How does it start?

I have talked about lots of different things about how to run a game, and how to do referee things, but only brushed on the meat of it.  So, lets choose a setting and go through the steps of actually building an adventure to run your players through!  I am planning on doing this in three sections, each a separate post, hopefully no more than a week or so apart.  This one will go through outlining a session.

Some caveats to this process.

  • Know your system.  You don’t have to be a guru at it, but be comfortable enough to know what the system you’ve chosen can and cannot do well.  As mentioned several times in these posts, you can tell any story in about any system. it’s just a matter of how well or how smoothly your system does it.  Knowing this, you will not make a central part of your adventure something that the system does not do well.
  • Consider your scope.  How big of an adventure are you creating?  If you are planning a campaign (out of scope for this article), your stories are considerably different from if you are making a single session game.  This step becomes more important as the scope becomes narrower.
  • The last caveat is more a reminder; plan to have fun!  Know that your players will likely do things you had not expected and that’s ok.  Know that you may miss a few things in your set-up, and that ok.  This is not a matter of life or death (well,maybe to characters and a few stiff drinks, but…) and it can all be made better by a simple discussion.  With these things in mind:  Lets get started!

We will start by choosing the setting.  For the purposes of these post, I am not going to refer to any system mechanics. I’ve mentioned a few created settings in these posts, so I am going to choose our Space Centurion setting.  Next we decide how to set up our game.  We need to make a few decisions at this point.  Probably most important is scope.  Generally the amount of work for a campaign set up is about the same as a single adventure, as well as anything in between, because as the focus gets smaller, the details need to be more fine.(however, the bigger the scope, obviously you will be doing more work overall because you will be bringing that focus sharp over a series of directly connected stories).  For this, because of the impetus behind these posts, we will focus on a single story.

At this point, we need to come up with our story.  Keep in mind that an RP adventure is not the same as writing a story.  In a story, you control everything.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players) really tell where your story goes and how it get there.  So, what do we need?  Conflict.  Every story is a story of conflict, as we all learned in 7th grade English.  Depending on your school, you may have learned different “Man VS” conflicts, but here lets just kind of look at Man VS Man (probably the most common in RP), Man VS Nature (This may be monsters, or just the world) and Man VS Self (Very difficult to do in RP (particularly with more players), but often very satisfying…doppelgangers do NOT count as Self! 🙂 )

Once a story-line is made, then you will need to turn it into an adventure.  There are lots of ways to do this, but lets look at a low detail version, a high detail one and a middle detail one.

  • For the low detail, you just need to come up with your antagonist, the goal of said antagonist, and the resources available to accomplish it.
    • But wait!  Can a Man VS Nature have an antagonist?  Of course!  the Volcano/earthquake/hurricane/flood/jungle may not Decide to interfere with the heroes and their goals, but it does anyway.
    • Many Nature stories feature time as a resource of the antagonist…usually the heroes are  running against the inexorable and may not have enough time to complete their task!  Once you understand that, throw the players in the mix!  you just need to figure out how the bad guy responds.  Done.
  • This usually requires a strong understanding of your game mechanics and your setting as well as the ability to improvise responses.
  • A high level of detail would start with the basics, as above, but you may define specific resources, perhaps even down to the number of wagons and oxen the evil baron has, so you can keep track of the attrition afflicted by your meddlesome players.
    • It requires you to work out at least partial stat blocks for the bad guy (as above), but also his support and at least generic supporting cast.
    • You can work out a flow chart that addresses each scene/event and direct the players along it.  Maybe each encounter has a very positive outcome, a positive outcome, a neutral outcome, a negative outcome and a very negative outcome (one step above Total Party Kill (TPK)) and each of those lead to the next event on your story arc.  This method can be very gratifying visually, and perhaps some events might only have two outcomes (did they get it, did they fail to get it) and others may have more.  This makes it quite easy to play out as you can see what has been accomplished what effect each success or failure has had on events and so on, but can be frustrating because you come up with all of these options and the players may get very lucky (or skillful) and blow right through your chart, leaving all of these cool ideas to never see the light of day!  (A common hazard of the world building GMs!)
  • Finally you might create beat or point arc.  This is not as loose as the first version, but much simpler than the last version.
    • Here, you take your villains goals, and determine a vague idea of where your players can affect them.  Maybe they will have one chance before the boss battle, or maybe they will have three, and if successful with a key one of those, they will add one more.
    • When building this version, remember that each point along the story or each beat of the adventure should have a fairly direct consequence on the outcome.  It should weaken the players or the big bad, or strengthen them.
    • Information about the weakness, or even just learning of the next plot (particularly in a campaign) gives them some bonus against the enemy.
This single story adventure will be primarily Man VS Man. 

