There is a cooking show in Australia (it actually started in the UK, and a US version was recently announced) called Masterchef Australia. The goal of the series is to identify and winnow through the best amatuer cooks in the country until they are left with the one best cook of the bunch, who gets $100,000 and a book deal. Along the way, they are expected to go toe-to-toe and head-to-head with the best chefs in the world. For the last two seasons, this show has been slaying everything programmed up against it, to the point where one of the hosts – an internationally-famous food critic, Matt Preston – was recently awarded as the best new talent in the Australian TV industry.
One of the regular challenges on the show is called the mystery box, in which the contestants are presented with a number of ingredients covered by a wooden box until The Big Reveal, and have to create the best dish they can using one or all of the ingredients.
Eureka! is reminiscant of the Mystery Box challenge of Masterchef. It represents a pantry full of ingredients, from which you are to create the best dish – or, in this case, adventure – that you possibly can.
A reader, looking at the subtitle of the e-book, or simply glancing through the contents, might be forgiven for thinking that the heart of the product are the adventure hooks. It’s not. If you look a little deeper, you find that the heart of the content is the framework and structure surrounding those hooks, which has the capacity to transform your game prep, and that’s what Johnn focussed on in his review of the product, Plot Stat Block For The Organized Game Master, a couple of weeks ago.
But there are some other innovative notions in there as well, and they merit some attention, suggesting the possibility of a deeper revolution. These are the ligaments and sinews that connect the plot structures of Eureka! together – the advice on how to customise the adventure hooks, and the indices that organise and connect the ideas.
So here’s what’s on tonight’s menu, here at Campaign Mastery. As an appetiser, I’m taking a look at that GM advice, and how it is applicable beyond the confines of the product itself. For a side dish, I’m going to compare the handling of plot ideas in Eureka as compared to simple plot hooks, and how you can take Johnn’s Plot Stat Blocks and use them in a way that goes beyond what he proposed. The main course will then look at using Blog Technology to refine ideas from anywhere you find them (including your own imagination), using The Eureka System and the refinement of Johnn’s Stat Blocks, to push your plot structures even further while reducing your workload as a GM. And for dessert, I present yet another way of using Eureka ideas to give characters in your campaigns depth.
The GM Advice
Eureka!’s GM Advice starts off by looking at the structure of the plot stat block they’ve used, and more specifically what they haven’t done and have left up to the GM to complete.
First up, there’s characters, in which they discuss the fact that as far as possible, they’ve left character names and details out of the plot descriptions. While that means that there’s more work for the GM to do in getting a plot from Eureka ready-to-run, it also makes the plots more broadly compatable. Instead of talking about NPCs within the plots as individual characters, it treats them as cyphers fulfilling a specific role within the adventure, and then poses three questions for the GM to consider in casting those roles. The three questions – Would the NPC be involved in a plot like this? Does the NPC have the abilities/powers/skills to do what’s required? and Am I comfortable with what might happen to the NPC as a result of how this adventure plays out? – represent the casting process for filling these empty roles within the scenarios.
What’s misssing from Eureka: some categorisation scheme for these unfilled roles, and an index of them. Some of the tages cover this territory very generally, but don’t go far enough.
When you cast your adventures, do you normally look at the plot and ask how a given NPC might fit into a given role in the adventure? Or do you look at the NPC and ask how they can be fitted into the adventure? In practice, you should do both: first cast the key roles within the adventure, and then look at all the other NPCs associated with the campaign and try to integrate them. A casting syntax and associated index would make both parts of the equation simpler, by enabling the GM to pick out an NPC and locate plots that can use that character.
Re-Skinning, Remaking, and Replacing Plot Elements
This section is absolute gold as a summation of how to adapt any existing plot from anywhere else into your specific campaign. Along the way, it defines the three terms given above for specific aspects of the process.
Those sections are followed by one on adapting plots to other genres, which gives you the key techniques for determining exactly which plot elements need to be reskinned, remade, or replaced. After giving the how, they give you the when. But the advice can be applied far more broadly and generously than Gnome Stew themselves have done, simply by treating your own campaign as a genre unto itself.
