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The Dungeon Master's Journal of the Unquiet Lands

It's a Wonderful Life (for Player Characters), another approach to adventure design

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"If you give up, it will be the end of everything; but you have the capacity to change fate. This unavoidable destruction, this can change it all. That's why you have this power." --Kyubey, from Puella Magi Madoka Magica, episode one

Born Outside of Destiny
Confronted by the common problems of adventure writing, I have developed an approach that is both efficient and makes player character activity inherently meaningful. Although I claim to have independently come up with this idea, I have since encountered other Game Masters who use the same approach, so I will not say it is unique. However, while I cannot make any pretense of having read all available discussions of game mastery, my survey of the available literature has not turned up any formal discussion of this strategy.

My approach is as follows:

  • Design the events in a scenario based on the assumption that there are no player characters.
  • Have the scenario lead to an undesirable conclusion.
  • Include critical points where the scenario will "fail," i.e. not arrive at its natural conclusion.
  • Make these points potentially accessible to player characters.
  • Allow the player to meddle in these points.
  • Give the players free rein to do what they would.

Beyond Railroads and Sandboxes
One of the common false dichotomies bandied about is that of choosing between the railroad and the sandbox when it comes to adventure design. There has been a lot said on these approaches, most of which I don't agree with, and in some cases the boundary between the two crosses into each other's territory. Broadly speaking though, a "sandbox" refers to a more-or-less complete milieu that the PCs can, ideally, do whatever they want in. A "railroad" is a GM-devised story that the PCs are essentially adjunct to.

In the vast majority of discussions of the subject, the sandbox is presented as the goal and the railroad epitomizes every bad quality of adventure design. This is sometimes taken to such an extreme that approaches I would label as "railroads" are referred to by their authors as "sandboxes."

There are other approaches too, that don't necessarily fall in-between the two, demonstrating multiple axes of design philosophy. One for instance, which does not have a label I can easily recall right now, is where the PCs are the center of the universe, and the world revolves around them. This would often occur in games of high fantasy, for example, and is almost de rigueur for games like Amber.

When it comes to the railroad, at its stereotypical extreme, the players are propelled from scene to scene, regardless of their intent or their actions. This is a hallmark of either very inexperienced or very bad GMs, and as such, we can dispense with any further discussion of its questionable merits. However, an interesting related case that I come up against more often than I would like is where players have the perception that an adventure is a railroad when the reality (from my perspective) is the opposite. That is a subject worth discussing, and I deal with the tactical question of player choice later on, but it also probably deserves its own entry to be fully sorted out.

Sandboxes have their own particular failings. While they are the love of many a world-building GM, from a practical viewpoint they represent a decidedly inefficient technique. At their worst, they represent the opposite flaw of a railroad: the creation of static, event-less settings reminiscent of the early "dungeons," but lacking even in the provision of basic motivations for adventurers to explore them.

To draw the analogy further, a sandbox is more appropriately what the Game Master receives, and nearly all the professional rpgs provide this. To pass that sort of sandbox naively onto the players would constitute a deficiency of work on the GM's part. To be sure, there may be a magnificently detailed setting that the GM put much effort into, but many vital trappings of what constitutes a campaign are missing.

To create instead what many writers describe as an ideal sandbox, what the GM must really do is fashion the tools: the buckets, the shovels, the molds and what-have-you, to pass onto the players so they may properly build. The character by him- or herself is almost always (in nearly all game systems) insufficient. Most player characters cannot emulate Zhu Yuanzhang, the vagrant beggar who founded the Ming Dynasty of China; but they at least have the potential to follow the example of Hideyoshi, the peasant farmer who rose to become a trusted general of Oda Nobunaga, and then succeeded him to unify and rule Japan. Even disregarding such a grandiose vision as empire-building, more modest ambitions are still difficult enough to act on without substantial provision from the GM, who is the arbiter and window for his or her world.

The above examples are bad sandboxes, but what about good sandboxes? These are thriving, dynamic, and intricate universes with a life of their own, calling out to be explored by the curious PCs. The question here becomes how long can a GM keep this up? It is already a minority of GMs who are capable of this. We all know, though I have rarely seen it discussed, that GMs are in great danger of burning out. All I have to do is point to the graveyard of pbp games in these very forums to illustrate that. Compare the number of ones where the players abandoned the game to those where the GM abandoned it. To those who might argue that this is a peculiar quality of pbp games, I have one thing to say: pbp games leave corpses, while other media don't. The sandbox represents a particular threat: how much is a GM going to have the mental stamina to keep building and building, knowing full well (or eventually waking up to the realization) that only the tiniest fraction of the whole will ever be encountered, even by the most dedicated, inquisitive party?

