RPT#175 – 3 Tips For Writing And Running Adventures
A Brief Word From Johnn
Wilderness Encounters Status Report
A quick update on the publication of wilderness encounters content entries. The editing work is coming along nicely, but I didn’t hit the deadline for this week’s issue, so it will be at least one more issue before they’re ready.
I’m up to session #4 of my D&D 3E campaign now. We play bi- weekly, so I’m finding that a 14 day break between games makes me want to accomplish a lot during sessions. Last week’s session got bogged down quite a bit with character shopping. It was my fault, not the players’, as I didn’t do the proper planning for a shopping trip. To further bruise my GMing ego, I was the person who initiated the merchant encounter! Shoulda kept my mouth shut. 🙂
Lesson learned: For bonus EXPs between sessions, I asked the players to submit ongoing purchase requests so I can run merchant encounters more quickly in the future.
Another lesson learned: Keep an eye on party finances. What use is planning a wonderful 10,000 GP item for sale when the PCs only have 2,000 GPs between them? Also, once the party has some gold burning in their pockets, anticipate a shopping request and do some planning before the game.
I have a shopping tool request for any Windows programmers out there. If you would enjoy doing a small freeware project (I’ll post your finished work at https://www.roleplayingtips.com for all GMs to use) send me an email for details.
Some new arrivals this week include rare Judges Guild materials, long-lost Avalon Hill wargames, many of Grimtooth’s Traps, and Q1-7 Queen of the Spiders.
Save $$ — New in-print arrivals include Ultimate Feats, Ultimate Equipment, LOTR Risk, and Ork!
Dariel R. A. Quiogue
Writing and running an adventure for a game is something of a paradox. You need to make a story that “hangs together” well, but at the same time, you have to leave it open for the players’ characters. I used to make the error of making adventures too linear until I realized some important things.
First, the adventure is meant for the players’ enjoyment; if they don’t get to do anything significant, if they don’t get to earn victories on their own, the game is a bust.
Second, it’s not a good idea to base an adventure on a prediction of what the players will do, or that requires any one player character to do something specific; players tend to do the most unexpected things.
Third, the lesson I learned was that the GM or adventure writer may provide the What and Why of an adventure, but not the How ? that’s the players’ province.
Thus, when I write and run adventures nowadays, I don’t write a plot. Instead, I create a situation or problem that will involve and challenge the players’ characters. Then I play it by ear from there. I try to hook in the players’ characters, to get the players involved and proactive, and then sit back and let the players propel the game instead of trying to do so myself. The trick, as I have found so far, is to get the players to work on a defined purpose – which may be different for each character – and then respond to their actions.
- Write the Basics First
When I write an adventure I write these items first:
- An adventure seed.
This is the basis of the whole adventure – a problem or situation that needs the PCs to solve it (for example, a baffling crime for detective PCs), or needs to be resolved by the PCs (for example, a shipwreck on a monster-infested island). If there’s a main villain, I note what he’s like and what his objectives and strategies are.
- Setting details.
This is where I get the encounters for the adventure. I don’t plan the encounters per se – I note down the people and creatures in the setting and how they could interact with the PCs. For example, a band of cannibal tribesmen might try to hunt the PCs if they show up in a small group, but may deal with the PCs if the PCs make parleying attractive or necessary. This way, wherever the PCs go I’m ready for them with an appropriate encounter type.
- A “blurb” that tells what the adventure is about.
I do this in the form of a teaser – this is what I use to attract players.
- A “casting call”.
This is the specification for the characters in the adventure; I might specify a need for certain classes and backgrounds, or a story element that will tie the characters into the adventure.
- The scenario.
How the adventure begins – where the characters are or what they might be doing when the adventure begins.
- An adventure seed.
- Use A 7-Point Outline
- Introduction: Bring the characters into the story and introduce the problem.
This is the first and most delicate step. If done right, the players will take over and steer the adventure themselves, and all the GM need do is provide and run appropriate encounters. The key is to present each PC with a problem, or a side of a problem, that concerns him personally. Then give the players a reason to work together.
For example, in one adventure I gave all the player characters a different reason to want to go to Turkestan. The spy needed to meet with a rebel chieftain; the gunrunner got a big deal, but needed a means of getting the goods in; the gentleman scholar wanted to dig up traces of the old kingdom of Bactria, which of course lies in what is now Turkestan. The players realized that by joining up they could all achieve their individual objectives – and so the adventure kicked off.
