Framing a Story Arc

A games master (GM) is responsible for a lot of things and  but at the heart of everything else is the role of framing and presenting a story arc that the players and the GM can tell.  There are numerous types of stories that can be told, and by that I mean scope of the story, not the story substance itself.  A GM needs to look at what they want to present; a one-off; one session; sub-plot; several sessions; campaign. There are a heap of choices!  Each of these has a different way of framing the story arc and necessarily so.  This may seem like a fairly basic skill to an experienced GM but it is a learned skill that is absolutely necessary to support the pacing in game.  I mean to talk to each of these arc styles over the coming week or so but for today we will start with the One Off.

One-Off Story Arcs

The one-off is a quickly growing trend in games today.  Pick up games like FATE Accelerated Edition and the like really support the idea of being able to play an entire story arc in one session.  That is the secret to this, it is picking up a character for the first time, playing a session that starts the story, reaches the climax and completes it and then you leave the game as a complete game.  One-off says it all, and it is a different thing to a one-session although they hold similarities.  A one-off games is aimed at playing the entire story arc in one sitting, so the first thing that you need to consider is how long do you have?

For a one-off you need to be prepared!

A session for me is more than likely different to a session for you.  I tend to like to run a game in a session that lasts three to four hours so when I work with a one-off I would be aiming at that length of time.  For others a session may go a lot longer.  I remember game sessions that went for 48 hours or so and if that is the norm for you then you will need to plan for that time scale.  Some of what I have to say here may not apply to a longer time span but let common sense guide you.

A three to four hour period for my session is not a great deal of time to fit everything in that needs to be covered.  The story-arc needs to take in several phases to be considered complete;

  1. The introduction:  This portion of the story-arc will introduce the situation to the players.  It is unlikely that the main problem for the session will be presented here but you should consider foreshadowing the issue in the introduction.  The aim in the introduction is to really introduce the characters to the scenario and the characters to the players.  The players need this time to get the feel of the setting and have some time to build the concept of their character in their mind.  Think of any James Bond movie.  They all start with an action sequence that has little to do with the main plot but foreshadows the issues of the movie.  This is an excellent idea for a startup section.  Don’t start with OK, you meet in an Inn, start with a bang.  Throw something exciting in up first and let them come to grips with their character in an exciting manner.  For my sessions I would plan for this to last for about 20 to 30 minutes.
    The players find themselves in a warehouse district on the docks of Bloodcove.  They see goblins with lit torches and hay bales in all directions setting alight to the docks and the warehouses.
  2. The setup:  This stage is a build up that introduces the key problem that the players must overcome.  It is best to not make this terribly complicated but allow the players to find out the details of the plan through their own actions if you can.  This is the time to begin the build up to a confrontation with one of the henchmen so that the players can get some substantial information on the machinations of the final enemy or threat.  I would have this last around an hour of game time.
    The goblins dealt with a week passes before one of the neighbours of the players is found burnt to a crisp.  The house itself is unharmed and it is obviously not the clumsy work of the goblins.  Getting involved they find out that this is not an isolated incident and a body in similar state has been found every day for the past three days.  Further investigation reveals that each of the individuals were visited by a bard who delivered a birthday song to each, even though it was not their birthday.  The players track the bard down.
  3. Confrontation: Theme an exciting confrontation as the mid point to the story.  The players are ready to get stuck in and find out what is going on.  Have the players meet the henchman or travel into a well defended base to find the plans of the corporation.  Something that builds and creates tension and furthers the players understanding of the main issue.  A real win and a big jump forward in understanding here is the reward for the players.  I would plan for this to last for around 30 minutes.
    The players finally track down the Bard just after he has delivered the birthday song to the next victim.  A chase occurs and they finally pin him down in an abandoned theatre on the bad side of town (is there a good side of town in Bloodcove?).  The Bard delivers a dying soliloquy detailing the plans of a cleric following a demonic sect to steal the souls of all of Bloodcove.
  4. Escalation: The players need to track down the final part of the puzzle.  They need to battle through the final portions of the dungeon or discover the hideout of the mastermind.  Locate the dragon lair.  Meanwhile through all of this there are signs that the plans are going ahead and things go past the point where anyone else can stop it.  Looks like a job for the heroes!  At the end of this point the players will have what they need to make it to the climax.  Around 30 minutes high paced action here is needed.  keep the players on their toes and making decisions!
    Unsavoury characters galore as the players try and find the root of the cult in Bloodcove.  Meanwhile two more bodies are found and a new bard is already on the job of delivering the deadly songs.  At the last minute a shadowy figure is caught by the players bearing the sign of the demon and he tells them the site of the ritual!
  5. Climax:  This is it.  The big event.  The players get to resolve everything here in an action or tension packed event.  The players should sweat the most through this section and it should be richly prepared for the big impact you want it to have on the players.  Plan for this encounter to last around 40 to 50 minutes as it should be a major challenge.
    Disguised as cultists the players arrive at the underground ritual chamber.  The blood of a hundred children seeps slowly from a vat into a conflagration of white and green flames being supported by the ritual chanting of the assembled cultists whilst standing on a raised podium stands what can only be the cleric in control of this ritual.  He stands with the chalice of demonic blood raised high and the sacrificial dagger the players had found out about to be used by the cleric at the end of the ritual to cut his own throat and bring forward the Demon that will harvest the souls of Bloodcove!
  6. Conclusion:  The wind up.  Advise the players what they have achieved and importantly have them realise that they managed to clean up all of the problems that were presented to them.  This is an important point of the one-off game as this is the only time that it is going to be played.  Let the players have the complete success if they manage to win the climax.  If you don’t, get prepared for the players to want to take it into another session!  Around 10 minutes planned should do it!
    The blood of the cultists and cleric around them and the flow of blood stopped the players stamp out the remnants of the fire.  On the podium they find the ritual book and find that because they have interrupted the ritual it will be another 1000 years before it can ever be attempted again!
And there you have a tidy way to build the story arc of a one off.  The timing of the above is aimed at a neat three hour game but I have done it that way so that I have time to overflow some of the sections.  If you take your eye off the clock it can be easy to run long in sections so always try to plan your schedule so that it is under time and not on time.

Do’s

Keep an eye on the clock!
  • Keep players moving through the story.  A one-off game is no place for meandering and long length discussion.  
  • Make sure the players know that they are expected to act quickly in the game to keep things moving!  
  • Ask pointed questions and praise players that get into the spirit of keeping the game moving.  
  • Keep an eye on the time and your timings but not at the expense of the game.
  • Know the material inside and out so you do not miss a trick!
  • Keep the focus evenly across all players.

Dont’s

  • Use any subplots.
  • Leave anything left unanswered.
  • Be tempted to run it into another session unless you want to start it as a campaign!
  • Expect to have time to draw maps, make sure they are ready at the start!
One off games are great to revitalise a tiring group.  They are also the staple of conventions.  You can also use them if you are not sure if you want to play a particular game or not, give it a one-shot and decide!  What ever your desire is I hope that this guide can help you design some successful games in this form for you and your group.  Keep rolling!

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