Saturday, July 25, 2009

Single Serving Adventures

As I get older, I find myself relying on printed material more when running games. I suspect that’s because I’ve only got so many hours in a day, and I can’t devote as many of them to creating chronicles whole cloth the way I used to. That’s fine, because most games have more than enough information to play them for years without ever resorting to making up a thing. In particular, most games have pre-written stories (also called adventures, scenarios or modules) that GMs can run for their groups.

You can’t usually just pick one of those stories up and plug it right into your game, though. There’s definitely a certain amount of skill that goes with running such stories, and in this essay, we’re going to discuss the tips and tricks of doing so.

First Step: Know the Material

If you’re considering running a scenario for your group, the first thing you need to do is read it in its entirety. Read all of the characters and their statistics (if provided), look over the maps, read through the descriptions of the rooms or the events and make sure you understand what the story is about. If the scenario references books or rules you haven’t read in a while, go back and re-familiarize yourself with them.

The reasons for this scrutiny should be pretty clear. For one thing, if there are mistakes in the scenario, either in the rules portions (it’s not uncommon for writers of scenarios to be a little fuzzy on the system parts of the game, so make sure that the numbers make sense) or in the events of the story (plot holes happen, after all), you’ll want to know about them ahead of time so you can correct them.

More importantly, though, you need to figure out if this scenario would work for your group and your chronicle. Some scenarios are meant for beginning characters or, in some cases (such as the demos for Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken and Mage: The Awakening) for a specific group of characters. In games that work on a level system, scenarios are usually labeled as being appropriate for characters “of 4th to 6th level” or the like, but in games without such yardsticks, you often just have to read the scenario and go from there.

Sometimes the tone or content of the scenario is completely wrong for your purposes, too. The very first book I wrote for White Wolf was Giovanni Chronicles IV: Nuovo Malattia for Vampire: The Masquerade. It included some adult subject matter, asking the characters to procure prostitutes, commit murder and undertake all manner of unseemly actions (and that was before they became vampires). Even a group accustomed to the blood, violence and torment that Vampire can include might balk at some of the material in that book. Likewise, if your players like to throw down, as it were, and the scenario doesn’t include any winnable combat, you need to be aware of it.

Second Step: Customize, Customize, Customize

I’ve run a great number of pre-written scenarios in various RPGs over the years, but I don’t think I’ve run a single one of them without making a few changes. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking a character or two so that they fit better into what I’ve already established, other times I’ve excised whole portions of the scenario because I had my own ideas about where the story should go. After you’ve read and digested the scenario, be willing to pull it apart and put it back together in a form that works for you and your group.

One important point of customization is making the story your own (and by “your own” I mean the entire gaming group, not just the GM’s). That means that if the scenario includes a slimy informant that the characters need to shake down for information and one of the characters in your existing chronicle already has such a contact — wonderful! Use the existing contact in place of the character in the scenario. Some pre-written games actually abstain from detailing non-essential characters, simply mentioning a “leader” or “lawmaker” so that the Storyteller can customize freely.

Customization also has the advantage of preventing a player who has read the scenario from automatically knowing everything that is going on. I personally can’t imagine what benefit there is to reading a scenario before participating in it as a player, but some players become stuck on “winning” the game (which is, as you probably know, not possible in any conventional sense in an RPG).

That said, however, I don’t advocate changing details in a pre-written game solely to “make it different from the book.” If there’s no real reason to alter the material…don’t. Don’t be resistant to the players’ changes to the scenario (because, of course, no game survives contact with the players), but don’t feel the need to change things around pointlessly. I’ve met game-masters who feel lazy or cheap using pre-written scenarios as written. I even endured jibes from a player when I used printed material at all, rather than writing my own games (although she quieted when I pointed out that I’d developed much of the material originally anyway). But using printed material in an attempt to save time and effort is a perfectly acceptable reason for doing so, especially if that material is well-written and appropriate for you game. As the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

As an expansion on that last point, be careful about pulling the rug out from the under the players, if they have expectations going in. What I mean by that is, if the players have created their own characters, they have a sense of what those characters can do and probably have plans. They might look forward to casting a particular spell or using a particular maneuver or power, or they might just be interested in some aspect of the game. If you turn around and alter things in the game so as to make that power useless or that aspect absent, you might wind up cheating your players.

