This is part three from two (!) in a discussion of the basic principles of creating adventures and hooking them together to form a campaign; I wasn’t originally going to include these examples, feeling that the principles would be clearer to the reader if they weren’t distracted by another narrative threat running concurrently – and because (like many things in the real world) they don’t quite fit the nice, neat theoretical discussions of the first two parts. It consists of two examples.
Example One: The White Tower
When I’m coming up with scenario ideas, I’ll generally start by generating a one-line or one-paragraph plot idea, exactly the same as the ideas I created in Melodies And Rests: ‘Euphoria’ by Def Leppard.
The process of converting that into a full plotline is seven-fold:
- Expand the ‘thumbnail plot’ into a full idea;
- Determine (roughly) how this plotline fits into the overall campaign plan;
- List the essential elements (NPCs, locations, concepts) that form part of that plot and determine which ones have to be established in advance of the main plot;
- Generate a list of subplots to occur preliminary to the main plot that will introduce each of the essential elements
- Consider the inherent ramifications of the plotline on the overall campaign, assuming that the PCs will either succeed, fail, or fall a generic ‘somewhere in between’;
- Generate a subplot to follow the main plot purely to expose any ramifications that won’t otherwise come out in the course of play;
- Give the entire plotline a thumbs-up or thumbs-down according to two criteria: How essential it is to the overall plotline; and how interesting and inherently logical the plot is. An idea can receive a down-check from any one of the steps previously listed.
So, let’s look at this process in a little more detail by way of the first example, “The White Tower”.
Step Zero: The Starting Point / Initial Idea
The place to start is with the original idea, which I must have come up with sometime around 2003:
- A building of high white magical history *where?* is destroyed through accident.
Around 2006, I added an additional notion to the idea, relating to how the PCs get involved:
- A “supervillain” of arcane nature joins/sets up a local historical recreation society as it’s the only way he can gain access to the building. When one of the members discovers his secret and tries to blackmail him, he is forced to commit out-of-MO crimes (gets away clean before Z3 can get there) – until he manages to lure the blackmailer someplace secluded enough to kill him. Investigation of the body, and the robberies, leads to the real situation.
(“Z3” is an abbreviation of “Zenith-3”, the name of the PCs superhero team, signifying that this is the third branch of the Zenith Program, a superhero training project set up by the parent group “The Champions”.) When I went to convert this threadbare outline into a full scenario, there were some obvious holes to fill.
Expanding The Plot
The first observation was that the additional idea was trivial to the holes in the main idea. What is the nature of this place? Where is it located? What impact does its existence have – or, more to the point, how can I prevent it having a massive impact on the parts of the campaign that were already in place (most of it)?
Especially when a concept is as vaguely defined as this “building of high white-magical history”, I like to name things as a starting point. That provides a focal point around which ideas can flow. In this case, it started out being named “The White House” – but I rejected that name due to potential confusion with the residence of the US President (even though there is no such office in this particular dimension’s timeline, a world in which the British Empire never fell and now runs half the globe, the other half being the territory of a mysterious race named “The Mao”. Think of them as Western and Eastern hemispheres, respectively). I drew inspiration from the Cream song of the 60s and renamed it “The White Room”.
But there was another room, named the “Junction Room” and later renamed “The Janus Room” that was central to the overall plot, and I didn’t want it being confused with this location, which was to be far more incidental. Another name-change seemed to be in order; eventually, after running through various alternatives and not liking any of them, I settled on “The White Tower” as the least objectionable.
What Is ‘The White Tower’?
Despite the name, I wanted to avoid any Lord Of The Rings connections to this plot, the location, or the ideas; “The White Tower” was intended to bear no relation to Isengard. I fully expected that I would be able to crib some of the description from LOTR, but I wanted that to be the least important reference involved, because the players know quite a lot about it.
Which left the question, if the White Tower isn’t Isengard, what is it?
