Sunday, January 25, 2015

Creating Coherent RPG Adventures From Random Elements

Obviously, what you want, as a tabletop RPG designer or GM, ultimately, is to come up with a few good solid components to make a coherent adventure. Sadly, even the best "adventure generator" you find online or PDF or book you buy, can provide you with elements or the skeleton of a framework, but the content itself, the specifics, often do not lend themselves to combinations.

There are good, creative designers and GMs that can work with about anything and make awesome adventures with the strangest ingredients, but that type of genius may not come that easy to the rest of us, me especially. But I do want to discuss and hopefully give an example of how this type of thing CAN be done - it IS possible, but it isn't magic - it does take effort and some rather unintuitive conclusions and leaps of deduction, to make a plot.

Among other things, I've created a random plot element generator, for lack of a better term, uncreatively titled, "22,000 Count Word Generator", which you can find here:

Video version of this article

The linked Youtube video version of this article is here: [LINK]

The Audio is here: [LINK]

Now first off - I created this primarily for inspiration, so in its most basic form, it just spits out random things - adjectives, nouns, whatever, in no particular order or relation. From there I tried to refine it a bit and built one option to give some structure - a person or thing, an action or verb, an event or other thing - to sort of artificially give some hierarchy of usefulness to the random words. Then I decided to make both viable, so when you generate info with it, it may give you one style, or the other. And overall, this is of variable use - you can get crap no matter what, or some may be compelling. Both are set up in the form of Acts and Scenes, with a few scenes per Act, as per the standard narrative story or plot structure. Ideally, the elements of each would make sense and tie in to others, but as it is, these designations of "Scene 2, 3" are really just suggestions.

Let's just start with the first page I get, and we'll see what works and what doesn't, and what we can do with what works. Here is the first of the result sets that my generator gives us.

1. Person_Place_Subject_Event

Scene 1: button burnisher, barber, flood, sudden death (siege engineer, lounge)
Scene 2: witch, ballroom, unity, leprosy (rain, measure)
Scene 3: barrel filer, tombstone cutter, hoc, family fireworks bring the police to the door, family doctor charged with failing to help accident victim, rapt,
Scene 4: great old one, ladies clothe, cluster, being unattractive (visions of another self, netmaker)

So let's look at these. The first one doesn't have much going for it, at first glance. It looks like a passable opening scene, but not a particularly interesting or compelling one. Still, a barber, a flood, sudden death, a button burnisher (not sure that's going to fit), and optionally, a siege engineer and leprosy introduced into he scene, may give us something to work with. We have to basically see these things individually and relationally, big-picture style, at the same time, to come up with a believable scene. Not all things WILL be workable and some will just need to be trashed and you move on. But let's try this one.

button burnisher, barber, flood, sudden death (siege engineer, lounge)

So... there's a flood, we can pick that out, along with sudden death, as the most important or dramatic elements here. They could be background elements, but it would be a shame to waste such exciting, action-oriented terms, so let's make them be what the scene is about.

So someone is killed, suddenly, by a flood. If that's the case, might this take place outside? A barber, a siege engineer. Again, let's just ditch the button burnisher here, we've got enough useful terms. The lounge... let's interpret that as a verb and not a noun, so... a guy, a siege engineer normally, in civic life, is maybe working at his job repairing a dam or something.

Hmm, no, let's have him actually be crazy or even hired by a villain, so he knows all about demolition as well as construction. So he ... blows up a dam. Near town. Luckily the water sluices through, but most of the town withstands it, but the barber, lounging due to no business, is caught unawares. The flood of water crashed into his premises, pins him under a heavy desk and he drowns. That uses almost all our terms and sets up an action scene. We can have the player-characters involved here or not, as we decide later. Right now we're just setting up a scene - it's possible this will just be a background or instigating event the PCs find, rather than experience. We'll see. Moving on to Scene 2.

As you might notice, we're still in Act I, and these are scenes, and there are 4 scenes per Act. Again, this is all optional, and I err on the side or providing too many elements or ideas, rather than too few.

Scene 2: witch, ballroom, unity, leprosy (rain, measure)

Now this is immediately interesting. A witch in a ballroom and leprosy. Already some strong elements. Optional elements are rain and measure - those two combined lend themselves to the idea of record rainfall. Hmm, this makes me think that this should be tied to the flood, so maybe the siege engineer WAS working on the dam after all, because the rain has been so heavy lately that people have been worried about just what happened - the dam bursting!

So how does the witch, the ballroom and leprosy fit it? And unity? Unity of what? Of the town? I can imagine the town would be united in the idea of not drowning - let's go with that for now.

So it seems appropriately dramatic, if this is for a fantasy setting, for an evil witch to show up during an expensive royal ball, to threaten and demand and proclaim her hatred for something or other. So this witch here teleports or the doors of the palace slam open and there she is, referencing the amount of rain, and threatening it won't stop anytime soon. Perhaps a guard rushes to try to subdue her and she strikes him with a horrible spell, and blisters erupt all over him, and parts of his skin begin to melt and deteriorate - "spending" our "leprosy" element, and establishing her as a very credibly dangerous enemy.

Back to Unity now - maybe the witch DOESN'T like some unity that exists, and that can be her demand. "If your kingdom allies itself with King Gabthorn, I will wash your pitiful land completely off the face of the earth!" So Unity is actually what is threatened here - but WHY does she not want that to happen? What threat does that pose to her, or what resentment is the witch harboring, related to this? Maybe Scene 3 will help us out.