The Improvisationists
There is a distinct group of GMs who claim to have the gift of being able to create excellent adventures on the fly, and always being able to deal with any action the players embark upon. I regard the ability to respond in real time to players is a necessary skill for any GM. However, to be able to do this for an entire adventure creates a number of challenges. How do these adventures fit within the overall setting? How consistent can they be, from the outset to the conclusion? Will there be any foreshadowing, and will it make any sense?

For a GM who can justly lay a claim to this ability, it seems to me that there is nothing more to be learned in the area of adventure design. They've won that battle. However, not everyone can hope to achieve such stature. I, for one, am not of that sort. Nor, I should point out, were any of the best GMs I've played under. All of them relied on extensive preparation, and it showed in the compelling nature of their campaigns.

Matrix Design
An approach to writing adventures, dating at least back to the 1980s, was sometimes called Matrix Design, occasionally Keyed Design or Branching Design. This idea is not lost, but usually gets lumped into the sandbox following the ongoing trend of polarization of terms. Essentially, an adventure follows several different paths to different outcomes, based on the party's actions.

In good hands this could represent a workable compromise, but it still presents a number of major flaws. The most obvious is the inherent difficulty in predicting player actions. Once the players veer off-course, as they invariably do, the GM is left with two options: run with the ball from that point, invalidating the whole point of matrix design; or nullify the players' choices, which destroys any large-scale opportunity for the players to express creativity beyond what the GM envisioned beforehand.

Another major problem is that the amount of inefficiency can approach the level of sandbox games. Only a railroad has no inefficiency, so eliminating inefficiency is an unreasonable goal. How much inefficiency must we tolerate, though? Consider a fairly compact, modestly-designed matrix adventure of five encounters in a diamond pattern. That is to say, from the initial encounter, there are two possible second encounters, three possible third encounters, two fourth encounters, and some inevitable final encounter. The second half of the adventure is already a railroad, but look at what we have: the GM has to come up with nine encounters, and the players, at best, are only going to experience five of them. To add insult to injury, one of those extraneous encounters is on a railroad track!

So what can we do better?

The Empty World and the Tragic Setting
I have to admit that I don't care for the movie It's a Wonderful Life. However, its key plot point perfectly illustrates my approach to writing adventures. In the film, based on the short story The Greatest Gift, a suicidal man's guardian angel shows him how much darker the world would be if he had never been born.

Few GMs have the privilege of designing their campaigns with a group of player characters ready-and-waiting for them. For one thing, GMs usually have players wait until after they've designed their campaign to build characters, in order to have in place the guidelines fleshed out during world creation. This is especially true for GMs venturing into new territory, be it a new gaming group or an online game. Instead of fretting over this, use it to your advantage. Make a game world without player characters.

When it comes to setting, the job isn't any different from before. Maps, towns, dungeons, even a good number of NPCs, most GMs don't involve the PCs when they first consider these. However, the actual story of the adventure itself is where the main difference lies.

For GMs who insist on discarding any trappings of story, they are falling into the trap of the static sandbox, discussed above. A world with NPCs, assuming they aren't frozen in time, has to have a story, whether you call it a story, or a plot, a history, a narrative, or even something like "ongoing NPC interactions."

Now, here's the lynchpin of this approach: the story has an unhappy ending. On every level, from the beginning to the end, the story ends in a tragedy, or at the very least, with something unfavorable. The wars are lost, the disasters occur, people show their worst sides. Good intentions are misguided. Last ditch efforts fail. The world slowly but inexorably spirals downward, not to destruction, but to a worse state than when it began.

This is the world where the player characters were never born.

Built to Fail
Now, the point of the adventure becomes the opposite of how it traditionally is. The story has to go south. The plot has to be screwed up. Otherwise, it's going to all end in blood and tears.

Now you're turning the force of chaos that is the typical adventuring party to your advantage. Moltke the Elder, sometimes called the Father of Wargaming, said something rather long and boring that has since been shortened to "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." Your plan is not meant to.

That in itself may not be enough, and therefore should not be counted as enough. Just as you shouldn't rely on a party to carry your story, you probably shouldn't rely on them to dispose of your story, either. Now is the time for you to throw in some ways to help things along. Whatever you do, though, don't fall prey to the temptation to create a story that self-fails. Nothing is more demoralizing to a party than to realize that if they'd just stayed home, everything would have taken care of itself.

