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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Scenario Design by David Hargrave

This particular nugget used to be a frequently accessed part of our old site.  It be a shame to let it rest in the dusty bin of time without letting some light shine on it.  DH was, in more ways than one, ahead of his time as you can read below.

SCENARIO DESIGN
by Dave Hargrave
BASIC PRINCIPLES: The material below outlines some general principles of scenario design. The somewhat abstract nature of some of  it is due to the fact that the material can be applied to virtually any type role playing or adventure game,  whether Fantasy, Science Fiction, Samurai, etc.

TYPES OF ADVENTURES: There are several types of adventures that you can program in any game:


  • JOURNEYS: Random, mostly disconnected episodes generated through encounter tables. These types of adventures are the easiest to make, but the hardest to resolve conclusively, as there is very little connection between one event and another and the scenarios have no overall objective. A few of these at the beginning of your campaign are useful to establish plot lines to develop in later game sessions.
  • ODYSSEYS: These types of adventures are primarily goal oriented, such as the return to one's homeland. They incorporate the disconnected events of a journey with a stated objective.
  • ORDEALS: These usually take place in limited locations, and involve a struggle to overcome an obstacle, solve a puzzle, or escape from a given area.
  • QUESTS: These adventures also involve specific goals, but are usually characterized by journeys to a place, the securing of a goal, and then a return to the starting point.

HYBRIDS: A given adventure might be a combination of all three of the above, with differing mixtures of each. The type of adventure you choose to conduct is up to you.

SCENARIO STRUCTURE: Like a Story, every Scenario you design should have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End.   Each of these parts has distinct characteristics.

DEFINITIONS: These are terms which need a bit of clarification for better understanding of the materials that follow.


  • CAMPAIGN: A Campaign is a series of scenarios linked in Sequence or in Parallel by a common set of background factors and characterized by a "historical" overview.
  • SCENARIO: A Scenario is a specific Situation derived from a campaign which poses a problem to be resolved during one to three play sessions usually with a Strictly defined set of conditions to be fulfilled.
  • EVENT CHAIN: A sequence of events or encounters linked sequentially by Cause and Effect or in parallel by Geographic proximity.
  • EVENT PATH: A series of events which, in addition to their deadly potential effect, may alter the entire course of an adventure due to a choice made by the players at some decision point.
  • DECISION POINT:  A Node in an Event Path where critical decisions (direction of travel, "aid, attack or ignore", etc.) must be made. The consequences of these decisions will lead to different event paths, loops and encounters. These subsequent events and encounters should eventually lead the players back to the main Story line of the campaign, but may also serve to link independent story lines together.
  • EVENT LOOP: This is an incident which has the potential for delaying or terminating an adventure (by means of killing or injuring the adventure group), but does not otherwise significantly deflect the party from the main objective of the scenario. A complete Story line is an elaborate event loop which may contain event paths and other loops.
  • ENCOUNTER: A specific incident, meeting or event which occurs within a short period of time.
  • LINK: A relationship between one Encounter, Event Chain, Scenario or Campaign and another.

THE BEGINNING: Encounters and situations at the beginning should be fairly easy for players to resolve successfully. Conversely, unsuccessful resolutions shouldn't have disastrous consequences. You are only interested in getting your players into the spirit of your narrative, to "suspend disbelief", as  it were, and get them involved.  Your objective at this point is to shock them perhaps, or scare them a little, but NOT to terrorize them by plunging them immediately into a situation where heavy casualties are likely to be inflicted. Heavy duty adversaries introduced at the beginning should be used with extreme caution, and mainly as a device to maneuver your players into taking a course of action compatible with the design of your Scenario (see INFLUENCING PLAYERS, below).