Well, the primary purpose of the scenario, as outlined in the campaign notes, was to serve as an example of the adage, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – the PCs thought they had the major structure of the multiverse figured out, I wanted to shake that complacency and restore a little sense of wonder to the campaign.
I started free-associating ideas, and ended with fourteen to choose between:
- A cornerstone of the multiverse, unaffected by anything that happens to the multiverse, one of 12 bracing points used to define the shape of the multiverse and prop it up like bracing in a box or balloon. Space, Time, and local dimensional reality flow and change around it like a stream around a rock. NB: to brace a three-dimensional box for maximum rigidity, 3 bars are needed, with two ends each, for a total of 6 anchor points; since my multiverse has six dimensions, as described in my Three-part series on Time Travel and the more recent post on FTL travel in gaming, this would mandate 6 structural members and hence twelve anchor-points.
- A Safe Room created by the three Celestial Powers as a “work room” or a “prototype shop” when they were reconstructing the multiverse after Ragnerok.
- A safe-house established by a third party as a shelter against Ragnerok, showing how some things survived the multidimensional conflagration that were not part of the three Celestial Powers’ plans.
- A prison created to hold a Lovecraftian Horror from a previous Epoch of Existence, a Cthulhoid creature which has/has not now been set free (if not, can the PCs be set up to inadvertently release it out of ignorance?)
- An archive or time capsule created by someone who saw disaster coming (Ragnerok or something smaller?) but could not do anything about it.
- A structurally-recessive volume of space-time in which the exit is never the entrance and never leads to the same multiverse that you left when you entered the tower.
- An extra-dimensional greebly once forced a passageway from its’ reality into our own. Although they could not defeat the creature nor seal the portal, a hastily-arranged alliance of Elder Gods and other primal beings were able to create the White Tower to block the passageway.
- A paranoid Wizard created the White Tower to lock himself and his research away from the world.
- Details withheld in case my players read this.
- A multidimensional greebly wishing to force open a passage from its’ reality to our own “inspired” creatures in many different realities, each of which would be located at 90° relative to the others at the instant of completion, to create a ‘local’ version of the White Tower to the specifications of the greebly. The resulting structure was a multidimensional nexus, a fixed location that weakens the 6-dimensional focal point of the multiverse (everything has a centre) and through which a passage could be forced. In the process, furnishings and objects from all 12 of the ‘base towers’ were transported into the central ‘tower’ which represented a virtual amalgum of its sources, a coalescing and curdling of the fluid of reality.
- Conceived and constructed as an invulnerable fortress that migrated from one space-time region to another as the multiverse flowed around it, to be used a platform for multidimensional conquest/raiding.
- Details withheld in case my players read this.
- The White Tower is the receptacle for the One True Soul from which all others are derived; when a multiverse faces imminent annihilation, it appears so as to be ready to reabsorb the souls that are liberated rather than letting them be destroyed; as it flows through the newly-reborn multiverse, it will release these souls into new pockets of space time to form the seeds of new consciousnesses.
- The White Tower is a necromantic vacuum pump, suckering powerful souls into entering it and siphoning off their souls for use by a Lovecraftian Horror.
You’ll note that there are a couple of ideas whose details I’ve withheld because they hold the answers that I ultimately chose.
Along the way, a couple of other ideas popped into mind that weren’t related to the question of “what is it” that were carefully noted for future reference:
- Can I get ideas from the lyrics of “White Room” beyond the initial concept?
- The White Tower gets its name from the fact that it is a perfect reflector of homogenous energy wavelengths; no matter what frequency energy is directed at it, the light will be reflected as a perfect and complete spectrum. The light will no longer contain spectral lines caused by the light source material; the emission spectrum will be continuous. Accordingly, no analysis of the construction material is possible.
