Let’s See What Happens, Part Six: Give Your Head A Shake

It’s been a long wait, but we’re getting close to the end of this series. After this article, I’ve got one more to write on the subject of emergent campaign storylines.

So far1, I’ve given an overview of my method, and I’ve talked about the Secrets Deck, sandboxes, watching your players’ eyes, and making connections. Now, it’s time to give your head a shake.

What I’m talking about here is looking at what you’ve done with a critical eye. Really, you should be doing this all throughout the process2, but I also find it useful to build in a step where you explicitly evaluate the storyline and what you’ve done with it.

The Walt Disney Method

I mentioned back in the overview that I use something called the Walt Disney Method3 for this stage. I notice that the site I linked to that explains the method is no longer there, so I’m going to explain it a little bit here, and then I’m going to talk about how I’ve tweaked it specifically for use in designing game storylines.

The method is named after Walt Disney4, who reputedly used it as a way to design his rides and theme parks, as well as for his cartoons. It’s composed of three different phases, each of which tackles a very specific part of the design and implementation process. In practice, Disney is said to have had different offices for each phase, and would work exclusively on that phase in the appropriate office.

Now, the key here is that, when working on one phase, you work only on that phase, and you work through them in order. You may go through several cycles, but don’t backtrack or skip a phase. Just work through to the end and then jump back to the beginning.

Phase One: The Dreamer

The Dreamer is the finder-of-the-cool, the haver-of-ideas. In this phase, you dream big, looking for the coolest ideas you can come up with. This phase usually happens in the stages where you’re just beginning to pull ideas together and decide where things are going to go. It’s a brainstorming phase, so there are no judgements or evaluations made just yet. You want to envision something awesome – ideally, several awesome things – and you’ll worry about how to make them fit and work later.

Take notes here. Write down your ideas, and put them aside. Keep going until you’ve got enough great ideas, or until it’s not fun anymore.

Phase Two: The Engineer

The Engineer is the practical one, the rules-monkey of the gaming circle. In this phase, you look at the ideas you generated in the previous phase, and you figure out how you would make them work.

Look at that sentence again, because it’s the key to this stage. You figure out how you would make them work. Not if you can make them work. Look at each idea, and come up with a method that will work.

This is another brainstorming phase, albeit a more focused one, so again it’s important not to judge what you come up with5, and it’s vitally important not to toss out any ideas yet. We’re generating ideas, here, not discarding them.

Phase Three: The Critic

The Critic is a fun-killing bastard, but an absolutely vital one. This is the phase where you look at what you’ve produced in the previous phases and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?”

There are some questions you need to ask yourself when designing a campaign arc:

  1. Does this arc make sense? Does it follow logically from the actions of the characters? Does it fit into the world? Are there any breaks in the logic that need to be spackled over?
  2. Does any of this require the antagonists to be idiots? Would it pass the Evil Overlord List test? Are the flaws of the NPCs realistic, consistent flaws? Are there any NPCs who don’t fit the needs of the arc properly?
  3. If I were playing this arc, how would I short circuit it? Is there a spell/tech toy/superpower/lucky charm that would inviolate the whole thing? Are the challenges suitable to the PCs’ abilities? Are there any points along the way where a clever player could jump right to the endgame? Do I mind that happening?
  4. Can the characters succeed? Are the clues clear enough? Do they have – or can they get – the tools they need to win? Am I willing to give them the victory?6 Will they feel like they’ve won?7
  5. Is this going to be fun? Will the players enjoy it? Will you enjoy it? Does it go on too long? Not long enough? Are there any dead beats in it, or is every situation geared to produce something interesting and fun?

This is the phase where you ask those questions. You’re looking for problems, here, so be honest about what you see. You don’t need to solve the problems right here – that’s what the next cycle through the method is for – but you need to see where they are.

This is also the phase where you might discard some8 of the ideas from the previous phases. If an idea has so many problems with it that it needs to be tossed, here’s where you do it. You may also see that one of the ideas you’re working on here is so much more solid than the rest that you decide to discard the others. That’s fine, too, though you may want to see if you can find a way to fit them together.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Once you’ve finished with the Critic phase, start again at the Dreamer phase. This time, focus on fixing the problems you marked in the Critic phase. Dreamer comes up with a cool idea that would fix the problem, Engineer figures out how to do it, and Critic evaluates the result. Round again. It’s an iterative process, with each pass through the method building on and refining the stuff that’s come before. Continue doing this until your idea is polished and flawless9.

When Do I Do This?

When you get some practice with this method, you’ll find your creativity starting to fall into the pattern fairly quickly – idea, execution, evaluation, idea, execution, evaluation, etc. What starts as a very rigid, formalized structure can become the default and unconscious method of processing ideas.

What I’m trying to say is that this method is useful throughout the entire process I’ve outlined for emergent campaign storylines. It really shines in the Making Connections phase, but I use it anywhere I’m trying to come up with something interesting and fun. And with practice, it comes very quickly, cycling through Dreamer, Engineer, and Critic in the space of a single, musing moment.

So pick a point in your process and apply this method. Do it a few times, trying it out in different places, and get comfortable with it. You’ll find it reinforces itself, getting faster and easier all the time, and producing improved results.

I Thought This Post Was About Critical Thinking

Okay. Yeah. For a post about critical evaluation of your campaign arc, I spend a lot of time talking about coming up with ideas and elaborating on them, and only a little bit about assessing your story arc with a critical eye. Of the method I’m proposing, only one phase in three is that critical thinking bit, and the other two phases are things that people tend to do very naturally.

See, spotting problems is not difficult10. We do it very readily. Just not with our own ideas. What this method does is two-fold: first, it builds in a step when you do that critical assessment after coming up with the ideas; second, it gives you the means to address those problems in a useful way.

Without the Critic phase, this process doesn’t do anything more than you would get just brainstorming and statting up your ideas. So, you evaluate and spot the problems. Then – and this is vital – you use the same brainstorming and statting skills to address the problems. And then you look for more problems.

Critical evaluation of your ideas doesn’t help you on its own. You need to do something about it. That’s why the iterative nature of the Walt Disney Method is important. All the components work together in a cyclical, iterative process to produce, refine, and stress-test your ideas, leading to solid campaign arcs that work.

That’s the magic of Walt Disney.

 

It’s been a long haul on this series, but there’s only one more post to go. I hope to have that up within the month. In the meantime, give the Walt Disney Method a try. I think you’ll be surprised at how it opens up productive creativity in your game. I know it’s really helped mine.

 

  1. You’ve probably figured this out by now, but I use this stock sentence to link back to the rest of the series. []
  2. And I hit it pretty heavy in the Making Connections post []
  3. Those of you in the corporate world my find this method very similar to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats method. As far as I can tell, de Bono basically took the Walt Disney Method and expanded and tweaked it specifically for use in corporations. I find the extra hats/phases to be just so much clutter, and prefer the simpler, cleaner Walt Disney Method. []
  4. No, really? []
  5. Beyond the necessary evaluation of whether or not the method meets the minimum criteria of making the idea work, that is. []
  6. This is an important, and easy to overlook question. Sometimes, we just fall in love with our NPCs or plots or monsters or whatever. You gotta be ready to let your characters win, even if that means the end of your favourite creation of the game. Just make sure they earn it, and make it a cool event. []
  7. Another important and often overlooked question. Sure, twist endings can be fun, but there needs to be a sense of victory, otherwise it’s just a hose-job. You never want to end a storyline with a hose-job; start with the hose-job, and the characters will be invested in getting the guys who hosed them. But end with the hose-job, and all you get is a group of people wondering why they wasted their time. []
  8. Maybe all. Hopefully not. But maybe. []
  9. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. []
  10. If you need proof of this, read comments on the Internet. []

Let’s See What Happens, Part Five: Making Connections

So, the past few posts in this series have been laying the groundwork for this stage. The Secrets Deck and Sandboxes give you the raw materials, and Watching Their Eyes lets you assess those materials. Now, you start making decisions and building the rough shape of the campaign arc that is emerging from your play.

Look at What You Have

First thing you need to do is take a look at what you’ve got. Now, if you’re like me1, you probably intend to take careful notes of all the information you’ve gathered through the play of the campaign, and you may have done so every now and then, but then life gets in the way, and you wind up with not as much stuff written down as you might want2.

