A story is a single unified entity that contains all that happens to a cast of characters through all of their adventures within a single arc and all of its various subplots.
Arcs are large portions of a campaign where the heroes focus their time defeating or solving the main threat which takes many scenarios to work through in order to identify, find, and defeat the boss or main threat – i.e your story’s Dr. Evil or cataclysmic event.
Fate Core puts the length of an arc at 2-5 scenarios, but for purposes of the process I propose here an arc, specifically one derived from the Campaign Issues process, will really be a major story arc which will typically take 10 or more scenarios to work through, especially when the 5 Act Structure is applied. For the purposes of this document, when we refer to an arc we will mean a major story arc, unless I specify otherwise. A minor arc, which we will not really cover here, would take 4-6 scenarios, although the same principles would still apply. Anything less than that is a subplot (1-3 scenarios), which is something we will cover here.
The primary engine here for driving the storytelling forward will be the campaign’s Current Issue as a major story arc once it is draped over 5 Act Structure. You can definitely work through your arc in less than 10 scenarios, but here I am covering a much longer view on storytelling and pushing the storytelling and drama out, as well as promoting player investment by including character driven subplots.
Some examples of arcs:
- Save the Vale from the Dragon and its minions
- Disrupt the Convocation of Dragons to keep the dragons from working together to take over the world
- Defeat the Dark Lord and end its reign
- Stop the Cultists and their world-ending ritual
Introduction of New Arcs
Where one story and arc (main issue) finds its conclusion another may begin (impeding issue) in order to continue the storytelling and adventure. A new arc will generally reveal itself to the players in one of 4 ways:
- Foreboding – as a subplot to foretell this new threat as a future problem they may have to deal with which is a great way to raise the tension lightly and to plant that seed of worry.
- Complication – as a complication to the existing arc which may also tell what the next arc or campaign focus will be.This will also raise the tension of the game quite a bit more because the characters will now know that something else is stirring, is choosing to actively complicate their goals, has a vested interest in the outcome of the current story, and will most likely pose a serious threat later. This may even rear its head as one of the act ending events (setback/complication or crisis situation) or possibly as a continuous thorn in the characters’ side.
- Revelatory Arc – at the end of the current arc which reveals the new festering and lingering threat
- Emergent Arc – following the end of the current arc, but as a wholly new and most likely unrelated threat
Here are some samples of how a new arc may rear its head within the context of an existing arc: using the Save the Vale from the dragon and its minions arc as the current arc and the Convocation of Dragons as the new arc:
- Foreboding: PC’s are hired to hunt down and retrieve a stolen tome or other artifact for someone. When the PC’s recover the McGuffin they read it or understand its historical significance as dealing with mythical Convocation of Dragons that happens every 10,000 years. The thief seems like a fanatical zealot that actually believes in it and may or may not be working for someone. Partially bonkers?
- Complication – A dragon, which the PC‘s have no hope of defeating, had the artifact stolen that the PC’s need to defeat the dragon of the Vale. To get the artifact they had to make a deal with the devil to get the dragon to cooperate. During that process, they are either informed of or hear about the “mythical” Convocation.
- Revelatory Arc – After defeating the Dragon of the Vale the PC’s find evidence that the dragon was working with or for a Convocation Cult or another more powerful and vile dragon who is involved in, and is working towards, becoming the King of the Convocation.
- Emergent Arc – After the PC’s and the Vale have had a chance to recover from and revel in the defeat of the dragon, murders start happening with a mysterious symbol being left behind which they will find out that it is a symbol in reference to the mythical Convocation of Dragons.
Subplots are smaller issues that rise up to make things interesting and keep things moving when there is a lull in main arc’s action or to raise the story’s tension. They can also be a much-needed side trek to help flesh out the characters or your world, to work through the PC’s history and troubles, or to answer campaign questions that come up during play, etc.
These will generally will not take more than 1-3 scenarios or sessions to resolve. Any more than that and you are really taking up some serious campaign time to solve which would significantly distract your players from the main campaign story arc.
A subplot that answers campaign questions could fall into any of the 5 main subplot types:
- Complication – deals with things that happen that complicate the PC’s main work towards the main story arc, but are not a part of the core work and planning towards that end.
- Invested – deals with the parts of the campaign (sites, events, NPC’s) that the PC’s take a personal interest in
- Personal – deals with the PC’s personal issues, history, negative traits, etc
- Side Trek – deals with something completely unrelated to the story at large (although a devious GM could mold these Side Treks to fit into their overall narrative)
- Subsistence – deals with getting the bills paid, getting food, etc
Here are some examples for you to consider:
- Stop the local sheriff, a loyal cultist for the dragon, who has taken the inn keeper’s father who has valuable information vs the Dragon.
- A thief stole the artifact that the PC’s were going to steal, and it must be retrieved
- Save the father of their favorite armorer from a nefarious tax collector
- A romantic interest is being aggressively pursued by an unwanted suitor
- End the pursuit of the Brotherhood on PC 1
- Save a PC’s family farm from bandits
- Side Trek
- The characters really want to help out that nameless NPC to find their mother
- The PC’s really want to travel to the Black Lake to see if rumors or legends are true.
- Stop the brigands along the main road to get paid
- The bard performs at a local venue while the PC’s work to collect patrons or to possibly attract a specific person who may support the bard or their adventures, also possibly gaining rumors and job possibilities
Subplots can be valuable tools to flesh out your world, get to know your characters, to raise the narrative tension, or to give you and your characters a breather when the tension is high or you need some inspiration. Personal and Invested subplots can further your player’s emotional investment into the game because they are pursuing aspects of the game and world that really matter to them. This can also be a way for you to gently nudge the characters back onto the main storytelling path.
Note: Subplots can spawn more subplots and campaign questions which can be autocatalytic, so you may need to ensure that your subplots leave no real loose ends or your main campaign arc can get buried underneath a cascade of subplots unfolding one after the other. =) Although, depending on what is happening, perhaps this may be a good thing. You may want to take this sprouting story where it is going and make that the new campaign arc leaving the other one behind. You may want to keep the previous one there and show the characters how that arc played out so that they can see that their decisions matter to the world, of just leave it behind in the dust. =)