- The White Tower is constructed from internally-braced blocks of congealed space-time; each is, effectively, a pocket dimension of infinite mass, ie an isolated Black Hole compressed into a flat two-dimensional plane and ‘folded’ to create a rectangular solid of proportions 2.4 to 1, which itself was then bent into a curving shape. This means that it is effectively infinitely strong and infinitely resistant and resilient, and has a mass sufficient to resist any external attempt to move it. At some points, it has progressed through environments of such material density that the atoms could not get out of each other’s way to fall into the black hole, producing a Neutronium “powdercoating” only a few microns thick and just outside the event horizon, but this is sufficient to contain the radiations emitted by the Black Hole through quantum pair production and similar reactions, masking the black holes’ energy signatures. It follows that the only way to know that they are there is to breach the Neutronium layer. Note that this has a surface gravitational field of 10G’s, but each micron deeper increases this ten-fold – first to 100G’s then to 1,000, then 10,000, and so on. Any breach of the surface will instantly replace it with the surrounding space-time – everything for 0.002 light-years, or 2000 million kilometres will be packed into the breach to patch the neutronium.
In actual fact, while I had the idea, I needed some help to determine some of the characteristics given in the above notes. I put out some smoke signals for help on Twitter, and want to take a moment to thank the following for their assistance and/or wilingness to assist (and I hope I haven’t missed anyone):
- Scott @TheAngryDM
- Dave Goldberg @askaphysicist
- Lisa M @PhysicistLisa
- Nicole @NoisyAstronomer
- JulieBug @msjuju8
- Alex Cole @dreshubby
- GrammarsBoi @GrammarsBoi
- and especially, Sam Baldwin @belungerer
Assembling The Ideas
At this point, I had 14 ideas and no overall single concept. So the next step was to choose between the ideas. I started by listing three possible configurations for the ultimate concept of the white tower and how it related to the ideas I had come up with:
- One of the ideas was correct;
- Several of the ideas were correct and were related or connected in some way;
- Only one of the ideas was ultimately correct but the Tower had a history which some of the other ideas described, or in which people had acted on the theory that one of the incorrect ideas was actually correct.
It should be obvious that (2) and (3) are not mutually exclusive, and it was this combination that was ultimately chosen.
I then looked for ways that the various ideas could connect. There were two obvious models: Sequential / Linear, or Parallel.
The Sequential model gave a richer history and elevated the White Tower in historical importance to a position that was commensurate with both its campaign function and the fundamental concept that most appeared to fit that campaign function; the parallel structure was a reflection of idea 10 in which multiple people built multiple towers at the instigation of some outside entity; some willingly, some through force, and some through manipulation or deception. It provided a more complex “actuality” to the Tower as it would be when the PCs encountered it, but a relatively shallow history. I ultimately rejected the parallel structure because it would have produced a plotline that was too long and complex for the intended story function of The White Tower within the campaign. That left the sequential model as the preferred answer.
Using events from the campaign history, I was able to map out a history of the Tower which drew apon almost all of the ideas I had come up with in a logical sequence.
Concept Into Plotline
So I had the concept around which the plot was to be built; I now understood what the White Tower was, and by definition, where it was. The central question that must be answered whenever converting such a concept into an actual plotline is always, “What is the PCs involvement in X?”
How do the get involved, what effect does this involvement have on them, what effect does it have on X, and what are the consequences? If you can lay the answers out in a step-by-step, encounter-by-encounter, revelation-by-revelation pattern, you have yourself a plot. I answered the big question – but again, I have to keep the answer to myself so as not to tip off my players – and then thought about the subsidiary questions. In the case of the White Tower, events could be broken into 10 phases of activity:
- Signs and portents (subplots);
- Mission Outline and Background Briefing (main plot)
- Travel (main plot)
- Entry (main plot)
- Explore (main plot)
- Revelation/Twist (main plot)
- Race Against The Clock (main plot)
- Climax (main plot)
- Escape (main plot)
- Consequences (main plot, subplots)
There might well have been a still earlier stage, establishing various characters and situations, but it is always my preference to use already-established characters whenever possible, and the base answer I had come up with enabled me to employ an existing, established NPC – one who had done nothing significant in the new campaign prior to this point. As a secondary benefit, that choice would enable some additional background on the NPC and his race to be presented to the PCs, making the choice a no-brainer.
