“I like to call [subplots] supporting plots. They are there to support the main plot.” – McDonald, Brian. Invisible Ink (p. 100). Libertary. Kindle Edition.
Subplots in roleplaying games are the side quests you go on to help accomplish one of your goals. When the NPC you need to talk to has gone missing, or when the NPCs asks you to travel to do some task or collect some item for him before he’s willing to help you, that’s a subplot. They’re the bread and butter of video games and roleplaying games alike. The conflict added to the story by subplots both provides variation to the gameplay and give players a sense of satisfaction when the PCs finally accomplish their goals. The campaign wouldn’t be as fun if nothing went wrong on their quest to save the world, after all.
In Session 2 of the Mini RPG Campaign template, “The First Quest,” the PCs will tackle the first subplot and take action to achieve the first part of their goals. Rather than trying to cover subplot creation for the first time in the blog post for Session 2, however, I decided to break out the process into its own article. In this post, we’ll generate all three subplots to be slotted into the templates for Sessions 2, 4, and 6. If you’re not using the Mini RPG Campaign template, this post will still teach you how to break down an adventure premise into a series of smaller goals and translate them into different roleplaying game encounter types.
First, you should re-examine your dramatic question from Session 0 (or create one, if you are coming to this blog post outside of the Mini RPG Campaign Template):
When [event that throws the world out balance happens], will a group of [adjective] [noun] be able to [adverb] [verb] the [noun] (to/from/at/in [noun]) before the [villain] [villain’s objective]?
Take a look at your answers for “[adverb] [verb] the [noun]” in particular. These will lay the foundations for building up your subplots. And now we’re going to delve into that foundation in detail.
The McGuffin, or Plot Device
We’ve all seen them: The One Ring. The Death Star. Your Princess in Another Castle. The noun section of the “[adverb] [verb] the [noun]” part of your dramatic question is the MacGuffin—or object, or ideal (if you want to go abstract)—that the party (and also possibly the villain) is questing after.
If you don’t already know much about that person, place, or thing, make sure that you’re able to answer the following questions before proceeding. The details in your answers will help you come up with ideas for the people, places, and things that will help or hinder the PCs as they quest after the McGuffin.
- Is it a person, place, thing, or ideal/concept? What does it look like?
- Why is it important?
- How does it relate to the villain’s motives?
- How does it relate to the PCs’ backstories and motives?
- If it’s a person:
- Who is it? What are they like? What do they want?
- What are their strengths and weaknesses? Hopes and fears?
- Why are they involved? What do the PCs or villains need them for?
- Physically and emotionally, where are they in the beginning of the story?
- Physically and emotionally, where do they end up by the end of the story?
- If it’s a place:
- Where is it located? What kind of geography does it and the surrounding area have?
- What kind of place is it? What does it look, sound, smell, and feel like?
- Who lives there? Who owns the territory? Who claims to own the territory?
- When was it settled, if ever? What is its history?
- What dangers or wonders characterize the place?
- What do the villains or PCs need from the place?
- If it’s a thing:
- What does it do? What (un)expected side effects does this have?
- What does it look like?
- How was it made? How long ago?
- Who owns or claims it?
- Where is it located?
- How has the object’s environment shaped it? How has the object shaped its environment?
- Why do the villains or PCs need it?
- If it’s an ideal or concept:
- What is it?
- How common or not is it in the setting, currently? Historically?
- What kind of people, groups, or deities would want to protect or advance this ideal?
- What kinds of people, groups, or deities would want to destroy or undermine this ideal?
- What does it look like in practice?
- Do the PC already embody this ideal? What about the villains?
Conditions of Victory
The adverb section of the “[adverb] [verb] the [noun]” part of your dramatic question can tell you a little bit about your stakes surrounding the noun (the McGuffin) and the verb (the PCs’ overarching goal). The adverb qualifies or modifies the verb in terms of “place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc.” Is the adverb “quickly”? Time is of the essence. What if you chose “discreetly”? Now subtlety and stealth is key. If you want to get more complicated (and make life harder on your PCs), you can select multiple adverbs.
Consider for a moment some of the consequences (the stakes) of the PCs failing to achieve this adverb as they pursue the overarching goal:
- Who in the setting/adventure would be affected the most? How are they affected?
- Who in the setting/adventure would be affected the least? Why?
- How would the PCs be affected? Directly? Indirectly?