Approaching the advice in this way permits this whole section to become solid advice on how to make each plot a key element of your specific campaign.
Modern Elements for a Modern Age
And then there’s a subsection on Modern Elements, which starts off talking about the fact that there will be modern elements in the plots because they are being written by modern people. Once again, the advice can and should be applied beyond the text, because it misses the point that every game has to be played by modern people – which means that if a modern element is inappropriate to a specific campaign, the difference becomes a keynote of that campaign’s uniqueness that needs to be propogated through every scenario and the players specifically educated in the difference. This hearkens back to my first Lesson From The West Wing, about finding the uniqueness of your specific campaign and making it a key element to be emphasised throughout, giving your campaign a unique flavour that is distinct from each of your other campaigns, and even more distinct from the campaigns of your neighbour down the street.
Think, for example, of the relatively care-free 50′s (though they didn’t seem that way at the time, I’m sure) to the political cynicism post-Watergate and post-Vietnam, twenty years and a generation later. Those two contrasting eras alone offer four unique flavours: a politically cynical perspective on 1950s culture, a care-free and optimistic antidote set in the 1970s, and the two eras as they are generally percieved by a modern audiance. Looking beyond that – what happened in, say Brazil – who never had a watergate, but had events of their own? Australia didn’t have a watergate either, but we did have the events of The Dismissal, and our own share of Vietnam; both of which occured in the 1970s. As a result, many aspects of 1960s Australia are more like the US of the 1950s than they resemble the US that was contemporary – but with cultural elements from the more modern era thrown into the pot for good measure, such as the Beatles.
Every GM’s past experience and national history filters through into their campaign assumptions, whether they recognise those influances or not. Learning to recognise that influance, and manipulate it at need, would represent a major advance in most GM’s techniques.
This whole section, once again, is ostensibly about the organisation of material within the game supplement, but has an applicability that ranges beyond that limited context. The concept of their being a limited number of thematic plot structures is not a new one, but using Eureka as a guideline to taking those plot structures and manipulating them to form your own variations makes the whole supplement a masterclass in advanced plot creation. If anything, more details on how they performed this in generating the plots contained in Eureka, with one or two specific examples, would have been welcome for this very reason; but Gnome Press don’t seem to have fully grasped how valuable that would have been, so we are left in the position of inferring the curriculum from the teaching aides.
It’s often enlightening to observe the differences in reaction to the same material of two different people, with different perspectives. Johnn commented in an email to me about the GM Advice in Eureka that it seemed to be all about the product itself and not to represent general advice to GMs; he felt it misrepresented “About This Product” and “How To Use This Product” as general GM advice. However, he was also wise enough to add, “from you on other books I disliked in the past (I like Eureka, just not the advice portion) made me consider those books in a new light, and sometimes I’ve been able to get fresh new value or interest out of them,” which is why he raised the question in the first place.
My psychology means that every time I read something, I’m looking at how the underlying mechanics work, and how to extend what’s there to cover situations or content or context that the original author never dreamed of. In this case, what might seem at face value to be fairly vapid ‘GM Advice’ immediatly presented to me as being extremely useful, if fundamental and occasionally elementary, advice. So, my conclusions to Johnn, and to anyone else who reads this product (or even just the free preview of the GM Advice chapter), is to look beyond the immediate context of the advice and you will find a wealth of material that can be a springboard to a better understanding of the craft of being a GM, and can specifically improve the structure and content of your adventures, and beyond that, to the campaigns that are comprised of those adventures. And that makes the GM advice seem pretty solid to me – if overlayed with a veneer that submerges its true value somewhat.
That said, the content of these sections in its current form also does the job of making what was percieved by Gnome Stew as the central content – the plots themselves – more useful, so there is an avoidance of redundancy. What’s there is great, but it could have been (and maybe will be in future) so much more.
Plot Hooks to Plot Blocks
I’m going to avoid simply echoing Johnn’s excellent take on this subject a couple of weeks ago (which I referanced at the start of this article) and look at a way of taking it further.
