Linear Story Problems

How far out do you go to plan in a linear story type situation? Do you want to give the players more than one choice, branching out, as they go? Or are you doing a more railroad approach with the seeming of free will but no actual free will?

A lot has to do with your players and what they want, I realize. But for me, I find that I need a real reason behind what happens in a linear story not just “OK, the bad guys attack at this time” - why did they attack? Who told them to do so? Were they just bored? Are there bored attackers everywhere else in the town? Why hasn’t something been done about this? Why hasn’t the bartender said, “Careful out there, there’s been a lot of attacks on the street…” Why aren’t clerics from the Temple of Justice standing around on street corners preaching against crime and preaching for obedience to the Law? I have questions. It needs to make sense for me! But I get it, your players want the linear story. I’m just wondering how other people put up with this seeming inconsistency.


I started doing a 2 layer outline a few years ago. I plan out the villains story long in advance, their goals, motivations, plot, and available resources. But then the game itself, I only plan one adventure at a time, and go back to the long BBEG arc for guidance on the motive and reason mentioned above. The plot line starts to look more like a double helix or a sound wave, where the overall story proceeds in a straight-ish line, but the short term plot lines twist and bend around each other. The players have quite a bit of agency, but I still rarely get caught unprepared.


I’m not a linear story kinda guy, but I appreciate ones where the GM has thought of the little things and does their best to justify their actions. There are good linear stories, but they need a very good and hard working GM to really shine.


That sounds like an interesting technique, RPG Den!

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My normal planning process is kind of layered based on time 'till game. I make a lot of detailed decisions about expected situations for the next session, but the farther from “now” I look the more generalized my plans become, focussing mostly on what’s going on that the heroes won’t be directly interacting with but will impact future situations.

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I must say I do mostly pre-written material these days as my time is tighter then when I was younger. Then I would do a double-arc like RPGDen suggests. An over-arching sort of thread (or two) that I mostly ignore as I move through the specifics of a ‘local’ adventure for the party.

I’m a big fan of joint story telling though, and I’ve lost the threads of many a campaign to player agency. This is a story we’re telling together, so I re-weave around what they do. When I can. :slight_smile:


That’s kinda how the double helix analogy works. Push/pull between the villain and PCs telling opposite sides of the same tale. I think a lot of DMs do this, they just don’t call it that.


I’m probably viewed as one of the craziest people when it comes to story planning.

First - never plan for your players. Ever. You will always be viciously and amazingly surprised. This is a good thing.

I am a bottom-up prepper. I have everything in my campaign world planned. 30,000 named NPCs with backgrounds, descriptions, some with stat blocks, connections, goals, etc. My game world is also NOT static, it self-adapts. What does that mean? If an NPC dies, so does everything they affected in the world. Their goals and dreams? Gone. Their knowledge? Gone. Their story hooks? Gone. Will someone replace that fence that was masquerading as an undertaker that now died because the PCs got him mixed up in a deal gone sideways? Yes. But, it won’t be the same character, and probably not even the same profession. A new undertaker will certainly take their place and a new fence will likely find a profitable business venture, but it won’t be that NPC.

The core of what makes linear and long-range planning work (begin MY opinion soap box) is: Understanding and Ascribing Goals.

Every person and every organization has one or more goals. Each goal is essentially a story or plot hook. Where goals intersect there is tension. Where actions cross there is competition. Where tension and competition meet: there is plot.

This frame of mind works incredibly well because it becomes SUPER easy to track even thousands of story details with very little effort. Does it matter that Clerics of the Temple of Justice aren’t out preaching against violence? Of course it does. Now, why would they not be?

NOW comes the part where the Narrator/GM/world-builder needs to actually do something. You need to allow your mind to just gin-up whatever reason, no matter how initially flimsy. Well, turns out a lot of their militant members have been cut-down recently on local roads trying to preach that very message, so the Temple is willing, but unable to continue their efforts. They need help. How does this matter? Because Friar Hogart knows some obscure piece of lore about an alignment of cosmological forces that is driving up unrest.

But, wait - that’s not the only plothook: there’s a merchant organizing attempting to start up a racketeering operation that are hiring some of these “bored” attackers.

So on and so forth. It’s EASY to generate hooks, story points, and even lore elements all as you go and STILL CONNECT them in ways that become clearer than a Greek Prophecy about Tragedy.

Wait, wait, what does this have to do with linear story writing?
Doesn’t matter that the players aren’t following your first, 2nd, 20th plothook: they’re still following the plot. Why? Because the plot doesn’t give a rat’s tooth if the players participate: the events will happen REGARDLESS. That ominous cult? Doesn’t care about some murder hobo group. They want their bodies from the graveyard for their rituals regardless. Where do the PCs matter then? They affect the final outcome. So, they ignored the possible warnings of the bartender because they didn’t talk to her. No problem, a key contact refuses to show because she’s afraid of traveling on the main road out of the city, and the PCs hear about it through a different contact. Now, they’re right back on track. THEY (the PCs) get to decide how and more importantly WHY they interact with your story, but it never derails because it’s just events unfolding as they already would have. The PCs can just take any thread by the reins and affect the various outcomes.

