Building Stuff: Improv Pros and Cons

It’s been a while, so in case you forgot, we already talked about setting up a campaign, and getting players into it. What about adventures within a campaign? What do you do then?

Not what I mean by ‘character spotlight’ – from D&D2: Wrath of the Dragon God.

Now, as also discussed earlier, you can play a very improvisational game with little to no prep. You know basically where the story is going – your players have a goal they are moving towards – and each session you just move them a little more forward. You may be involving them in the creation of the adventure, which is what I am doing right now. You may also just base the forward movement of the story on the characters’ actions and your ideas for moving the plot forward.

Let’s consider the improvisational game before we consider a planned adventure. I see a huge benefit to both players and GMs in improvisational games, as long as the GM is good at thinking on her feet. Players are involved in a more dynamic, evolving game where they may even see their own fingerprints on the work being done. That’s going to help at least move the story in a direction they probably want, and it will probably also help increase their investment in the game.

For the GM, there is minimal prep going into the game. That’s a very big benefit.

However, it can be a lot of work for the GM during the game. You need to be reacting quickly to all the different fastballs the players are throwing your way. Hopefully, you are making the improv somewhat seamless. I’ve had players ask me how much I prepared for the game, because it seemed like I was always ready for the directions their characters took. I wasn’t prepared in the way a player might expect, I was just prepared enough to keep the game going. That doesn’t mean it was easy for me. Sometimes, it can be really hard as you hit a wall, your creativity drying up.

For the players, it may be pretty difficult for the GM to make sure each character gets a chance to shine every session when she is making up the game as it goes along. I think character spotlight, maybe even more so than character advancement, can be the main motivator for some players. If characters aren’t getting the spotlight because the GM hasn’t prepared for the adventure, it can kill some of the enjoyment.

That’s not to say the GM is always going to have a hard time improve-ing a game, or that in an improv’d game, characters will miss getting the spotlight, it’s just a risk that goes along with the style of play.

It’s up to you to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks for your group.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

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Kicking The Research Habit

I have found freedom. It is called Transylvania.

Maybe I need to back up a bit.

For the longest time, I was a very deep researcher when it came to games set in historical periods or real world locations. I felt extremely uncomfortable getting even insignificant information wrong – such as on which bank of the Volkhov River the Viking Era city of Novgorod sat. Centurion: Legionaries of Rome, the RPG I Kickstarted had a bibliography, and while it wasn’t extensive it didn’t include all the books I had read developing the playtest campaign – which included two mini-campaigns, one in the Late Republic and one in the Principate.

Van Helsing again? So soon?

I did very little prep for the encounters, stories, and plot of my adventures, but immersed myself in knowledge of the era or place. When we were playing Sword Noir, that meant I did almost no prep. Bliss!

Now I am scaling back on my prep further as I leave many decisions in the hands of my players. And this has led us to Transylvania in 1936. When it happened, it was in the middle of a session, so I had no time to prepare, to research, so I just went with a Universal monsters/Hammer horror version of Transylvania. And I have decided that is how I am going to move forward.

I’m going to embrace the modern media interpretation of the places to which the characters will travel.

A map? Certainly. Lists of authentic names? When I can. Deep, historical, political and societal research? Screw that noise.

We’re playing to have fun. There’s no need to “get it right” when really what the players want is to have adventures. No one cares about the political atmosphere of pre-war Romania.

But research on Vlad Tepes? That, I might do.

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Building Stuff: Introducing the Adventure

You’ve decided how you’re going to introduce your PCs to the campaign in the intro adventure, but now you actually need an intro adventure. For me, the intro adventure needs to rope in the players but also showcase what the campaign is about. You need to get the player’s investment.

The only thing missing from Starship Commandos? Hicks.

I was planning the intro for the first playtest session of Starship Commandos (think Heinlein’s Starship Troopers – not the movie – meets Aliens) and my first instinct was to start with a fight. Pirates had captured a freighter and had the crew hostage. The PCs – they’re MARSAT, Marine Special Armour and Tactics – would have boarded the vessel, fought the pirates and rescued the crew. Excitement! Action! The PCs being big goddman heroes! What’s not to love?

Well, the campaign was about the first encounter with extraterrestrial sentient life, and it was about the PCs getting into some really tight spots. Now the pirate fight was supposed to only be the first quarter to one-third of the initial session, but to me, that was still too long.

I’m going to be honest: I gave the players a choice. If they wanted to start with the pirate fight, we could, but I made it clear that this was not the campaign. That made the difference. The PCs wanted to get into the campaign and see what it was all about.

Ask yourself: what is this campaign about? What is awesome about this campaign? And what will my players like about it. Make sure that is all in the first adventure. It doesn’t need to be wall-to-wall action (unless your players dig that), but it needs to tell your players what to expect.

