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 Post subject: The Wisdom of Elders - selected essays on RPGs
PostPosted: Fri Sep 18, 2009 9:53 am 
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I was trying to write an essay of helpful stuff about RPGs, when I found that as I did my research, I wasn't really able to better anything that had been said before by the essayists I respect. So I thought I'd start a thread to post links to and text from those good essays - help on solving problems, hints for good play, that sort of thing.

I expect they'll prompt a load of healthy discussion. I'll chip in by saying I don't necessarily agree with everything in the essays I'm posting, just that I think they're generally helpful.

Post stuff you've found up here, too, or links to it.

Running the Game - the loneliness of the long distance blogger
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 Post subject: Re: The Wisdom of Elders - selected essays on RPGs
PostPosted: Fri Sep 18, 2009 9:57 am 
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"Decide to React Differently"
(extracted from "Making Tough Decisions")
An essay on role playing by Rich Burlew, from Giant in the Playground

Have you ever had a party break down into fighting over the actions of one of their members? Has a character ever threatened repeatedly to leave the party? Often, intraparty fighting boils down to one player declaring, "That's how my character would react." Heck, often you'll be the one saying it; it's a common reaction when alignments or codes of ethics clash.

However, it also creates a logjam where neither side wants to back down. The key to resolving this problem is to decide to react differently. You are not your character, and your character is not a separate entity with reactions that you cannot control. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a player state that their character's actions are not under their control. Every decision your character makes is your decision first. It is possible and even preferable for you to craft a personality that is consistent but also accommodating of the characters the other players wish to play.

Spoiler! :
When you think about a situation, ask yourself, "Is this the only way my character can react to this?" Chances are, the answer is, "No." Try to refine your character so that you can deal with situations that conflict with your alignment/ethos without resorting to ultimatums, threats, etc. This will often mean thinking in terms of compromise and concession to your fellow players, or at the very least an agreement to disagree.

Here's another example: In a campaign I DM'd, the party's bard lifted a magical sword behind the back of the party's Lawful Good monk. The monk had basically decided that the bodies of several fallen knights would be buried without looting, and rather than argue, the bard just grabbed the sword. The bad news was, the sword was cursed; it was the blade that had belonged to a ghost that roamed the castle, and whenever the bard drew it, the ghost materialized and attacked him (and only him). Eventually, the bard 'fessed up that he had stolen the sword. The monk (and the monk's player) became furious, and declared that he could no longer travel with the bard. Either the bard had to leave, or he would. It became a huge argument between characters and players, and it was entirely unnecessary. The monk did not have to react with an ultimatum; the monk did not even have to be angry, no matter what his alignment was. The bard had already suffered the misfortune of having his Charisma drained by the ghost repeatedly; the monk could have chosen (for example) to lecture the bard on how his theft had brought him nothing but misery. He chose to create player conflict when it was just as easy to not.

Personally, I blame the paladin for this. The original paladin class created the precedent for one player thinking he has the right to dictate the morality of other players. That drives me nuts. Ever since, players who select a Lawful Good character automatically assume it is up to them to police the rest of the party, and too often, the rest of the party lets them. As far as I'm concerned, no player has the right to tell another player how to act. Lawful Good is not the "right" way to be, and it is unacceptable to push your character's ideals on other players whether they want them or not.

Another useful application of this concept involves accepting story hooks your DM gives to you. Try to never just say, "My character isn't interested in that adventure." A lot of people mistake this for good roleplaying, because you are asserting your character's personality. Wrong. Good roleplaying should never bring the game to a screeching halt. One of your jobs as a player is to come up with a reason why your character would be interested in a plot. After all, your personality is entirely in your hands, not the DM's. Come up with a reason why the adventure (or the reward) might appeal to you, no matter how esoteric or roundabout the reasoning.

If the paladin is to blame for the last problem, this one belongs to the druid. Druids have such a specific set of principles that players often mistake them for being a free pass to demand that each adventure revolve around their goals. Raiding a dungeon for gold doesn't appeal to the druid mindset, so what are you to do if you play one and are presented with that goal? You improvise. Maybe the gold will enable you to purchase magic items that will let you protect the wilderness. Maybe the ruins contain unnatural monsters that need to be killed regardless of the treasure. Maybe, just maybe, the other PCs are your friends and you are willing to help them just because. Too often that last part is forgotten; I don't think anyone reading this has never spent the night doing something they'd rather not because a friend asked.

So if you're really paying attention, you may be thinking, "Hey, don't those two points contradict one another? First he says to separate what your character thinks from what you think, but then he says your character doesn't have its own reactions." Well, no. Separate your character's thoughts from your own thoughts, but don't forget who is in control of both personalities.

The division between your personality and that of your character only goes so far as it helps the game; once it begins becoming a disruption, a player has a responsibility to alter his or her character's decisions in the interest of the group. In the end, your relationships with the people you are sitting in someone's living room with are more important than your character's internal consistency.