By way of example, I ran a one-shot game of Necessary Evil, a setting for the Savage Worlds system (you can learn more about Necessary Evil here, and about the game I ran here). The book includes a whole chronicle, not just one adventure, and so I picked the one I liked the best to use as the one-shot. It involved breaking into a dead supervillain's lab, and the way the game was written, it would have involved the characters shrinking down to ant-size to get in to the miniaturized lab. Nothing wrong with that, very in-genre, and if I'd been running the whole chronicle, I'd have used it as written. But for a one-shot, I felt that dumping the players into that situation wouldn't fit their expectations of the game, and that it would detract from the overall feel I was going for. I might be wrong about that, but I figured it was better to be safe than sorry (and anyway, it wasn't a hard fix; the mutated fire-ants just became giant mutated fire ants!).

Third Step: Rehearse

Many scenarios include blocks of text with instructions to read them aloud to the players. Even those that don’t have these helpful sections still include descriptions of rooms, characters and situations that the GM can simply read out of the text. It’s beneficial to read such sections ahead of time, making sure you understand the material being presented and how to pronounce and define all of the terms used, and, of course, checking to see if you want to change any of the details. Reading directly from the page with no rehearsal (what’s called “cold reading” in theatrical terms) is difficult even with training in public speaking. It’s easy to stumble over words, slip into monotone and generally lose your players. The best course of action is to absorb the information that you need to convey and present it in your own words, using natural speech and pausing to see if your players want to ask or do anything during the description.

Expanding further on that last point, another part of the rehearsal (and even the customization) phase is making sure that “cutscenes” (sections during which you’re reading and the players are listening) make sense. If the characters are expected to sit through a long section of dialogue, what’s to stop them from interrupting, or leaving, for that matter? If the characters are slaves on a ship and the scenario assumes that they have been for some weeks, what stopped the sorcerer from magically lifting the keys? This all goes back to knowing the material, but taking the time read aloud pertinent sections of the text will bring to your attention details that you otherwise might have missed, and allow you to make sure that your players’ characters actually fit into the scenario as presented. It would be intuitive to think that all pre-written scenarios are playtested with a group of real gamers, and such kinks worked out (or at least addressed) before the game is sent to press…but that’s not what really happens. Some scenarios are playtested, but other times deadlines intrude, and some game writers don’t actually play RPGs (which still wierds me out). As such, don’t take for granted that the scenario you’re reading will naturally work itself out. Take the time to read it and look for plot holes.

Likewise, take time to consider how your players might approach the problems in the scenario and decide whether you need to change anything based upon that assessment. For instance, if your players have a habit of jumping at plot hooks without bothering to do any investigation, a game rife with red herrings is probably going to be laborious because they’ll pursue any apparent lead. A group that shoots first and asks questions later probably won’t do well in a scenario in which the opponents are all high-powered and bloodthirsty. This doesn’t mean you can’t use the scenario, it just means you have to do some tweaking. In the first instance, trim the red herrings down and make sure that any lead the players can follow serves a purpose in the greater scheme of the plot, or at least has some interest to the characters and might merit revisiting later. In the second, you might consider having the characters hear rumors of how other people have been slaughtered to a man by the fearsome Death-Bears (or whatever), or better yet, have them witness themselves being thusly slaughtered in a portent or vision of the future.

Running the Game

When you actually sit down to begin the scenario, consider how you’ll bring the characters into it. Some scenarios, like the aforementioned “slave ship” situation, have a prearranged beginning point…which might not work for your chronicle. If you’re beginning a chronicle with a pre-written scenario, such an opening can actually be helpful (because pulling a group together is difficult, as discussed in this essay). But if you’re working the scenario in your ongoing chronicle, you’ll have to do some spackling to make sure it fits. A good method for building up to the scenario is to work NPCs from the scenario into your chronicle before the main action start. For instance, if the scenario requires the characters to converse with a morally shady sorcerer, seed some rumors about this person in an unrelated story or have the characters meet him on neutral turf. That way they have some history together, even if it’s just a brief exchange, and you’ve got some practice portraying him.