I’m in the habit of jotting down ideas, including adventure ideas, as a simple list in a dedicated RTF file. These are frequently barren of details, and can come from any source. It’s been a long-standing joke in my campaigns that I can get a scenario out of anything if I look at it hard enough.
For example, I might be inspired by a Coke advert on the TV. Lots of bikini-clad girls playing with a ball on the beach. In the context of my superhero campaign, I might come up with a list of ideas (not all of which are to be used) like this:
- St Barbera (one of the PCs) is invited to participate in a Coke Commercial. A villain disrupts the shoot.
- A beach party is threatened when the sun suddenly seems to grow hotter, but nowhere else is affected; an extra-dimensional (alien?) is spying on earth, and his invisible portal is acting as a gravitational lens, a magnifying glass focussing the sun’s heat on this particular spot.
These ideas could be combined into one, or they could be entirely seperate. It’s a quick way of getting ideas down in some lasting format, and cut, copy, and paste makes the ideas quick to import into seperate documents for fuller development, so it’s convenient.
I employ a ratings-and-classification system that I’ve blogged about before (Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow) to put these ideas into a coherant order with contrasts and variety.
But there’s an intermediate step that has to take place somewhere along the way, in which ideas are matched to slots in the campaign flow, and it’s a bit of a mess – a long list of scenarios that have to be visually inspected. I’ve thought in the past of importing the list into a table and sorting by different columns to ease things, but the variable length of the text has made that a bit of a nightmare to contemplate – it’s really a job for relational database software and that tends to be very complicated and frequently expensive, and I’ve never had the money to get into it seriously. (If I had free choice, I would choose a programming language called FOCUS, which I used professionally for many years. But it’s not available for Windows-based systems any more, and was WAY out of my price range even when it was available).
Sure, there are free RDB systems and programming languages out there, and I’ve even downloaded a few – but I’ve never had time to study them, let alone to master them, a new programming language is just too big a time investment. Heck, I’ve never had the time just to master more than the absolute basics of Excel, and how long has that been around!?
All that means that there is a hole in my processes, and one that I’ve never found an efficient way to fill. The combination of Eureka and Johnn’s Plot Stat Blocks have given me an answer.
Plot Blocks for unfinished plot ideas
That answer arrived in the form of a question: If you were to employ a plot ‘stat block’ approach to your unfinished, unpolished, and incomplete plot ideas, what could you do with the results?
A standard format structures the information, so that holes can be discovered and filled. For example, you could have a cell for each PC, to ensure that each has a connection with the plot. You could have a slot for each of the major NPCs that are with the PCs, to ensure that no plot holes appear because you’ve forgotten a resource that the PCs have available to them. You could connect scenarios by means of NPCs who don’t stay the same but evolve from one appearance to the next, by deducing the transition required in-between one appearance and the next and integrating news of that transition (if necessary) as a subplot in an intermediate adventure. You can into your campaign small touches like planned rewards for success followed by scenarios in which those rewards make a difference, just by looking at the requirements for future scenarios and making sure that the characters get those as booty.
And those are just my first thoughts on the subject!
Once you’ve finished plugging the holes, and have decided where in your campaign continuity you want the adventure to take place, you can simply transfer the information into one of Johnn’s plot stat blocks.
In short, instead of storing your roughand unfinished ideas in a layout that is optimised for game prep, you store them in a format optimised for camnpaign plotting until the time actually comes for game prep, then cut-and-paste as necessary.
Taking It Further: Blog Software
Assuming that you start by cherry-picking plots from Eureka! that sound like fun and placing them into such a plotting structure, you soon start encountering more advanced applications for the concept. And they all stem from taking something from Eureka that, at first glance, I didn’t think very much of: the tags.