Well, now you get to make up for the lack. I recommend sitting down and making a list of what you’ve got. What goes on the list? Here are some ideas:

  • Villains the PCs hated
  • Places that were cool
  • Storylines that the players liked
  • Things the PCs bypassed
  • NPCs that the PCs liked
  • Things that the players said they wanted to do but you haven’t got to yet
  • Ideas you had for adventures that you never fleshed out
  • Questions, themes, and situations that you laid in that never got explored
  • Secrets the players are getting close to
  • Sandbox elements that never came up
  • Anything else that interests you or you have a question about

When I make my list, it usually starts as a compilation of the few times I’ve remembered to keep notes, written down on a piece of paper in no particular order. I try to scatter them all over the page3, for reasons I’m going to talk about next. Once I get the things from my notes written down, I start adding other stuff, brainstorming style – I write down whatever comes to mind , no judgment, no evaluation.

Often I find that one element sparks a memory of something else – these I try to group nearby on the paper, but I don’t worry too much about that. Sometimes it almost cascades, as one idea leads to another, and then another, and so on.

The page can get pretty crowded4, but that’s okay. You want a rich collection of elements to choose from, but you’re going to be picking and choosing later, so try not to pre-judge.

How much stuff do you want on your list? As much as is fun. As much as is useful. The amount is going to vary depending on your temperament and how long the campaign has been running. You want enough stuff that not everything fits together neatly. Don’t worry, you can ignore stuff that doesn’t quite work for you later, and you can add other stuff you think of.

Now, let’s talk about what to do with that list.

The Glass Bead Game

First, go read this blog post. Now, read the follow-up here. It was this pair of blog posts by Rob Donoghue that helped me understand the structure of what I was doing, so thanks for that, Rob!5

What I do next is look for something on my list that catches my eye: an NPC that I thought could have got more play, a location everyone thought was cool, an adventure whose outcome still bugs the players6. The goal is to grab something – anything, really – to use as the nucleus for the next couple of steps.

Once you’ve picked your starting point, look at what’s arrayed around it. If you followed my suggestions about creating the list, the elements you have near your starting point should be largely unrelated to the nucleus, and to each other7. Draw some lines between the elements, and play the Glass Bead game, as suggested in Rob’s blog posts.

This is an exercise in directed creativity, similar to William Burrough’s cut-up text and the core ingredients on Iron Chef. You’re taking a number of arbitrary elements, and combining them into something new, coherent, and interesting. It’s a way of coming up with connections that wouldn’t have occurred to you normally. When you’re playing the Glass Bead game with the elements you’ve chosen, you’re not really looking for similarities. You’re looking for connections – ways to fit the elements together into a story.

I tend to work with groups of five8 or six elements in the group. That’s plenty to build all sorts of interesting connections, but not so much that it gets muddy and (overly) complicated. Don’t try to connect every element to every other element, but try and build a network that connects everything. When you’re satisfied that you’ve got an interesting and coherent skeleton, put it aside9, maybe transferring the little diagram you’ve made to a separate sheet of paper.

And then do it again. And again. And again, as often as is fun and useful, each time with different elements. I recommend putting together four to eight skeletons in this manner, giving you fodder for the next stage.

Summarize

At this point, I like to write a simple sentence or two to summarize the relationships within the skeleton that outlines the basic core of the adventure it presents. For example, in my old Broken Chains campaign, I had elements of anti-psionic sentiment in a nation, a conspiracy of psions, a powerful diplomat who was secretly a demon, elves agitating for an independent nation, and corruption within the church. These came together into a skeleton, and I wrote the following outline:

Lady Elorowyr, representative to the High Seat from NATION10, is actually a demon in the service of Lady Spite11, and is working to exacerbate NATION’s isolationist tendencies, playing on their anti-psionic sentiment. She knows of the Legacy, the remnants of the former psionic ruling families, who secretly control the non-psionic government of NATION, and encourages them to work against the elven populace, who wish to form their own anion within NATION’s borders. Her contact is a secretary for the Prelate of the Mother.

Now, that’s kind of a long outline12, but it sums up the situation, and gives you the foundation you need to start building adventures. The other thing writing the summary does is show you the stress points of the skeleton – the things that don’t quite fit and don’t quite work.

When you spot a bit that doesn’t quite work – like the idea of the contact in the summary above – you need to decide if you’re going to fix it or cut it out. Fixing it takes some rethinking, but if the element adds cool things to the overall skeleton, it’s worth the work. On the other hand, sometimes the problematic piece doesn’t add anything13, cut it out of the skeleton and route around it.

At the end of this process, you should have a small stack of little mind-maps that lay out the relationship of your selected elements, and a couple of sentences summarizing each skeleton.

Mix It Up

So, now you’ve got a small stack of skeletons that you can use to build a campaign arc. It’s time to take a look at them, and see how you can mash them together.

Look for similarities and overlap in the skeletons, both in the elements and in the relationships between them. See if there are recurring themes within the summaries. Look to see if there are ways that you can combine two or more skeletons into a larger one that still makes sense and is cool. Check to see if there are weaknesses in one skeleton that another can shore up, or strengths in one that another can enhance. Draw new mind-maps. Write new summaries. Play with the ideas until something clicks and you find the ultimate cool factor.

One of the things I like to do at this point is look for a twist in a skeleton: something that I can use to pull a bit of a bait-and-switch on the players14. For example, in the situation from Broken Chains I outlined above, it looks like the nobility of NATION is really anti-psionic and oppressive to prevent the abuses that ancient psions committed in the past. But really, the non-psionic nobility are manipulated by a secret society of psions to continue the oppression and prevent powerful psions from usurping the society’s power and influence. See? Twist!

What you’re aiming for is one solid skeleton to carry the campaign arc. When you think you’ve got that, move on to the next step.15

Adjusting Scope

Now you’ve got your rough plan. Time to see if it fits into the rest of your campaign.

One of the nice things about using this method is that all the elements came from your campaign, so the arc you come up with is pretty much guaranteed to fit into the game theme-wise. It’s still a good idea to check to see if you’re maintaining the mood and feel of the game so far, or that you’re changing it in a direction that you and your players will be comfortable with. This is just a gut-check, but it’s a worthwhile thing to think about.

The other fit you need to think about is whether it’s going to absorb as much of the remaining game as you want it to. Think about how much longer the campaign is going to run16, and how much you want the game to focus on the campaign arc – that is, do you want everything to be about the arc from now on, or do you want to have some unrelated adventures sprinkled in?

The nice thing about the summary and the skeleton is that they can expand or contract as you require, and as your desired pace indicates. If you want things tight and short, look at removing some of the elements and complexity. If you want things to be longer and more complex, look at adding some elements to extend things and act as screening elements and red herrings.

Only you can decide when you’ve got the right amount of stuff and detail in the skeleton for your campaign arc. Build in as much or as little as you need. Then on to the actual structure of the adventures.

Making Your Map

At this point, you’ve got a solid idea about what the arc is. Time to get things ready for the players to come and mess stuff up – which is another way of saying that you need to rough in the adventures.

Look at your skeleton, and find a good adventure. It doesn’t need to be the first one – though that’s where I often start – or the last one – which is the other place I most frequently start – but it needs to be something you think is cool. Write a couple of sentences summarizing the plot, adversaries, outcomes, etc.17 Then find another adventure and do the same. Keep doing it until you have all the adventures you want or need for the arc.

Two adventures are critical: the adventure that hooks the players in, and the climax adventure. As noted above, I usually start from one end or the other, and usually do both before I start trying to fill in the middle part. The main goal of the hook adventure is to be cool enough that the characters are interested in continuing to follow the threads you give them, and the main goal of the climax adventure is to be cool enough to put a satisfying cap on the entire sequence. That’s why I like to have a solid handle on those two adventures before the middle ones.

With the middle adventures, you need to decide if the arc is going to be linear or sandboxy18 – whether the adventures run in a straight line, or if the characters get to pick and choose a bit where they go next. I tend to make mine a combination of the two. By putting the summaries for the adventures on index cards, you can move them around and see which arrangements work best for your arc and your players.

Keep playing with the arrangement until you have a sequence that you like, and then take a good look at the hook and climax summaries, to see if anything needs to change, to be added, or to be removed. Look at the arc as a whole, and make sure it’s doing what you want. If it’s not, play with it some more. As I said previously, this is a tool, not a test. You get as many do-overs as you want19.

