Back in the Game – Part 2

This is the second of two posts on how I write role-playing convention scenarios, distilling twenty-odd years of over-thinking what I do. I’m coming out of retirement to write for AusCon being held in October in Brisbane and I figured that was the perfect opportunity to step up on the soapbox again.

Next after the characters (see last post) comes the story. I’m not going to tell you how to come up with a plot for your scenario. As GMs, we all know how to do that. What I will mention, however, is a couple of tricks I’ve learned that seem to work quite well.

Pretty much all my scenarios start in the same way with a brief scene for each character. It’s usually disguised as what the character is doing when the bat-signal goes up. This serves to introduce the player’s idea of their own character to the group and allow the player a chance to feel out his or her way of playing it. The scene is never more than about a minute long and always centres on the core aspect of the character.

For example, just before the final siren in a football match, the quarterback character has the ball. Will he run it in himself, taking all the glory for the win, or pass to a team member with a chance of failure but building a stronger team? As soon as the decision is made, the whistle blows and the character is called in for the secret mission briefing. Everyone around the table now knows more about this character’s personality is this session than can be gained by reading “Who Your Character Knows” section of the character sheet.

One aspect of the mission briefing to keep in mind is the villain – there is always a boss at the end of the scenario. This is a way of making the goal tangible and personalising it. For instance, the players will be bored to tears and bound to fail if set on a mission to fight poverty (much like the American need for Wars on Nouns, eg: War on Terror, War on Drugs, etc). However, defeating a slum lord or drug baron gives them someone to get their teeth into. They can track his movement, his associates, etc.

Another of my pet peeves is the fixed adventure path known as railroading. Players don’t pay good money to be told “You didn’t go to Location X so you missed the clue which revealed everything.” This is does nothing but provide further cause for justifiably punching the GM in the face. Clues and even entire scenes move to wherever the players are so that they are never denied the information they need to complete the scenario. This doesn’t mean that you hand the clues to them on a silver platter — make ‘em work for what they get. It nothing more than a recognition that no one can predict the bizarre ways in the minds of over-caffeinated sleep-deprived players work.

For example, … actually, I can’t think of an example I can summarise in a few words. Basically, if the players have Clue A and Clue B, you’d expect them to get the hint and go to Location C for the next clue. This almost never happens. If they come up with a decent plan for what the clues mean, plant the next clue there. Don’t deny them fun just because they didn’t do what you wanted them to. (On the other hand, if their plan is dumb, you are well within your rights as a GM to punish them for it.) Remember, it’s their session, not yours.

Another aspect that con-goers seem to like is seeing the consequences of their actions. Whether they succeed in their mission or not is largely irrelevant as long as they can see how they have affected the world for better or worse. If, for instance, they defeat the slum lord, they want to see how the people benefit. If the fail, they want to see the slum lord taking his retribution on the peasants. In a another (notorious) example, not only did the players in a James Bond scenario fail to save the world but they were arrested as Red Brigade terrorists and sat in prison awaiting trial watching the bad guy’s scheme unfold. They players came out of the session saying it was the best scenario they played during the whole convention.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve learned in twenty-odd years of writing RPG convention adventures. I challenge you to now write a scenario, find a convention and offer it to them.