Monday, October 3, 2011

Building Your Own: Adventures

Just got a shiny new RPG? Glad to hear it!

Can't wait to play it? Piqued the curiosity of a few friends? Excellent!

Got an adventure to run with it? Wait, just one? Depending on the tastes of your players, you might have a problem there.

The Storyteller's Ecosystem

Think of any RPG as a storytelling framework. The players create their characters and have a personal stake in the story. The GM is the storyteller. The game itself is, if anything, the particular language that gives the story its drama and presence. The adventure is the story.

This metaphor can be recouched a number of other ways. If the game is a media player, the adventure is the disk or tape played through it by the presenter (GM) for the audience (players). Or if the game is Powerpoint... but perhaps I'm going too far there.

It's a fine arrangement, but it's also got a problem. Maybe the problem is not that serious. Then again, maybe the problem is so devastating you might never get to use that game. It all depends.

Post-Homicidal Depression

How many times do you want to run that game? Let's say it's a really good game. You as GM are sure of it, you've convinced your players of it, and many online reviewers have praised it as the Second Coming of Sliced Bread. And they'd like to play in it again and again.

Here's the problem, though: How many times can you run that game? If you have the single adventure in the back of the book, that's once. After that, you can't simply run it again for the same group of players.

Additionally, if anyone else has the game, with the adventure in the back of the book, then they also have the adventure. A lot of players are willing to play dumb for the benefit of those who don't know what's going on, but some are nowhere near that scrupulous, and aren't afraid to use out-of-game knowledge for their own benefit, even if it means the game itself suffers as a result.

And while you might cast about for magazines and online sources which have additional adventures for your new game-love, sooner or later the well will run dry, and you're left where you were at the outset.

If those aren't bad enough, here's a third consideration: Any preprinted adventure will be written for any characters to play in, not necessarily the ones that your players will create. The result is like an off-the-rack suit; it may look nice enough, but it's the extra touches of measuring and tailoring that means the cuffs don't drag the ground, or the sleeves don't bunch up when you move your arms.

These are very good reasons to either:

  1. Learn to create your own adventures for this game you and your players enjoy,
  2. Get different players for each run, or
  3. Not play the game at all.

#2 is slightly unrealistic unless you're running demo games (which I've talked about before), and #3 is just plain boring, so I'm going to proceed through the rest of this as if you've selected #1.

Blazing Your Trail

When the Auto Maker Provides the Road Map

Admittedly, some game authors have specific notions about adventure design, and include them with the game.

Take Dogs in the Vineyard, for instance. Scenario construction in that one follows a sequence of events so precise and regular that you could set your watch by it, provided your watch tracked angst instead of time. Inequality, pride, and so on follow the same order every single time. If this sounds boring, the GM has some latitude in deciding how far down that road the town has progressed, and the specifics of each element (for example, what the inequality was, to whose advantage was it, etc).

R. Talsorian's Dream Park had a general structure: there were Development scenes where you furthered the story and Cliffhanger scenes where you had to fight to get through whatever situation tried to face you down, and those two types of scenes always alternate. One always comes after the other.

West End Games' TORG used the metaphor of cinema, breaking major plot movements into Acts and each Act containing several plot-advancing Scenes. Furthermore, Scenes could be described as either Standard (which meant regular fare which the player characters were expected to get through relatively easily) or Dramatic (which meant the characters had the deck stacked against them, literally as well as figuratively).

Even my favorite whipping horse, D&D, has a good bit to say on this subject and it's generally worth listening to, and not just for its own sake either. Its system of encounters is basic, straightforward, and well-tested, and well worth learning to apply to other systems in their own way. Even though some people may have trouble applying their principles correctly in their intended game—the standard is sound; it's the specific applications that are misfiring.

Among formulas for constructing adventures, John Wick's Wilderness of Mirrors (a $5 PDF-only game) is the dead simplest: The GM starts with a single imperative sentence. That's it. From there, the players would describe the details the GM would have to work with (to simulate the "planning" meeting) and then try to race the clock to accomplish the mission (the "execution" phase). I don't really know of a simpler schema.

Absolute Direction (Advantage, 5 or 10 pts.)

Generic systems, which by definition have no genre of their own, tend to have advice not just for creating adventures, but creating adventures in different genres. The two generics I cite most often, GURPS and HERO, each come in two volumes, one for character creation and one for combat and campaigning. They have quite a bit to say on the subject.

Other generics, maybe not so much. They should talk about it, but that doesn't mean they will.

Burning Wheel didn't include so much in its original books on creating adventures, so they created another book to hold all that information: Adventure Burner.

Imagine most other publishers being at the position before they release that book with the adventuring tips, not after. Assume that those games that talk extensibly about creating adventures are the exception rather than the rule.

Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads

If you've got a bookcase full of game books, including some of those I've mentioned above, to call on for suggestions and advice, consider yourself either lucky, well-prepared, or a hoarder.

Sadly, the opposite is the default human condition: a scant handful of game-books, one or two groups of players, and little to no guidance on the adventure creation process.

Maybe I can help with that.

This is not a one-article thing.

At least, it won't be if I can help it.

The next problem is that adventure creation is a very broad topic. The bad news is that there's entirely too much on the subject to write into one single blog post. The good news is that there's a lot of information about this already, written by people who have realized these same problems. As time goes by, I plan to bring citations. And some of my own advice.

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