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Designer Roleplaying

by Altin Gavranovic

In which the author provides a guide to designing great adventures


This article deals with the difficult task of adventure design. I should stress that we're going to be dealing with adventure design purely in terms of private use, not commercial distribution. Specifically, in this article, we look at a complete design process, in which we create a complete product, outlining all the major events and elements in an adventure. Thus, the GM's task becomes adjusting the plot to the player's actions, rather than inventing it on his or her feet. This article is for those who design games (or would like to give it a go) and are not sure where to start or what exactly makes a good adventure. It may also be useful for those players who have experience designing adventures and are experiencing specific problems in either the construction and implementation of their games.

This installment looks at the various components of a successful game and how going to the trouble of actually designing these can make GMing an easier task and make games more engaging. More specifically, we will look at the core idea behind your game: the conceptualisation. We then cover the body of the adventure, which we can divide into hooks, climaxes and scenes. In the second installment, we will look further at employing these concepts to their most effective purposes.

The Conception

All good modules should have a very clear objective: to entertain its players and GM. I say this only because its easy to get caught up in the world and story you're creating and forget that players and GM are there to have fun. It's no good creating a vast, complex political game if you can't find an interesting angle (or don't have players who would) on such a concept.

But besides fun, all modules should also have a thematic objective. This generally takes the form of a short statement or question: as simple as "good triumphs against all odds" or as complex as "are we at all significant in the cosmic scale of things?". The conception is where you decide on your thematic statement and how you are going to go about presenting it. At the end of this stage, you will have formed in your mind the very basic shell within which your game will lie. A very simple example of a successful conception might look something like this:

The characters are forced, through the course of the game, to sacrifice both their security, possessions, companions and, finally, their own lives to defeat an ultimate evil. The characters in the end ask the question: "are the needs of the many more important than the needs of the few?"

The conception gives you something to focus on as you're creating your game, keeping you interested and helping you find direction. It serves to keep your game from becoming simply a mindless slaughter-fest or a boring "bread and butter" module. If all goes well, your players should leave your game either having perceived the statement though their experiences in the game or having answered through their actions the question your game posed. Of course not all groups do this, and you shouldn't feel too bad if the players just ignore your theme and romp through your game for the sheer fun of it. What the conceptualisation does is provide an additional element to your game in the form of a theme, which might interest your players. If it doesn't, the conceptualisation is still vital as a designing tool, a source of direction. This direction is often the main purpose of most conceptions.

A conceptualisation will let you centre upon exactly what kind of game you want to run. Too many commercial games and aventures try to be everything and to appeal to every gamer out there. There is no better way to fail than to try and please everyone. After you have a concept, it is much easier for you to commit on a setting and system to base it in, which does a lot to dictate the kind of game it will become. Say you're dealing with a concept that concentrates on the idea that people are more powerful together than alone. A horror game which illustrates the fear and helplessness of the characters when they strike out on their own might be what you're looking for. In contrast, a superhero game, in which characters are often quite powerful individuals and commonly face down horrific odds, might not be the most suitable setting for this concept.

In short, a concept is vital in any creative process and can help you concentrate your efforts on the things you want your game to accomplish. It also provides another dimension, that of theme, for the players to explore if the original dimensions (enjoyment and achievement, in most games) become too limiting.

Points A and B

I once heard a very useful thing from a convention designer I was in a game with: "All I need is point A, point B and a stubborn belief that I can get [the players] from one to the other". While I personally like going in slightly better prepared, this statement is fundamentally true. To create a good game, you need to set only two things in stone; the hook and the climax.

The hook, point A, is the event that begins the adventure, that "hooks" the players into the game. If your hook is too big and obvious, your players will feel like they're being betrayed of choice and if it is tiny and subtle, the players will miss it and go off on a tangent. The hook is often the first event of the story, although it can occur as late as 10-15 minutes into the game (but that's pushing your players a bit). Some designers like to skip the hook and employ a technique called "in media res" to drop the players into the middle of the action. This technique is described more fully previously in PTGPTB, along with other possible hook structures, so I'll keep my advice on the hook brief.

Most importantly, make sure the hook works. This may sound obvious but there is nothing worse than your players managing to completely avoid the adventure you spent untold days creating. The hook soundly commits the players to a course of action; or gives them an offer they would be very foolish to refuse. It might be an idea to confine the players to a geographical area (a valley, a building, ect.) with your hook, especially if have a slow start and feel concerned about losing them. This can be done by acts of God (the valley pass is snowed in after the players cross) or simply as an integral part of the adventure (the players are caught by pirates in the hook and have to escape the ship for the rest of the adventure). Note that some players might resent this, if you suspect or know that they don't like being limited you're probably better of using more subtler methods.

