The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
by David Schibeci
The Games Master's life is a tough life, having to cope with unruly players, complex worlds and pages of rules (please note, I am exaggerating so no one get in a stinky just yet). Having to write adventure after adventure week in and week out makes that job just that bit harder. To write a good adventure, week in and week out, well . . .
To put your mind at rest, and to allow you some perspective on the subject, this musing stemmed out of a series of four columns I wrote for Rumblings of Discord, collectively know as "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Adventures". I was an attempt to help show the players what a good adventure and what a bad adventure consisted of . . . out of hope that they'd take the hint and try Games Mastering.
Now I offer the same pieces of wisdom to you.
A good adventure is as hard to write as a good story. The main reason is that is exactly what an adventure is . . . an interactive story where the characters are no longer static. Think of it like a movie where the actors get to make up their own lines. So how does one go about it?
Every good adventure should have a 'kernel of thought' with in it, an idea or message which acts as the 'core' of the adventure. It is the foundation of the adventure and acts as the driving force. My favourite example is the Chronicles of Barsaive, a series designed to introduce the characters to the eight races inhabiting Barsaive. Eight adventures, eight races. It should be fairly easy to pick which adventure introduced which race. This is probably the easiest sort of adventure to write, as it has a very specific focus: introduce the characters to a place, person or event.
It's not enough just to take the idea and hope it germinates by itself, it must be nurtured into a well thought out stream of consciousness. The Games Master has to accept that they can't be as artistic as they want to be, and must balance their own needs, the needs of the player and the medium with which they are using. I often have great scenes in mind for adventures, but it is difficult to turn them into portions of an adventure. A great adventure - I have never seen nor played an adventure that I would call truly great - satisfies all three needs. A good adventure strikes a compromise.
The most important thing in writing a good adventure is background. A good adventure must have a strong background lying in the backdrop, so that each building, rock and character seems alive. It is the walls, floors and ceilings of your building (stretching my foundation analogy as far as it is going to go). The background is those things that we see out of the corner of our eyes, that we might look at in more detail but we might not. Of course, this means you are going to spend ten times as much time on an adventure than you are going to spend on running the damn thing. It's the price that must be paid. When I right adventures, I normally spend a week on writing it up (about two hours a day). All up I might write for fourteen hours, but the players finish it in four.
Characters are probably the most important part of the adventure background, as these are the people the players get to talk to. Yes, yes . . . I know I'm supposed to call them NPCs, but I call them characters for one important reason. You should spend as much on main NPCs as you would on one of your own characters. I am often guilty of making characters last, so they look like two-dimensional cardboard cut outs when you look at them closely (especially on the sides). It's something I'm going to have to work on and you should avoid. I write them when I'm in a rush to finish them, rather than when I am fresh.
The key to all this background idea is that the players should feel like they are being immersed in a real place, rather then being strung along some plot line. One of the best examples of this that I have seen is Mark's dog bowel adventure. Now the adventure itself was no so great, mainly because the players were acting up and causing strife and mayhem. However, there was one scene where the characters are supposed to be immersed into a VR machine, disorientated and confused. There is not a single Arcane member who can say they knew what was going on (except those who want a punch in the face). My other favourite moment was my all-time best Games Mastering moment in history. I was Games Mastering for Lorne Padman and company, whose group were in a large city looking for equipment. The walked in Bui's Emporium of Wonders, which I described in such detail that I got them all to shut up for about fifteen minutes. Now that was quite a feat, especially considering it was one o'clock in the morning and I was suffering from a lack of sleep. The point is, I made them feel like they were actually in the shop. They could smell, hear, . . .
Back to the plot, the heart of any good adventure. This can be where a lot of the problems develop. A good adventure must have a flexible plot, which can stand up to the rigours of players who like to go where they're not supposed to go. It has be strong so as no to be question by the most cynical and disbelieving player, but it also must be consistent. I often write an adventure, and when I re-read it (always a good idea) I see that some of my plot ideas look like a Hollywood movie. For example, if Group A is plotting to kill Person X, but Person X died in the previous adventure, you have a problem. Or If John Doe turns out to be one of the player's father, he can't be eighteen - especially if the player's character is twenty-seven. The players always see the little details.
