Oct 06

The Story Arc Campaign Structure



My Tales of the Hero Wars campaign has been running strong for 200 sessions spread over at least seven years. In that time we played six story arcs which weave around the central plot of the setting. This layered campaign approach is different from the conventional linear campaign, which follows the same band of Heroes from obscurity to fame and fortune.


I believe there are several benefits to this layered structure, where a larger story is told through a series of smaller story arcs. This approach features in the books of many of my favourite writers. The best example is found in CJ Cherryh’s SF series. This essay walks you through my story arc campaign structure and explores the benefits of this approach.




CJ Cherryh’s Alliance/Union Setting

My favourite series of books by my favourite author is known as the Alliance/Union Setting. These books focus on a string of colony worlds and the Merchant Alliance which supplies them. There is conflict, war, piracy, cultural clashes, alien races and powerful characters.



CJ does not tell the story of her setting in a linear fashion, following the same characters through the various stages of the extended conflict between Earth, Union and the Alliance. Instead, she writes stand-alone books which tell a powerful story of their own. Sometimes the wider plot is at the forefront of the story, such as my beloved Downbelow Station.


Other books tell their own story, with the major plot developments happening in the background. This allows the reader to experience the impact of events in a more subtle way. The focus may shift to the dramas of a family of Merchanters, yet we are still informed about the wider world.



Arc not Linear

Like many GMs, I want to emulate the tricks of my favourite writer in my RPG campaign. Thus, I adopt CJ’s structure of multiple story arcs told within the same setting. Our multi-year campaign is not focused on one set of characters progressing from unknown heroes to saviours of the world. Such a linear structure is the default assumption of f20-style games, but not what I want to do with my campaign.


Instead, I use the story arc model found in the works of CJ Cherryh. I have found this approach brings the following benefits to our game:

  • Shifting focus
  • Adjustable scale
  • Richness
  • Durability
  • Player knowledge



Shifting Focus

As with the novels of CJ Cherryh, the story arcs of the Tales of the Hero Wars campaign are free to shift their focus. The structure does not demand we follow the same group of Heroes throughout the duration of the campaign. I can shift freely between locations and settings, so far arcs have been set on two different elemental plane and one mortal world. Interludes also took the game to another plane and two further worlds in my Cosmos.


While the setting and focus of the arcs change, certain elements of the broader plot emerge. Chaos Cults are an ever-present threat, while mysterious dragons meddle in the background. Segments of the larger plot emerge as jigsaw pieces for the Players to decode. Even if the Players do not pick up the clues, then each previous arc serves as a source of plot ideas and foreshadowing for later arcs.



Adjustable Scale

Just as the focus of the arc can shift, so too the scale. We are not limited to creating a linear plot where the Heroes grow progressively more powerful over time. Using CJ’s story model, I adjust the scale up and down as demanded by the individual arc. The concept of scale for RPG Heroes was discussed brilliantly in Trollbabe.


Read more about Trollbabe and Scale here


As the story arc demands, I run a story where a city or world are threatened. However, I am not required to make the next arc even more epic. Instead, with this campaign structure, I could focus on small-scale personal dramas just as easily. Such a change in scale helps put the impact of one arc into context within the rest of the setting. We have space to play out personal dramas while the grander elements of the plot unfold in the background. The impact of individual power and responsibility are better understood as we shift up and down this scale.



Richness of the Setting

Every time we play in a different area of the setting, more of the Cosmos is created. The location for one story arc can then serve as the background for a Hero in a later arc. More cultures are explored, and the campaign setting is built up through the various arcs. This richness would be harder to create using a more linear plot.



Durability of the Setting

Having invested so many years in this setting, I do not want to abandon this Cosmos. This campaign structure allows us to play multiple arcs within the same setting. Players or GM are less likely to tire of the campaign when it is re-booted every twelve months, or so. The Players may feel they have had enough of my style or chosen rules, but the varied story arcs keep the game as fresh as possible. In my mind, there is at least another seven years of gaming left in my large story arcs. More is possible, but I am playing this campaign for the long haul, and I want to carry my Players along with me as far as I can.



Builds Player Knowledge

The main advantage of playing so long in the same campaign setting is how Player knowledge builds over time. Indeed, much of the setting was created by the Players as part of one of our various brainstorming sessions. As there is a degree of story and setting continuity between the arcs, Players carry their knowledge from one arc to another.


There is always more to learn about the setting. Yet, Players are rewarded for their commitment to my campaign. While the story arc may play out in a year, the events they witness can have relevance years later. Sometimes it is enough for Players to remember vague details as I fill them in on the bigger picture. We are building an epic campaign, and the Players are witness to events spread over hundreds of years.




The story arc campaign structure inspired by the works of CJ Cherryh has brought so much to our roleplaying. We gain all the benefits of short arcs, with their rotating cast of Heroes and multiple easy points of entry. Yet, the bigger plot rolls along. Now I have discovered the joys of this method of gaming, I feel no desire to return to the conventional linear structure.


Have you tried shorter story arcs? What benefits have you enjoyed from this approach? What other ways are there to build up an epic campaign? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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