Scenario and setting design, with GM and players in mind

MGibster

Legend
Here's the thing.... the players, even if they're trying to think entirely as their character when they make decisions... will remain aware that they're playing a game and that the game elements including all the NPCs are created by the GM. So very often they will or won't trust a given NPC based on nothing other than player intuition. And I personally don't think there's anything wrong with that... it's unavoidable and trying to prevent it only calls more and more attention to it.
I have mixed feelings about this myself. They're always going to realize they're playing a game, that's true, but I would like it if players made an effort to separate their knowledge from what their character knows. As a player, I might have strong suspicions the really pale dude named Wormtongue can't be trusted, but my character might not have any such notion. I do agree with you though, going too far to prevent that kind of thing is only going to call more attention to it. As a GM, when players are using out of character reasoning for the actions of their characters I generally just roll with it.
 

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hawkeyefan

Legend
I have mixed feelings about this myself. They're always going to realize they're playing a game, that's true, but I would like it if players made an effort to separate their knowledge from what their character knows. As a player, I might have strong suspicions the really pale dude named Wormtongue can't be trusted, but my character might not have any such notion. I do agree with you though, going too far to prevent that kind of thing is only going to call more attention to it. As a GM, when players are using out of character reasoning for the actions of their characters I generally just roll with it.

Yeah, it's unavoidable. Players are going to have gut reactions about NPCs (and any other game element) even if that gut reaction is to distrust every single person they meet. I just let them have them, and assume that the character also has them, unless the player chooses to play it otherwise. You can't stop a player from thinking what they think.

You can mess with their expectations, though... so sometimes I may do that when a situation like this comes up.
 

pemerton

Legend
based on this sketch you've provided (and this relates to my point above about how we can't always separate the fiction and the game), it sounds like the players were given specific elements for PC creation (neophyte adventurer at some kind of recruitment drive), sounds like they were new to the area and to each other, were given a job by an NPC (which is largely the GM saying "here's the game"), and then they went off to an adventure site. The old "abandoned place that now has monsters in it" is such a well worn trope that I can't imagine it would even serve as a clue that something was wrong... but by that point, it doesn't even matter because the trap's already been sprung.

Again, I know the above lacks all the details, but based on what's there, this doesn't sound to me at all like the kind of situation described in the OP.... an environment rich in information and resources that the players can leverage to then set their own agenda. It sounds like a GM who has an idea for an adventure, and then created a scenario to make sure that adventure happened. And that's perfectly fine, but it's simply a different kind of play.

At what point (if any) do you think the players may have learned enough to not go off into the trap? It doesn't seem like much was offered in the game world to allow that to happen. It doesn't sound like the game situation would suggest to the players that they didn't need to just follow along because clearly this is what's been prepared.
Adding to these thoughts: suppose, in @Lanefan's scenario, the neophyte adventurer PCs decide not to head off to the adventure site (which presumably is populated by monsters more-or-less suitable for a low-level adventure), either because they don't care to, or they don't trust their sponsors, or whatever. What does play then consist in? From @Lanefan's account it's not very clear.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Adding to these thoughts: suppose, in @Lanefan's scenario, the neophyte adventurer PCs decide not to head off to the adventure site (which presumably is populated by monsters more-or-less suitable for a low-level adventure), either because they don't care to, or they don't trust their sponsors, or whatever. What does play then consist in? From @Lanefan's account it's not very clear.
What play would then consist of is me DMing what-wherever they do decide to go and-or do next (one assumes, looking for another adventure; but given they were in a major port city some long-range sea travel would also have been a reasonable choice). I'd be in react mode.

As for @hawkeyefan 's concerns, the initial premise was set up such that after the meeting they'd ideally feel a need to get on with the mission and thus not spend time faffing around in town. They'd been told (or in the case of a few of them, already knew) the Company [whose name I forget right now; in my defense I'll only say it was 1995 when I ran this] hadn't been heard of or from in these parts for about a decade, but that prior to that were well-known here as a group if not as individuals (much like a modern rock band is often well-known as the band but often the individual musicians' names are more obscure - for example I know the band REM quite well but couldn't tell you the name of even one of its members) and operated in the region for a few years. All of that is true in the fiction.

