Payn's Ponderings' To script, or not to script?

payn

Legend
Greetings,

Recent discussions have my mind on adventure design and GM style. Some adventures are written where a scripted event happens, or the adventure comes apart.
Here is a list of possibilities as examples;
  • Bad guy encounter where bad guy escapes
  • PCs are arrested, relived of their effects, and jailed
  • The sailing/space ship crashes and PCs are marooned
  • NPC travelling with PCs is untrustworthy, and will betray them, but they cant ditch for story reasons
I am sure a lot of folks are seeing red flags and getting ready to declare railroad. I am probably with you too. Though, I dont necessarily believe that any game is railroad free. There are always tracks, but sometimes they are nearly invisible. How present or not the tracks are is a matter of taste. My position has always been that an RPG adventure should be a set of happenings that will be impacted by the decisions of the PCs. While a plan is in place for things to happen, they are not predetermined. Which means, I need to consider what happens if the bad guy gets away, if the PCs get arrested, if the ship crashes... Key word here is "if" not when. I firmly believe that smart play and/or having the right abilities and luck during play should not be denied the players.

I do wonder sometimes about using these literary tropes in play though. My take has always been that if any of the above examples are to happen, its at the very beginning of the adventure. Once the adventure is kicked off, the PCs are free to achieve whatever they are capable of. I will not jack in the box on them and have something in which they don't at least have a chance to avoid or impact. The result is that I plan and write very nuanced and expansive adventures. There are so many paths and what ifs built in for the PCs to explore. I enjoy this, but sometimes I do wish for something a little simpler. An adventure that perhaps last a session or two instead of taking many to complete. I feel like maybe I'm missing the chance to explore some of these pulpy episodic experiences?

I'll keep it short here and open it up to commentary. I'll provide y'all with a few questions below for the discussion;

What is your take on adventure writing? Do you make expansive plots, or are your adventures simpler to complete and move on?
Do you go with predetermined events? If so, how do you make them enjoyable and get buy in from your PCs for the temporary suspension of agency?
Are these literary trope explorations better suited for one shot style adventure? If not, how do you weave in and out of these events during play?

 
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In my experience, no matter how cool a "cutscene" type event may seem in theory, that tends to get outweighed by players' frustrations at not being able to meaningfully interact with the event.

An example from SKT:
the PC's get attacked by an ancient dragon in a ruined temple and a giant ally holds the dragon off so that they can escape. This SEEMS like it should be really cool - a dragon and giant battling it out in old temple is incredibly cinematic. And yet the PCs role in this is to run away while an NPC does something heroic. The adventure really bends over backwards make sure PC's have no choice but to run (the giant starts knocking down the temple on top of everyone if they don't). While this scene would be great for a book or movie, I just don't think it works in the context of an RPG.
 

payn

Legend
In my experience, no matter how cool a "cutscene" type event may seem in theory, that tends to get outweighed by players' frustrations at not being able to meaningfully interact with the event.

An example from SKT:
the PC's get attacked by an ancient dragon in a ruined temple and a giant ally holds the dragon off so that they can escape. This SEEMS like it should be really cool - a dragon and giant battling it out in old temple is incredibly cinematic. And yet the PCs role in this is to run away while an NPC does something heroic. The adventure really bends over backwards make sure PC's have no choice but to run (the giant starts knocking down the temple on top of everyone if they don't). While this scene would be great for a book or movie, I just don't think it works in the context of an RPG.
I get that, and sometimes its not even a cut scene. I ran a Paizo AP once that had this incredible fight. One large and one huge construct battling it out. The PCs are in the fight, but they are doing things to distract and assist one of the constructs. Eventually, the PCs give enough boost to help end the fight. It's very heroic and cinematic, but the PCs dont win the day by directly fighting the enemy themselves. We had a blast, but I know many groups were pissed that they were forced to take second fiddle in the encounter.
 

