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Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

By Rappar

A long- forgotten French SF game very similar to Traveller. The editor returned to publishing traditional books 18 years ago.

A while ago I wrote a scenario for Empire Galactique. The set up was that the characters had bought some gear from a band of pirates and were accused of handling stolen goods, which would lead into the real adventure: pirate hunting.

But, instead of just reading the introduction to the players, with the characters as passive spectators, I decided to play it out. The advantage of playing a long intro' is that the plot isn't signposted; the players are worked smoothly into the weft of the adventure, with the illusion of freedom. The introduction wasn't spelt out in the scenario but I was counting on 15 years of game-mastering experience to improvise it.

I was wrong.

Even though the deal involved the bartering of only four different products (regular software and ingots against stolen cloth and diamond powder), I managed to mix up the number of square metres of cloth and kilos of diamond powder needed to meet the value of the software offered in exchange. And then, of all the things, the players wanted to haggle:

Damn, I hadn't been ready for that at all!

I also hadn't thought about how the pirates-salesmen would react. Put on the spot, up against the players' haggling, my response was a rather bland, "OK, roll the dice against your skill"

I then made a complete mess of the selling on:

"So, to sell your cloth... err. You get in touch with IKEA - the players laughed at my total lack of imagination. so here you are up against the buyer. Check your bargaining skill. You just missed, which means you get a little less than it's worth. You sell him 120m² of cloth at 200 credits the square metre, that's 230,000 credits. er, no, 240,000. There you go, you come away with 240,000 credits (phew!)"

Player: "Yeah? That's nice because the cloth only cost us 20,000 creds!"

Me: "Bugger!"

10 minutes of fastidious calculations later

Me: "I put in one too many zeros, I mean 24,000 credits"

Player: "No you don't! The GM and the buyer got it wrong, we are keeping the credits!"

An argument ensues

The introduction, which should have been an original mini adventure — as we rarely play commercial endeavours — had become arduous. The players were annoyed that it had been badly improvised, that the adventure hadn't started and were no longer interested in the introduction. We were all glad when it was over.

And yet, a little bit of preparation would have been enough to create the right atmosphere and to make the shopping trip an adventure within an adventure, as with "Empire in Flames", an episode of Warhammer's FRPG Imperial Campaign.

I should have set the prices and done the calculations beforehand. I should have made a few NPC buyers to set the scene and interact with, instead of just chucking the dice. I should have made up a table giving the discount rate as a function of the skill check, and thought of some adequate modifiers. in short, I should have been less lazy and shown more foresight.

If I had involved several players, as I would in a fight scene, and not only the merchants, the above monologue would have been far more memorable:

Me: "After inspecting the cloth, the vivid colours and designs make you imagine that they'll sell better as curtains or furniture covers than clothing. After several unproductive contacts, your most promising meeting is with Marcus Felzenwalbe (thanks to the phone book for finding the name), the buyer for the Beautiful Homes chain store, which specialises in luxury handmade furniture. You wait for three quarters of an hour before being introduced to Mr Felzenwalbe, a Grade Four Guild merchant. He is a large man with a sober suit, and meets you in a small room with only one chair; his. Hurriedly he announces "So you got some cloth to offer me?"

Players (encouraged by such vivid description): "wonderful cloth . great quality . primitive style . deep symbolism of design . appropriate for your clientele . etc."

Me: "Well, your line gets you +2 on your merchant roll . Oh, just missed. Mr Felzenwalbe pouts disappointedly, this cloth seems to be too unsophisticated.

Players (drawn in and roleplaying): "But, sir, that's the point."

Me: "Finally, he gives in to a combination of pity and seduction, combined with the promise of dining out with the group's (female) merchant. You manage to sell ten rolls 2.5x4m at (checking the ad hoc table) 15% under the price you were hoping for. That's 25,500Cr instead of the 30,000Cr. A sum you could really only have dreamt of."

Don't neglect those details, they bring life to the setting and create atmosphere. You can't improvise all of them on the spot, and they'll be sorely missed.

Prepare your improvisation!

Preparation is the heart of good improvisation, it's not wearing oneself out writing pages and pages of scenarios, it's foreseeing a minimal amount of key notes, diagrams, maps, rules and tables, and going to the small amount of trouble it takes to make them.

Some GMs tell you they improvise everything, and need no preparation. Yet, when they improvise secondary scenes they didn't think about before, those scenes look desperately poor and plain: the NPCs all seem to be cast in the same mould and have no depth; settings are interchangeable; dialogues are minimal or clichéd. So here's a few pointers to help with the kind of preparation needed.

