Tracking Unruly Plot Threads

Note: This article first appeared in the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter.

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At the end of a long campaign, I want my players and I to feel totally satisfied. I mean the sort of satisfaction one gets when a story wraps up with no question unanswered. The kind of story that ends with every major character’s arc finished and accounted for.

This is a challenge when there’s only a single person telling a story – just think of all the novels that have left you hanging in one way or another over the years. But when a group of friends gets into collaborative tale-spinning one chapter at a time with long breaks between, it is almost impossible to wrap up everything with a tidy bow.

All that said, it can be done. With a little prep work at the start of your campaign, and by jotting down just a few notes each session, you can stay organized and tie up all your plot threads. As the finale approaches, you’ll weave those threads into a seamless story that will have your players feeling like they just finished watching all of Breaking Bad.

All you need to do is create two simple documents – a campaign outline and a list of plot threads.

Outline Your Campaign

Before your campaign begins, create a loose outline of your story. This outline can take you from the campaign’s first session to its final, or it could simply be the first story arc or adventure.

Map out where you think the characters will be headed, any major NPCs or villains they might encounter, and the quests they are trying to complete.

You know your gaming group best, so plan in as much detail and as far into your campaign as you feel comfortable while outlining.

If your group plays the kind of game in which the game master dictates a majority of the story, feel free to outline in detail if time allows.

If your players are the kind who surprise you and drive every session off the rails, just keep your outline to the big bullet points of your story and the names of important people. I imagine most groups fall somewhere in the middle.

Here’s an example of what an outline looks like at this stage.

  1. The young dragon Melicharo the White has kidnapped Duke Wellington and ransomed him
    1. Duchess Fiona, Wellington’s wife, is looking for adventurers to save him
      1. Wellington was targeted by Melicharo because the duchess has several magic items the dragon wants
      2. Fiona will give one of her magic items as a reward to the adventurers who save Wellington
    2. The adventurers will go into Melicharo’s lair to save Wellington
      1. The lair is a floating glacier that does not melt
      2. Melicharo is allied with a tribe of kobolds who worship him as a god
  2. Duchess Fiona contracts the adventurers to recover more items for her collection
    1. Duchess Fiona is a member of The Shields, a small secret society that keeps dangerous relics out of the hands of evildoers.
    2. Duchess Fiona warns the adventurers that The Society of Genius, an organization of wizards bent on world domination, might be trying to get the same magic items they’re seeking
    3. The party retrieves several items for the duchess and sometimes has run-ins with the Society of Genius
  3. As part of a massive coordinated attack against The Shields, The Society of Genius kills Duchess Fiona and steals the items the adventurers have gathered for her
  4. The adventurers must seek help from the last remaining members of The Shields who have gone into hiding
  5. The adventurers must take on The Society of Genius

In this case, the further I delved into the outline the less detailed it got. The details and the connective tissue of the campaign can be worked out later as you will see below. The characters’ first adventure is most detailed since I need to be ready to roll for the first session.

If you have a specific idea you don’t want to forget (e.g. Duke Wellington is secretly a member of The Society of Genius), add that in your outline too.

If you’re running a sandbox style adventure, your outline will look a little different. Each Roman numeral might be a different event, adventure site, or influential NPC in the area. It could just be a list of those things in bullet points rather than a formal outline format.

How your outline looks is up to you, as long as you know what it means.

Add PC Backgrounds

If you’re running a longer campaign with a lot of plot threads, odds are your players might create some sort of backstory for their characters. It might be built into the system you’re playing, it could be something you ask the players to write, or you could send them a questionnaire with prompts.

Many players use this as an opportunity to introduce new plot threads into your game. A backstory thread could be a task the PC is trying to complete, such as hunting down a sibling’s murderer or garner enough money to bail a loved one out of jail. Likewise, a character could be running from something in a backstory like a cult or jilted lover.

After you get these backstories it’s time to begin a new document: a list of plot threads. This one is easy to create. Just list all the open plot threads you have at the start of a campaign.