This is why the background is so important, because the players are always going to go off the beaten track and get themselves lost. The background, along with the flexible plot, allow the Games Master to keep the game flowing until they can work out how to steer the players back on the right track. Don't force the issue, because the players will fight tooth and nail to put a spoke in your wheels. Guide them, don't beat them.
Most of you should see where all of this is going. I've talked about all four major elements of a story now - characters, plot, theme (crunchy kernels of happiness) and setting. I'd like to dwell on setting a little longer, as it is a combination of background, atmosphere and . . . deck plans. Deck plans are a great idea, and allow you (the Games Master) to add some dimension to your adventure. Some of the most common deck plans - shops, inns and houses - you can always re-use, adding a few unique touches to make the players feel you're not just copying. Of course, there are only so many ways of building an inn. They're important as not only do they add depth to your adventure but flexibility as players can walk through the building and you can tell them exactly what's where. Of course, there are some deck plans that you make already, such as a castle as the bulk of the adventure is set there. Nor am I telling you to draw the interior of every building of every city - just the important ones the players are most likely to visit.
My greatest success in adventure writing has been with the addition of atmosphere through the use of soundtracks. After a few hit and misses at the start, I have a good feel for what music goes where. I'm not suggesting this is for everyone, as it is difficult to get the right stereo setup if you play at different people's houses. However, a few tracks here and there can make a big difference.
I sit here, knowing what a lot of you are thinking. Sure, he seems to know what he is talking about, but when am I going to get time to do all that. I never said that it was going to be easy, did I?
This is the really fun bit as I get to trash all those really shocking adventures I wrote and point out where they went wrong. I'll avoid other people's adventures out of politeness and the fact that I have enough material to kick the crap out of . . .
A good 'kernel of thought' doesn't guarantee a good adventure. Take a look at "Basilica", the third part in the Barony of Alua trilogy (no, it's not there for copyright reasons). Here the foundation for the story was the first two novels in a series I had read and thought very really good. Unfortunately the idea didn't pan out, and the adventure turned out to be nothing more than dragging the characters through the events of the novel as innocent bystanders. The problem? The foundation turned out to be a prison. The 'kernel works best if it is fairly general - introduce the characters to wizard, explore caverns - rather than rigid - follow plot of movie.
Length is another area where I have had a lot of problems. You'll find that shorter, snappier adventures work better than huge epics. I'm not saying that epics are bad, but require a lot more work. It is better to start small and building into a huge crescendo instead of having one big adventure after another. For an example of adventures dragging on, check out the Chronicles of Barsaive. It took twenty sessions to put the damn thing to bed, and that's bad in anyone's books. It was a great idea - the good 'kernel' I mentioned earlier - but lacked something essential. Sure, it had a few highlights, but on the whole it was unfocused, and incoherent. The first four adventures seemed to have no connection to the main thread that was finally woven into the last four. I should have stuck to the original idea of introducing the races one adventure at a time. Made them shorter and more to the point. Then followed this up with the "Blood Circle Cycle" maybe using threads I had laid through the first eight adventures. Each of the eight adventures would have be separate, but could have had common characters to link them together. The backdrop in place I could have launched into the epic.
My first real group got to experience one of the worst adventures I had ever written, entitled "The Council of the Gods" - there is a worse adventure that I wrote for my first group but it is so bad I am embarrassed to talk about it, I was young and inexperienced. It was bad. Very, very bad. Why? It was nothing more than a string of encounters, a huge sequence of fights that was glued together by a thin, 'Hollywood-style' plot that couldn't hold water. Fight after fight after fight. It didn't work. The most amazing thing was the players - probably more out of politeness and inexperience than anything else - didn't pull out baseball bats and bludgeon me to death. What was even worse was the fact that I didn't learn from my experience. The following adventure, The Holy War, was more of the same. It was the same adventure in sheep's clothing. Fight. Fight. Dungeons. Lots of rooms. Lots of treasure. No thinking required.