- How do the effects tie into the PCs’ backstories, traits, and flaws?
Ensure that you’re prepared to illustrate the consequences if the PCs fail to achieve the adverb (extra victory conditions) even if they do achieve the verb (their overarching goal). In that scenario, the PCs got some of what they wanted, but not all of it. There are some downsides. We’ll be using the extra consequences you just brainstormed in the next section to make for interesting encounters soon.
The Verb: To Do or Not To Do
The verb (the PCs’ overarching goal) is the ultimate climactic venture. It’s what the PCs will be doing in Session 8 of the campaign, and their success or failure in that encounter will determine the answer to the dramatic question.
To be able to create subplots, we need to consider the ways in which the PCs get to that climax and who or what is keeping them from getting there. What are the steps that will the PCs take to get to that do-or-die point? What must they accomplish or overcome first, second, and third? More importantly, what prevents them from easily accomplishing those goals? Those obstacles can be divided up into two categories:
- External: Which people, places, or things are preventing the PCs from doing what they need to do or getting what they want? These are your basics narrative conflict of Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Society.
- Internal: What behaviors or internal character traits are preventing the PCs from doing what they need to do or getting what they want? Man vs. Self is the classic internal narrative conflict.
Come up with a list of three obstacles, including at least one internal and one external obstacle. We’ll figure out when, where, and how the PCs might confront these obstacles when we devise subplots based off of each obstacle in the next section.
From Obstacle to Trial to Subplot
So you know what the obstacles are. How do you dramatize those obstacles into subplots with their own steps to complete? We can again take inspiration from the Hero’s Journey, particularly the “Road of Trials” section, which comprises “a series of miraculous tests and ordeals” meant to initiate and prepare the hero for his final trial (The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler). The PCs can emerge from each of the trials, aka subplots, with new allies or enemies, depending on how they play their cards. The following types of trials from The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Seven Basic Plots map to the different types of obstacles we just brainstormed:
- Battle of the Brother: Confronting an NPC who represents who the PCs will become if they don’t grow or change.
- Abduction: One of the NPC allies the PCs need to achieve a goal is taken away, and the PCs have no choice but to rescue the NPC.
- Temptation: An NPC tries to lure the PCs away from their quest by indulging one of their desires or flaws, or by duping them with an illusion.
- Night-Sea Journey: The PCs must complete an arduous journey over difficult terrain, travel to or escape from one place to another secretly/stealthily, or both.
- Wonder/Underworld Journey: The hero must travel to a strange, magical place full of danger and temptation. The location contains an item or holds knowledge the PCs need.
- Battle of the Dragon: Confronting a strange and superior threat the PCs have never tangled with before. Such threats could include monsters or puzzles/hazards.
- Behaviors or Traits:
- Dismemberment: The PCs must give up something that they thought they couldn’t do without, whether it’s a physical thing, such as a limb, or a character trait or behavior. It’s lost forever or regained, but the PCs emerge stronger, knowing they can live without.
- Crucifixion: The PCs are hung out to dry, made examples of, or otherwise sacrificed by an NPC or a group of NPCs. The PCs feel the sting of shame and defeat, but they must accept the embarrassment or disgrace (and potentially let go of old behaviors/traits that cause their downfall) in order to continue their quest.
Of course, these are just starting points. You can brainstorm your own, or take advantage of some ideas from TV Tropes.
Subplots as RPG Encounters
You now have your three trials from the Hero’s Journey that dramatize the different types of obstacles. These are your subplots. Now it’s time to translate those subplots into traditional (or untraditional) RPG encounters.
I tend to divide RPG encounters into four types: combat encounters, which primarily test martial skills; roleplaying encounters, which primarily test social skills and relationships; environmental encounters, which primarily test physical skills; and investigative encounters, which primarily test mental skills and induction. Ideally, two of the three encounter types you pick should match up well with your party’s proficiencies, and one will be truly a challenge for them.
You can mix and match encounter types with the different trials, although certain types map better to some trials than others. The Battle of the Dragon is most easily envisioned as a combat encounter, but it could also easily be an investigative encounter (the Sphinx’s riddle) or an environmental encounter (cross the chasm). Dismemberment through the lens of a combat encounter could mean stripping the PCs of their weapons, armor, or powers; dismemberment through the lens of a roleplaying encounter might involve a crisis of confidence, the loss of an NPC ally, or a trait that’s normally a boon backfiring on the PCs. There are many combinations possible—that’s why there is such a huge range of encounters in RPG adventures.
