November 28, 2010

Hook, Line and Sinker Part 3: Adventure Design

So we've developed an overarching goal for our players, with an antagonist who's going to continue on his path regardless of the players actions. But that's just ideas, something you'll definitely need to revise before the end, and your game is starting in less than a week, you need something more concrete!

First step is of course picking a hook.  If this is a first adventure, you're going to need to pull something out of your initial questioning, something concrete and short term that you can fit into your ideas for a long term campaign. If this is anything BUT the first session, you should have ended the last session with some idea of where the player characters were going.

Once you have a hook you have a 'victory condition'.  The players get what they want, they win, if they are stopped, they lose. This is an important concept for RPGs as every single fight including 'Survive' as the primary victory condition gets boring after a while.

Going back to last week, let's take some of our 'outline' and make a quick and dirty adventure plan.  We'll assume the adventurers stopped the thief, so now know their trinket isn't a mere trinket. Hopefully, you find out last week they want to know more about their gem.

Our players want to know about their gem, so we obviously need to give them an opprotunity to learn.  A wise sage character, a fairly well stocked library, or even a local legend can all be useful in this situation.  Let your players guide you through this very roleplaying centric portion of your adventure, they'll let you know what kind of story they are expecting.

Now that your players know that the necklace is from the old Empire, and, if there research didn't turn up the fact, now's the time to let them know there are ruins nearby.  Hopefully, off they go.

Depending on your system, your next step is combats or traps, or something with a bit of an edge, it's time to make them to question their bravery. If they survive the trials, and they should, they should meet up with our bumbling archivist trying to find clues as to the whereabouts of the keys to the end game tower.  This is more roleplaying, and again, let your players lead you through this.  You know the character's motivation, let that guide your responses.

Once they know a little more, or have determined the archivist is unhelpful, you need to set up the keynote encounter.  This almost certainly should be a combat, something explosive, and you should find a way to bring the archivist back into the game, trying to steal the amulet.  Of course, beating him, and the rest of the encounter, means another piece of the amulet, and a hint that the item is for something very powerful.  What will our heroes do? Find out, because that's your hook for your next game!

Tying encounters together (Even as simply as this) helps fortify them in memory, as they can be grouped easily.  You want your players remembering this game, right?  So do what you can to help them do so.

To recap: Have a goal, tie the encounters together, and make sure to capstone with a great encounter.  Next time, I'll discuss making those excellent encounters.

What do you think, readers, are plot based victory conditions effective?  Try them out, see what your players think.

Read part 4!

November 21, 2010

Minimum Competence

I promised an ExoSquad update, and while there isn't much in the way of firm rules yet, as I'm a firm believer in designing by design. But that said, even after the ideas are there and the design bible written, you have a crazy idea that you've just got to try.

I stumbled upon that idea today. Imagine never missing. You roll the dice knowing you'll hit, but the dice tell you something more than a simple pass or fail: they tell you how effective you are.

Low rolls mean you graze or just scare your opponent, high rolls are deadly accuracy.

Applying this idea to ExoSquad, I've got a quick idea of how I can go about it.

Assuming a twenty-sided die, I'd make 1s always give a single point of heat.  After all, that's what heat is, right? It is something to worry about, even if it doesn't hit. Then, in the 2-5 range, it'd be based on weapon, maybe a smaller amount of heat, or a small beneficial effect like forced movement.

Stepping up the ladder, we get into the 6-13 range, the classic range of potential hit zones.  This will be your baseline effects, mostly damage, with an added benefit.

Then we push into the 'guaranteed hits', 14-18.  They aren't 100%, but a good portion of the time, a 14 (Or 70%+ for percentile.) or better is going to hit the target.  These get bonuses: a more powerful secondary effect, more damage.

Then we have the 'critical range' of 19-20. In Exosquad, this zone will be for the absolutely amazing effects at each level. And most of them should include an immediate threat roll from the enemy, in addition to whatever benefit it offers.

So, one roll determines effect, another spits out the specifics of the hit. Of course, each type of weapon and attack will have different riders and abilities, with different levels of damage to go with it.

In an effort to speed up game play, as most tactical RPGs have a bad habit of bogging down in combat, how do I apply this concept to the NPC killables? My idea is simple: a choice. Each enemy offers either two effects, and the player may choose which they want.

Perhaps an infantryman with a mounted machine gun can offer either an amount of heat (Say. . . a four-sided die.) or one heat and a forced move to represent a tactical retreat.

This system leaves the effects entirely in the hands of the players, who can choose between significant damage and stuns, or movement into what may be a less useful position and damage.