Here’s what the plot thread document for my sample campaign might look like after receiving the PC backstories:

  • Duke Wellington has been captured and ransomed by the dragon Melicharo
  • Duchess Fiona works for The Shields and will ask adventurers who impress her to recover relics
  • The Society of Genius is seeking the same items as The Shields
  • Thog (half-orc barbarian) is searching for the necromancer who killed his brother
  • Rhea (human wizard) needs enough gold for a diamond to raise her old mentor from the dead so she can learn the location of his old spellbook
  • Tippy Shortstockings (halfling rogue) is running from her old thieves’ guild after she stole the thief queen’s crown
  • Grimbeard McShandy (dwarf cleric) lost track of his husband years ago after he disappeared mysteriously in the night

After I gather these threads I incorporate some or all of them into my outline. As the threads are worked in, I cross them off. The first three are already crossed-off, since they are included in the original outline. If I can’t find a place for a new thread in the outline, I let it remain uncrossed. I’m going to revisit the list after each session to see what’s changed (more on that later).

See how the outline looks now that I’ve added some of the backstory plot threads? Note I’ve added a side quests section to the outline now, as not every thread applies to the overarching plot of the campaign. I can work those side quests in as I see fit.

For a sandbox campaign, there really is no such thing as a side quest, so the outline would be different as each quest would be its own category with a Roman numeral.

  1. The young dragon Melicharo the White has kidnapped Duke Wellington and ransomed her
    1. Duchess Fiona, Wellington’s wife, is looking for adventurers to save him
      1. Wellington was targeted by Melicharo because the duchess has several magic items the dragon wants
      2. Fiona will give one of her magic items as a reward to the adventurers who save Wellington
    2. The adventurers will go into Melicharo’s lair to save Wellington
      1. The lair is a floating glacier that does not melt
      2. Melicharo is allied with a tribe of kobolds who worship him as a god
      3. Melicharo has a large diamond in his hoard that could be used by Rhea to bring her old mentor back to life
  2. Duchess Fiona contracts the adventurers to recover more items for her collection
    1. Duchess Fiona is a member of The Shields, a small secret society that keeps dangerous relics out of the hands of evildoers
    2. Duchess Fiona warns the adventurers that The Society of Genius, an organization of wizards bent on world domination, might be trying to get the same magic items they’re seeking
    3. The party retrieves several items for the duchess and sometimes has run-ins with the Society of Genius
    4. During the course of these adventures, Tippy’s old thieves’ guild strikes while the characters are away and steals one of the recovered magic items
      1. The guild threatens to sell the item to The Society of Genius unless the thief queen’s crown is returned
      2. The party must find the thieves’ guild and decide how to deal with them
  3. As part of a massive coordinated attack against The Shields, The Society of Genius kills Duchess Fiona and steals the items the adventurers have gathered for her
  4. The adventurers must seek help from the last remaining members of The Shields who have gone into hiding
  5. The adventurers must take on The Society of Genius
  6. Side Quests
    1. At night Grimbeard McShandy keeps receiving prophetic dreams of his missing husband screaming in pain

As you can see, there’s still room for more detail and side quests. Thog’s thread has yet to be incorporated into the outline. After this it’s a quick cross-off of the Rhea, Tippy, and Grimbeard bullet points on the thread list. Thog’s bullet point remains uncrossed as it has yet to be worked into the plot.

It helps if you keep both these documents in some sort of digital form, preferably in a cloud-based storage system like Google Drive. If your campaign takes years and you change devices or move, it helps these all-important campaign tracking documents remain intact.

Once you’ve worked all the backstory threads you want into your outline, you’re ready to start playing. When the campaign gets underway, a few notes each session will go a long way.

Take Notes

Whether it’s during the session or right after, take note of any new threads that have opened up during your game. If you want to bring back the goblin who managed to run away as a magically enhanced megavillain seeking revenge on the party for the death of her friends, you should write that down before you forget. A quick note will do, just something to jog your memory.