  • GENERATING CIRCUMSTANCES: First devise an incident or situation that propels your player characters on their adventure which PERSONALLY involves them in the background material previously generated, This gives them a reason for being where they are, and where they're going.
  • BEGIN AT A LOCATION: The beginning of a scenario will either be a "Cold Start", where new characters and/or situations are generated. or "Warm Start", where a previous game session is continued "in the middle" as in an ongoing campaign, and previously established characters take up where they left off.
  • HAVE A PURPOSE: Each scenario should have an objective for the players. This may take the form of a quest for a specific item or individual, or it may involve escorting another group, or a shipment of cargo to a specific destination, etc.

GIVE THEM A CHOICE: Always have at least two alternate story lines prepared which parallel the events of the main scenario. Structure these together so that a decision by the characters sometime during opening situations launches them on the Event Path of one or another of the scenarios you have generated.

LINKED SCENARIOS: Each scenario generated should have at least one link to each of the other scenarios, allowing your players to cross over at certain crucial points during their adventure into the other parallel story lines that you have generated. This will provide for a variety of actions without sacrificing consistency. This type of linkage can be expanded as you see fit.

USING ENCOUNTERS: Each Story line (or Event Path) can be loaded with Encounters of various types previously generated from the rules or taken from other reading material.

GOLD & GLORY: A positive goal of some kind, and the promise of some sort of reward dependent on the successful outcome of the adventure is essential to maintaining the interest and motivation of your players. This goal should be introduced during the initial stages of the adventure, and should be an integral part of the story or plot outline which you construct. These goals can be as varied as seeking fabulous lost treasures, discovering ancient civilizations, rescuing a beautiful princess from the clutches of the alien menace, and so on.

PUZZLES: An unrelated succession of "monsters" to kill or be killed will soon bore them (all Dragons smell alike in the dark!). Incorporate complex situations, puzzles and problems to be solved. Make the solving of one puzzle the key to a clue to solving another, and so on, until all the pieces can be fit together for the solution (finding the treasure).

LOCATING TREASURES: At specific points in your scenarios, program opportunities to discover artifacts. These can be either of your own devising, randomly generated from the systems provided, or chosen arbitrarily from the various lists.

USING ARTIFACTS EFFECTIVELY: As plot devices in a scenario they can have many uses, of which the following is only a partial list:

  • To implement skills
  • As keys to solve puzzles or overcome obstacles posed by a scenario.
  • As episodic rewards during the course of the adventure. As the ultimate goal of the adventure campaign.


THE MIDDLE: This is the "meat and potatoes" of your adventure. Here is where the main action of your narrative will take place and where your players, by their own cleverness, stupidity or luck (always) will ultimately determine the success or failure of their efforts later on at the end of the scenario. Dangers encountered during this period of the adventure should become progressively more difficult.

       DEVELOPING COMPLICATIONS: Structure your adventures so that there is a feeling of necessity about the things that happen during the middle of the scenario. Every occurrence during this time should have some feeling of cause and effect. Set up complications so that circumstances become more and more intolerable, leading inevitably towards a crisis.

       PREPARING FOR THE NEXT GAME SESSION: The middle portion of the scenario is also the time during which you should incorporate the threads of future scenarios. Events that occur during the adventure (beings met, conflicts that occurred. etc.) should be noted for future reference when designing scenarios later on. These clues can take the form of rumors overheard while on their way somewhere else; finding an artifact (such as a map), which points to another story line, etc.

THE END OF THE ADVENTURE: This part of the scenario should flow smoothly from the middle, as this is where all the threads of your narrative come together to be resolved. The objective of the adventure is finally reached and struggled for, when the danger is the greatest.

       MAJOR CLIMAX: Every scenario should have a crucial encounter; a showdown that determines the outcome of the adventure. which should occur at the point of greatest tension. Here will occur the final test, the turning point that will determine the success or failure of your players.

       WRAPPING IT UP: After the Major Climax, the old event patterns have been destroyed, and (hopefully) new ones established. One or two minor events or encounters can be incorporated at this point to act as "Teasers" for the next session.
 