When you’re happy with the overall arc, you’re done. I recommend writing down the final form of things, because I always manage to forget something. This process gives you a map of adventures that you’ll need to flesh out for actual play, but you don’t need to do that right away20. I suggest leaving the thing alone for a couple of days so that you come back to it with fresh eyes before starting to build the adventures21.

On The Fly

The above process assumes you’ve got a good chunk of time to do your prep, and that you like having things mapped out in a pretty concrete manner. Neither of these assumptions may be true, so I’m going to give a quick rundown about doing a lot of this stuff on the fly.

  1. Still make your list, but only put the coolest stuff on it. During play, add the coolest elements that come up.
  2. Make just one skeleton based on the coolest element on your list.
  3. Come up with a good hook and an idea about the climax.
  4. Build the hook adventure and, as you run it, look for a logical next step to take you towards the climax.
  5. Add elements to your list during play, and adjust your ideas about the climax based on the coolest of these.
  6. When you get to the climax adventure, give it your all!

 

That’s about all22 I’ve got to say about Making Connections. We’ve got two more posts to go: Give Your Head a Shake and Discard Liberally. I hope to have the series wrapped up by Christmas.

See you next time.

  1. And god help you if you are. []
  2. Quick tip: if you haven’t taken notes of what went on in a game session – say, by publishing it on a blog – take a look at your adventure notes to jog your memories. It’ll also help to remind you what you didn’t use. []
  3. Actually, I use two different approaches here. One is to do the scatter list, and the other is to put them in a numbered list so that I can randomly pick elements later using dice. The goal is to use some method to help you make associations and links you might not otherwise. []
  4. Seriously, use a big piece of paper. You’re making a mind map with lots of different elements, and will be adding to it as you go, so give yourself room to sprawl. []
  5. Another great example of this kind of adventure-building tool is in Jeremy Keller’s Technoir, which bakes in this kind of scenario construction right from the start. []
  6. And by this I don’t mean they all went, “Man, that ending sucked.” I mean one where they went, “Okay, we stopped the bad guys here, but I just know there’s more of them, and they’re up to something.” []
  7. If, on the other hand, you’re going with my numbered list suggestion, then just roll a few random items on the list and scatter them on a piece of paper. []
  8. Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia! []
  9. If the end result is not interesting and/or coherent, abandon it and start again. No pressure, no fault. This is a tool, not a test. []
  10. Whaddaya want? It was years ago, and I don’t have my notes anymore. I can’t remember the name. []
  11. The big evil goddess of the trinity of evil gods. []
  12. It was built entirely of items from the Secrets Deck of for the campaign, which already has some strong narrative elements in place. []
  13. More to the point, you can’t think of a way to use it to add anything that’s cool and isn’t brought in by another element. []
  14. Not maliciously. Not a gotcha. But a real twist: you thought A, but now you see it’s really B. What are you gonna do now? []
  15. What about the leftover skeletons? Hang on to them! They’re good idea fodder for smaller adventures, or expanding the skeleton, or even just for the next campaign. []
  16. I’m assuming a finite campaign, here. If the campaign is not finite, think about how much campaign time you want this arc to take. []
  17. I like to use index cards for this. []
  18. It’s a word if I say it’s a word. []
  19. And remember, this is all supposed to be fun. It’s a game. If you’re not having fun at any point, put it aside and walk away for a couple days. And also? This isn’t the only way to do this kind of thing. Just one way that I do it. []
  20. Except for maybe the hook adventure, if you’re in a time crunch. []
  21. This also gives you a little time to bask in the well-deserved satisfaction of having built a campaign arc based on you players’ choices and preferences, tailoring the game to them. You rock as a GM. Enjoy that feeling, because it’ll probably go away five minutes into playing the first adventure. Sorry. []
  22. Like I’m not running off at the mouth. []

Let’s See What Happens, Part Four: Watch Their Eyes

It’s been a while, but I’m back to talk about the next component in my recipe for emergent campaign storylines. If you’ve missed the previous installments, I give an overview of my method here, and then talk about the Secrets Deck here, and discuss Sandboxes here.

This step of the… I hesitate to call it a process, because that implies a more rigid structure than I actually have. Let’s call it a tool. This tool in the toolbox is where the rubber really meets the road. At this point1, the players are well and truly involved in what you’re doing, and you go into reactive observer mode. You’ve got your secrets in place, and some hints ready, and your sandbox set up and filled with toys, and the players get to come in.

Now you have to watch their eyes.

Pay Attention

The biggest thing you need to do is pay attention. Watch what they react to. Listen to what they say. They will show you what catches their interest and what doesn’t. You just need to be aware of the signals.

There are a couple of catches, here, though: first, the onus is on you to catch the signals. Later on, I’m going to talk about asking questions to find out what the players are interested in, but really, what you want at this point is their unsolicited, unfiltered reactions. That means just paying attention to the things they do and say without prompting of any sort.

Which leads us to the other catch: you need to be objective and open to what you here. Be ready for them to ignore your strokes of brilliance, or to find them trite and boring. If you want this to be useful, you can’t react to what they say, or else the players will start to filter. And really, you need to know if they find pieces of what you’ve done to be crap. That is valuable information, and you must absorb it and use it.

So, watch what they get excited about, and make note2 of any strong reactions. The things that make them say, “Cool!” or start hatching plots – those are the things that you want to expand and flesh out, so you can make them centrepieces of the campaign. The things that they ridicule or ignore – those are the things that you either want to let fade into the background, or rework later on3 to make them cool.

But for now, just take note.

Bide Your Time

This is surprisingly important. You need to wait a bit before acting on the perceived interests of the players. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Acquiring More Information. The more you wait, the better picture you’ll have about what the players are interested in. You hear more of what they say, see more of what they do, and build a more complete idea of their interests.
  • Giving a More Complete Picture. At the beginning of the campaign, your players are going to be finding their feet, and everything will be new and shiny. Give them some time to get a more complete picture of the world, so that they will have a more complete range of choices, and their reactions will be more meaningful and useful.
  • Misdirection. You don’t want to just toss in another story about pirates just because the players had fun with the last adventure about pirates. You need to mask what you’re doing a little bit. A little bit of time, with something in between, will keep things a little fresh.
  • Give You Time to Think. Don’t just jump in with both feet at the first thing that the players seem interested in. Take some time to think about the best way to do things. Plan your approach, and look at how things fit into the overall campaign. Only move when you’re ready, and you’re happy with what you’ve come up with. There’s no rush.

So, take your time in reacting to what the players are reacting to. Let them enjoy the opening stages of the campaign, and the wonder and confusion that a new campaign engenders. Use that time to process their reactions and decide what to do about them. Polish your ideas, and don’t spring them on the players until you’re happy with them, and the time looks opportune.

Respond

When you think you’ve got a handle on what the players are looking for in the game, and you’ve worked out an polished an idea until it’s ready, introduce it. It doesn’t need to be a big thing – it can just be a single encounter, an interesting item, a new NPC, or even just a bit of background information. Drop it in as appropriate, and pay attention to how they respond.

This is the feedback cycle. Pay Attention – Bide Your Time – Respond – Pay Attention – Bide Your Time – Respond… You get the idea. Lather, rinse, repeat. What you need to be looking for is if you were right about what the players were interested in, because it’s easy to be wrong. Here’s a scenario:

  1. You have an adventure where the characters take to the seas to hunt down some pirates. Everyone has a great time.
  2. You decide that the players like sea adventures, so you develop an adventure where the characters join an expedition to map the Lost Seas.
  3. The players are bored, and do whatever it takes to cut the adventure short and get back to land, because it wasn’t the sea adventure part of the original adventure that they liked, it was the swashbuckling battles against the pirates.

See? You guess wrong about what it is that the players find interesting4, and the adventure falls flat. And then you’re stuck in an adventure no one is enjoying5 until you can switch tracks to something else.

Learn from that. Build it in to the next cycle. This is an iterative process, and each time round the circle should bring you more mastery, more certainty, and more fun for everyone.

Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers

Asking questions is an important way to gather information about what the players like, but you need to delay doing that until they’ve had a chance to get used to the campaign and develop some real opinions. This means running through the cycle a few times without asking questions. This gives them time to really figure out what they enjoy about the game, and also gives you time to accumulate your own ideas about what they like.

Now, the kinds of questions you ask is important. I recommend not asking, “What kind of adventures do you like?” simply because players think about adventures differently than GMs do6, and their answers won’t be all that useful7. In general, these types of abstract questions, while they might yield some interesting information, aren’t as useful as your own observation.