This is where you need to come up with a list of points where things might not have gone so horribly wrong. What if the archmage's assassin had been discovered in advance? What if the wrathful general had quailed at crossing the river border? What if the key ingredient in the ritual to summon the demon had not been procured? What if the agents of the evil guild found the crypt's treasures looted before they arrived, and thus were unable to finance the further expansion of their criminal organization?

It's good to have a mix of fragile and solid events, and multiple degrees of failure. For example, in most cases a dragon attacking a town is a solid event: it's probably going to happen unless the PCs proactively decide they're going to find and eliminate the dragon ahead of time. However, a prince and his companions hunting in a forest, taking a wrong turn, and getting wiped out by a gang of thieves they stumbled upon while said gang was fleeing with the holy relics they looted from the Coven of the High Druid could be avoided through any number of interventions, even accidental ones. That would be a fragile event. Similarly, multiple degrees of failure refers to the impact each change of events has on the future. Saving the life of the elderly diplomat from a poisoned drink will only delay a war by six months, at which point she succumbs to winter pneumonia. On the other hand, a delivering a clever replica of a legendary jewel to a paranoid noble keeps all the dragonborn in the land from being butchered so that their scales may be ground up and distilled into his next immortality elixir.

Some of the above examples are fancifully abstruse, especially to a party of PCs. That's fine in some cases, especially when the impact of their actions becomes clear over time. However, among these failure points should be ones that are immediately obvious in their import: the slaying of the evil wizard before she puts the finishing touches on her triple iron golem, the expulsion of a company of callous mercenaries, the rescue of kidnapping victims. These points demonstrate to the players their effect on the world. Actions with obvious and positive repercussions can often serve as a reward in and of themselves.

Now where are we at? We have a bad outcome, and a variety of events leading up to it. There's probably (hopefully) no single event that can completely forestall the outcome, except when it gets close to the end, but each of those events, were they to occur differently, will lessen or delay its negative impact. In other words, we've got a linear plot, but one that doesn't involve railroading the players.

Opposing Fate
The next step is to make these points accessible to PCs. You obviously can't count on the PCs hiding in the rafters when the conspirators are discussing their plan to buy up old silver ahead of a devaluation of the currency that they got wind of in advance. If you can, you should double-check to make sure you're not designing a railroad, after all.

There are a variety of ways to do this. One is to simply make a lot of the failure points out in the open. There's a goblin lair under that hill. The old caretaker in the graveyard's been acting funny, lately. People in town sure seem to like buying up carved tortoise shells, these days. This is an easy and straightforward approach, though at some point you're going to need to explain why other groups of NPCs who act like parties of adventurers don't get in on the action, too, unless your PCs truly are a unique phenomenon.

Another way that is frowned upon in contemporary prose fiction but still works reasonably well for adventures is to play around with coincidence. Maybe if the PCs happen to be hiding in the rafters of some inn, it just happens to be the inn where those conspirators are planning for their retirement, and they just happen to be talking about it at the time. I do not think it is inappropriate to treat adventurers like those detectives who always seem to encounter a new suspicious corpse every few weeks.

Finally, a rather satisfying approach is to keep more than one iron in the fire. Going too far with this carries the same risks as a sandbox, but since each one represents a linear scenario, it is much more manageable. This way, you increase the chances that the PCs will stumble across something that they can meddle with.

The Threat of Existential Threats
The most common dire outcome in fantasy campaigns is the destruction of the world. This includes any outcome that represents some ultimate bad end for the PCs. Summoning the Lord of Hell who will gobble them all up, having the dungeon complex collapse on their heads, falling into the bottomless pit: these are pretty much game-enders.

They should be avoided. Every now and then it's reasonable or logical to put the PCs into a do-or-die situation, but this is usually the province of single encounters: don't get consumed by the green slime in the corner of the room, deal with that pack of hungry ghouls, get out of the locked room with the walls closing in. The trouble with ultimately threatening scenarios is that they leave no room for when the PCs choose not to meddle, or don't meddle effectively. When the players have to succeed no matter what, that's the point where they're only along for the ride.