Haiku Elvis

Adventurer
I plan out a main story path with some rough either/or variations that the PCs could take and a few key set piece scenes (mostly in terms of atmosphere rather than outcomes) and then well not exactly ignore it but don't really follow it per se.
I find it much easier to improvise off something more than a fully blank canvas and thinking up the scenes often inspires other ideas that can be repurposed in response to the PCs actions.
Plus I find I'll think of something better half way through anyway.

No quantum Ogers here, but if I think the PCs will turn left and plan scene X but they turn right I'll happily scavenge what I think are the good bits of scene X and use them down the line if/when they seem appropriate. There are only so many cool ideas I can come up with I can't afford to waste them.
 

John Dallman

Adventurer
What is your take on adventure writing? Do you make expansive plots, or are your adventures simpler to complete and move on?
The opposition, and other parties, have plans, on various scales, and they try to make those happen. But they're constrained to what they can accomplish within the game world's reality.
Do you go with predetermined events? If so, how do you make them enjoyable and get buy in from your PCs for the temporary suspension of agency?
I don't do them, in that sense. I may create ambiguity - an injured villain fell over a cliff out of sight, rather than waiting around to be killed - but I don't override player's actions or impose events. I sometime narrate a few events at the very start of a campaign, before the players take up their parts, but I would regard a cutscene that the characters were present for but could not influence as a gross abuse of the player's agency. Cutscenes showing events that the characters aren't present for need to be explainable in terms of the game world's reality, or they can't happen.
Are these literary trope explorations better suited for one shot style adventure? If not, how do you weave in and out of these events during play?
Tropes from different story forms can take a walk as far as I'm concerned. RPGs are their own form, and I treat them as such. If someone wants to watch a film, or read a novel, they should do that. Trying to emulate those forms in a game is a foolish move as far as I'm concerned.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Greetings,

Recent discussions have my mind on adventure design and GM style. Some adventures are written where a scripted event happens, or the adventure comes apart.
Here is a list of possibilities as examples;
  • Bad guy encounter where bad guy escapes
  • PCs are arrested, relived of their effects, and jailed
  • The sailing/space ship crashes and PCs are marooned
  • NPC travelling with PCs is untrustworthy, and will betray them, but they cant ditch for story reasons
I am sure a lot of folks are seeing red flags and getting ready to declare railroad. I am probably with you too. Though, I dont necessarily believe that any game is railroad free. There are always tracks, but sometimes they are nearly invisible. How present or not the tracks are is a matter of taste. My position has always been that an RPG adventure should be a set of happenings that will be impacted by the decisions of the PCs. While a plan is in place for things to happen, they are not predetermined. Which means, I need to consider what happens if the bad guy gets away, if the PCs get arrested, if the ship crashes... Key word here is "if" not when. I firmly believe that smart play and/or having the right abilities and luck during play should not be denied the players.

I do wonder sometimes about using these literary tropes in play though. My take has always been that if any of the above examples are to happen, its at the very beginning of the adventure. Once the adventure is kicked off, the PCs are free to achieve whatever they are capable of. I will not jack in the box on them and have something in which they don't at least have a chance to avoid or impact. The result is that I plan and write very nuanced and expansive adventures. There are so many paths and what ifs built in for the PCs to explore. I enjoy this, but sometimes I do wish for something a little simpler. An adventure that perhaps last a session or two instead of taking many to complete. I feel like maybe I'm missing the chance to explore some of these pulpy episodic experiences?

I'll keep it short here and open it up to commentary. I'll provide y'all with a few questions below for the discussion;

What is your take on adventure writing? Do you make expansive plots, or are your adventures simpler to complete and move on?
Do you go with predetermined events? If so, how do you make them enjoyable and get buy in from your PCs for the temporary suspension of agency?
Are these literary trope explorations better suited for one shot style adventure? If not, how do you weave in and out of these events during play?

I'll put in predetermined plot elements, but in full awareness that they might (as in almost certainly will!) not come off as I originally had in mind.

