I thought that I’d talk a little today about the way Blair and I write adventures for the Adventurer’s Club campaign. Because we share the GMing responsibilities in that campaign – and I don’t mean alternating in the GM’s Chair, I mean we both GM at the same time – this process is necessarily somewhat different to my normal approach. Along the way, I’ll throw in some information about the benefits and liabilities of co-GMing, and why you might need to try it sometime.
A Blending Of Styles
In the beginning, Blair was the only GM of the Adventurer’s Club campaign, and I was one of several players. After three adventures (two of which I was unable to participate in as my character wasn’t ready), the campaign was beginning to fall apart. The players were unhappy, and several were thinking of pulling out to play something else. Blair himself didn’t know how long the campaign would last when he started it, though he hoped it would be around for a year or two.
The problems that were afflicting the campaign were many-fold. The adventures, though reasonable as stand-alone fill-ins, lacked depth. The characters, though reasonably conceived, were wildly inconsistent in the level of opposition they afforded the PCs. The background elements were good as far as they went, but were patchy and incomplete, and felt superficial. Blair had created a number of NPCs with which to populate the game world but these were all allies of the heroes and, having been modeled on Blair’s favorite pulp characters from other sources – totally overshadowed the PCs. Finally, there was a severe problem with the amount of prep that Blair was investing in the campaign.
After listening to the other players complaints, making my own observations, and discussing the situation with one or two interested non-participants, I came to the conclusion that Blair’s GMing style was weak in all the areas in which I was strong – and that there was a lot of potential worth preserving within the campaign. Since I had the luxury of the time in which to do so, I decided that it was worth at least offering to share the GMing duties. Blair saw the benefits immediately, and our collaboration began immediately. That was August 28, 2006 – so the collaboration, and the Campaign, has now run for more than six years and is showing no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Lack of Prep
Blair can be considered a self-educated expert in the Pulp Genre and a Grognard when it comes to period militaria and atmosphere elements. He has read hundreds of novels and stories from the genre, if not thousands, or that are at least peripherally related. That’s both the advantage that he brought to the campaign and the curse that had to be overcome. With his vast repertoire, he was able to take a pulp-derived adventure premise – described in little more than a single line – and run an adventure built around it, off-the-cuff.
That’s both an admirable quality and a potential failing, because it takes more than reasonable in-genre adventures to make a campaign; the wider scheme of things has to be more than the sum of its parts.
There’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to the depth of investment in campaign prep: if you don’t expect the campaign to last, you don’t invest the depth necessary to make it last, and consequently it doesn’t last. The more layers of complexity and detail that you can build into a campaign, the more there is for the players to explore and interact with, the more campaign elements there are that can interact in interesting ways, and the more there is for the players to explore. Sustaining the interest of the players in the campaign world is essential to campaign longevity; that alone is not enough to create a campaign that will last for a decade or more, but it is a prerequisite.
In particular, a GM needs to invest prep time in covering those areas in which his natural style is deficient. If you are bad at coming up with NPCs on the fly, you should invest prep into creating NPCs that can sustain prolonged interest. If you are weak at balancing combat factors so that encounters will challenge the PCs without being overwhelming, you need to spend time working on the combat situations that will occur within the adventure. And so on.
In comparison, I knew virtually nothing about the pulp genre, I can still (almost) count the number of pulp stories/novels that I have read on one hand. But I have a far more disciplined approach to campaign prep, which I use not only to shore up areas in which I am weaker as a GM, but to hone and refine those elements that come naturally. Much of the time, I actually enjoy campaign- and adventure-prep.
Co-GMing turns adventure prep into a collaborative and social occupation. This interaction gives Blair the stimulus and discipline that he needs to do what needs to be done, while the fact that I am working outside my normal genre limitations forces me to get a bit more creative and stretch myself in unusual directions. Together, we make one good GM when it comes to campaign prep. In addition, the fact that he is good at some things I am not (such as faking an Indian accent) means that we can write to each other’s strengths in designing adventures.
Depth of Adventures
The consequence of taking a “typical” pulp premise and improvising an adventure around it is that they are completely isolated, completely meaningless in the greater scheme of things. They have no connection to what had happened before, they have no connection with anything that might happen in the future, and they have no lasting consequences.
I regard no act of creation within a campaign as complete unless it does two or three things within the broader context of the campaign. Connecting adventures together to form a larger narrative comes naturally to me.
In large part, then, the shortage of prep time that Blair was investing in his campaign was directly responsible for the absence of depth within the adventures that he was producing. My involvement in the Campaign forced him to look beyond the source material on which he was drawing, to the fundamentals of character and plot – in the process, expanding the limits of the genre to encompass less derivation and more innovation and creativity. From the first adventure we collaborated on, this was a solved problem.