So, think about it, maybe try it out at home with a quick system hack in your tactical RPG of choice.  Let me know!

For a little bonus, I’ve also been thinking on Velocity, and have decided it’ll be more interesting as a ‘shared story’ type RPG where winning the dice roll means you decide the narration of the event, instead of determining pass/fail. I’ll need to set the thresholds regarding when you can actually knock an opponent out of the race, though leads will be determined by the narrator.

Come back next week for part three of Hook, Line and Sinker, and find out how Adventures should be planned using narrative tools.

Your initiative, readers; comment below:

Do you think removing the ‘whiff factor’ from games is a good idea?

How would you like to steal the DM’s thunder and choose the outcome of events in Velocity?

November 14, 2010

Hook, Line and Sinker (Part 2)

You've set the hook, the players are on the line and aimed for the end, now how do you reel them in?

Start with the high level plan you made: What is it the players are after that should be the focus point of the end game? 

If it's a Greed hook, is it a legendary item?  Maybe they want to rule the world?  Perhaps, they just want a country?  If it's Revenge, is the enemy truly a challenge for the end game? Glory had better be something to go down in the history of the game world.  If it's Knowledge, it should be something that only the party will know when the end game is over. Whatever it is, it has to be something characters of the suspected end can achieve.  In Dungeons & Dragons, it better be multiverse changing, in World of Darkness it should at least affect the city, if not the country or world.  The important thing is to know your system and its end game well enough to make the call.

Now consider what the players need to obtain the goal.  Let's look at a few examples:

The players want to control a mythical artifact that was shattered long ago.  Obviously, they need to obtain all the pieces with the final piece being obtained JUST BEFORE the final climatic battle/encounter.  Why just before?  Because what's the point of an awesome artifact if you don't get the chance to use it?  If it's a weapon, someone should be attacking with it.  If it's something more abstract, perhaps an item that can redefine reality, the final fight should be with an enemy who wants it for themselves, and is willing to plaster the party to get it. So, depending on how many pieces you want to have, you have a rough road map for the campaign: Piece 1, Piece 2, Piece 3, Piece 4. . . End Game.

If they're after revenge, it's a bit more abstract, but the same idea: They need to find out where the enemy is, they need to know his true capabilities, they might need something to counteract a specific strength, and then, they need to get to him.

If they want to control something or do something mythic themselves, they need to prepare.  They need to have the goal, they need to get help, they need to make themselves better, and they have to DO the thing.  Using the Hero's Journey as an outline for this is probably a good idea.

If they're after knowledge, the steps are also similar: They need to know the knowledge exists, they need to find out who or what has it, they need to find out where this thing is, and they need to go get it.

So now you have a basic road map, each major 'step' should take about equal portions of the experience ramp.  I'm going to combine a few of the above ideas into one as I walk through a campaign plan that should keep players on the line.

End Game Hook: The players are trying to assemble an artifact that will let them revive an ancient empire to bring light back to the world. They will be opposed by a man who will stop at nothing to use that same artifact to gain unlimited demonic power and create an empire of his own.

Note that this hook combines three elements, and can include the fourth: An artifact of great power for Greed, a Glory in saving the world, Revenge in a long term antagonist, and Knowledge can be drawn on by making the ancient empire or artifact not something easily found out about.  By using all four hooks, I hope to draw any potential players toward the same goal.  Also, by including all four hooks, I can drop elements the players don't like without greatly affecting my ability to plan for their choices.

Now, steps for each goal:


I'll use the artifact as the initial hook for the game and break it into four pieces: The first will be a large gemstone on a necklace that acts as a scaling magical item over the course of the campaign. The second piece will be a rod, wand, or staff (Whichever one is most useful to the players) that the crystal can sit in.  The third piece will look like a piece of accent on another scaling magic item.  And the last 'piece' is a tower from the old Empire where the final battle can take place.


This is a hard one to work with, but likely, he'll be a 'behind the scenes' man, sending loyal henchmen who drop clues leading to him at the end, where he will personally try to dispose of our band of heroes.  The first clue will be when someone tries to steal the necklace from the party, the next will be a man who was trying to get the rod, and the final clue can be a man who has the last piece of the artifact. Then, of course, we have our climax.


