NOT the Big Easy!

Conflict creates drama.  Drama comes from the uncertainty of an outcome.  We, as role players, use drama , hence conflict, to create adventures.  In this post, I am going to discuss a notable difference in the way I play epic and episodic.  What you and your table expect from a game is often defined by how much and what type of drama you are looking for.

Before getting into anything else, lets talk drama and conflict.  Conflict occurs in game when two or more people, in this case PCs and NPCs, desire a specific outcome and not all parties want or expect the same, or even similar outcomes.  Drama is created when an outcome of an event is uncertain.  Therefore, when Player Characters are at odds with Non-player Character, other PCs, or even the environment, we engage the game mechanics to determine the outcome of the event.  The most obvious is out-right combat.  This is the sort of conflict that most people think of first when thinking of RPG conflict.  It is also the most detailed system in almost all RPG mechanics.  But, Lets say a PC needs to get documents out of the safe of an NPC.  The NPC is personally unreachable or undefeatable by said PC.  We now have a conflict, that can’t be directly solved with combat.  While it is possible that the PC may hire a group of mercenaries/thugs/bravos/etc to beat the combo, or even the actual document from this NPC, that combat is probably “off screen,” and said PC may or may not have solved the problem, but will not know until the hirelings report back.  So the drama here is not the combat, but the outcome which is unknown for a period of time.  But what if the PC wants to break into the place where the safe is, crack the safe and thereby obtain the document.  Here, the conflict is with the environment; how obvious does the PC want to be?  How tough is the safe, either physically or the combination?  The drama here comes from the stealth of the PC, the chance of getting caught, what do they know about the safe, can they successfully crack the safe either by manipulation or brute force?  Can they get away without being tied to the act, or does it matter?  Game mechanics here are skill resolution types.  While some games make any failed roll the only outcome, others allow re-attempts, either with penalties to skill or time.  (I usually allow re-rolls, with the penalty increasing each time.  To me this reflects that you have already worked to the best of your skill, and are now hoping for a bit of luck, that becomes more frustrating the more times it is tried.)  Finally, what if they want to con, or sweet talk the NPC out of the documents?  Now we face a social conflict.  Some games, particularly the more modern of them, have a social mechanic that can make the give and take of wordplay as exciting as the cut and thrust of sword and axe.   All of these are ways to resolve conflict, and the drama comes from not knowing the outcome.  Some systems may resolve some or all of these on a simple dice roll, while others may take a great deal of real time to resolve.

Having defined conflict and drama, let me talk about Epic vs Episodic (and my own Epic-sodic).  In general, Episodic games are divided into scenes, or acts that each have a major conflict that needs resolved.  Once the conflict for that part of the arc is dealt with, often the minutia of getting to the next conflict, such as travel, or information gathering (Which can be a conflict on its own), or even simple resupply is pretty much handled by a few moments of discussion and hand -waving.

For Instance: “OK.  You have beaten these henchmen and discovered where the lair is.  As you don’t want to give Dr. Q any warning, you head pretty much directly to the lair.  Since you need to go across town, you can run a few simple errands.  Does anybody need to buy anything or restock?  OK.   Now, you are arriving at the lair of the Villainous Dr. Q…”

In Epic games, I often play out even the non-dramatic events, such as day to day life.  The idea here is that the player , and therefore the character, becomes familiar with the mundane life as well as the exciting parts.  While this makes story arcs last much longer, it does tend to make it easier for the players and their characters to relate to the disruption caused by the adventures, and/or care more for the people placed in harms way.  This is where i use the the idea of “Random Encounters” or  “Wandering Monsters.”  It is not just to add conflict where none needs to be, but to make it seem like everyday life and travel could be interrupted by these horrible dangers at any time.  The attack by orcs may not be related to the rampaging ogres that you are tracking…but perhaps it is?!?!?!  In Epic style like this, the story arc is not the only thing.  The idea is to highlight the dramatic by contrasting it to the more mundane.

In my Epic-sodic, most dangerous conflict, that could kill a PC or leave them in a significantly worse way, are part of the story arcs.  Random combat encounters almost never occur.  If they do, they are they to advance the plot, usually by providing a clue.  This allows a bit of the mundane to be contrasted well with the primary dramatic, story advancing, scenes.

Conflict is not the only way to introduce drama, but it is often the easiest.  Other parts of a game can be presented dramatically as well.  For instance, resource management can provide a dramatic element; Will i have enough  bullets to deal with these zombies? What about the very core of the game; You are down to the last three cans of food, one of which has lost its paper wrapper, and has a slight bulge in it’s side.  Sounds like time for some foraging!  And in a game with a lot of good role play, drama can come just from character or NPC interaction scenes.

(What about the dreaded “Notice/Search/Perception/Awareness check?”  (Although, this is the core of an upcoming post) This can lead to drama.  What did I see…or worse…What did I FAIL to see?  This can definitely lead to a dramatic moment if you believe that you may have missed a poison trap and your character is about to die!  But what if it was to notice the man in the rumpled coat?  Is he there because you should take note of him?  Have you seen him before?  Or is he there just for game color?  This bit of drama can be fun, but note that this is fun for the PLAYER, not necessarily the CHARACTER.  The character doesn’t know they just failed a perception check.  But what if they are searching for a clue in a murder case?  If they fail the roll, does the killer get away, game over…)

When considering drama in your game, consider conflict in all of its many guises.  Consider the tone of your game. Consider what your players like and how your table plays.  Drama does not always equal Conflict.  Conflict does not always mean Hack and Slash.  But, conflict is dramatic!  Be aware of the impact it has on your game, and where you are going, and look at drama as a something to happen at every game, even if no one slaps leather!

((Sorry for the long delay…Again, my hope is to have one about every month!  Fingers crossed!))

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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!