Point B is, naturally enough, the climax. The climax is the most important moment in your module. It is the high point of action (whether emotional, physical or both), and where the point or question of your conception is stated. The climax exists to allow catharsis and closure and, as such, becomes vital to both you and your players. Generally, the climax to an adventure will provide the character with a simple choice and/or task to accomplish. It is the point at which the players make their final choices that then determine the outcome of the adventure. If well done, the climax is the bit you hear anecdotes about. As it leaves such a lasting impression, it is probably a good idea to cover the climax in more detail than any other component of your adventure. I've compiled herein some hints to help you create an effective climax. Of course, the climax occurs in so many forms and aspects that the following can inevitably only be guidelines based on my individual experience, and may not be suited to all readers.

The climax defines your game and gives it spirit and purpose, and thus requires more significance - and originality - then simply the video-game idea of reaching the end of the level and killing what they find there. The players should not go away from the climax saying "I could have told you that was gonna happen in our first session". Well-worn concepts, such as the "kill the Foozle" game mentioned above, are easy to implement but may leave your players unsatisfied. If you do use the death of a central adversary to end the game, try to create some kind of moral ambiguity in order to spice things up. A climax should present a choice, not an inevitability. A climax where the players lose control of their characters leaves them frustrated and unsatisfied. A climax where the choice is obvious and shallow (eg. to kill or not kill the bad guy) has the same effect. A way of stopping this from occurring is to simply look for the "easy" solutions and eliminate them. Having a plot with a predicable climax is all right if, when the climax is reached, none of the predictable courses of action are open to the players.

Don't hinge your climax on the roll of the dice. While dice are an important of a game, the focus of this event are the characters and their players, not game mechanics. Many GMs don't like to fudge the dice at this stage of the game. Obviously, the players shouldn't feel like they will always succeed, but the players are going to hate walking away from a game where they made all the right choices but got a bad roll in the end. Be prepared for bad rolls and compensate for them. A useful method is not using rolling to resolve actions which do not add to the game. A rule of thumb is that, unless the action directly involves a player's important skills, it can generally be assumed to succeed without rolling. This lack of dice-rolling can be compensated with by more vivid descriptions of the situation.

The climax is the one bit that absolutely has to exist, so plan for natural events to lead up to it. Even if the players wander off-track and miss half the lead-up, you have to make sure they get to the climax and resolve the adventure. If out of place events and out of character decisions have to occur for the climax to be reached, you might consider re-designing the event or scene where these out of character elements are intruding. A climax should be the natural accumulation of tension and excitement brought to a resolution by logical events - not something just tacked on at the end of a big fight.

Finally, always make sure to end with a bang, not a whimper. If your climax is a mundane, everyday and unoriginal, the same adjectives will apply to your whole adventure. Don't be afraid to be spectacular and over the top, the suspension of disbelief is especially strong at the climax so feel free to pull out all stops. This is the thing the GM and players have been working towards for God knows how long, make sure it is worth their while. And not just in the spectacle, but in the emotional investment. To borrow an expression from the theatre, lift the stakes right up. Life and Death, the end of the world as we know it, it all has to depend on those final moments.

After you've played the climax, the players should have nothing left to do. You may wish to debrief them as to the effects of their actions and choices, or let them roleplay through this part, or perhaps a dénouement directly involving player input might be appropriate (eg Getting the crew to record their personal logs to conclude the adventure in a Star Trek game) but no more action should occur. The climax is the end, anything that happens after the climax is simply housekeeping. If the players spend too much time on housekeeping, the impact of the climax will be lost, so make the curtain fall very quickly once the dust has settled.

Just like any work of literature and drama, the beginning and ending are all-important - neglecting them can be disastrous. But get them right, and everything else will follow.

The Other Scenes

You have a beginning, and you have an end. A talented GM can, and quite often does, go into a session with just these components, and work his magic. However since we're designing a complete adventure, we must give the rest of the elements which make up a game a closer examination.

The other scenes are all the events and scenes that happen between the hook and the climax, the very meat of your game. They serve many purposes: building tension, providing obstacles for the players, foreshadowing the climax and creating suspension of disbelief. Most importantly, the other bits should make the players care about the outcome of the climax. I'll outline how each of these goals is achieved before I go on to the general execution of other scenes. Be aware that there is a lot of overlap between these purposes: obstacles can lead to tension and foreshadowing can make the player care about the outcome, and so on. I've just broken them down to make them easier to analyse.

