Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Three Act Structure (Escapist)

This is another one for the aspiring Games Masters out there. Remember a while back, when I said that scenario design will become a big part of your life? Let’s talk a little more about that, and about the three act structure, a literary device that, used properly, will save your butt.

The three act structure is sometimes defined as the Setup, Confrontation, and the Resolution. John Yorke calls each of these acts “a unit of action bound by a character’s desire,” and in this case these are your player’s characters. They drive the story forward with their own actions and desires; you provide the structure, in which their actions are played out.

Each act has its own beginning, middle and end, which means that, for instance, the Setup has its own internal three act structure going on. In each unit of action that makes up the act as a whole, the characters follow their own desires and goals, which move the plot forward. At the end of the Setup there will be a turning point which leads naturally into the Confrontation, and once the Confrontation reaches its conclusion, there will be another turning point that leads naturally to the Resolution. Beginning, middle, end.

The point to take away is this: when designing scenarios, if you bear the three act structure in mind and write accordingly, it will lend your ongoing narrative coherency and drama. It will order your thoughts, and let you plot your boss encounters accordingly; it will show you where the best place is to leave clues as to what’s going on, when it’s a good idea to introduce significant antagonists, and where it’s time to introduce dilemmas.

With that in mind, I’m going to discuss a basic fantasy scenario, in terms of the three act structure.

Starting with the Setup: the characters are in a trading town looking for adventure and loot. They’ve been chasing up rumors of a dungeon somewhere nearby, and discover that, according to legend, a robber baron who was killed many years ago left a castle behind somewhere out in the King’s Woods, near the Old Road. That discovery is the first unit of action in the Setup.

The second unit of action comes when the characters try to find out more about this castle, and the dungeon that allegedly exists below it.  They discover that, according to local traders, the King’s Woods have become very dangerous within the last four months. Caravans have been attacked, people carried off, and nobody knows why; the caravans are never looted, so whoever’s doing it isn’t after money. The attackers seem interested only in captives, but they never send a ransom demand, and they don’t abduct everyone they meet, just a few people. This would be a good time to insert a few clues, which will pay off later. In this instance, the clues could be something like: your wizard or your cleric, being knowledgeable fellows, can work out that each of the abducted people were born in a very lucky year. Evil sorcerous types sometimes use people born in a lucky year for human sacrifices, and it’s said that dragons find them extra crunchy. So maybe not so lucky after all …

The third unit of action in the Setup comes when the characters go into the woods for the first time, and have their first minor boss encounter. Skeletons and other undead horrors rise up and attack them, and, if they happen to be with a caravan – maybe hired as guards? – the undead try to abduct anyone born in a lucky year. They seem to be directed by a special undead, stronger and better armed than the rest, who apparently can tell which humans are born in lucky years. Each of the undead wears the rotted livery of the robber baron. The special undead carries a magic item which allows it to pick out lucky year targets. None of them are intelligent, which means someone else is running the show.

This third unit of the Setup is sometimes called the Inciting Incident: this is the moment where, the background of events having been established, the characters are given the first real hint that all is not as simple as it seems. After all, the special undead couldn’t have made that magic item, so who gave it to him, why, and can that person’s plan be stopped? This is the question that will be answered in the third act, the Resolution.

That’s the Setup sorted out. The characters came in driven by their desire for adventure and loot, and now they have a mystery to solve. All roads lead to that robber baron’s castle. Hopefully the captives are still alive!

So now we move on to the Confrontation. That’s going to take place at the robber baron’s castle, abandoned for many decades. Perhaps, in the first unit, the characters try to find out more about the robber baron, or they try to scout out the castle before attacking it. This is another good place to start dropping some clues, which will pay off later. If they try to find out more about the baron, they learn he was a particularly vicious warrior, whose acts were so vile that the townsfolk, led by some heroes, stormed his castle and destroyed it. He tried to escape, via a secret passage, into the woods, but was caught and killed. If they scout the castle, they see that it was sacked and burned many years ago, but recent tracks indicate that creatures, most of them undead, have been coming and going here for the last few months.

In the second unit, the characters go into the castle and start clearing out the undead, of which there are quite a bunch. Led by a black knight dressed in the baron’s armor, these creatures pose a significant threat, and the dungeon beneath the castle is inhabited by other powerful creatures. Yet when all the fighting’s over, and the loot tallied up, the characters are left with a quandary. None of the captives are here, nor does it seem as if they ever were here. Moreover none of the creatures the characters have faced so far, even the knight, are intelligent. They couldn’t have come up with this scheme. So who did?