BETWEEN GAME SESSIONS: A good rule of thumb to use to gauge the passage of time between game sessions is approximately 4 to 1. This should be regarded as a sliding scale and shouldn't be rigidly adhered to Thus:
 
1 hour real time
46 hours real time
1 day real time 
1 week real time 
1 month real time 
4 hours campaign time
1 campaign day 
1 week campaign time 
6 weeks campaign time 
6 months campaign time
TAKING UP WHERE YOU LEFT OFF: When a new game session begins, you can thus take up where you left off at the last play session and your players can make the necessary tests for their characters for such things as improving element scores, acquiring skills, going to school, achieving new skill levels, prospecting and any other resolutions which require extended blocks of time.
 
NOTES ON NON PLAYER CHARACTERS:
NON PLAYER CHARACTERS: Player character types substantially controlled by the Game master. These can add a lot of color, and should not exist for the adventurers to run over. Rather, they are plot devices that the Game master can use to influence the direction of events in a scenario. The Game master can, however, temporarily pass control to other players at his convenience.

MAKING FRIENDS: During the course of their adventures, players should have the opportunity of encountering NPC's who either hold the key to or can help the players solve the essential problem posed by the scenario.

BREAKING ENEMIES: The same may be said for potential enemies as friends, but in reverse.  AS A GENERAL RULE, the most satisfying enemies to encounter are those who are radically different from the adventure group. Wasting black hearted villains is much more fun than having to do in characters with whom the group can closely identify (although this type of enemy is useful in providing elements of irony and drama to a scenario).

TRIGGER NPC's: Sucker bait items can also be NPC's with personality quirks triggered by confrontation with certain other NPC's or Aliens. The trigger might well be a certain word, or a certain sequence of events.

RECYCLED CHARACTERS: Player characters inevitably acquire a colorful history, and a personality all their own quite independent of the players themselves.  Thus, if they meet their demise during an adventure, much effort that has gone into developing the character is wasted.  By all means incorporate any player character who meets his demise in your universe as an NPC by changing his name, and making whatever other modifications that you wish to his stats.  No sense in letting a perfectly good character go to waste.

STOCK CHARACTERS: A Game master should develop a stable of NPC types to insert into his adventures.  These will often become the primary focus of many scenarios, as the interaction between them and the adventure groups generates its own history.  Every novel, movie or play has them, and in fact you can see many examples in real life.  Their names and personal characteristics may change from place to place and time to time, but their functions remain essentially the same.  A few examples are listed below:
        The Mysterious Stranger
        The Cruel Governor
        The Warpie with the Heart of Gold
        The Big Boss of the Syndicate
        The Arch Villain who Plots to Rule the Universe
        The Surly Bartender
        The Damsel in Distress
        The Seeker out to Save the Universe From Itself
        The Misunderstood Alien
        The Friendly, Good-hearted Rogue
        The World-weary Merchant
        The Crusty old Adventurer
        The Disillusioned Hermit
        The Lonely-But-Deadly Femme Fatale
        The Absent-minded Zeno
        The Young Hero on an Impossible Quest
        The Stellazon Adventuress
        The Corrupt Official
and so on ad-infinitum.  Other typical examples should spring readily to your mind.  WRITE THEM DOWN  and use them.....Frequently!

KEYING ADVENTURES TO SKILL LEVELS: Strive to maintain a balance between the abilities of your players and risks they encounter. Too little is boring, and too much is unenjoyable. Remember that players need to feel that they have a chance to "win (see CHALLENGE FACTORS).
 
THE REALITY OF DEATH: Nevertheless, the essence of adventure is RISK. The challenge of an adventure game is that of overcoming threats to the survival of the players. The risk of death must ALWAYS be present.  In this type of game for it to retain their interest. If your players don't lay their (character's) lives on the line at least once during a game session (and preferably more), they won't bother to play in another.  Remember that survival is itself one of the rewards of their success.
 
CHALLENGE FACTOR: This is a measure of the complexity of a scenario, amount of damage done, adaptations needed, unknown factors, and amount of stress present, including the amount of danger exposed to while performing a task.

