I’m not gaming much these days, thanks to parent-teacher conferences and my toddler failing her morale check vs Hallowe’en. What I have been doing is reading blogs about gaming–the time-honored substitute for playing–and lately found this post by a blogger named Flynn: GM Mentoring: the One Page Plot.
Maybe because I’ve been running One Page Dungeons for the last two years, but lately I’ve been wanting to run games that aren’t primarily about exploration. I’ve been wanting to run games that are about achieving in-game goals while rival NPCs do their best to stop you. In other words, adventures. Naturally any post that promises a one-page version of an adventure got my attention.
In a follow up to his original post, Flynn outlines an interesting adventure involving an exiled lord framed by a rival and a venal merchant for treason, so the rival can marry the exile’s betrothed instead.
Compared to most published adventures, Flynn’s template packs in a lot of information in a very small amount of space. In that sense it’s a model of brevity–it has everything a DM could need, short of stat blocks, to run the adventure. But I’m spoiled by the One Page Dungeon Template. I want something even more brief, even more skeletal, with only the barest minimum necessary to scan and run on game night.
Anyone who has talked to me about DM prep lately knows that I’m a huge fan of a blog post called Don’t Prep Plots by Justin Alexander. He’s got a lot of great articles on dungeon and adventure design, but that one is by far my favorite. He says, in a nutshell, that contingency planning for player actions is at best a partial waste of time (because you prep for X and Y, but the players only choose one, so half is wasted) and at worst a complete waste of time (because we all know that players have a knack for surprising DMs and thus rendering all prep useless).
He recommends preparing Situations instead of Plots. Plots are a sequence of events. But he points out that you can’t be sure what the sequence of events in a game are before you play (unless you railroad, which has its own problems). A situation is a set of circumstances, period. What happens after that is based on what the players do and what their adversaries (played by the DM) do in response.
The other advantage a Situation has over a plot is that it’s a lot shorter to write. We all know the plot of LotR, so I won’t transcribe it. But can we agree that it could take several pages to summarize? At the very least, you’d be hard pressed to fit the entire plot on a single page, even if you left out many, many details. So here’s the same plot, written as a Situation:
Frodo and his companions must cast the One Ring into Mount Doom before Sauron finds it and takes over the world.
Boom! What happens next is up to the players of Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, et al. And we already know that it might not go like the DM planned.
A situation really makes the DM’s life easier, because he doesn’t need to remember all sorts of contingency plans. All he needs to remember are some NPC goals and the resources they have to achieve those goals. So if you’re playing Sauron and you know the Ring is in the Shire, you look over your sheet of resources and think: army of orcs, too slow… Saruman, can’t be trusted… evil men in Bree, too weak… Nazghul, fast, smart and unswervingly loyal, perfect! It’s the players’ job to deal with it, so you don’t need to worry about complicated if/then scenarios, and you can go back to picking a craft beer for game night.
I’ve tried to give one of my own campaign ideas the Situations Not Plots treatment, but I had a hard time, probably because it’s tough to kill your babies–and if you’re like me, you usually have several cool “scenes” in mind when you think up an adventure. And any given scene may or may not happen with a Situation-based game.
So I decided to give Flynn’s very cool one page plot the Situation treatment (by accident because I didn’t read his post clearly enough and understand what kind of feedback he was looking for). But I enjoyed the exercise enough that I decided to blog about it.
In any case, this isn’t an attempt to fix Flynn’s adventure or imply that it has problems, it’s just me seeing an adventure I thought was cool and trying to make it work for my style of DM prep. None of the following will make sense unless you go read about his adventure now.
Here’s Flynn’s synopsis:
The party must protect an one-legged, greedy trader from the actions of a branded, slovenly noble, who is motivated by love.
It’s a really cool premise, and the characters are interesting! They’re morally gray, with the “good guy” exile being slovenly and sort of unlikable, the merchant being a greedy, treacherous type and the “bad guy” being a jealous lord. The only person you could consider “good” is the betrothed, and she’s completely in the dark!
So the first thing that I thought when I read the adventure is how most of my players wouldn’t care a bent copper piece about a squabble between a scruffy noble and a greedy merchant. The next thing I thought was how they’d be most likely to care about whomever could pay them the most. And that got me thinking that they’d most likely end up working for the “bad guy”, rubbing out the pesky exile or tying up loose ends by murdering the merchant.
Clearly I needed something more flexible than a plot. Here’s my attempt at a Situation:
Bad Lord hired Lying Merchant to frame Exile for Treason, using false Evidence.
First thing I did after this is specify the treason and the evidence. Mainly because it’s easier for me to remember “planning to assassinate the king at the wedding” than an unspecified charge of treason). Also because if there’s false evidence, the players are going to want to examine it, destroy it, or otherwise interact with it. Not to mention DMs don’t have time to figure things out, they’re downloading/buying your adventure because they want you to do their work for them.
Here’s the re-write:
Bad Lord hired Lying Merchant to frame Exile with a forged letter planning the assassination of the king at the wedding to Betrothed.
I’m also using descriptions rather than names at this early stage. DMs have a hard time remembering names if they didn’t come up with them, and I’m no exception.
