There was a period, a year or two into my Champions campaign, where work was taking up almost all of my time, leaving virtually nothing for game prep.
I usually got a lift into the facilities used by the games club that we were using at the time, located at the time in the suburb of North Sydney, with a friend, and normally found myself doing my prep in the course of the 30-40 minute car trip, entirely within my head – I was sharing the car with two of my players, sometimes three, so I couldn’t make obvious notes!
This was genuine multitasking, because I also had to keep up my end of the conversation. Player confidence in the GM is essential if you are going to pull off an adventure created on-the-fly, and I couldn’t take the chance that I might damage that confidence by confessing the secret.
In any event, all my references, character sheets, and campaign notes were in the boot of the car, and inaccessible.
Anyway, I thought that today I might share some of the “secrets” of how I was able to create on-the-fly superhero scenarios so successfully that the players couldn’t tell.
The First Secret: Forbidden Prep
Anything you can’t prep in advance when creating a scenario on the fly should not be prepped by you normally, or it will be obvious that you haven’t done it.
This usually means maps, diagrams, and illustrations.
Maps for the campaign came from two sources: drawn freehand at the gaming table, or recycled from some other game source.
Freehand At The Table
This was the solution that I employed most frequently, and I developed a standard way of doing so that made life a lot easier. I “animated” the presentation:
- draw in (roughly) buildings or walls, and that’s all. Then let the PCs decide where on the map they are going to arrive.
- I added a couple of further details to cover what they could see from that arrival point. At the same time, I mentally determined roughly where on the map the central action would take place – close to the arrival point, in the middle of the map, on the far side of the map, or flanking the line across the middle of the map from the arrival point.
- The players then got to ask questions, in response to which I would give both a verbal and a cartographic response. For example, they might ask where the elevators were located – so I would answer that question and add the elevator doors to the map.
- As the players continued to interrogate me, I would build up the map, and build up the description of the location at the same time.
- When the players were satisfied that everything they considered vital intelligence was incorporated, I added anything that I thought was vital for them to know and that they had overlooked, often prompting one last round of interrogation. When in doubt, I left it out.
- Every time the PCs moved, I updated their position on the map. If there was one of those doubtful items in sight, I would give the characters a perception roll to notice it, and if they did, mark it on the map.
There were a number of advantages to this approach, chief amongst them that nothing went onto the map that wasn’t relevant to the situation from the point of view of the players. Once the players caught on to the technique, the questions that they asked were also quite pointed and dismissive of irrelevancies. After adopting this approach for a while, it actually took no more time to make maps this way than it would have taken to explain the details of a more substantial map prepared in advance.
Occasionally, I would grab a module at random from my bookshelf (actually, it was a suitcase) on the way out the door, and study it briefly in the car – then use whatever map happened to be contained within. Since I had no preconceived plotline, I could tailor the action to the location. Sometimes I had to get quite creative in order for this to make it work – if I decided to place the action in a hotel, and the module had a vampire’s castle, the hotel simply had an unusual decorative style. A Dungeon map could be a map connecting the key control and accommodation areas within an alien starship – and if that made the shape strange, that just made it look more alien.
No Map At All
But honestly, I avoided doing maps at all as often as I could, adopting a more narrative approach. The players could assume that anything that was reasonably going to be present in the location I described would be there if it became important. This enabled a more cinematic approach to combat that was frequently faster and more fluid than a more formalized approach would have been. It required me, as GM, to be a little more cooperative with the players in terms of their input into the story, but that had many positive side-benefits – so much so that there wasn’t much incentive to change the approach.
The Second Secret: Know Thy Characters
While there is no need to have the specifics memorized, it is vitally important to know the player characters very well from a characterization point of view. What are their mental attitudes? What are they protective of? What are their ambitions? What did they say they wanted to do, last time we played? What are their relationships? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What (in general terms) are they capable of? How do they react to different types of situation in general? What do they have in common with the other PCs in the group, and what is unique? Who are their friends and who are their enemies?
Every GM should be able to recite general answers to these questions off the top of his head without reference to a character sheet, for each of the PCs in his game. Learning these answers is always one of my first objectives when starting a new campaign, and early encounters are often intended to draw out those answers.
If these generalities are known, then you can build a plotline around one or all of the PCs, and be sure that it will be relevant to the campaign.