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 Post subject: Re: The Wisdom of Elders - selected essays on RPGs
PostPosted: Fri Sep 18, 2009 10:06 am 
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An Essay by Justin Alexander

I think every GM probably has a story about the time that they spent hours carefully detailing some piece of lore or a particularly intricate conspiracy... only to discover that their players didn't really care. Or you complete a dramatic and powerful series of adventures featuring the unraveling of a conspiracy wrought by the Dark Gods of Keht... but three months later you mention the name "Keht" and are met by blank stares from the players.

But often -- even as you're meeting with this kind of frustration -- the players are still having a great time. They'll tell all sorts of tales about the time that their characters did X... and do you remember that time that Y did Z?

In discussing this problem with other GMs, I've seen many of them come to the conclusion that players just don't care that much about the game world. And that they never will. So don't waste your time with all that world-building stuff -- focus on statting up the next combat encounter.

Well, there's a grain of truth in that. But I think it's an over-reaction. While there may be players out there who really don't care about that sort of thing, I don't think that's the general rule. I think if there's a failure in processing, understanding, appreciating, and remembering these types of details, then the failure lies as much on the GM as it does the players (if not moreso).


Spoiler! :
Are you sure you actually want the players to know what's going on? Or are you subconsciously playing poker with them -- keeping your cards hidden behind an implacable poker face reinforced with a GM's screen?

This should almost go without saying, but based on what I've seen it needs to be said: If you want your players to know something, you have to make sure that you actually tell it to them.

I think we often slip into the trap, while plotting out conspiracies and mysteries, of forgetting that the PCs are actually supposed to figure it out eventually. GMs often wonder why their players don't remember all the wonderful details they had worked out... when, in point of fact, the only way they could have learned those details was by secretly mastering the art of telepathy.

Hand-in-hand with this is a basic principle: Details which the PCs can never learn of or interact with aren't worth wasting time on.

There may occasionally be times when you need to work up some sort of background detail to make the foreground details hang together. But whenever you find yourself designing a detail like that, I'd like you to ask yourself a few questions: Is there any reason why the PCs shouldn't be able to learn this detail? And if they shouldn't learn it, why are you designing it? It can't be information necessary for the scenario to make sense (because if it was actually necessary, then the PCs should be learning it). And if it isn't necessary and no one will ever know about it, why are you spending time on it?

For example, I was recently re-reading the Darkness Revealed adventure trilogy for White Wolf's Trinity roleplaying game. I like the potential of these adventures a great deal, but large swaths of them are given over to describing the detailed activities and personal dramas of the NPCs. The PCs rarely have any way of learning about these dramas, which means that their experience while playing through this campaign is a little like the captain of the Titanic observing an iceberg -- he's only seeing the top 10% and the rest of it's a wreck.

The other example I always think of when talking about this wrong-headed design approach is the Ravenloft adventure Touch of Death. I found this module in the public library when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I remember reading through it and thinking that it had a pretty amazing story... and then I realized that there was absolutely no way that the PCs playing through the adventure would ever see it. The entire thing dealt with an immense and ancient power struggle between legendary NPCs. The PCs had no way of learning the history of the conflict or even, in many respects, knowing that there was a struggle going on. If you played the adventure as written, it would consist of the PCs stumbling from one incomprehensible sequence of events to another.

These are extreme examples, but they impart an important lesson: If the players never see it, then it might as well have never happened.

And look at it from the opposite point of view: If you've got this really interesting bit of history or lore or back story that you're developing... well, don't you want the players to see it? Wouldn't it be nice to share what you've created?


Spoiler! :
Okay, so you've developed the character background for Lord Dartmouth. This conniving fellow has a long history of Machiavellian murder and mayhem to his credit and you want the PCs to learn of his villainy (either because you want to motivate them to oppose him or it's necessary information for stopping him or just because it's interesting).

The first thing you have to remember is that the players have a short attention span. If you try to give them the entire history of Lord Dartmouth in a single sitting, they will tune out.

They'll partly tune out because they don't want to listen to a three minute monologue about some esoteric piece of lore that doesn't mean anything to them. But they'll also tune out because it's actually not that easy to process and remember all of that information. Maybe if they were taking notes... but taking notes isn't particularly fun for most people.

We'll be delving into more specific methods for actually delivering the information. But regardless of the method you end up using, you need to focus on giving out small bursts of detailed information. This doesn't mean that everything in the game needs to be simplistic -- it just means that the players are more likely to process, remember, and care about complex ideas if they're delivered in smaller and more comprehensible pieces.
In many ways this is also a more effective technique from a dramatic standpoint. Slowly revealing the big picture piece by piece is usually far more interesting than having McLecture the Scottish Elf explaining it all in a big lump.


