Anarchy Primer: The Campaign Arc
In this Surprise Threat! we will discuss The Campaign Arc.
Some people use the word Campaign to describe a setting (as in, “Seattle Campaign” or “Forgotten Realms Campaign”). Some people use the word to describe the entire life-career of a group of adventurers or runners. I use the phrase Campaign Arc, because I want to specifically describe a series of Contract Briefs, with setting continuity, that come together to some sort of conclusion, even if the life-careers of the runners continue. I also use it because of the Campaign Arc's association with a Story Arc’s notions of Discovery, Conflict, Climax, and Denouement.
Strictly speaking, a Campaign Arc is not necessary. Players can go from one unconnected Contract Brief to another until they retire (or get geeked). You are building a story here though, and stories are more satisfying to the audience (you and your players) when they have progression, meaning, and a conclusion. This is not the only way to make a Campaign Arc; this is just the way that works best for me.
When I talk about a Campaign Arc, I am not going to focus on what kinds of plot to build, how epic or street level, how black or pink, or how trench-coaty or mohawky because those decisions are too subjective and frankly don’t matter when creating a good Campaign Arc. Instead, I am going to focus on the parts that come together to make the Arc: The Player Group, the Faction Web, and the Plot Threads.
THE CAMPAIGN ARC:
Trying to build a good Campaign Arc without first knowing your players is like trying to make a cake without knowing what ingredients are in your kitchen. Get to know your players before moving on to the campaign world and events in it.
Content and Control: Have a good talk with your players about the basics of their playstyles and expectations. You should talk about both Content and Control.
By Content, I mean the players’ comfort zones. You need to know if you can safely include some of the darker elements of Shadowrun like wetwork, torture, racism, sex, or abuse (especially when it comes to children). If you are at all concerned with your player’s enjoyment and engagement, these aspects of the game may need to be handled carefully.
By Control, I mean the storytelling control that will be granted to the players in Shadowrun: Anarchy. There is a spectrum from traditional GM-storytelling to fully shared-storytelling. How much narrative power do you want to release and how much do the players want? Some players want none because they are uncomfortable with their own creativity. Some players want a lot. Find some middle ground or at least a starting point and work toward each players’ preferences. This will mostly involve player access to certain Plot Points, how Perception Tests work, how much narrative control a player has over other players and NPCs, and if they prefer to give first person or third person Narrations.
Tags, Dispositions, and Qualities: Look at the role-playing sections of the players’ character sheets. Players give valuable clues about the directions your Campaign Arc can go in their Tags, Dispositions, and Qualities (especially their Negative Qualities). They tell you what the player finds interesting and how the character sees the world. They are a good starting point for player engagement.
If your player has a Tag like Borderline’s “Anarchist,” then you need some sticking-it-to-the-man Plot Threads (see below). If your player has a Disposition like Rose Red’s “A sucker for people in need,” then you need to have some feel-good Plot Threads. If your player has a Negative Quality like Shade’s “SINner, Corporate (Ares)”, then you know that Ares needs to be in the Faction Web (see below). See where player interests intersect or collide.
Inter-Player Balance: Keep an eye on Balance as your Campaign Arc develops and the player characters develop with it. There are two types of Balance to address. The first is Power Balance, that is, the balance of power between and amongst the players. Don’t worry about the balance of power between the players and the NPC threats and obstacles; that you can adjust on the fly by spending Plot Points, using more NPC Edge, and throwing more threats. Shadowrun: Anarchy does a good job of balancing power by flattening Shadow Amp effect costs and unifying advancement rewards but there can still be power spikes that can cause the other players to disengage during play because they see themselves as ineffective.
The second type of Balance is Narrative Balance. If the majority of the Faction Web or Plot Threads revolve around a single player (or worse, all the players except one), then you will see player disengagement. You will also see this when an unchecked player continues to dominate the Narrations of individual Scenes throughout the Campaign Arc. Dealing with this is very similar to dealing with Spotlight Time: adjust the Faction Web or the Plot Threads toward inclusivity.
If there is going to be inter-player conflict, it should be about conflicting Dispositions and in-game character choice; it shouldn’t be about who is OP or who is hogging the spotlight.
THE CAMPAIGN ARC: FACTION WEB
Every story you have ever read and every game you have ever played has had a Faction Web, even if it went unnoticed. The simplest web consists of the good guy(s) versus the bad guy(s). Those games can create a unifying sense of drive for the players but can also be monotonous as players butt heads against the same opponent over and over. There are games with infinite Factions as well. In these serial or episodic adventures, the players never work for or against the same Faction twice. Those games can create a grand sense of scale and have an exhilarating variety of runs but can seem empty or pointless because the players don’t get to experience the consequences of their actions and, in the end, never change anything. Try to find a sweet spot between player drive and run variety. I like having a Faction Web with 1-2 more Major Factions than there are players in the group. That way each player can have one that is associated with them in some way, but you have freedom to explore outside of the player expectations.
A Major Faction is one that will have drastic influence over the campaign setting or the player characters during the Campaign Arc (you can fill in the Minor Factions as you need them later). A Faction can be a corporation, a crime syndicate, a government agency, a magical group, a secret society, a dragon, or anything or anybody with the resources to effect change on the world.
Resources and Grand Objectives: A Faction is just a big NPC, and all your NPCs should have Objectives and Motivations (“What do they want and why?”). The main difference between a standard NPC and a Faction is that the Faction also has Resources. Factions get to answer the question, “What are they willing to do to get it?” The Resources to which they have access might be vast riches, a sprawling corporation, powerful magic, near infinite mooks and goons, or it might be a rag-tag group of deniable assets who work for them. Make a short list of what these Factions have at their disposal.
