Ideas for original adventures (Part 4)

30 09 2009


The central idea

Although each adventure or campaign should have a number of ideas running through it, I would advise keeping one as central to the theme.

This does not necessarily have to be the one that the players would automatically recognise as the central one – but it is to you the designer.

This should be the single idea that all other ideas hang from. If nothing else, it ensures the story continues on a true path – and if you get stuck, you have a single point to refer back to. All other ideas should either develop or provide conflict for your main idea.

Otherwise they get in the way and confuse your reader.

Avoid plagiarism

Before I move on, I have in no way advocated either of two paths that may be presenting themselves to you.  The more dangerous of the two is sign-posted ‘Plagiarism.’

1.  Taking someone else’s adventure/book/film and reproducing it word for word is a literal meaning of the word.

Changing the words but keeping most things the same is also plagiarism.  At very least, your players will recognise it and any aspect of suspense is lost.

2.  The second path not to be travelled is signed ‘Lazy.’

Simply looking for stories to rewrite is quick and easy but is unlikely to gain you much kudos with your players.

Rewriting The Tempest in a Sci-Fi setting is one thing. Rewriting Harry Potter as Harriet Potter is plain dumb.

How to rework

Instead of plagiarism, figure out what made the adventure/story/movie into great entertainment in the first place.

If it wasn’t a popular story, ask yourself why your reworking of it will make it entertaining for your players.

Consider the plot, characters, theme and setting as four separate aspects of the adventure. Now consider changing one element but keeping the rest.

What if the story was set in the future, on an alien world, or in a medieval land?

What if the characters were all evil, or the gender roles were reversed? What if the noble cause was actually purely selfish?

I would recommend avoiding the true classics and current popular adventures, books and movies unless you know what you are doing – as these will be the most transparent to your players.

Romeo and Juliet is well known – and simply setting it in space won’t make it a great re-write.  Pick your classic – and if it has to be Romeo and Juliet, so be it.

What is the story about? What is it truly about?

  • Is it simply a love story or is it about bigotry?
  • Is it about loyalty to the family versus personal preference?
  • Is it all of these things?
  • Are you going to keep all of these aspects or change some or one?
  • What will you do with the characters?
  • What about the setting?
  • Why can’t they be lovers?
  • What taboo are they breaking by being together?
  • Is this a family feud or race prejudice?

Is your Sci-Fi adventure about the bigotry to specific species?  Consider what elements can remain true in your setting and what, if any, need to be updated.

Modern ‘thrillers’ have terrorists where we used to read about the Eastern Bloc. It’s a very good reason that all creative writers are encouraged to read outside their genre.

If you’re a fantasy GM and you only read fantasy novels, you’ll find it harder to use ideas that others have written as there are fewer aspects you can change (as it already fits your genre – plus your players probably read the same books you do).

If you’ve decided to use a classic story to be retold, ask yourself what was it about the original that forced you to pick it?

If the answer is that you’ve got no fresh ideas, now is a good time to stop and rethink.  If you rewrite, you’ve got to love the original in some way – or at least think it would be even better if you changed the genre or setting.

It may not be the story that hooks you.

Maybe it’s one of the principal characters and you’d love to see them in a different story.  Define the aspects of the character that have drawn you in and replicate these – not the entire person.

A good idea is to put on paper the aspects of the story you love e.g. genre, setting, hero, protagonist (baddy), plot etc.

Then write next to it if the element remains, or it needs to be altered.

If it is altered, how would you change it?  If you end up with mostly unchanged elements, you probably don’t have enough to warrant a retelling.

The changes should be significant enough that the average player won’t think, “Oh this is Romeo and Juliet set in space.”

If a player thinks that, you’ve lost on two counts at least. Firstly, you’ll come off second best if compared to Shakespeare. Second, the player will know exactly where the story is going. They’ll make mental notes along the way as they check off the twists and turns that they remember from the original.

Remember what it was about the original that hooked you. If you need to, only keep this element. Change everything else.

In the next post, I’ll explain how you can make adventure ideas come to life by using your own experiences.