Homer III is a frontier planet of the Star Empire of New Rome, but a planetary non-citizen (read alien) has been capturing some of the intrepid citizens, draining them of fluids and leaving their desiccated husk draped across the archways of their villas.  However, the citizens don’t know what is happening, they are just finding some of these farm holders in bizarre positions and bled dry.  Is it an alien infection?  is it an  enemy of the Empire?  Who knows.  SO the Proconsul has contacted his senator and requested aid from the Empire to protect the Citizens and deal with this…thing.

  OK. We have a story that is focused, has some intrigue and some sort of confrontation in the end.  Obviously I need to figure out some details, but we have the basics.  One of my first considerations is characters.  However, characters are the topic of the second post, so we will cover that in more detail later!

Characters are considered, and perhaps discussed.  Now you need to work out the story  details:

If I am going to build the simple version, I simply need an understanding of Homer III, and I need to define this Man-Spider Alien.  Does it have access to Empire level science?  perhaps it is a wholly primitive hunter, or a bit of both, ala Predator?  I need to stat it at least partially.  If it is alone, how is it capturing these citizens?  Do I want to throw in a few hints of a possible disease?  Perhaps the proconsul is ill when the cohort arrives…  It’s goal is to drive the Empire from its world so it can hatch its eggs in the upcoming rainy season.  It is a member of a hunting pack, while not quite as intelligent as normal humans, it is quite clever.

In a detailed story I want to cover many possibilities.  I will start with them meeting the proconsul, who is showing signs of a wasting disease.  He will give them the information available, and explain that the Empire has never sent the normal Janissaries or the phalanx troop so the colonist are fairly vulnerable to issues such as these.  If the players examine the proconsul, they will find he has a rare form of space cancer…one that requires high empire level medicine to cure…but it can lead to a wasting type illness, but it has never shown itself to be contagious before.  If they try to send for information on the security detail they will have to wait 3 days for the response, and are then told that one should have been formed, are they sure?  Eventually (enough successful negotiations) they will have a detail formed and sent, but it will take time to actually form, drill and deploy them…during this time at least one more colonist will show up dead.  If they go to investigate the villas, they will find that all but the most recent have been scrubbed clean by the slaves.  the most recent however, has had one of the slaves, a non-citizen of local stock disappear.  The wife has gone to her fathers, so only the caretaker is left. He can tell what he saw, when the thing left his master in the archway.  Knowing that the story can’t go on without some clue, if the players don’ talk with him, they can find a drag trail leading up to the villa.  with enough success, they can tell it is recent, that there was two sets of foot prints, and that the drag marks represent bare toes…and there is a dried trail of some sort of liquid .

But, to keep from working out all of the rest of the details, i would finish this with a mid level of detail.  Taking what was already detailed above with this:  I want 5 adventure beats.  The first is the interview with the proconsul.  the second is the evaluation of the most recent villa.  Next is the site of the killing, then is the tracking of the big bad, and finally the final confrontation.  Again, to keep the story going, we know that none of these can lead to a complete dead-end (unless it leads to a return to the main story line…maybe the tracking point, but that would then strengthen the enemy by giving them one more victim)  To workout the rest of this game, I need to create an impact for each point.  If the players are successful they weaken the enemy, or get something to use against it.  If they fail, then the benefit the enemy or hinder their own cause.  And because it has been presented, i might overlay every beat with a virus threat…but they might be able to mitigate that at some point.

Alright!  hopefully next week, I will post the next part of setting up an adventure, the Characters!! Keep in mind that when using the medium detail style for campaigns, each beat can be a complete adventure built like this.  Like a bead on a string, that can be examined and expanded into the beads on a string of this post!

