I Tried Node-Based Design in my Mystery TTRPG Campaign, Here is What I Learned

Node-based design was created by Justin Alexander of the Alexandrian and was, primarily, a method for planning and running mystery ttrpg campaigns. Though it can be divisive in the ttrpg community, I was planning to run a mystery campaign in Night’s Black Agents and I did not believe my usual method would work. I thought node-based design would be the solution to this, so here is what I learned by using it in my ttrpg campaign.

Node-based design allowed me to create a puzzle for my players to solve

The premise of the campaign was an ancient alien had awoken and found its way to Australia where it proceeded to take over key political figures to generate a food source, communicate with its allies in deep space, and to construct a ship capable of space flight.

My usual method involved creating a situation framed around a big question and a slew of other, minor situations. Over time, the players would become hooked by some of these situations as they evolved and I would slowly focus the campaign around that until it drew to a conclusion, much like I run a scene in any game.

I thought the conclusions players would draw during this mystery would feel cheap because there is no concrete puzzle occurring with my usual method – it’s almost entirely reactive to them.

Justin has written multiple posts on node-based design, but I started with the basics when planning my campaign:

  1. Using my big question, I created what I believed to be the ultimate end for the campaign should the players do nothing – the alien launches into space. This represented by final node.
  2. Based on what the alien wanted, I listed out a series of revelations that the players might come to during the mystery and turned them all into nodes.
  3. To tie everything together, each node must have 3 other nodes pointing to it with a piece of information the players can attain by investigating a node. I did not create all of these at once, but instead created them as I made nodes throughout the campaign.
  4. Finally, I created a list of proactive nodes which are nodes that do not fit into the usual node map, but are encounters that can point the players to the nodes of the critical path. These were things like a police patrol (which had been mind-controlled by the alien).

Each node required different prep depending on what it was, but typically it would involve:

  • Creating some NPCs.
  • Mapping out a location and keying it with various encounters.
  • Including 3 pieces of information that would point the players to different nodes.

Here is what my final node map looked like (nodes that shared a column all pointed to each other too, but the extra arrows made it messy):

A series of 12 interconnected numbered circles called nodes

I felt more confident with running the game

Ahead of the campaign, I had a clear idea of where the game would go at each point. If the players took a different direction or approach (as they often did), I could look at my node map and consider which node to point them to, then incorporate some information into the scene to do just that.

There were times when I struggled to think of some information for an encounter and this is where the proactive nodes were helpful. I could drop one of these in and because I had already planned which node they would point to, I did not have to consider it too hard on the fly. For example, I had a police patrol that were being mind-controlled by the alien. During an encounter with them, Finn Fox (node 4) would call in and request a status update. This pointed players towards this particular character.

Having this clear structure that I had planned ahead relieved me of the usual anxiety that I experienced during the period of running a campaign.

I had clarity around what I needed to plan

Because I had this clear structure with planned choke points of information, I had a greater sense of pace for the campaign. I looked at my node map and I could estimate how many sessions it would take based on what I had designed for each node.

I started this campaign with having only node 1 to 4 planned out, and after the first session I had also planned nodes 5 to 7 too. If I, or the players, came up with some great ideas, it was fairly easy to add in or change a node. This allowed me to continue to adapt during the campaign and fit in my planning around other life responsibilities.

I felt my campaign was too static

A common criticism of node-based design is that it can feel like a railroad. From the perspective as a player, I have never had that feeling when I played in a campaign with node-based design. Additionally, my players enjoyed the experience and did not feel like it was a railroad.

I think this idea comes from the perspective of a GM because we can see everything we have planned which now includes multiple paths and points of interest. When I ran this game, I felt it was very static. I was not bored, as my players were quite chaotic and approached situations in interesting ways, but I didn’t believe I was being surprised with any twists to the overall structure of the campaign.

To mitigate this and help to introduce a more dynamic campaign from the GM perspective, I am going to include some more proactive nodes that do more than just point players to another node, instead I want them to have the opportunity to dramatically change the landscape of the campaign. For example, I could include an event in my campaign tracker that could introduce a second alien which wants to dominate Earth instead of fleeing first.

I am already planning another ttrpg campaign using the Spire system, though it is not a mystery, I am using node-based design to provide an overall framework for me as I found it immensely helpful.

If you have used node-based design before, please share your experiences in a comment below!

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