I'll say that the use of the artifact is going to be a hidden thing, with clues hidden in the pieces, the antagonist’s friends, and a few wise sages littered amongst the overarching story.  I don't want to make this too specific, but the information should be paced so as to not give out so much as to have 'cut scenes' that slow the game down. We also want to make as much as possible relevant to the current story as possible.  For our case, the first clue that the gem is more than it appears comes when they stop the 'thief,' who lets it slip that the group doesn't know what they're dealing with. From there, investigation should reveal its connection with the old empire, and lead to them seeking out ruins where the rod is kept. At the ruins, they encounter the second thug, whose murmurs reveal that there is an artifact that helped shape the old empire.  If they investigate further, they should learn of the existence of the tower, and at least some of its function.  Another piece of the puzzle is of course the 'key' hidden on another item, which should come into play when the last henchman tries to obtain the other two pieces, revealing that his master knows where the tower is and knows how to activate it. The players should be able to trace the antagonist enough to learn who he talked to, and where he went.  Then we go on to our final encounter.

Glory takes effect pretty much anywhere along this path.  Perhaps they're doing things for a specific king, or spreading their own names so as to more smoothly take control.  It doesn't matter as long as people start talking about them.

So there we have a basic outline:

Adventurers do a dungeon crawl, find a special necklace.
Thief attempts to steal necklace, revealing that its worth is more than it seems.
Group seeks a sage to learn more (Or does research on their own!).
They go to ruins from the old empire.
A man they find wandering through the place reveals that there is an artifact of great power left from the old empire.
Upon defeating him, the players learn he worked for a man who wants all the parts of the artifact.
They find the rod.
They find information on the tower.
They seek out the last key, tracking the man who wants the artifact for himself.
A thug tries to stop them; they take the last piece from him.
They follow the trail left by the thug.
At the tower, they face off with their antagonist.
Win or lose, someone uses the tower.

With this in hand, you have a basic idea of where to go, and what small scale plot hooks to lie down in the players’ path. Combine some of these elements with the players’ short term goals and fill in any dull moments with the players tangents, and they’ll be enjoying themselves to the end.

As this article has proven much longer than I intended, I’m going to break the series into a few more parts.  We’ll get into Adventure and Encounter planning in the next few segments, and end it with the Sinker: clinching Campaigns, Adventures, and Encounters in a way that satisfies.

Next week, I’ll look into discussing more mechanics ideas for ExoSquad, find out more about the load-outs I mentioned in my post on system mastery.

So what do you think, GMs, is this type of planning likely to help you out in the long run?  What about players, you guys think this is too much of a railroad?  Sound off in the comments!

Find Part 3 Here

November 7, 2010

Building Blocks

Part 2 of Hook, Line, and Sinker will come next week.

For the record, I love tactical miniatures games. I also love strategic board games. They’re fun to me, but I’ve encountered something in trying to spread this love to others on a regular basis. There’s a resistance to classic strategy and tactical games. Even new games suffer from a stigma.

When 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons came out, there was an oft cited reason why it was ‘bad’: There’s no roleplaying! Now, I disagreed with this sentiment, sometimes violently (verbally, not physically; I’m a confirmed nerd!), but as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized it wasn’t so much that it discouraged roleplaying as it modeled those classic games in a way. The flavor of the game was intentionally left somewhat murky in an effort to let it be something to everyone.

Now for some of us, this isn’t a problem. We like projecting our own ideas onto the skeleton abstracts give us. We don’t care what the book tells us, we just need the strings of numbers to make it work. But it’s like building with Legos: it’s always going to have those edges, and it’ll never be perfectly smooth.

Others, they want something different. They want, if not reality, a smoothly rendered experience. The guy with the sword, even if he does AWESOME THINGS does it differently than the guy with the wand or bow or dagger. Each of the abilities in the game should function in a logical progression independent of the building blocks that some systems offer. The game will be smooth, and each technique feels different in a physical sense as much as a narrative one.

I do think these two groups can operate together, but both will end up making concessions of some sort to the other side. I admit to being in the first group, I like being able to define, and redefine, on the fly during games.

With ExoSquad, I want to use building blocks for the combat abilities.  Guns all function approximately the same way in real life, and so to make it interesting, each attack needs to be a different way to use a specific gun. This does tie back into Heat, of course, but also things like covering and suppressive fire, sniper shots, and anything else you can think of both from real combat and action movies and anime.

Each attack will target one of a number of defenses, all currently unnamed, and hitting allows you to apply Heat and effects. The effects will be common fare to tactical games: moving opponents, debuffs, and buffs.

I also want something ‘building block’ style for the social aspects of the game, including how the group receives its secondary missions. Something so that the way the missions are given make sense to the characters histories, but also add the tension such things should offer.

So, Readers, what do you think?  Building blocks a good way to play? Or should everything have a more granular system? Let me know below!