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Tuesday, 13th November, 2012, 07:50 PM #11
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
I think it'll take a varying and combination of approaches to solve this problem. And that might be a good thing, as it will add some variance to the the presentation of adventures.
I run D&D like a TV show. TV manages to tell a complete story in an hour, with commercial breaks. TV manages to demonstrate a Status Quo type campaign, where the end of the episode has the problem resolved and the crew all safely aboard the USS Enterprise, or more episodically, where the situation continues to evolve session to session. However, even the episodic style tend to tell a complete story within that hour, while advancing a larger story across multiple sessions.
the trick is pacing and content balance. We know D&D 3e combat takes about an hour. We know that my group can only meet for 4-6 hours.
Therefore, we only put in 3-4 combats in the adventure, so there's room for setup, dialogue and problem solving. Too many D&D adventures are designed to take forever, when the typical movie or TV director can tell the same story in a few hours. As a game, D&D rules resolution is going to take a bit longer than a TV scene. That's OK. But typicial D&D compounds that by packing in way more material than is needed to tell the story and challenge the group.
So the goal is, create satisfying content that can be completed within 1 session (4-6 hours in my group) that can handle a changing roster of PCs as players do/don't attend subsequent sessions.
I suggest that the first stage of any campaign should emulate Star Trek. The "group" goes out and deals with a problem in 5-7 scenes. Some of those scenes are combat enounters. Just like Star Trek, the away team consists of whoever showed up on set for filming. if Dr McCoy ain't available, he doesn't appear, or has a few minimal lines voiced by the GM to say "He's dead, Jim."
In D&D, the Enterprise is analogous to the PC's home village/town. It provides a backdrop of set pieces for in-town action, and external threats can be raised to get the PCs out in the woods or dungeons as well. Because it is a "big" place, PCs who aren't available can easily be explained away as busy doing in-town things. This is a bit smoother than ending the last session in the Dungeon of Disastrous Doom and need to explain why Chad's Barbarian isn't here anymore.
If you keep the scope of your adventures paced the same as a TV show, it will tend to fit that the players solve the problem and return to town by the end of the session, thus enabling you to start the next session, back in town, with a week or more passing that enables a larger variety of reasons why Chad's PC can't be here for the next adventure.
By starting all your campaigns in this Status Quo way, you also get to develop and test your team of players, before you overcommit on large PC-centric plots and such. Find out who's reliable and who's a crazy nutjob player. Plus, after doing 2-6 of these kind of adventures, the PCs will have made some friends and enemies in-game, that you can then use to change the format to episodic in a smooth fashion.
Once you have your group broken in to the new format, it'll be time to advance it and change things up. Once you know your group is reliable, try a cliff-hanger ending, where the problem can't be solved in a single session. This will be a good change of pace, and is safer to do when you know your group is going to make the next session.
You can also start changing up how things end. Just like Star Trek:TOS, it can be nice to save the day and get things back to normal, but after 1-3rd level, it's time to mature things up and have weightier consequences for the events of the session. This means that the party may return back home, after each session, but things have changed due to the game's events.
You should almost always try to end things back to a certain location (the ship, the town, etc), but the overarching situation doesn't stay Mayberry perfect.
In most TV shows, you'll see this in the form of 2 story arcs going on. In ST:TOS/TNG, the pattern was a problem for the ship, and personal problem for one of the cast.
In shows like Burn Notice, it'll be the "Client of the Week" and a few scenes making progress toward finding who's behind the burn notice.
In Buffy, it's the same pattern, Monster of the Week, and a few scenes dealing with the mystery larger threat behind the Monster of the Week.
If the GM follows the pacing patterns of such shows while building content for a session, they will be better able to meet the goal I outlined, which I believe meshes with what Rechan asked for.
Note, my advice tends to approach it from a story-oriented style of GMing, than a Sandbox style. By Sandbox, I mean, the players decide from a plethora of opportunities, on where to go, and what to do. I don't think they have to be mutually exclusive, but some of these ideas can be applied to Sandbox style, and some Sandbox style ideas can be applied to this.