Spoiler! :
Option 1: McLecture the Scottish Elf spends three minutes explaining that Lord Dartmouth was responsible for destroying the village of Cairwoth, explaining in detail exactly how the horrific destruction was carried out.

Option 2: The PCs go to Cairwoth and discover the tale of destruction for themselves -- the scorch marks from the fireballs; the decapitated heads jutting from spikes; the mass grave; the diabolical laboratory of blood.

Players are more likely to remember things that they have done than things that they are told. Quests or missions can be particularly straight-forward ways to incorporate setting detail.

But please note that I said "plot" not "background". The distinction between the two is subtle, but important. If the PCs get sent on a quest to deliver the Starfury Blade to the Elven Tribune of the Silverwood that doesn't mean that McLecture the Scottish Elf's five minute oration on the background and history of the Starfury Blade has suddenly become part of the plot.

In fact, about the only thing you can really hope for in that scenario is that the players will remember that there is something called a "Starfury Blade". And even that might be hoping for too much because what they probably heard was, "Deliver the McGuffin to McGuffin Land." Everyone loves a good McGuffin, but, much like McLecture, nobody really processes the content of one.

On the other hand, if during their escort mission the PCs are put in a position where the secret powers of the Starfury Blade were to manifest themselves and, thus, force them to engage in a conspiracy of bribes and cover-up to keep the details of that event secret from the Elven Tribune (who would be furious that outsiders have learned the secret of the blade)... well, now you've made the details part of the plot. The PCs will remember the powers of the blade and they'll remember that the Elven Tribune wants to keep those powers secret.

Making something a part of the plot, however, doesn't always mean making it a huge and convuluted affair. Here's another example, this one drawn from my current campaign:

The PCs are seeking information that can be found in Alchestrin's Tomb. As part of this scenario I want to establish some lore and history around the character of Alchestrin. One piece of information is that Alchestrin was the Third Lord of Castle Shard.

"Third Lord of Castle Shard." That's a title. Nothing is more likely to go in one ear and out the other than a title. (This isn't just about RPG players, it's pretty true in real life, too. For example, take a look at the full list of titles and honours belonging to Queen Elizabeth II. Did your eyes glaze over half way through? I thought so.)

But I can make that info part of the plot pretty easily.

Player 1: We need to find the location of Alchestrin's Tomb.
Player 2: What do we know about him? I make a Knowledge (history) check.
DM: He was the Third Lord of Castle Shard.
Player 1: Let's go to Castle Shard and see if they know.

Honestly, they probably still won't remember that Alchestrin was the "Third Lord of Castle Shard". But it's very likely that they will, at the very least, remember that there was a connection between Alchestrin and Castle Shard.

(In reality, the PCs actually blew up my clever little scheme by independently involving Castle Shard in this sequence of events before they'd even heard the name Alchestrin. Ah well.)


Spoiler! :
Let me clue you into the Golden Rule of Gaming, by way of Ben Robbins:

Players pay attention when you describe treasure.
(See, it's the Golden Rule because gold is treasure. Get it? Get it? ... Okay, never mind.)

The one time you're guaranteed to have everyone's undivided attention at the gaming table is the moment when you're opening the goody bag and getting ready to distribute the goodies.

Want them to know about the ancient dwarven empire that ruled the surface world aeons ago before the Dragon War forced them to retreat into their mountain citadels? Then let them find a cache of ancient dwarven coins with the Imperial motto "All that the sun shines upon shall be shaped by our forge" written upon them. Place the forgemark of the Greatfall Armories on the next magic sword they find.Give them a treasure map leading to the ancient ruins of a dwarven palace.

Sometime knowledge itself can be the treasure: Lorebooks, diaries, and the like can all be looted.

And sometimes you can use knowledge to boost the value of the treasure. For example, they might find a very nice tapestry worth a few hundred gold pieces. With a successful History check, however, they might recognize the tapestry as being a famous depiction of the Battle of the Firebane. Find the right collector, and the value of the tapestry has quintupled. Now the Battle of the Firebane isn't just a bit of fluff text -- it's the reason they're earning the big bucks.


Spoiler! :
Take your lore, break it down into a series of specific revelations. Then use the Three Clue Rule to liberally sprinkle your campaign with the requisite clues necessary for figuring out each revelation.

If the players have to struggle to figure something out, then they'll focus on it. And feel a sense of accomplishment when they finally piece together the truth. Of course, this usually means that you'll need to find some way of motivating them to figure it out. (Unless you're lucky and have players who motivate themselves at the sign of any enigma.)

In many ways, making it a mystery is really just a specific way of making it short (by parceling the information into separate revelations) and making it plot (by providing the players with a motivation to figure it out).


Spoiler! :
Let's return for a moment to Lord Dartmouth's destruction of the village of Cairwoth. The event can be made instantly memorable if Cairwoth was the home town for one of the PCs... and their parents were slaughtered by Dartmouth.

