This started as a response to a question posed to me by /u/lotu on reddit's /r/dndnext:
I love you and your players style. I've decided to adopt a lot of thematic roll playing you've done, like having everyone order breakfast, having an arm-wrestling contest or just chatting with the cart driver.
It is very clear that each of the characters have some secret from the reset of the party. Did all the players know secrets or did you develop them individually with the players? I also get the feeling that you planed a bit of a narrative like how Rasper's past was connect to the Eastertons and the Black Arrow Syndicate. How did you manage to weave all this together?
I started responding and I just found myself writing and writing and writing so I thought I'd add those musings here for anyone interested in my process.
The Weave is my favorite part of storytelling, especially in the RPG medium. THRESHOLD is the result of one part planning and two parts making it up as I go along.
In the case of THRESHOLD, it actually started with several, unaired, episodes that we shot while trying to figure out how best to make D&D interesting to watch. We started playing the LMoP starter game, with Pamela playing the fighter that would become Christine, so when we transitioned into our own world, the background stayed (her quest to reclaim her family's lands). From there, everyone made their character and I sat down with each player and we essentially negotiated their backstories. Rasper, who had no backstory to begin with, ended up having the best story of everyone once Josh and I hashed it all out. He wanted to have grown up in a big city in an orphanage. I said: "Great! How about Easterton?" Then he talked about his criminal background, which will get more exposited in next week's episode by an old friend of his, and I was able to give him detail that would work in the world, and could be easily woven in with the other players.
I did this with each player, just after the pilot episode, IIRC. The players are all cognizant of each other's backstories because I've had trouble in the past of players having secret backstories that they want to keep close to their chest, but still want to have an effect of their character and the world. This creates scenes that go like this:
Player: So I quietly go out the inn while everyone's asleep, and I go see... you know. GM: Okay you go... there. Player 2: Where is he going? GM: Can I tell him? Player: No, I want it to be a secret. GM: Okay. So you go to the place and do the thing? Player: Yeah. but I want to play it out.
Then all the other players want to do is try and solve this mystery and I'm stuck as reffing PVP-Super-Sleuths for the better part of the hour, trying to decide if I give them the info they want or let the player have their secret. I wanted to avoid that in THRESHOLD and told my players as such, so everyone knows almost everything back-story-wise about the other PCs and we just trust that we'll all let the histories come out when the narrative requires them.
In an interesting sense, it's the performative aspects of THRESHOLD that help curb the Metas the most. Being on film forces our players/actors to be in the moment and remember that we are telling a story together, not trying to win a game, or make our character look better than everyone else's. Because of this, no one presses Jamie too hard for the source of his power, trusting that it will be a much greater moment when revealed, if we let it happen at an awesome moment (two weeks from yesterday, if I can weave it all correctly).
But all this planning can go out the window if someone makes a choice I didn't predict. I have an awesome end to this first arch planned, but it could all go out the window if a certain character makes a choice different than what I'm anticipating, but the resulting change to the narrative will be, in some ways, EVEN COOLER that what I have right now. So that's the other half to the coin: being flexible and see the awesome implications of the new story when your old story goes of the rails. That or figure out the best way to get them back on track without removing player agency.