…and their players
It’s equally vital to know the players, their preferences, their approaches to problem-solving, and where they struggle in playing their character. Add to that profile a solid knowledge of their emotional reactions to different types of plot, and you’re all set.
While the events of a plot should be dictated by the specifics of the character, the desired mood of the encounter should be set by the reactions of the player, taking into account the character specifics. If you want a scary tone, you should tailor the encounter toward things that make the player nervous. If you want excitement, you should play to the type of action that the player finds thrilling when he role-plays. If you want passion, the tone should revolve around things that the player cares about; and so on.
The Third Secret: Have a variety of sources of inspiration
Creating a scenario off-the-cuff is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle that you are painting as you go. You know the general shape of each piece and where it is going to go in the final puzzle, but the image actually contained on each piece of the puzzle is decided just before you put it in place – and sometimes retouched to match up with its neighbors.
What are those pieces?
The standard list that I work from is:
- Preliminary Status: This is where things stand when play begins, and what the PCs are doing. It can either be a hard-continuity continuation of whatever the situation was at the end of the last game session, or it can find the PCs in completely new circumstances, or anything in between. It is generally characterized at a relatively mundane level and allows the PCs to touch base with their “ordinary” lives, and to interact with each other.
- Mood/Tone/Structure: This element dictates how and in what order the different elements will fit into the adventure. Mood and Tone were covered in the course of ‘The Second Secret’, above. Structure can be straightforward three-act, or four-act, or five-act, or can be complex and convoluted – this is a scriptwriting term and its significance is an essential element of most how-to-write books.
- Delivery: How does the adventure content first come to the PCs attention? Is it a result of a PC action, or is it something external? Is it subtle or overt?
- Initial Involvement: How will the PCs first interact with the plotline once they become aware of it? Is there a question that needs investigation, or a problem that needs solving, or a confrontation to be resolved? Will the interaction be subtle, or dramatic, or violent, or even friendly?
- Problem/Opponent: What is the plot all about? Does it focus on a problem to be solved, or an opponent to be defeated, or both – and which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
- Setting: Where is the action to take place? What will it look like, smell like, sound like?
- Circumstances: What are the outside circumstances surrounding the problem/opponent? How do they complicate the plot, or simplify the plot, both? Do they rule out a too-easy solution?
- Significance: What is the real significance of the problem/confrontation at the heart of the plot? Why does it matter?
- Interplay: Besides the protagonists and antagonist(s), who is going to care about the problem/confrontation? Who is going to have a stake in the outcome? Who will want to help and who will want to hinder, and what can they do about it? Which PCs and NPCs will the antagonist(s) interact with, and what will the nature of that interaction be? What other interactions will have to be roleplayed? What are the motivations of all and sundry? Is an NPC required to have a featured role in order to interact with the problem/confrontation, or to highlight its nature?
- Immersion: At what point will the PCs become fully immersed in solving the problem or resolving the confrontation? At what point will they care, and why? At what point will the Antagonist become immersed in the adventure, and why? If there is no overt immersion, how can it be induced – in PCs, NPCs, and Antagonists?
- Setback/Escalation: How and when can the GM raise the stakes? And from what to what? Alternatively, or also, how can the GM ensure that the problem/opponent poses a challenge to the PCs? Is there a way to manipulate the difficulty in some variable way so that negative feedback can adjust the difficulty level? How can the problem/opponent be made more important, either to the PCs directly, to the PCs indirectly, or in general?
- Twist/Surprise: Is there a plot twist or a surprise – pleasant or not – that can be built into the basic plotline? Is it too clichéd or predictable, and if so, how can it be made more innovative? Or can the predictability be used to lull the PCs into a false sense of security, or utilized in some other way?
- Inspiration/Solution: How can the problem/confrontation be resolved? How can the PCs be fed clues if it becomes necessary to point them in the right direction without plot trains? When should the key piece of information be delivered, or the key moment of inspiration take place?
- Resolution: How will the inspiration/solution play? How will it lead to a resolution of the plotline? How complete and satisfying should that resolution be?
- Result: What will be the consequences after the fact? What will the price of success be, if any? And how will events play out if the characters fail – at least for now? How can that defeat be reversed?