Scene 3: barrel filer, tombstone cutter, hoc, family fireworks bring the police to the door, family doctor charged with failing to help accident victim, rapt

That's barrel filler. Tombstone cutter. Hoc? Let me see what hoc is. "To this place", "for this" or "hither", so we can use this as either "here, in this place" or possibly "hurry" or "because of" or "so". From this we can establish this scene indicates a consequence of some kind - something that happens as a result of taking (or not taking) a course of action, if we want to forego the idea of "here". "Family fireworks bring the police" is an interesting element that we can easily implement here. Perhaps the witch demanded in the previous scene that the king's daughter, the princess, is to be killed, or married off to a commoner or rival king, to prevent any possibility of alliance in the future. Perhaps the parents refuse, or one parent, and the guards are called to keep order and see to it that the daughter is somehow removed from the situation in order to meet the witch's demands.

From here, we can add in hoc's "because of this" clause, and perhaps the PCs are asked for help by the king, the father, who doesn't want his daughter sent off or killed, while the evil stepmother maybe, is pushing this as the only option, and the king is unable to argue against it because it will mean the death of all his subjects - better one life taken to spare thousands. So how does "tombstone cutter" and "barrel filler" fit in? Both are containers, which someone can fit inside. Hmm.
Perhaps the girl can be smuggled away? Or she can be put in a barrel and thrown in the ocean, to presumably drown, but it's rigged and she can escape and live? Or perhaps the PCs can use barrels, perhaps hiding in them, or using them in some other way, to implement a plan to save the lass? Tombstone cutter. Can't think of a way the cutting itself would be terribly useful offhand, but having heavy things like tombstones could be useful in a plan. Let's leave this one open - it's a bit nebulous right now.

Family doctor charged with failing to help accident victim. Well, this isn't really an "accident", getting rid of the daughter. BUT, we can instead make this part of the plan. The PCs might be able to get away with the doctor taking the blame for the girl's presumed death when she's put in a barrel. He takes the heat and gets the hate for the death of an innocent, but it was in service of actually keeping her alive? That could work. He signs off on her death warrant. Rapt - mmm, that simply means motionless and distracted or something along those lines. If we can figure out how to fit this in, great, if not, it's not a big loss. We have enough elements for this scene.

And now our last scene - if we want four scenes. If we interpreted this as three or four "sections" or acts in themselves, and we felt like we had enough material and content, things for the PCs to do, with what we've already gone over, we could make the previous scene the last one, and possibly just add in a fight with the witch or even just leave it hanging - she departs, fooled into thinking the daughter is gone and no alliance will happen. This could be a "drop in" adventure rather than a full standalone. It just depends on what we want to do with this. But let's go for this last scene, because it's got a ton of stuff. The bad part is, it almost suggests an entirely different adventure entirely, but maybe we can do something with it.

Scene 4: great old one, ladies clothe, cluster, being unattractive (visions of another self, netmaker)

So if we took it by itself as its own plot, this is about a trap by a great old one capitalizing on the vanity and self consciousness of humans. Sometimes called the Great Weaver, or Cosmic Fisherman, he created a net that takes on the form of an exquisite dress and places it in the path of a desperate woman who is often ridiculed or excluded for her plainness or her self-critical ugliness. She puts the garment on and looks radiant, both to herself and others, but it slowly at first begins to taint her, the illusion begins shedding as she transforms into some horrible creature, not knowing it's happening - slowly her mind dulls and she becomes a grotesque horror dressed in tatters.

Where does the cluster fit in? Or the vision of another self? Well, the victim would think about the beautiful version of themselves - the fair princess or the radiant young lady - her goal for herself. The cluster? Hmm. Well, it could be a cluster of clothing, rather than one dress. Perhaps its a wardrobe, an actual physical cabinet, that provides all kinds of wonderful garments, that all still have the same corrupting influence. Or perhaps people that fall victim to this curse gather together with others by some sort of magical innate intuition, into a pack of horrible, slavering, scrabbling monsters that were once people.

But can we fit this into our existing adventure? Well, we could have the princess herself fall into this trap, perhaps in a later adventure - perhaps she finds what looks like a dress fit for a princess, and perhaps dreams of reclaiming her throne once the witch is dead or something like that. Or perhaps this is what happened to the witch herself. Maybe she fell into this trap, and was given powers, but made ugly and malign, and blames the king or the other kingdom, and wants to make sure to keep both from profiting from any alliance. Or maybe that's all just a ruse and she's jealous of the beautiful princess, and she is cunning enough to make this all happen as a way to get rid of the princess - her other demands are a smokescreen.

And so we see that we've used only the elements from the four scenes within what is listed in ACT 1 of the first result set from this generator, but it could potentially provide all the basic information needed for an entire adventure, possibly even two. That's without going on to the next set of results, ACT II. In fact, it's likely if somehow you manage to get lucky enough that all the results could be merged into one single scenario (and admittedly, the cohesion seen here is not all that common), then it likely could turn into a long adventure, depending on how much extra effort you put into it, supplying names and NPCs and additional details. But that's another story.

As you can see, these types of generators can be great for inspiration, ideas, but don't necessarily provide any level of "completeness" for adventures - the GM or designer still needs to nurture it along with creativity and judgment. And I admit I don't have a really good interpretation for how this last scene fits in with the other four - but it nonetheless is a good example of how one CAN come up with a lot of coherent ideas from some pretty disparate elements.

So tell me what you thought of this. What would you have done differently? How do you think the last scene fits into the others - or does it? Post your own thoughts in the comments section. And please like and share this video and subscribe if you are so inclined, and tell me if you want to see more things like this! Thanks!

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