You see, the problem is that there aren’t enough of them provided in Eureka to discriminate between the different plots that have been provided, and those that are provided are not specific enough. The tags for the first plot offered, for example, are “(MR) Investigative, politics, stealth, villain” – where (MR) refers to the author of this particular plot idea. So, what’s the plot all about? One of the PC’s friends is arrested and charged with a crime for which he has been framed, and he will be executed if the PCs dont’ clear him. The plot is revolves around a group of bandits. There are local complications like a centaur tribe, and the bandits themselves. And the whole thing takes place in a heavily-forested region, where timber – woodcutting – is the dominant industry (I’m trying to avoid giving too much of the plot away to any players who may happen to read this, it’s devilishly tricky). There are some good ideas there, and also a fairly obvious plot hole, but I can’t talk about that without revealing too much; there’s obviously a lot more in the half-page of text dedicated to this plot than my summation!
If I were to synopsise the plot into key words, those tags would be “Investigative, frame, bandits, forest, centaurs,” and – again for reasons that I can’t go into without giving too much away – “smart antagonist, politics”.
It’s only a short step from wanting to change or add to the tags, to realising that if you post your plot summary to a private blog, you can do so with ease.
And then you start to think about the ability to change or edit tags as you need to, and the fact that there are also categories to use as a means of grouping related plots together, and suddenly the simple premise of posting each plot idea on a blog completely eliminates the need for expensive – and time-consuming to learn – database software.
Blogger or WordPress or blog-dot-com or thoughts.com or ClockingIT or many many others are available to choose from. The big trick will be picking one that will last as long as your campaign, and whose features suggest refinements and extensions in technique!
The first three are probably the pick of the bunch at first glance, but it would be worth your effort to look more closely at just what you get from each.
Immediately, refinements start suggesting themselves. Using abbreviations and hyphens in a standardised tag format to form compound tags, for example. Or using categories to define the different stages of a plot development lifestyle – taking advantage of the fact that you can nest categories into a hierarchy, and simply tick and untick the relevant category entries.
That, in a nutshell, is the huge advantage of this approach: you can, with just a click or two, take a posted plot idea out of one category and into another, or remove any existing tag. It takes only a little more work to add a new tag or a new category.
You can even boilerplate a dummy entry to copy-and-paste into each post to ensure a consistant format – that’s the way Johnn and I do Ask-The-GMs, and there is no reason why you couldn’t do the same thing to replicate something like Johnn’s Plot Blocks.
Finally, with a minimal amount of editing, you could take a “private” blog entry and make it a public record of the events that actually transpired within the game – an ideal forum for players to ask questions, post ideas, etc as comments. You can even change the tags and categories completely when you do so.
Picture the utility to your players of using the names of every NPC who has ever appeared in the game as a tag in such a blog. In effect, one click would give them a complete history of their interactions with that NPC – a seriously useful referance tool during play!
And it all starts with blogging – in a way and in a location not accessable by the players – your ideas for the campaign, and using the standard blogging tools to manipulate and sort that information. That’s a “Eureka!” moment if ever I’ve heard one!
Eureka! as a background seed
The final thought that I want to throw out there is a different way of using Eureka. If you’re the type of GM who always has plenty of plots on hand, or have players who also GM and might have copies of Eureka for their own campaign usage, consider using it as a foundation for players to develop incidents from a PCs background.
You might specify, for example, that all characters start out with three “adventures” in their past. Let each player pick a plot each from the e-book, and flesh it out appropriately. The GM can then revise and edit these “adventures” to reflect any campaign background that’s different to that assumed by the characters, and can even estimate how much experience the events are worth to give players an incentive. The result is that from the first minute of scenario one, the players have a taste of the world, and there is a cast of NPCs with whom the PCs are connected. The GM can even get creative and crosslink one player’s background adventure with that of another!
Using Eureka! in this way, it doesn’t matter if your players have read it. Or if you’ve already used it up for every plot that you can get out of it. And, through the power of Re-skinning, Re-making, and Replacing plot elements, it’s extremely unlikely that even if two players chose the same adventure, the details would match up. One might have replaced the forest in the first plot, for example, with a swamp, and the bandits with Orcs, while the other does not. The result would be two superficially similar backgrounds with quite different details, and it would be easy to carry those differences through to a different means of resolving the plot. Those differences, in turn, give different perspectives and personalities to the PCs.
That alone makes Eureka! worth having.