Of course, making it personal for the PCs doesn't mean it needs to be traumatic. Let the PCs find documents suggesting that they might be a direct descendant of the Silver Duke of Amartain, for example, and you've got a fairly good chance that they'll lap up whatever information you choose to dish out about the Silver Duke.

These personal ties can arise during actual gameplay, but they can also be established during character creation.

In my campaigns, character creation tends to be a collaborative process:

(1) I'll provide the player with my standard handout describing the campaign setting.

(2) The player will pitch me their character concept. This concept can range from the barebones ("I want to play a human wizard") to the brief ("I'd like to play a barbarian from somewhere up north. I think it might be cool if my village was attacked by slavers.") to the elaborate (a detailed, three page biography).

(3) I'll take the concept and, using my greater knowledge of the setting, begin to flesh out the details. (If they tell me they want to play a barbarian, I'll give them a specific tribe and provide them appropriate cultural and historical detail, for example.) My goal here is generally not to change the concept. I'm just working to help them realize the concept.

Most of this work is done via e-mail, and it's not unusual for the character concept to get passed back and forth several times as we polish it up. Sometimes my suggestions will be completely off-base, at which point we go back to the drawing board and try a different approach.

But I digress. My point here is that this collaborative process of character creation can be used to establish information regarding the world. Maybe it's something that will become important during the course of the campaign. Or maybe it's just something that you find cool and feel like sharing. But, in either case, you've put yourself in the position where (a) the player will care about those details and (b) they'll do the heavy-lifting in terms of sharing those details with the other players.

(Another tangent: Things don't always go like you plan, of course. In one campaign, I thought I had gotten things setup so that one of the PCs (whose central character trait was the desire to learn secrets) was in a position to receive various pieces of secret lore. I thought I could use the character's passion for learning secrets to funnel information into the campaign. The only problem? It turned out that the character liked to learn secrets... so that she could keep them. The information funnelled into the PC... and stopped there, creating a very different dynamic than I had anticipated.)


Spoiler! :
Handouts are a great way of conveying information for two reasons:

(1) Players love them. Give them a handout and they will sit up and take notice.

(2) Handouts are tangible and persistent.

If you tell the players something, it can go in one ear and out the other. Or be forgotten by the next session.

But if it's a handout, then they have a constant reminder that the information exists. And if they forget a detail, they can just look at the handout again.

Although elaborate and detailed handouts will be more interesting and attract greater focus and attention, don't get so wrapped up in the production values that you become reluctant to include the handouts. For example, I'll rarely take the time to write out a letter by hand on a authentic-looking parchment.... but I'll almost always type up the letter and hand it to them on a separate sheet of paper.


Spoiler! :
We learn through repetition of information: Mention something once, we might remember it. Mention it again, the odds go up. Mention it several times, and our brains will generally identify it as notable information and file it away.

The problem with repetition is that it can also be very boring. Getting the same chunk of information dumped in their laps over and over again is not very interesting for the playerrs, and will eventually prompt a frustrated response: "Yes. All right. We get it already. Give it a rest."

Now they know, but they still don't care.

The trick is to figure out how to make each repetition of the information interesting in its own right. This is actually relatively easy to achieve by varying the type and content of the information.

For example, imagine that Bairwin Wildarson -- a famous half-elven hero -- has been placed in a stasis chamber somewhere deep beneath the surface of the earth. When the PCs find this stasis chamber you want it to be a major WOW! moment -- as if they had just discovered Robin Hood. Obviously, for that to happen, the players need to appreciate just how famous and important Bairwin Wildarson is.

First, you might have the PCs start their adventures in the town of Bairwin -- which was, of course, named after the legendary hero (Make It Personal). Perhaps, just to reinforce the point, some annual festival might be held by the village in the hero's honor. The festival could even be disrupted by an attack by the Dark Fey (Make It Plot).

Second, after defeating the Ogre Crones in the Western Hills, the PCs might recover from their treasure horde the sword that Bairwin famously lost early in his adventuring career (Make It Treasure).

Third, after raiding the Tower of Magentine Hues, the PCs might find an antique copy of The Adventures of Bairwin Wildarson -- summarized by way of a handout (Make It Physical).

In many ways, this is just another variation of the Three Clue Rule, and it naturally works quite well with the Make It Mystery technique. In many cases you won't even need to make the mystery explicit: As the players pick up various bits of information regarding Bairwin Wildarson, they'll start trying to piece it together for themselves.

Spoiler! :
If you heed this advice, then your campaign will start operating under a new paradigm. At this point, something interesting happens: Because you've eliminated the common occurence of McLecture the Scottish Elf, the players will suddenly be very interested when McLecture does show up. (If you handle it correctly, of course.)

For example, not that long ago I had an NPC in my Ptolus campaign deliver a page-long lecture regarding the history and lore of the Banewarrens. Rather than serving as a chance for my players to tune out, the event actually served as the dramatic culmination of an entire session. It was a taut and exciting cliffhanger.