The other difference is in the measure of their Objectives. If there are Tactical Objectives (Scene objectives like, “Get past the maglock”), and there are standard Objectives (Contract Brief objectives like, “Steal the thing”), then Factions have Grand Objectives (Campaign Arc objectives like, “Beat the competition”). Factions should have specific Grand Objectives that will take multiple Contract Briefs to accomplish.
Faction Faces: Once you have determined the Major Factions, give each Faction a Face. The Faction Face is the personification of the Faction. The Face does not have to be the head of the organization (one organization could even have several Factions, see NeoNET), but they do need to represent the Faction to the players. It could be a Mr. Johnson, a local decision maker within the Faction, or a shadowy figure only hinted at in the Campaign Arc.
The Faces of the Factions are there to give the players emotional connections to the groups that influence their world. Give the players someone to hate, give them someone to trust, give them someone to fear, give them someone to challenge their morals. Even if they never learn this person’s name, the players need to have a deeper emotional connection to the Faction Face than the various other NPCs of the Faction.
Opposition: The “web” part of the Faction Web is in the Factions’ opposition to each other (not to the player characters…yet). Give each Faction an opposition to at least one other Faction. Opposition is reflected in the Faction’s goals (Grand Objectives), values (Motivations), or methods (Resources). Give some Factions opposing or mutually exclusive goals. Give some Factions similar goals but different values or methods.
Try not to give them ALL the same goal unless you want a Race for the McGuffin Arc (which can have the same pitfalls as Good Guys vs Bad Guys Arcs). Remember also that these Major Factions do not comprise the entire world, there are other Factions out there and you can always add or drop them as needed.
THE CAMPAIGN ARC: PLOT THREADS
A Plot Thread is where the Player Group interacts with the Faction Web. I say Plot Thread and not Plot because, A) a Plot is a cause-and effect series of events and you don’t know what those events will be because this is a shared-storytelling RPG, B) you can have several Plots Threads going on at a time and you can put them down and pick them back up later, and C) it is pretentiously metaphorical when discussing webs and such…
Machinations equals Plot: Each of the Major Factions want something, and because this is Shadowrun, they put together Runs that will get them closer to their Grand Objectives. And because this is Shadowrun, they hire the player characters to get it done. And because this is Anarchy, you put together Contract Briefs that will, Objective by Objective, get them closer to their goal.
The machinations of each Faction can drive the Plot Threads by making moves and countermoves. After each Contract Brief, reassess how the Factions would react (given their Motivations and Resources) and put together another Run. Or pause and pick up another Plot Thread and work that one for a bit. By having a well-developed Faction Web, you can have several Plot Threads going on at once. The players will get hooked into the ones that interest them the most.
Plot Hooks: There are myriad ways to create Plot Threads but a Plot Thread without player investment is a dead Plot Thread; let it die. That player investment is called the Plot Hook. If you are a veteran weaver of tales, these Plot Hooks may come as naturally as leaves to a tree. For those of us who are not John Keats, there are a few approaches to finding these Plot Hooks.
The first place to look for a Plot Hook is in your player backgrounds. Delve into player Tags, Dispositions, and Qualities as discussed above. It is low-hanging fruit, but a great place to start. If you are using the Prologue House Rules, the second place to look is in player-narrated “off stage” events. The players will appreciate it (and invest) when they see their own seeds in the Campaign Arc. The third place is in the emotional responses the players have to the Faction Faces. If the players hate someone, make the players hate them more. If the players trust someone, return the favor or break their hearts. The fourth way to find a Plot Hook is by cheating. If you really have no idea where to take a Plot Thread, reach back and connect your next Contract Brief to an earlier Contract Brief…and never say why. Don’t explain it. Unexplained connection leads to intrigue, intrigue leads to curiosity, curiosity leads to investment. You can then sit back, listen to the player conjecture, and steal their ideas.
Plot Exhaustion vs Plot Detachment: Drive a single Plot Thread too hard and players burnout; go too long between picking up threads and players lose motivation. Having multiple Plot Threads to deal with can help with this dilemma. Three separate Plot Threads might be the most I recommend at any time, but there is no sure way to pace them out. Some GMs might recommend a pattern like: A, B, A, C, A, B, etc. and that might work for a group that plays once a week but that won’t work if you play once a month or if you have a single summer to wrap up the game. Find your pattern, read the room.
Also, don’t forget to conclude these Plot Threads because a never-ending Plot Thread breeds exhaustion. There is safe harbor and reliable satisfaction in a Story Arc: Discovery, Conflict, Climax, and Denouement. That is an easy three to four Contract Briefs right there. By the end, a Major Faction should either have what they want, or it should be forever out of reach. They move on or are destroyed. Maybe the players made a new friend or a new enemy.
<<Hey, that sounds like a Plot Hook!>>
Shadowrun: Anarchy is a great game to have a quick-starting, minimal-investment, single-shot game but it also allows players to explore storytelling in a heavy-investment, long-term game. The difference is in the Campaign Arc. Obviously, you can use the ideas above to create a Campaign Arc for any game, in any setting, with any mechanics (and I do), but Anarchy is structured in a way that forces players to look at the story first. Story is, after all, why we all do what we do.
That’s it for the Anarchy Primer. I hope you can use some or all of it. Please let me know your thoughts.