Now let’s move on.” Finishing an arc also lets players take a breath, relax, and orient themselves a little bit before moving on. Arcs also provide good stopping points for the party as well.
Story arcs get kind of tricky though. It’s hard for a GM to get into that sweet spot between what’s good and what’s too deep. The problem is that if you go too deep in a story arc then you won’t be able to get back out and if you don’t give the players enough narrative you may end up short changing both your idea, and the player’s experience. A good GM has to find that sweet spot that keeps players coming back to the table over and over again.
Luckily there are some mechanical things that GMs can do to make sure that they plot a good arc for a character. Right now I will explain some of my methods I use for plotting a good arc.
The first thing a GM should do is decide how many sessions a plot arc will take:
This will give you a good time of reference for players and yourself for how long this plot arc will last. If a party gets together once a month then a 3 session arc will take one quarter of a year to play. If the same party is now doing a 6 session arc then you’ve spent half a year going through a plot point. The problem with 6 sessions at a monthly pace is that both you and the players have to remember what happened up to 5 months ago. At this pace you can end up with players that end up disinterested or even upset by the plot that fades in time. A 3 session arc at a monthly rate though asks much less from your players and while you might not be able to fit as much into that arc, at least you will still have the players’ attention.
If a group gets together once or twice a week though, then those times get a lot smaller. Suddenly your 6 session arc only takes a little more than a month and in some cases even less time than that. In this case the GM has the opposite problem from the first case. If the GM doesn’t plan longer arcs then the players may end up not being immersed enough and they will lose their focus on the plot. Planning the number of sessions that apply to the plot has a big effect on the party’s future and is the first determining factor on the amount of immersion that most players are comfortable with.
Plan your arcs like a Scooby Doo episode:
Now hear me out! Scooby Doo may be a little childish but they wrap up a good plot arc in 15 minutes easily. They do the same thing in every plot line but, Scooby Doo has the advantage because it is simple and easy to dissect.
- The build up: All Scooby Doo episodes start with the gang driving up to this creepy old place where something happens that makes them stay there. PC’s should feel a sense of suspense as they begin. The mystery of what is going to happen will be on their minds as they are put in a dangerous situation that they may not be able to understand, and right before everything takes off they should be able to see ahead of them enough to know “this is going to be wild” but not be able to predict every twist and turn.
- The break away: This is the part of the episode where the monster chases the gang around. In this stage of the plot the gang also manages to set and spring a trap that usually captures the bad guy. The break away is the largest part of your arc. Here is where you throw players twists, and curves. Your bad guy will be at least met and pinned down for the final battle. Whatever mystery it is that was being built up in the beginning should be mostly, if not completely, solved.
- Second build up and break away (optional): If your arc is particularly long then you can build up your players and drop them again just like the way that sometimes the first trap doesn’t work, or the gang mistakes who the bad guy is.
- The slow down: This is the final piece of the episode where Scooby and the gang get the bad guy, reveal his identity, and stroll out of some silly situation. It’s always a perfect ending but keep in mind that adults don’t really take that kind of ending seriously. Feel free to mess it up a little bit. I suggest keeping the final battle in the breakaway so that players can focus on resolving the arc. Your players should be getting the special items for beating the main baddy here. After that they should return to where they started, if they can, and looking at the results of their resolution. This is a good place to wrap up any loose ends that you need to, or emphasize the loose ends that you want players to pay attention to.
With your arc finished you then have to keep going from there to another arc. I do talk about that more in (INSERT LINK). What I would suggest here is tying plot arcs together to create an overarching arc. This is particularly useful for players who have to shorten their arcs in order to keep a party attentive to their story. Combining arcs into a larger story may not be something that’s in the old 70’s Scooby Doo, but it is something that a more mature storyteller will do. You can use your loose story ends to foreshadow an overall evil that needs to be defeated. Just be careful that you don’t layer your arcs like this too much or you will end up feeling like an overdone anime.
One other major point is to really know when to end a party. It’s really tough to know when to tell everyone “ok guys this is our last quest.” The thing is if you don’t eventually end a party, it will end up dying anyway. People change their schedules, get bored of systems, or just reach level 20, and none of that is bad. Revitalising a group with a new set of characters or setting can really rejuvenate the whole hobby of playing RPGs. Whatever happens in your party make sure that you are having fun with the game.
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And as always