Now, that’s a pretty big claim, but hear me out. You need concrete information to create an adventure. When you talk to players about what they liked in an adventure, they will say things like, “It was really cool when we did X!” Now, that’s concrete information, but it’s not the kind of information that you can just reuse – if you did, you’d just have the same scenes repeating in each adventure.

Because you don’t need to know that they liked doing X. You need to know why they liked doing X. And that sort of information is often not conscious – it’s a gut reaction based on a number of factors. You need to do the analysis yourself to figure out why X was fun.

And besides, you probably already knew that they liked X, because you’ve been watching their eyes during play, right?

So, what question should you ask? In my opinion8, the best question is, “What do you want to do next?9

This gives you a concrete answer about what bit of the campaign is most holding their attention at the moment, for whatever reason. Again, you have to do the heavy lifting of analysis to figure out why on your own, but you should have a wealth of ideas from paying attention to the players. The important thing here is to actually give the players what they want – don’t twist things so that it looks like they might be getting what they want, but then yank the rug out from under their feet. Sure, throw in some twists, but give them what they want. Otherwise, they’ll stop trusting you, and won’t give you useful answers any longer.

There’s another question that you probably want to ask every now and then: “Why didn’t that work for you?” You know when things fall flat for a player, and when they do, this is a good way to gather information about why. It’s a dangerous question, though; you have to be ready to hear the criticism of the adventure you made. The player is probably going to be a little reluctant to complain too much10, but if you genuinely welcome the feedback and use it to improve the game, you will get more candid responses as they come to trust you.

If you take the information they give you and use it to improve the campaign, you may soon have your players volunteering answers to the questions before you ask them11.

What Aren’t They Saying

Silence and lack of attention are things you need to pay attention to in the game.

Some players don’t talk much in game. Whether it’s a product of their character, or their play style, they sit quiet unless they need to speak. This is not necessarily an indication that they are bored12, some players just play more in their head than in conversation. For these folks, you need to watch body language and general demeanor during play to see what they’re interested in.

Then there are times that normally garrulous players turn quiet. That’s usually a sign that they’ve run up against something in game that they either have no interest in or actively dislike. That’s good information to have; keep it. It doesn’t mean you have to eliminate whatever the player isn’t liking, but you do need to be aware of this cost of using it – you’re losing the interest of at least one player. If it’s something that someone else is avidly interested in, then go ahead and use it sparingly to provide a bit of a spotlight moment, but be aware that the bored player is going to need to be rewarded for being a good sport with a spotlight moment of something he or she likes.

And if everyone at the table goes quiet and starts fidgeting, well, that’s a big red flag for whatever you’re trying. Get through what you’re doing, and then drop that campaign element in the Do Not Use bucket.

 

The upshot of all this advice is simple: pay attention to what the players like, and give them more of that. These techniques are the ways I try and do it in my games. Hopefully, they’re useful to you.

If you’ve got any tips that I’ve missed, fell free to drop me a comment below.

Next time, we get to the actual construction of storyline elements in emergent campaign storylines. This is where the work starts paying off.

  1. If not before. []
  2. You don’t need to actually make a note, and you probably shouldn’t make a physical note if it’s going to make it look like you’re eavesdropping on the players’ conversations and taking notes. That’ll make them start to filter, again. But remember what they do and say. []
  3. Which I’ll talk more about in the Making Connections post. []
  4. And it’s easy to do, don’t fool yourself. This is because the adventures you design look different to you than they do to the players, who don’t have your insight into the structure and development of the adventure. So be aware. []
  5. Which is why you should be ready to Discard Liberally, as I’ll discuss in a later post. For now, I’ll just say that you shouldn’t get married to any adventure, and build in escape hatches if possible. []
  6. In short, they see the adventure as the finished product of them playing it, while GMs have to look at the adventure as a list of potentialities that are not resolved until play. It causes the two parties to think about the structure and nature of adventures in very different terms. []
  7. Well, they will be somewhat useful, but they will be needed to be translated into GM-think. []
  8. Like the rest of this essay isn’t just my opinion. []
  9. Sometimes, you might want to phrase this as, “What does your character want to accomplish in this campaign?” That’ll give you about the same information, but over a longer time-frame. []
  10. You’re probably playing with people who like you, and who don’t want to hurt your feelings. If you’re not, why the hell not? []
  11. In the case of the “Why didn’t that work for you?” question, this can come off an awful lot like bitching about the game, but it’s not. It’s your players trusting you enough to be honest and give you the feedback you need to build something that’s fun for all of you. Welcome it. []
  12. Though it might be. Pay attention to them, and, if necessary, ask them outright. But do it privately, so as not to put them on the spot with the group. []

Let’s See What Happens, Part Three: Sandboxes

So far in this series, I’ve given an overview of how I develop storylines out of a campaign, and I’ve talked about the Secrets Deck. Now, it’s time to discuss Sandboxes.

Sandbox is a term we use in games to indicate that the players can pretty much go anywhere and do anything they like – they set the agenda, they choose the direction, and they go. This is a little bit ingenuous, though; they may get to go anywhere, but it’s anywhere on a list of places that exist in the game world. They can do anything they like, but in-game situations and out-of-game rules constrain those actions to a degree. Sandboxes aren’t completely player-driven, much as we may like to think they are. They’re a menu of options that the players can choose from.

That said, it’s important to have a wide range of options available if you don’t already have an idea for where the campaign is going. This will allow a broad spectrum of experiences for the players to choose from, and let you experiment with different tones, moods, themes, and techniques to find what works for the players1, and what works for you. There’s an added advantage (to my mind) of having a wide array of things in your Sandbox – it makes the world feel bigger than the characters, and more alive.

So, how do you build a Sandbox game?

The Nature of the Sandbox

Two games that I’ve run that have had great success with Sandbox-style play are The Armitage Files and my Fearful Symmetries DFRPG campaign. The type of Sandbox in each campaign is structured differently, and you need to decide up front which kind of structure you’re going to use. In The Armitage Files, the Sandbox consists of a set of documents liberally sprinkled with references to people, items, events, and places that are not explained, but sound mysterious and intriguing. In Fearful Symmetries2, the Sandbox consists of a list of locations, threats, people, and themes.

Really, the type you choose is going to depend on – and determine – what type of campaign you’re playing. The default assumption in Cthulhu-based games is that the PCs are investigators seeking out mysteries, so it makes sense for the Sandbox to be constructed of rumours, clues, and hints. In DFRPG games, the default assumption is that the game takes place in a given city3 that the characters know fairly well, so it makes sense for the Sandbox to be constructed from people, places, and groups in that city.

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, they can’t really be exclusive. You need some concrete things in a informational Sandbox to give the characters something to grab hold of in order to kick off an adventure. And you need informational things in a geographical Sandbox to let the characters know where the cool stuff is happening. But the balance between the two is important to consider.

Let’s take a look at a video game example to illustrate one end of the spectrum. Oblivion is very much a Sandbox game, with a strong geographic4 focus. Yeah, you get information to follow the main story along, but you also spend a fair bit of time just wandering around the countryside, stumbling across random dungeons5, and cleaning them out.

The Armitage Files highlights the opposite end. Aside from the assumption that the game is set in Arkham, Massachusetts, there is very little concrete or geographical structure to the Sandbox. The occasional reference to a specific place – Kingsport, Zurich – is still just an informational cue for the game. Most of the clues could lead the characters anywhere.

Most campaigns deal with going somewhere and doing something. If  your Sandbox is primarily geographic, then characters will be going somewhere to see what’s there. They will look at the map6, and say, “We go to Bitter Creek. What do we find there?”

If it’s primarily informational, then characters will be going somewhere to do something specific. They will look at their information and say, “We head to Bitter Creek to find the missing prospectors.”

In either case, it could wind up with the same adventure – searching for missing prospectors – but the hook in is different.

Determining how much of the Sandbox is informational versus geographic will shape the ways the players interface with the game fiction, and say certain things about the campaign. So devote some thought to where you want to set that slider.