If you have questions, feel free to comment, and I’ll try to get you an answer!

Aside

Throw him in the…Fortified Underground Defense Facility!!!

Many years ago, when I worked underground, I had a bumper snicker that said:  It’s not a Dungeon.  It’s a fortified Underground Defense Facility!  Then, It was particularly funny (at least to me), because that’s pretty much what I worked in.  There was a reason it was located where it was and why the doors were locked.  But, why Dungeons?  Dragons are obvious…western myth of these powerful fire-breathing creatures abound.  The are powerful and terrifying and a great evil for hero’s to slay (yeah, right!).  But where did the labyrinthine compounds built beneath the ground come from and why do orcs live over there, next door to the rust monster, just upstairs from the poison spore fungus, that the gelatinous cube leave be?

B1map

The dungeon, as far as I can tell, does have at least a bit of provenance…however tenuous…

There are the Mines of Moria, and The Labyrinth.  (You know, from Crete? Built by Daedalus?)  But since they were included in the name of the Grandfather (D&D) they can be found in almost all fantasy games and many games that are NOT fantasy!

(←Kudos to those who recognize that map!)

Hmmm…I have several hundred slaves, a lot of shovels and a bunch of doors, but no stone masons or brick makers…what can I do???

For the evil overlord who has the manpower, but doesn’t want a crenelated tower spoiling his view of the countryside, digging an underground complex might be the answer.  What other reason could a person have for building the monolithic multilevel complexes of hallways and separate chambers?

From a GM point of view, Dungeons are a great mechanic.  You know that the players are limited in their actions…(unless they decide they are just going to leave…but there are ways to counter that!  Ask My Lady wife about it!)  Almost all action that take place there are mechanical, rolled on dice, and it can become a great limit on resources…do they drop the latest treasure, or keep another week of food?  However, most settings just leave the dungeons in place because of these benefits.  They litter the countryside, and are filled with myriad creatures to challenge your players.  But then we get back to the question above.  Why?  A fortress?  Well, why not build a fortress?  You never have to worry about cave ins, and you can grow food, and save a huge amount on your torch bill!  A hidden fortress?  Better.  Why do you need a hidden fortress, and why doesn’t magic, or technology, work better to keep it hidden?  Do you have an army of underground builders who don’t know how to stack stones on top of each other, but can mold stone like clay?  Very good reason…how do you get water?  Air?  Food? Light?  All of these are questions that would push people away from using the traditional dungeon full of locked doors and death traps.  Are there any reasons to?

Earthdawn, one of my favorite settings, has a perfect reason for dungeons to exist:  Horrors.  The very short version of the great back story is that evil creatures exist that are unstoppable except by building magically protected cities beneath the earth.  With that  setting, you have a great reason for dungeons, with built-in Big Bad at the end!  However, it is not the only reason.  What if the surface of the planet is hostile, so denizens all live beneath the surface, with an inverse strata…those farther from the surface are the wealthier, because they are more protected from the inimical surface hazards.  Lost paths, or those that had sprung a leak to the surface…Instant abandoned (or recently re-inhabited) dungeon!  With only a little thought, you should be able to determine if dungeons will work in your setting or not.  But, maybe you can use dungeons that aren’t a series of man-made or natural caverns.  What about a badlands made up of canyons and gulches, that are generally to steep and unstable to climb…or that the hostile Indian tribe watches the surface and shoots anyone who comes out?  Perhaps they get into an office building…no windows on the first 5 floors, security you understand.  And the door that they entered cannot be opened from this side!  They need to find a way out…and of course the robots that patrol the corridors don’t recognize the intruders…