Original adventure ideas (Part 3)

29 09 2009

IdeasI already have an idea but…

Sometimes you already have a core idea that you need to work with, but something is holding you back. It doesn’t feel complete enough to be turned into an adventure.

In many ways you’d be right to pause. I shudder to think how many aborted campaigns are out there because a GM had an idea and started writing. After a page or so, they ran out of steam. One idea is rarely enough to keep an adventure going, let alone a campaign.

Consider your favourite adventures. Think about what happens. Although you can possibly sum up the story as one idea, the more you think about it the more you realise there were many ideas that combined to make the story work.

Effectively having two or three stories running concurrently is what keeps the campaign fresh. The PCs may have one thread of the story to deal with (but perhaps more than one). Meanwhile the key NPCs have another and at least one major NPC is following a different plot to begin with. It is how these elements weave together that makes the overall story work.

I would recommend having at least two ideas working alongside your main idea. At some point the ideas have to join, or at least affect each other. The standard ‘myth’ is a prime example.

For those that haven’t read Joseph Campbell’s work, the central idea is actually the Hero’s journey from childhood into adulthood. This is facilitated by the secondary idea – the baddy’s desire to rule the world/destroy the world/steal the treasure etc.

Invariably there are other ideas working alongside or behind these. Consider Star Wars. OK, that’s a bit big. Consider Episode IV, but remember the back-stories that we subsequently learned. Can you be truly sure what the core idea is?

The likelihood is that without any one of these ideas, the overall story wouldn’t work. Is it a love story between two apparent opposites – Han and Leia? Is it an action adventure to blow up the Death Star? Is it about Luke’s journey from childhood into adulthood? Is it about the forces of good and evil needing each other to balance out? Or is it something else?

It is surely all of these things. No one element would hold the story together in quite the same way.

In the next blog I’ll focus on the central idea…

Coming up with original adventure ideas (Part 2)

29 09 2009

IdeasSo how do you come up with original ideas?

Stephen King says this is the question that authors get asked more than anything else. And they never have a good answer. The truth that I can glean from reading this question posed to so many different writers and designers is that we’re asking the wrong question.

They get ideas from the simplest of places. They take the advice I’m going to share. OK, they don’t take the advice directly from me, but they follow the principles. That’s why I’ve listed them.

Many of my ideas come from reading a novel or adventure outline or watching a film or TV and predicting what could happen next. When the plot goes in a different direction to the one I ‘predicted’, I reach for my ideas book.

My version becomes an original idea. It seems the key to coming up with good ideas is twofold.

If a writer you meet ever gets stumped when asked the question, ‘Where do ideas come from?’ you can prompt them with the following: 

  1. You have to be looking for them
  2. You need to be able to remember them

I don’t think it’s any cleverer than that. I must admit that if you are looking for them and can’t see them, then perhaps a creative writing career is not for you. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere but ideas aren’t stories or adventures. Using an idea and turning it into a campaign typically revolves around two words.

What if…

These are the two most powerful words for a writer looking for ideas. I’ve just opened Yahoo! News and looked at the first news item:

‘Philippines pleas for international help to cope with flood aftermath’

It’s a serious news story and I in no way am going to trivialise it, but it’s as good a starting spot as any other.  From a fantasy perspective, consider a town or region suffers from a devastating flood: 

  • Why did it happen?
  • What if…it wasn’t a natural occurrence?
  • What if…it was orchestrated by someone?
  • What if…it was part of a larger plot?
  • What if…it was part of a plan to hold the town/region to ransom?
  • What if…it was the act of terrorists – looking to bring down the region’s economy?
  • What if…it was the act of a cult – looking to raise a demon associated with water?
  • What if…it was an elaborate smokescreen to cover up activity somewhere else?
  • What if…it was an elaborate smokescreen to kill a single person?

OK, that’s focussed on the cause. You could consider the event from an individual’s point of view. What if:

  • …this caused the death of a hero on his way to save someone/something?
  • …this caused a man to go home early and find…?