Putting in the Toys

When you have decided on the nature of Sandbox, you need to fill it. There are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Solo. This is the traditional way to design a campaign. You sit down with your blank Sandbox, and think up all the stuff that goes in it. Pros: You get to put in exactly what you want, the players don’t know any of the secrets. Cons: You are limited by your own creativity, you have to do all the work.
  • Collaboratively. This is the default in DFRPG. You and the players sit down and populate the Sandbox together. Pros: Less work for you, you get the advantage of everyone else’s creativity, players get invested in the game. Cons: You don’t have complete control of what goes in, the players know secrets, requires the players to agree to participate.

I have to say, I’ve become a huge fan of collaborative setting building, mainly because it gets the players excited about the world and it puts in things that I never would have considered7. That said, it does require that the players be good about separating player and character knowledge.

Whichever way you do it, it is vitally important not to do too much detail work8. You never know what is going to be important at this point, so you may wind up wasting hours – days, weeks – fleshing out things that never get touched in play9. Not only will this frustrate you, spending the time will delay the start of the game. And if you’ve taken the collaborative approach, every day you spend tweaking the things the players helped you come up with, their attention and enthusiasm will wane just a little bit more.

So, go high-level. Add a city to the Sandbox? Write two or three sentences about what the city is and what it means to the game. If you’re using a Secrets Deck, make sure you come up with at least one secret for the thing. For example:

Belys is a prosperous city-state ruled by a collection of genasi noble houses. It evokes the Thousand and One Nights Baghdad feel crossed with Renaissance Venice, with wondrous magical devices for sale and convoluted politics and scheming behind the scenes. This is the foreign city that becomes the characters’ home base in the Paragon Tier.

Secret: The mystic power of Belys is based on an arcane machine that imprisons a legion of djinn and efreet, harnessing their energy for the use of the noble houses.

That’s more than enough to go on with. Now I know enough about Belys to seed some hints in the rest of the game, and to improvise if the players suddenly decide that they really need to go there now! 

If you’re putting lots of elements in your Sandbox – and that’s really kinda the point, after all – coming up with just this much for everything is going to be more than enough work. I recommend tossing in a few evocative references with nothing attached to them for developing later – the ruined tower of Asterys, Kraken Bay, the Rookery, whatever sounds cool and fits in the campaign. That way, if you have a good idea after the game starts, you have something to attach it to.

The nature of your Sandbox – it’s place on the geographic-informational continuum I made up in the topic above – will determine what sorts of elements you put in it. If the structure is primarily geographic, the elements are mainly going to be places, with some people and rumours thrown in. If it’s primarily informational, then you’re going to have a lot of clues, rumours, hints, and people with information, with a few places and items thrown in. Mix and match as required for your vision of the campaign.

Showing the Sandbox to the Players

Once the Sandbox has toys in it, you have to show it to the players. How you do that is going to depend on what sort of Sandbox it is, and the forms the toys take. If the game is primarily geographic, you may want to hand them a map with the various locations labeled on it. If it’s informational, you might, for example, hand them a mysterious document with a number of unexplained but intriguing references.

If you’ve done setting creation collaboratively, the players will already know a fair bit about the Sandbox. In these cases, I often just type up and flesh out the notes we came up with at the setting creation session and distribute that to the players10 as the setting bible. It’s important at that point to have a discussion with the players about segregating player knowledge from character knowledge, but so far I’ve found with my players that their involvement has made the setting cool enough to them that they will happily ignore anything their characters shouldn’t know so as to have the fun of finding it out in play.

The point is, of course, to let the players see what options they have. You don’t have to give them a look at all the elements in the Sandbox, but they do need to see where a few things are, and get an idea of the scope and nature of the setting so that they can start making decisions. I mean, yeah, you can plop them down in the middle of nowhere with no map and say, “Where do you go from here?” But that initial decision, being pretty much totally random, is meaningless to the players, and to the characters11. You need to give them some context and structure to complete the buy-in and make the game matter. You need to give them some sort of map, even if it’s just a blank sheet with a dot that says You Are Here, two dots marked Sweetwater Gulch and New Zion, and a line connecting the three points marked Road. Now they’ve got real, meaningful options.

Setting the Agenda in Play

Okay, so you’ve got your Sandbox all set up, and you’ve shown it to the players. What next?

Now, you have to start structuring the actual adventures. In a broad range of choices, it’s easy for the characters to become paralyzed with indecision about what to do next, so you have to point them subtly12 towards the adventure. The best way to do this at the beginning is to constrain their choices.

Yeah, that sounds like a bit of hypocrisy after the whole bit about building in choices and making sure the choices are meaningful, but hear me out. Traditionally, RPG adventures initially place the characters in a reactive role: something happens, so the players have to respond. A stranger in a bar needs help, so he asks the PCs to go into the dungeon. A socialite is murdered, so the PCs have to find the killer. The supervillain is robbing a bank, so the PCs have to stop her.

It can take some training before players will actively set their own agendas and seek out adventures. They need to see that they have the power -  the agency – to set the agenda, and you may need to lead them to that realization gradually. So, start small, dropping pointed opportunities rather than outright adventure hooks: instead of the bartender telling them that some punks have stolen the bar sign and the PCs have to get it back, just have the whole bar be surly and upset, and let the characters figure out why that is and decide for themselves what to do about it. It’s a small step, but it will eventually lead to PCs telling you what they want to do in the next adventure13.

Even if your characters are used to setting their own agenda in games, you still want the choices to be a little limited at the beginning, just to help them get into playing their characters and interfacing properly with the campaign and setting. Leave the big choices for later in the game.

Now, once the players start really taking the lead in setting the agenda, you will sometimes find they have a tendency to deliberately try to surprise you, or put one over on you, or fake you out. This is an artifact of the adversarial-GM fiction that I’ve talked about before – the players “know” the GM is out to get them, so they have to trick the GM in order to win, whatever winning means. How do you deal with that?

Easy. Ask them not to. Tell them that, while you’re totally cool with them setting the agenda, you need a little prep time to make sure you have interesting things for them to do. If you talk to them about it reasonably, and play fair with them14, they will be more than willing to be honest and upfront with their plans, so you can make plans of your own.

Which brings me to…

Being Prepared

The beauty of the way Sandbox games are structured is that you don’t have to build in a lot of depth before you need it. You don’t have to have thirty fully prepared scenarios ready to go at a moment’s notice, just one. As long as it’s the right one. That’s no more than you need to prepare if you’re running a more traditional campaign, where you as GM set the agenda and dictate the adventures, but it has the added bonus of being something you know the players and characters are interested in because they chose it. They have choice, you get to flesh out that choice to make it cool, then they get to play through it and make the whole thing cooler.

Now, making sure you have the right adventure ready is very much a matter of communication with the players. For the first adventure, I talked about constraining the choices available to the characters, and I gave a couple of reasons. There are other reasons, having to do with preparation: if you limit their choices, you need to prepare less for that first adventure. I recommend building just one adventure, but have a couple of different ways into it. Yeah, this is a bit of a cheat15, but it gets you playing and pulls the characters into the game. Then, at the end of that adventure, ask them what they want to do next.

Couple of important points about that:

  • Ask them at the END of the adventure. This gives you time to prep the next adventure based on what they want to do.
  • Force them to a decision. Don’t bully, but make them choose something specific so you have a starting point for your prep work.
  • Get them to commit. If you’ve put in a month’s work on an adventure that they’ve said they want, and they show up at the session, and say they’ve changed their minds, I think it’s allowable to strike them in the head with something heavy16. Make it clear that their choice is binding, and if they come up with a better idea at the start of the session, defer it for a later adventure.
  • Make sure you accept their decision. Point out options, offer opinions, but don’t try and make them choose something they don’t want. Once they’ve chosen, don’t try and weasel the adventure around to something else. Don’t use the adventure to punish them for not going with your idea. Basically, don’t be a dick.

When they’ve told you what their plans are for the next step, prepare the adventure based on that. I don’t pretend to know what kind of prep work you need to do for your game – that varies from system to system, and from campaign to campaign, and from GM to GM – but spend that time trying to make the characters glad they chose the option they did. Pour coolness on the idea, throw in some neat twists and surprises17, make the opposition interesting and engaging, and do what you need to do to make the adventure rock.

A crucial part of preparing for a Sandbox game is keeping track of what happens so it can inform the rest of the game. In a linear game, this is pretty straightforward, but it’s a little more complicated for Sandbox games. Take notes, and leaf through them when you’re prepping adventures to see if there’s anything interesting that you can call back up to add some continuity. Make sure you don’t lose the name of the NPC that you made up off the top of your head but has now become important. Keep track of any surviving villains and not-quite-extinct plots and conspiracies, and any extinct NPCs or cities or helpful organizations. This becomes invaluable when it comes time to start pulling the threads together for the emergent storyline that the campaign generates.

