Saturday, June 4, 2011

Adventures in Authoring

Just picked up that shiny new roleplaying game, and can't wait to try it out? Adventure in the back of the book look promising? Exciting? Thought-provoking? Sure it does. The author usually includes the best adventure they can in the book to showcase the system, setting, and genre.

But what happens when you run that one adventure? Run it again? No, your players will know it already. Find other published adventures? Maybe, but what if you can't find any? The RPG does not suddenly become useless if you run out of adventures. It does mean, though, that you'll have to put on your thinking cap and create your own.

The Cost of Variability

Many is the time I've promoted the typical tabletop RPG over the typical board game or computer RPG. Both the board game and computer RPG suffer from pretty much the same issue: there is one particular setup, and only a set number of actions you can perform in order to advance to whatever the victory conditions may be.

By contrast, the tabletop game provides you with a setting and a suite of rules which act as guidelines to adjudicate pretty much any action a player may take. In this way, the tabletop game, even if it's non-generic and focused on a particular "setting" and "genre," may be used to create almost any situation.

I sometimes think of the generic RPG (which I talk about in an earlier posting) as an RPG toolkit which lets you pick and choose rules to create the more specific and focused RPG of your choosing. Well, in that regard, any RPG becomes a do-it-yourself adventure kit, and it's the adventure that the players play through, not the RPG itself.

The Serpent in the Tool Crib

Here's where the board game and computer RPG overtake the tabletop RPG: their situations are already crafted, and no further tweaking by a third party is needed to make them playable.

The tabletop RPG requires adventures be written for it. These can come out of the RPG's books themselves (many come with sample adventures), out of magazines, or from other sources—there's this thing called an "internet" which some say can be used for research of things other than porn. Or, if one has the patience to learn a tool with so many sharp edges and ways to lose fingers and/or friendships, the GM can write them himself.

(Yes, or herself. The image of gaming as a sausagefest may be passé, but that doesn't mean I'm going to start changing the way I use pronouns, mmmkay?)

This leaves the tabletop GM in an awkward position: either he has a limited number of adventures to run, or the GM has to buckle down and start crafting his own. If being able to run only a certain number of scenarios with a game is unacceptable, the GM must write.

Or, more appropriately, the GM must author.

The GM as Author and Storyteller

Here's one way to think of it: The tabletop RPG provides the framework for the GM to tell a story. In fact, a good tabletop RPG will provide the framework to tell practically any story. Believe it or not, this is a problem, but I'll talk about that a little later.

I've also talked up how the GM should not play the adversary to the players or their characters (see my post Vulnerability). That doesn't mean the GM shouldn't try to challenge them. The GM should ideally be a storyteller, integrating the player characters into the story and testing their drive and motivations.

So, it behooves the GM to have some idea how story works. And if I make this sound easy, it's not. Consider how many theories there are about how RPGs work. There are at least as many theories about how a good story works. And I will admit, I'm partial to Dramatica, which I mentioned in another previous post.

If you don't have time to get that degree in literature...

I can describe the process pretty quickly, but don't expect it to be thorough.

First, you need a main character. Well, technically, you already have those; they're called player characters. The main character is the person or people through which the ongoing story is told. The closest thing you have to a reader is a player, so therefore, player characters. That part at least is straightforward.

Second, you need a conflict. Often it comes down to someone wanting something, and someone else trying to prevent the first someone from getting it. The something could be treasure, political position, a nugget of information, or anything else. But it's important enough that two people come to blows over it.

This also means you need an adversary to conflict with. This could be monsters, a scheming politician, or other strongly motivated but ethically bereft adventurers. It could also be a tornado, violent storm, drought, famine, or other environmental hazards, if the "thing" at the heart of the conflict is "survival."

Such a story will often have multiple acts and/or chapters, in which the main characters have to face greater and greater obstacles (or tougher decisions; there's nothing that says a conflict has to be physical) in order to get what they want, ending with an ultimate fight and resolution.

So yeah, there are a lot of possibilities. Maybe too many, in fact.

The Possibilities are Bewildering

Here's an irony of the creative process: Having limitless options is a burden on the creative drive. Because you can go anywhere, you have the option of going everywhere, and have to decide between an abundance of enticing options. There are a daunting number of decisions to make, and many people are daunted by it. Anyone can write, but what about? This is why more people don't write.

So if you're going to write about something, you're going to have to bring your own focus. Don't think about everything, but constrain your vision to a narrower set of what is possible. If you lament all the possibilities being lost when you do this, then you're not doing it right. Remember that you can go in those other directions later. Right now, you're going this way.

Grateful Limiters

Here's a list of things to take into account when creating the story behind your adventure. You can look at them as possible points of focus, or given the talk above, you can also look at them as things which can focus your creativity, because going outside of them could be silly.

  • The player characters. They're going to have their own drives and motivations, and they're going to be the main characters in whatever story you create. You need to take their drives into account. It's safe to assume that they're a package deal, so you don't have to craft a story that engages every single one of them. One or two will suffice.
  • Genre and setting. Enter a cavern complex, defeat the indigenous life, and take their treasure? Kind of a weak storyline for a science-fiction adventure, isn't it? (That's not to say it can't be done, but it definitely goes against type.) Likewise, spaceships are not often seen in fantasy, and in detective fiction, well, given what's been done to the contemporary settings in the name of spice, almost anything goes. The point here is that the genre has conventions and you should think twice before going outside them.
  • Tone. "Pie fight" and "noir" don't normally go together. (Again, I stress the "normally" here.) You're also not going to find a lot of weapons in a bedroom farce. This isn't genre or setting, this is the emotional coloring of the setting as you the GM are using it. At some point, you decided whether you were concentrating on serious, romantic, or silly stories. When in doubt, stick by that decision.
  • System. The game which you're playing may have preference for certain types of action. A good system will allow all manner, but that's not to say those preferences wouldn't be tilted slightly in one direction or another. Get to know the system, what it allows, and consider staying within the rules if you're hard-pressed to find something to do with them.
  • The players. If you haven't gotten to know them, you would be wise to do so. They're looking to get as much out of the game as you are, so throwing a specific kind of adventure at them which they're not accustomed to would do them a disservice. Consider their tastes when preparing the feast. Also consider changing up the menu sometimes to keep the selections fresh.