Sometimes you’ll get an idea for a new plot thread totally outside the realm of gaming. You might be grabbing a cup of coffee in the break room, watching a child’s soccer game, or playing a video game and think, “I should bring that into my game.” Take note of these ideas too. Gone are the days of needing to have a piece of paper and something to write with in order to remember a great idea. If you’ve got a phone, you’ve got a note-taking application.

When you sit down to plan your next session, take a minute and add your new ideas into the open plot thread document. Our updated sample looks like this after the first session.

  • Duke Wellington has been captured and ransomed by the dragon Melicharo.
  • Duchess Fiona works for The Shields and will ask adventurers who impress her to recover relics.
  • The Society of Genius is seeking the same items as The Shields.
  • Thog (half-orc barbarian) is searching for the necromancer who killed his brother.
  • Rhea (human wizard) needs enough gold for a diamond to raise her old mentor from the dead so she can learn the location of his old spellbook.
  • Tippy Shortstockings (halfling rogue) is running from her old thieves’ guild after she stole the thief queen’s crown.
  • Grimbeard McShandy (dwarf cleric) lost track of his husband years ago after he disappeared mysteriously in the night.
  • The kobold shaman Skull-Skull in Melicharo's lair escaped after watching his friends die at the hands of the adventurers and promised revenge.
  • In Grimbeard McShandy's dreams, his husband is being tortured by an otherworldly creature called a feldyra, a monster that slowly steals the life force of others and lives in a literal nightmare realm.
  • Rhea has the diamond to bring back her mentor.
  • Tippy is trying to seduce Duke Wellington and he seems into it...
  • Duke Wellington is tired of playing second fiddle to his wife and is secretly a member of The Society of Genius.
  • Melicharo's mother, Brindratharix, is out there and coming for the adventurers. When she learns The Society of Genius is searching for them, she joins forces.

After that, take a few minutes and update your outline just like you did with the character backstories. Check the old uncrossed threads too. You might be able to incorporate those. Just like last time, it’s fine to leave off any threads you can’t work into the outline. Leave them uncrossed. Here’s our sample with the new information.

  1. The young dragon Melicharo the White has kidnapped Duke Wellington and ransomed her
    1. Duchess Fiona, Wellington’s wife, is looking for adventurers to save him
      1. Wellington was targeted by Melicharo because the duchess has several magic items the dragon wants
      2. Fiona will give one of her magic items as a reward to the adventurers who save Wellington
    2. The adventurers will go into Melicharo’s lair to save Wellington
      1. The lair is a floating glacier which does not melt
      2. Melicharo is allied with a tribe of kobolds who worship him as a god
      3. Melicharo has a large diamond in his hoard which could be used by Rhea to bring her old mentor back to life
  2. Duchess Fiona contracts the adventurers to recover more items for her collection
    1. Duchess Fiona is a member of The Shields, a small secret society that keeps dangerous relics out of the hands of evildoers
    2. Duchess Fiona warns the adventurers that The Society of Genius, an organization of wizards bent on world domination, might be trying to get the same magic items they’re seeking
    3. The party retrieves several items for the duchess and sometimes has run-ins with the Society of Genius
    4. During the course of these adventures, Tippy’s old thieves’ guild strikes while the characters are away and steals one of the recovered magic items
      1. The guild threatens to sell the item to The Society of Genius unless the thief queen’s crown is returned
      2. The party must find the thieve’s guild and decide how to deal with them
  3. As part of a massive coordinated attack against The Shields, The Society of Genius kills Duchess Fiona and steals the items the adventurers have gathered for her
    1. Duke Wellington is gone. As a secret member of The Society of Genius, he got the inside information from his wife and helped plan the attacks.
  4. The adventurers must seek help from the last remaining members of The Shields who have gone into hiding
  5. The adventurers must take out the allies of The Society of Genius to weaken them
    1. Brindratharix is supporting them and in her son's old lair
    2. Tippy's old thieves' guild may align themselves with The Society of Genius after interacting with them
  6. The adventurers must take on The Society of Genius
    1. At some point Thog will face his brother's killer
  7. Side Quests
    1. At night Grimbeard McShandy keeps receiving prophetic dreams of his missing husband screaming in pain
      1. Grimbeard McShandy must find a way to enter the nightmare realm to save his husband from a feldyra
      2. If he does not rescue his husband in 90 days, his husband will die from the feldyra's constant feeding
    2. Rhea brings her mentor back from death
      1. His old spellbook was rigged to teleport into a secret underground prison for vampires in the event of his death
        1. The prison used to be run by lycanthropes friendly to the mentor, but since his death the vampires broke free and control the place
        2. The head vampire found the spellbook and is currently using it to keep his leadership position
      2. The mentor is familiar with the necromancer who killed Thog's brother
        1. Necromancer is a member of The Society of Genius
        2. Was a former student of the mentor
    3. Skull-Skull will return with his Ettin friend to stomp the party