Wildly inconsistent opposition
While Blair had GM’d a couple of times before starting the pulp campaign, and was a hobbyist-writer of pulp stories, he had never GM’d the Hero System (never mind the Pulp Hero variant) before. As a result, while he could create opposition in a literary sense, he struggled to translate those capabilities into game mechanics, in particular as regards power level.
The real problem was that he was constructing his opposition (in terms of game mechanics) to an idealized standard based purely on the character concept he had in mind, without consideration of what the PCs were capable of. As a result, sometimes they presented a challenge for the PCs, and other times they had all the impact of wet spaghetti. On the other hand, while I had not GM’d straight Hero System game mechanics for more than a decade, my variant system was still firmly rooted in the mechanics of the original – enough that I could see where Blair was going wrong.
My approach was to invert the process. After an initial concept, I would look at the plot needs that the character had to serve, set the game mechanics – OCV, DCV, etc – accordingly, then adjust the initial concept as necessary to justify the scores chosen.
Early on, I introduced Blair to the rule of 5: Opposition with stats of 10 was an easy fight for a single PC. Add 5 to get something close to a fair fight for a well-designed PC. Add 5 more for each doubling of the numbers of PCs of that standard that the character had to stand up to. So, to stand up to four well-constructed PCs, a single enemy would need stats of around 25. These numbers had nothing to do with how capable the NPCs should be, they were simple rules of thumb for describing how effective the NPCs had to be just to hold their own in play.
Amusingly, the same values work reasonably well in 3.x…
Overpowered NPC allies
One of the big problems to be overcome was the perception that the NPCs who populated the Adventurer’s Club were “Blair’s Favorites”, demigods who could solve any problem, and who did not really need the PCs. Blair’s original concept was that these would act as consultants and drop-in characters for any role the PCs needed – but by making sure that the PCs had a resource to call apon for any problem that might confront them, never mind ones that were exemplars of their professions, he inadvertently made the PCs seem superfluous, at least to the players’ perspective.
Solving this problem has been a multistep process that is still ongoing. The first step was to make them more rounded characters, rather than idealized depictions of Blair’s favorite Heroes from Pulp stories, giving them flaws. The biggest is that they are robustly individualistic, and cooperate with each other poorly, as a result. Secondly, to have them tackling problems that were too big for the PCs to deal with, and that took lots of patient inactivity, by having them ask the PCs to help in smaller aspects of the big problem. Getting the PCs tails caught in the gears of the bigger problems would present them with challenges that were appropriate to their levels of capability while implying the scale of the bigger issues. Thirdly, by giving the PCs a taste of the consequences of their own gradually-growing fame, to imply that the considerably greater fame of the NPCs gave them an even greater handicap to overcome. Fourthly, by having the NPCs fail a time or two, needing the PCs to come to the rescue. And finally, by pointing toward the concept of generational change within the ranks.
Making the NPCs less effective, and less ubiquitous, while emphasizing the one thing that the PCs by the very nature of the fact that they were PCs had as an advantage – that there was a team of them – gave them something unique to contribute to the campaign that none of the NPCs could provide. To that end, we ripped the club apart, had most of the senior members drop out (at least temporarily), put the FBI in charge, and had the PCs become the new club administration’s fair-haired boys.
All of this placed the senior NPC members at the periphery of the activities of the PCs, shifting the focus of attention away from these impossibly-perfect NPCs.
Incomplete and superficial background elements
Another part of this process was the fleshing out of other members of the supporting cast – the staff that keeps the Adventurer’s Club ticking over, shifting the focus away from the paragons of virtue at least somewhat. The goal was to put these isolated campaign elements into context, to make it feel like the PCs were people inhabiting a real world populated by real people.
One-line descriptions of these characters (many of whom did not even have a name) and locations within the blub premises simply didn’t cut it. I wanted the PCs to be able to have a conversation with a waitress, or with the cleaning lady, and for them to have an honest-to-goodness backstory to tell. I wanted to rezone the locations within the club to make them interesting places to visit, with an atmosphere and some impact.
It all comes back to campaign prep, really.
It’s not going to far to describe Blair as bringing the concepts and genre knowledge while I brought practical and professional expertise to the collaboration. The game world and the people who have made it the way it is are still Blair’s creations; my role is to ensure that they are presented to the players in the most interesting way possible, to make his campaign world live up to the promise that it derives from his expertise in the genre. It’s in this context that the approach we use to create the adventures should be viewed.
Collaboration is at the heart of the process that we have developed over the years for achieving this ambition. Because these collaborations occur at my place for various reasons, I usually handle much of the chores of the writing while Blair documents character concepts and broad notes. In order to codify the different stages of the process, I have taken to using different text colors to identify where we’re up to. Although we don’t actually refer to them as such, I’m going to use those colors as labels to describe these stages of the process.
