It's no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius - some people are, but very few. No, one is a tradesman - a tradesman in a good honest trade. You must learn the technical skills, and then, within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas; but you must submit to the discipline of form. Agatha Christie
I find it useful, when designing an RPG scenario, to follow Agatha Christie's advice. She was asked many times for writing advice over the years, and as with all advice your milage may vary. However, there's one bit I think is evergreen: start at the end, and work back.
Christie, when writing her murder mysteries, would start with the corpse. She'd plot out the murder from the moment poison met lip, or knife, back. Then she'd unravel the whole narrative from that point, and with that as a blueprint would find time to sit down and write the thing. She knew, from the first moment, where the story ended. What she needed to discover was where the story began, and how the detective - be it Poirot, Miss. Marple, Tommy and Tuppence or whoever it might be - enters the narrative and finds out what happened.
In an RPG scenario your players might not be trying to unravel a murder but they are trying to unravel something. What that something is doesn't really matter. The essential point is this: whether it's a fantasy swords and sorcery smackfest or that chilling moment when Illithid meets brain, you know from the start where you want the story to go.
All you need to do is get there.
Let's say this is a Night's Black Agents story. We already know from the main book that there are, broadly speaking, nine kinds of story:
- Destroy. The agents must destroy the local conspiracy apparat.
- Flip. The agents must flip an asset to their side.
- Heist. The agents must steal something
- Hit. The agents must kill someone
- Hunt. The agents must find someone.
- Rescue. The agents must rescue someone.
- Sneak. The agents must infiltrate a secure location.
- Trace. The agents must find something, possibly something that went missing long ago.
- Uncover. The agents must uncover a mystery.
For the sake of this example it doesn't really matter which of these narratives we use. One quick RNG generation later ... 9. The agents must uncover a mystery.
It goes without saying that in order for the agents to uncover a mystery the Director has to know what the mystery is. That's not what we're trying to accomplish. What we want to know is, how does this story end?
You see the same dynamic play out in film. Say this were a heist movie: Le Circle Rouge, for example.
Without giving away the plot, the story revolves around a heist but does not end with a heist scene. Few heist movies do. The heist is often a midway point, something that the characters have been working towards but not, ultimately, the point of the story.
No, the point of the story is (not a spoiler) an imagined quote from the Buddha, presented as fact within the story's narrative:
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: "When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle."
That moment of confrontation is the point of the narrative. That is what the story strives towards.
So if you intend, say, a moment of confrontation at the end point of your narrative, then that moment of confrontation is what you must start with when plotting out your narrative.
Let's say you've been using the Familiar Foe rules from Double Tap, p. 52:
You have done battle with a particular enemy before. Not a generic mook, not just one class of opposition, no matter how distinctive. A Familiar Foe is a named opponent, be they the “Wizard of Waziristan” or the “second Lieutenant of the Death’s Sword Brigade, Johannes Klonsveldt.”
Let's further say that this Familiar Foe is based on one of the Operatives found in the Resource Guide, p 16:
- Name: Gavin Kroeger
- Description: Mid-30s, sharp suit, sleek, energetic
- Previous Patron: Major law firm or hedge fund (Goldman Sachs or similar)
Kroeger’s a legal troubleshooter for the conspiracy. His usual role is to move money around and engage in high-level corporate and legal machinations – buying politicians, fixing elections, bribing key officials, or using the conspiracy’s resources to forcibly acquire companies and assets useful to the vampires.
Therefore the final scene of this scenario is about a showdown with Kroeger. The agents are about to meet their Familiar Foe in the red circle.
You, as Director, already know about as much as is possible about Kroeger and can add extra details as needed. Perhaps he wasn't a Renfield before but is now, because the Conspiracy are considering him for full membership and want to see whether he can handle the pressure. Perhaps he's on the outs with another highly placed Conspiracy operative and is constantly having to defend himself against attacks from the rear.
That moment, when the agents uncover the secret, isn't the end of the scenario. It will drive them towards the end. It's a stepping-stone towards that final scene.
But that final scene is where you start with. You want to round off the narrative with a moment where Foe meets Foe, and for that reason you want to know everything you can about that final moment. Once you know that, you can plot backwards from that point and work out, say, how the agents encounter the plot hook, or where the secret is kept, or who's guarding it.
You know who - Gavin Kroeger - and you know what you're striving towards. Now ask yourself some questions about that final scene.
Where is it taking place? Let's say Berlin, why not.
What does Kroeger want? Well, that depends on whether the secret is a good one or a poison pill. Let's say it's a poison pill. Let's say it's the equivalent of a Dracula Dossier Fraudulent Item, because Kroeger wants the agents to accept the item as real and pass it on to their contact. That way Kroeger finds out who or where that contact is, so they can be dealt with.
How does Kroeger get what he wants? Well, he has access to power appropriate to the narrative, along with assets and goals. Given Kroeger is who he is, he probably isn't dancing the Hulk Smash Polka across the city. No, he'll be calling in political favors, working behind the scenes, offering massive bounties to whichever mercenary can ... and so on.
With all that in mind:
The final scenes are an extended Heat/Chase sequence across Berlin, in which Kroeger puts every possible pressure on the agents but ultimately wants them to get away so he can find out who their contact is. It doesn't really matter what the secret is or where it is; however, for the purpose of this example let's say it's something hidden in the depths of Teufelsberg, which I've talked about before.
Already you can see, I hope, the structure being built. The end scene is that extended chase across Berlin, with Kroeger and his catspaws putting as much pressure as possible on the agents as they flee from whatever it is they found at Teufelsberg. However, they don't want to actually catch the agents, which means they'll hesitate at the last moment. That hesitation might be the clue the agents need to realize that the secret they've gone to such lengths to uncover is a poison pill.
At this point you'd want to flesh out the details of that final moment. Some Berlin details, for example, with variations depending on whether this is day or night and whether this is a guns-blazing car chase or a delicate cat-and-mouse Thrilling Infiltration moment. Prepare for either one; let the players choose which one they're going to go for. You'd want to know the resources Kroeger can call on, and if there are third parties in play like that backbiting Conspiracy higher-up then you want to know what that third party can bring to bear.
Once you know all those things then you work back. How did the agents get to Teufelsberg? What do they expect to find there, and what do they actually find there? How did they get clued in that there was something at Teufelsberg worth looking for? Did Bothans die to give them that information, and if so who were those unfortunate Bothans?
Always remember, though, that you didn't start with Bothans. You started with that face-off between the Familiar Foe and the agents on the streets of Berlin - and then you wrote the scenario.
That's it for this week! Enjoy.