For example, if my idea is for a bad-guy encounter where the bad guy escapes (or better yet, captures a PC and escapes!) I'll be fully ready for the PCs to come up with some way of preventing the escape - usually involving killing the bad guy far more easily (or luckily) than I thought possible.

Predetermined events such as a shipwreck I'll use sometimes, and tend to be much more "reliable". If it happens as an organic part of the normal course of events, even better. But if the PCs decide not to get on said ship in the first place then so be it, I ain't gonna force them.

As for buy-in, the players generally know that sometimes they'll drive events and other times events will drive them; it's rare anyone ever has an issue with this unless the resulting adventure itself turns out to be crap (which has happened now and then).
 

aramis erak

Legend
What is your take on adventure writing? Do you make expansive plots, or are your adventures simpler to complete and move on?
Do you go with predetermined events? If so, how do you make them enjoyable and get buy in from your PCs for the temporary suspension of agency?
Are these literary trope explorations better suited for one shot style adventure? If not, how do you weave in and out of these events during play?

My modes for adventure writing are generally prepped encounters that are not entirely dependent upon the prior ones, and often, don't have fixed sequence. Not quite sandbox, but more "railroad switching yard" than "railroad".
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
To paraphrase, "No carefully planned out adventure ever survives contact with the player characters". I find it's better to set long-term goals and try to nudge players towards them. If you're too obvious, they feel railroaded. If you're not obvious enough, they stare at you going "duh, what do we do?"

If you plan out something in detail, they will ask the questions you didn't, and find ways to circumvent your challenges. If you think they will come up with a clever plan, their strategic brains will dribble out their ears, and they'll get close to a TPK.

Players are unpredictable, but a living world should be to an extent as well. Always remember, no matter what you want to do, Chaos will make you her b-.

This isn't to say you can't have plans or goals, but you need to be like Emperor Palpatine- Dark Lord of the Plan B!
 


I have general chains of events, but learned years ago having a single point of failure is--really bad.

Always have a drop-back situation, and try really hard not to make it look like "What you just did doesn't matter."

(Alternatively, you can keep some potential failure states just out of reach--events happening too far for the PCs to reach them in time, even if they realize it'd be useful).
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
I run it like a project. I start by creating a timeline, then create task players need to address, then milestones that impact the plot. Then assign resources (NPC/rewards) to task. It is more a guideline for me for bookkeeping and provides a little backstory.

I keep in mind the rule that for every action, there is a re-action.
 

I've stolen ideas from RPGs i like over the years.

What i do now is i have a main bad group plus one or 2 other main players which have goals over the entire campaign. This is mostly stolen from Dungeon world that i ran a campaign in for 2 years.

If i'm using prewritten adventures i like plot point style campaigns a la shadow of the demon lord or savage worlds. It's easy to read and gives me the key information i need to modify as needed.

Then i run a starting session and learn a out the PCs.

Between sessions as part of my prep i think about what the players have done and which groups it affects. Do they get a reputation? Have they hindered or helped any of the main groups? If so i may advance a clock (stolen from blades in the dark) or potentially even reduce one. I'll then think of an event that might foreshadow this. I usually try to start abstract in an adventure and get more direct and obvious near the end. Lastly, i see if there's anything from the players actions that session or their background i want to bring into the next session.

The important thing is i only prep one session in advance. This means i'm less likely to waste time if the PCs go in a different direction. A nice effect is that it also feels organic, because if something happens they can usually relate it to something they did or didn't do in the last session.
 


aco175

Legend
Some of these things are best used to kick off a campaign. They are best discussed in session 0 with the players first though. When asking what kind of campaign you want, the DM throws out an idea for starting off jailed or marooned. If most players are cool ,then go with it. I started off a campaign with everyone jailed and it gave some of the players a reason to think about why for backstory reasons and it gave the PCs a reason to work together. It is different than just meeting in a bar.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
Some of these things are best used to kick off a campaign. They are best discussed in session 0 with the players first though. When asking what kind of campaign you want, the DM throws out an idea for starting off jailed or marooned. If most players are cool ,then go with it. I started off a campaign with everyone jailed and it gave some of the players a reason to think about why for backstory reasons and it gave the PCs a reason to work together. It is different than just meeting in a bar.
I somewhat agree that some of this should be discussed with the players, I think it is important to have them tell me how they got together. I want to know a backstory of how Ranger Bob came to be travelling with Bard Brad and Cleric Caty. That way I can use it in the game or not. It is about getting the players to invested.
 

