Posts Tagged ‘ adventure design ’

Sacred Places

In those days, the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. (Genesis 18:1-2)

When the divine appears to a person, that person experiences a theophany. Ancient literature, such as the Illiad, and ancient religious texts, such as the Book of Genesis, describe such experiences, which take a variety of forms but always lead to an important change, event, or revelation. Thus, as the story of Abraham quoted in part above continues, Abraham is told that his wife Sarah will give birth to a son.

The site of the theophany itself may take on new signifance as it marks a place where the sacred and the profane touched, transforming the latter into a place set now apart from the normal. For example, near modern-day Hebron, the Oak of Mamre, reportedly 50 centuries old, stands at the site said to be where Abraham welcomed three visitors from Heaven.

Such sites attract pilgrims, many of whom journey with specific intentions, such as hope for healing for themselves or a loved one. Often, these sites become the focus of a group of believers, and then a larger community that may include residents whose motives are primarily related to just making a living. Not everyone can live a life solely devoted to prayer or contemplation. Someone has to do the laundry and grow the food, and the larger the community around or near a sacred site, the more varied the motives of people in the community become. The city of Jerusalem is perhaps the most famous example of a community with a complex, rich history that attracts pilgrims year-round.

The inclusion of sacred pilgrimage sites is a good way to inject some verisimilitude into a campaign. Even in our postmodern age, where what appears to be a distressingly large number of people think that divine favor or good fortune can be curried by liking and/or sharing pictures on Facebook, the attraction exerted by sacred places ought not be too difficult to understand. Wars are still fought over holy places, and people still shed blood in the streets in defense of ideals that, while not necessarily religious, are clung to with religious fervor.

The potential for conflict, and the resulting adventure, grows when a site’s significance acquires various interpretations that conflict with each other, as when the persecution of Christians and destruction of Christian holy places in Jerusalem by the caliph of Egypt helped motivate Christendom into the First Crusade. Translate the events of the First Crusade into a swords-and-sorcery campaign and a GM at least has a dynamic backdrop against which his players’ characters adventure.

To this backdrop, add sacred places that ought to be important to the party’s religiously motivated members. What does the party’s cleric of Olidammara do when the local ruling hierarchy of Wastri decides to suppress all music that does not sing the praises of the Hopping Prophet? What happens when the faithful of Merikka take action against the planting rites of Sheela Peryroyl right under the nose of an adventuring cleric of Yondalla?

And, of course, don’t neglect putting some thought into specific game effects or events attached to the site of a theophany.

Six Things That Might Happen at a Sacred Site
1: A cleric of suitable alignment or faith receives an extra first level spell for the day.
2: A character of suitable alignment or faith is cured of an illness or freed from a curse.
3: Someone sleeping at the site receives a prophetic dream.
4: A pilgrim who possesses useful information or skills may help the party.
5: A divine messenger, probably in disguise, requests the party’s help.
6: A gang with reason to dislike what the site represents shows up to cause trouble.

July 18th, 2016  in RPG No Comments »

More Story Cubes

A bit more than a year ago, I blogged about Rory’s Story Cubes (see here for details). Back then, I had two of the three sets of Story Cubes. Over this last holiday, I got the third set at 8th Dimension Comics & Games.

Each set of Story Cubes includes nine six-sided dice with each die having six different pictures. In set one, the orange box, each picture is a noun, such as a flower, a lightning bolt, or a pyramid. Set two includes actions. Each picture shows one or more people doing something, such as climbing a tree, laughing, or digging a hole. My new set, in a lovely lime green box, includes more nouns, all built around the theme of “Voyages”. For example, some of the pictures include six beans (magical?), a sun peaking over a horizon, or a puzzle piece. With the Story Cubes in hand, I’ve got a powerful tool to generate adventure hooks.

“How so?” you ask.

Well, perhaps by using this format as a guide: noun-verb direct-object, corresponding to orange box-blue box-lime box, respectively.

For example, let’s say I rolled the dice, and I get these pictures: abacus, person with hurt thumb, rain cloud. Here’re two possibilities:

“A magical abacus built by a wizard after a personal tragedy controls the weather.”

“Advanced mathematical formulae discovered by researchers working for the Resistance hold the key to undoing world-wide ecological damage.”

Either one of those sentences could serve as adventure hooks. When you consider that three boxes together can be used to create about a bajillion different simple sentences, you have an enormous resource available to you. If you don’t have Rory’s Story Cubes, check them out. There worth a few bucks a set.

January 25th, 2014  in RPG No Comments »

Heather Donohue Versus Helen Hayes

One of the elements of an effective horror story is a sympathetic protagonist. The person beleaguered by the Forces of Evil needs to be a sort of person that the audience wants to prevail. For example of what I’m not talking about, consider the foul-mouthed crybabies in The Blair Witch Project. Even before the terror started, I was anticipating the student filmmakers’ demises. If you write a horror story, and the audience (in this case me) ends up rooting for the Forces of Evil, I feel as if you’ve perhaps missed something important.*

In contrast (and, yes, it’s not really a horror film), consider 1970’s Airport. Most of the film’s running time is spent not on the disaster but rather focuses on the hopes, dream, conflicts, and disappointments of the ensemble cast. By the time the bomber (Van Heflin in his final film role) jumps into action, the audience has been given plenty of reasons to not want the villain to succeed. The characters threatened are sympathetic, even while they are not without their flaws.

