Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to talk about foreshadowing in your tabletop roleplaying games and how to create an experience that is “the campaign” rather than a series of interconnected sessions. Heads up, that is going to involve a lot of mystery and not explaining yourself.
Prognosticating your tabletop roleplaying games
One of the big issues we often have in a tabletop roleplaying game is a Game Master will plan from week to week, rather than planning the entire campaign before it begins. This can create a bit of disconnect between sessions and make players feel like dipping out for one or two wouldn’t be that big a deal. And you know what? Sometimes an episodic campaign like is fun. Sometimes it’s what you’re looking for.
We’re here to talk about what to do when it isn’t and how to fix that.
Know where you’re going from the start
One way to create campaign unity is to have an idea what your final encounters are going to look like. Say your campaign centers around an endless army of the dead relentlessly overpowering towns and adding the victims to their ranks. They can go wherever they want because they don’t have stomachs to march on and even when you kill them they just pick themselves back up and keep moving.
I suppose one way to start that campaign is with a town being overrun by the undead. And you know what? That’s pretty dramatic and exciting. It’s a good hook, and your players will probably be invested. But your session one is going to set the tone for the rest of the campaign to follow so if you open like that, you’d best be running a combat heavy game.
Another way to do this would be to start, instead, with a trial. Someone in town has been charged with practicing necromancy and you’re going to show your players how serious that is and why the people in your world think so.
No, this is not your big bad. Any time you put your big bad on screen with the player characters, there is a ridiculously high chance they will murder them. Do not give me, “Oh but they’re too powerful for that,” either. Nat 20’s happen. No plan survives first contact with the players.
But an unrelated person being charged with necromancy, and maybe one that’s actually innocent of that crime, could be an excellent way of foreshadowing the direction in which you’re going. People don’t like necromancy and it establishes this fact. It sets a tone of paranoia and if this is an innocent person, it gives your players something righteous to do.
Find out in advance what your players want their character arcs to look like
I know, I know, that’s what session zero is for, but it still pays to touch base with them individually so these arcs can be a surprise for the other players. My Saturday table has a short attention span, so I typically run 20 sessions and level up each one but the last, which is the finale. I have five players, and I try to give them each at least one session of spotlight, but I prefer two, because then we have a session to build the tension and a session to release it.
Those are great for breaking up the tension of the main plot, and it’s easy enough to sprinkle those in throughout the game. If your players don’t give you some personal problem that needs fixing, ask them.
“What do you want? What is stopping you from getting it?”
Those two player sessions don’t have to be consecutive, either. You can do one to set it up, leave it be, then bring it back later if you want or if that works. And those relevant little detours can still be grounded in your world.
Refer to your main points regularly and work them into your descriptions
In the game where the undead figure largely, make sure to highlight it every time there’s a corpse. Describe the snow as being bone white and the hearth in the tavern as crackling and snapping like a funeral pyre.
Even in moments where the campaign isn’t doing something that has to do with your main plot, use your small things to hearken back to it. A character might receive an instrument carved from bone, or a crystal skull for example. This is called tone, and it can be very useful for keeping things unified even when you’ve taken a detour.
Outline the whole campaign before you start
This is a bit drastic, but hear me out. You don’t have to have every single turn of plot hammered out before you begin, but at least have an idea of what every session is going to have in it. Right now, I’ve just started a game. We ran session one and session two will be next week. The first three sessions are very fleshed out already but my notes for anything past session five are one or two lines long.
That’s because your players are going to change things as they go, and that’s okay. But having an idea of what you’re going to do and leaving yourself wiggle room to make it happen is a good plan. Say you have an NPC your players are going to meet later who is meant to be some kind of lore figure. You can have them hear about the character three sessions in advance, and that will color their perception of this person when they finally do meet.
It’s up to you whether to subvert or play into this expectation, but create it. It’s worth it. Players like it when things come back. There’s something about our brains that’s wired to expect patterns in things, and for that matter…
Good things come in threes
Two instances of a thing establishes a pattern. Break it on the third. If your PCs have failed at something twice, the third time is where you can have them succeed. Or if they’ve succeeded at something twice, the third time is where you can have them fail.
The dice dictate a lot of this, but not always. No two NPCs are going to respond to the same things the exact same way, after all, and we’ve all been indoctrinated into this kind of pattern since we were kids reading The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
You see the smiling hat peddler once and it goes well. Maybe he’s a little strange but he’s a generally nice gent, even if his arms are a bit too long and knotty for your comfort. You see the smiling hat peddler a second time and perhaps he sells you a hat and it goes well. He even tips his hat to you before he goes on his way. People seem to give him a wide berth, but you know, he’s a strange man, that makes sense.
You see the smiling hat peddler a third time and he opens his entire head, tries to eat the party, and everybody has to roll initiative.
Too hot. Too cold. Just right.
There are a lot of ways to achieve foreshadowing, and a lot of ways to set your players up for what is to follow. The most important thing is that you know where you’re going and are flexible enough to use as many ways as you can to get the ball rolling with them.
Go forth and create tension. Oh yeah, and stay nerdy.