Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The All Win Scenario - Part I

For a good, long time now, I've wanted to describe how I go about designing adventures for my RPG campaigns.

Sounds simple, huh?

It's not. At all.

I've made several attempts to put such a post together to varying degrees of fail.

The obstacles to effectively conveying my approach is that I seem unable to avoid making it sound one of two ways:

A) It keeps sounding like I am saying that my way is so awesome, so innovative, and just so superior to the 'mundane' approach.

That is not what I want. I also don't believe it to be true exactly.

My way works especially well for me, and players who've played with me as the GM seem to respond positively to my method. That doesn't make my way best for everyone, nor anyone else's way bad.

B) My other version makes it sound like I do nothing special. My approach is probably no different from anyone else's.

That is not true either. From conversations I've had with other GMs, even recently, I think I really look at scenario design a bit differently.

My conundrum therefore is how do I explain what makes my way interesting, and exciting, without touting my style as a divine gift to gamer-kind?

As Han Solo would say, "That's the real trick isn't it..."

I think the best thing I can do is just leave my ideas out here in the open. Please feel free to make your own judgments.

This post pre-supposes the creation, and running, of a long-term campaign of a sandbox nature. When I do short-campaign runs, and/or one-shots, I take a more traditional approach. My adventure design theory for those kinds of scenarios are probably not all that different from what anyone else would do for such a session.

So the first thing I do when designing scenarios for an ongoing campaign, is develop the campaign itself. That is to say, I figure out what I want to run, pitch it to my players, gage interest, and if it's there, tell them what game, and setting we'll be using. On occasion I will also tell them the gist of the campaign's overarching plot, or themes. Not always. Sometimes the setting is enough.
At this point, I brush up on the rules a little, more or less, based on my familiarity with the system. I usually custom design character sheets as well, or modify ones available free on the internet.
While the players design their characters, I do research on the subject of the campaign. I try to look up anything that would immediately relate to the campaign's genre, universe (if available), history, etc. Where, and when I am creating my own setting, I still do considerable research, but I spend less time there, and more time in the design /thinking phase.
Additionally, I gather, create, and organization artwork, including very general maps. If I have run a game in this milieu before, this task is much easier, but I always enjoy adding new material no ones seen before at the table.
I then consider the setting, the themes I want to address, and some genre related ideas for characters, and stories. Most of these are very loose, and downright vague. I jot them down in a spiral notebook, or notepad usually.
Next, I wait for the players to supply me with their PCs. If they are having trouble creating game compatible, or appropriate characters I talk with them, try to give them a wide range of suggestions, and point out source material that may help the players get a better feel for the campaign.
Now, let's say that after about a week, I have 6 PCs, all essentially finished. I look them over, make sure the rules, and notes are correct, and/or make sense (within the context of the game, of course). I take extra time to review their backgrounds. People in my gaming groups always make up fairly (to very) detailed backgrounds.
These backgrounds form the basis of my adventures. All my initial scenario ideas revolve around some element of the PCs' back stories. I mix and match parts from each background story given to me by the players, and I see if there are any possible connections, relationships, or shared histories I can establish between the PCs, and between the PCs, and the setting (including the NPCs).
Here is where I create a lot of the major NPCs, and organizations for the campaign. Players will often say things like, "My character was a former knight of some renown, until he was dishonored, and banished from his homeland". Cool. I now create the lord of that land, a few of the PC's former knightly colleagues, a distant relative, or friend he came to visit in the starting town, or something along those lines.
If one player mentions his character once worked for a mysterious, criminal mastermind, and another says he was the sidekick to a now retired hero, well DANG! Guess who's heroic mentor did battle with who's nefarious, former employer?
Now, here's where it gets weird...
After clarifying a few things with the players as needed, I place elements of the PCs' back stories in various places around the setting. I then consider how each will act, react, and interact with each other, the PCs, and the milieu at large. What is everyone's goals, motivations, fears, and what-have-you.
The PCs usually begin all together already. They don't tend to meet in a bar, although sometimes they will (or they are in the same place such as a sporting event, spaceport, large galley sinking in the middle of the ocean, the streets of New York during a multi-dimensional crisis...ya'know. The usual).
From this central 'starting line', they get to go anywhere. They can do anything. They can:
  • Decide to pursue part of their backgrounds.
  • See what the region's criminal element is up to.
  • Research genre/setting specific secrets (i.e., What became of the USS. Galatea?)
  • Create a new setting related component, like a new spell, a robot, etc.
As the campaign goes forward, I will have a better idea of what it's all about thanks to my players. They love to talk about their favorite campaign elements, the themes that work for them, and don't, and things they can't wait to do, or see.
I create these things, and NPC characters connected to them, and then sprinkle them about in the campaign region. I add in things I find interesting in the setting as well; parts of them game I'd like to see explored.
OK, that's how I start. Where do I go from there?
When do I create those detailed hex maps? Where do I write down my flavor text, and room descriptions? How do I approach NPC character sheets?
Yeah. I don't.
More to come...
Barking Alien

1 comment:

  1. I do find it odd that player-character backgrounds so often seem to be treated either as an afterthought or as a good but secondary idea; I'm guilty of it myself now and then. Having run 13th Age -- which hardwires backgrounds into gameplay in a similar way to how you describe above -- I've come around to just how important and useful it is to integrate the player-characters' pasts into the game.

    All of which is to say good stuff and I'm keen to see what's next.