The encounters below are designed to take between thirty minutes and an hour of game time. Strung together in a row, you’d have enough material for an entire one-shot, plus time for the intro and finale. But as any GM well knows, PCs can wreak havoc on our best-laid plans. As soon as they start bickering among themselves as to a course of action, they’ve added another fifteen minutes to the session. Alternatively, they find an accidental shortcut past some of the obstacles and slash the time by twenty minutes. Just be mindful that the subplots make take more or less time to complete depending on what happens at the table. If you do want to lengthen the encounters, you can add more obstacles to them. And if you decide to add in transitional scenes instead of doing a “screen wipe” from encounter to encounter, that will also fill up your playing time.
Building Blocks of an RPG Encounter
Once you’ve chosen a few encounter types, it’s time to finally dig into the nitty-gritty details so that you can bring the scene alive during the game session. Below is a list of the essential building blocks for any type of encounter—simply write down your answers in a notebook or word processor, and then add stat blocks or test difficulties as needed. Each encounter type also has some unique considerations as well, as detailed in the following sections.
- Context: What has happened before and after the encounter, chronologically? What have the PCs done or not done to cause this encounter to occur? What has the villain done or not done to cause this encounter? What assumptions do the PCs and other parties bring to the encounter?
- Goals: What are the PCs trying to accomplish in this encounter?
- Obstacles: What is stopping the PCs from achieving this goal?
- Methods: How do the PCs overcoming the obstacles? Their methods are defined by the type of encounter chosen, i.e. combat, roleplaying, investigative, or environmental. The GM can include more than one method in a single encounter, such as combat and investigative. (See also Mixing and Matching Encounter Types)
- Outcomes: What does succeeding or failing at the goal look like? Additionally, what might good/great side effects and bad/terrible side effects look like? (See also Conditions of Victory.) These side effects should be independent of the PCs’ success or failure to achieve the goal.
- Imagery: What sensory details are prominent in this encounter? What sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations do the PCs experience? How do they mirror or contrast with the mood and action of the rest of the encounter?
- Twists & Turns: What happens midway through the encounter that surprises the PCs? Such unexpected events can come from the obstacles, NPC allies, or even the setting itself.
- Emotional Development: What is the prevailing emotion or mood as the PCs begin the encounter? What is the prevailing emotion or mood as the PCs end the encounter? The more dramatic the swing, the more impact the encounter can have.
- Emotional Challenges: Which character traits, beliefs, and stances bolster the PCs or cause problems for the PCs? How might any of these traits, beliefs, and stances change as a result of the different outcomes?
- Worldbuilding: What about the setting or world is revealed?
- Consequences: What lingering effects will the different outcomes have on the campaign?
Combat encounters are a staple in roleplaying games, and combat is frequently so important that the RPG ruleset devotes an entire subsystem to facilitating it. But the least interesting combats are the ones that reduce the encounter to simple die rolls and the counting-down of hit points. To make a memorable combat encounter, you can go beyond the mechanics to include story, character, and setting details.
- Context: Why are the two sides contemplating violence? What is the source of escalation?
- Goals: What does each side want to achieve? Do they want the destruction of the other side the goal in and of itself, or is destruction or setback of the other side merely a means to an end?
- Obstacles: The primary obstacle in the combat encounter is the monster or the NPC/s. But you can add secondary obstacles to spice things up: consider environmental effects or hazards that impede combat: sight, lighting, difficult terrain, traps, bystanders.
- Methods: Combat encounters are going to be won with martial skill. But what specific strategies or tactics will the different sides employ? How might the PCs more easily take down their opponents, and what sort of tactics will prove less effective?
- Outcomes: In combat, there are typically two outcomes: one side is killed, or one side is incapacitated. However, draws and stalemates are also possibilities, forcing one side to resort to different tactics, such as social skills. What of the environment and bystanders, if any?
- Imagery: What is the backdrop for the fight, and what sorts of things might the PCs incorporate into their own descriptions? If you’ve ever seen the movie Hero, you probably remember the fight scene between Flying Snow and Moon with the blizzard of leaves in the background. What makes your fight scene different from all the others like it?