There is a hat trick to all of this. It was my attempt at a reunion. What did I do? I made a sequel. Sequels to good things are generally bad. Sequels to bad things are generally pathetic. This was no exception. Reunion: Return to Ishka was the sequel to The Holy War. The start was good, lots of well written descriptions to bring the plot together, but the rest was a rehash of the same adventure. Same dungeons, same rooms, same fights and a few different pieces of treasure. My only saving grace was that I was never able to pull off the reunion.
Some of you are thinking, what's the common element? No plot. Lots of encounters. You can't string a number of encounters together and call it an adventure. It doesn't work. You can make a good story and divide it up into a number of encounters, or write a number of well thought out, inter-linked encounters and call it adventure - it isn't the same thing. The key here is background, none of the bad adventures had background (except for Chronicles of Barsaive but it was more of an after thought).
I've only just started (my eyes start gleaming at this point as I pull out my old adventures, knives sharpened). Let's take a look at where The Holy War and The Council of the Gods led. It was from here that I wrote the third adventure and called the series so far The Elthrean Saga. The adventures had no connection, but I was writing epic here. I called it The Crystal Sword the new version of that very first adventure (I can see your eyes rolling in the back of your head as you realise where this is going). Don't get me wrong, the 'kernel' was cool. A sword, made up of the five elements and one of them isn't a woman but 'darkness and light', has been split into five shards each located in an environment suitable for its representing element (tree canopy, ocean, mountain, desert and a city - interesting that one) and guarded by beasts to prevent it getting in the wrong hands. The characters are hired to get the sword, the world is in need. What did I do? Fight. Fight. Fight. So much potential, little reward.
Funny thing happened at this point, I turned The Crystal Sword into its own series and renamed The Elthrean Saga to The Realms of Elthrea. Idea - to explore a different country in each volume: The Shadow of Darkness, the rainforest country of Mongoa, The Plain of Eternity, the barren plains of Quaz, The Land of Mystery, the deserts of Shengezu, The Wasteland of Peace, the wastes of Nourad, The Twilight of Evil, the lands of Yammari, and The Heart of the Mountain, the mountains of Dk'hin. The last two volumes were never published, but I had a strong idea. A plot started to form in the last few volumes and I was on to something. It was supposed to culminate in The Enigma of Elthrea but none of the adventures have been ever played and I dare note read them again.
From there I moved onto to The Celentine Trilogy - The Crypt of Heroes, The Hand of Death and The Shadow of Memory. I had a good plot, but padded it too much with fights. I should have stripped all three adventures to their core plot, and added some background. Fleshed out the characters more. Added a bit of life. It is the biggest single epic I have written, and I hope never to write again.
This lead to the golden days, those of Dragon Warriors. The first two volumes of the Agosta Cantos stand on their own in good plots and good execution. The third volume was a disappointment as I was in a hurry to complete it for my own satisfaction (it was never played) and ended up being a rehash of some old ideas. It had a few good highlights, the Shen'la being the best - something I should expand on some day. My Dragon Warriors career floundered as I continued to write adventures that I never used. Cauldron: Ruins of Spyte was the worst, as I had a single setting - the Ruins of Spyte - and little substance to hold it all together. Weak plot, weak background. I didn't give it the attention it deserved.
Shadows of the Heart worked a little better. The plot was better, the 'kernel' of European exploration was solid and on the whole it wasn't bad. It suffered from not enough for the characters to do, though it did have fewer fights.
My last venture into Dragon Warriors - Love Honour Death - is a personal favourite and I'm not going to touch it, more is yet to come.
So why am I happy kicking crap out of my adventures? I learnt from them all. I can pick out flaws, and that's what's good about bad adventures - you learn from your mistakes. So if you write a bad adventure, chalk it down in your book, but for pity's sake . . . learn from the experience.
We finally come to the end of our journey into what makes a good adventure . . . a look at ugly adventures. In the original version of this section, I used the ugly side to remind the characters what makes a truly ugly adventure . . . the players. No, not the players themselves but what they do. I'll use the original two examples.