What is your take on adventure writing? Do you make expansive plots, or are your adventures simpler to complete and move on?

What I try to do....and this will vary a bit depending on the game.... is create scenarios that will demand attention of some sort, then introduce the PCs to that situation, and then see what happens.

I certainly have ideas or thoughts on what's possible going forward, but I actively fight the impulse to determine any future events that will occur after play begins. I'll craft backstory and history, and I'll give NPCs motives and goals that may indicate the kinds of things that they may get up to, but I won't say "once the PCs do A, then B will happen" or anything like that.

I used to run games with a heavier hand and a sequence of "first this, then that, then this, and then on to that". I try not to do that, or to do it as little as possible. Again, the game of choice and other factors play a part here.

Do you go with predetermined events? If so, how do you make them enjoyable and get buy in from your PCs for the temporary suspension of agency?

I'll do something predetermined at the start, to kick things off. After that, I want to do as few predetermined things as possible. If things stall out, and the players aren't sure how to proceed, then I'll introduce something with the intention of getting things moving again.

This isn't to say that I don't have ideas of what to introduce at any point in the future. If I've introduced the Empire and the Death Star as elements of play, then the destruction of a planet may very well be in order, and a climactic battle at the Death Star may, as well. I just do not commit to those ideas because depending on what the players have their characters do, it may not make sense for those things to happen.

Are these literary trope explorations better suited for one shot style adventure? If not, how do you weave in and out of these events during play?

I don't think there's anything wrong with using those kinds of tropes as the starting situation of a campaign, or a new adventure or scenario. In my experience, if you want to have the PCs be captured and figure out a way to escape, then the best way to go about that is to simply start them off as captured. Well, no, that's probably the second best way.... the best way would be to only have them be captured as an actual result of play. But barring that.... assuming you want them to be captured, then just declare at the beginning that they are. Don't play out a battle whose result is predetermined.... that's an exercise in futility, and the players will likely realize that, and many may be frustrated by it. So skip that BS and just start with them in custody, and then get to the actual play.

Same thing with similar tropes like a shipwreck and so on. Don't be coy.... just do the thing that you want to explore in play. Don't waste time setting it up because ultimately, having a two hour session that consists of a combat where all the PCs are captured despite whatever clever ideas they come up with amounts to the same as a 5 second sentence "You've been captured by the duke's men".
 

I also want to note that there's a little more pressure to have some things prepped in games where its harder to ad-hoc combat opponents. Back in my RuneQuest days, I could pretty much use a lot of generic opponents if necessary, and there wasn't much tight math to deal with, so I could do a lot off the cuff things or not as need be. On the other hand, in my Fragged Empire game, there aren't that many generic opponents written up, and they're usually customized to various degrees, so I need to at least prep some material in advance. On the other hand, I try to remember to not care if they completely sidestep an encounter; I can probably find some use for the opponents and/or maps some other time.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
There is a very simple rule - Never plan any outcomes. Everything follows from that.

All of these ...
  • Bad guy encounter where bad guy escapes
  • PCs are arrested, relived of their effects, and jailed
  • The sailing/space ship crashes and PCs are marooned
  • NPC travelling with PCs is untrustworthy, and will betray them, but they cant ditch for story reasons
... read like "never do this" howlers from the book of /r/rpghorrorstories and I do not even understand the last one. Forcing the PCs to get captured is a good route to a TPK or the players simply abandoning the the game, it's a horrible thing to do - remove agency from the players and PCs. Allowing a deus ex machina villain escape is at the very least cheesy, at its worst, completely robbing the PCs of their wins.