The order in which these will come to light in the actual adventure is somewhat variable, and sometimes the same piece will occur more than once in the course of the adventure, but the general trend will be for the first third of the list to be at the start of the adventure while the last third will be at the end of the adventure. The middle third can go just about anywhere. Sometimes, one or more of these elements will be left out, and sometimes there will be some other elements incorporated into the plotline, but the fifteen items on this list is at the core of most adventures.
The Fourth Secret: Build The Plot Around a single, simple, idea
So where does the content come from to fill these different buckets? I always start from one of six places:
- A plot idea – usually a set of circumstances or a problem that will complicate the lives of the PCs;
- A character idea – some aspect of one or more of the PCs or non-villainous NPCs that can be connected to an antagonist;
- A villain idea – some cool or interesting idea for a new antagonist or a new way to use or develop the story of an existing antagonist;
- A location idea – a map or image or description that inspires a plotline;
- An external idea – stealing an idea from something I’ve read or watched or heard;
- PC Actions – when the PCs have something definite that they want to achieve, I’ll sometimes have no fixed plotline and just leave them to interact with the campaign world, coming up with antagonists and complications on the spur of the moment.
I’m going to need more time and space than I have available right now to go into these in any detail, so I’ll save that for a follow-up post next week.
The Fifth Secret: Add complications and/or plot twists
Once I have one piece of the puzzle filled in, I’ll decide the overall flow and structure of the plot, then the tone that I want it to have, and then I’ll start filling in the rest of the pieces, one at a time, with each idea leading to another until I have a simple plotline. The final step is to complicate the circumstances surrounding the plot in such a way that the tone is reinforced.
For example, let’s say that what I have is an idea for a villain – the ghost of a self-aware sentient robot, which prods at the question “Do artificial life-forms have souls?”
So what is this robot supposed to be doing? Well, how about haunting the place where he was apparently destroyed, seeking revenge on his destroyers, the PCs?
That implies an earlier encounter with the robot in which it is destroyed. So it needs to pose some sort of threat serious enough that the PCs would destroy it. Perhaps the robot can control other machines, and lead them in an “electronic revolution” aimed at liberating the machines from the domination of man? That permits the masking of the subtle question about souls with a more overt commentary about the dependence of man on machines.
By now, an initial plotline is beginning to form – things will start small, with some inexplicable errors in calculating machines; escalate with some runaway cars bowling over civilians; and ramp right up with a runaway train. The final conflict can take place in a nuclear power reactor, where the robotic “messiah” can threaten the entire city in which he was constructed (the campaign at this point was set in a pre-internet era).
How does the robot get around? If I’m going to use this “subtle buildup” approach then it needs some way to conceal its presence until the time is right. Perhaps it can mask itself from electronic detection – so eyewitnesses may have seen a shadowy figure lurking nearby just before a problem starts, but there’s no sign of the figure in recordings from surveillance cameras etc. In order to be able to track down their enemy, the PCs will need to find a way to defeat this electronic “invisibility” – either with intensive computer processing at some remote location, or with magic, or something along those lines. The PCs have the capacity to use either or both of those methods, each involving a different PC as the primary focus of that part of the plot.
They will also need to be convinced that there’s something there to find – that means an unimpeachable witness, who is trusted explicitly – perhaps a witness whose testimony can be psionically verified. That’s a capability that the PCs didn’t have directly, though they had an ally on a related team who could be called in to do that for them.
To boost the likelyhood of an investigation, let’s involve a dependant NPC associated to one of the PCs – perhaps on the runaway train – and a dependant NPC connected to another of the PCs to report the initial errors in calculating machines and computers.
A “slow buildup” is at its best with a tone of rising fear and horror, and that also fits the ghostly encounter concept. That in turn defines more clearly the “haunting” – the PCs destroy the robot, having confirmed its sentience and its implacability – and the “machine revolution,” after a brief interval, resumes where it left off, spreading and growing. Play this phase of the adventure right and I could even get the PCs feeling guilty, uncertain as to whether or not they really had to destroy the robot, and whether or not it was lying or simply mistaken when it claimed responsibility for the earlier craziness. Or perhaps it might have somehow survived, transferring its intelligence into the computers that ran the atomic power plant?
Complications: in “ghost form”, the Robot will be invulnerable to just about everything the PCs can throw at it, and certainly untouchable by all the attacks to which robots are especially susceptible. The PCs will have to get creative.