This is not to say you can't or shouldn't push it really close. Frankly, anything short of death is fair game in my book. Also, situations that look like they're going to fatal are fine as long as they're some possible option. To take an example from my current pbp game, the PCs are trapped in a town that's inexorably flooding. At face value it looks like a backs-to-wall sort of thing, but that's not necessarily the case. I've already given the example of a group of NPCs (former PCs actually, but they'll do) who have decided to risk their lives escaping down the flooded river. It's an option available to the PCs, and depending on their actions, there were points where that might have become the most favorable of their choices. There was also a teleportation circle in town that they happened upon. If they could find the sigil sequence to another city, they would be able to save themselves. It's the set of morals they assigned their characters that made their choice to do everything in their power to save the town nearly inevitable, and in some ways, that's an important aspect of heroism.

When the PCs have the opportunity to live and fight another day, it not just allows the campaign to go on, it also lets the PCs come face to face with the outcomes. The world worsens, but the world remains. The possibilities remain, and the PCs can continue to pursue their dreams.

Going My Way
So what if the PCs could care less about your scenarios and your dire outcomes? Well, if you've made them compelling enough, that won't be the case. Still, as is so often the case, it's best not to assume. I'd say the three major facets to this situation are PCs who exclusively pursue some alternate goal, passive PCs, and PCs who pursue multiple agendas.

The first case is an issue that should really be sorted out at the beginning of the campaign, or at the moment of the player's introduction to the game. In my case, I've largely short-circuited this by including specific provisions in my guidelines encouraging collaborative behavior. However, if you choose to allow it, make sure you know what these goals are as soon as possible, so that you can provide the PCs with the necessary tools, as per the sandbox, to act on them.

If you have players who really want to do something very specific, it is not unthinkable to jettison your original campaign idea, or rewrite it so that the natural course of events is that it doesn't fail. If you cannot bear to let your ideas go by the wayside, you can always save them for use with another group of players. If that's not acceptable, a compromise approach would be to lessen the success conditions. Make solid events fragile, and make the degree of failure high. That way, your PCs can "win" your campaign on the side while concentrating on their own goals. If you're going to go this far for the players, I think it is acceptable to demand a relatively unified goal from them. In other words, this is to accommodate the party as a whole, not just every player's idiosyncratic agenda.

Passive PCs are a particularly unpleasant situation. In some cases it's fine, as long as they're both quiet and happy. The trouble is when they're not. What it boils down to is that some players are most comfortable riding on a railroad, whether they know it or not. If they do know it, that's great. If the whole party is like that, just give them a railroad to follow. If some subset of the party is like that, they should hopefully be fine with following the lead of the active members.

Now it's those players who have been simultaneously indoctrinated to dislike railroads, but cannot be motivated to take a course of action on their own who are real headaches. At this point, some triage is in order. Either something about your campaign will be compelling enough to attract their interest and drive, or it's best to admit that your campaign isn't for them, and have both of you go your separate ways. Also, completely passive players, those who don't do anything and don't participate at all, are a type of problem player in my opinion. Whatever they're getting out of being in a game, it's to the detriment of others, and that should not be tolerated.

In contrast, the PCs who wish to pursue multiple agendas are in some ways the best PCs to have. They are willing to muck about in your game world's problems, but they bring their own color and depth to it, too, with their goals and backgrounds. The main difficulty is balancing the two sets, but the scenarios you've set up should speak for themselves. It is the best when the backgrounds lend themselves to incorporation in the campaign. The biggest thing to watch out for is when the motivations put the PCs at odds with the course of the party or other PCs.

The Corridor with Many Doors
A continuing problem, and one that I have not solved satisfactorily, is the one of perceiving choices. There often seems to be a disconnect between the number of choices players actually have, and ones they feel they have. In other words, players sometimes feel like they're being forced down a certain path, when they could be walking off of it whenever they want.

There are always going to be obvious bad choices, at least ones detrimental to the PCs' goals. Don't throw yourself off a cliff. Don't insult the evil duchess at her dinner table. Don't try to mug the captain of the town guard. Don't break into the royal vault on the spur of the moment. Don't intentionally get lost in the forest. If you do, the consequences are fairly obvious.

What about more subtle situations? When is it good to let things just move along, and when is it good to step in and do...what? I really dislike spelling out less-obvious options to players, because I think it's to everyone's benefit when someone comes across one unaided. The very act of presenting choices leads to the further implication, however false, that those are the only ones to be considered. On another level, it also tends to forestall players from formulating their own plans.

Yet sometimes the best choice for PCs really is to do nothing, or to do the obvious. When there's a goal, approaching it directly is the norm, and the circuitous route is only a countermeasure to hazards, enemies, and obstacles. The obvious is usually obvious for a reason, and PCs who are conditioned to always do the unanticipated eventually become strange and paranoid creatures.