No matter how much you prepare, though, you’re going to wind up having to wing it from time to time, so make sure that you’re ready for that, too. Keep an encounter or two salted away for when you need to send in the ninjas18, and try and tie these encounters into other aspects of the game. Using a system that is easy to improvise in – GUMSHOE and FATE, for example – means that you can get a lot of mileage out of a single encounter, while systems that aren’t quite as easy to improvise in – D&D, for example – may mean you need to have a couple encounters ready just in case. If nothing else, sending in the ninjas gives you a little bit of breathing room to cope with the unexpected player choice that prompted your little panic attack.

When you do improvise, it’s even more important to take notes to keep things straight. If you haven’t tied the improvised section into the main plot before, take a good postmortem look at the notes, and figure out how it’s related after the fact. It helps build verisimilitude. Not that it has to be tied to the current main plot; sometimes, it can be fun to throw in an alternate storyline to see if the characters19 can figure out that there’s actually two different things going on at once. Or, it can be a hook into a new adventure, showing up a little early.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

 

That’s about all I have to say about Sandboxes. The next emergent storylines post will show up within the next couple of weeks, and I’ll talk about Watching Their Eyes.

  1. I’ll talk about this in much more depth when we get to the Watch Their Eyes post. []
  2. And any DFRPG game that goes through the setting-building section of the game. []
  3. Though this is not necessary, and is addressed in the setting construction chapter. []
  4. Most CRPGS work on a geographic slate. It’s certainly easiest to conceptualize in that medium, and allows the programmers to scale the difficulty of the opposition by geographic area. []
  5. Seriously, what’s with all the dungeons littering the countryside? Why does every little cleft in the rock open into a vast underground network of caves filled with monsters? Shouldn’t someone be doing something about that? []
  6. Or whatever equivalent you have in the game. []
  7. Baba Yaga in the sewers of Dublin, for example. []
  8. That way lies madness. No, really. Madness. []
  9. I’ll talk about this more when I get to the Discard Liberally post. []
  10. Less any secrets I’ve thought up in the meantime. I mean, the players need some surprises, right? []
  11. Not to mention that it undermines the notion that they have free choice in the campaign, because they can’t see that their choice makes any difference. []
  12. And sometimes not-so-subtly. []
  13. While this may feel odd to you as a GM at first, embrace it. It lets you focus your creativity on what happens in the adventure, rather than on what the adventure is. Relax and let them boss you around. []
  14. This is, of course, an important point. Don’t screw them when they do what you ask them to. []
  15. I don’t like inflexible rules in anything, including running games. I will use any tool I need to in order to build a play experience the players enjoy, even if it means I have to lie, trick them, and cheat behind the scenes. I will do what I need to do to bring the cool. []
  16. Disclaimer: Maybe I don’t really think this. But when it happens, I want to. []
  17. But, as said before, don’t weasel it around to a different adventure. []
  18. Whatever the ninjas happen to be in your campaign. []
  19. And players – this can be very confusing for players, so be cautious. []

Let’s See What Happens, Part Two: The Secrets Deck

A little over a week ago1, I posted an outline of techniques I use to develop campaign storylines during play. Apparently, folks liked it, and I’m glad. But one person requested some more specific examples2, so I’m going to do my best to illustrate some of the ideas with examples from actual campaigns I’ve run.

I was going to do everything in one post, but as I started writing it, it became painfully obvious that, if I did, it would be a terribly, terribly long post. So, I’m going to break it down into sections, each one dealing in some depth with the topics I’m discussing. I’m starting with the Secrets Deck.

Hope you find it useful.

My biggest success with the Secrets Deck was in my Broken Chains campaign, so I’m using that for the example, which means that we’re going to be talking about D&D-style fantasy tropes.. Now, in building this campaign, I had completely ignored the First Rule of Dungeoncraft, as stated by Ray Winninger, which was to not force yourself to create any more than you need to for your game as it stands. I created an entire setting bible – over 200 pages – covering the whole of the world, about 100,000 years of history, the entire religion, culture, and political structures. The Second Rule of Dungeoncraft states that, whenever you create something significant in your campaign, you create at least one secret about it. And then you write that secret on an index card to build your Secrets Deck.

Well, by the time I had finished the world document, I had a Secrets Deck with around 70 cards in it3. Then, every adventure, I would shuffle the deck and draw a card, and see if I could work a hint about that secret into the scenario.

What’s a Secret

So, what do I mean by a secret? There were a couple of Dungeoncraft articles that explored this in some detail, but what it means for me is something that, if the characters knew it, would change the way the characters understand some part of the world. Ideally, this shift in understanding makes the aspect of the world more cool, and prompts the characters to action and adventure.

Secrets generally answer some questions for the characters, but tend to also give rise to other ones, peeling back layers in your standard onion-like analogy4. The questions reveal interesting things about the world, about the NPCs, about the bad guys, about whatever the secret is about, and will hopefully grab the characters’ interest, or at least draw their attention a little bit.

Let’s look at some examples. Say you create a pub that the characters are going to use as their home base in this town for the early part of the campaign. You write up a description of the building, some notes on the bartender and the serving girl and the cook, a quick list of regulars, maybe even a menu to lend it an easy touch of authenticity5. For a secret, you decide you want something big here, so you write down that the pub is on the site of an ancient underground prison where a demon has been sealed, and the bartender is actually the head of a secret order placed here to watch the prison and make sure nothing happens.

Now, of course, since you’ve made this a secret, something must happen eventually to start the prison opening. It’s a Chekov’s Gun thing. As play progresses, and more hints about this secret get into the characters’ hands, eventually they’re going to figure out the secret. And then they’ll look at their neighbourhood bar in a far different light. The discovery of the secret may also prompt them to take action – maybe go down into the dark to check on the prison, or go off to distant lands to get the Golden MacGuffin that can destroy the demon once and for all.

Not every secret needs to be earth-shattering, though. It’s just as good to have a small secret that the characters may uncover in short order. This gives them a more immediate reward for paying attention to the game world. In the example above, you could just as easily and profitably say that the secret is that the bartender is on the run from a criminal gang in the nearest big city for having refused the gang leader’s orders to kill a child in revenge for the child’s constable father undermining gang business6. It still changes the way the characters look at the bartender – he’s a former assassin, and he’s been handling their drinks – but it gives them a problem that they can help with at a lower level.

One important note about both of these examples is that they produce or increase emotional investment in whatever the secret is about. Usually, by the time the secret is revealed, characters will have been interacting with that element of the world long enough to already have some opinion of it, and the revelation of the secret will increase that dramatically7. It may also change the polarity of the emotion associated with the element: a villain turns out to be working to save the world, the friendly priest actually sacrifices children, whatever. Either way, if the secret is good, the cool is enhanced.

Some Secrets

I no longer have the Secrets Deck8, but here are some examples of things that I can remember:

  1. The Mother and Father – the primary god and goddess in the cosmology of the world – had almost destroyed themselves working the magical cataclysm that destroyed the ancient Dragon King empire and freed the other sentient races from slavery. They have been slowly dying for the past 10,000 years or so.
  2. The Three Who Fled – Dragon Kings who had escaped the cataclysm by ascending to godhood as Lord Mourning, Lady Spite, and the Smiler9 – had corrupted the current Primarchs of the church of the Mother and Father.
  3. Lady Elorewyr, ambassador for one of the kingdoms to the High Seat – essentially, this world’s United Nations – is actually a demon in disguise.
    The same kingdom, renowned for its harsh treatment witches (those with psionic power), was secretly run by a hidden cabal of witches serving as advisors to the noble families.
  4. The footprints of the saint of travel where he first set foot on the main continent had the power to transport any who stood in them anywhere they wished to go.
  5. A noble family in another kingdom were plotting to put their eldest son on the throne of the kingdom10.
  6. Four powerful oracles, the Weirds, were lost in the cataclysm, but could be found in hidden, remote locations, and would prophesy for those who brought them offerings.
  7. The ghost of a king who had gone mad and starved his capital city mostly to death was pinned to the mountainside where his rebelling citizens had crucified him, and was doomed to remain there until he had fulfilled a task set for him by the Mother and Father – delivering a message to the prophesied saviours of the world11.
  8. One Dragon King sought to aid the other sentient races in obtaining their freedom. Called the Turncoat, he prevented five other Dragon Kings from ascending as a five-part god capable of throwing down the Mother and Father, and has remained locked in battle with that creature in the 10,000 years since the cataclysm, at the heart of the blighted area in the centre of the continent.