Sandbox vs. Story is really like Buffet vs. Mom's Dinner. Buffet gives lots of choices, meaning more work for the cook. Mom's Dinner means we are eating what Mom prepared, and she probably put a lot of work into it.
As a GM, if you're going to limit the choice of meal, you've got to choose well. Make something that will appeal to the players, and not force them down a path they don't want to go. In my group, we have a general rule that the party will bite the plot hook. But the GM has a responsibility to not screw the party over for doing so. I've played in a published adventure with that premise that all of us players saw as "this is a total screw job" but the basic rule of trust was that we would bite the plot hook so we could get to the fun. Hence, the corollary that the GM must not violate that faith the players put in by ignoring their better judgement, for the purpose of expediting game play.
In a sandbox, I don't see why the GM can't make a multitude of opportunities that can each be resolved within the same timeframe. The core concept is about eliminating time wasting content, not choices or freedom.
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Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 08:39 AM #12
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
When I read your statement, I read "Write an adventure for 4 players, and if less than 4 show up, have the players deal with the discrepancy". Which does not work. If only the Cleric's player shows up, then he's not really going to be able to tackle an adventure that is balanced for 3 other people, regardless of class.
So if only 1 person shows up, I have to have something for him to do. Hence, balance.
Last edited by Rechan; Wednesday, 14th November, 2012 at 08:59 AM.
Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 08:54 AM #13
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
@Janx Thanks, that's part of what I'm trying to get at the heart of. Or at least, that deals with "How do I write an adveneture that lasts 1 session?"
The problem expands to "How do I write 1-session adventures when I don't know how many, or what class, of PCs show up" but we're at least starting to get at it.
One messy issue with the problem is how you gauge time. For instance, "How much can get done in an adventure where there's 1 player?" You gave the example of, in your group, of a combat taking an hour. Well it may go very fast if there's one PC and it's built to challenge only one player. So there's less formula, more "We'll just have to explore and see". Which means the guy might be going home early because I overestimated time.
The problem I see with the 'anyone who shows up' method is that it cuts into sandbox. With the 1 guy shows up situation, there's a finite number of things he can do because he doesn't have enough players to back him up. "I want to go explore the dangerous no-man's land by myself" is a sure way to get killed, so I have to tell the player no or let him get murdered (and I'm the type of DM who'd discourage a course of action before a mistake that'll get you killed, like exploring alone).Sandbox vs. Story is really like Buffet vs. Mom's Dinner. Buffet gives lots of choices, meaning more work for the cook. Mom's Dinner means we are eating what Mom prepared, and she probably put a lot of work into it.
So instead of Sandbox, it's more like giving them a choice of chores.
What it sounds like I'm going to have to do is that I'm going to have to write about 10 adventures in advance, and sort them based on how "This adventure is for X players". As the campaign advances, and more is uncovered by previous adventures, then the possibility of what can be done opens up. If for instance players encounter a local tribe, then diplomatic or trade issues suddenly open up, or other misc "help those guys" become options.
Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 10:39 AM #14
Grandfather of Assassins (Lvl 19)
It also feels to me that if players are so often unable to join the game, then they are probably not suited right now for the type of campaign focused on long-term stories and character development.
How about just proposing everyone to shift the game towards a more old-school feel and setup, with more casual characters, de-emphasizing the importance of character growth and perhaps even of character survival?
In that sort of game, dying is not a huge setback because you don't "invest" too much in one PC, thus making a new PC feels like normal business. This will mean that you won't have to worry too much about "tailoring" your adventures to which PCs are present every time, if tonight's adventure ends up being too deadly to tonight's party, it won't be a big deal.
"There is no survival without order, there is no evolution without chaos."
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Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 03:14 PM #15
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
Here;s some other ways to look at the problem, within the framework of the TV show model.
Instead of writing 10 adventures, write 1 adventure, with each encounter having variations, based on party composition. Emphasise role playing more when you have lower head count, smash and grab when you have more players.