When designing a scenario for a horror RPG session, there’s plenty of good advice out there. (See, for example, “Horror in Roleplaying” by Ernest Mueller.) Some of this advice talks about how to use the players’ investment in their characters as a spur to create dread. In other words, the PCs are sympathetic characters that the audience (meaning the players) wants to succeed. As the scenario’s designer and GM, I also need to keep in mind the need for sympathetic NPCs. The horror story I’m designing and asking my players to participate in needs to have an ensemble cast featuring more than just the Forces of Evil and miscellaneous stock characters.

Many Call of Cthulhu scenarios handle this task admirably by providing the GM with an assortment of NPCs, some good, some useful, and others evil. Time is then given in the scenario for the players’ characters to encounter and interact with these NPCs, thus modeling the movie format of Airport: introduce the main actors so that the audience’s opinions and expectations for their roles can be established.

Should the Forces of Evil kill The Blair Witch Project‘s Heather Donohue? Yes, please. Should the Forces of Evil kill Airport‘s Helen Hayes? Never! What’s the difference between the two ladies? Helen Hayes portrays a sympathetic character that the audience wants to live.

*Of course, this might just say a whole lot more about me and my tolerance for foul-mouthed crybabies.

March 19th, 2013  in RPG No Comments »

Human Decision Required

In preparation for Tiamat’s Throne, I’ve been doing research into science fiction. Most recently, this has meant watching Space: 1999 on YouTube. While I am old enough to have been alive, walking, and talking when this show first aired in the mid-70s of the last century, I seldom watched it. Back then, Mom determined what we watched during prime time, and that didn’t include this British-import sci-fi series.

For those of you not in the know, the first episode, “Breakaway”, recounts events leading up to a massive explosion in a lunar nuclear waste storage facility that knocks the Moon out of orbit and sends it hurtling through space toward adventure. Space: 1999 is wildly improbable if not downright silly, but it is played out with such gravitas by good actors such as Martin Landau (as Commander John Koenig) that there is something compelling about the show, no matter how absurd some of the plots are.

At the end of “Breakaway”, Koenig orders that Moonbase Alpha’s computer process how to execute Operation Exodus given the new parameters of the Moon no longer being held in the Earth’s orbit. The computer explains that new parameters exceed its ability to determine whether it is possible to abandon the Moon and return to Earth. Ominously, it declares that a “human decision” is required. Koenig provides that decision, commanding that no escape attempt will be made from the Moon, thus setting up the whole careening-through-space premise of the series.

Something struck me while watching “Breakaway”. One of the common complaints about certain RPGs is that the player characters end up being little more than the sum of their equipment. Solutions to scenario problems become less about the characters and more about having the right gizmo. I’ve seen this play out many times, and the results are often less than satisfying. I’ve also seen situations where the players deliberately try to hinge their success on elements external to their characters.

For example, I once ran a short-lived Mutants & Masterminds campaign. The first plot arc the heroes confronted involved a serial killer preying on adults who victimized children. What I had planned on being a sort of mystery/police procedural quickly turned into the tech hero sitting in front of a keyboard and using a combination of search engines and hacking to gather information. While this certainly fit the hero’s schtick, it didn’t make for exciting roleplaying. I didn’t GM the situation well, and for an unnecessarily large hunk of play time, most of the other players had little to do but feed the tech hero’s player suggestions about the next thing to type into Google.

Which leads me back to Moonbase Alpha’s computer. When we start playing Tiamat’s Throne circa February 2013, I want to avoid the problems associated with over-reliance on tech. At the same time, I don’t want to hamstring character options. If a player makes up a tech-skill heavy character, that player deserves to use those skills in meaningful ways. This must mean that adventures be crafted so that player decisions are required. No just feeding a bunch of data into a computer and then letting the machine make the decisions. Technology should assist, not replace, player character actions to the greatest extent possible.

As my players (well, one of them) have expressed interest in a Firefly-esque campaign, concerns about over-reliance on technology seem even more relevant. It is appropriate that tech assist the player characters in their various heists and capers, but the tech shouldn’t remove the dramatic tension.

Consider a common plot element in heist stories: stealing vital data from a computer. What I don’t want is for a single Computer skill check to accomplish this task. That’s not how it works in the genre. Instead, the heisters have to get into the facility somehow, evading security, slipping past checkpoints, entering secure areas, et cetera, in order to get to the computer system, at which time the Computer skill check comes into play, preferably with a complication, such as the head of security showing up for a surprise inspection or a mishap in another area triggering lockdown protocols.

Texicon Cometh

Well, Texicon 2012 is almost here. Giant Boy and I are heading up to the Dallas/Fort Worth area this Friday. At the convention, I’m running Dyson Logos’s Geodesic Gnomes and a Go Fer Yer Gun!/Call of Cthulhu mash-up. The former adventure, Metro Gnomes, is going to be made available via the regular sources for Spes Magna PDFs by the end of this month (in theory). I’d like to publish the other adventure, but I need to contact GFYG!‘s author Simon Washbourne. I’d like to note that my adventure, BR&ND, is compatible with GFYG!, but I won’t use someone else’s product identity like that without their permission.

I’m also behind the curve on getting the metric system version of Dodeca Weather done. Once I get caught up, it’ll be made available as well. Those of you who’ve already purchased Dodeca Weather will receive the metric system version for free when I update the files.