Don’t worry, it’s not as difficult as all that. Planning a session is a process that must be practiced like any other. Once you’ve got a few campaigns under your belt, you’ll have developed your own style, and it’ll be a piece of cake. Until then, let me explain how I go about planning my sessions. These methods have worked well for me, and they can work for you too as your skills grow.
Plan One Session at a Time
While you may want a general outline for the entire campaign, at the session level, anything more than one game session away will be useless. Players simply create too many branching points. This means you only start planning the second session after the first is finished, and don’t even think about starting on the third. At best, planning too far ahead is wasted time. At worst, it will put you in a mindset that you must use what you’ve planned, and then you’ll start railroading the players, which they will not appreciate.
The second thing is that this planning is only ever a guide. You’re doing it so that your game has a direction, which is more fun than wandering about aimlessly, but you aren’t writing a prose story. No matter how much planning you do, there will always be a real-time element to running a game, so you must be prepared to improvise when something unexpected happens. Plotting your session ahead of time will make that easier, but there will always be a healthy chunk of work to do at the table.
In some sessions, you might not even use your planning. Your players may surprise you and go off in a completely different direction than you expected, creating their own content that doesn’t match what you planned. Unless the players are being deliberately destructive, this kind of enthusiasm should be encouraged. Accommodate them as best you can, even if it means leaving your plot behind. You can always come back to it later.
Identify Your Storylines
For most campaigns, the primary consideration for plotting a session is how to advance important storylines. Naturally, the most important storylines are those of the PCs and a few major NPCs.
For PCs, these storylines might come from your own imagination or from the players themselves. If you want to reveal that one PC is the heir to a lost throne, that’s a storyline. If a player announced last week that they wanted to look into the local mob, that’s a storyline. Some games even have players write potential storylines down on their character sheet. Burning Wheel’s Beliefs work like this. If one PC has the belief “The Plutarch’s Council is Evil,” then you’ve got a storyline about the Plutarch’s Council doing evil things.
NPC storylines should focus around your villains and on how they affect the players. If your big bad wants ultimate power, that’s a storyline. If a secondary villain is looking for vengeance, that’s a storyline. Two NPCs falling in love is very sweet, but it isn’t a storyline unless it makes the PCs’ lives worse in a major way. Maybe the wedding plans call for the heads of a thousand innocent peasants to be mounted on spikes.
Once you identify the storylines in your campaign, pick one to three of them to focus on this session. The exact number depends on how many PCs you can involve in each storyline. If you have a really meaty tale that involves the whole party, that could be all you need. But if your storylines are more scattered, you’ll need extras to give everyone something to do. I don’t recommend more than three storylines in a single session; it takes too much time.
Early in the campaign, you’ll depend more on NPC storylines, but as the players get to know their characters, they’ll give you more material. The early sessions are also a great time to experiment with different storylines, seeing which ones catch the most interest. In the later sessions, you’ll be too busy bringing the campaign to an exciting conclusion to introduce new elements.
Decide Plot Milestones
Prose authors either outline their plot in advance or discover it as they go and return later to revise. Since roleplaying happens in real time, you don’t have either option. Instead, you must employ a technique that’s unique to this medium: plot milestones. These are major story points that you want to play out, but that usually don’t have a defined end point.
Most milestones will grow organically from PC and NPC storylines you’ve chosen for your session. If your campaign is heavily focused on one of the PC’s learning forbidden magic, than each unholy spell they find can be its own milestone. If your villains are working to create the ultimate supernatural killing machine, than the success of their first experiment is clearly a milestone. Staying focused on your session storylines will prevent you from having to switch gears too often during your game.
However, occasionally you’ll want milestones that come from the theme of your campaign or from important events happening in your setting. If you’re planning a space-opera adventure, making first contact with an alien race might be a plot milestone. Then, even if that race isn’t represented by a specific NPC, their invasion of Earth is still a milestone.
Counting milestones is a good way to track progress on your campaign’s overall plot. If you want to create a sense of rising action, increase the number of milestones per session as your campaign progresses. Go easy in early sessions, giving players time to learn who their characters are before the story heats up. Later sessions can have two or three milestones apiece.
Remember to keep the ending for your milestones open. An author would write “reveal that Queen Hannah is a werewolf,” but you’ll get better use out of “find out if Queen Hannah is a werewolf,” even if you’re weighed towards Hannah being a werewolf. That way if the PCs get heavily invested in taking the story in another direction, you won’t feel locked into an individual outcome.
Once you’ve planned your milestones, you’re ready for the next step.
Craft Set Pieces
Roleplaying campaigns focus a great deal on narrative and character growth, but sometimes you just need something cool to happen! Just like Shakespearean plays need spectacle, and prose stories need novelty, your game will benefit from a bit of flashy description now and then. Not every session needs a set piece, but including them is a way to breathe some fresh air into the game.
