Monday, June 20, 2005

Building stories on the fly

It's happened to all of us. As a gamemaster, we come to the table with our books, dice, pencils and favorite source material. The players talk amongst one another, getting their character sheets ready, asking you for pencils and rolling their dice to see how their luck will be during the following session. Drinks and snacks are brought before the horde and the game begins.

The gamemaster sits in a contemplative position, staring at the ceiling. The players lean forward to hear the introduction. The GM's eyes focus on the player across the table from him and says, "You're at the local tavern..."

Let down. Bummer. The GM didn't have the time or the motivation since the last session to come up with a plan for this session, and it shows.

Now, take the same situation and see what happens at another table:

The unprepared GM focuses his eyes on the players, one at a time.

"The caravan that you've been riding with since Ahmun Thar is racing through the desert. Arrows are flying past you on both sides and streaking overhead. As the Imperial cavalry closes, your caravan leader begins to shout orders to his guards, preparing to defend the wagons."

The session continues, with the players defending themselves against the Imperial cavalry, led by an ominous man in heavy armor, wielding an enchanted sword. They have no idea why they're in this fight, until they are approached by an enigmatic woman, a refugee, who'd been traveling with them. The woman hands one of the players a small crystal and pleads with them to take it and find a powerful wizard, or exiled warrior, or any other character that seems interesting. S/he'll know what to do with it.

It wasn't really difficult to think of a beginning to that adventure. In fact, it didn't take any planning at all to figure out what comes next. Nor did it take any foresight to know how it's probably going to end.

It ended with the players in a desperate fight to save a small desert village of normally peaceful nomads from the Imperial army, led by the ominous man described above. The bad guy has the power to command the forces of the desert and plans to use it to bury the good guys' village in a sandstorm. Only the crystal that the players were given has the power to stop him. Of course, the only one who could use that power, the powerful wizard, exiled warrior, etc. had died along the way. But not before teaching one of the players how to use it.

It's Star Wars, A New Hope with a fantasy twist. In fact, this mini-campaign lasted months with my gaming group. Only near the end did someone start to see the similarities between the movie and our games.

Why did it take months for the players to figure out the source of their story? The answers are simple.

First, things were described from the perspective of a different genre. Instead of a Rebel Blockade Runner attempting to get away from an Imperial Star Destroyer, it was a desert caravan evading mounted archers. Simple changes in the description threw the players off from the get go.

Secondly, the players had control over their actions. That alone altered the outcome of several events from the "script" and kept the adventure fresh in the minds of both the players and the gamemaster. Even the tone became slightly different from the original concept with the addition of world specific details and style.

Taking a ready-made story and using it in your games can be rewarding to the gamemaster as well. It's fun to watch the players solve problems in ways that differ from the movie. And it's nice to let someone else (the movie's script writer) come up with all of the story's fine detail for a change. It allows you, the GM, the ability to just play, without spending a lot of time in preparation. You'll already have a good picture of what major NPC's should be like and how they'll interact with the other characters in the story. Chances are, you'll have a pre-made history for them as well. As stated before, this takes away from the amount of preparatory work that you'll have to do before the session begins. It does, however keep a high level of detail. Gaming should be fun! Let someone else do the work once in a while.

Using this idea, you don't have to make a detailed record sheet for each NPC that the characters will encounter. Just keep notes on specific details and assign their abilities while the players' characters interact with them. Use something like a 3"x5" card to jot down your ideas as the story unfolds. Add to those notes as the players continue to interact with him/her. Soon, you'll have a fleshed out character that is believable, without having to fully invent him/her beforehand. The notes allow you to maintain consistency while the story progresses.

Fudge is particularly well suited for gaming on this level. Everything can be described in narrative using the standard trait levels provided, allowing a gamemaster to quickly assign in-game attributes to anything he wants as the game progresses.

Let's take a look at how this works, continuing with the idea of turning the Star Wars plot into a sword and sorcery style fantasy. We know that we'll need a few things for the beginning scene to work. Looking at the movie, these things are mostly obvious. We don't have to change anything except the descriptions and the environment that the characters are in.

The movie opened with a Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing from an Imperial Star Destroyer above a desert planet. No problem. We just change the Blockade Runner into a merchant caravan, and the Star Destroyer into a band of mounted archers.

So, the scene opens with a caravan (the Blockade Runner) being overtaken by cavalry (the Star Destroyer). There is a massive hand to hand fight as the caravan's guards attempt to ward off the highly trained soldiers that have come to stop them. (The same thing that happened in the movie when the Imperial Stormtroopers boarded the Blockade Runner and the firefight began.)

Looking at what you'll actually need for this part of the session is pretty easy. Just give the soldiers and the caravan guards a couple of basic skills at this point. I made the Imperial soldiers Fair [+0] fighters and archers (they're professionals), while I made the caravan guards Mediocre [-1] fighters (rag-tag mercenaries, at best). Other than their descriptions, that's all I really needed to keep the scene going in the direction that I wanted it to go.

Next, I had to represent the enigmatic Princess Leia, who gives R2-D2 the plans for the ominous Death Star. In this case, I kept her a beautiful and mysterious princess of a fallen kingdom (the Republic in Star Wars, after all, was a fallen kingdom of sorts). The players will now act as the droids. (This was kind of an inside joke for me when I ran this game.)

I didn't really have a clear idea for what would represent the Death Star at that time. Nor did I need to. I really didn't even have an idea of what the princess was going to hand the players. I just made it something that could have any sort of power that I wanted later on. I settled on a magical crystal. Of course, you can make it anything that you'd like. Just describe some kind of small item that could have mysterious powers later on (or not). You don't even really have to describe it right away. Just make it wrapped in a cloth, or sealed in an envelope.

In keeping with the movie, the princess approached the characters during the fighting, and handed them the item. She pleaded with them to seek an exiled paladin, and give the item to him. The paladin will know what to do with it.

The only other thing to do for the beginning scene was to introduce my version of Darth Vader. In keeping with tradition, I kept the idea of a powerful man wearing dark armor. The PC's never saw his face, as it was masked by a great helm. In place of a lightsaber, I just gave him one heck of a nice magical sword and a Superb [+3] ability to use it! I introduced the main bad guy as he stormed in, leading the soldiers against the caravan's guards.

The rest of the first session was a piece of cake. It was up to the players to evade the soldiers who were after the item that they were carrying. Of course, it took a while for the bad guys to figure out that the princess wasn't carrying it anymore, which gave the players, and me, some breathing room.

After the session was over, it was easy to determine what I was going to do for the next session. I simply began to break up the movie script into separate pieces and played each scene or series of related scenes as a separate session. The preparatory work didn't get any more difficult. I just had to figure out what I was going to change each element of the original story into so that it would fit the genre that we were playing in.

Sitting down at the table for the next session doesn't have to be a daunting chore for a GM. Just take a favorite movie, book or television show, alter the setting to mesh with your campaign and give it originality. Give the players enough room to move, and you'll be able to sit back and watch them with a satisfied grin on your face as they make their way to the end. Many times, they'll never know that they've just replayed the basic plot line of a movie they all know and love.