All right.  You have decided that you can use dungeons and so you begin throwing Orks over here, giant centipedes in this hall.  Skeletons down these stairs, and giant spiders in the other room over there.  That should prove a challenge!  Well..yes, it does…a challenge to the suspension of disbelief!  When keying (or populating) your dungeon like complex, think about why it is here.  You obviously know you are going to use it…but why?  Is it an abandoned Dwarven stronghold?  Why did they abandon it?  Is it a maze with a minotaur at the center?  Is it an ancient kaer in which the citizens have forgotten why they buried themselves and degenerated into a dog eat dog stratification?  Once you have thought out why it is there, you should see some obvious current inhabitants.  The ancient bane of dwarves is the goblins!  So, mostly what you find is goblins or goblinoid creatures…and don’t goblins often set traps?  Do they keep pets?  Wild boars for food, and for cavalry?  or maybe they eat large spiders!  But Refmentor!  When can I put in the dragon?!!  Well…There wouldn’t be a dragon in this complex.  Unless it is what drove out the dwarves.  And if that is the case, will the goblins still be hanging around?  Not likely.  It is possible that a few scroungers have taken up residence well away from the dragon, but they are either very cunning, or completely stupid…and fighting might well rouse the super senses of the main resident.  (We will talk another time about when to use such creatures in your settings). 

Dungeons do Not have to be part of every story, but the can definitely be used for certain purposes.  But, as this is an “Ecology of…” article, there is one final consideration for your fortified complex (Underground, overground, or where ever) and that is…ecology!  What do your resident eat?  Do they need water?  What about waste?  Where do they live?  Why is there a magic pool, not alone a dozen in one room?  Although you can create a food web, and then determine what the byproduct of that web are, how things decay, or degrade  and so on, or, like so many other things: think about it.  You can be very detailed, or general.  Flora generally needs soil, light and water.  There are real world exceptions, so there is no reason you cannot have exceptions…Giant leathery mushrooms that absorb water from the air, and actually blacken and weaken in sunlight…not very tasty, but full of nutrients!  They naturally occur, but are often cultivated, but the glow ball fungus never grows with them, and always on the edge of running or at least not-stagnant water…OK…You have a basic food source and even some light.  A particular breed of cave pig is bred to eat these fungus, but they are eaten as well, and their waste can be used for fuel for fires!  OK…Now you have food, light and fuel…now place things that raise/eat them…with a “Bottomless pit” that is used to get rid of waste…bones, feces, dead grandma’s…

With a bit of thought, you can have a relatively believable location with reasonable encounters…It might take a little more investment than you had hoped, (ARE there undead that spontaneously generate?) but as with most everything else, the more you put into it, the more the players get out, which give you more back!

 

Well, That’s the story.  Take it, or leave it.  My trucker buddies, they believe it!

Lets make a Stalk setting

This episode of RefMentor is brought to you by the garden of imaginary things…where game settings come from!

The Ecology of the Setting

Recently I was asked by a young GM about his setting.  He had a map and had started a timeline.  Great beginning, but he was trying an unorganized top down design.  And, if you have ever tried that…you know it can get out of hand very quickly!  So, here is a method that I recommended to him.  The analogy is not great, but it does work.  It is really a middle out built, disguised as top down.  Let me try to set up the idea:

When you are creating a setting, you have lots of ideas that you want in it.  so, you throw out a bunch of seeds and let them grow.  Hopefully you can tell the difference from the weeds and the planted seeds…and what if the seeds don’t work well together…so I recommend that you plant a central stalk of your setting, and then associated pieces can bud and branch off that central stalk!  OK.  That is the very general  description that might not make any sense, so now I will, as I often do, go into more detail, then try to give an example.  Granted, the topic of a setting in the length of the se posts is daunting, but if you want more, let me know…I’ll work on detailing it more!