Nobody ever thought to ask why the Company had suddenly reappeared and-or why a bigger deal hadn't been made of it; and almost any inquiry along these lines would have quickly raised more questions than answers. And they'd been given assurances the castle was empty as of not too long ago; yet once they got there and got stuck in it was pretty clear the foes (mostly Orcs) had been there for some time.
 

@Campbell, that seems consistent with my suggestion about NPCs.

I think it also has implications of architecture and geography (which, for historical/legacy-type reasons, tend to loom large in RPG scenario and setting design).

Do you have any thoughts about how direct or indirect the ability to acquire information should be? I'm prompted to ask this question because classic D&D has "big reveal" architecture (in dungeons) but has player abilities (eg spells, demi-human detection abilities, etc) that allow players who use those abilities effectively to get a heads-up on the big reveal.

My own view is that there is a risk of that sort of approach (i) depending heavily on conventions about what is fair or not fair (as the players need to know when/how to deploy their detection/revelation-type abilities) and (ii) can become a bit inanely self-referential both in the fiction and in the play (a bit job-for-Aquamannish). But risk needn't equal reality: hence the question above!
Well, the archetypal D&D adventure design pattern is actually rather good at NOT doing any of these things that might be disruptive. The PCs delve into the dungeon (or equivalent). It has sneaky traps, deceptive hallways, secret doors, and perhaps unreliable monster 'allies' (more subject to PC action there, but they are potential). None of these is REALLY surprising. They are all known stock factors, although they may have clever variations intended to amuse and challenge. Still, the shape of the 'plot', such as it is, will be very straightforward and linear. This is extended to entire sandboxes, which are literally just hugely scaled up trad dungeons. Map and Key Play is really the way that you make this stuff work, and when you depart from it, you can't guarantee good results at all. OTOH you can't run a map and key type of game without the traditional DM and PC roles and process.

So, what you talk about as a 'risk' becomes such only in the context of a game in which true free-form play arises in which the goals and direction aren't clearly articulated by walls and treasure chests. Consequently my answer is simple, stick to walls and treasure chests! I mean, that can cover a pretty great variety of stuff, actually.
 

I think the duplicitous NPCs should be treated like traps are in many games, as a hazard that is telegraphed in play. As mentioned upstream I don't think there's a lot of value in undisclosed secrets in RPGs.
Nice analogy. So, if you go WAY back to say 2012 or maybe even earlier, we had a long set of discussions about traps. I posited then that there were only a few reasons for a trap, and NONE of them warranted traps ever being not found! Nor do they warrant traps actually being a surprise. The only actual narratively sensible trap is one where the GM basically says "yup, you have found a trap." Now, that could be followed by "and your foot is now caught in its jaws..." or "here's the detailed description of what you see, what do you do?" Its also possible, depending on the style of play, for the trap's existence to be determined by some sort of check that a player made for her PC, either as something the character did want to find, or didn't want to find, as the case might be.
 

Required as in hard-required?

Zero, I'd say.

I'm not being sarcastic. But you're saying required, which means absolutely required, to me, and the answer is zero. I've run easily 10 hours on zero prep before, certainly zero written-down prep, particularly with PbtA games. I've also run them with many hours of prep.

Do prefer to run with absolutely zero prep? No, haha, I do not.

I think the guidelines you've set out for yourself are generally good though I would agree with @hawkeyefan that I'd probably go with a larger number of factions, if I intended to run that long, because some of them will become irrelevant or and like, if you only have 3, that's going to get pretty intensely focused on those 3 so they better be extremely interesting, and it limits the opportunities for another faction appearing to cause chaos. I'd also probably detail about 10 NPCs to start with, so long as the system I'm using allows me to rapidly generate NPCs.

That's kind of a big deal - PtbA Or Resistance (Spire/Heart), you can make up NPCs very very fast. But in a lot of RPGs you cannot. Like, Shadowrun it's hours of work to churn out a few non-generic NPCs (well it was in 5th anyway). So if I was playing a game where NPCs were a pain to created, I'd probably create a lot more.