Anticipation of PC actions

Preparing to improvise consists in anticipating what the player's character will do out of the main storyline - and being ready to respond. If the PCs have money, expect them to want to buy some things, have your haggling rules at hand. If there's a thief among the PC, he's likely to do some pickpocket; prepare a random victim table. If a techie is present, he'll tinker with some engines; flesh out with rules for laboratory blowups. If one of them is a netrunner. you get to the point. These are probable events, and once you've sorted out something to handle them, you'll have some use of it again in another adventure. Moreover, players will enjoy such care for their characters' secondary aspects. So it's worth taking the pain to write them.

Rules of thumb

I see someone is raising his arm at the back. C'mon, ask your question, don't be afraid. "Sir, do we need to design special rules and maps and tables for everything?". OK, here's the real Truth: rules are here to simulate. Simulate what? Simulate actions and aspects that are important in the game. That's why you have nearly no RPGs without rules for combat, health and magic, because these are essentials features of most adventures. You have to think about what things you want to emphasise in the game. In my example, I tried to emphasise the trading part of the scenario, but didn't prepare any tools to help.

To find what you want to emphasise, ask yourself the question "what do I want the players to feel?".

One of my greatest success as a GM was a Star Wars adventure, set in the Imperial salt mines of Kessel. I wanted the players to feel that their characters were in mortal peril. So in my version of the mines, convicts received food in proportion to the quantity of ore extracted. But the quantity of food wasn't sufficient to regain full strength, so convicts extracted less ore, received less food, and so on, in a vicious circle. This was camouflaged under Mining skill checks and consulting of a home- made table, but when the players realized the mechanism of slow extermination, they became anxious and very eager to make their characters escape. Thus, I had wanted to emphasise the danger of the prison, and I succeeded with a rule of thumb.

There are some clever ideas on How To Design and Balance Rules in Steve Dempsey's Actions Speak Louder Than Words section called "The Rules", so I won't extend on this matter.

Other things you may want to emphasise, and design rules for, include: race against the clock, struggle for food/black market in a besieged city, detection of secret activities, and anything important in your adventure.

By way of example, here is a rule-of-thumb, easily-designed and equally easy-to-use profit and loss table. Remember to involve not just the merchants in the party, but add modifiers to the merchants skill for the Noble being haughty and the gun bunny fingering his blaster during negotiations.

Skill RollProfit Margin
Monumental50% Loss
Big failure25% Loss
Average miss10 % Loss
Marginal failure5% Loss
Bang onBreak even
Marginal success5% Profit
Average success10% Profit
Big success25 % Profit
Huge success50% Profit

Mr Felzenwalbe, I presume?

Just have a look at some of the links. Just write out of a list of male, female or other names in your notes, put them in non-alphabetical order and go down the list as required.

As for the names, there are lots of name generators on the Web For contemporary games, take the phone book. To obtain ten typical Joe Blows, base occupation and age on local demographics (the proportion of youths, peasants, nobles, non-human races, etc.).

Every good role-playing world gives those figures through their random character generation. Just do it. Ten times. And name your creations.

Here is an example of the table I should have built for my space-opera game. It respects the demographics of the setting, people live a long time, there are 5 careers available and few aliens. Human names are picked up from the Paris phone book. Any resemblance to persons living or dead... is therefore not coincidental.

Marcus FelzenwalbeM88 (looks 50)Well dressed, looks fineBuyer, grade 4
Hacer OrkanM25Tall, brown, dynamicBedding manufacturer
Natalia RoussakovitchF70 (looks 50)Strict uniform but at easeCaptain of the merchant fleet
Bernadette BayleF19Religious dress; smilingMonk, grade 2
Angela FaragassoF42 (looks 30)Only cares about her Lap-top computerChemist (technician grade 5)
Armand ToubolM63 (looks 45)Little fat man, wimpCOmander (grade 4): Legion expeditionary corps
Snake BliskenF91Alien, reptilian, mysticMiner
Z2-t0pN/A6Mecha. Robot.Daredevil: Left his automated factory
Jar-Ja W. Bs'shF55Intimidating Karia (insect-like giant alient)Student in Law
Stephane CherivilleM26Malachit (kangaroo-looking alien)Civil servant: Department of statistics

You may note that by choosing data randomly from each of the columns, I could get 1000's random NPCs. Thus, for more effect, my "Marcus Felzenwalbe, buyer" could have been a 91 year-old woman, or an intimidating alien.

So there you have it. Return to your games and prepare to improvise.

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