One of the challenges a GM faces is in presenting the complex reality of a living world: Players have the luxury of focusing on a single character, but the GM often finds themselves needing to juggle dozens of characters and potentially hundreds of pieces of information.
One of the most important skills for a GM to master, therefore, is better organization.
Take a dungeon, for example. Simple stuff like using a numbered key to describe the dungeon may seem obvious, but take a second to imagine the alternative where that basic level of organization isn’t applied. (And I have, in fact, seen published adventures where it wasn’t applied. It isn’t pretty.)
Now, how could we improve that organization even more? Well, we could start by clearly segregating “information anyone entering the room should immediately know” from “information that can only be gained with further investigation”. (Properly written boxed text is one way of doing that, of course.)
Might it be useful to also distinguish “information characters might notice immediately upon entering the room without taking any particular action”? Probably.
And so forth.
Note that I’m not talking about performing any extra prep work. I’m just talking about organizing your prep work so that it’s easier to use at the table. (I’ve actually found that proper organization can actually reduce the amount of prep you need to do.)
The node-based structure itself, of course, is one way of organizing your prep work. In terms of organizing the node-based design itself, here are a few tips that I’ve learned—
KEY YOUR NODES: Just like the rooms in a dungeon, it will be easier to reference and use your nodes if you key them. For the most part, I just use numerical codes: Node 1 is First Central Bank. Node 2 is the security guard who didn’t show up for work during the robbery. Node 3 is the stolen car that was used as a get-away vehicle. And so forth.
KEEP A CONNECTION LIST: I’ve talked in the past about the importance that The Masks of Nyarlathotep played in developing the Three Clue Rule and, by extension, node-based scenario design. The concept of a “connection list” is taken directly from that campaign:
It shouldn’t take much imagination to see how much easier such a list will be to design and maintain if you’ve specifically keyed your nodes.
KNOW YOUR NODE HIERARCHY: At a basic level, you should have some rough sense of how you want the various nodes of the scenario to hook up. (Bearing in mind that (a) your players will probably find all kinds of ways to connect the nodes that you never intended and (b) you don’t really need to pursue some sort of rigid ideal.
And if you’re dealing with a relatively small number of nodes, that’s probably all you need to know. But as the number of nodes begins to grow, you’ll probably find it useful to break them up into more manageable packets: Can you break one large scenario into multiple smaller scenarios?
Those scenarios, of course, can hook into each other. But by breaking them up into distinct packets, I find it’s easier to keep the overall structure of the campaign manageable and comprehensible.
For my games, I typically maintain a document I refer to as the “Adventure Track” which details the macro-level node structure of the campaign. For my current campaign, I broke the macro-structure into five acts. And then, within each act, I created clusters of related nodes using a simple outline structure.
For example, here’s Act I:
1. The Awakening
2. The Murderer’s Trail (Ptolus – Adventure #1)
a. Following the Ledger
b. House of Demassac
c. Jirraith and the Pale Dogs
3. The Trouble With Goblins (Ptolus – Interlude #1)
a. Complex of Zombies
b. Laboratory of the Beast
c. Goblin Caverns of the Ooze Lord
4. Smuggler’s Daughter (Ptolus – Adventure #2)
a. The Slavers’ Enclave
5. End of the Trail (Ptolus – Adventure #3)
a. Swords of Ptolus
b. Cloud Theater
6. Shilukar’s Lair (Ptolus – Adventure #4)
(I’ve rendered this as white text because it has minor spoilers for my current players. If you’re not one of my players, just highlight the text to read it.)
Each line here is a major scenario, with the various scenarios interconnected as nodes. (Some of these individual scenarios are also designed using node-based techniques.) The indented lines are closely associated with the “major nodes” above them. (In other words, I’m using a basic outline structure to conveniently group the content of Act I into convenient conceptual packages. This outline also keys each node: “The Awakening” is Node 1; “Laboratory of the Beast” is Node 3B; and so forth.)
Act II of the campaign is even more complicated, featuring a total of 42 major scenarios. In order to keep the structure of that act manageable, I broke it down into three semi-independent “chunks”, each of which was then organized in a fashion similar to the outline for Act I you see above.
I’ve found this Adventure Track + Connection List method to be very useful for both preparing and running a node-based campaign. But there’s nothing magical about it. You should find the method that works best for you. My general point, however, is that you should strive to achieve a high-level understanding of your node structure – chunking that node structure into larger and more manageable pieces as necessary.