The Cluster Outline (Make It Epic)

Introduction: Last week I admitted that there is such a thing as too much ad-lib.  As a follow up, here’s one tool in your “safe ad-libbing” toolbox.

Why do people play RPGs?  It’s because players want to experience those epic moments that make adventure stories great.   …But how do you get those moments into your game?  If you plot them out and follow a script, they usually don’t turn out as fun as you hoped.  On the other hand, if you let everything happen naturally, your players will blunder around, wondering what they’re “supposed” to be doing, and eventually get bored. 

Here’s a simple outlining tool that lets you plan your epic moments AND leave lots of room for organic storytelling.

Step 1: The Big Ideas

When you’re first planning a campaign, take a sheet of paper, and turn it sideways.  (Call me superstitious, but I firmly believe that a vertically aligned sheet encourages logical, sequential thinking, and a horizontal sheet encourages imaginative thinking) 

At random on the paper, write out the coolest “stuff” you would ever hope to see in this campaign.  Say you’re writing a pirates campaign.  You might write: Sea Monsters.  The edge of the world.  Cannibals.  Tortuga.  Ninjas.  The doldrums. And, of course, Treasure.  The skill you’re using here is simply having an understanding of the genre – and of what kind of game you’re hoping to run.

You can’t make the epic moments happen – the players  do that.  But you can start with the kind of scenes and locations where epic moments could happen.  You haven’t put them in order yet, or fleshed out any details.  What you have is a “best of” list of the Big Ideas of your campaign – the stuff you think will excite and inspire your players.  And you’ll start with these as the “bones” of your campaign. 

Step 2: Clustering

Go back over each Big Idea.  Somewhere near it, write down any story element it makes you think of.  (“Cannibals” might make you think: shipwrecked, jungle, castaways getting worshipped as gods, volcano, ruins, secret passages in the ruins, a map in the secret passages in the ruins, etc.)  Write all these ideas in smaller print.  Soon, where you had only Big Ideas, you’ll have whole clusters.  These will become the seeds of adventures and encounters.

(Note that sometimes an idea links to TWO Big Ideas.)

Step 3: Turn Clusters into Files

Your ‘best of’ sheet may still have room for more ideas, but probably not much for actual session notes – the kind of details needed to turn an idea into a session.  For the next level of detail, you’re going to get a new sheet of paper – vertical this time. 

Pick out an idea cluster. Write the name of its central Big Idea at the top of your new sheet.  Below that, label five areas: Description, Reasons To Go, Events, Features, and NPCs.

This sheet is now your file for that particular Big Idea.  You’re going to transfer everything in that cluster here, and more. 

At this point, I should pause to say that it can help to think of these Big Ideas as locations.  Some of them might actually be locations (like “Tortuga”) but even the ones that aren’t (like “Cannibals”) still work like locations: each one is a part of the story the party will eventually “get to,” and certain things will happen while they’re “in” it.  So with that in mind, here’s what you’ll write in the five areas…

Description: what this “location” looks and feels like.  You want it to feel immersive and distinct from all the other parts of the campaign, so put lots of detail here that you can either describe to your players, or package it into encounters.

Reasons To Go: when I decide I want, say, a cannibal island in my game, I don’t really know why the party would end up there.  So in this area I’ll brainstorm some ideas: they get shipwrecked there, they’re looking for treasure and are surprised to find anyone lives here, they know about the tribe and need to read an inscription on a ruined temple wall. 

Writing these options gives me a better feel for what I could use this location for – and if any of those situations looks like it might happen any time during gameplay, I’ll know to grab this sheet.

Features: To keep using the example above, I don’t know exactly how the cannibal island will get woven into the story, but I know some cool stuff that could happen on cannibal islands in general – and I already wrote a lot of those things in the cluster.  There might be a volcano with a ruin inside it  The natives might treat the PCs as gods, or as sources of food – or both.  There might be carnivorous plants in the jungle, or a witch doctor who’s more dangerous than any civilized adversary. 

I’ll write this stuff on the Cannibals sheet under Features.  Just like above, if we’re playing through the Cannibals scene, I’ll be able to grab any one of these ideas that looks like it fits either the action or the reason the PCs ended up coming here.

Events: list the encounters, hooks, or scenes that could (though there’s no guarantee that they will) happen here.  Whereas Features are things you have the players come across and decide what they want to do with – Events are things that you decide to have happen to the players.  Sometimes there’s a lot of connection between the two: like the volcano temple feature could connect to a cave collapse event, or an ambush event could connect to the getting-treated-like-gods feature.

NPCs: list the characters that could inhabit this place.  The Chief.  The Witch Doctor.  The Princess.  The Crazy Castaway Who’s Been Here For Years.  Again, no guarantee you’ll use them all, but you’ll have them in case.

Just writing this stuff out will usually inspire more little ideas – traps, clues, NPCs, items, twists – and additionally, it will give you a space to write down any more ideas you have in the future. 

…And not just the future of this campaign, but of any campaign you run in the future.  You’ll be building up a library of situations for any game.  Because you know, PCs could get stranded on a “cannibal island” in a space game, a Conan game, a steampunk game…

Do a sheet for every cluster.  Some of them may be more like events than locations, and that’s okay.  File them away where you can lay hands on them during any session.


Instead of scripting an adventure ahead of time (this happens, then this happens), you’re planning cool backdrops where they’ll be inspired to play their characters to the max (if they want x, I’ve got it handy).  With each “location,” you’re basically giving them a shiny new toy; they’ll know what they want to do with it, and (thanks to your ‘little idea’ notes) you’ll know what you can do with it – and you might even anticipate some of their ideas. 

The process of turning these “locations” into adventures is beyond this article.  But hopefully this tool will make it easy to plot a “big picture” view of your campaign, make sure it’s loaded with epic moments, and file each idea in a place where you can easily add to it during your sessions.

NOTE: As you may have seen, I’m back in the GMing saddle over the Summer, so that will be a great opportunity to discover new techniques (and new mistakes) to write about!  Stay tuned!

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