Recipe for Adventure

Hey, game masters, ever wonder what the heck you’re going to run next game? Sometimes a little research can make it all come together. For what it’s worth, he’re how I made my last adventure.

Start with an Idea and an Internet Search

Throw your idea into a search engine and see what comes up. Or just jump right to Wikipedia and start your search there.

My idea: Nicolas Flamel, alchemist. NicholasflamelI knew he was a big name in alchemy and used in a number of fictional works (Harry Potter for one). Wikipeida tells me more.

I find that according to legend he A: Discovered the Philospher’s Stone and B: Found the secret to eternal life. What’s not to like about that?

There’s a bit about his gravestone and where he was buried in Paris. More research finds that the graveyards of Paris were all dug up and the bones of SIX MILLION PEOPLE put into catacombs, really old limestone mines that undermine the city of Paris.

Now, if you live in Paris, this is old news to you, but to me it’s the best thing ever. After inhaling the very great Wikipedia article on the Catacombs of Paris, I search for “Catacombs of Paris Movies” because why not? And I find As Above, So Below. I love movies, so I rent it (Amazon Prime) watch it, and take notes for the adventure.

  • Giant walls made of bones and skulls
  • Unlit, but still hot candles that show someone is down in the catacombs
  • Women in white robes and face paint singing
  • Crawling over bones
  • “To Get Out Go Down” said by an out of touch person that the characters knew years ago
  • Growing fear
  • Dead end except for brackish water that can be swum through to reach hidden chambers
  • The undecayed corpse of a crusader knight
  • Collapsing passages
  • Having to move, and the only way forward is also down
  • Entrances that vanish
  • Panic in the dark

And so on. I filled up every square centimeter of a page while watching. I would pause the movie to jot down a note. I used maybe 1/5 of my notes, but it was great to make all of them. The movie helped me improv the adventure in the catacombs.

as above so belowMy game isn’t set in the modern day like As Above, So Below was, but so much translated to my 1895 setting (play testing the Yellow King RPG). If I was running D&D or 13th Age or a Cthulhu game, almost all would still work. I’m not saying the movie is the best horror movie ever (there are serious flaws), but it is so damned stealable for great catacomb crawling adventures. Plus Perdita Weeks and the rest of the cast do a great job, and I found it watchable.

Watching movies as game prep!

Putting it Together

I used a player’s backstory (I think my sister is a werewolf) as the hook, and had the sister connected with an NPC, Pascal Saccard, who vanished into the catacombs after reading “The King in Yellow” and researching Nicolas Flamel.

1200px-DJJ_1_Catacombes_de_Paris
Not a movie prop, this is real.

I had a number of scenes straight from the movie, including having the players find Pascal in an unreachable space. I played him as remote and haunted. He would answer yes or no questions with a nod or head shake, then stare at the limestone wall. He told them to “go out you must go down.”

I needed Flamel in the catacombs, and hey, he “found eternal life,” so of course he’s a vampire.

I ran through the game system’s mental hazards and listed those I thought we’d hit: looking at / reading the King in Yellow, seeing things that can’t be like the passageway they just crawled out of vanishing without a trace, and so on. I looked up what I could do with a cave in, and made notes so I could find it in play.

Actual Play

In play, the cave-in was more fun because despite me making the roll harder for the people in the back, the one in the middle failed, so the freaked out person in the back crawled screaming over the middle PC, shoving his face down into the bones while the roof caved in.

Cave-ins,  underwater swimming in the dark, odd visions, and worse took a toll. By the time they confronted the crusader corpse, they were pretty depleted in fine horror movie fashion. The meeting with the vampiric Nicolas Flamel gave them the clue they needed for the next game. He doesn’t like the Yellow King any more than they do, so he advised they track down all the copies of the play and destroy them.

A good time was had by all.

Piggybacking Part II

Before we steal Piggybacking from GUMSHOE, check out how it works there in Piggybacking Part I.

Atlantis_on_Shuttle_Carrier_Aircraft_2 800w

The Noisy Cleric Problem

The problem piggybacking solves can be found in all sorts of roleplaying games with all sorts of skills, but the example that comes to mind is sneaking into a castle in a fantasy game like Dungeons and Dragons. In fantasy books and movies, the heroes sneaking into places is a staple of the genre. In D&D games, sneaking is left to the rogue and the ranger for scouting. Once the GM tells the entire table to roll dice to see if they sneak into the castle, somebody always misses, and the exciting infiltration turns into a frontal assault.

GUMSHOE Roots

In games like TimeWatch, Nights Black Agents, or Trail of Cthulhu, the whole spend resources to piggyback fits perfectly, since they are all GUMSHOE games. Most of my players have points to spend in Infiltration, but some have zeros. Every general skill is like that. You aren’t giving the party something for free, they are spending resources they might need later to succeed now.

Let’s look at other systems. I haven’t tested these, but I will.