Once you start playing, a single plot thread can spawn a lot of ideas. Some are side quests and others take place further down the road. But now you’ve got an idea of how the story can be connected and how to work it into your game. You won’t leave anything hanging unless you want to.

Tie Up Threads As You Go

Weave threads together over the course of the story. Do not save every thread for the final session. In the early days of running games, I kept all threads, major and minor, open until the very end of a campaign. It made for an almost comical finale.

Until the last session, every recurring villain got away, the characters never fully confronted their shady pasts, every missing person important to the party stayed missing… you get the idea. It felt like the final episode of a television series canceled mid-season. There was a hasty wrap-up.

If you close threads along the way throughout the campaign, you’ll be surprised at how much richer your story becomes.

Tying up many threads earlier will create new ones for you. As you can see in the example above, the party’s wizard raises her mentor and it leads to new revelations and quests. This gives the story extra layers of plot and creates a deeper tale that’s more satisfying when all is done.

It may seem overwhelming at first, but if you take a few notes each session and a few minutes to update your outline between games, you’re going to accomplish telling a spectacular, complete story.

End the Campaign

When it comes time to start bringing your story to a conclusion, you’ll need to start tying up plot threads. I know my game master brain can’t stop introducing new ideas, which is totally fine, but at some point you need make sure you’re closing down more plot threads then you’re adding to have everything wrapped up by the story’s conclusion.

It’s cliche, but true – all good things must come to an end. Some campaigns continue on until the gaming group breaks up and the story just fizzles out, but to get the most out of this method, you need to bring it home. If you outline at the start, take notes, update, and tie up threads throughout, your gaming group will want the campaign to end. The satisfaction of completing an epic story together will propel you into your next adventure together.

Roll20CON Wrap-Up!

I also just wanted to thank everyone who made the Roll20CON livestream awesome. Your support, views, and encouragement mean more than you know!

You can checkout both our games in the links below. The first Dungeons and Dragons game with Rudy Basso, Nadja Otikor, James D’Amato, Richard Zayas, and Greg Bilsland starts in the first video around the 03:09:10 mark. The second game with Anna Prosser Robinson, Holly Conrad, Jared Knabenbaur, and Chris Perkins starts in the first video around the 12:20:25 mark and continues into the second.

https://player.twitch.tv/?video=v70242239

https://player.twitch.tv/?video=v70365584

Thanks to everyone involved. All players were amazing. Roll20 folks were amazing. The audience and community were amazing. The other games and panels were amazing. I was amazed.

Two announcements to come out of this…

  1. Roll20 will be putting out a FREE starter adventure designed by yours truly with maps from Russ Hapke and Gabriel Pickard, puzzle tiles from Stephen Shomo, and tokens from Phillip Wright. If you’ve never played on Roll20 or if you’ve never played fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons or if both of those statements apply to you, this is the adventure that will teach you how. If you’re an expert with both it’s still a fun time. We played through the adventure in the first game I DMed.
  2. During the second game we played Merric Blackman‘s adventure Death in the Cornfields (with a little Tarokka Expansion mixed in). It is an awesome mystery that can be played in one session. Do it.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!