Scenes that build tension: Tension is tough to do, both in design and in running games, but it's very important. A climax exists to release the tension when it is at a peak; without tension, the climax becomes flat and boring. Naturally, different games require different levels of tension and must do different things to re-enforce this tension. Conspiracy and horror games built tension by slowly revealing details to players until the horrible truth becomes apparent. Encountering the massacred bodies of victims and discovering the horrible reality of what should happen if the players fail are common elements which drives the game's tension. A more gung-ho game builds tension by plenty of high-paced combats, deadly traps and a pace which just doesn't give the players space to breathe. Science Fiction and Fantasy games often build tension with the unusual circumstances the characters find themselves in. In such a game, the most every-day occurrence can be a tension builder. For example, having your players be raided by the thought-police or captured by a dragon (and creating a vivid description of this) can build tension, even if this event would be nothing special inside the game world. A last contender here is the game which works purely on an inter-personal level, where conflicts and climaxes are driven by characters and personalities. Here the tension is built by events which trigger inter-personal conflict between or within characters; it hinges not on the event itself but the player's reaction to it. If you're designing the last type of game, presumably you are working with pre-made characters; the nature of these characters will suggest the right sort of tension-building events to include.

Scenes that provide obstacles: These can be as simple as a guarded door to as complex as a corrupt political system out to silence the players, but scenes and events that provide obstacles for the player to overcome on the way to the climax are all-important. If the players simply waltz through the adventure, there is going to be no sense of accomplishment at the climax or beyond it. Making sure that each character feels he has overcome either a personal or game-world barrier is vital to keeping the players interested and keeping them from giving up on the game in boredom or frustration. Difficulties in uncovering information perform this role well in many horror/conspiracy games, defeating opponents suffices for action-oriented games and resolving personal or inter-personal conflicts are obstacles in character-intense games.

Foreshadowing scenes: Essentially, these bits hint at the decision that the players will have to make or the task they'll have to perform during the climax of the story. This builds anticipation of this event in players and makes them more aware of its importance when it arrives. These events are most likely to occur in the form of mini-climaxes (ie. finding the key suspect, defeating the main villain's right-hand man, ect.). This also includes events which specifically give the players a push in the right direction, such as finding clues or being ordered to investigate something. Foreshadowing is not always appropriate, especially not in one-off or shorter games, but are worthwhile to note because they tend to give the longer adventure a sense of co-hesion.

Scenes that create suspension of disbelief: The events in the average role playing game are nothing short of extraordinary, especially so once the climax is reached. Alien monsters are summoned, dragons defeated and the fates of galaxies decided. A player simply isn't going to buy the events at the apex of the story if he has not been slowly introduced to the extraordinary circumstances and setting. This also has the added effect of forcing the player to think like his character would, something that makes his actions easier to predict and easier to GM, as well as increasing his enjoyment of the game. Scenes that create this suspension of disbelief are often delivered in the form of a GM narrative and NPC interactions, with the later being a preferable form for maximum player immersion. Colourful non-player characters, with their own unique style, background and objectives, help players identify with and get involved in the game (would we give a damn about the Federation conquering Naboo if we'd never met Jar Jar Binks?). Even cardboard cutout characters like "the barkeeper" are useful, and can be made more interesting with a few simple details (ie. the one-armed barman who lost his wife to elves). Making the players feel as if they're part of a independent, living world where no person is just a prop can be the key to breaking the barrier between character and player perception.

Making players care: A problem with many groups, whether old or new, is that they don't particularly care about the outcome of today's session. They're more interested in having fun and, if this entails trashing your game, that's probably just what they're going to do. So your primary goal between the beginning of your game and its end, is to convince the players that the whole thing has some merit and is probably worth doing. The simplest way to do this is to use the fact that even the most destructive players identify with their characters. Thus playing your scenes as to inextricably and powerfully involve the characters will have the same effect on your players. A good idea is to work with your genre's conventions on this one: if the players also feel that it is thematically appropriate for them to perform an action, the chance of them doing so are much higher.

Scenes in detail

So far, we've covered scenes in adventures in abstract terms and objectives, but I've yet to explain exactly what one of "the other scenes" is. Well, a scene is akin to a mini-adventure, and thus usually involves a hook, a situation and one or more resolutions. This is where many of the adventures available commercially become problematic. They create scenes that are too rigid, requiring certain actions on part of the players, or too dependant on previous events to make them work.

