There was a discussion on the Discord group recently about designing scenarios for a GM’s usual party, a one-short convention, or a game-store game, rather than just using pre-written ones. (Thank you, Jorganos, for sparking it.) I’ve been through this process a few times, and I therefore have a few opinions.
There are two separate sorts of adventures in that question, I think; in one of them, you’re in a continuing game and you don’t need to answer everyone’s RP needs every session – you can give one person a starring role this week, and go onto another, the next. I’ve got a few ways of handling that as well, but this post is going to concentrate on writing an encapsulated adventure for a group where you want everyone to have input.
You need two bits of preparation here; a basic plot, and a list of what is important to the characters. The basic plot is what normally stalls me on a week by week basis, but it’s not actually too hard to do. My go-to is The Big List of RPG Plots but you can also go with any of the very, very basic plots like ‘fetch quest’ or ‘escort’ because your plot is going to be an excuse to hang things on for the PCs to do, and you’re going to want to add at least one twist. Even when I use the Big List, I don’t stick to it – I use it to pick out a couple of possibilities that will work for the party where it currently is. If you’ve got a one-shot, you can define where it is. The important bit is that your plot is the spine you’re building on.
The other bits, the rest of the scenario, is what is important to the PCs.
Some things, like fighting, everyone1Except geased pacifists can do, but some people are much better at. Other things, like discorporating, sensing Chaos, and various combinations of Rune spells, only certain PCs can do. It’s time to make a list of what’s important to various PCs, and how they will get into the game.
I do this with a set of keywords, or a short list of points for each one. I’ll take the original Starter group, of Vasana, Harmast, Yanioth, Sorala, Nathem, and Vishi Dunn here, because they are a good range. In general if you’re designing for all of these people, you’ll have a wide variety within your game. If you want to add Mago here, for his supernatural sensing abilities, then the method’s still the same. I’ll note that I left out Vostor, and was reminded by Nick, so anything about Vostor has been added later.
Make a list of the things they do, and that are important to them:
Vasana: leadership, fighting, air magic, Argrath
Harmast: fighting/duelling, clan loyalty, trade, harmony, Argrath
Yanioth: earth magic, snakes & lizards, elementals, annoying her mother
Sorala: reading/writing languages, research, fighting, Esrolia
Nathem: tracking, survival, non-melee fighting
Vishi Dunn: spirits, Prax, White Bull
Vostor: warrior, Lunar, fire elemental, illusion magic.
Not all of these are going to get used, and I might think of more, but that’s a start. We’ll now look at the very basic plot, and let’s decide it’s a fetch-this plot. “Go get this artefact and bring it back here.” It’s time to put details around that.
We’re pretty lucky here. We can decide where the PCs are at the start, because this is a one-shot. So, three of them have significant links to Argrath or the White Bull, in the list. We can just start them off with him or his people as the ultimate quest-giver. Who among his people is likely to want a motley band of initiates to traipse somewhere to bring him back a weird thing? Mularik Iron-eye springs to mind. The best bit about him is he might have determined that he needs anything at all. The worst thing is that his demand gives us little plot help because it doesn’t tell us why he wants something, so we’re getting no hints from that why it’s interesting. It’s too wide. Never mind – we’ll lock it down later.
So, what can we give these people to DO? Well, it’s a one-shot, and they’re going to expect fighting. But three of them are not specialised in close quarters fighting, so we want to make it so they don’t have to do that if they work to avoid it. I don’t know what this encounter looks like at all yet, but there should almost certainly be one big fight at the end, and maybe another smaller one before that. Maybe some negotiations and a chase. Now, it’s probably time to nail down what the thing is that they’re getting, and why it’s difficult.
Let’s say it’s the thing itself which causes problems. It’s got some kind of curse that draws potential enemies to you, which is why Mularik wants it – he thinks it can be used to draw out Argrath’s enemies to his own timing. It works in a local area, and it works to the timing that’s most dramatic – we’ll fill in that detail when we have it. We know it can draw in things that give us a fight, and I’d like Nathem to be able to deal with some of those things with arrows, but maybe not all of them. Maybe Nathem’s tracking skill is the most important thing. And while we think of that, let’s make a note. On the way here, there are not many tracks. On the way back, Nathem needs a reason to go hunting so he can find a lot of tracks following them or closing in on them.
