Sunday, May 30, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: A New Concept in Adventure Modules

So, anybody out there who plays RPGs and has read my garage sale ideas for campaigns has probably recognized that my method of campaign planning is labor-intensive and not at all commercial. The reason I don't run these campaigns is that all that collaboration with the players involves infinite flexibility; and I can't be that flexible spontaneously. I have to overprepare and have all the stats, maps, and if:then statements worked out ahead of time. Then, during the game, I can react to what happens without referring to any of that.

During the shakedown period for D&D 3.0, back in 2000, I ran a one-off prison break scenario as a means to give people some experience with the new system before committing to a campaign. The PCs were imprisoned unjustly as a result of a disturbance during the escalation to civil war, and if they didn't escape before a certain point All Hell was going to break loose. I made a timeline of incidents that would proceed in the background until the PCs intersected with them and changed them. Once All Hell broke loose, I found myself tracking the actions of about six groups of people all over the city, in 15-minute increments, so that no matter what decisions they made or when they made them I'd have a guideline to what they'd find happening. Then the PCs escaped 24 hours before the criticial point and in the process released another prisoner who prevented the critical event that would have made everything so chaotic, and that work never saw the light of day.

I don't have time to do that sort of thing regularly, so for the most part I don't run games, but when, five years ago, it became desirable for me to do so, I ran adventure modules. In theory, adventure modules do all that overpreparation for you. The maps, NPCs, timelines, and developments are all worked out by the module writers. The time-consuming business of world-building is also performed commercially by game companies, publishing sometimes elaborate setting sourcebooks for places like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Harn, various historical periods, licensed fictional universes so you can roleplay in the worlds of your favorite TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Firefly) or novel (Harry Dresden, Miles Vorkosigan) series.* Good idea, right? Less work for GM, more revenue stream for the gaming company.

Except all modules need fixing.

I'm serious. I've never run a module that didn't require some fixing and fudging, that didn't leave huge gaps for me to fill in or present logical lapses for me to bridge. I've had to rewrite character stats because I knew my players would laugh at a fire-breathing ninja opponent; I've had to redraw maps because of architectural and geographical absurdity, and I've had to overhaul strategy because in dozens of playtests the creators never ran a party with a basic knowledge of seige engines or use of air power.

No adventure plan survives initial contact with the players, even when the GM knows the players; so modules written by total strangers have a strike against them from the start. Also, the two obvious ways to write a module - following a set storyline, and presenting a setting in which the players wander at will - lend themselves to the two campaign flaws I discussed last week, railroading and flopping. There has to be a better way.

Here's what I'd like to get in an adventure module:

A detailed setting, including things like weather and activity patterns (the business district of a town may be a very different place at different times of the day; an agricultural settlement may be sleepy or bustling depending on time of year) and large-scale maps, all with room in the margins for note-making and sufficient undefined space for the players to fit themselves into. I've never known a player who didn't get a kick out of finding his character's house on a map.

Optional rules covering the defects of the game system that are called into high relief by the setting. The shortcomings of D&D rules for water travel, for instance, become glaringly obvious in any adventure setting with rivers. Shocking numbers of players I meet online don't care and are happy to use the rules as written; but every group I've ever played with that comes up against such a defect has stopped cold until the group's "game mechanic(s)" (like "shade tree mechanics only with rule sets; they're usually also computer programmers) devise a more realistic rule. I would really, really like the builders of an adventure module to recognize this problem and have the more realistic rule set available for use right out of the box.

An introductory scenario suitable for any set of PCs and designed to simplify a realistic party formation. (It's a cliche of adventuring parties that the members all answer ads, or meet in a tavern and become best buds; let's have something more organic than that here.)

Placed within the scenario, multiple adventure hooks, all mutually exclusive. The players can pick up any one of them (or, in the case of some contrary groups, none) and follow it through a typical adventure scenario, at the end of which will be another hook, and so on. I think three is a reasonable number; say, one lower, one middle, and one upper class hook; or one intellectual, one combat-heavy, and one social; each should be distinctive and designed to appeal to different styles of play.

The unchosen scenarios should have "default" developments - since the PCs don't intervene, the situations and characters in those scenarios will have their effect on the setting, which will in turn affect the lives of the PCs. The consequences of each unchosen adventure will be written into the adventure paths of the chosen one, so that if the party chooses a combat-heavy path, they'll be finishing their campaign against the evil warlord in the middle of a revolution fomented in the social path and a crime wave resulting from no one stopping the rise of the Mob in the mystery path. Once the original path is completed, the players may choose to tackle the other problems - which have grown in magnitude as the players have grown in power. The party that wouldn't commit to an adventure path will be wandering around creating their own adventures in the detailed setting against the backdrop of the developments of all three ignored scenarios.

Practically speaking, players will sometimes opt to change paths mid-stream, but there's no way to anticipate when or how. For this reason, and also because the players are bound to come up with unanticipated actions, the scenario and setting should be designed with plenty of space for customization - wide margins and page backs intended to be used for in-game notes, spare character sheets, editable maps, and so on. In this modern age, there'd be a good response to custom "campaign tracker" software designed to make it easy to add comments to maps, alter NPC character sheets, change stats(in case the players decide to fortify an inn, say, or somebody marries the ruler's son), and so on.

You could even design Tournament Modules - modules intended to be played at conventions within a set period of time - in which three GMs at three different tables would run all three scenarios simultaneously, periodically letting their different groups interact directly. It'd be hard to set up, but it'd be a big hit when it worked.

If anybody wants to pay me to set up a sample module along these lines, I'm available. But it would take more entrepreneurial spirit than I have, not to mention better persuasion skills, to convince any existing game companies to invest in this idea when the modules they have keep selling. Besides, I don't want to work for a game company. Game content freelance contracts are insane by the standards of the rest of publishing. I think I'd be in violation of most of them by having this blog in the first place. And as for founding my own game company and producing the idea on my own - Dammit Jim, I'm a novelist, not a capitalist!

But I will totally try out any modules anybody produces along these lines.

*Excuse me for blowing off getting links to these setting books; the internet is being stupid today and I don't have patience to fool with it.)

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