What made it work?

(1) The Banewarrens were not an unknown quantity at this point. I had been dropping various hints regarding their existence and their importance over the course of the entire campaign.Because of this, the players had been looking for more information.

(2) Because I had been following the "rules" outlined above, the players weren't used to getting more than little snippets of information. So when they suddenly got inundated with information they (a) drank it up like thirsty men at a desert oasis and (b) they knew it was a portentous and important event.

(3) I also laid the groundwork for that portentous atmosphere. The NPC delivering the lecture had been known to the PCs for a long time, but when she came on the scene to deliver the lesson in lore, she seemed like a very different person. They weren't just hanging out in a bar and having a good time any more. This was important to her. And because she had become important to them, the fact that she considered it important carried weight.

So, like most rules, you need to know when to use them and you need to know when to break them. But it's also important to realize that what makes breaking the rules so effective is the fact that you were using them before.

Running the Game - the loneliness of the long distance blogger
Tengwio, hinoin! U eo swaillir, aneo?

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 Post subject: Re: The Wisdom of Elders - selected essays on RPGs
PostPosted: Wed Sep 23, 2009 9:28 am 
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Don't Prep Plots
an essay on RPG story design by Justin Alexander

If you're GMing a roleplaying game, you should never prep a plot.

Everyone's tastes are different. These matters are subjective. What works for one person won't necessarily work for another. Yada, yada, yada.

But, seriously, don't prep plots.

Spoiler! :
First, a definition of terms: A plot is the sequence of events in a story.

And the problem with trying to prep a plot for an RPG is that you're attempting to pre-determine events that have not yet happened. Your gaming session is not a story -- it is a happening. It is something about which stories can be told, but in the genesis of the moment it is not a tale being told. It is a fact that is transpiring.


Don't prep plots, prep situations.

What's the difference?

A plot is a sequence of events: A happens, then B happens, then C happens. (In more complicated forms, the sequence of events might fork like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but the principle remains the same.)

A situation, on the other hand, is merely a set of circumstances. The events that happen as a result of that situation will depend on the actions the PCs take.

For example, a plot might look like this: "Pursuing the villains who escaped during last week's session, the PCs will get on a ship bound for the port city of Tharsis. On their voyage they will spot a derelict. They will board the derelict and discover that one of the villains has transformed into a monster and killed the entire crew... except for one lone survivor. They will fight the monster and rescue the survivor. While they're fighting the monster, the derelict will have floated into the territorial waters of Tharsis. They will be intercepted by a fleet of Tharsian ships. Once their tale is told, they will be greeted in Tharsis as heroes for their daring rescue of the derelict. Following a clue given by the survivor of the derelict, they will climb Mt. Tharsis and reach the Temple of Olympus. They can then wander around the temple asking questions. This will accomplish nothing, but when they reach central sanctuary of the temple the villains will attempt to assassinate them. The assassination attempt goes awry, and the magical idol at the center of the temple is destroyed. Unfortuntely, this idol is the only thing holding the temple to the side of the mountain -- without it the entire temple begins sliding down the mountain as the battle continues to rage between the PCs and villains!"

(This is derived from an actual, published adventure. Names and milieu have been changed to protect the innocent. Bonus points to anyone who can correctly identify the original source.)

A situation, on the other hand, looks like this: "The villains have escaped on two ships heading towards Tarsis. One of the villains transforms during the voyage into a terrible monster and kills the crew, leaving the ship floating as a derelict outside the coastal waters of Tharsis. At such-and-such a time, the ship will be spotted by the Tharsis navy. The other villains have reached the Temple of Olympus atop Mt. Tharsis and assumed cover identities."


Many people are intimidated by the idea of prepping without a plot. It seems like a lot of work. If the players can do anything, how are you supposed to cope with that?

The dirty secret, though, is that it's actually a lot more difficult to prep plots than situations.

To understand why, let's take a closer look at our example of a plotted adventure. It's a tightly-knit sequence of events that, when broken down, looks like this:

(1) The PCs pursue the villains. (What if they don't?)
(2) The PCs have to choose to follow them by ship. (What if they decide to ride down the coast? Or teleport?)
(3) The PCs have to spot the derelict. (What if they roll poorly on their Perception check?)
(4) The PCs have to board the derelict. (What if they just sail past it?)
(5) The PCs have to rescue the survivor. (What if they fail? Or choose to flee before realizing the survivor is there?)
(6) The PCs have to question the survivor. (What if they decide not to pressure an injured man?)
(7) The PCs have to go to the central sanctuary of the temple.
(8) The assassination attempt on the PCs has to play out in a very specific way.

What you're looking at is a chain of potential points of failure. Each of these points is heavily designed with a specific and expected outcome... and if that outcome doesn't happen the GM is left to railroad the players back onto the tracks he's laid out.