- Raising the Stakes: emphasize the seriousness of the problem, or add another problem.
This is an encounter or situation that is meant to shoot a bolt of adrenaline into the players, to heighten tension, and to galvanize them into a higher level of action. A favorite tactic of mine is to make the problem more personal in nature, or to reveal that the problem could be much bigger than it seemed at first sight.
For example, in the search for clues to a murder, the PC detectives find that the Yakuza is involved and is trying to erase the evidence. Now instead of a lone criminal, the PCs know that they are facing an entire crime network. When you hear your players say “Uh oh!” with feeling, you know that you’ve been successful!
Another good tactic is to reveal that the main problem must be solved within a time limit. For example, in one game it was established that a horde of brigands was about to descend on a city and the PCs were organizing the evacuation; then another PC comes in with news that the brigands are not two weeks away, but only three days away! Panic!
- Pointing the Way: the PCs win a chance to attack the problem.
This is a point where I rely almost purely on roleplaying, with little or no combat and very few rolls. The idea is to give the players a chance to find a way to solve the story problem. At this point in the game, the players already know what the problem is, but they might lack the information necessary to attack the problem effectively. The challenge for the players is to find the needed clues. The challenge for the GM is to be sure the PCs have the opportunity to find at least some of the clues; if the GM hides too much information, the game could bog down.
Instead of setting the clues and the means of finding them in stone, I try to play this by ear. It’s up to the players where they want to search and who they want to talk to, and what they ask; depending on what the players do, I reveal such information as sounds right. I also try to leave open-ended clues; clues that require interpretation to be useful rather than direct pointers.
For example, if they ask the stable boy about the murder, he might not know anything about the killing itself, but he does know that the suspect took a particular horse, and that the dogs didn’t bark at him which is why he never bothered to get out and look until the suspect was gone. The players’ challenge is to interpret these clues correctly: in this case, that the murder was an inside job.
- Complication: the problem receives a new twist, or another problem is added.
Complications make life harder for the PCs. It may be the appearance of a new enemy, or getting magicked into a strange new form, or being driven out of the group’s hidden base, as happened in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Introducing a complication extends the adventure and adds another level of challenge for the players. You may skip this if you want a shorter game; but for a longer game, complications add spice.
A good source of complications is a smart and dynamic villain. A good villain doesn’t just wait in his lair for the heroes to kick him in the rear! No, he makes plans, he acts, he reacts when things go wrong, and if he knows who was interfering with him (the PCs, who else?), he counterattacks.
Sometimes the complication can take the form of a “bait and switch”. It is revealed that the PCs have been chasing after the wrong guy after all and that the villain is someone else, or that everything that has been happening so far is only a smokescreen for what the villain really intends. For example, the orc invasion was meant only to draw the royal army out of the capital so that the evil Duke can enter unopposed and overthrow his cousin the King. Now the heroes have only so much time to get back to the capital with whatever forces they’ve got and save the day.
- Finding the key.
The key to the adventure is that which gives the PCs a good chance of victory in the climactic scene. This might take the form of an object, like the magical spear fated to slay the Demon King, or secret information like the Death Star’s sole weak point and how it may be attacked. Or a lost king may finally be able to prove his claim to the crown and win the service of the Sacred Knights. In fact, most of the adventure so far might have been involved with acquiring this key. If so, all that remains is to reveal what the key is and what it can do.
The key to an adventure may also involve roleplaying a dramatic scene; a PC must overcome his personal weakness or pass a test to gain the power needed to face the final enemy. You see this a lot in console RPGs like CronoTrigger and Phantasy Star; there is a mondo-powerful spell that is only available to the hero if he wins through a deadly gauntlet to the ancient master, or something like that. In the movie “A Man Called Horse”, Richard Harris’ character proved his worthiness to become a chief by enduring the harrowing Sun Dance ritual.
Since this is a game, it may be that the PCs miss the chance to find the key to the adventure. It may then be possible to finish the adventure successfully, but it will be much harder. For example, without a certain artifact it may be possible to finish the adventure only with Level 10 characters; but with the artifact, Level 8 would have sufficed.
This is the Big Scene. In most adventures, this means confronting the main villain and either eliminating or stopping him. The challenge for the GM here is to make this scene as memorable and exciting as possible. Try to think of what might make the climax more interesting and exciting. Some ideas, off the top of my head, are:
- Exotic location – a bridge over lava, atop a speeding train, etc.
