Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Campaign: Five, Six, Pick-up Play

The campaign has run through its second session and, by my reckoning, its first adventure. I see where some rough edges are, and I can act to fix them. Another issue popped up in that second session, though, and it exacerbated a problem I'd left for myself.

So I figured, why not cash in on the experience here? The knowledge might benefit someone else.

Too Much of Two Good Things

One or the other would have been easy to handle, but both created a situation.

A Surfeit of Time

I've been playing at the FLGS, and generally the store rousts people out of the second floor playing space around 9ish. Lately, though, they've been keeping the store open until after midnight in anticipation of new releases. For Thursday, this usually means some D&D-related product.

Thursday, December 9th was one of those evenings, and it's generally a wonderful thing when they do this. People get to take extra care with the adventures they're running, and explore every twist and turn in whatever plot they're exploring.

I too would generally relish the opportunity to fully present (if I'm GMing, the players are doing the exploring) whatever setting and situation I've cooked up.

A Surfeit of Options

Picture the situation. I've got a number of new players, this is the first time I've been in the saddle for quite a while, I don't know quite what kind of game they want to play... ultimately, I decide the best course of action is to create an initial situation, and provide hooks for a bunch of other sorts of trouble to get into.

When I was writing the first adventure, it seemed like a good thing to do: provide several hooks, find out what people want to investigate next, craft scenario leading off in that direction, and run more or less interrupted.

An Embarrassment of Riches, heavy on the embarrassment

Ironically, the union of abundances left me short. The first adventure wrapped up about the time I thought it would, just a little bit before 9ish. And I had a good deal of writing in place so that I could get the preliminaries in on the first adventure...

...provided I guessed correctly where they wanted to go next!

Obviously I didn't guess right, and why I didn't is a funny story. I'd rolled beforehand and determined that one of the NPCs was going to get involved somewhere. Where I managed to work her in was the one way that I could think of: dredging up one of those local plot hooks. Once the main trouble was over and they were clear of the first adventure, they chose to pick up that hook instead of the one I thought was more interesting.

After the first adventure, I presided over two hours plus of frantic winging and desperate, somewhat ill-conceived improvisation.

A Checklist for the Ill-Prepared?

No, that'd be silly; the very act of consulting a checklist would count as preparation. So instead, it's a checklist of minimal preparation and what to do when you discover you're left without a plot to bliss in.

When you have the time to prepare...

This part is preparation. You're writing a scenario, you're envisioning not just the current plot but a myriad of additional plots which you think would be really cool to explore. But you might not have the time to fully develop all of those additional plots. This will help you to develop the plot as a launch pad toward other things that you're ready to do.

  • Hooks must be tied to something. Don't leave a hook in there if you can't explain why it's there. Attractive as it may be to drop in oddities, surreal bits, and head-scratchers, when the players take notice of them, you need to have some explanation behind them.
  • All hooks must be tied to something. The more hooks you plant, the more choices the players have of directions to look. You may be able to make an educated guess where they'll go, but ultimately it's still a guess. And depending how you actually present the situation in play, you may accidentally push them some place you didn't intend them to go. Try to devote equal time to developing the stories behind the options.
  • Camoflague future hooks with mundanity. Sometimes, for the sake of continuity, you want to plant a hook. You don't have much line to tie to it yet and you're not really ready to do anything with it, but because it'll be referenced in the future, you need something to tie into it now. If it can be dismissed as a regular detail, it might be overlooked by the players until they think back on it later.

When you're up Sewage Creek and paddling furiously...

This part is not preparation. You're actively GMing, you're surfing the zeitgeist, you've got these waves and whorls and eddies that you want to show off, but there's a good chance you could go tooling into uncharted water filled with jagged rocks just below the surface. This is about avoiding problems, and mitigating them if you misstep.

  • If you don't have line tied to it, don't bait it. You may have a very vague idea of a future plot, for which you must put in at least an inkling of a hook. The more of a fuss you make of it in play, the more likely the players will pick up on it and the more likely they'll start poking at it. The less of a fuss you make of it, the less likely they'll note it and start picking at it. Don't draw attention to anything you're not ready to start expositing on.
  • Remember the shape. Remember what I said above about making sure you know the story behind the hook? Well, don't forget that story. If you didn't actually write it into the adventure in which you placed the hook, then at least remember what you would have written, or what you planned to write into the full scenario when you get to that. This will serve as a guide when you're making up further details.
  • You haven't thought of everything. Take notes yourself. No, seriously. We're talking about a plot which, you have to admit, you haven't fully fleshed out. You have some details and know basically how it's going to run, but you don't know everything about it yet It's possible while you're ducking and weaving and improvising that you'll have an inspiration of what direction to take this, better than any old idea you previously had. You'll want to remember it later, so write it down and note how the players have investigated so far.


  1. Wow. Okay, seriously, I really didn't realize how much you were winging it. Color me impressed.

  2. Yeah, scary, isn't it? Here's how that potential misstep happened:

    In the last half of the first adventure, remember how you used Deduction on the van's mileage and likely location to determine where it likely came from? Using that, you pinpointed the precise location where the van came from.

    What if you hadn't gotten that information? You would have had to take the investigation some different directions to get the answers, and that would mean poking around at the quarry and the local businesses (and there are a few) to find out which one was where all the big scary guys hung out. It would have been in the course of that investigation that you found the various bits of strangeness that you did. And therefore, one more plot hook to catch or save for later.

    Think about that, too: If it hadn't been for the one PC's girlfriend emerging briefly onto the scene to investigate something, you wouldn't have thought to poke around the other quarries, and you might never have found all that delicious proto-plot.

    I had some details already. But not all of them. That's when the sabre-dance of GM improv began in earnest. But I stand by most of my declarations. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to keep engaging. I'll be making correction (yes, only one) as necessary the next time we play.

    I've also had the time to consider the consequences of ...certain player actions. And yes, I stand by my previous claims that the secretions from that rock tasted "sweet." <span class="lurid_grin">This'll be fun.</span>