The next order of business is to come up with some NPC goals. This is the part that creates the real Situation. The summary I wrote above is static. The Exile is exiled, and the Bad Lord and Lying Merchant are getting away with it. So let’s whip up some goals that shake things up:
Bad Lord: Marry Betrothed and get her lands. Keep conspiracy secret.
Lying Merchant: Sell info to the highest bidder.
Exile: Clear my name. Marry Betrothed.
Betrothed: Get out of marrying Bad Lord.
Now we’re talking! That jerkwad Merchant isn’t content with the dishonest buck he’s making by framing the Exile. Now he wants to sell what he knows, too. This puts him in conflict with the Bad Lord and creates lots of hooks. Replace “hired” with “asked”, “begged”, “forced”, “blackmailed”, etc as fits your game:
Hired to protect the Merchant from the Bad Lord’s goons.
Hired by the Bad Lord to kill the Merchant.
Hired by the Exile to steal the info, buy the info, or kidnap the Merchant.
Hired by the Betrothed to protect the Exile, steal the info, etc.
Note that Flynn’s original hook is in there, so we’re remaining faithful to the original adventure idea. Except now it’s a lot more robust. There are lots of ways to engage with the adventure, and we can guess from their goals how each NPC might react to any actions by the players.
Next we need to figure out what resources the NPCs have at their disposal. This is the part that feels the most like traditional “DM prep”. You examine party powers, look at CR/ELs, levels/Hit Dice, etc. Or maybe you’re running a sandbox, so you just decide how powerful the Bad Lord is, and let the players figure out whether they can take him (or if they should work for him instead).
So here’s what some resources might look like, minus the stats for whatever game system you’re using:
Bad Lord: a fortified manor in the country (site of wedding), a town house, a personal bodyguard, two squads of soldiers, 4,000 cash, a carriage, a court magician.
Lying Merchant: a warehouse, a wagon and driver, a personal bodyguard, 6,000 cash, line of credit for 10,000, an office in town, contacts with a smuggler’s crew, personally skilled at forgery, a bribed guard captain, a hideout in a bar he owns.
Exile: 2,000 cash, a personal bodyguard, a huge estate in the country (unavailable while exiled), a good horse, a terrific disguise.
Betrothed: 3,000 cash, access to her father’s estates, a line of credit for 5,000, a sexy servant girl, a childhood friend of the king, a brother in the clergy.
Then let the players do whatever they want and have the NPCs use their resources accordingly. No worrying about contingencies, no elaborate encounters going unused, much less time wasted.
It practically runs itself! If they get hired by the Merchant, they’ll quickly find themselves facing off with the Bad Lord’s men, being scryed on by his wizard, attacked by the Exile, approached by the Betrothed’s sexy servant girl, etc. If they are hired by the Bad Lord to kill the Exile, he and the Betrothed will do what they can to stop them. The Merchant might even decide that having the Exile alive makes his position stronger, and pitch in.
And lets say they meet the Exile and kill him on the first encounter. Big deal. The Bad Lord will naturally want them to bump off the Merchant next. And then he might want them to bump off the Betrothed after the wedding, so he can inherit without having to deal with her. And then what? Well the Bad Lord can’t have a bunch of adventurers wandering around knowing his darkest secrets…
Every step of the way you’ve got options. And what’s more, every step of the way you’ve got more material for future adventures, more NPCs popping up with a stake in what’s happening. The father of the Betrothed. The brother of the Exile. The master thief who wants the info to blackmail the Bad Lord. The Other Lord who is a rival of the Bad Lord. And on, and on.
The other nice thing about this design is it quickly exposes logical inconsistencies that often crop up in plot-based adventures, particularly ones that involve any kind of conspiracy or mystery. For example, why hasn’t the Bad Lord murdered the Exile already? Sure, the short answer is that if he had, there wouldn’t be an adventure. And that’s fair enough, but this gives us a chance to fill in the blanks a little, and gives us even more material to work with.
That’s why I added “a terrific disguise” to the list of resources for the Exile. Originally it wasn’t on his list, but now I consider it the reason he’s not already a corpse. Then I got to thinking–the king must not be very strong if he can’t execute a traitor, even a noble one. Maybe it’s a situation like medieval England, where several Dukes nearly as strong as the King rivaled him for power. The King may have had to compromise with exile, or risk civil war.
That makes everything a lot more interesting! Suddenly the Exile might have more options, and a powerful family. His estate is confiscated, but the rest of his family might be able to protect him if he can get to their territory. Other Dukes might welcome this loss in prestige for his family–or might want to help to keep the King from getting too strong. Foreign princes might give him safe haven. He might need the players to spirit him over the mountains. Or he might need them to break up the wedding long enough for him to assemble an invasion force.
Once I sort that out, I add it to the summary (which is probably a small paragraph or series of bullet points by now) and then I have an answer when some pesky player asks why the Bad Lord didn’t have the Exile killed. The King couldn’t execute him, so he banished him instead. And Exile evaded the Bad Lord’s thugs with his terrific disguise.
Next post I’ll format my examples as a one-pager and see how it turns out.