- Desperation – the enemy is on the verge of winning, this is the Last Chance…
- Time pressure – finish the battle before the summoning ritual ends…
- Audience – the big fight happens before a big audience!
- Betrayal or twist – a trusted NPC suddenly turns against the heroes.
- Cool villain – cool looks, cool dialogue, cool fighting style, cool spells…
- Challenge – the villain challenges the PCs to one-on-one combat.
- Dilemma – the villain presents the PCs with a hard moral choice, like in the “Spiderman” movie.
- Denouement and Rewards
This scene is meant to be a reward for having successfully completed the adventure. Players like a sense of accomplishment over and above treasure and XPs. You’ll likely forget just how many gold pieces you got for trashing that hobgoblin army in Helgard Pass, but you’ll definitely remember when your fighter was knighted and made Baron of Helgard. A good story ends with a sense of completion, and it’s the same thing with RPGs.
To this end, think of what happened to the game world after the PCs solved the story problem. Perhaps they gained in reputation, or made new friends and allies. They may earn recognition and titles, in addition to treasure. Or the classic boy-gets-girl scenario – or vice versa!
The denouement is also the time to reveal the big picture – tie up loose ends, reveal what happened to NPCs who were left behind or went off and did something else, or reveal secrets that defeating the enemy has brought to light. This allows a GM to round out an adventure and firmly ground it into the campaign world, which also redounds to the players’ satisfaction.
For example, in the conclusion of one adventure set around the time of the 19th century Afghan Wars, I had the PCs meet again in London many years later for the publication of their memoirs. A young boy asked them to autograph a copy of their book, and when they asked his name, he said, “Lawrence, sah. T. E. Lawrence.” It was the boy who would one day be known as Lawrence of Arabia. My players really liked that. [Editor’s Note: the recent film “Shanghai Knights” used this technique to great effect as well.]
- Introduction: Bring the characters into the story and introduce the problem.
- Use Timelines and Triggers
When does something happen? I’m learning to think in terms of Timelines and Triggers for the timing of in-game events.
- Timelined Events
Some events will occur regardless of PC action, so you can set these up on a “timeline” – the volcano will erupt five days after the PCs reach the island, the summoning ritual that they have to stop will be held at midnight, etc.
You can set up timelined events as surprises, but I think they’re more effective if you prefigure them somehow and make sure the players know that something is going to happen. The information on when an event is scheduled to occur may in fact be a major clue that the PCs will have to find.
Timelined events can serve as a good reminder to the players that their characters exist in a larger world and are subject to its upheavals. In a long-running campaign, for example, you could have the PCs’ status change suddenly when the old King dies and his heir, who for some reason doesn’t share his father’s feelings for the PC heroes, takes over.
- Triggered Events
Triggered events are the opposite of timelined events – these happen when the PCs do something to set off the event. The simplest example is that of a chest with a dart trap. If a PC tries to open the chest without finding and disarming the trap, the dart shoots out.
The actions of major NPCs and villains may be set up as major triggered events; for example, the King will bring out his knights to defend his capital, but only if the PCs can convince him that his brother the evil Duke is indeed going to attack. The event can be a goal of the PCs, like getting the army out in time, or it may be a tactic of the villain in case the PCs interfere. For example, if the PCs take down the assassin sent after the King, the villain turns to his pet necromancer and asks for a spell to do the job from afar. The King falls sick with a mysterious malady and the PCs must now find the magical herb that is the only cure…
Minor encounters can also be set up as triggered events. I’m not a believer in random encounters; instead, I set up what would normally be random encounters as triggered events. You can take a look at the environment the PCs will be going through and extrapolate what they encounter there and how the encounter might happen. For example, the alpine terrain the PCs are trekking through is cave bear territory; they might meet a bear if they enter its cave, or neglect to hide their food and so attract a bear to their camp.
- Timelined Events
Well, that’s it! This is how I now go about planning and running my own games and so far it’s worked for me. I hope you find something useful in here for your own games.
- An Alternative Way Of Giving Magic Weapons/Items
From: Dariel R. A. Quiogue
Every player enjoys getting and using magic items for his character. Unfortunately, frequent awards or magic item discoveries can damage suspension of disbelief and make designing balanced adventures a headache; what do you do when half the party members are invisible, unhittable, fireproof, regenerating, Stormbringer-clone-wielding juggernauts? Here is an idea for an alternative way of letting your PCs obtain magic items.