By contrast, let's look at what we need to design this same adventure as a situation:

(1) The PCs have to pursue the villains. (This is the hook into the entire scenario. It's a potential failure point shared by all scenarios. If the PCs aren't interested in going to the red dragon's lair, it doesn't matter how you prep the lair.)

(2) You need to design the city of Tharsis. (Where is it? What's it like? What can the PCs do there? Et cetera.)

(3) You need to design the derelict ship.

(4) You need to design the Temple of Olympus.

(5) You need to stat up the Tharsis navy, the villains, and (possibly) the survivor.

(6) There needs to be a way for the PCs to know the villains are hiding out in the Temple of Olympus. (In the plot-based design, this is one of the failure points: They either question the survivor or they have no way of knowing where to go next. In situation-based design, you would use the Three Clue Rule and figure out two additional methods by which the PCs could reach this conclusion. This can be as simple as making a Gather Information check in Tharsis and/or questioning the captain/crew of the ship the villains took.)

Here's the dirty secret: Take a closer look at that list. With the exception of #6, those are all things that you also needed to prep for your plot-based design. (And even #6 is one-third complete.)

Here's an analogy: Situation-based design is like handing the players a map and then saying "figure out where you're going". Plot-based design, on the other hand, is like handing the players a map on which a specific route has been marked with invisible ink... and then requiring them to follow that invisible path.


The advantage of situation-based prep is that it's robust. Surprisingly, however, that robustness doesn't require a lot of extra work. In fact, as we've shown, it usually requires a lot less work. Here are a few things to consider while doing situation-based prep.

THREE CLUE RULE: I've already devoted a lengthy essay to the Three Clue Rule. Basically, the Three Clue Rule states: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

The theory is that, even if the players miss two of the clues, you've got pretty great odds that they'll find the third and figure things out.

The Three Clue Rule can also be applied to adventure design in general: For any given problem in an adventure, you should always prep at least one solution and remain open to any potential solutions your players may devise. But for any chokepoint problem (by which I mean "a problem which must be overcome in order for the adventure to continue"), try to include three possible routes to success.

That may sound like a lot of work, but these distinct paths don't need to be particularly convuluted. (In fact, they shouldn't be.) For example, a problem might be "Mickey Dee has a piece of information the PCs need". The solutions can be as simple as (1) knock him out and take it; (2) negotiate with him for it; or (3) sneak into his office and steal it. The actual prep that you do for any one of these solutions takes care of 99% of the prep for the other two.

It should be noted that, just because any given solution is "simple", it doesn't mean that the scenario will be (or should be) simple. The convulution of the scenario arises from the way in which a series of problems are overcome. And the nice thing about situation-based prep is that you don't have to figure out exactly how these problems will be strung together -- that arises naturally out of the actions taken by the PCs.

GOAL-ORIENTED OPPONENTS: Instead of trying to second-guess what your PCs will do and then trying to plan out specific reactions to each possibility, simply ask yourself, "What is the bad guy trying to do?"

The most effective way of prepping this material will depend on the particulars of the scenario you're designing. It might be nothing more than a sequential list of objectives. Or it might be a detailed timeline.

Note that some scenarios won't be based around the bad guys trying to carry out some specific scheme. They might just be going about business as usual when the PCs decide to show up and make a mess of things. In other words, the "goal" might be nothing more than "maintain the standard guard rotation".

If you're interested in seeing this type of prep work in action, I've put together a lengthy example of using detailed timelines from my own campaign. (My players should not click that link.)

DON'T PLAN SPECIFIC CONTINGENCIES: Whatever approach you take, the key aspect is that you'll usually be laying out what would happen if the PCs don't get involved. If you get some ideas about contingency plans, go ahead and jot them down, but don't waste too much time on them.

I say "waste your time" because that's exactly what most contingency planning is. The basic structure of contingency planning is: If the PCs interfere at point X, then the bad guys do X2. If the PCs interfere at point Y, then the bad guys do Y2. If the PCs interfere at point Z, then the bad guys do Z2.

Of course, if the PCs don't interfere at point X, then all the time you spent prepping contingency X2 is completely wasted. Even more importantly, if the PCs do interfere at point X then point Y and point Z will generally be fundamentally altered or even cease to exist -- so all the prep work that went into Y2 and Z2 is also wasted.

This is where situation-based prep usually gets maligned for requiring more work: People think they need to try to prepare themselves for every conceivable action the PCs might take. But, in point of fact, that's not situation-based prep. That's plot-based prep juiced up on Choose Your Own Adventure steroids. It's the type of prep you would need to do if you were programming a computer game.

But you're not programming a computer game. You're prepping a scenario for a roleplaying game. When the PCs choose to do X or Y or Z (or A or B or C), you don't need a pre-programmed reaction. You're sitting right there at the table with them. You can just react.

