11 January 2014

Starting From Scratch (pt VI)

The Dessert Menu

So here we are at the end of the series -- for now, anyway -- and it struck me to include a menu of miscellaneous tips to make the startup a bit easier.

The first is, I find, crucial: save everything.  This won't pay off in the short term, but it will in the long term.

I have a folder in front of me, a battered old thing labeled "Old Adventure Stuff."  Random notes and scribblings, cheat sheets for enemy hordes, maps, clipart, adventure writeups, notes players have slipped me, town handouts, mercenary companies, TOOs for set-piece battles, descriptions of books.  There's an excerpted scene I wrote from a play (the group were masquerading as actors, and I evilly forced them to read through the scene), there's poetry I wrote for divination purposes, there are lists of pirate ships.  The oldest slips in there are notes I scribbled during workbreaks in the mid-80s.  Thirty years on, it's about two inches thick.

You can recycle these.  One of those notes from the 80s I never did use, until I pulled it out about six years ago, and it turned out to be crucial.  The castle design you use with your party next month may turn out to save you time with another one five months -- or five years -- from now.  Beyond that, since I run a sandbox campaign, there are just times when I prepare materials that just don't get used.  The players pass on going into the ancient ruins?  They stay in the city, so they never encounter the bandit gang?  They decide not to split the party and stick instead to Strongpoint B, so the key NPC who assaults Strongpoint A never gets used?  Don't growl in frustration and tear those up -- stick them into the Old Adventure Stuff folder.

The second, a tangential item, is to put mook NPC lists up on your computer.  I've got an example on the right, of a well-connected gang of thugs one party had to deal with.  Most of it is, of course, system mechanics, but there are a number of symbols and abbreviations which tell me race, background and other key bits of info, and moreover there's a line or two on each that personalizes them.  Not a great deal, but enough to make them more than faceless red shirts.

This is the third iteration of, roughly, the same bunch.  I've changed the names, fiddled with some of the weapons, fiddled with some of the descriptions.  The players never knew, and it took me all of ten minutes to do that much.  The more you do this as word processing files, the more you can play with it at will.  And, after all, a gang or a bandit band does have some of the same archetypes: the leader, the sullen lieutenant who'd like things rougher/kinder than the boss, the friendly fellow, the psychopath, the one who knows just enough magic to get in trouble, the heavy hitter, the wannabe with more balls than experience, the sneaky skirmisher, the committed one, the coward.

The third is this: unless you really get off on it, and you've got the spare time to do it, don't put in more detail than your players will be enthusiastic about.  A run sticks out in my memory of a GM who, when our party was taking a trip on a ship, insisted on reading out the curricula vitae of every damn member of the crew, down to the scullion and the bilgesweepers.  I wasn't the only player with glazed eyes, fifteen minutes into his recitation, because I really only care about the NPCs with whom I interact (quite leaving aside that I ought not be hearing about the details of NPC lives when there's no realistic way for me to have known them!).  I've known GMs to give loving details about the furniture in rooms, describe in minute detail the different fabrics and styles of bodyguard garb, insist on pointing out how many tiles of which color and pattern are on that floor there.

There are several reasons why this is a no-no for startup campaigns.  First off, you don't want to bore your players out of the gate, and this style will do just that ... even if it wasn't the case that a lot of players just want to know who to whack and what the loot is.  Secondly, it builds a lot of delay into run sessions, not only in all the descriptions, but in players assuming that there's a reason why you're so intent on telling them the exact style of the inlays as well as the woods being used.  It's very difficult to get players away from the sidetrack once they've convinced themselves that it's a key plot element ... why would you have mentioned such a seemingly trivial detail otherwise?

Fourthly, steal liberally.  There are a lot of excellent materials out there from a lot of companies: Columbia Games' Harn and Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder, whether or not you're a fan of the Harnmaster or D&D systems (and I'm most certainly not), both have published excellent setting works.  There are also websites full of free stuff you can use -- lythia.com (which has Harn fan material) and santharia.com are two of my favorites.  Just change names, file off the serial numbers, and you have heaps of NPCs, businesses, customs and plots to use in filling out your setting.  

Finally, in a startup campaign, you just don't have the prep time to waste.  Even in the low-key startup setting I recommend, there are still the dozen or so businesses to create in that small village ... the dozen key NPCs, some background detail on the region, the exact particulars of the first adventure, setting details about the world, its religions, its customs, those strange weird animals ... all of it.  You've gotten all that done already?  Very industrious of you, but much Sooner than Later, your players are going to be washing the muck of their home village off their feet, and head for the Big City.  That's some serious prep work: not a dozen NPCs or a dozen businesses, but a hundred or more.  If you've got the spare time early on, might as well get started!

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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