- Permanently enchanted magic items are extremely rare. For some reason or other, wizards and clerics don’t like to make them much; perhaps they are concerned, very practically, that powerful items might eventually get out of their control and be misused.
- On the other hand, clerical orders and wizard guilds or societies recognize the need for magic items, especially weapons, in dealing with threats to themselves and their dependents or protectees.
- Therefore, the practice of creating temporarily enchanted items has emerged. (Yes, I’m using challenge-response method here). The enchantments last only for a given period, or better yet are conditional–they lapse when some goal has been met.
For example, there has been an increase in undead activity near the town of Shaikorth. The temples offer to put “blessings” on the weapons of any adventurers who volunteer to deal with the threat. The conditional enchantment placed on the weapons is a +1/+2 bonus vs. undead that will last “until no creatures from beyond the grave exist within fifteen miles of Shaikorth.”
This means you can start with more or less a clean slate of magic items on your PCs with every adventure and let your players earn the item powers they need anew with each adventure.
- It is also possible that the temples and guilds will put enchantments on weapons for a fee–hefty, of course–but the adventurers applying for them must state their intended use for these things. The enchantment will be placed only if the clerics/wizards are convinced that the PCs are honest in their intentions and/or will serve their purposes.
This should also serve as a good hook for interaction and getting your players more involved in the game world. A party might decide, for instance, to get themselves under the patronage of a particular temple to ensure constant access to the temple’s blessings on their weapons and items.
- Different clerical orders and wizard types will, of course, have different powers. The kind of blessing sought for a weapon will depend very much on what monster is sought; and the kind of blessings that can be given will depend very much on the creed or principles of the temple or guild applied to.
This means the players must decide for themselves what powers they want for their items. They might, for example, be convinced that a demon is responsible for a rash of killings and ask for good vs. infernal creatures enchantments. It turns out the killings were the work of lycanthropes, however–the PCs hadn’t investigated enough and misled themselves.
- Items may begin to acquire a magical aura or taint after having been enchanted several times; perhaps masterwork items have a greater tendency to retain traces of dweomer, enough to have a +1 or +2 bonus on their own (on top of the masterwork benefits), or a minor power like Sting’s ability to warn of orc presence.
- Big Mouth Tips
I haven’t been receiving your e-zine for very long since I gave up the hobby so I could play Rugby League and guitar in a band. Not enough hours in a day I am afraid, so something had to go. I now find I am too old to play either rugby or guitar so I have subscribed to your e-zine and taken up the game again.
Many years ago, before e-mail, there used to be a fanzine called “The Dungeoneer” and they printed a set of about 5 rules which they called the bigmouth rules. If I can find it I will scan it and send it to you but I suspect I threw it away a long time ago. All I can really remember is that the bigmouth rules said:
- Any player who says another player’s character does something suddenly finds that his character has done it!
- Anything a player says, his character has said: i.e. no out-of-character talk.
We used this quite successfully for many years, but then that was 1976 and maybe the rules were not so well defined.
As another tip: there are times when players need clarification from the DM. So I used to stick in an NPC whose name I can’t remember but the players called him Buggerlugs. In this way the players can avoid saying to the DM “is the mold green or yellow?” and instead say to the NPC “I can’t see in this light but does the mold look green or yellow to you?”.
In this way the DM can impart info without players coming out of character. If you do this, however, it is important that the NPC is not all-powerful; otherwise the party comes to rely on him to help them out. Why not make him a child who is only 5 yrs old? He can see things and give an opinion, but cannot fight effectively.
- Sci-Fi Links
From: Simon Ward
Good ship schematics here:
From: Don F.
Star Trek computer game mods:
Star Trek and Star Wars schematics:
- Modern Campaign Resource Link
From: Michael F.
A massive catalogue of modern military equipment: http://www.army-technology.com/contractors/index.html
- Using Biology Texts For NPC Names
If I’m in a hurry to create a character, or just don’t feel like putting in the effort to create new names for minor characters, a biology textbook becomes a wonderful thing. Using the Latin genus and/or species of plants and animals makes some awesome names for FRP settings. For example, Trochilus and Colubris both make great first names for gladiators, provided you don’t think about the fact that they are the designation for a ruby-throated hummingbird.
You can also pick an animal or plant with distinct characteristics and use its genus & species to make a stereotypical NPC – or even an PC, if you’re good enough to make it interesting. Pandinus imperator (emperor scorpion) could be a back-stabbing king, while the “dwarf pansy” (Viola cornuta) could be… well, I’m sure you’ll think of something.