Sunday, 28 January 2018

Stuck for an Idea? (RPG All)

Designing a campaign, a scenario, even a scene, can be very difficult. You want it to be memorable, granted. You want the players to have fun. You want something unique, or at least reasonably unique - not a bunch of easily spotted tropes. At the same time you don't want to bust your head open searching when the game's on in a day or so and you really haven't the time to mess about.

I've said before that folklore's the best resource for a Director in search of inspiration, say for cults or creatures. It's also very helpful to know your history, so you can pick out details that will be useful later. Say you want to put something interesting and mysterious in your steampunk fantasy city. You might spend an hour scratching your head and crossing out dud ideas, or you could insert the Crystal Palace. Stolen from history, reborn as - well, whatever you fancy.

But there's one other thing you can try, and that's to look at the very ordinary events and things around you, and play with them.

You already know, as Director, that the players are going to come into contact with certain things just in the course of their day-to-day. Exactly what those things are will depend on the circumstances of the game and the setting, but there are some assumptions that can be made. The characters will need to travel from place to place. They will need to eat and sleep. They may commit crimes, or protect people from them, in which case they will come into contact with the police, other criminals, and victims. Possibly also vigilantes, depending on the nature of the setting - and so on, and on.

The initial assumption is the basis for all the rest of the work, but underlying that initial assumption is another, more basic layer. So say this is a game about investigating mystic mysteries, everything from Templar treasures to the Bermuda Triangle. That initial assumption immediately suggests several things that you know the characters will encounter all the time: occultists, skeptics, believers, sites of mystic significance like haunted houses and stone circles. That in turn suggests that you, as Director, need to make some notes about all those things, for use in those moments when the characters need direction and you haven't got something more significant planned. Are the players at a loss? Maybe it's time to follow up on that tip they heard about the Winchester House. None of this has to be in-depth; it just has to have enough depth to occupy attention.

However that's the initial assumption, not the basic layer. The basic layer is simply this: the things the characters encounter all the time, whether they want to or not.  The characters will always want to eat, to sleep, to move around. They'll buy clothing, toys, game consoles. They will have needs and they'll want to fill them. At the same time there will be events happening around them regardless of whether or not the players are directly involved, because everyone else in the game world has needs to satisfy too. This is at the heart of every system, regardless of setting or mechanics, and you can play with this layer in many different ways - so long as you establish it first.

It's been a long time since I've played, but I loved Cyberpunk 2020 way back when, because it spent time on little details like that. The splatbooks told you what guns and chipware were for sale, but they also gave you a little nugget of information about the game world along with it. Jeweldecks are manufactured to order by Faberge of Switzerland. The customer collaborates with the company's designers on the design of the jewelry that the deck will be built into ... Survivable, capable and powerful - when the going gets tough, turn to Spinelli Autotech ... Leisurewear isn't about sports, it's about feeling like you're into sports. Our goal is to make everyone feel authentic, even if they're just sitting at home in front of the Netbox, knocking back Smash.

Look at those flavor comments. They establish the setting quickly and give context for what's going on, more clearly and more succinctly than any data dump. It's all about worldbuilding in the end, and the sooner you establish your world the better it will be for your campaign. Everything you do to make your world yours will encourage the players to explore and inhabit it. BioShock's a classic example; that undersea city wouldn't feel the same without its personalized vending machines, its peppy little sentry bots, its gloomy interiors split by flickering neon lights, the New Year's masks everyone wears, and those mournful, lethal Big Daddies in their diving suits. It's that world more than anything else that draws the player forward, to interact with the setting.

I started this by talking about inspiration, and how the basic layer can be a vital source of inspiration for the Director. By that I mean this: by considering what's in the basic layer, you can design upward and create something for the players to interact with. That's exactly what Cyberpunk did, exactly what BioShock did - they shaped everything in their worlds by playing with that basic layer, by considering the things the characters encounter all the time and then building on those things. The characters have needs and want to fill them. As Director, how you provide fulfilment for those needs shapes everything else in the game going forward.

Say this is a fantasy setting with Gods and their clerics, or similar. The basic layer is this: the trappings and dogmas of that religion. Its shrines may be everywhere - are they decorated with flowers, candles, incense, something else? Do its worshippers leave offerings, and if so of what? How are the dead treated? These are the questions you need to answer, and you need to pepper the game world with that answer as often as possible. After all, the characters would see these shrines every day; they've probably made offerings at them many times. But by ensuring these shrines have just a little bit of detail, you help to build the world.