Hopefully you get the message.

I’m not going to expand any of these into an adventure today, but I’ll be surprised if one day I don’t remember this little exercise and use the broad facts in some way. It’s already been entered into my ‘Ideas’ notebook.

For others, the story idea comes from a person or a place. The image of that person or setting is so powerful it demands to be expanded until it forms into a story.

Many writers start with a small idea and the plot takes over as they are writing.

Some people use literary influences. Remember, you can’t copyright ideas, only words. This brings me the next point – but you’ll have to wait until my next blog…

The hunt for the unique idea

28 09 2009

IdeasI had a two day gap in posting.  Over the week-end, I had something of a crisis in confidence.

I was doing some gardening on Saturday morning – and listening to some podcasts at the same time.  In the space of an hour and a half, three items were discussed that I had only recent blogged about.

This caused two reactions:

  1. Perhaps others will think I simply copied their ideas and
  2. Regardless of what people might think, am I devoid of original subject matter?

It took me over a day to rationalise all of this and the source of my solution came from my other interest – writing.  I often see similarities between the two subjects – and this time was no exception.

One thing that I always live by in writing is that there is no such thing as a unique idea.  So why should a blog about role-playing be any different?  And furthermore, why should writing adventures buck the trend either.

So if you’re a GM that’s stuck for an idea for a campaign, I’ll share some writing wisdom over the next few days to ease the burden. 

Many writers GMs have an idea but dismiss it as being too similar to this book adventure, or too close to that story campaign.

To illustrate the potential dilemma that many writers go through in converting an idea into a story, I offer the following…

I have a real story in mind. It’s about a young man who is blessed with magical powers – only he doesn’t know about them at the beginning of the story. He’s an orphan and one day he meets a mentor and his magical abilities are revealed. It’s also foretold that only he can defeat the ultimate evil – despite his youth and inexperience.

Hands up if you know the story.

OK, hands down if you thought it was Star Wars.  And hands down if you thought it was Harry Potter.

I was thinking of Anthony Horowitz’s Power of Five series. How many hands remaining? To be fair, I bet there are a fair few of you with your hands still up, telling me of a book I’ve missed.

The point is that, on the face of it, the story of an orphaned boy with magical powers he didn’t know about is in no way unique. I would add that it doesn’t stop Star Wars or Harry Potter from being original.

Similarly, the classic retelling of an old tale is fair game. The Forbidden Planet is a Sci-Fi take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest after all.

Never confuse original with unique. If you review the current best-seller list for campaigns and adventures, I am confident you will find similar plots in other role-playing products, films and novels.

That does not make them rip-offs and it certainly hasn’t hurt their sales.  Your adventure should be original.  Simply changing the setting does that. Never strive for unique – you’ll die before you finish your campaign.

If I could have an unofficial sponsor for this blog it would be Musing of the Chatty DM.  He wrote a few articles on blogging in which he said that you need to have a focus.  Don’t be all things to all gamers, but don’t be too narrow either.  It’s taken me almost thirty blogs to get there, but I now know what my personal input to the world of gaming should be.  Thanks Chatty!  You don’t know me, but I’ve heard you on many podcasts – and I salute you (now I sound like a stalker — so I’ll stop now).

Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to come up with original ideas.

Is a character background really essential?

28 09 2009

I for one have always championed good and deep character backgrounds.  Why on earth wouldn’t a GM want the players to have depth to their character?

As a devil’s advocate by trade, I thought long and hard about that question.  And my answer is…

When a campaign is started at, say, 5th level, the characters need to have some pregenerated background.  How did they get from 1st level to here?  How have they interacted with the environment to get this far?  This seems a highly logical argument.

And that’s when it hit me.  When you start at level one, you’re a nobody – literally.  A commoner with a garden tool could take you out with one good hit.  Any creature is a risky encounter.

And, as a nobody, what right have you to know anything about the world you live in?