Now, the first item and the last item on the list were the core of the overarching story of the campaign, as the characters slowly uncovered the secret of the dying god and goddess, and went to free the Turncoat from his eternal torment by defeating the Dragon King god. They don’t really illustrate the point of emergent storylines because of that, but still illustrate the use to which I put the Secrets Deck.

The Secrets Deck and Scenarios

So, armed with this deck, I would come up with a scenario, like going into the Blight – the area at the centre of the continent still stained by the magical cataclysm – to help a small group of settlers with their black dragon problem. Then I would pull a card, and maybe get secret #2, about the Primarchs of the Church being corrupted. I would then try to work in a hint about that.

How direct the hint would be was determined by how big the secret was, and how ready the characters were to do something about it. This one is a pretty big secret – the equivalent of the Pope and the Dalai Lama being revealed as satanists – and it’s not really a thread that the characters could pursue at the current level. In this case, perhaps the hint could be a village priest who is playing politics in the village, undermining the mayor and sheriff, playing up his status as the voice of the Church. This causes the characters to question the mandate of the Church, and they may do something to remove the priest. More importantly, it will sow a seed of doubt about the Church, and allow you to drop more clues that they will eventually assemble into a suspicion about the Church leadership, which will come into play at higher levels, when the characters may actually meet the Primarchs.

If, instead, I had pulled up secret #4, well, that’s something that I could be far more open about. Access to a great teleport point is a valuable thing to adventurers, but this is a stationary thing, so it’s not game-breakingly powerful. Still, I don’t just want to hand the secret to them. Maybe the hint in this case is a body dressed in the vestments of the travel saint’s order stuck in an old well in the ruins, skeletonized by scavengers, with a rotted, mangled book in his pack with a shredded page talking about him sneaking to use the footprints of the saint in order to follow up hints of a valuable treasure. Don’t say where the footprints are, so if the characters want to follow this up, they need to figure out who this priest is, where he’s from, and then go snooping for the footprints.

Now, it’s usually enough to drop in a single secret in a given adventure unless you’re trying to build connections between two secrets12. Too many unrelated secrets are distracting and misleading, causing players to make associations that don’t actually exist13, and diverting them from the main goal of the scenario, whatever that is. If the adventure is really long, stretching over several sessions, you may want to pull another secret at the half-way point and lay in a hint about it in the last half of the adventure, when there’s sufficient separation from the first hint that it won’t confuse anything.

Other Uses of the Secrets Deck

Remember the original Keep on the Borderlands? Like many gamers my age, it was my first module. One of the things that really sparked my imagination was the table of rumours in it. There was a mechanic that could allow the players to know certain things about the hazards they would face in the adventure14.

You can use your Secrets Deck either as a rumour table on the fly, or to pregenerate a rumour table that you can roll on when you want to, well, disseminate a rumour. Rumours work just like hints in scenarios, except they’re explicitly things that one person says to another, and they might be wrong. Even if they are wrong, they still draw attention to the element the secret is about, and that gives some information to the characters. It’s a subtle way of working in information, and some players really like the sense of accomplishment when they weed out inaccurate information from accurate information.

Now, rumours don’t just have to be things overheard in a bar or at the market. They can be legends, letters, ancient records, whatever. As long as it is information coming from one person to another (or many others). Patrick Rothfuss makes great use of legends about secrets in The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear, so take a look at those books for inspiration15.

When I ran Broken Chains, I used the Secrets Deck to drop hints into the news stories in the campaign newsletter I sent out before each session, too. This plays into the idea of Sandboxes, which I’ll deal with in more detail in a future post, but mainly it was my way of accomplishing two things. First, it made me feel like I hadn’t wasted a whole lot of work16 coming up with all those secrets. Second, it helped me with one of the primary goals I have in any campaign, which is to make the world seem as if things keep happening even where the characters aren’t. I don’t really recommend doing a newsletter like I did – though it worked to great effect, it was a lot of effort – but if you’ve got a forum or wiki for your game, you could do worse than seed some news stories there, using the secret deck.

The Big Reveal

The revelation of a secret from the Secrets Deck should spur action by the characters. Which means, it should lead to an adventure that resolves the secret. The core of the secret should be cool enough, and compelling enough, that it motivates the characters to do something, and that something should be cool enough to merit the attention they’re paying to it.

For little secrets, like the former-assassin-bartender idea above, that can be pretty direct: go to the city, find the gang leader, and kill him. For big secrets, like the demon prison below the bar idea, it can be more involved: go down into the prison, find that the demon is stirring and has corrupted his jailer, so that the characters have to seek out other members of his order to get the information about the Golden MacGuffin, retrieve said MacGuffin from the Lair of Evil Badness, and bring it back to kill the demon and free the bartender.

Even little secrets, if the players are interested enough, can spawn involved adventures at their revelation. Instead of just killing the gang leader in the above example, maybe the characters have to dismantle his byzantine criminal network piece by piece, forming alliances with rival gangs and citizen groups to gather information and support for the final confrontation. If the players are extra-excited when they find out the secret, and immediately start putting together a lengthy and involved plan to deal with the revelation, sit back and let them plot, and savour that warm glow that you get when you create a moment in the game when the players care enough to go the extra mile. You’ve won roleplaying, at that point.

On the other hand, if they look at the revelation and go, “Crap. I guess we better take care of this before we get back to looting dungeons,” it’s time to hand them a simple adventure to resolve things. So maybe they just have to go down into the demon prison and defeat the Underdark invaders who are tampering with things, and then everything is fine again.

 

That’s about all I’ve got to say about the Secrets Deck. I’m off to GenCon next week. When I get back and get recovered, I’ll post about Sandboxes.

Meantime, you can look for some GenCon posts here starting on Wednesday when my friend Clint and I set off on our annual pilgrimage.

  1. As I post this; it’s taken me a few days to write. []
  2. And if one person asked, then more wanted them but didn’t ask. Basic rules of customer service. []
  3. Really, this is too much. I made it work, but it was far more work than it was worth, and a lot of stuff never saw the light of day, so learn from my mistake. Rein it in. Seriously. []
  4. Problem for me with the onion analogy is that, with an onion, once you peel off the last layer of an onion, there’s nothing left. For a game, you need a core of pure cool to make sure that the players don’t feel the whole thing was a waste of time. Don’t ever waste your players’ time. Reward the effort they put into the story with cool. They will reward you right back. []
  5. I’m always amazed how much authenticity you can throw into a game just by describing a few little touches of the mundane. In Broken Chains, I wrote up the contents of the three varieties of standard one-day ration packs that the characters’ military company used. Before long, characters had their favourites, would trade bits back and forth, and complain when I would arbitrarily tell them the quartermaster was out of a particular type. Don’t neglect these little details – five minutes thought can give you hours of great roleplaying. []
  6. I like The Replacement Killers. Do you like The Replacement Killers? []
  7. Heh. []
  8. Or the setting document. Computer drive failure is vicious. []
  9. Yeah, the naming and style are stolen directly from the Ten Who Were Taken in Glen Cook’s most excellent Black Company series. []
  10. This one was especially fun, because said eldest son was one of the PCs, and we had some good times playing with his loyalty to family and nation. His duel to the death with his father is one of the highlights of the game. []
  11. These were, of course, the PCs. Or rather, the PCs were in the running for this; I was playing with the idea of prophecy as a set of requirements, rather than a prediction. []
  12. I’ll deal more with that in a later post. []
  13. Although, they could, if they’re cool enough. I’ll talk about that in a different later post. []
  14. And some of them were wrong! THAT was sheer brilliance, in my opinion. []
  15. Actually, if you haven’t read those books, you should do so, whether you care about gaming or not. They’re great. []
  16. Yes. Doing a whole lot of work on the newsletter was my way of feeling that I hadn’t wasted previous work I’d done. I don’t really know what the hell is wrong with me sometimes. []

Let’s See What Happens: Emergent Campaign Storylines

Let me get this out up front: I like campaigns that tell a story.

When I create a campaign, I always try to have it tell a story1. Sometimes, as with my Broken Chains campaign, I know what the end of the story is when I start the game, but sometimes, as with my Armitage Files campaign, I don’t.