(edit: hopefully I answered it, I know the answer may not seem direct. But, the point is: any time a player does ask such a question that seems to defy logic. You can also respond like an improv artist: “Yes, and” or “No, but”.)


To keep the PCs focused I give them a goal. No matter how they stray they come back to the goal. I like plotting the actions of the NPCs, I have used that in character driven plots. It is less useful in location driven plots.

Doing your whole world before you game is a Hell of a lot of frontloading. I prefer what I call circle development. Plan the Village, then plan around the village and so forth. None of this gets discarded, and if the game rolls around to that area again, the background is still there.


That is about how my husband does his planning also. He gives us a lot of freedoms and only plans one session at a time with the BBEG reacting to our actions in the previous session. It works well and has ended up with some pretty awesome games.


I wanna play one of your games. You sound like you would be an awesome DM.

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I come up with story ideas but my focus goes into the characters (the PCs and the NPCs) and fleshing them out. I find that if I understand their goals and motivations and the region/world I’m playing in I have an easy time adjusting story and plots as needed.


Aww, thank you! I wish I was better (had any skill) with voices.


This is pretty much how I work as well.

Because I can’t stop thinking about D&D I have a lot of ideas that I can act on, but I force myself to narrow when it comes time to work on the game.

I need to know what the players seem to be doing and then the wants, needs, goals, desires, etc. of everyone around them. There are tools that make that easy, even if on the fly as players do the unexpected.

I’m also pretty clear as the DM about needing a direction lead from the players. They can try anything in character, but I don’t build out every town or dungeon until I know they are headed that way.


That’s one thing my husband is great at. He loves doing the voices.

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I’m a little weird myself when creating my overall campaign. To use A - Z bullet points, I know A, B, and C. I know H or I or J, and then a few other points along the way. As we get into the campaign I start fleshing out the endgame, the X, Y, and Z. I do have certain encounters planned along the way, and adjust them and add others as the PC’s give me ideas through gameplay and character history.

I don’t plan out linear stories as it can change at a moment’s notice due to player actions. I design a rough outline of what I want to happen, including any encounters and the like. Everything else is just pure freeform GMing.


I don’t do linear stories any more (not since sometimes in the 1980s). I do sandboxy campaigns. When I look for new players, I make sure that they understand that, and are happy with that approach. The linear stuff just isn’t very fun for me as a GM.


I Gm quite a bit. I generally set up an overt campaign plan. The basic idea is that the game gives the players motivation (if they don’t have one for themselves) to get involved in whatever is happening. I then let them take off, and I follow them whenever they make a decision that shifts the direction of play. Letting it become a widening series of choices that deviate from anything like a “plan” that I had in the first place.

Generally speaking this results in them missing some of the cool places, elements, and plots I have planned, and frankly, that makes for a far more interesting game for me.

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My never to be humble opinion…

Crafting your own campaign gives you a freedom to avoid linear storytelling that even the most carefully crafted published campaigns just can’t touch. Don’t give that up by letting your preconceived notion of the story you want to tell get in the way.

When I plan a new campaign, I generally have only vague idea of what the story’s beginning, middle and end look like. What I do have is a fairly firm understanding of the antagonists motivations and behaviors that will guide me through the rest of the campaign as my players inevitably go in their own directions… And I know what will happen if they refuse to get involved, and how that will ultimately impact them in ways that will draw them back in.

The actual beginning of the campaign (session 1) is almost entirely formed based on the character concepts that my players create. I use their backgrounds to 1) create a hook – a reason for them to somehow become involved in the story, and 2) to create a compelling reason for the party to stay together beyond the meta-reasons the players themselves have.

Each session after is a game of, “And So…” Given what the players did and what is happening in the background, what logically happens next and what do or not do about it? One trick I use to make sure that I don’t prepare the wrong material is to end each session at a decision point and ask the players what they are going to next. Will they seek a diplomatic solution? Storm the castle? Or maybe do something completely off the wall and unexpected. Whatever they decide at the end of the game, that’s what I plan.

So, in any given session, it might be somewhat linear. But they have meaningful decisions to make will make the “adventure” they choose unique to them. Just make sure you either get the players to that decision point or you leave it somewhere that gives you enough content for the next game that is set before they come to another major decision.

The And-So, And-Then game continues until their meddling, inaction, or failures finally brings them to the climax of your campaign – which may be very different than what you originally planned, and that’s totally okay.

I could write on and on about this, but I have to head out. Hope that helps!