For me, Starship Commandos was about the cool power armour and the scary xenomorphs. The players got to play with their power armour and see what they could do with it (and they proved very able to exploit its technology to the fullest) and when the xenomorphs came, the setting had been seeded with enough clues that these things were bad ass that the players reacted appropriately – with their determined professionalism gilded by panic.

The funny thing is the first three quarters of that session was about building the tension. The crew were finding clues, and the players knew something was going to happen, but what? And when? I definitely introduced them to the atmosphere and the setting, and the players were definitely invested.

You can read more about Starship Commandos here.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

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Building Stuff: Getting the Gang In Gear

Once one has a framework – an idea of one’s plot, with a goal and a plan to inject the PCs into the story – one needs an adventure. I’ve mentioned before that my philosophy on building an adventure is very linked to my proclivity for improvisational GMing. As such, my preparation is very limited. However, no matter how limited your preparation is, unless you are playing a completely improvisational game, you will need to outline your introductory adventure if even in the most minimal detail.

If you are like me, once the campaign has begun, you might not need to do more than limited preparation as you follow the organic evolution of the story. Players make choices, ask questions, and forward assumptions that all impact on how the story is shaped, and a GM can just follow those through. But I still believe you need the initial push of an introductory adventure, and to do it right you need to plan out some aspects of it.

Galen from the movie Dragonslayer had a pretty interesting intro adventure.

The crux of the intro adventure is the introduction of the PCs to the plot. There are many ways of doing this, and I’ve previously mentioned a few. Your PCs might be regular folk whom the intro adventure thrusts into the story. Your PCs might be adventurous sorts, and this intro is more about informing them of the goal. You might also start in media res, with your PCs already involved in the plot – start with an action scene and work forward from there.

You don’t need to make these decisions. You can turn to your players and ask them what they want. They know their characters need to get into the story, so they should already be invested in this process.

Is this a high fantasy dungeoncrawl? The players might decide they are all residents of a village who survived an attack from out of the dungeon. They decide to head into the dungeon to rescue anyone who might still be alive. They might be knights sent by the local lord after learning of the attack. The PCs might even begin the game somewhere in the dungeon in the middle of a fight.

Beginning in media res begs the question of how the PCs got to that point, and this can be done through a flashback scene that follows the initial fight, through a discussion among the players to decide how this came to pass, or it might even be left an open question – not that the PCs don’t know, just that the players haven’t yet decided.

Not having an answer to how the PCs arrived in the dungeon might be a problem for your group. Leaving that open-ended might lead to a disconnect from the story, making the players less invested. However, this is often done in books, comics, movies, and TV series, and we learn later what the purpose or reason for the characters to be in the story.

Think of beginning in media res: there’s some action, then an hour or two into the adventure the PCs come across a prisoner or a treasure, and suddenly the players decide this is why they are there. There is something about that prisoner or treasure that is important. This works best in improvisational games or with GMs willing to tweak their plans to accommodate such a change. Somehow, this MacGuffin is important to the plot and this is what brought the PCs in. So why is it important? Were it me, I’d leave that open until the players decided they had an idea.

They say there’s no second chance to make a good first impression, so give the introduction of the PCs into the adventure and the campaign some serious thought. Talk to the players to see how they want to do it, and don’t dismiss anything out of hand. Sometimes the weirdest routes lead to the best places.

What’s a MacGuffin, you ask . . . Wikipedia’s got you covered.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

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Building Stuff: Entrances and Exits

Bad movie? Yup. But pulp adventure in Transylvania? Fuck yeah.

Okay, so you’ve got your campaign kind of figured out. You know its general shape and themes. Now comes the time to flesh that out. Here’s where the campaign ideas become a plot.

You need to decide on your entry and your exit – where do the PCs start and where does the campaign end. The start is the introduction and the end is the goal. You need an introduction to get the character’s into the campaign or adventure and you need a goal for which they strive.

You may want an extensive, ongoing campaign that could take years, and that’s fine. What we are talking about here is some discrete piece of that. Although it is not impossible to create a meta-plot into which each section fits. Rather than dealing with a single slaver, your characters are fighting slavery as a whole. Rather than taking down the evil necromancer king, your PCs intend to rid the world of that strain magic. Rather than remove a specific extremist group with extreme prejudice, your team is part of an ongoing attempt to stabilize a failed state.

For what we’ll call the campaign, decide what it is the PCs are trying to do. There are three examples above: destroy the slaver lord, overthrow the evil necromancer king, end the threat of an extremist organization. These are all goals, and once that goal is achieved, the PCs will have reached the exit. Credits roll.

Now decide how the characters become involved in this. Are they unwittingly drawn into it, playing reluctant heroes who become great? Are they part of an organization that tasks them with this mission? Are they called upon by a higher power? Do they each have their own reasons and the initial adventure throws them all together so they can accomplish the goal as a group? Somehow, the PCs are introduced to the plot.

