Back in the Game – Part 1

I’m coming out of retirement to write a role-playing scenario for AusCon in October. I wrote and presented my first scenario at a role-playing convention in 1990 and in the last twenty-odd years I’ve written plenty more. I’m not sure yet what this one is going to be but I thought this was a great opportunity to think again about how I approach the writing process. This is the first of two posts.

Convention scenarios differ from my regular gaming night in two important respects. At an RPG con, I don’t have the luxury of sitting around for the first hour chatting about how we’ve survived the week. Con-goers have paid good money to play my scenario and they want value for money. I’m used to having a three hour session for my scenario so I need to get stuck into action from the get-go.

The second difference is that, again unlike my regular game, I have no idea whether the people who turn up to play are interested in hacking up monsters, solving puzzles and mind games or negotiating their way through political or moral conflicts. (Of course, the game advertising should tell you some of this but you get the idea.) The scenario needs to provide scope for all of these different players types.

For me, both these aspects are satisfied by the “mission briefing.” Whether it’s the stereotypical briefing before a military operation, detectives being called to a crime scene or the over-used technique of the letter from an old friend asking for help, all these are acceptable briefings. What they do is, at the start of the session, give the players a clearly stated goal towards which they can direct their energies. Depending on how the session plays out, the goal may change or the players may decide to ignore the briefing goal and aim for something else entirely. Regardless, the mission briefing has given them a target and started them on their way.

Next come the player characters. The characters are the players’ point of contact with the world of the scenario. In the interest of maximising playing time, the player needs know three vital pieces of information:

  1. Who is this character? This explains how the character fits into the game world and gives the play a basic handle on where the character fits int the game world and what sorts of actions are exacted of them. For instance, saying a character is a knight, you immediately expect combat skills and perhaps some competence within the royal court. Saying the character is a woodsman leads to a different set of expectations.
  2. Why is the goal is important to him or her? A patron wants your character to do something. What’s in it for your character? This may be as simple as money but it’s better to tie the goal to the character in some other way. Consider, for instance, how achieving the goal benefits the character or how failing to achieve it makes the character suffer. Personalising the goal in this manner gives the player an intellectual or emotional stake in the outcome of the scenario.
  3. What skills or abilities can the character bring to bear in achieving (or otherwise) the goal? Each character needs to be able to influence the scenario world in some way and help the group fulfill their mission. There’s no fun playing a character maxed out in “Speak Latin” if the scenario is set present day in the snows of the Russian Steppes.

I’ll mention here a pet hate which always makes me see red: the quiet character. We’ve all played the character that is described as taciturn or shy or whatever who cannot or will not speak up. Since role-playing is an almost entirely verbal pursuit, this character has no chance to participate. The quiet character is the GM’s way of telling you to punch him or her in the face.

A good convention character can be best described in the world of the wise old gamer (who unknowingly mentored me) as having “something to be, something to do, something to think, something to feel.”

The next post (probably in two weeks time) looks at how to present your scenario.