But I need to.

Once upon a time, I ran an Unknown Armies campaign. It went very well, right up to the last few months, when it suddenly lost steam and petered out. In retrospect, I can see what the problem was: I had reached the end, but didn’t stop, and so the game lost power, motivation, and direction. I wasn’t able to provide a new direction because the story had been told, and I didn’t have another one to tell right then. I hadn’t recognized the end when it came up and bit me2, and so the game died an ignominious death, rather than going out on a high note.

That’s why I need to have an end.

But what if I don’t have one when I start?

The Secrets Deck

Ray Winninger wrote a series of articles in Dragon magazine many years ago that should be required reading for anyone starting any kind of campaign. It was called Dungeoncraft3, and while it dealt mainly with D&D, there was a lot of great, solid advice in the series for anyone running any kind of campaign.

One of the best pieces of advice in those articles is the construction of a Secrets Deck. This is a simple idea: for each major thing that you create for your campaign world, come up with at least one secret about it, and write it down on an index card. Once you’ve done the initial brainstorming for your campaign, you should have a healthy little stack of cards. Then, when you come up with a scenario, give the cards a shuffle, draw one (or maybe two, if it’s going to be a big scenario) and work a clue about that secret into the adventure.

Now, how big a clue you work in will depend on how big and cool the secret is. If it’s something that affects the whole campaign, you’ll want to be subtle and careful with the clue, so that you don’t blow any big surprises. If it’s something that only affects a small portion of the campaign, it can be more blatant, and can lead to a short series of adventures as the characters follow it up.

I used the Secrets Deck extensively during Broken Chains, both working it into the adventures, and in the in-game newsletter that I distributed before every session4. It provided a number of side quests during the campaign, and helped me fill the time until the characters were tough enough to take on the big bad at the end of the story.

Sandboxes

Providing lots of options is also important in developing the campaign storyline. The Armitage Files is a brilliant example of this, throwing mountains of unexplained clues at the party. City creation in The Dresden Files RPG does this in spades, and incorporates a heaping helping of the next couple of topics, as well. Now, on the surface, it seems kind of counter-intuitive to provide too many options when you don’t know where you’re going, but the reality is that it both reinforces the feeling that the world is bigger than the characters, and provides players with a sense of self-determination.

This latter bit is especially important as you start gearing up to a finale. If players can look back and see places where they could have made different choices, then they don’t feel railroaded into the climax5. That, in turn, gives you player buy-in, and a much more satisfying finale.

Having lots of choices for players to explore also gives you plenty of places to seed in your secrets from the Secret Deck, which leads us to the next topic.

Watch Their Eyes

Once you’ve got your secrets and your sandbox set up, let the players loose, and pay attention to what catches their interest. See what clues they pick up on, and whether or not they want to follow up on them. After a few sessions, they should have enough hints that they start really paying attention to one or two specific threads that you can then flesh out, building them into more explicit6 scenarios. The smaller secrets may get resolved this way, and the bigger secrets can reveal more layers to themselves.

Don’t discard things that they didn’t pay attention to, though. Keep those in your back pocket for when you need them. There’s a special kind of GM glee that comes only when you trot out a plot development that you hinted at ten sessions ago, but no one paid any attention to7.

It may seem obvious, but I better say it right out. If you collect the threads that your players like, you will have a collection of threads that your players like. Picking from these for the next step makes sure that you’ve got emotional investment in whatever your story turns out to be, because they’ve already bought into the constituent pieces.

Make Connections

Once you’ve got a good idea of which things your players are interested in, take a look at them for any common elements or themes. There’s usually one or two underlying similarities that can let you turn four separate mysteries into one grand conspiracy worthy of being the main storyline of the campaign. For example, in Broken Chains, I was able to tie corruption in the church, discrimination against psionics, and legends of an ancient kingdom into a single plot that had a demon backing a psionic clan secretly controlling a nation renowned for their tendency to burn psionic-using creatures at the stake. All of a sudden, three different problems came to a head in one vast conspiracy and a battle against a demon and her construct built of thousands of self-aware psi crystals8.

Once you’ve got an idea of what the main thread is, look at the other secrets – the ones the players didn’t pay attention to. See if any of them fit in, or could be made to fit in. Don’t go too far with this, though; it will start to strain verisimilitude if everything odd in the campaign traces back to one source. But look at rival factions, or themes that contrast nicely to accentuate the main theme. Look for something that you can tie retroactively into the main story, so that your players see that the threads reach all the way back to the beginning of the campaign.

Some themes are spelled out at the beginning of the game – DFRPG city building does this explicitly – while some emerge during play, like the ideas of higher dimensions and the nasty observer effect that’s coming up more and more in my Armitage Files game. Either way, you’ll see some commonalities coming up, so make note and use them. This lends your game consistency of theme, mood, and flavour9.

Give Your Head a Shake

Once you’ve got that worked out, take a step back and look at your central story objectively. Does it work? Is it cool? Does it require stupidity on anyone’s part10 ? Shore up the weak bits, add cool as needed, and pull out the stupid. Be ready to kill your darlings if they aren’t working, and always, always, always keep both the characters and your players in mind as you examine the idea for cracks.

I like to run through a few cycles of the Walt Disney Method with my fleshed out idea to make sure it’s workable and fun.

Discard Liberally

When you hit the play button, be ready to toss out a lot of what you’ve done. Players will, as players do, come at your story from an unexpected angle, with a strange plan, and completely unforeseen resources. They will bypass sidelines that would have given them fresh information, and run into areas that you haven’t planned, or even thought about.

If that’s the case, why do all the work? Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless. Planning is essential.” That pretty much applies here. With the planning you’ve done, you’ll have the foundation you need to adjust things on the fly, moving important elements into place for players to encounter them, and improvising with confidence when you get caught off-guard.

So, What Have We Got?

I find that, when I through the steps I’ve talked about above, I wind up with a campaign storyline that has emerged during play, and has the following advantages:

  • It fits the game that we’ve been playing. Because it’s come out of play, it’s got roots in the game, and everyone can see them. It also can look as if I had the whole thing planned all along, which just reinforces my sense of GM omniscience.
  • The players are invested in the story, because I’ve drawn it from the things that I’ve seen that they’re interested in during play.
  • There is less sense of railroading, because at least the early choices in the campaign were completely free. Characters remember that, and later constraints on their choices seem more like consequences of their actions, rather than GM fiat.
  • It’s flexible enough to handle what the character throw at it, because I’ve been paying attention to how the players play, and have a good enough idea of what’s going on that I can adapt it at need.

Last Words

Once you’ve got your storyline, that’s not the end of the job – it’s the beginning. The end comes when you and your collaboratively play through the story and find out what really happens.

Anyway, that’s my take on it, and what works for me. Anyone else have any tricks for pulling a throughline out of a campaign in a similar fashion? Let me know below.

  1. Though, to be fair, it’s usually more like a series of books with a through-line of metaplot than like a single book, if you see what I mean. []
  2. Really, I mean, I should have seen it. The PCs brave the mystic gates of Central Park to retrieve the gun that killed Dutch Schultz from the Lady in the Lake and deliver it to the True King of New York. Along the way, they face their deepest selves, and manage to destroy the doppelganger that had been haunting them since the first session. How did I not see that was the end of the story? []
  3. I’m not going to include a link here, even though I think everyone should read it, because I’m not sure who owns the copyright to those articles. That said, thirty seconds worth of searching will find them on the web. []
  4. This was called The Gazette, and had a number of news stories, a Q&A column, articles on history and legend, and a recap of the last session. Yeah, I made a new one before every session. I had a lot more time back then. []
  5. This is true whether or not the choices would have made a difference or not. It’s all about the perception of free will. Which may be a topic for a future post. []
  6. Not that kind of explicit! []
  7. Is this making any of my players nervous, yet? []
  8. Remember that one, guys? That was fun. []
  9. Which is not to say you can’t break from these commonalities from time to time, but you’ll do it more deliberately, and everyone will recognize when you’re back on the main track. []
  10. This is a surprisingly important question. Plots that require someone to be an idiot are bad plots. You will run up against players who will ask, “Yeah, but why don’t they just do X?” and all of a sudden you clever conspiracy is revealed to be completely hopeless. Rule of thumb: compare it to the Evil Overlord list, and look for similarities. []