Working on the concept that players need to have a view of the world in order to better interact with it, I have tried to present large amounts of activity and detail as hints to possible actions. I try to show what events will occur if the party does nothing, and illustrate events that occur as a consequence of the party's actions. Unfortunately, this can apparently create the opposite impression--as was recently made clear to me yet again--the impression of events heading to some foreordained conclusion whether the party does anything or not.

I think the biggest unresolved problem in this area is that different players have different expectations. The level of comfort for one player is outside the zone of another. Enumerated choices can be stifling, while freedom can be as limiting as a blank page.

To some extent, I try to reward proposed actions by least giving them a chance of obtaining positive outcomes. That works up to a point. I don't want players to believe they can get away with any crazy thing that pops into their heads. That means any plan would work, not just the good ones. Ideally, actions should be daring without being mad; reasonable without being dull; showy without being silly; or just flat-out clever.

Into the Gray
The above assumes that the PCs have some stake in your outcome, that basically they don't want it to happen. Following these principles can keep you cranking out viable campaigns of several different types for years, but perhaps you have in mind something different. Let's say your whole campaign is centered around a war, but it's one where both sides have sympathetic and repulsive elements; or perhaps you are interested in the political struggles of a country where any of several factions might appeal to the PCs.

In these cases, the outcomes of events encourage the success or failure of various sides. The PCs are free to go with whomever they want, and their meddling will change the balance of power. I still believe it is important that the overall untouched outcome be negative. In the examples above, unless the PCs change the course of events, the war drags on for years until both sides are too weak to oppose a new invader; or the kingdom descends to civil war under the weight of its intrigues. This way, the PCs can't just sit back and have things go their way.

Quests Are Different
What I have described above is currently my favorite approach to adventure design, but it is not necessarily universally applicable. Here is a common example where it is not necessary to design for failure: the quest.

A quest, in this case, is where the PCs have an explicit goal that they are setting out to accomplish. It is important, in the first place, for the players to have accepted this at the outset. However, once that is confirmed, you have been given a great gift: you know what the PCs are going to be striving for, and you know that they're going to be doing it all together.

In this sort of situation, you don't need to worry about having the PCs "meddle" in the foreordained course of events. Freely put obstacles in the PCs' path: challenges where the PCs have to succeed at in order to get what they want. The party is now the central agent of change, going against the inertia of the world. It's not a bad place to be.

I try to design adventures from the point of view that the situation will naturally come to an undesirable outcome if there is no intervention from the PCs. These adventures have multiple points where that preordained outcome can be derailed. The points can be easy or difficult to achieve, but most of them a reasonably accessible for players to get to. Each point has a degree to which it will offset the original outcome, with the greatest offsets occurring near the end or being made available by earlier offsets.

I try to have some failure points obvious, and some that occur opportunistically. I also have the failures points of multiple scenario interspersed to increase the odds of the players interacting with them.

The nature of the outcome is not death and destruction. Rather, it delivers the PCs to another, lower, plateau, from which they can continue their activities.

While giving the players the freedom to choose their own course, I try to strike a balance between the PCs' individual goals and the overall direction of the campaign. At a minimum, PC goals should not be at odds with each other, unless the GM specifically wishes that possibility. Some PCs prefer linear (railroad) approaches, which is acceptable, but PCs who cannot be motivated to action at all may be problem players, or at least incompatible with your campaign.

There is an ongoing conundrum concerning the balance and nature of information to present to players about what their choices are. Too little and too much information can both create the impression of a lack of choice, in different ways. This is further complicated by individual players' differing preferences.

This technique can be modified to support situations where the PCs have leeway to choose a variety of different courses. In cases where PCs already have a single goal they are striving for, much of this approach is unnecessary or can be reversed.

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Updated 12-27-2011 at 07:19 AM by Umiushi

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  1. Palpatim's Avatar
    Thanks for the continued insight into your adventure-building process, Umiushi. As a beneficiary of this hard work, it's always humbling to see how much thought and effort goes into making a game scenario. Looking forward to your next installment.

  2. tomheadley's Avatar
    Very enlightening
  3. Umiushi's Avatar
    Other than involving a bit of time travel, Puella Magi Madoka Magica and It's a Wonderful Life don't have much in common. That's why my thoughts turned to this blog entry when, earlier this month, I happened to come across a movie theater advertising showings for the two Madoka Magica films and It's a Wonderful Life on the same day.