Detailed plot breakdown
With the various stages of the adventure planned out, I could break each down into specific events and a more detailed plot breakdown (again, I’ve had to be deliberately vague about some details):
Stage 1: Signs & Portents
Each of the characters with any sort of precognitive or extrasensory perception would get at least one vision relating to what was to come – setting, NPCs, encounters, situations. Some would be accurate, others would be metaphoric or figurative. In addition, other “sensitives” in the game setting would get such warnings, some of which would be reported through the equivalent of the national enquirer or, derisively, the mainstream news channels. The purpose of these events is not to educate the characters about what is coming, just that something is coming. Since the characters in question will be getting other visions and portents and background through all these sources regarding other situations within the campaign, there is no risk that meaningful conclusions will be received. As the time of the main plot draws closer, other individuals who are not normally sensitive but whose abilities are relevant will also receive a vision or two; these are more likely to be taken more seriously.
Stage 2: Mission Outline and Background Briefing
The team will be contacted by the NPC I referred to in the final paragraph of the “concept into plotline” stage. He will persuade them to escort another NPC on a vital mission to the White Tower. The new NPC will give the team some background concerning the Tower, but will mostly inform the team as to what these people don’t know; this, coming from a representative of a race that normally have all the answers, should worry the PCs more than an outright threat. They should accept the mission after this buildup.
Stage 3: Travel
The team, having accepted the mission, now commences it, and discovers that since it is a source of potential power, a number of their enemies are trying to get to it as well – and taking active steps to stop their rivals from doing so. I made a list of those who would learn about it, how highly they would prioritize it, what forces they would send to capture it, and when they would arrive. The interest of their enemies should bolster the PCs determination to see the mission through. If, perchance, the team had refused the mission, the NPC will quickly fall prey to these rival enemies, whose interest should tell the PCs that they made the wrong call – and now have to go into the situation without the benefit of the “briefing notes” the NPC might have given them.
Stage 4: Entry
The team get inside the White Tower and get their first hints as to what it is and why everyone who knows about it wants to possess it.
Stage 5: Explore
The team explore the White Tower, giving them the chance to discover its history and its significance to past campaign events.
Stage 6: Revelation/Twist
At the heart of the tower, they team can discover its true origins and the urgent threat that it poses.
Stage 7: Race Against The Clock
The consequences of their exploration will delay the party as they seek to return to their entry point to deal with the threat. If they do not discover the threat in Stage 6, signs and hints as to its nature will manifest as they travel – enough that they will figure out the emergency shortly before they reach the entrance.
Stage 8: Climax
The PCs can attempt to deal with the threat. If they fail, they can use their abilities to escape, but will have unleashed a new opponent who will have to be dealt with in the future.
Stage 9: Escape
If the PCs deal with the threat successfully, they will have to fight their way out because there are still all those enemy forces out to capture the White Tower. If they have not, the enemy forces will have been decimated by the new enemy that they have unleashed.
Stage 10: Consequences
If they have succeeded, the team will have gained information on their enemies that might be valuable later in the campaign. If not, the progress of the new enemy will need to be tracked through the campaign and will obliterate both enemies and allies of the PCs as it proceeds, getting stronger each time. Some allies and potential allies will blame the PCs for the devastation of the escapee and will summon them to judgment. Others may change sides completely. It will become significantly harder for the PCs to achieve any of their goals in the future.
A final note
It’s also worth noticing that the original idea in terms of the adventure is completely out the window at this point. (In fact, I recycled it and used it elsewhere).
It was my intent to include another, even more complete example in this post, but I’m completely out of time – so this “two-part” article will have to stretch to a fourth part… Next week, I’ll detail “The Belt Of Terra” – an example where I won’t have to be quite so circumspect in the details I include. Please join me then!