Simply put:

  • Your PC’s character background should be minimal.  Perhaps no more than why they’ve become an adventurer and why they’ve chosen their current class.
  • They should know hardly anything about the world they live in.  Village knowledge is OK, but they should know nothing about affairs of state (other than the name of the King).

The whole point of progression is to develop a back-story.  Now is the time your character would be making future career (class) decisions.  Now is the time that encounters are meaningful and the tales that are now told in taverns actually happened.  

This is also the time that your PCs will be finding out about the politics and intrigue in the local setting.

So, as a GM, the next time you decide to insist on a full back-story from your PC’s, pause and think again.  And more importantly, before you give them a 300-page background to the campaign to study and be tested on – stop.

GM Gems – A review

25 09 2009

I like Goodman Games.  As a GM, they invariably provide a quality product.  So when I heard about GM Gems, I downloaded it without thinking twice about it.

And it was £10 ($16) well spent.  As I say, I bought the PDF – but I immediately printed it off.  It runs at 66 pages (although some of these are a cover, back cover etc. and is described as, “System-neutral tools for every Game Master.”  And, in my opinion, it lives up to its billing.

The book is divided into three sections:

  1. The Urban Experience
  2. Getting There is Half the Fun
  3. The Dungeon

I would suggest this book covers two basic needs.  The first is to help a GM in preparing an adventure.  When inspiration flags, it can be an excellent source of ideas.  The second use is to be used on the fly when players want to do something you hadn’t planned for.

One thing it has lots of is random event/outcome generators.  The first one presented is an ‘Alchemical Mishap’ table.  So the next time your PC gets a potion wrong, you can come up with a better explanation than just, ‘nothing happens.’  If I roll a ’33’ it tells me the, “character’s skin thickens abnormally.  (Temporarily gain a +2 natural armor bonus, but a -1 to Dexterity).

There are also random event generators and these are split by the chapter titles.  So, within urban there is, for example, a random dockside event generator.  A ’33’ again says, “a mirror-plated warship blockades the port, halting all trade and blinding anyone who looks at it for too long.’

As well as tables, the book is full of hooks.  It provides lists with a plot hook for each.  These include local superstitions, rites of passage, specialist shops, peculiar taverns and even unusual holidays.

For mundane things, there are random name generators for inns and a random quirk generator for NPCs.

The second chapter focuses more on travelling.  So it covers things like caravans, camp-sites, ruins and weather.  Again, every entry is either a random generator or a list with a description and a possible plot hook.  Again, if I pick an example, there is a weather event called Rose rain.  Local lore has it that every few years in late spring, the rain comes down a pinkish colour.  The plot hook is that the colour comes from tiny fey in the rain – and the potential plot hooks include:  the fey cause mischief; there is a fey banquet in their honour; the fey attract all manner of other beasts.

Next we have the ubiquitous dungeon section.  A humorous one is a random generator for describing empty rooms.  My favourite is, “the acrid stink of this room makes its temporary purpose all too obvious.  It is a makeshift urinal.”

There is a section on how to take a familiar monster but change its appearance to make it a fresh encounter e.g. a Huesha instead of a Harpy.  You are given subtle but distinct modifiers to make this work.  There is also shake’n’bake feature to further modify a creature with a random die roll to affect their physical appearance or some stat.

There is a section for familiars you may come across (and a plot hook), alternative light sources, smells and noxious substances.   There is also a random generator for short encounters and unique treasures.

Some sourcebooks have plenty of fluff and not so much crunch.  This book is all crunch. 

You’ll like it if:

  • You want to spice up a pre-generated campaign
  • Your players always do the unexpected
  • You can’t always think on your feet

You’ll like it less if:

  • You have unlimited imagination
  • You like to GM on the fly
  • You don’t like being told what to do by a random generator

I’d recommend every GM to pick up a copy.  There will be enough ideas and inspiration in it to justify the cover price.  Even if you don’t use it week in and week out, it will be a useful resource when you do need inspiration.

10 Must Read Books

24 09 2009

As something of a bibliophile, the prospect of choosing only ten books to read is a challenge, but then I like to be stretched.