CHALLENGE FACTOR CHARTS: The charts below perform two parallel functions:
      
CHART NO.1:  gives guidelines for setting up a scenario with a specific challenge factor predetermined by the Game master before the start of the adventure.
SETTING UP A SCENARIO TO MATCH A DESIRED CHALLENGE FACTOR
If you want a challenge factor of
Your Damage or Complexity
should be
UNKNOWN FACTORS & ADAPTATIONS must be
Amount of DANGER and EMOTIONAL STRESS should be
1
Low
None
Minimal
2
Low
Low
None
Some
Moderate
Minimal
3
Low
Low
Some
Massive
Moderate
Minimal
4
Low
Low
Medium
None 
Massive
None
Extreme
Moderate
Minimal
5
Low
Medium
Medium
Some
None
Some
Extreme
Moderate
Minimal
6
Low
Medium
Massive
Some
Extreme
Moderate
7
Medium
Medium
High
None
Massive
None
Extreme
Minimal
Minimal
8
Medium
Medium
High
Some
Massive
None
Extreme
Moderate
Moderate
9
High
High
High
None
Some 
Massive
Extreme
Minimal
Minimal
10
Medium
High
Massive
Some
Extreme
Moderate
11
High
High
Some
Massive
Extreme
Moderate
12
High
Massive
Extreme

 
COMPLEXITY: The number and difficulty of operations, character class complexity of skill use, etc.

ADAPTATIONS: These are out of the ordinary adjustments and abnormal procedures that have to be made to bring about a successful outcome, such as jury rigged equipment, and the use of objects, knowledge and skills for a purpose other than which they were intended.

CHALLENGE FACTOR PRIORITIES: On either chart, if more than one type of factor in a column applies then use the most difficult.
        EXAMPLE (Chart 2): If a Rigger were attempting to repair a piece of machinery of low complexity but with a high amount of damage we would know from column 1 of the chart above that "high" would be used to determine the Challenge Factor.

CHART NO.2: allows the Game master to gauge the challenge factor of a scenario that develops naturally, from the flow of events that occur spontaneously during the course of the adventure.
ASSIGNING CHALLENGE FACTORS TO ENCOUNTERED SCENARIOS
if the COMPLEXITY or AMOUNT OF DAMAGE is
and the ADAPTATIONS NECESSARY or UNKNOWN FACTORS are
and the EMOTIONAL STRESS or AMOUNT OF DANGER is
then your CHALLENGE FACTOR should be
Low
Low
Low
None
None
None
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
1
2
4
Low
Low
Low
Some
Some
Some
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
2
3
5
Low
Low
Low
Massive
Massive
Massive
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
3
4
6
Medium
Medium
Medium
None
None
None
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
4
5
7
Medium
Medium
Medium
Some
Some
Some
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
5
6
8
Medium
Medium
Medium
Massive
Massive
Massive
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
7
7
10
High
High
High
None
None
None
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
7
8
9
High
High
High
Some
Some
Some
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
9
10
11
High
High
High
Massive
Massive
Massive
Minimal
Moderate
Extreme
9
11
12

PITFALLS TO AVOID
VINDICTIVENESS: Resist the temptation to "punish" players who fail to live up to your expectations to how the game should be played. NEVER allow the game situation to deteriorate into a contest between yourself and your player. Nobody wins in a situation like that, and you will soon find Yourself playing your campaigns SOLO if you do.

INCONSISTENCY: Above all, be consistent in the way in which you vary your universe from the basic rules. ALWAYS write your variations down before play, so that you have a reference to go to and explain to your players AT THE BEGINNING of an adventure that the universe they explore varies from the established set of rules. Whenever possible, deviations from the basic framework should lean towards the side of leniency.

FAVORITISM: A random happening should NEVER mean one thing to one player and another to another.  Differential treatment of your players (a great temptation when absolute power is being wielded) can have explosive consequences, and will make your players frustrated, embittered and scarce.

