04 January 2014

Starting from scratch (pt V)

The Main Course

Alright ... so you’re writing your first adventure.  Awesome!  There are some principles you should keep in mind:

* Format.  Something that might help you is the Darlington format I cite in this post.

You need a hook (why the players want to do this), a problem (what is it that they’re supposed to do?), complications (why it won’t be easy for them to do it), resolution (what does solving the problem look like?) and fun stuff  (silly bits that will churn up the mood if things get too serious). 

All this is important; if you’ve got a party of newbies, you want to give them a reason to come back.  If you’ve got a party of veterans, you want them to think you’ve got what it takes to GM.

* Knowledge.  Know what your characters can do.  If possible, have copies of the character sheets.  One thing I do is to put together a quick-reference cheat sheet (an example at right) of the PCs, their key stats and combat info, and such advantages and disadvantages that might impact play.  It’s a problem if you design adventures that can only be solved through skills the PCs lack, or if you hinge your plot on solving a difficulty that a skill or spell you forgot can easily circumvent.  (That being said, those skills and spells are there to solve problems.  The result of a rogue who never gets to use her burglary skills is a grumpy player.)

* Time Management.  You’re creating a setting ... an entire world.  Even on the low-key scale I suggested in earlier installments of “Starting From Scratch,” you’ve got a lot to do.  So, rather obviously, you don’t want to spend twenty hours penning an adventure.  That’s a pace that’ll have you burning out quickly, even if you don’t have to hold down a job, raise a kid, get through college or pay attention to a SO or spouse.

So let’s keep things simple.  Don’t put a trap on every door.  Don’t create a magical item for every mook guard.  Don’t develop more information for NPCs than will really be needed ... you don’t need a full character sheet for each of those guards, you don’t need combat stats for the village schoolteacher.  Don’t spend all your time planning for the players to advance through the castle gate, when they might cross you up by going over the wall, or by bypassing the castle altogether.  Which leads to ...

* Options.  My opinion is colored in that I run a “sandbox” campaign, where – within reason – I let players go where they want and decide what they want to do.  The opposite way of doing so is a “railroad” campaign, where the GM wants the players to handle a problem in one particular way, and will go to some lengths to cajole, manipulate or (if need be) force them to do so.   I dislike railroad campaigns.  I want my choices to matter.  And your players likely will too.

So think about this some.  Your players just need to get past that door, huh?  A railroad campaign might require them to pick the lock, and if they don’t have a locksmith, tough.  Me?  Well, doesn’t some guard or steward have those keys, and how do we get them off of the person?  Is there a ceiling crawl space?  Can we break down the door without too much noise?  What side are the hinges on?

This often requires a nimble mind, because I guarantee that you can’t figure out every option beforehand.

So ... what’s that first adventure?  If you took my advice in Part III and have a party of teenage friends from the same village, you’ve got a classic ready-and-waiting: the party was out on a picnic/hunting frolic/visiting the next village over, and they saw a large pall of smoke over the homestead ... Dashing back, they find that a bandit/mercenary/orc raid came through, torching a third of the village, kidnaping some folk, and stealing anything they could usefully carry.  At least one PC has had his home torched; at least one PC has had parents killed.  Anyone who could meaningfully resist the bandits was killed or wounded.

So ... it’s up to the teenagers to save the critically wounded, organize the bucket brigade for the cottages that might be salvaged, and to chase after the bad guys to get revenge.  They’re going to be outnumbered, possibly badly.  They might have trouble overtaking the bandits, considering that the only mount left is the donkey that was out in the fields grazing.

The bandits will have some classic tropes: the brutal leader who rules through fear (and who is too tough to take on in a straight fight except through luck, guile, magic or treachery), the lieutenant who thinks he should be in charge, the bandit with a severe attack of conscience, the bandit from three villages over who was given the choice between crime or death, the insane torturer who’s devoted to the leader and loves to hear victims scream, and the enemy of the torturer who’s no goody-two-shoes but doesn’t care for purposeless cruelty.

Loot?  Well, you don't want your players to get rich too fast, and bandit gangs aren't wealthy (if they were, they'd retire!).  So you'll likely get what's left in their pockets after that last key debauch -- just a handful of coin, if that much -- and what trade goods they haven't ruined or spoiled.  But the key bit is in scrounged stuff.  Mounts are expensive, and the bandits will have them.  (Of course, this can get the PCs in trouble, because the mounts are certainly stolen from elsewhere, and some rich merchant four adventures down the road might recognize his favorite dappled gelding -- why, the PCs must be Those Bandits!)  The bandits will have weapons in good condition, and bits and pieces of armor in mediocre condition, which the players could use or sell off.  The leader might have some fine pieces of jewelry -- keeping in mind the aforementioned former owners -- and will certainly have the best weapon.

Have at it!

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

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