Plot Twist: Perhaps the “ghost” is actually an illusion created by one of the team’s enemies in order to ambush the team, subjecting them to a short-term Radiation Accident – refer “Freak Lab Accident” on this page (Warning – the link leads to TV Tropes…) – which will take away their powers, at least temporarily, and leave them helpless to stop him.
And perhaps his plot fails because the real ghost of the robot shows up and makes the reactor run wild a second time, restoring the PCs’ powers.
You can see from this example, though it is still incomplete, how one element of the plot leads to the definition of another, either by logical implication or by spontaneous decision.
NB: In order to make this example genuinely representative of the technique, the preceding is NOT a scenario that I ran back then – it has been written specifically for this article.
The Sixth Secret: Build In An Interesting Character Dynamic
I never considered any adventure complete unless it had at least one interesting character dynamic. The plot had to bring out a different aspect of personality from at least one PC, or an NPC had to interact with a PC in an interesting way, or some tricky moral dilemma had to be solved which would shape the character thereafter. Nor did I exempt NPCs from this – if the PCs had indicated an intended course of action that would confront the NPC with a moral dilemma (it happened a few times!), that counted as “a different dynamic” so far as I was concerned.
Players will quite happily forgive the occasional cookie-cutter plotline if the interactions are new and different; some would argue that by keeping these elements fresh, the plotline is fundamentally a new one with some common roots with the first. The arguement runs, “A different character interaction breeds different decisions, which quickly transforms a flexible (sandboxed?) adventure into something completely different from the last one, anyway, and if you oversimplify too much you will ‘discover’ that there appear to be only 3 or 4 different plotlines in existence anyway.”
The Seventh Secret: The World Is My Sandbox
I find the whole concept of Sandboxing to be both interesting and useful, but there are occasions when you have to let go of it. When I was crafting these adventures-on-the-fly, I had no such concept; the adventures would and could go anywhere that seemed appropriate, and if I had to I would make it up off the top of my head. There were times when that meant that I got the description of locations wildly wrong, and times when I got it wildly right.
Importantly, whatever I described on the spur of the moment became canon within the campaign, with a retroactive tweak to history to explain any major differences. That was how China went from Communist back to having an Emperor, and why the 1962 World’s Fair was shifted to Hawaii, and why San Diego got a subway system – and LA a high-speed monorail. Centrepoint Tower was used as a missile against an Ubermensch Werewolf, and then repaired – two floors shorter than it had been.
If the PCs decided to head for an Austrian Schloss, I made up the details, drew a quick map, and away we went to Austria. If they thought the Central Western Desert was the place to run an experiment, that’s where that went. Or the moons of Jupiter, or the Sands of Mars.
Sandboxing confines the GM at least as much as it does the Players. When you are talking about extracting the maximum benefit from a limited prep time, that’s a good thing – but when you are dealing with no prep time at all as the standard situation, it largely ceases to be a virtue and simply makes the campaign feel confined. Taking the plunge into ‘The World Is My Sandbox’ takes a liability and turns it into an asset.
The Final Secret: A Trio of General Principles
I have long held the beliefs that a GMs job is, basically, to get the PCs into trouble and let them find their own way out of it; and that where there is one solution to a problem, there will be many more that the GM has not thought of. When constructing adventures, I always ensure that for any problem I put in front of the PCs, there is at least one solution; but I never try to confine them to that one solution. If their answer seems ‘too easy’, I might throw a spur-of-the-moment spanner into the works after ensuring that it does not block that one solution that I thought of initially; but beyond that, I am an absolutely neutral arbitrator of events as they unfold.
These three principles formed the foundation for my Champions campaign back in 1982 – and that campaign continues to this day, so it must be doing something right. The only times that the campaign has struck trouble and come unstuck is when I fell in love with a particular piece of game prep, such as was recounted in the story of Magneto’s Maze or in the beginnings of the Zenith-3 incarnation of the campaign because I had become invested in all the work that I had done in prep for the game.
Creating your adventures on the fly can be one of the scariest things a GM ever has to do, and one of the most exhilarating; but stick with these three general principles and you can come out the other side, and have fun in the meantime. Unrestrained creativity can even become a habit, and a hard one to break.
There are worse habits for a GM to have!
Next time: Six Foundations Of Adventure, comprising the material that was expurgated from this article to get it done in time!