When you are building  a setting…and for this purpose, I am not going to touch on game system, as that is a later decision that should have minimal influence on this step of your setting, you have ideas for what you want to play.  Sometimes it is a couple of things you want to see, and other times it is lots of ideas that you want to be present.  The first step is make a decision about what is the most important aspect of your story.  Map? A Culture? A business? Magic? Technology?  A language?  Whatever it is, that will be your stalk…the central trunk of your setting design.  Once you have your stalk, then you are going to build it, let it grow beyond what you think you might need.  As you build the central core idea, you will have things, little branches that will act as hooks for all of your other ideas.  Try not to worry about making them, and when you see them, make a not of them rather than try to make them complete branches.  Once, you get this stalk built, when you are satisfied that nothing else would add to what you have, then…Take a break!  Seriously…Take a break away from this…get a drink…find a distraction…play a game or ref another game.  This is important because when you come back to it your fresh.  Re-examine what you have.  Decide if it still is what you want to use.  If it is, decide if there is something you want to add to it.  Do it as needed.  THEN…find the natural breaks. A map has natural boundaries…large mountain ranges, oceans, big rivers.  A culture has breaks, when governments change, or borders expand.  Each of these natural breaks should be considered as a place to splice in the next piece of your setting.  Now…look at what you had identified as hooks/tags/branches before and add these new breaks to it.  If you have other ideas that you want to see, look and see if they will hang off of one of these natural places.  If not, do you have a place that you want it to be?  Then force a break in the stalk and put it in!  That shouldn’t change the main part of your stalk, but you may find, if you review everything, that maybe the stalk has a few things that make more sense to be changed with this new influence.  I would suggest that you work more on tying those ideas to the natural places, but if just won’t work then shove it in there!

This is where you develop those ideas that you wanted in there…remember that an idea may branch completely off from the main stalk and never touch it again, or it may wrap around the stalk and twine in and out of it.  This method allows you to keep a focus on what is important. Don’t be afraid of free association…maybe, in building this, you may find a branch actually becomes a new stalk!  Ideas can build on each and every branch and always reach back to another one…the natural world has all of these weird interconnections, why can’t your imagination place?!  The biggest concern when using this is to get carried away!  Not that is a bad thing, but if you get to far from the central stalk, the more work you are doing.  In some cases, you may be developing a setting for years or even the rest of your life.  Other times, you are creating a setting, to tell one story (which of course should be your stalk) so you don’t need to go far from it.  Put as much work into it as you want, but this technique will allow you to be certain you have what you want, and may reveal interesting new options that never occurred to you before!

Now…an example…Obviously just a stalk itself could take pages, but I hope this will illustrate the point.  I’ve mentioned a setting that is roman empire in space.  Well…that statement right there gives me the important stalk.  Obviously I want an interstellar civilization that is based upon early roman democracy.  So, I start with the stalk and it will go something like this: The Empire never fell.  The madness of the Ceaser’s was cured by divine magic and they ruled for a millennia.  Because Rome remained in power, and because of divine cures, the polytheistic belief system kept Christianity and other monotheistic beliefs on the sidelines, but they have always had active followers.  Because of this, the dark ages didn’t happen, so technology has advanced more rapidly, putting the tech tree about 200 years ahead…computers in the mid 17th century…The empire eventually dominates the world, opposed by a small but significant guerrilla movement in the far east, and a resolute native American (Indian, Mexican) forces. resistance.  Like the original Romans, they would have citizenship rules, castes and slaves…And on and on…it would obviously need to have a general timeline, the discovery of FTL drive, the Planet of New Rome, current home of the Senate, and so on…

Now we look at the timeline.  We see a guerrilla movement in Asia…so, let’s have a rogue theft of an early FTL by a Chinese agent…and they have formed a small, but resolute alliance of worlds.  So the guerrilla have become a full force, and the American resistance has overthrown a few planets, but these are backwater, frontier types that the Roman  Stellar forces and the Asian Universal Alliance cannot afford forces to take back over, but they both impose trade sanctions…and these rebel ships are considered pirates and smugglers in any non-rebel systems.  So, now we have the Cowboy/lawless feel of the rebellion, but they specialize in stealth tech and maneuverable ships.  But they make few breakthroughs because whenever they get big enough to do the required research, the site becomes a target…

There we have it…just a few minutes of thought, and much less than the minimum of work on the stalk, and we have a divinely guided Roman stellar empire, opposed by a resolute force of Asians…that still need a lot of fleshing out.  As well as rebel cowboy spies…with fashion and culture defined primarily by the Roman empire…and, as I set here writing , I see so many possibilities…A Star Wars variant…a Firefly variant…A Space Spies game…Roman Star explorers…

And with that little bit done, I could start a bottom up detail level and write specific adventures with a well established setting to reach back to for support.  Still a lot of work, but it can spark ideas, and maybe a new hobby of world/universe building! (Something that will always help an aspiring Ref!)

 

As Always:

That’s my Story…Take it or Leave it…My Trucker buddies, they believe it!