Mists of Betrayal was a truly ugly adventure. Mark was working under pressure when he used it, and things could have been a lot different if he had used something else. I shudder to think that there is a universe in which Earthdawn was not mine. But I digress. What made Mists of Betrayal ugly? The adventure wasn't really that badly written, a little leaden in places and badly presented, but on the whole quite a workable idea. The problem was that the characters put two much pressure on the Games Master, forcing him to change a single passage which lead the characters into a dead end. That's where Earthdawn ended for Mark, but that's another story for another time . . .
The second example was when Mark gave Stuart and myself a ship with almost no effort whatsoever. Sure, it had one of my favourite moments with a talking door. We told it to open when we said when, threw a grenade and shouted "Now!". The grenade hit the door, and rolled toward us. The door, after the smoke had clear, stated that we never said "When". The fact was that we got an imperial gunship with almost no effort. We shouldn't have been on the ship to start off with, but Stuart when wild and started beating up an old man. What led to this strange adventure. Stuart rocked up out of no where and forced Mark to come up with these adventures with no preparation.
Can you see where this is going? Can you read between the lines?
Adventures are complex things, almost like living, breathing entities. For them to turn into something worthwhile, they must be cared for and nurtured.
Good adventure's are the GM's fault. Bad adventures are the GM's fault. Ugly adventures are the player's fault.
Ugly adventures turn out when the characters lose interest and run amok. I'm not suggesting that the GM has to keep the player's interest up, I am stating the opposite. The GM has enough on their plate without characters going wild. They can't be expected to pander to the players every need and whim. They aren't GMing because they're being paid. They're GMing because they like the job.
The fact is that there comes a point where a GM has put a lot of effort in the adventure, and they have to draw the line. That's where things turn ugly. Writing a good adventure doesn't guarantee that it will be a good adventure, that's up to the GM and the players in the end.
The GM has to present the adventure well. Speak clearly. Give the characters the information they need. Describe what they see. Add tension. Add mystery. Get the characters enthusiastic.
The players have to play their role. They have been given their own playground, but they have to stick to the rules. If they see a chicken lady offering to read their fortune, they shouldn't hack her to bits. Sure, if they want to ignore that's fine, but they won't get the clues they need. The GM won't lead players around by the nose, because that just pisses them off anyway.
From a character's perspective on excitement:
"The sort lavishly smeared with political intrigue and clever plots, but no excitement! Now I am not suggesting that GM's resort back to traditional D&D style hack and slash adventures (although I personally find much merit in this fine roleplaying system, but that is another story . . .) but conversely, players don't want to fall asleep listening to dialogue. Now don't get me wrong. Political intrigue and clever plots are essential ingredients of any adventure and can lead to excitement! However, dwelling on such matters is as interesting as watching question time in parliament."
Political intrigue and clever plots don't have excitement? They're not exciting only when the characters aren't doing well. They're only not exciting when the characters have hit a dead end. That's where they can even give up - through up their hands and start sulking - or they can get off their ass and try harder. If the GM sees them trying hard, they're more likely to throw them a clue for persistence. If they throw their hands up, the GM is more likely to say "stick it, let them rot in their juices". It works both ways.
"By putting characters in a dangerous, compelling situation and empowering them with authority and importance, they actually feel special, interested and excited!"
Isn't it enough that they are the stars of the show? Isn't it enough that they are the centre of attention. The GM can shown them the hanging gardens of Babylon, but if the characters say "Hey, it's just another garden" that's it.
Ugly adventures happen when both parties refuse to meet halfway. When both refuse to give a little. When both build walls.
Ugly adventures aren't a question of writing, but execution. Sure, I'm getting a little off the track here, but writing and execution are so intricately intertwined that you can't separate one from the other.
Always in your mind you have to be thinking, how I'm I going to get this to work? How will it play out? Is this too hard or too easy?
Ugly adventures are prevented by realising writing and presentation are two essential sides of the same coin.
. . .
And that's where I'll leave it. I looked at how to write a good adventure by showing the four key elements: theme, plot, characters and setting. I looked at bad adventures by example, to show you where things can go wrong. I looked at ugly adventures to being to your attention writing an adventure and running it are both intertwined . I hope it helped.