KNOW YOUR TOOLKIT: In order to react, you need to know your toolkit. If the PCs start investigating Lord Bane, what resources does he have to thwart them? If they lay siege to the slavers' compound, what are the defenses?

Typical "tools" include personnel, equipment, physical locations, and information.

For example, if the PCs are investigating a local Mafia leader then you might know that:

(1) He has a couple of goon squads, a trained assassin on staff, and two bodyguards. You might also know that he has an estranged wife and two sons. (These are all types of personnel.)

(2) He lives in a mansion on the east side of town, typically frequents his high-end illegal casino in the secret basement of a downtown skyscraper, and also has a bolt-hole set up in a seedy tavern. (These are all physical locations.)

(3) He has blackmail material on one of the PCs. (This is information.)

(4) He has bribed a local cop. (This is a different type of personnel.)

And just like a real toolbox, you should have some idea what the tools are useful for. You know that a hammer is for nails and a screwdriver is for screws. Similarly, you know that the goon squad can be used to beat-up the PCs as a warning or to guard the bolt-hole. You know that the estranged wife can be used as a source of information on the mansion's security system. And so forth.
You can think of this as non-specific contingency planning. You aren't giving yourself a hammer and then planning out exactly which nails you're going to hit and how hard to hit them: You're giving yourself a hammer and saying, "Well, if the players give me anything that looks even remotely like a nail, I know what I can hit it with."

(For example, you know that the estranged wife is familiar with the details of her husband's operations and the security of the mansion. That's the hammer. What you don't have to figure out is how the PCs get that information from her: Maybe they just ask her nicely. Or bribe her. Or offer to protect her. Or they plant a surveillance bug on her. Or tap her phones. Or kidnap her sons and threaten to kill them unless she plants a bomb in her husband's mansion. These are all nails. The players will provide them.)

The other trick to designing your toolkit is organizing the pertinent resources into usable chunks. Take the goon squads for example: You could try to track the actions of every individual goon while running the adventure, but that quickly becomes incredibly complicated. By organizing them into squads you give yourself a manageable unit that you can keep track of.

On the other hand, don't let this organization shackle you. If you need an individual goon, just peel 'em off one of the squads and use them. You're drawing a forest because that's easier to map -- but if the PCs need to chop down some firewood, don't miss the trees for the forest.

Despite my tongue-in-cheek opening to this essay, there's nothing inherently wrong with plot-based design. Plenty of great games have been run with tightly or loosely plotted scenarios. And the argument can certainly be made that, "The players don't care if they're on a railroad, if the train's heading to Awesome Town."

But I'll admit that, in my experience, Awesome Town is usually a lot more awesome when I let the PCs chart their own course.

Is that because I'm such an amazingly awesome GM that I can always roll with the punches and come up with some awesome improvisation? Maybe. But I think it has more to do with the fact that the players are actually pretty good judges of what they want. And if they come up with a detailed plan for infiltrating the mob boss' downtown casino as card dealers and gamblers, then they'll probably have a lot more fun seeing that plan come to fruition than if I artificially quash it so that they can go back to my "awesome" idea of kidnapping the sons of the mob boss and using them to blackmail his wife.

(Which isn't to say that the PCs should always succeed. Overcoming adversity is awesome as well. But there's a difference between a plan that doesn't work because it didn't work and a plan that doesn't work because I, as a GM, want them to be doing something else.)

And with that so-called advantage of plot-based design laid to one side, I'm not sure what it's really supposed to be offering. On the other hand, the advantages of scenario-based design are huge:

(1) It requires significantly less work to prep.

(2) It empowers the players and makes their choices meaningful.

The latter really cannot be emphasized enough. For me, the entire reason to play a roleplaying game is to see what happens when the players make meaningful choices. In my experience, the result is almost always different than anything I could have anticipated or planned for.

If I wanted to tell my players a story (which is what plot-based design really boils down to), then it's far more efficient and effective to simply write a story. In my opinion, if you're playing a roleplaying game then you should play to the strengths of the medium: The magical creativity which only happens when people get together.

For examples of what I'm talking about, you can also read about the Unexpected Successes from my own table. The Twin Deaths of Thuren Issek are particularly awesome.

On the other hand, if you have a group that's used to being shown the Correct Path and then following it, suddenly throwing them into the deep-end of an open-ended scenario may have disastrous results, just like any other sudden shift in the style of play. Others, of course, will immediately take to it like a fish takes to water. But if you're running into problems, just sit down and talk things over with your players. Explain where the disconnect is happening. Maybe give them a copy of this essay so that they can have a better understanding of what's going on (and what's not going on) behind the screen.

I suspect that once they know the shackles have been taken off, they'll revel in their newfound freedom.

Running the Game - the loneliness of the long distance blogger
Tengwio, hinoin! U eo swaillir, aneo?

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 Post subject: Re: The Wisdom of Elders - selected essays on RPGs
PostPosted: Sun Oct 18, 2009 10:07 pm 
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Tucker's Kobolds
An essay by Roger E Moore on making encounters difficult - and fun.