DEATH TRAPS: Too many beginning game masters (and some of the more immature experienced ones) use a "Kill Ratio" to judge the "quality" of their campaign scenarios. The lower the number of survivors of an adventure (compared to the number of characters that started out), the better they judge the scenario. To be sure, "Sudden Death" pits (no saving throw), overwhelming forces, collapsing walls in rooms with no exits and other assorted horrors in which players have no chance to escape may serve to induce a sense of terror and "realism" but you will be the only one having a good time (see ESCAPE CLAUSES).

NOTES ON PLAY:

TIME MANAGEMENT DURING THE GAME: The following are suggestions to help you maintain the momentum of your game. They are guidelines for dividing the time period you have allotted for your game into the components of your adventure.

  • THE GAME SESSION: Try to plan your game session so that the events and encounters programmed last from 3 to 4 hours. You're not running a marathon. If your players want to go on longer, then by all means extend the adventure to suit individual testes, but that decision should be THEIR choice, not yours.
  • MAJOR EVENTS: Each major encounter, problem or decision point leading up to the climax of your adventure should be no more than 15 to 30 minutes long. If the events of the game appear to cause an extension of these time parameters, shorten the scenario accordingly by eliminating Event Loops and other items not essential to the resolution of the scenario.
  • MINOR EVENTS: Event Loops and detours should last no more than 5 to 10 minutes each. They are only window dressing designed to enhance your players' "suspension of disbelief". They may influence the main course of events, but not materially alter them.

SET TIME LIMITS: After you have described the environment and the nature of any encounters that turn up, give your players 30 seconds to discuss with each other what they want to do and to WRITE DOWN their characters' reactions. This will prevent the tempo of the game from dragging and avoid second guessing on the part of your players.

PRE CHECK REACTIONS: During slow moments of the session roll initial reactions of creatures end NPC's in the vicinity of players BEFORE they're encountered. That way, the pace of encounters need not be slowed by time out, unless modified by current factors, such as hostile player character actions.

STAY FLEXIBLE: Nothing about your scenarios should be considered engraved in stone. The best planned adventure can drag on and on without satisfactory resolution because your players take unexpected directions, run into unforeseen difficulties, etc. When this happens, simply bypass as many event loops, encounters, and scenario elements as you need to propel your characters along the story line. You must remain flexible enough to keep the pace of the scenario fast enough to maintain your players' interest and excitement.

HELPFUL HINTS: Give them out if you find your players bewildered by what is going on or by the clues already given, but key the giving of these hints and clues to a successful "save" of some attribute (STR, IN,  DX, CH, etc.).  ALWAYS give warning hints before they get into trouble to allow them rational alternatives.

PLAYERS ACTIONS: Never allow players to perform actions which are physically impossible for them to do, unless they possess some artifact or special power which would reasonably enable them to perform such an action.

USE ONLY RELEVANT RULES: Use only rules that apply directly to your scenario. Using book marks or paper clips to identify often referred to rules will considerably cut down on the time you search for information during the game session.

AWARDING EXPERIENCE: Award experience not only for combat and kill use, but also for intelligent, unusual, or outstanding actions (such as heroism, inspired guesses, novel uses of equipment, etc.).
 


GETTING YOUR PLAYERS INVOLVED
ENCOURAGE GROUP PARTICIPATION: Sometimes one member in a player group will stand out and dominate the direction of play through shear force of personality, causing other, less dynamic players to fade into the background of the proceedings. Don't allow this to occur for very long. Make an effort to involve the other players by addressing them directly, or by directing encounters and events in their direction.

LET PLAYERS ROLL THEIR OWN:  On any roll directly affecting a player character's fate, ALWAYS allow the player himself to roll the dice. Player "saves" should be made by the players, NOT the Game master, as should attack or defense rolls. All attempts at self improvement should also be made by the player.  Allow him to remain in complete PERSONAL control of his character. As a corollary to this, stipulate that ONLY THE PLAYER should be allowed to move his own pieces, unless he specifically grants permission to do so to SOME OTHER PLAYER for THAT TURN (note that this does not include YOU). ENFORCE THIS RULE STRICTLY. That way, if disaster does strike, the player can't blame you.