The first stage is conceptual, and I use a gray text color for any notes. We start by reviewing the premise of the plot, where it is intended to take the broader adventure, its style, and in general getting an idea for what the overall structure of the adventure is going to be. In most cases, the synopsis is an idea, expressed in little more than a paragraph or even a single sentence. I tend to think of it as the “back cover blurb” for the adventure.
Some adventures seem to write themselves easily, while others have a far more difficult development. Whenever possible, a three-step approach is used:
- What’s the overall situation?
- What are the villains doing, and what are their plans?
- How can we involve the PCs in those plans, and what will the consequences be?
By deciding what the overall plan of the villains is, as they think it would proceed with no interference from the PCs (or from anyone else), we create a framework that can be used as the foundations of the adventure.
The PCs anticipated involvement can generally also be initially broken down into three steps:
- Realize that something is going on
- Investigate to discover what that something is
- Identify an opportunity to do something about it, then exploit that opportunity.
While we’re aided by our knowledge of what the PCs can do, and what the players are likely to want to do, and can tailor the information received and the circumstances to steer events this way or that, we are often surprised in that phase; our planning is deliberately robust enough to ensure that there are multiple paths to success so that we are completely comfortable with the PCs going off in an unexpected direction. Having two sets of eyes go through the villain’s plans to ensure that there are no obvious solutions that have been overlooked which can bring the whole adventure to a premature end also helps immensely.
The goal in this stage is to break down the plot into Acts or Chapters, each with its own one- or two-line summary. If the adventure is flowing naturally, we may even go as far as three or four lines, but that’s fairly rare. Some of the plots are my ideas, some are Blair’s, and some have evolved out of discussions between us.
For each Act, we will then work out who the NPCs are that we need to create; what the locations are that we need to specify; any game props that we need to devise; and so on. What resources we need to have at hand, in other words.
Blair will usually write these down. At the same time, we will break the synopsis of each Act down into smaller scenes. Because we already know to what end the Act is supposed to lead, and from where things stand in the plot at the point it is coming from, it’s very much an exercise in connecting the dots – with each of those dots being another circumstance or resource.
A key sub-step of the process is to ensure that each PC will have at least one moment to shine within the adventure, one appearance on centre-stage. This in itself often has a formative influence on the plotline’s breakdown. And if a PC is not active within this part of the adventure, we want to know what he will be doing at the time.
Once we have a list of the resources needed and a more detailed breakdown of the plotline that tells us how those resources connect to form the main plot, it’s time to start generating the actual resources.
We start by generating each NPC. Research is important; where the NPC is to be modeled on a real individual, we will look for a Wikipedia page on that individual (and go to Google or other offline resources as necessary); where it’s an entirely fictional character, we’ll do whatever research we need on the circumstances and background of the NPC. Because we have identified the NPCs role in the plotline, and are crafting the character to fit, then building a backstory that produces an NPC who is both willing and able to meet those story needs, there is not a lot of wasted activity. Defining and refining each individual can introduce additional plot points; we want characters to behave plausibly, given their mindsets and capabilities, and that often means adding in an additional encounter to establish the relevant character traits of the individual. Sometimes these will reach the PCs awareness prior to the NPCs contribution to the plot, sometimes they will explain their actions after the fact, and sometimes the justification can be built into the encounter itself.
We’ll talk about background, ethnicity, name, appearance, characteristics, and capabilities, all with a view to the role the character is intended to play. We also try hard to find a photograph to present the individual to the characters. Sometimes, in the case where a real person has been used as a model, we can find something on Wikipedia Commons; sometimes, we need to do an appropriate Google Image Search. We’re aided in this by the fact that I have a large (and growing) collection of clip art saved from the net. Most of these are not images that are in the public domain, but these are fine for private use.
And sometimes an image will pop out that leads the characterization in a completely unexpected direction. Like the time we had an encounter with a Romanian Lawyer and Larry Hagman from the original series of Dallas popped up – we made the Lawyer a wannabe Texan, and played him for laughs.
Location, Location, Location!
Another piece of research that gets done at this point is where we want the action to take place (if we haven’t settled on that already). We use Google Maps and screen capture extensively for this purpose, but sometimes have to do more fundamental research – I have four different atlases that see extensive use for different purposes. Sometimes, we won’t know where we want somewhere to be, but will have an idea what we want it to look like – Google Image Search permits us to enter our descriptive keywords and narrow the search down to what we want – then looking at the website from which the image derives gives us a location. Nor are we above inventing places as necessary!
Related to the location are images that are intended to convey the setting to the players. We prefer to use period photos where possible, but are quite happy to take a photograph of something that looks right and transplant it in space to anywhere we want it to be. We also try to be seasonally correct. Sometimes, Google’s street view can be useful in this context as well.
Sometimes we have to do it ourselves, such as the island shown here.
