For a while now, I have been trying to make sense of a problem. How can I write a mystery that spans many game sessions and keep the interest and relevancy of each part? How can I break down a plot into pieces that when all the pieces are put together they form a coherent whole?
As an example, my story focuses on the murder of the king by his top adviser. The adviser has been encouraging rebellion in the kingdom for years and he plans to marry the queen and seizes the throne.
Start with thinking about each of the clues or leads individually, like Lego blocks. Sort them in order of relevance and importance to the whole. Group those that go together or that are closely linked together. I want the PCs to gradually discover the story and reveal the villain at the end.
My clues include a number of letters from the adviser under a false name or pseudonym, a foreign assassin, the rebel groups, the rebel leader and the queen herself. In order of direct incrimination the clues would be: the letters, the rebel groups, the assassin, the queen and the rebel leaders. The letters, the rebel groups and the rebel leader group together nicely. The assassin and the queen are more stand alone clues. The rebel leaders and the queen should be my top two clues. Thus they should be placed towards the end. This gives me a quick overview of my story arc.
The Seeds method
Note that I use “event” instead of “encounter” or “adventure”. At this point I do not know how long I want this story arc to go, I do not know how I will implement. Those are just the seeds of my story. Those seeds identified, you can either write adventures for it or incorporate them into others.
One to three events where the PCs face off against the rebels, but do not confront the leaders (either they are away or escape before the PCs get to them). Having more than one event makes the problem seem bigger and gives the players a bigger sense of achievement by completing small tasks.
One event focusing on the foreign assassin; it could be the PCs confront him, have to track him down or some other clue.
One event focusing on the queen; this seems like a great opportunity to run a change-of-pace, perhaps a ball or another courtly function where the PCs meet with the NPCs. I like that. The queen may or may not know of the plot. If you are very devious, she might even be a prime suspect.
One event focusing on the rebel leader; here the PCs capture him and get some crucial information that explains a lot. The table is set for the climax.
1- Insignificant Parts the clues/seeds are so insignificant that players keep missing them. The PCs might miss the first clue or mark it as “unimportant”. If after two or three such events they have not yet figured out that something is afoot… Rethink about your method…
2- Overly significant clues this is the other side of the spectrum where every clue the PCs find is highlighted in red with a big neon arrow saying “IMPORTANT CLUE”. Don’t make it too easy on them.
3- Overly rigid structure the unfortunate downside of this method is that you can get very attached to a specific structure, the PCs must find clue 1 and realize its importance to continue or they fail everything. The reason I used the “seeds” instead of “adventures” or “encounters” is to remind myself that the story can go one without the PCs figuring out everything right off the bat. If the seed I wanted to put in does not work in the adventure I thought it would fit in, I simply relocate the seed later down the road, giving the players freedom to act and interact with the world.
4- Narrow focus everything in your campaign revolves around a single plotline. It often feels like nothing is going on around the PCs but what they are doing. To avoid them running straight to the king and spilling everything they know on day one, keep them busy with other problems. In our previous plotline, what if all that happened during a border war with another kingdom? Maybe the PCs have a treasure map and they discover that the old pirate who sold it to them made copies and sold those too. As the end draws to a close, the focus should naturally come on the storyline. But early on, keep the PCs busy.
5- Lose sight of the goal the corollary of the narrow focus… here by trying to keep things open, the story gets lost in a sea of other hooks.
In the end, experiment. Try things and see how they go. Writing a plot arc set in-between other adventures is a difficult balancing act, but one that players look back on and realize how obvious it was from the start… Like a good mystery, or one of my favorite movies, The Usual Suspects, after the first view, everything is so obvious, but that only makes the story that much better. Hummm Usual Suspects.