Scenes are more or less self-contained components of action. A scene may have indirect connections to other scenes but it essentially works as a short, autonomous game. Each has a brief hook, which then leads to a situation and a resolution. If the players don't bite the hook, the situation resolves as it normally would without them. However when the players get involved, they are thrust in the situation and are given the opportunity to aid, hinder or otherwise alter the situation so that a different resolution is reached. This happens every time we game, so you're obviously familiar with this general set-up. What we're looking to do then is craft these elements in a way which is definite enough to drive the action forward into the avenue we want to explore, but not to limit player choice and railroad them into a predestined course of action. The idea is not to be too specific. We can have objectives we're looking to reach, scenes we're trying to push but these should be achievable can come about in any number of ways.

I'll present an example to illustrate this. Let's say the players have recently arrived in a small town, and are currently trying to locate someone whose physical description they have but know no other useful or reliable details about. Now, you may have decided that this person is going to be the latest in a series of prisoners taken by the local cult which masquerades as a temple and has great influence with the villagers. Exposing this corrupt temple, or at least freeing some of its members, would probably be one of the obstacles in this part of the adventure. Notice that there is a clear division between what the players think they're after and what they're actually going to be doing if all goes well. Keeping players in the dark about some of the elements is a good technique to keep the interest levels up. There's nothing like completely unanticipated obstacles to make a group sit up and pay attention.

At any rate, we lead the players into a sermon at the evil temple (with a hook, naturally - whether it is through piety, a kindly invitation or just to pick up some hot temple babes). They attend the ceremony, see the head priest cast some clever illusions to convince the populace he's summoning a god. Then we have him start condemning people for "sinning" (ie. not donating to the temple) and, eventually, having the condemned dragged off to be put back in touch with their spiritual selves. Of course, the man the players are trying to find will be amongst these (another hook).

Now, most parties will react sometime during this complication in order to stop the proceedings. What exactly they will do is up to them. Perhaps they make a scene and get thrown out, only to be contacted by the leader of an underground of true priests or they decide to return later to break into the temple. Or they might elect to try and discredit the temple publicly. Their actual actions, of course, can't (and really shouldn't be) predicted. Instead, as designers, we cater for a variety of options to suit various solutions. We provide combat stats and strategies for the guards so that the GM is ready if a fight breaks out, we detail the temple's security so that he is similarly equipped if they decide to break in. Some of the more complex solutions, such as discrediting the temple to the public, may form a chain of scenes and involve numerous NPCs who need to be convinced to aid the players. In this way, the GM have a wide range of options covered and prepared for.

The beauty of this process is that it branches out by itself. The conclusion of one scene is the hook into the next and entire scenes may simply be hooks into larger scenes. This is a great advantage to us as designers, as we can let the storyline develop naturally and don't have to worry about continuity difficulties - getting the players into the next scene ceases to be a worry. However, there is only one climax and an adventure which provided all the pathways to it would become extremely complex, especially in longer campaigns. In order to maintain some kind of control in a prolonged scenario, you can disperse mini-climaxes throughout the adventure. Mini-climaxes work just like the real climax: they provide points the players must hit because all roads point to it. This way, each mini-climax winds the party back onto the road we're taking the adventure down, even though the path they took to get to it is not necessarily the one we foresaw.

To re-use the above example, a mini-climax may be the players dramatically getting in touch with the captive after the temple is exposed. Even if the players ignored the temple at first, its public discrediting is big news and if nothing else, offers yet another chance for fame, fortune and meeting hot temple babes. No matter what else happens, the players always happen across this event and thus can discover their target. Hence we reset the branch structure. Incidentally, these mini-climaxes can be a great way of foreshadowing the big one at the end of the adventure (why was our man so interesting to the temple leaders?).

In conclusion, good, useful scenes are structured similarly to the main game, connect well to other scenes and allow the players the choice and freedom that is so important in our hobby, without letting them wander too far from the adventure we've designed.

The elements we've outlined here - hooks, climaxes and the building scenes - are the basic building blocks of an adventure. The complex relationships which develop between these elements during design become much easier to deal with when we can individualise each hook, scene or climax. We can then ask ourselves for each element: "what is this doing for my game?" and "how can I make it perform better in this task?". The answers to these questions are crucial in making a better adventure. We'll look at answering these, and further questions of both our components and our games as a whole in the final installment.


The second part of this article is available in Issue 13

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