Crisscrossing Players and Plots and Not Losing Your Mind
After West Marches I ran a long-term superhero game, New Century City. Unlike West Marches it followed the more traditional “the GM creates a situation and the players have fun with it” model, which was fitting because superhero games are one of the most reactive genres you can play: villains hatch schemes, heroes react to stop them and re-establish the status quo.
Also unlike West Marches, the game was plot-heavy. Absolutely thick with plot. There was a big, over-arching thread that ran through the whole thing (Worlds In Collision), a bunch of individual threads that were part of that main arc (Queen of the Jungle, Emerald of Aktios, I am Maximus) as well as assorted unrelated adventure arcs (the lives and deaths of Dr. Null, the Echelon conspiracy). Then there were individual “rise & fall” character arcs for NPCs (Can we cure the Man-Beast? Is Nighthawk a villain or an undercover hero?). And then on top of all that, there were multiple personal threads for every player character (Captain Danger’s relationship with her sister, Moon Man finding out what really happened to him in those missing decades in space, the secret origin of the Eclipse, the dating life of the Eclipse, and so on, and so on).
In keeping with the comic book style, I wanted every session to be a self-contained episode with it’s own arc, complete with an episode title announced at the start of the game. So if you played any one game, it would be a complete adventure (or part of a few session mini-series at most). No bridging sessions, no filler sessions.
But coming right off of West Marches we had a big pool of great players. We wanted to keep playing with everyone, but ten people at the table is way too crowded for anything close to meaningful roleplaying. So again I opted for the mixed roster method: we’d float a date and see who could play, keeping each game at about 3-5 players.
We rarely had the same combination of players at two sessions in a row, which was great for the stand-alone episode part but a potential nightmare for plot threads. Each player is only seeing a fraction of the sessions, so how do you make sure what they’re seeing makes any sense? You say, “surprise! Nighthawk is really a good guy after all” and the players at this session look at you and say, “uh, who’s Nighthawk?” because they’ve never been in a game with him before, or they missed the last bit that set up this bit. Oops.
The cheap answer is to just let the players sort it out. Confused why that guy did that thing? Maybe you better chat with the other players if you want to keep up. While that was glorious in West Marches, where the whole theme was sandbox exploration, it seemed completely inappropriate in a character-centric game like this. The superheroes are the center of the story, the axis around which the plot wheel turns. Just hitting a player with plot X because I wanted to advance that plot and they happened to be there seemed aesthetically tragic.
So I took the harder approach: customizing every single session so it was lovingly hand-crafted to the characters that would be there. And advanced the plots. And made sense.
To keep track of all that, to understand the perspective of each character and figure out what plots they were involved in, I need a tool. I needed a plot grid.
The grid was a list of every important thing I wanted to put in the game: plots, events, episodes, characters, scenes, revelations, the works.
Every single item had its own line on the grid. Every revelation, every confrontation, every snippet that I thought needed to come out had its own line (Captain Danger’s sister has powers too! Felicity is really Cathy Grant!). Every thing that needed to come back in response to something that happened in the game had its own line (Maelstrom attacked those army choppers so the Feds are going to come after him, Captain Danger doesn’t know she has that thing in her jacket pocket). Every idea for a random situation, flashy encounter, or set piece had a line (Speed Demon tries to set a record for banks robbed in a day, a sorcerer transforms part of downtown to ancient Aegypt). It all went into the big hopper.
To the right I made columns for every single player character in the game (24+ characters). For each line I would mark the box to show how relevant each item was to that character, how important it was to have that character there when that thing happened.
Characters were marked essential if they had to be there (I can’t reveal the thing about Felicity being Cathy Grant without both Captain Danger and Guardian being there), or marked optional if they had some previous contact with this thread or had shown curiosity but weren’t required (Eclipse and the Shadow would be interested to find out the truth about Mr. Midnight’s background, but it’s only essential to Moon Man since their origins are secretly intertwined). For other characters that line was blank, meaning there was no special connection that character. Some lines had no marks at all, meaning they weren’t attached to anyone in particular, and I could use them whenever I wanted — a lot of generic “action” encounters were this way.
So let’s say we’ve scheduled a game, and I’ve found out who can play and which of their characters they want to play. I take my big grid, and sort the lines so that all the items important to those particular characters will pop to the top. That’s my starting point for brainstorming what to put in the episode. I mix and match, see what goes together and what emerges. Ideally something jumps out as the main plot for the session: some items are big and clearly need to be the centerpiece of an episode, others are just supporting encounters or scenes (it was a personal rule that each episode had a strong core concept, not just a mix of “this week on…” but that’s just me).
Sometimes the unexpected combinations of characters led to surprising but cool plot cross-overs. I didn’t foresee Dr. Daedalus returning with Moon Man to ancient Atlantis because he was only peripherally attached to that thread, but because his player was available and others weren’t that’s what happened and it turned out to be a perfect match. If you asked the players they would probably guess I planned it.
It was also nice because I could be flexible and follow my whims. I could let threads simmer for ten, twenty games without being afraid that I would lose track of them. I didn’t have to keep the game on tight rails.
There’s a counter-intuitive side effect: the less you play, the more the game is about you when you do play.
Yes, crazy, I know. But if there’s a plot that requires you (and just about everyone in the superhero game had a background or origin plot — the genre demands it), then the less you play, the fewer opportunities there are to move that plot. So if you’re going to be in a game, I’m more likely to push that thread up the stack. Guardian is showing up for a game? Gotta move that “Trials of Torvok” plot while I have the chance! Dr. Daedalus is in? Time for the “Armor Wars.”
Suffice to say, players did not mind this one bit. The less frequent players got the spotlight, and the more frequent players didn’t mind because they already had the spotlight in a lot of games.
As the game went on I added more and more columns to track things like the scale of the adventure (saving the world, saving the city, back alley brawling) or the style of the game (investigation, slugfest, personal issues), so I could sort and scan and see what kinds of games we’d had, and even break down what kind of games each individual player had been in (yeah, Mike hadn’t played in the last six games, but I don’t necessary want the next game he plays in be just like the game he played two months ago).
I had columns for all the major plot arcs, so I could mark which plot each item belonged to. I could track how long it had been (either in-game or real days) since a particular thread had moved. I could flag items as “important, do it soon!” or “maybe.”
As items got used, I put the episode number in the far left column: that thing had happened, so it was cemented in place. I’d change the boxes to checks to show which characters were in that episode, editing the description to reflect what actually happened, morphing my adventure seeds neatly into game records.
If you’re wondering how extensively this method was tested, or if you’re wondering if it was overkill, I used it for 119 New Century City games, with nine players running 24 different characters (after factoring out anyone who played fewer than ten games). There were an average of 3.4 players per game, plus GM. Yep, once again the average player only sees about a third of the games.
And no, I don’t think you have to run such a big game to make it worthwhile. It’s potentially a useful technique for any sized game.