Cypher System Piggybacking

In games like Numenera, Predation, and The Strange, GUMSHOE style piggybacking is easy, since you’re already spending the resources of Might, Speed, and Intellect to do anything.

The expert spends from their pool as normal, but the difficulty is harder because they are pulling the rest of the party with them. For a sneak into the castle test, the expert has their difficulty raised (+2 sounds good, +1 for less than 3 followers) and uses Speed. While the expert can use their Edge to lower their costs, the followers can not. They each spend one point, no discount.

If the expert succeeds, everyone sneaks in. Move on with the adventure.

Nothing to Spend Piggybacking

In games as varied as Call of Cthulhu, 13th Age, and Dungeons and Dragons, you don’t have resources to spend to sneak into castles or climb up icy cliffs. You’ve got hit points, and while spending those might make sense in a few cases, usually not. Same with Sanity, Recoveries, or Spell Slots. These games are not about spending resources on skill tests, so it seems wrong to try and force them do that just for piggybacking.

In these games I’d boost the difficulty for the expert (+5 for d20, +25% for Call of Cthulhu), but then I’d require the rest of the party to roll just to assist. And if someone fumbles, well then, we’re right back where we started from. That’s the cost right there, the more players rolling, the greater the chance of a fumble. 🙂

 

Piggybacking, Part I

The other night we dove deep into our penultimate session of the Dracula Dossier. An unseasonable blizzard raged around the PCs as they had to climb up a mountain and down a waterfall. It was one of those roleplaying scenes where half the party had the skills to move the story forward, and half did not. (Athletics and Outdoor Survival in this case.)

Dracula's Mill
Dracula’s Mill, from The Dracula Dossier

This kind of scene happens in any kind of roleplaying game, from d20 fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons and 13th Age, to the Cypher System, to Call of Cthulhu. This is a problem with “niche protection,” where everyone has a different set of skills so that everyone can feel special and get their spotlight moments. It can also cause the adventure to stall. When a party tries to infiltrate, but someone is sure to fail their stealth roll–when everyone must impress to get information at a fancy dress ball, but someone is sure to fail a social roll–when the group must climb in a snowstorm, but the hacker and the crime boss are sure to fall to their deaths–what do you do?

(Sometimes letting the crime boss in heels fall off a cliff might be what you want. This post is about when you want everyone to make the climb, but still keep it interesting.)

What do movies and books do? Han Solo and Chewbacca take their queues from Princess Leia when dealing with big-shots. People trapped in Jurassic Park follow the lead of Dr. Grant, dinosaur expert. Sansa escapes from King’s Landing by following Littlefinger’s plan. Characters without the right skills let the experts lead, but don’t leave the scene.

You want the expert PCs get to shine for their skills without stoping the story because some PCs have holes in their character sheets. You let them piggyback.

Piggybacking

This game system (Night’s Black Agents) is a GUMSHOE game, and it comes with a piggybacking rule built in.

In GUMSHOE you can spend skill points to add to your d6 die roll. The expert does that, while everyone else spends 1 point. For every follower doesn’t have any points to spend, the difficulty of the roll the expert has to make is +2. If the expert succeeds, everyone succeeds.

So the expert rolls the big die, spends a bunch of resources (skill points in Night’s Black Agents), and the followers spend some resources for the privilege of tagging along. Great fun!

In our game, we had so many athletics rolls climbing in that blizzard that the spotlight passed between PCs who had tons of points in athletics. They got their spotlight moments, but they didn’t have to leave the hacker and the crime boss behind. They also spent pretty much every point of athletics the group had, and there will be no time to refresh before the next game, so they are sweating it. Perfect!

This works great in GUMSHOE, but what about other games? Let’s see if we can steal piggybacking.

Next time we’ll look at 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, 13th Age, the Cypher System, Call of Cthulhu, and see if we can come up with ways to piggyback in those systems. See Piggybacking, Part II.

 

 

Surprise!

Almost every roleplaying game that supports combat scenes has a rule for surprise. The surprised side gets some disadvantage, usually for the first round. Today I’m talking about when the player characters get surprised by the GM’s characters (NPCs or GMCs depending on your system), not the other way around.

SurpriseWhy bother with surprise? How does it translate into fun at your table?