Think of the first chapter of a book. In some books, the first chapter is the normal world, with the hero(s) living normal lives that are then shattered – either in that chapter or a later one. Others begin with the action and fill us in on how the character(s) came to this in flashbacks or other reveals. Either works, though in RPGs, generally the quicker one gets into the action, the better.

With an entry and an exit, you’ve got your plot. It’s very high-level right now, like a satellite in orbit over the campaign, but it exists as a framework on which to hang your adventures, and it will be fleshed out by those same adventures.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

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Building Stuff: Improvisation of a Kind

Concerns about building campaigns and adventures can be avoided if one is willing and able to think on one’s feet. I’m talking about running a game as a total improv. You need to be confident of your abilities, and you need to have the buy-in and participation of at least some of your group, but it can really save you time on prep.

I am very much an improv GM. This does not mean that I don’t plan anything, but usually I use a “one-pager” as a basis and then see where the game takes us. The one page has a synopsis of the basic idea for the adventure, and then any interesting people, places, or events the PCs might encounter. Generally one also needs mechanical information, though if I am running something like Centurion or Nefertiti Overdrive, building encounters takes about 25 seconds. Not about 30 and not about 20, but about 25.

I’m toying now with almost total improvisation. In our last AToL Pulp game, at certain points within the session I allowed the players to tell me what was happened. I handed out standard playing cards. High card went first. Then I asked some pertinent questions like “You have stopped on the road – why?” or “Something dangerous is approaching you – what is it?” This led to an encounter with Frankenstein’s monster leading a crew of skeletons similar to those from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

See, I would have never planned something so awesome and random.

The biggest problem with this approach is if your players are not interested in participating in world building. In the past, I’ve run fantasy adventures in which only the specific locale is planned and the players can develop the world beyond that, creating kingdoms, cultures, and history. If you have players who are uncomfortable with this, that can be a problem. It’s an even bigger problem if some players love the control this provides them, while other players – unwilling to contribute – still become upset because they see the other players gaining an “advantage.”

Situations like that can be addressed if you speak to everyone calmly and sympathetically, explain why you want to include the players, reinforce that this is about having fun, and trying to figure out a way all the players can participate. Maybe those uncomfortable with spontaneous creation can be provided questions to answer before the game, the answers to which will help drive the game forward.

I personally love this kind of GMing, and it does take a lot of the pressure of pre-planning and preparation away. It also allows the PCs to direct the action, and that really helps with player investment in the game.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

You can find some examples of one-pagers here.

You can find more information on A Team of Losers here.

You can read more about the 7th Voyage of Sinbad at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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Building Stuff: Evolving

So, I’ve mentioned inspiration and campaign creation, but while media inspiration regularly leads me to create a campaign concept, the nuts and bolts of it really rely on what kind of game I want to play and how I expect my group will react to the campaign.

The current campaign I am running with my home group was explicitly a mashup of a bunch of different media influences, as were a few other games. My group ended up choosing it, and their characters have helped to fashion what it has turned into.

I call my 1930s Pulp supernatural campaign A Team of Losers, as I was hoping to channel “team” media like the movie adaptation of the A-Team and the comic the Losers and its movie adaptation. I took it a little further, deciding that the team would be facing a supernatural threat each adventure, kind of like the TV series Supernatural.

The direction the campaign has taken has been influenced by a lot of other media, but mostly through decisions made by the players. I used Manchuria as the setting of the first adventure due to my love for the movie the Good, the Bad, the Weird, but the characters created by the players shifted the tone toward Raiders of the Lost Ark by way of Buckaroo Banzai. We’ve literally got a whip-wielding archaeologist and a German (Austrian when the subject of Nazis comes up) mad scientist. There is a quick-draw carnival sharp shooter and a Lord of the Jungle. We’ve got a martial artist with a mystical bent and a non-descript comic relief who might be the deadliest of the bunch.

You should be relying on your players to do this to you – nudging you subtly or overtly toward the kind of game they want to play. They’ll enjoy your campaign more if you listen. My thought with A-Team and the Losers was of caper-style adventures. That hasn’t happened, but that’s not a problem. We’ve got pulp adventures including weird science – last adventure they fought evil Nazis in power armour in a lost city in the heart of Africa. The core of the initial concept remains – a team running through a series of supernatural adventures – but it has adjusted based on the input of the group.

Use inspiration to build your campaign, but be ready when it evolves into something different, and embrace that.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

You can read more about A Team of Losers here.

You can read about Raiders of the Lost Ark at Wikipedia or IMDB.

You can read about the Losers at Wikipedia or IMDB.

You can read about the A-Team at Wikipedia or IMDB.

You can read about Supernatural at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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