Flowcharts provide great flexibility when planning your campaign, but they also afford enough structure to make sure you never feel lost in your own game.
Sandbox-style game play, where players are free to explore and engage in the game world in a non-linear fashion, is often held up as a sort of ideal to which game masters should aspire. Done well, it is highly engaging for the players because they feel they have a real impact on their environment. This would all be wonderful, if it were not so gosh dang difficult to manage.
The single biggest obstacle to sandbox play is that you cannot predict every possible player action. Infinite options for player choices leads to an infinite amount of work for the game master, and that is no good at all. How, then, can a game master allow for sandbox style play without increasing prep time to unreasonable levels? My solution to this problem has been flowcharts.
Flowcharts are nothing new in the world of campaign design. Masterplan is a great software tool for campaign designers in Dungeons & Dragons 4e, and it has the advantage of being able to nest flowcharts within other flowcharts. This means that you can have one flowchart for your campaign, and each adventure on that chart can have its own flowchart, connected by a clickable link. It is a pretty solid choice, and I have enjoyed using it in the past.
If you are at all familiar with Dave Chalker’s 5×5 Method, then you may have realized that it is just a different approach to flowcharts. This big advantage of the 5×5 Method, to my way of thinking, is that it balances the competing narrative forces within your campaign. If you sometimes struggle with certain parts of your narrative arc overwhelming your campaign while others remain underdeveloped, then I strongly recommend you check out Dave’s work. Wait, scratch that – check out Dave’s work anyway. You will not be disappointed by it.
I prefer to use flowcharts when designing my campaigns because they limit the amount of extra prep I need to do when creating a sandbox environment. When designing my current campaign, I found that making a flowchart of the likely PC actions gave me a good idea of what I needed to be ready for.
To begin with, I saw no reason to make the start of my campaign sandboxy. Just like in a video game tutorial, I intentionally sacrificed player choice in favor of encouraging a specific feel. Beyond this, I feel like it is just sort of cruel to force the players to begin making decisions as their characters before they even have the chance to really get to know their characters.
To this end, I knew that there would be three major steps to the start of the campaign. I wanted the players to get to know each other’s characters, I wanted the characters to gel as a group, and I then wanted a semi-controlled environment to introduce the players to the open-ended nature of the game.
This leads to the first three sections of my flow chart, so I loaded up Masterplan and began my work. At this point the flowchart was really nothing more than a simple list, but I knew it would flesh out as I went forward.
After I had my initial steps, I knew that I wanted to introduce the sandbox nature of the campaign. Since the heroes had a mentor who employed them, I knew I could likely rein in any ideas they had that would not fit within the scope of the campaign or my GM style.
I immediately identified my main plot arc – a war would be fought against the wererats that were infesting that part of the continent. During the war, it would become clear that the wererats were really a diversion set up my Rhuobhe Manslayer, an ancient elf famed for his hatred of humans.
I wanted to add in a side plot, so I included a small, two-section plot arc that could revolve around the party wizard trying to tap some of the unclaimed, world-changing magics inherent in the land.
At this point, it became time to start fleshing out the main plot arc. I figured that I could plant evidence of Rhuobhe’s involvement during the war, which would probably lead to the need for confirmation. The heroes would not be able to convince armies to march against the Manslayer without real proof.
At this point I felt like I had a good couple options on the table, but I wanted to stay flexible. What if the heroes did not want to pursue the connection to the Manslayer? I needed another hook or two.
I knew that my players had been talking about trying to find a cure for the magical disease that turned people into wererats. Why not follow up on that lead? Developing a cure for lycanthropy seemed a bit powerful for early or mid heroic tier, but why not allow it? All it would do was prevent me from making wholesale use of lycanthropes as a recurring enemy theme, and I figured I would be sick of them once this arc was completed, anyway. Knowing all of this, I added in steps for creating and administering a cure for the wererat disease. A cured wererat could easily point the heroes at the Manslayer, so I used that as another approach to my expected climactic conflict.
At this point, drafting my flowchart had given me a good idea of what was happening in my campaign world, independent of the PCs. I knew that war would erupt in the frozen north, and the heroes might be there researching the cure for lycanthropy. This gave me an entirely new possible approach to the climax of the arc, where the heroes could get caught up in the war and eventually prove themselves so well that one would be rewarded with a frontier barony. Surely, the PC baron would help if his former mentor called on him for aid in battling Rhuobhe Manslayer.
At the last minute, I remembered that one of the players specifically wrote into her character’s back story that her father was a follower of the teachings of the Manslayer. If she returned home, then her mother could tell her about how her father left to go and fight by Rhuobhe’s side. Adding this final piece to the flowchart, I felt like I had addressed most any of the choices the PCs seemed likely to make.
The best part of this process? It took virtually no time, at least not when compared to crafting encounters, making interesting terrain for combat, and planning out original skill challenges. I had drafted not only the first half of the heroic tier of my campaign, but I had several options to pick from when the PCs decided to forge their own path. I would have been able to add a new path to my flowchart if the PCs had done something completely unexpected, but it seemed highly unlikely that they would take a course I had not thought about. In the end, they moved at least part way down all of the paths as they made their choices. If they moved too far off the path, I had a mentor character I could use to nudge them back in the direction of the final conflict.
This flowchart proved invaluable to me as the first part of the campaign went on. Since I was careful to address what seemed to be all of the likely concerns, my players never really had an idea that pushed them away from the directions I had already mapped out. Instead of railroading them, I had enough story options planned out that I could respond to their actions in a meaningful way. This meant that by the time the heroes and their mentor confronted Rhuobhe Manslayer, they were well aware that he appeared to be pulling the strings of puppets all over the continent. His deceptions ran deep enough that they knew they had not yet discovered everything.
I like using the flowchart method for planning campaign arcs, because it provides flexibility within enough structure to make organization fairly simple. If you take a reasonable amount of time to predict the likely actions of your heroes, you can be prepared and offer them a meaningful method of interaction when they start to really dig in the sandbox.
How do you plan your campaigns? What programs are helpful when you sit down to design a story arc? Is your home game a sandbox, or do you prefer to run a game with a more direct goal?