  • The default kind of fun is a more challenging combat. This is a great way to stress the PCs, and is particularly fun if the players are getting just a little too cocky. How long has it been since the players sweated the outcome of a combat? Standing there with targets on their faces while the opposition gets free shots is sure to get their attention.
  • Surprise can help in world building. Maybe here in drow territory, drow have ambush points set up all over the place. You can tilt the odds of whatever surprise mechanics your system has to make it favor the drow in these encounters. As the players venture deep underground, drow ambushes become part of their world. “We go north, we need to be extra careful for drow surprises.”
  • Surprise can help in shared world building. If the dice dictate the PCs are surprised, you can ask the players “Why are you surprised?” They can come up with all sorts of explanations you would never think of: “I’m so tired. Henrik’s ghost stories didn’t let me sleep last night.”
  • Surprise can help build story. An antagonist might run ahead of the PCs, helping potential adversaries set up ambushes. Maybe it’s because they feel the PCs have cheated them. The GM can leave clues such as “this is the third ambush in a row that has the hallmarks of a Dr. Wild setup. The doctor sure seems to have it in for you.”
  • Avoiding surprise by roleplaying can be rewarding. The players may meet someone who knows about the ambush ahead. If the players make friends, they find out about it. If the players are all murder-hobos, they’ll never learn that information.
  • Avoiding surprise can be a good use of resources. Maybe use of a magic spell can reveal the ambush ahead. In a game like 13th Age, spending an icon boon could have icon send a message about the ambush. In a 5E type of game, a PC that is part of a faction may get the info as a faction favore. In a GUMSHOE game, players can spend their Sense Trouble points. The players can feel very good that they avoided walking into that trap, by spending a resource wisely to avoid it.
  • In some systems, surprising the PCs can end up giving them resources. In Numenera and other Cypher System games, the GM can just declare the party is surprised as part of a group-wide GM Intrusion. Each PC then gets an experience point.

How have you used combat surprises to make your game more fun?

Intriguing Play

My home group recently finished a campaign. I asked for comments, and everyone agreed, I liked the previous campaign, but this was better.

Well, that’s great, it must be I just keep getting awesomer. Or not.

People had many reasons, but a big thing for all the players is they felt more connected to the world. Like what they did mattered. Specifically, they connected to the world through intrigue.

Gods and Icons, 13th Age, Dread Unicorn Games

At the end of the Numenera campaign (which people liked), I asked what they wanted more of next campaign. “Intrigue,” they said. (And more visual props, but that’s another post.)

Intrigue. How do I do that? It really helped that the 13th Age RPG has leaders of factions ready to intrigue against each other, the icons. I use the icons from Gods and Icons, but you can intrigue among any group of icons.

The Game of Icons

One thing we know is that in 13th Age, when one age ends and the next begins, some icons survive into the next, and some get replaced. That struggle for iconic survival turned out be the axis around which we spun the campaign. To keep everyone guessing I made morally ambiguous versions of some heroic and villainous icons. More gray–less black and white.

While I took advantage of a 13th Age feature, I’m sure most 13th Age campaigns don’t focus on intrigue. You don’t need a system with icons to do this. In pretty much every rpg setting you can find organizations or factions. Find out which ones would be fun for your players to defend or attack, and set them off against each other.

You can bring in agents of one faction who bad-mouth other factions, and drop hints such as, “as the age ends, all bets are off.” I used 13th Age icon agents for this.

demogorgon-white-book-600wI stole some conspiracy ideas from Night’s Black Agents, even coming up with a conspiracy pyramid (they call it the “conspyramid”) of a drow house controlled by Demogorgon who wanted to replace the current icon of hell. (Those of you who subscribe to the Dread Unicorn Games newsletter already have our version of Demogorgon, 13th Age style.)

demogorgon-rocking-out-600wLower level nodes in the pyramid don’t know much, but (mostly) follow orders from above. The top of the pyramid was Demogorgon, trying to replace the current icon of hell. The PCs engage the bottom levels first, and climb up the pyramid. The final showdown with the big D was in the abyss, as traditional.

Intrigue games have a lot of NPCs, and I’m too lazy to make up tons of NPCs that never get used.

I stole a trick from some GUMSHOE improv campaigns (The Armitage Files and the Dracula Dossier). I came up with a bunch of NPCs, but did not decide if they were allies, enemies, or interested neutrals until the players met them. Instead of making 10 allies, 10 antagonists, and 10 neutrals, I made up names, descriptions, and quirks for 10 NPCs, and made 1 – 3 bullet points for each about how they would be played if they were self-interested, a house loyalist unaware of the demons pulling the strings, or knowingly working for Demogorgon.

demogorgon-down-600wFor example:

Jandril: Female Drow Knight

  • White scar on left side of face over dark blue skin
  • Wears a red cape
Self-Interested
  • One day I’ll be captain. Can I use the PCs to further my goal?
  • Some sort of deadly political infighting going on among the other knights. Best to keep out of it.
House Loyalist
  • All these demons and devils should make our house invincible. Time to move on the other houses!
Working for Demogorgon
  • Honor guard for the demonic dragons when they hatch.

When the players were investigating the drow house, trying to stop Demogorgon’s plan, they met Jandril. On the spot, I chose Self Interested and she became a possible ally and source of information for the PCs.

I’m not the only 13th Age GM thinking this way. Check out the Heavy Metal GM’s take on this.

PS

Our current campaign is the Dracula Dossier. Great fun for an intrigue loving group.