Also I'm naturally prone to making up NPCs, if I wasn't (and I know one of the DMs I play with isn't) I'd probably prep more too (and maybe get a random NPC generator up in there).

The mind-map style approach @Hawkeye uses is very good for most things. For layered mysteries you can sometimes want to prep a bit more than that, but generally "stuff is going down, get involved/solve it" stuff can be done with a mind-map and quick thinking. One of the latest Spire books, the Magister's Guide (one think I kind of love about Spire is it has actual sourcebooks and they're actually useful but not needed, so many RPGs now either have no sourcebooks or they're absolutely dire and/or needed to make the base RPG work) has a whole section on how approach the game with zero prep, 20 minutes, 1 hour, and 2 hours, and different things to think about.
Huh, thinking about one 4e campaign I ran, there was the wizard, the priest, the noble, the ruffians, the pirates (next town over), the dragon, and the elves. Later another faction got introduced, but the PCs wiped them out in pretty direct fashion (ghost lycanthropes). Another dragon appeared too, but he turned out to be the power behind the noble.

This was PLENTY, really. The pirates however also broke into three factions, due to the PC's actions, which was interesting. The whole thing went on for many months, probably 30 or more sessions of 6 hours each on average. I'm thinking the ENTIRE prep of the whole campaign, sans actual statblocks, weighed in at well under 10 pages, though it rested to a degree on some established localities and things from an earlier campaign.

I am super lazy about prep, I just don't do much. lol.
 

I am super lazy about prep, I just don't do much. lol.
Right? I just can't bring myself to do the kind of prep I used to in older editions anymore. Not since I started running games where you barely need to prep. Dungeon World effectively murdered my Shadowrun campaign. I came up with a cool concept and a lot of good ideas for an SR campaign ("Shadows of Michiana" lol), and writing that stuff and coming up with the ideas was fun, but stuff like doing stat blocks? UGH. Kill me now.

4E was the best D&D for prep because the DDI let you generate stat blocks in literally seconds. You could modify them so quickly and easily with the tools the DDI had (including leveling them up or down, moving abilities in from other NPCs/monsters, and so on). So that really made me opposed to any RPG where I'm supposed to spend hours prep'ing NPCs. Which is like, 70-80% of RPGs published before 2000.
 

Vraal

you can scroll on down, the abyss is massive
Firstly, I've been lurking on these boards for six months or so and this has drawn me out, what a great thread, very interesting points, everybody.

Secondly, actually on topic: I definitely hide things from my players, and there's definitely an intention for those secrets to become open, but there's no set point at which I've arranged for that to happen. I have an array of shifting NPCs and scenes and the like in my head and my notes that I can rearrange depending on what the players take interest in, how much interest, and when they take that interest.

In sort of the inverse to the vampire patron example, I had a PC hire an apprentice alchemist who was secretly a werewolf. I knew he was a werewolf when they were doing the job interviews, and I knew that later on down the line there might be a werewolf-related plot he could be involved in, but he could have been revealed as a werewolf as early as the job interview, his first appearance, if the PC had asked the right questions or investigated thoroughly enough.

If this robs me of a "cool reveal" later on, I don't think that matters. I'm the DM, I can just make more secrets. The players feel clever and good for finding something out, they get whatever advantages come with that, and we carry on. The game I run now is flexible enough to accommodate that sort of shifting, though it did take some trial and error in the early days to get it to this point.

I suppose for me that's the distinction between "discovery" and "reveal", as previously mentioned. Do the players actually have a chance to work this secret out before the story gets to the "correct spot" for it? If not, then I think that's a reveal. I know I'd rather play, and run, with discovery.
 

Right? I just can't bring myself to do the kind of prep I used to in older editions anymore. Not since I started running games where you barely need to prep. Dungeon World effectively murdered my Shadowrun campaign. I came up with a cool concept and a lot of good ideas for an SR campaign ("Shadows of Michiana" lol), and writing that stuff and coming up with the ideas was fun, but stuff like doing stat blocks? UGH. Kill me now.