Don't feel as if you have to kill yourself with detail. Grim Fandango, for example, never tells you a great deal about the world of the dead; its worldbuilding is established in a few little details, such as how florists become insane weaponsmiths because floral bullets are the way the dead are killed. A few little tricks like this make the world seem developed, perhaps more so than it actually is. Brief but informative should be your watchword, not unlike the one sentence description I've recommended for character archetypes.

However there's one other use for the basic layer, and to cover this final point I'm going to draw your attention to something I swiped from the magnificent garbage fire that is the internet:

Six thousand cell phones, lost each year. Over three thousand digital cameras, eighteen thousand hats, seven thousand five hundred autograph books, lost and gone in one theme park. Think about that for a moment, then go to the basic layer and ask yourself: in my campaign world, what happens to the lost and found?

Say this is a pre-industrial revolution setting, where much of it probably gets re-used, not because they were all eco-warriors back in the days of Camelot, but because they didn't have many resources to begin with so they had to stretch what they had. This is why we often find lost manuscripts and forgotten artworks hidden on the canvases and pages of classic paintings and old books; someone scraped the original clean, and started fresh. Absolutely everything gets used, which is why you could make a living in a medieval setting by scouring the streets for animal dung, and why even up to the Victorian period there'd be someone willing to cart off your 'night soil' - also known as feces.

So if this is a fantasy setting, and your character loses, say, a notebook - or worse yet, a wizard's spellbook - then now would be a good time to track down whoever it is that collects all this stuff for resale. Somewhere out there is a man with a cart and a vision, and he's got your spellbook in his pile. Alternatively, what happens if you scrape down a spellbook so you can write new spells in it? Who knows - but I bet you could have fun finding out.

There's also magical consequences to consider. In Japanese folklore there's an entity called the Tsukumo-gami, a wraith made up of the things we leave behind. Shoes, pots, chairs, umbrellas, telephones - everything has a spirit, and if slighted these items can become furious, stalking the night, attacking people. Guy de Maupassant once wrote of a very similar thing, in his short story Who Knows? in which a sinister, enormously fat furniture dealer may, or may not, have persuaded a man's entire house, beds, chairs, cabinets and all, to walk out the front door and into his shop.

When a thing becomes lost, is it really lost, or has it walked away? In Esoterrorists it may be possible for a notebook, a tablet, a camera to have a soul, and to express its disgust by escaping from its owner. In Bookhounds it's quite possible a grimoire might be alive. Or, if this is a Disney situation and all those items are lost each year in one place, what happens next to all that magical energy, bound up with nowhere to go? Are those sunglasses, cameras, cell phones used in some ritual, extracting mana from the lost and found to power - what, exactly? A ride? The lights in the Magic Castle? The ritual keeping Disney's frozen head viable?

With all that in mind, consider this scenario seed:

Let the player pick something valuable, which the character has lost. The character goes looking for it, and finds it - but before the character can pick it up, it's whisked away by something small, fast, and almost silent. What happened, and where is the item now?

1) Future tech: a cleaning robot assigned to this building grabbed the unattended item, and took it away to 'lost and found.' Except someone has reprogrammed this robot - and all the others like it - to bring lost items to a secret room hidden away in the building. The question is, who did it? Is there an actual person behind this, or have the robots developed a peculiar hive mind, and bring these items here in some form of religious worship?

2) 20th Century/Supernatural setting: the item was grabbed by a gremlin or similar, that wants to make a nest for its prospective mate. Getting it back means delving into the forgotten supernatural underbelly of the city, possibly even a pocket dimension in which everything seems like, yet is not like, the world in which we live. In a Cthulhu-esque setting, the gremlin could be an extension of a Great Old One, say the Brood of Elihort, and its reasons for wanting to collect the lost and found are bound to be malevolent.

3) Fantasy/Swords and Sorcery setting: a magical entity, possibly an archwizard, created a spell intended to help it find things it has lost. It wrote the spell down on a scroll and forgot about it, and now that scroll lies in a monastery, library or other archive. However spells have a way of reminding the world that they exist, and when this scroll realized it was due to be scraped clean so other things could be scribed on it, the spell began 'finding' things other people had 'lost' and moving them to the archive, so they could be scraped clean in its place. Of course, not all the items it 'finds' are scrolls, but it has no good way of picking the useful from the useless, so everything it gets ends up in the same place. Which would puzzle the monks/librarians no end, except the junior member meant to be cleaning up the archive each night has worked out, at least in part, what's going on, and is selling these 'lost' items at a premium discount, at the local tavern. All of which ticks off the local thieves' guild no end; after all, the guild's not getting its cut from all this unsanctioned thievery.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

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