MAKE PLAYERS DECLARE INTENTIONS: Declaration of Player Intentions can be General, Detailed or Exact AT THE OPTION OF THE GAME MASTER. This can change from turn to turn, as circumstances demand.

  • GENERAL: A non-specific statement, such as move, fire, swing, use skill, or some such combination.
  • DETAILED: Move where, fire at what, swing at whom, use skill against which, etc.
  • EXACT: Move to what spot by what specified route; fire at specific area of the body; swing at nominated region of the body; declare specific action involved in using declared skill.

SUCKER BAIT: Allow your players to acquire fabulous artifacts with hidden "defects" or limitations, such as de-evolutionary radiation leak, limited energy charges, adverse reactions when in the vicinity of certain other items or by energy sources or radiation.

MAKE THEM STRUGGLE: Nothing should coma easy for your players. Rewards acquired without a struggle will not be appreciated and will soon become a bore. Rewards should be keyed to effort expended (Low risk, low reward; high risk, high reward, etc.).

ESCAPE CLAUSES:  However, players maneuvered into hopeless, no-way-out situations will become resentful (sometimes even homicidal).  So ALWAYS HAVE AT LEAST ONE WAY OUT of any situation that they find themselves in (this is very important). This can take the form of "say the magic word", figuring out the right combination, etc.

LEAVING CLUES: Remember to leave clues that will allow the players to figure out the "kicker" to such artifacts or situations in time to avoid disaster. In this way, they will have only themselves to blame if they get into trouble (they didn't HAVE to pick that gadget up).

MAINTAIN CONTROL: You must be prepared to manipulate the actions of your players and the choices that they make to suit your own ends.  If you don't, your carefully constructed scenarios will quickly unravel out of control. BUT do it with subtlety. You must at least preserve the ILLUSION of choice (see DEVELOPING COMPLICATIONS).
        EXAMPLE: Your group declares to turn left at the next star system. You wanted them to turn right because  you haven't developed that section of the universe yet. You then spontaneously generate a warp that just happens to transport them to where you wanted them to go in the first place.
They don't HAVE to know that you just dreamed it up, and they shouldn't really care if you did. Preserving the momentum of the adventure is your most important consideration.

MAKE THEM SWEAT: A series of narrow escapes out of bad situations "by the skin of their teeth" is always a good bet to keep up the excitement of your players. Pit traps and similar devices are a natural for generating this kind of tension.

WEAR THEM DOWN: Gradual attrition of player abilities and hit points by small adversaries and obstacles is an almost guaranteed method of generating tension, especially if they are aware that the worst is yet to come. At full strength, the nasty down the road may be relatively easy to take out, but not towards the end, when everyone in the party is staggering, bedraggled, and hanging on by a hangnail.

LEAVE 'EM LAUGHING:  Whenever possible, inject some comic relief into your proceedings.  It not only makes playing the game more fun but also serves to relieve the tension which inevitably builds up (with your encouragement).  Also, if your players know that you are in the habit of winging something devastating at them while they're  doubled over they'll laugh even more hysterically when you actually do it.

WINGING IT: No matter how much material you accumulate as a game master; no matter how many playing aids and ready-made scenarios that you acquire, the essential nature of Role playing adventure games will require you to rely ultimately on your "gut feelings" as to what is right.  There is no way that any set of rules can cover every eventuality.  Ad-libbing becomes a necessity.  Common sense will become our only iron-clad rule.  Don't be afraid to conduct our game sessions "off the cuff".  Without expectation, the best adventure scenarios have always been conducted by those game masters who had sense enough to recognize when to throw the rule book away and trust their own instincts.


THE WELL PLAYED GAME:  Even players who have met an untimely end during the course of the adventure should walk away from it with a feeling of satisfaction.  As the game theorist Bernard De Koven has said, "In the well played game, everybody wins."

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