- Twists & Turns: Does anyone bring a gun to a knife fight or otherwise further escalate the conflict? Do any parties switch sides? Does the environment change, forcing one or more parties to change tactics partway through?
- Emotional Development: How might the PCs feel about the conflict? Do they feel angry or justified for engaging in violence? How do they feel at the end, once all the twists and turns are revealed? Guilty? Sad? Triumphant?
- Emotional Challenges: How do the PCs feel about violence? Are there any PCs who are pacifists? Are there any who indulge in their violent, aggressive side too often? What about the encounter might cause them to grow, change, or devolve?
- Worldbuilding: What unique monsters, organizations, or magic powers are featured in the encounter? What do the PCs learn about their strategies, tactics, and role in the world?
- Consequences: What sort of wounds or collateral damage might result from the conflict? If NPC death is a possibility, does it change any of the future subplots?
Roleplaying games get their name from the idea that each player inhabits the role of a specific character, complete with strengths and weaknesses, allies and enemies, hopes and fears. The GM plays the role of all the non-player characters, and when these characters collide, an infinite number of interesting interactions result.
- Context: How familiar with each other are the different parties in the encounter? What history do they have together, positive or negative? What preconceptions or prejudices do they harbor?
- Goals: What emotional needs is each participant trying to satisfy in this encounter? What information do they want to keep hidden or find out? Do they want to persuade, inspire, deceive, or demoralize the other participants?
- Obstacles: Why aren’t those emotional needs being met, or what might be keeping the different parties from being affected? What social disadvantages or behaviors will complicate the participants’ ability to achieve their emotional needs or social goals?
- Methods: Will the participants use politeness and flattery, wit and passion, negotiation and perception, or stubbornness and willpower to achieve their goals?
- Outcomes: Are there any ways that the different participants all achieve what they want, or is it a zero-sum game? What relationships might be mended or broken as a result of the exchange?
- Imagery: Are the characters strolling beneath the romantic light of the moon and stars? Or are they whispering in a busy, seedy tavern? How does their environment affect their personality and behavior?
- Twists & Turns: What revelations will rock the PCs’ expectations? What do the different parties really want, and who is really supporting whom? What is sympathetic or admirable about the villains, or despicable and abhorrent about their allies?
- Emotional Development: How does the PCs’ initial bearing or mood influence the other participants, and vice versa? How might the NPCs react to different methods employed by the PCs?
- Emotional Challenges: How might the PCs be affected by not having their emotional needs met? What sort of bombshells can the NPCs drop to elicit changes in behavior or belief on the part of the PCs?
- Worldbuilding: What faction goals or individual ambitions are revealed? How do these motives reflect the current political state of the town, city, or country?
- Consequences: How are characters’ reputations affected by the outcome? Alliances and rivalries? How might revealed information spread as gossip or news, and how will others take and act on that information?
Deep dungeons and airy castle towers, scorching-hot deserts and frigid wastes—traveling through fantastical worlds and exploring new vistas is a beloved element of roleplaying games. But with great beauty comes great danger, and without the proper precautions and adaptations, the PCs may find themselves struggling to survive.
- Context: What brings the PCs to this location? Are they being lured, or are they intruding onto someone or something’s territory? What crucial information about the location do the PCs lack? How might they learn this before traveling to the location or once they have arrived?
- Goals: Are the PCs trying to travel in, around, or through the location? Do they need to take into consideration food, water, or shelter as part of their journey?
- Obstacles: Besides physical obstacles such as locked and jammed doors, traps and pits, cave-ins and crumbling cliffs, what are the environmental hazards of this location: extreme heat and cold, extreme weather, oxygen/gravity levels, radiation or other toxins? Are there any magical or supernatural phenomena occurring? What is the cause, and how might they be manipulated?
- Methods: Will the PCs need to brute force their way through, or is this something preparation can address? Will the PCs need a local guide, or can they attempt to follow other inhabitants?
- Outcomes: What will happen if the PCs fail to prepare or cannot survive the environment? Are there any parties that might rescue the PCs or capture them if they are struggling?
- Imagery: What landscape details stand out—what distinctive shapes or formations exist, and how might they have contributed to the name of the location? What is the weather/climate like? What sort of water- or air-flow issues are there? What are the buildings or structures made of? What sights are familiar, and which are utterly alien?
- Twists & Turns: How does the location react to the PCs’ presence? What secrets about the location can the PCs uncover with a bit of luck and keen observational skills?