  • The sailing/space ship crashes and PCs are marooned
This one is fine as the start of a game. This is a perfectly good campaign starter, otherwise, also horrible for the reasons detailed above.
 

pemerton

Legend
I dont necessarily believe that any game is railroad free. There are always tracks, but sometimes they are nearly invisible.
This claim is not true. It's possible to have very satisfactory RPG sessions without any prep: I've done this in MHRP, Classic Traveller, In A Wicked Age, Burning Wheel, Wuthering Heights, Cthulhu Dark, and other systems.

And even if prep is part of play, that is not the same as pre-scripted or pre-determined events. Eg when I ran 4e Dark Sun there was prep (in the form of a map and some backstory) but the events were all made up in the course of play (some by me, some by the players).

I do wonder sometimes about using these literary tropes in play though. My take has always been that if any of the above examples are to happen, its at the very beginning of the adventure.
Getting captured, being ambushed, having foes escape, etc, are (typically) failures for the PCs. So they are things that I might narrate on a failure. But not on a success.

There are some RPG systems which make it hard to implement a simple rule of ahead on success, backwards on failure because they resolve discrete tasks performed by the PCs without connecting those outcomes to any broader sense of trajectory. I think non-4e versions of D&D are often played in this way. In that sort of system, having trope-y things happen is probably going to depend more on the GM just inserting their will into the course of play.
 

Haiku Elvis

Adventurer
Getting captured, being ambushed, having foes escape, etc, are (typically) failures for the PCs. So they are things that I might narrate on a failure. But not on a success.

There are some RPG systems which make it hard to implement a simple rule of ahead on success, backwards on failure because they resolve discrete tasks performed by the PCs without connecting those outcomes to any broader sense of trajectory. I think non-4e versions of D&D are often played in this way. In that sort of system, having trope-y things happen is probably going to depend more on the GM just inserting their will into the course of play.
I agree Its hard with using tropes from film, books etc successfully, as they can be great framing devices and in story constraints can lead to improvising and interesting outcomes but they can also just be frustrating GM fiats. it's all about the details, whys and wherefores and context.

It's interesting when you talk about success and failure in regard to things like getting captured as that always makes me think of James Bond as here is this world class secret agent but he gets captured often multiple times on EVERY GODAMN MISSION!
For a guy whose whole job is about secrecy, spying and stealth that's pretty rubbish but it makes for good movies as we get to see Bond meet the villian and engage in some quips (possibly about centrifugal forces) then stage a dramatic escape.

Transfer it to a game and it depends wildly. As with most successful life coaching advice this can be illustrated with the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice.
(I would give a spoiler warning but seriously it came out over 50 years ago how much time do you need to catch up)

In You only live twice there is a scene where Bond fights across Kobe docks defeats all comers, girl safely in tow then just when it looks like he's won, a mook steps out from behind some crates bonks him on the head and lights out - captured. If you tried this, your players would be fully justified in protesting it would just feel like I don't care what you do this is the way the story is going. GM ex machina.

But later on in the film he is caught sneaking in to (an evil) spaceship (in a volcano) by a superior force and frog marched off to the headquaters to meet Blofeld and then use his skills to escape and save the day (nay the world).
This sort of scenario I've used (or variations, you know you despatch the last of the castle guards and then twice as many reinforcements turn up to surround you swords drawn) and it can work great and the players liked it.

One. it's more tied in with the fiction. That is realistically what would happen if caught sneaking in to a well armed location. It doesn't have to feel thwarty from the GM more natural consequence.
Two. You may be taking straight hack and slash off the table but you are leaving a huge range of other options. Create a distraction and try to run, create an obsticle so someone can escape to get help, try to bribe the head good or sow division between them and their boss, wait for an opportune moment to escape later when less heavily guarded, let them take you to the boss inadvertently getting you through most of the defences. It may be failure in a way but the players are actually being set up for success in a different way and still have a lot of agency.
 

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