Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saving Time - Part 3

This whole thread about prep time is getting out of control. I could write for pages and pages on the subjects of adventure and campaign creation, but overly lengthy discourses just aren't ideal for the blog format. Blog entries should be short and sweet. That, and I want to get back to talking about the kids' game in progress (with a sidebar adventure being GM'd by my oldest!). So let's dive in and get this over with so I can return to the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants blog format that I enjoy the most.

Generating Ideas for Your Custom Adventure

Yeah, you're going to burn a lot of time just trying to come up with ideas, and you're going to worry that your kids will think you're stupid. Relax: your ideas are stupid, but your kids won't think so. I'm kidding, of course. Your kids will think your ideas are terrible. Joking again. Your ideas probably aren't as bad as you think, and your kids will be less judgmental than you about the products of your creativity. So get in there and make stuff up.

But what if you have writer's block? Fortunately, RPG source books often have ways for you to randomly generate adventure hooks, monster encounters, and traps. There's also a ton of people out there on message boards talking about adventure ideas, so you can always lift ideas from them and customize them for your group. Read fantasy, sci-fi, and horror books to get ideas. Put little pieces-parts from different sources together and voila! Your very own adventure.

Other sources of inspiration:
  • Your kids' characters: Ask them what they want their characters to do and run with it. Make each adventure "feature" one of the characters, and sprinkle in bits that make the other characters critical to success. For example, in the coming months, my kids will be exploring a great forest in search of Elerisa's lost sylvan home. The adventure centers on Elerisa, but in the forest, Fiona the druid will be the key to their survival.
  • Scholastic approach: I haven't tried this one myself yet, but if there's some topic or idea you want the kids to learn about as part of your homeschool curriculum, weave it into the fabric of your story. Create a trap that requires a certain math skill to evade, or have a sphinx pose a riddle with anagrams or something.
  • History approach: If you're using a campaign setting from real world history, then try to build little stories around real world historical figures. Maybe DaVinci needs an ancient scroll, or some creepy baddies have been encroaching on Roman forts along Hadrian's Wall.
Sandbox vs. Linear

This could be a whole blog entry by itself, but others have already done that. The choices here make for heated debates in some quarters. I'm assuming the average reader of this blog is not familiar with RPG terminology, however, so I'll define the two choices before explaining how this choice affects your prep time.

  • The adventure is non-linear and contains many choices for the players. It's like a sandbox for the characters to play in.
  • Whole areas of the adventure may go unexplored.
  • As the GM, you have to prepare for all the places the characters might go / things they might do.
  • This approach lets the players feel in control of their destinies.
  • The adventure is linear: there is but one path from beginning to end.
  • The characters must pass each element in the adventure to get to the next.
  • As the GM, you don't have to prepare a bunch of stuff that never gets used.
  • This approach gives the characters very little control of their destinies.
Obviously the linear track involves far less prep time. A good linear dungeon may have as few as five rooms, so you only have to prepare five rooms. In a sandbox setting, the characters may only visit five rooms, but which five of the twenty rooms in the dungeon are they going to visit? Therefore you prepare twenty rooms. At first glance, this seems to make linear the easy choice. The trap to avoid, however, is railroading the characters. As soon as the players realize they're being railroaded into a certain adventure path, you risk losing their interest. That's because the idea of a boundless, anything's-possible world in which they, as adventurers, have complete autonomy, is one of the game's biggest draws. Take that away, and the game is reduced, to its detriment.

Some sandboxers go so far as to say that you shouldn't even reuse parts of a sandbox adventure that aren't visited, else it's not a sandbox. While that may be technically true, it's not helpful to the parent on the go who doesn't relish wasting time on encounters that never get used. My advice: make sandbox adventures, populate them half way, and define a few key encounters ahead of time that are critical to completing the adventure. If during game play they're not making their way quickly enough to the important encounters and you're running out of your prepared material, move the key encounters to the next rooms they're about to go into, and save any unused encounters for the next adventure. Nobody but you will know the difference. Unless, that is, they decide to go exploring some more after the big finale, in which case you just need to suck it up and go into improv mode.

If you've got a lot of time to burn, though, true sandboxes are better. Me? I use hybrids. I have one starting point, one ending point, and several paths to get there. Here is a flow chart of the last dungeon the kids went through. This one is more linear than sandbox, but you get the point. It took me about ten minutes to make the flow chart, but if you drew it on paper you could do it even faster. Corridors between encounters aren't represented. I've also put a side view of the dungeon so you can see the spatial relationships (this is an overgrown ziggurat, and that's a tree on top for added scale).

This one was way more sandboxy (sandboxish? Sandbox-like? Whatever!). As you can see, there are lots of different places for the characters to go. Notice that instead of creating specific rooms, I created different types of rooms (D, G, M...dens, guards, and mines), and used a legend with handwritten instructions on how to randomly determine what exactly was in each room. Then, to give each room of the same type a unique feel, I just sort of winged it and thought up one unique detail for the room. I didn't think of those details during preparation; I thought of them during game play. Also notice that I didn't spend a lot of time making this map look good. Just lines for corridors and circles for the rooms. This was a network of natural caves, and the characters didn't have a map of it, so I'm the only one who would ever see this map, and the dimensions of the caves only came to life when I drew them on the plexiglass over the big graph paper we use with the miniatures. Again, nobody knows the difference, and it has the illusion of being a carefully prepared cave complex. Now, I will say this: having the map is important, because the kids will try to map their progress. If you don't have a map, you can't keep the dungeon internally consistent, and you'll feel like an idiot when the kids show you their map and ask, "Weren't we just here?"

So now you've got your ideas, and maybe a map or two and a flow chart. Good for you, that killed maybe an hour. Not too bad, right? Now all that's left to do is dive into the books to put stats to your encounters: what's the armor class and hit points of the orcs? What weapons are they using, and how much damage is that? What's their hit bonus? Does the gelatinous cube get a special attack? How does that work? What level is the shaman, and what does that make the DC of his spells for saving throw purposes? How challenging is the trap to detect? Etc. This is where your heaviest time investment is. My advice? Find the stats in the books, understand the related rules, and write down the page number in your notes. You don't have to write everything down, you just have to know how to find it quickly and know what to look for when you get to that page. I would write down any customization notes, though. You don't want to slow the game down by figuring out how to re-level a baddie during game play.

As far as prep time for activities like buying and painting miniatures, I'll leave that for another time...but not necessarily next time.

Finally, I leave you with this cool page I found: How to create an adventure in under 30 minutes. Enjoy!

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