Many high-level characters have little to do because they're not challenged. They yawn at tarrasques and must be forcibly kept awake when a lich appears. The DMs involved don't know what to do, so they stop dealing with the problem and the characters go into Character Limbo. Getting to high level is hard, but doing anything once you get there is worse.

Spoiler! :
One of the key problems in adventure design lies in creating opponents who can challenge powerful characters. Singular monsters like tarrasques and liches are easy to gang up on; the party can concentrate its firepower on the target until the target falls down dead and wiggles its little feet in the air. Designing monsters more powerful than a tarrasque is self-defeating; if the group kills your super-monster, what will you do next—send in its mother? That didn't work on Beowulf, and it probably won't work here.

Worse yet, singular supermonsters rarely have to think. They just use their trusty, predictable claw/claw/bite. This shouldn't be the measure of a campaign. These games fall apart because there's no challenge to them, no mental stimulation - no danger.

In all the games that I've seen, the worst, most horrible, most awful beyond-comparison opponents ever seen were often weaker than the characters who fought them. They were simply well-armed and intelligent beings who were played by the DM to be utterly ruthless and clever. Tucker's kobolds were like that.

Tucker ran an incredibly dangerous dungeon in the days I was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This dungeon had corridors that changed all of your donkeys into huge flaming demons or dropped the whole party into acid baths, but the demons were wienies compared to the kobolds on Level One. These kobolds were just regular kobolds, with 1-4 hp and all that, but they were mean. When I say they were mean, I mean they were bad, Jim. They graduated magna cum laude from the Sauron Institute for the Criminally Vicious.

When I joined the gaming group, some of the PCs had already met Tucker's kobolds, and they were not eager to repeat the experience. The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible. The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight "okay" monsters like huge flaming demons.

It didn't work. The kobolds caught us about 60' into the dungeon and locked the door behind us and barred it. Then they set the corridor on fire, while we were still in it.

"NOOOOOO!!!" screamed the party leader. "It's THEM! Run!!!"

Thus encouraged, our party scrambled down a side passage, only to be ambushed by more kobolds firing with light crossbows through murder holes in the walls and ceilings. Kobolds with metal armor and shields flung Molotov cocktails at us from the other sides of huge piles of flaming debris, which other kobolds pushed ahead of their formation using long metal poles like broomsticks. There was no mistake about it. These kobolds were bad.

We turned to our group leader for advice.

"AAAAAAGH!!!" he cried, hands clasped over his face to shut out the tactical situation.

We abandoned most of our carried items and donkeys to speed our flight toward the elevators, but we were cut off by kobold snipers who could split-move and fire, ducking back behind stones and corners after launching steel-tipped bolts and arrows, javelins, hand axes, and more flaming oil bottles. We ran into an unexplored section of Level One, taking damage all the time. It was then we discovered that these kobolds had honeycombed the first level with small tunnels to speed their movements. Kobold commandos were everywhere. All of our hirelings died. Most of our henchmen followed. We were next.

I recall we had a 12th-level magic user with us, and we asked him to throw a spell or something. "Blast 'em!" we yelled as we ran. "Fireball 'em! Get those little @#+$%*&!!"

"What, in these narrow corridors? " he yelled back. "You want I should burn us all up instead of them?"

Our panicked flight suddenly took us to a dead-end corridor, where a giant air shaft dropped straight down into unspeakable darkness, far past Level Ten. Here we hastily pounded spikes into the floors and walls, flung ropes over the ledge, and climbed straight down into that unspeakable darkness, because anything we met down there was sure to be better than those kobolds.

We escaped, met some huge flaming demons on Level Ten, and even managed to kill one after about an hour of combat and the lives of half the group. We felt pretty good - but the group leader could not be cheered up.

"We still have to go out the way we came in," he said as he gloomily prepared to divide up the treasure.

Tucker's kobolds were the worst things we could imagine. They ate all our donkeys and took our treasure and did everything they could to make us miserable, but they had style and brains and tenacity and courage. We respected them and loved them, sort of, because they were never boring.

If kobolds could do this to a group of PCs from 6th to 12th level, picture what a few orcs and some low level NPCs could do to a 12th-16th level group, or a gang of mid-level NPCs and monsters to groups of up to 20th level. Then give it a try. Sometimes, it's the little things used well that count.

Running the Game - the loneliness of the long distance blogger
Tengwio, hinoin! U eo swaillir, aneo?

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 Post subject: Re: The Wisdom of Elders - selected essays on RPGs
PostPosted: Wed Oct 28, 2009 2:10 am 
thank Alastair ive only just got the chance to read these and they are great i really enjoyed Tucker's Kobolds, definitely a good lesson in how tactical DMing beats splashing large monsters from the deep recesses of the Monster Manual and hoping they enjoy the obscurity

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