Set pieces will vary depending on the campaign’s subject matter. In a steampunk world, a set piece might be two airships slugging it out with Tesla cannons. In a story of urban fantasy, a mild-mannered high school student might transform into a terrifying werewolf on the football field. As long as it makes players say “cool” or “woah,” it qualifies as a set piece. Just be sure not to use the same set piece twice. If the players have seen it before, it won’t have the same impact.
Set pieces can be independent, or they can be linked to storylines and plot milestones. If one of your milestones is the destruction of your setting’s Holy City, that certainly counts as a set piece.* I recommend linking these elements whenever possible, just to keep the moving parts in your session at a manageable level.
Another use of set pieces is to show changes in the setting. It’s one thing to tell the PCs their kingdom is at war and quite another for them to witness the carnage of mounted knights charging each other on the field of battle. Or, set pieces can simply be foreshadowing. A red comet streaking overhead and lighting up the sky with crimson will make a great harbinger of doom.
While set pieces are undeniably cool, you must use them sparingly. Each one you deploy increases expectations, and it’s hard to go back. If you’re going for a slow burn, consider saving most of your set pieces for the last few sessions. Even in a fast-paced campaign, you don’t want more than two or three set pieces in a single session. More than that and they’ll blur together.
Okay, now you know which storylines, milestones, and set pieces you want. It’s time to plan the individual scenes. Unlike previous sections, the number of scenes per session isn’t limited to three; use as many as you need to resolve the other elements you’ve planned.
The elements of a scene are simple. First, determine which PCs and NPCs you want to be there. In general, the more PCs you can feasibly involve in a scene, the better. Second, decide which story element this scene is in service of. It’s possible you’ll be able to fit in more than one. Finally, make a few notes about where this scene takes place and under what circumstances.
ExamplePCs: Sir Miko, Arch Mage Dalange
NPCs: Queen Hannah
Story Element: Miko and Dalange’s rivalry for the Queen’s affection. Possibly the milestone of learning whether or not the Queen is a werewolf.
Notes: This scene probably takes place in the throne room, at sunset or some other romantic time if possible.
Only include what details you need so you don’t find yourself at a loss when the session starts. I didn’t include any reason for Sir Miko and Arch Mage Dalange to visit the Queen. That’s something I’d come up with during the session, based on what happens beforehand. If you’re worried you’ll draw a blank, you can add that, but don’t let yourself be trapped by it. Your scenes need to stay flexible.
Depending on how your session goes, you may even change the sparse details you’ve written. For instance, if a PC investigates Queen Hannah’s lycanthropy harder than you expected, the above example might not work as planned. Don’t panic though: most scenes can be modified rather than discarded. Instead of competing for the Queen’s affection, Miko and Dalange could ally to bring the transformed Hannah back to her senses. It fills a similar role in the story and accounts for unexpected events.
It’s also a good practice to intermittently ask if the PCs have anything they want to do. That way, more hesitant players won’t be overrun by your smooth deployment of scenes. If the players end up doing something that makes your scene completely unworkable, let it go. You’ll lose the work you put into that scene, but that’s occasionally necessary for the health of your game.
Write Out Stats
Once you have your scenes written down, it’s time to get into the crunchy side of things. Now is when you’ll make stats for the NPCs, monsters, traps, etc. called for by the rest of your planning. I save this step for last because it can be a lot of work, and there’s no reason to create stats for a bunch of elements you don’t actually need.
The exact amount of work depends on two main factors. First: which system you’re using. Primetime Adventures requires no stat-building at all, whereas Pathfinder requires a great deal. Second: your level of experience. If you’re really familiar with a system, you can often create stats on the fly without anyone being the wiser. But if you’ve never played a system before, you might need to employ more detail.
As with more narrative elements, you must be flexible with the mechanics of your game. It’s all too easy to underestimate how strong a monster will be and how what should have been a simple encounter turns into a deadly battle. Your PCs won’t be thrilled if some low-level gate guards thrash their master assassins, so if that happens you’ll want to quietly lower the enemy’s numbers. That, or spin a story about how these gate guards are actually the emperor’s personal retinue in disguise. The same can happen in reverse. If your math is off by even a little, the final boss fight might be a complete pushover. If that happens, it’s time to reveal that this isn’t the villain’s final form.
There you have it, my method for planning a roleplaying session. I’ve refined it over a long career of GMing, and it works pretty well, if I do say so myself. As you gain experience, you may find other styles that suit your better, or you may stick with this one until you go to that great dice roller in the sky. The key is to use whatever options best allow you to bring fun to your table.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.