The Situational Seed

Another good way to generate focus is to do so spontaneously. Choose an element that you want to work into the story, and then do your best to work it in.

Focus first on the genre and setting. Brainstorm a single scene or situation which fits that genre. Never mind fitting the characters into it or fitting it into the setting, just create that single event in your mind. Don't worry if it doesn't make sense, either; you're going to make it make sense.

Once you have that, start growing it. Expand it. Think about what caused it. If it is itself an inciting event (the first thing that happens to create conflict), think about all the ways that it could spiral out of control. Think about what it will affect. Think about the stakes. Think about how the player characters might get involved in something like this, and which side of the issue they'll be on.

And don't spend a lot of time second-guessing yourself! As soon as you come up with the question to ask, you should bam! come up with an answer. It might not be the best answer, but in this early phase, you don't need a perfect idea, you just need good enough for now.

Ideally, you're going to need how it starts, how the player characters get involved, and where it's going to go. Once you have those, the rest should fall into place.

Subversion

Once you've done this a few times and created several adventures which nicely fit the limiting factors described above, you may decide to get ...adventurous. And you should.

Remember how I said that genre, setting, and tone have to be considered carefully? They're a bit more like guidelines than rules. Someone who knows what they're doing can step outside those boundaries and create a valid adventure. It's not something to be done lightly, though—the more those boundaries are crossed, the weaker those boundaries will be, and the weaker the genre, setting, and tone will be. Once those disappear, your campaign will become an amorphous, misshapen mass. It might be fun for a while, but making stuff work in it will be harder without the support they provide. So rather than bones, they're more like tendons or cartilage.

Save the convention-breakers for special occasions. And because a light-hearted tone is more fragile than a morose one, save the convention-breakers for those times when you want to lighten things. If you use a convention-breaker to darken the mood, it may never recover.

Author : Story :: GM : Adventure

I've painted a rosy picture of GM as someone with a story to tell. Truth be told, though, it's not quite a story in the conventional sense. It's going to deviate.

And when I talk about deviates, I'm talking about the player characters. They're going to have their own motivations, as evinced by their players. They may be presented with a clear goal and an obvious path to reach it, but that doesn't mean they'll either follow that path or strive for that goal.

Get Your Kicks on Route Not-What-The-GM-Planned

The path might be the one you thought of, but depending how you describe things, they may see a simpler, easier, more rewarding, or just different path than you imagined. Depending how many times you've done it to them, your players may also be paranoid, and not trust the path you've laid out for them. (That's a separate issue, unfortunately.)

The extreme consequence of this lack of planning is an adventure which has a single path through, no matter what decisions the player characters make along the way. This is called railroading, and the players tend to hate that.

Does the End Justify the Means?

And the goal? It might be a noble thing in your story, but it's not just your story; it's the player characters' story too, and they're going to have a thing to two to say about what's worth getting shot or stabbed over.

You need to take the players' motivations seriously, as well as the player characters'. What kind of story do they want to be in, and what are their goals for the character? Earlier I asked you to consider the players' desires; it wasn't just for the purposes of writing, it's because not doing so creates an adventure that could rub both player and character the wrong way.

Be Ready to Improvise, If You Aren't Already

No GM can plan in advance for all possible actions; this is my argument against the computer RPG. The GM can improvise on the fly, taking what information he has and extrapolating what the likely results will be.

Even if the players generally stick to the script that the GM prepared, there will still be bits of "business" (to borrow the term from the stage) that may spring up between the GM's description of the scene and the players' interpretation of it.

A bit of throwaway description, an otherwise nondescript non-player character, a mere hunk of scenery that you thought would add color might attract the players' attention. They may start to poke at it with their characters. Don't discourage this. Even if you didn't account for this, the players are doing it, so they are making it part of the story.

In fact, if the results of said poking of the scenery are amusing enough, you might emerge from the adventure with extra world details or an NPC which provides the players an extra bit of humor. Take copious notes.

It Gets Easier After the First Time

Seriously. Once you've gotten your first adventure scripted, you'll have an initial story on which to base future events.

This applies moreso after you've run the first adventure. Before it's run, you have only the vague impressions of how the player characters could react, or perhaps how it'd be nice if they reacted. After the run, there's no doubt: they reacted. It becomes canon, and can be built upon in future adventures.

Did your players throw you a few curves? That's to be expected. Those too are now part of canon, and can be worked into future adventures to your players' delight and their characters' chagrin. And this is a Good Thing, too. It reinforces the good-to-hold belief that the player characters are not simply something that happens to the campaign world every so often, they're part of it, with all the responsibilities, emotional ties, and other baggage that comes along with it. There's a word used by a lot of game designers to describe this feeling: immersion. Like I said, Good Thing. Promote it.

Those little bits of extra trouble the characters got into, like the scenery and characters that they didn't have to interact with but chose to? Don't tell anybody I said this, but once they're introduced, you might find additional uses for them. That scenery could become an important world detail. That otherwise uninteresting NPC that the PCs harassed for no reason could become their savior later. Or their most terrifying adversary.

Whatever helps you to write the adventure, right?

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