Monday, May 07, 2012

Episodic Adventure Construction

Since I will be running my first game in over a month this coming Saturday, my thoughts once again turn to the process of preparing an adventure (episode, actually, as I'm running Buffy: The Vampire Slayer RPG). It has been long enough since I've last run that I might actually venture beyond my tried-and-true technique and try a different approach.

But first, a word on how I usually prepare for Buffy (and, by extension, similar episodic one-shots).

I start with a new page in my gaming notebook (or some kind of electronic document if I'm going to have access to a laptop or my iPad). I label the episode number and come up with a catchy title. Yes, I start with the title. Some may think that I'm putting the cart before the horse, but at least 80% of my Buffy episode owe their entire existence to a clever title. Everything else usually follows from that.

Next up, I start a "Previously On Slaying Solomon..." section where I try to highlight the important plot threads and update the status of the major and minor cast members. Over eight years into this game, this step is absolutely essential. This is especially true given that my session notes can be sparse and our limited play frequency makes it hard to recall exactly what happened in a previous session. Writing everything down helps job the memory.

After that, I try to come up with a three act structure and a snappy teaser (the action and/or cliffhanger sequence that hooks the players). Sometimes, I come up with the teaser first and the rest of the episode follows. Usually, however, I need to have some idea of where the episode is going before I can think about what crucial element needs to be established in the opening sequence.

Now, even though I use a three act structure, I should be clear that I'm not doing any railroading here. I know my players and I have a pretty good idea of what they will do. But rarely do we finish the episode in the place that I imagined. In fact, much of the fun for me (as Director/GM) is seeing how it ends.

Thus, I set up an initial situation and lay out a rough plot in an outline format. Considering the seasonal arc (which is always in flux) I make note of various plot points that I'd like to hit. These plot points are often worked in though non-player characters, with plenty of clues thrown about to invite player involvement.

The player characters will always have their own agenda and I make sure I listen to their inter-party dialog during a session to look for where they will come into contact with the plot.

Pacing in these things is critical. While I do not put the *party* on rails, I do note in the plans of the various NPCs where I might need to cut corners or draw things out in order to hit a satisfying conclusion at the end of a four hours session. This sometimes manifests as a "to do list" for episode's Big Bad, which can expand or contract as needed.

Finally, I like to gather general resources for a session. For me, that means name lists, monster stats, inspirational images, and ideas for good action sequences. 

Ok, that's how I generally prepare episodic games. In my next post I hope to explore other techniques that I've used in the past, as well as techniques that I'm itching to try.


Greg said...

This is an interesting compare-and-contrast because the Monkey and I both run sessions of this campaign (although he runs many more).

Although I don't have anywhere near as formal a process, I've also noticed just how many of the episodes I've run have started with a title. In a couple cases ("The Greatest Tori Ever Told" and "Imagine"), I've had a title literally for years and not had the slightest idea what the plot was going to be until a week or two before the session. Occasionally, I'll have a general concept ("time travel," "visit an alternate world," etc.), a setting ("winter carnival," "Chichen Itza"), or a specific plot point I need to advance ("raid the players' secure artifact storage vault"). But most often, it's a title.

After that, though, our processes differ. Once I've got my inspiration, the next step is to come up with a villain if I don't already have one, and figure out what the villain's up to. Sometimes, this leads to a specific schedule of actions that the villain will take at certain times, other times it's just a vague sense of the kind of things they might do.

If there are any other major NPCs who seem likely to be involved, I'll work them out and figure out what they'll likely be doing, as well.

Often, the above process will lead me to have one or two scenes pretty clearly thought out -- usually a teaser, but sometimes an expected climactic scene or a meeting with a key NPC. If nothing else, I'll have to have at least a vague idea how the teaser is going to go.

And that's pretty much it. In the beginning, I tried to plot out my sessions, with an act structure, an order of scenes, etc.; but it didn't really work. Now, I have a starting point, a bunch of NPCs, and perhaps some vague idea of where I'm going, and my prepared notes for the meat of the session are pretty much, "wackiness ensues."

For example, for my most recent episode, "The Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come," I had the opening battle pretty clearly mapped out, stats for all the villains, the basic game mechanics how I was going to handle the time travel/repeating day aspect of the plot, and absolutely nothing else (other than the vague sense that we were going to have to scramble to fit it into 5 hours).

Risus Monkey said...

My ambitions for careful Act planning often fall short due to procrastination and family obligations. But it usually doesn't seem to matter much. Much of the success of last session (and many other session) can be attributed to jotting down the important plot points, assembling NPC motives, and coming up with cool hooks for individual characters. Act structure sometimes becomes a vague notion of what I'm building toward or (when the party goes in a different direction) where the episode seems to be going (determined on the fly).