Quite often, I will have to manipulate the image in some way, especially to paint out obvious modern contrivances like satellite dishes, mobile phone antennas, air conditioners, and telephone lines. And again, my clipart collection sometimes comes in handy! Sometimes I will have strong opinions as to which image is most appropriate, other times Blair will make the final decision.
Of key importance is being sure that we’re both as happy with the result as possible.
Illustrations & Props
We also like to provide visual images to illustrate the story, and props to help the players visualize the action. On rare occasions, I will generate these from scratch, more frequently I will locate a starting point and edit the resulting image. The image shown here (from the next adventure) is an example – the car started off as yellow, but was otherwise perfect to our needs. The original yellow (still visible in the wheel rims) didn’t fit the character who was to own the vehicle, though – we needed it to be red. I’ve painted out people in modern clothing, cars, aircraft, highway markings, even whole buildings!
All this helps us to visualize the action while writing the adventure (which is why we don’t leave it until the last minute) as well as helping the players afterwards.
Once we have everything we need to depict the people, places, and things that the PCs will interact with, we’re ready to move on to Phase Blue.
Phase Blue is where we expand on the outlines of the plot. We add details of characterization, of key pieces of dialogue, of relevant skill checks and game mechanics, of decision points within the adventure and how to respond to different general player decisions, and so on. To save effort, my typed adventure notes will often say things like “refer Blair’s handwritten notes”.
We will often not do these in the sequence they will appear within the adventure, instead following an internal logic. That permits us to focus on all the scenes involving a particular character, one after the next, for example, ensuring consistency of characterization throughout. The color-coding shows at a glance where we are up to and what we still have to do. Where we anticipate the PCs splitting up (or where the situation is going to force them to do so), we will usually do all the scenes involving one group and then go back and do all the scenes involving the other. This avoids wasting time reacquainting ourselves with the status of each group at the start of each scene.
When the scenario is finished, everything gets converted to black text for printing.
So, how is this different?
The key to the approach we use is discussion and being willing to compromise. Both of us contribute ideas, and often have to persuade the other; by digging into the reasons we think something is the right approach to take in order to do so, we both have to look behind the curtains at what the scene is trying to achieve. In effect, this is the equivalent of several dry runs through the adventure.
The act of collaboration affects the process in other ways. Blair can be thinking about characters while I’m thinking about plot; I can be thinking about dialogue while Blair is making notes about a setting. It’s much easier to do two things at once when there are two of you. This carries through to the game itself; one of us can be handling the dialogue for a key NPC while the other is dealing with the PCs. Two NPCs can have a dialogue with each other – which is far harder to achieve when there’s only one GM.
It means that if – no, when – the PCs do something unexpected, there are two of us who can react to it. One deals with the immediate situation, while the other can look at the bigger picture of how this will alter the overall plotline of the adventure. In general, whoever has the clearest idea of how to deal with the immediate situation will speak up first, leaving the other free to do big-picture thinking. On any number of occasions, one of us has started GMing a scene and the other has taken up the reigns part-way through. As a general rule of thumb, Blair is the better at reacting to ad-hoc situations and I’m better at the big picture stuff, but we violate that rule almost as often as we observe it.
The result is a far more structured and deliberate writing process, which has been formalized to the point of using technology in specific and structured ways to achieve the goals. And yet, it’s also a process in which you have two creative minds tossing ideas into the mixture, and having the luxury of choosing which works best; there is more scope for innovation and flexibility.
But the biggest difference is that we can’t take things for granted. If it’s not spelt out and mutually agreed-on in advance, neither of us can tell where the other one is going; when it has been worked out in advance, we can trust that the other has some mental road map of how he’s going to reach the required point in the plot, impart the required information, no matter how far we may appear to stray from the straightest line in doing so. Again, we cover each other’s deficiencies.
Of necessity, we’ve both learned how to focus on the objective of each adventure, of each act, of each scene, and how to break those down into smaller components that add up to what’s required to achieve the big-picture goals. Often, I will be able to identify a plot need, and Blair has an answer by the time I’ve finished articulating the problem, or vice-versa. Or I can come up with a good idea that Blair will twist or manipulate into a great idea, ir vice-versa. Overall, the efficiency of creativity does not suffer for the need to articulate and define everything in a more concrete form; just the opposite. We easily get twice as much done in an hour of plotting as either of us alone could achieve, even taking into account the potential for abbreviating and thumb-nailing the ideas when you GM alone.
Not all combinations just work
Of course, it helps that we are a good fit, collaboratively. There are other players with whom I have collaborated on projects and our styles were often too similar, or one had problems articulating ideas to the other in a way that was readily grasped. It was a struggle. Before you can co-GM with someone, you need to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and those of the other person. That alone can make you a better GM, whether working with someone else or on your own.