I’ve cheated (but then I always do) by selecting a series of books when one book out of a saga didn’t make sense.

My first rule was to avoid the obvious.  So no Lord of the Rings et al.

I’ve also made the effort to make the list varied.  I would like to think the list could be read by fantasy/sci-fi and urban RPGers alike.  One point about reading these books is that they inspire.  The best inspiration is from outside the genre.  That great sci-fi story, when converted into a fantasy setting, becomes original.  Making it a sci-fi game means some of your players will recognise it straight away.

And players can get an idea for new characters from any story.  In fact, number one on my list forced me to break from my standard character and branch out in a direction I’ve never done before.

So, in absolutely no particular order:

1.  The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks

I love fantasy books and I love the hero to be a sorcerer.  Let’s face it, most titles in this genre fit that description one way or another.  This trilogy is based around a rogue/assassin character.  I picked the set up cheap from Borders, not expecting a huge amount from a debut writer.  I was wrong to jump to that conclusion.  Now, all I want to role-play is an assassin type rogue – and I can thank these books for that.  These are very easy books to read and tell the tale of the ‘Night Angel’ and his quest to save a kingdom.

2.  Quantum Gravity by Justina Robson

I have two books in the series – Keeping it Real and Selling Out.  Think glossy Cyberpunk meets Lord of the Rings.  Set in an alternate future, the Quantum Bomb tore away the fabric that kept dimensions apart.  Now humans rub shoulder with elves and demons.  A little harder to get into, but worth the effort. 

3.  The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan

These are targeted at the teen audience, which makes them easy and quick to read.  Full of cliches, and you see a lot of things coming, but above all – these books are fun.  Again, bucking the trend, the hero is a Ranger (or an apprentice Ranger at the start of the series).  He does all the hero stuff but the star of the show for me is his gruff master, Halt.  Now that’s a role-playing character!

4.  The Bourne Trilogy by Robert Ludlum

Forget the films (the first is loosely based on the first few chapters of book one, but the rest are totally different) and steer clear of the recent additions to the trilogy by Eric Van Lustbader until you’ve read the first ones.  For great plots and excellent characters, these books are great.  They’re dark and gritty and a great read.

5.  The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan

I’ve read Trudi’s other four books, and none compare to this original trilogy.  A great plot, some excellent characters and there are so many RPG ideas that jump out at you whilst you read them.

6.  King Rat by China Mieville

I ummed and aahed about adding this one.  Not my favourite book on this list – and there are books I prefer to this one – but it’s different and it’s thought provoking.  His action and fighting scenes are really cool.  I’ll not explain the story – it’ll spoil it.  The title is a big clue – and it’s set in modern day London.

7.  Storm Front by Jim Butcher

If you only read one Harry Dresden book, read this one.  It’s about a modern day wizard, it’s different to the TV series by the same name – but both are great.  Set in Chicago, Harry deals with the things the rest of us just don’t see – like vampires, werewolves and demons.   And he has a dry sense of humour too.  Written in the first person, I love to read these.

8.  Kingmaker, Kingbreaker by Karen Miller

The two books, Innocent Mage and Awakened Mage comprise this story.  It’s standard medieval fantasy fare in one sense but it has enough originality to keep it fresh.  The villain of the piece is excellent and has inspired more than one baddy in my campaigns.

9.  The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding 

Along with King Rat, this is one for the Cthulhu fans.  Set in an alternate Victorian London, it has undertones of Jack the Ripper but with a more tangible enemy – the wych-kin.  If Hitchcock made a Gothic movie, this would be it.

10.  The Snow Walker Trilogy by Catherine Fisher

A very atmospheric tale, where the heroes aren’t always likeable.  With links to Norse mythology, this is a dark read but relatively easy to get into and once you’re hooked…

Not every book will be to everyone’s taste.  

It is said that good writers are better than bad writers because they read a lot more.  Great writers are better than good writers because they read more outside their genre.  I suggest that GMs and players alike will improve their game-playing experience by reading more outside their chosen genre. 

Try it.  What have you got to lose?