This is true of the end of the scenario, too. Some scenarios include an “Aftermath” section that discusses what future ramifications the game might have on the world at large, but not all do, and none of them are written with your chronicle specifically in mind. It’s easy for scenarios to feel like sitcoms — at the end, everything is back to normal. That probably isn’t the feel that you want, though, unless your chronicle is meant to have a TV-episode vibe to it. Consider how the events of the scenario are going to change your chronicle, and whether or not you want those changes.

Something to consider is how linear the scenario is. That is, how many different methods can the characters use to get from one plot point to the next? If they need to get through a magic portal to continue with the game, does that portal have more than one key? Can a magic-using character cast a spell to open it? If the pathway through the scenario is too rigidly defined, you’ll have to exert a great deal of control over the characters and their actions in order to keep the game on track, and that feels constrictive and frustrating to the players. The option, though, is to allow things to veer wildly off course, moving away from the plot of the scenario and letting the story evolve on its own.

If you’ve read my other essays, you can probably guess how I feel about that latter course of action. If the players are having fun, if their actions are guiding the plot and they are interested in what their characters are doing, go with it. If you can steer the action back to the scenario’s plot later, fine, but if not, remember the goal (to have fun and tell a compelling story).

Player Issues

I mentioned before that some players don’t like pre-written scenarios or feel that the GM is being lazy by using them. I disagree; scenarios are tools for the GM, and so we’re perfectly justified in using them. The key is to make them work within the chronicle, rather than letting the chronicles themes, tones and history take a backseat to what a book says. What specifically can the GM do to make the players feel as though the story is still about their characters, even when it was written by a total stranger?

• Know the characters. Good advice for GMs in general, but especially appropriate here. If a character is arachnophobic, maybe that encounter with giant spiders isn’t such a great idea (then again, maybe it’s ideal — depends what game effect the phobia has in your chosen system). If a character is married or has a strong love interest, supernatural seduction takes on a quite different tone than for a swinging single.

• Don’t bury your nose in the book. Know the material, know the twists and turns of the plot, know where the stats are and know what comes next. If the players see you reading right out of the book, their eyes will glaze over and they’ll lose interest. I said before that using pre-scenarios is not laziness, but using them in lieu of preparation is. That said, if you're running a system for the first time, of course you're going to be checking rules a little more, and everyone should know that up front.

• Decide on alternate endings. If the scenario is written with the assumption that the good guys (or at least the players’ characters) will prevail, is it even feasible that they might not? If the players make some really bad decisions or suffer a run of bad dice-luck, can you help them salvage victory without relying on NPCs or GM fiat? (This is one reason I’m leery of running stories with world-shattering consequences; if the players screw up in a story in which only their lives or the lives of those close to them are at stake, the world doesn’t change drastically and the outcome matters more to them, to boot.) Figure out ahead of time how things might turn out, and be ready to veer off the beaten path if an outcome not in the book would be more true to your players’ characters.

• Work with the bookworms. Suppose a player has already read the scenario. You could exclude that player (bad idea), you could rewrite the game so that he doesn’t know the details anymore (OK, but unnecessary and a lot of work for you), or you could enlist his help. He might know what’s going on behind the scenes, and he might know which wire to cut (so to speak), but he doesn’t know how the other players will react and he doesn’t know what the dice will do, so there are always some unknown elements. Plus, this puts a player with a good sense of being Conscious in the position to nudge the plot along if it gets bogged down or starts to wander.

• Take notes. You know what might happen, because it’s there in the book. Jot down what does happen. Note how the characters react to NPCs. Heck, note differences in how they’re portrayed in the book and how you played them. Write down what your players did and how it changed the world (on whatever scale). This is good policy for Storytelling in general, but especially with pre-written scenarios, since reading the book as a reminder can be misleading.

In closing, pre-written scenarios can be an overworked GM’s best friend. Even if you can’t just crack the book and run a game, having a plot and supporting cast lightens the load considerably. Just know that it doesn’t take all the work off your shoulders, and you (and the players) are ultimately still responsible for making your own fun.