Branching from that, write game material for each character. These would have been side quest fragments to throw out in the middle of the regular game sessions, but you can use them for solo-player material as well.
Write some random encounter tables to generate filler material. I once had an adventure I called "Thieve's Night Out" which was basically random tables of opportunities for the thief to engage in as a solo activity.
Master ad-libbing and the 3-act play model. Here's the crux of every action TV show:
show PCs doing their basic activity (being heroic successfully)
once completed, bring in new problem
let PCs investigate and advance to major setback scene (villain screws the party)
party regroups and works to get into position to take on the problem again
this is role playing, skill tests, and some minor combats
PCs finally get to confront the big problem again
PCs confront the problem
violence and chasing ensues
PCs suceeed, kiss the girl, ride away
That's simplistic and steretypical, but the trick is, follow that model 2 times, then mix it up on the third time. As an ad-libbing GM (or one just planning his adventure), by using the model, you know what to have happen next.
You start the adventure media-res with the PCs finishing up a "quest" beating up some orcs or other easy foe. Or sitting in a tavern, looking for work, or surveying their holdings and smiling about their success.
Then you bring in NPC who has bad news. This will be news about an enemy of the PCs or threat to their holdings, etc.
The PCs will then investigate. Make some stuff up, leave some clues.
The PCs will get close, but it turns out the enemy was waiting for them. Ambush and dungeon trap them, or burn their house down. Anything to ruin their day, but not disable the PCs themselves.
the PCs will regroup, and go for the bad guy again. Make up a base, put some sentries or traps out, and then the big boss fight.
Boss is dead, PCs take his stuff, go home and kiss the girl.
Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 03:37 PM #16
Lama (Lvl 13)
Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 06:25 PM #17
Superhero (Lvl 15)
So it does work, it just depends on whether the players are expecting the GM to make it work for them, or they need to figure it out themselves.
Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 07:04 PM #18
The Grand Druid (Lvl 20)
@Rechan What's wrong with just tweaking relevant sections of whatever adventure you've got according to how many players show five minutes before gaming?
Really, party size only matters (for the purposes of adventure prep) in combat and pacing. So reduce/increase the number of enemies by whatever encounter building system you use, et voila.
Party composition is another matter, and it would be a good idea for your group to figure out their patterns of absence/attendance and designing built-in redundancy so that at least one person usually has each area of expertise (thieving, healing, etc) covered.
EDIT: Also, you mention 1 person showing up several times. Is this an actual example or an exaggerated example? IME I never have less than 4 players, and rarely 3 when somebody is out of town.
Last edited by Quickleaf; Wednesday, 14th November, 2012 at 07:09 PM.
Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 09:39 PM #19
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
Take the group I play in now as an example. The DM is available almost every weekend. I am available every weekend. There are 4 other players. The DM will run if he has 4 players agree to show up (thus we need only 3 others to agree to meet on that date). Thus far, we have not played in several months because we can't get the schedules of any 3 other players to match. It's not "They're out of town", just "they're busy". For instance one player recently had a baby.
So I figure a regular game would be 2 players, just because of the way people are.
@Li Shenron that playstyle isn't how I play games. I mean, lack of character development is fine, but I don't do "death is cheap and easy" style of play. I don't find it fun.
Last edited by Rechan; Wednesday, 14th November, 2012 at 09:45 PM.
Wednesday, 14th November, 2012, 11:15 PM #20
The Grand Druid (Lvl 20)
I've learned to count on players forgetting 90% of what happened last game and to allow for fluctuations in the group size. That usually, though not always, leads to adventures which can be contained in one game session (5-room dungeons, 3-act stories, a very specific quest, a deadline, etc).
Actually, it's interesting that of the 5 players currently attending, no one is playing a thief (I.e. no one is trained in Thievery). And they're considering going to Dragon Mountain, which is chock full of traps. Hopefully they get a hireling or the couple returns to the game before then otherwise... there could be a world of hurt in store.
Last edited by Quickleaf; Wednesday, 14th November, 2012 at 11:19 PM.