Saturday, July 6, 2013

Definitely, Maybe, It Depends, and a Free Adventure

Recently, I found myself giving some solicited advice, and a slow epiphany broke upon me. I've finally come to understand how I prep for sessions/campaigns as a GM/DM(been a while)/LN/SM/What-Have-You. I've been doing things this way for years, but I had never defined the particulars.

There's quite a fundamental difference between how a rpg session or campaign ought to be planned out, and how every other thing ever is plotted. In short, that difference is the players. You DO NOT know what they're going to do. Trying to figure out and plan for everything they might do is essentially fruitless. Certainly, you can make a few educated guesses, but those are of limited utility as well. Well how do you plan out the story, then?

If you're thinking about this as a story that you the GM are plotting out in advance, you're setting yourself up for failure. If you were to simply stick to a script no matter what the players do, you'd be better off just reading them a story. At least then, they've got no reasonable expectation of agency. Alright asshole, how then do you plan for a given adventure?

Glad you asked, I break everything down into three broad categories: events that definitely happen and definitely involve the PCs (Definite), things that will happen of which the PCs may or may not become aware(Maybe), and things that depend entirely on the PCs (It Depends). Before we plow along into an example, there are a couple of other pointers I'd like to shove at you.

First, what you're really going to be plotting out are events and obstacles. Events are things that happen with very little chance of dice coming into play (i.e. no chance of failure). In most cases, events are things that wouldn't be considered pass or fail, anyway. Conversations, shopping expeditions, and walking through a neighborhood could all be considered events. Obstacles are something that gets in the way of what the players are doing, either passively or actively. At pit-trap on a mountain pass is a passive obstacle. The bandit, who set the trap, is an active obstacle. When she and her buddies attack, the active nature of her obstacle-ness becomes more acutely obvious. Don't get bogged down trying to figure out all the solutions possible to a given obstacle. If you can envision at least one solution to an obstacle, it's probably fair.

Second, don't bottle-neck things. If you decide that the PCs need artifacts A, B, and C to kill the big bad guy, they will somehow show up at his lair, two sessions earlier than you expected, with artifacts A, B, and Q-13. Then everything is for naught. All that fun the PCs had finding A, B, & Q-13 won't be remembered as fun; the stain of failure will ruin the legacy of the whole damn shebang. Try to never write anything for a RPG with the thought "...this must happen..." in mind. Every time you do decide that something must happen, you basically guarantee that it won't. Players are magical in their contrariness.

Finally, it's that example of which I wrote:

Basic, Vague Idea: Orcs are gonna attack the city!

Definite (What Will Happen):

  • A hurricane strikes the mid-sized, coastal city at which the PCs are staying, Tennetport.
  • An orcish corpse fully armed and armored, washes ashore a few days later. Everyone is talking about it, loudly and continuously.
  • Hurricane hits on Day 1.
  • Corpse hits on Day 3.
  • Orcs attack in the middle of the night Day 7.

Maybe (What May Happen):

  • The PCs might get involved in the rescue/recovery efforts in the wake of the hurricane. 
    • Imperial Governor Ralbuetten heads the official effort, mostly trying to maintain order.
    • The Flagellant Brotherhood of Bysmecha attempts to ease suffering by providing food, shelter, and aid for those in need. 
  • Rumor has it that the arms and armor on the dead orc were very fine. (This is true)
  • Rumor-monger and Crier-for-Hire, Belt Mannely, loudly proclaims that the orcish tribes to the South are sure to attack any day. (Not True, Belt just likes attention.)
  • An "eye-witness" and noted drunk, Gregor Mestian, is telling anyone that'll listen and buy him wine that the orc's pockets were full of gold. (They were, and he pulled a pair of freshly-minted gold imperials from the sand under the corpse.)
  • Another "eye-witness" and beggar, Thym Telluview, tells anyone showing him kindness that the corpse  was wearing armor like the guards from Skullview, a smaller town further up the coast. (Also true, Thym saw the imperial guards hauling the body away and recognized the odd, quarter-moon shields of his hometown. Telluview will be under the care of the Flagellants).
  • A third "eye-witness" is a fisherwoman, name of Quella. She claims to have ridden out the hurricane at sea and saw lots of bonfires several miles north of the Tennetport. She tries to warn everyone though no one takes her seriously. ('Tis true, and it's an invading camp of now heavily armed orcish raiders. A cursory investigation will reveal that Quella's ship, Leeward True, is the only seaworthy vessel down at what remains of the docks.)

It Depends:

  • If the PCs volunteer help the Governor with his recovery efforts (mostly keeping down riots, stopping looting, and restoring law/order), they will receive 10 golden imperials each and "[the governer's] ear in a single matter of [their] choosing. Use it wisely."
  • If they work with the Flagellants, they'll have shelter, warm food, and clean water throughout the ordeal and access to a wide spectrum of information.
  • If they go with Quella they can find the orcish camp and possibly take the fiends unawares (drunk and fat with loot) or at least see enough to make ready the town's defenses.
  • Regardless of what the PCs do (unless of course the PCs kill 'em all), the orcs are going to attack the town 7 days after the hurricane using rafts to bypass the city's defensive wall, creeping in through the ruined sea-wall. (There are 58 orcish warriors armed to the teeth as well as 30 camp-followers and assorted hangers-on.)
As you may have noticed, even if the players do nothing the hurricane and the orcs should be entertaining. No bottle-necks (unless they just leave town, then you're just gonna have to make it up, orcish outriders attack perhaps) and lots of choice, it should be a fun little adventure. Feel free to steal it.

How do you herd your cats plan for your adventures? Do please let me know. Is my way of doing so stupid? Let me know that too if you'd like. Comment, damn you! Comment!