I probably can’t make there be a spiritual attack at the same time, so let’s take Vishi Dunn’s speciality and make that be how you get to the thing in the first place. There’s a spirit that’s very strong and powerful, holding the thing down. However, Vishi Dunn can discorporate and fight it. We’ll flag up early that he might have to, possibly with the original brief, so he doesn’t end up spending all his magic for pointless reasons before he gets there. If he DOES do that, then the spirit needs to attack others in the room instead, so possibly it has a grudge against High Llama riders.
Now, we go back and go through the list and make sure that everyone has at least one thing to do that they are good at.
We don’t really have anything to do for Sorala here, and while she can fight, she’s not massively good at it, so we’ll need some research as well. We should let her find out where it is, with a Special or Critical result giving her some idea of powers as well; it causes strife, but causes peace as well. Research rolls (and tracking rolls, like Nathem is doing) tend to be pretty short, so I’ll define an NPC or two for her to interact with. Maybe the price for doing the research isn’t money, but knowledge, or Sorala’s judgement on what a particular scroll means.
We’ve also got to fit Vostor in, but I have an idea there. There can be people whom only Vostor can circumvent. Lunar outcasts or deserters are the sort of people he can bluff or negotiate with, and that gives him a special moment too.
So now we have a very basic plot. Mularik sends the PCs to get something. First stop is the local library, probably Jonstown. Sorala gets to do her research. There’s a minor encounter on the way there, to get people used to using dice, and to let Nathem know there are no tracks of things that should worry them. They reach the hidden place, possibly deal with some minor guardians (maybe ones that Nathem can strike from a distance across a bridge, but not too many of those or the melee fighters will be sad), and then in the cave (or in the nearby area) there are Lunars. They definitely fight the spirit, with that centring around Vishi Dunn. They bring back the thing. Another minor encounter, such as a sabre-toothed cat, which would not normally attack such a big group, can give them the idea there’s a problem, and if we make this a hilly area, then Nathem’s tracking skill can be used when they are up a hill, and it’s an appropriate time for him to look backwards and see their tracks are too numerous – someone is following them.
The attack can be whatever is thematic to the area. It doesn’t really matter, although hopefully Sorala did the research on that as well. Then, once they’ve dealt with it, they can get some closure in why it happened by having the spirits of the defeated talk to Vishi Dunn, or by each having a dream in which it is established that they have won the right to walk here, and will be troubled no more. At this point it might well be that the Lunars have betrayed Vostor, and what arrives is Lunar patrols, or there is a Lunar patrol on top of whatever they just fought, and unexpectedly that fight helps them to avoid the Lunars – they’re now in tune with the area.
They’ll be immune to ambush in that area for a year, but much of the wildlife will avoid them. Nathem will be unable to hunt effectively, and with fewer predators the local crops will be eaten more by other animals. They’ll be pretty much the only people who get an advantage from this, although they won’t realise how bad it could be until they have handed over the thing they brought back to Mularik.
At that point, of course, Mularik becomes the new holder, and they are in a new place, and HIS enemies can turn up… which is another round of fighting if you feel you need it, especially if there’s time to kill at the end. But really, their story ends with the reward of being able to walk freely, and whatever reward Mularik gives them.
So, that’s the one-shot method. I made this up as I typed it, so it’s pretty wordy, but here is the short version:
- Make a list of who will be used and what they are good at.
- Have a thing for each of them based on their strengths.
- Write a very basic plot, and make the twists be the thing for each of them. So it’s impossible to pick up this item unless you fight the spirit. It’s impossible to find it unless you research. It’s impossible to know what’s coming unless you know what tracks look like from half a mile away. Those can be left out if you don’t HAVE that character.
- Go back through the list of PCs and make sure that each of them has something interesting to do.
- 1Except geased pacifists