4E was the best D&D for prep because the DDI let you generate stat blocks in literally seconds. You could modify them so quickly and easily with the tools the DDI had (including leveling them up or down, moving abilities in from other NPCs/monsters, and so on). So that really made me opposed to any RPG where I'm supposed to spend hours prep'ing NPCs. Which is like, 70-80% of RPGs published before 2000.
Yeah, 4e totally broke me on real prep. I started out doing something pretty similar to what I did back in 2e, and after about 4 years I was down to absolutely zero prep, lol. I'd go through my old notes on whatever areas of the campaign the PCs seemed headed to just to see what sort of stuff was there way back when, if it was a previously done out area, which was fun for giving me ideas (and amusing when the players would run into ancient graves of their 1980's PCs and such).

DDI was very helpful. I did what you are talking about, just went through the monster stat blocks, found ones that did what I wanted, quickly reskinned them in the monster tool, and printed out the stat blocks to files, pulled them all into GIMP, filled pages with them, and then saved them to my wiki and printed out a copy to use at the table. lol.
 

DDI was very helpful. I did what you are talking about, just went through the monster stat blocks, found ones that did what I wanted, quickly reskinned them in the monster tool, and printed out the stat blocks to files, pulled them all into GIMP, filled pages with them, and then saved them to my wiki and printed out a copy to use at the table. lol.
Great minds think alike lol. I used a PDF tool but otherwise very similar. I still have reams and reams of PDF'd monsters and reskins and so on on my Google drive.

EDIT - Oh wow actually lie I see I did EXACTLY what you did at times, I've got image files where I must have chopped stuff in so I could cram more on a page for printing out.

But yeah point is that was easy DMing days, and 5E has never since got back there, sadly.
 

Great minds think alike lol. I used a PDF tool but otherwise very similar. I still have reams and reams of PDF'd monsters and reskins and so on on my Google drive.

EDIT - Oh wow actually lie I see I did EXACTLY what you did at times, I've got image files where I must have chopped stuff in so I could cram more on a page for printing out.

But yeah point is that was easy DMing days, and 5E has never since got back there, sadly.
Yeah, well, I just don't run 5e, lol. I mean, I have had fun playing it with people I really like to game with, but 5e was not actually the factor there in terms of why I wanted to play those games.
 

Yeah, well, I just don't run 5e, lol. I mean, I have had fun playing it with people I really like to game with, but 5e was not actually the factor there in terms of why I wanted to play those games.
I ran 5E for quite a long time and I'm on a break from running it now myself yeah. Like I just can't be doing with the level of prep combined with the intentional crumminess of the tools.

And I do say intentional - D&D Beyond specifically repeatedly refused to improve their monster-search tool (which is one of the most vital parts for prep), for example to allow you to limit it to sources you actually own, or to even retain constraints you set (like save a search setup), like if you manually limited it to sources you actually own. Either would have been absolutely trivial to implement - and that's not speaking from ignorance, that's speaking from knowing what kind of tool they have there, and what's hard and what's not. To be fair they never tried that as a defense. Really early on, they were unfortunately-for-them very honest, and said the reason they don't think it's a priority to have limit to your own stuff or to your settings, is they believe they will make a lot of money from people impulse-buying stuff to get access to a monster - as any search where you don't click literally 20+ times (not an overstatement) to select the right sources will always include stuff you don't have access to. Back then their decision-making was also very much predicated on trying to push a package where you bought every single D&D book (which they've gradually pushed less over time). Aaaanyway later changed their tune to "oh we'll do it, it's on the list!", but it's been what, 5 years? 6? since they said they said it was "on the list", and we've had far to implement far more niche stuff with tons of effort dumped into it (like containers for equipment being tracked, and even I think containers containing containers - I'm sorry but that is harder to do that limiting a search, especially you already have the capability to limit the search, you just make people do the clicking you could do automatically!).

It's possible things will change now, because I think WotC's long-term goals are less nickel-and-dime-y, and more about providing an indispensable service (which WotC's DDI did for 4E, if you used it), but right now? We're still stuck with that stuff.
 

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