- Emotional Development: What kind of mood does the environment have? Is the forest bright or murky? What might change the mood of the environment as the PCs progress deeper?
- Emotional Challenges: What phobias or fears does the environment conjure up in the PCs? Have the PCs ever dealt with the environmental hazards before? Does the encounter change what the PCs will think of such locales in the future?
- Worldbuilding: What history does the location have? How does the location affect the people who live there? How have people, monsters, and climate affected the location?
- Consequences: What affects on the environment or ecology will the PCs’ actions have? What have they destroyed or restored? What might the next group of travelers face due to the PCs’ actions?
Perhaps one of the most difficult types of RPG encounters to run is the investigative one. Any time the PCs are on the lookout for clues and have to piece those clues together to come to a conclusion, you’ve got an investigation on your hands. Puzzles can also fall under this category if the solutions require intellect (as opposed to hand-eye coordination) to solve.
- Context: What is the sequence of events or logic that the PCs are trying to unravel? Before you attempt to create clues, you should ensure you know all the details of the scenario in question.
- Goals: What key pieces of information are the PCs trying to learn? What evidence or witnesses do they need to gather to prove their conclusions?
- Obstacles: Who or what is trying to keep this information a secret? Why? To what lengths are they willing to go to ensure the PCs do not find out the truth? What lies or excuses do they have prepared to combat the PCs’ sleuthing?
- Methods: Clues can take the form of physical pieces of evidence, such as visual cues, tastes and smells, and journals or recordings. Testimony from potential witnesses or intercepted letters can also prove pivotal. No matter what form your evidence takes, ensure that you’ve seeded at least three ways for the same piece of information to be discovered. That way, the PCs have a much lower chance of missing something important because of a single failed die roll or inability to make correct leaps of logic.
- Outcomes: Investigations are fun because the PCs can arrive at the correct conclusion but have the motive or rationale wrong—conversely, they can pinpoint the motive or rationale but jump to the wrong conclusions. Figure out how much information the PCs need to get correct in order to proceed to the next step. The plot should be able to proceed without the PCs getting everything right, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be prepared for what happens next.
- Imagery: Besides the physical nature of the clues, what are the memories of the victims or witnesses like? What sensations or details stand out to them, and why? If the PCs are interrogating or questioning NPCs, how is their internal state mirrored in their physical appearance?
- Twists & Turns: What are the crucial pieces of evidence that can prompt the most dramatic revelations? How can you play with clichés and stereotypes to challenge the PCs’ expectations? What red herrings, if any, will you include?
- Emotional Development: How have the victims or the public reacted to the crime or quandary? Is mass hysteria sweeping the streets? Is an elaborate cover-up underway? What setpieces incidents and rumors can you create to showcase different factions’ reaction to the mystery?
- Emotional Challenges: How do the PCs feel about the investigation going in, and will evidence change their preconceptions about who is innocent or culpable? What emotional baggage do the PCs bring to their interpretation of the clues?
- Worldbuilding: What faction or individual motives are revealed by the investigation? How is crime treated, and what reputation do investigators have? What social mores affect the interpretation of clues or the concepts of guilt and innocence? How does magic or technology affect the investigation procedures or limitations?
- Consequences: How are reputations and relationships affected by accusations, whether they are true or not? Who has skin in the game, and how do they feel about their crimes or conspiracies being uncovered? Who is out for revenge?
Mixing and Matching Encounter Types
If you’re an experienced GM, you can mix elements of different encounter types. Combat + Environmental could be a chase scene through a dangerous environment. Roleplaying + Investigative would be an intrigue-laden encounter, such as a masquerade ball in a court setting, where physical clues have just as much weight as a courtier’s whispers. Combat + Roleplaying could entail trying to talk down a faction before one side gets killed. Environmental + Investigative encounters might mean exploring a dangerous dungeon while looking for clues to escape the mad mage’s tower.
Once you’ve mastered these four building blocks, the types of challenges you can present to your players are endless. And your players will always surprise you with their problem-solving capabilities and ability to think of original ways to tackle the encounters you’ve set up for them.
With your three subplots prepared, you’re ready to present fun and varied challenges to your PCs they won’t soon forget. By the time they finally reach the challenge of the adventure’s climax, they’ll feel as though they’ve earned their victory, and they’ll have grown in the process.