In the third unit of the Confrontation, the characters discover signs that lead to the real culprit. That secret passage mentioned in the first unit has to lead into the dungeon, and it has to exit in the forest somewhere. Perhaps they should search for it, either in the dungeon or in the woods, where the exit ought to be. Or maybe they just search the dungeon really thoroughly, looking for the captives, and find it that way. One of the heroes from that long-ago first raid may even have left a clue of some kind, but however it’s done, the third unit of the Confrontation must lead to the first unit of the Resolution, which is in that secret passage.

Now we’re coming to the meat of the matter. The first unit of the Resolution sees the characters discover that secret passage, which the real villain of the piece has been using as a hiding place. That villain is a necromancer, with a few tough hirelings and sorcerous apprentices, as well as some more undead. This necromancer – perhaps he’s a descendant of the baron out for revenge, or maybe he’s just using the baron’s castle as a convenient base - has been capturing those born in a lucky year for sacrifice, in a ritual which the necromancer hopes to use to build a particularly powerful magic item.

From this point forward it’s going to be a series of action scenes. The first unit has the characters facing off against the necromancer’s least powerful hirelings and apprentices in the secret tunnel. This allows them to rescue some of the captives, who can tell them about the necromancer’s ritual site deep in the forest. The necromancer has gone there, trying to complete his ritual with the remaining captives before the characters can catch up.

The second unit has the characters in a race against time, tracking the necromancer to that ritual site. They’ll encounter some tough resistance along the way, including the necromancer’s remaining hirelings and apprentices. All of which leads to the final unit of the Resolution, at the ritual site.  The necromancer’s conducting the ritual there, with a few undead or summoned entities as bodyguards. Now the true enemy has been revealed, the stage set, the final boss encounter primed and ready to go. Whether or not the characters prevail, or end up with the other captives, sacrificed so the necromancer can gain more power, is up to them.

Setup, Confrontation, Resolution. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But within that three act structure is the building blocks, the units of action, for any scenario you care to design, and if you’re the Game Master, scenario design is going to become a major part of your life. That’s why people show up every week or so and buy you pizza; they expect entertainment, high adventure, a few laughs, and loot. Don’t panic. Scenario design isn’t that hard. But if you need a helping hand, bear in mind these three acts, and write accordingly.

Good luck!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Villains (Escapist)

“So I won’t get away with it, huh? How many times I’ve heard that from dumb coppers, I couldn’t count … You’d give your left eye to nail me, wouldn’t you?” Johnny Rocco, Key Largo

Let’s talk about bad guys. 

If you’re the Keeper, Dungeon Master or whatever other hat of doom you’re wearing this week, you already know the problem: sometimes villains just leap off the page, screaming for attention as they blow up the world, but more often they just sit there, spineless slugs waiting for death. What went wrong, and how can you design a tabletop RPG villain that really catches the players’ attention?

The problem with villains is, too often they exist only to do one thing: be foiled by the player characters. Villains are punching bags, paper Nazis, colorful targets that sit on the far end of the shooting range and never shoot back, or at least not accurately. There’s nothing unique about them, nothing that makes the players think ‘I want to know more about this guy.’ If the players don’t feel engaged by the villain, they won’t respect him, and at that point the whole thing falls flat.

There’s a useful writing exercise for creating characters in fiction, which applies just as much to roleplay as it does that unpublished novel lurking on your hard drive. When designing a villain, think about the answers to the following questions:

  •  What is the villain’s name, age, ethnicity and gender?

  •  Name three physical attributes.

  •  List three favorite items.

  • Where does the villain live?

  •  How does the villain make money?

  • Where is the villain right now? What is he doing or saying?

  • What is a problem the villain faces?

  • What is a secret the villain hopes nobody finds out about?

  •  What is the villain’s core belief?

  •  What does the villain want, long term?

The first five questions on that list are self-explanatory. You need to know who the villain is and what they look like, or have on them at all times. You also need to know how much cash or capital they have, so you can work out what the villain has available to throw at the player characters. The rest of it wants a little explanation.

A villain is a character, with wishes, dreams and plans, just like everyone else in the game world. He didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, ‘I want to rob a bank today.’ The whole idea of robbing banks, or whatever it is the villain does, springs out of his desire to satisfy his long term goals. Maybe he wants to buy a house so he and his young wife and child can settle down, but he can’t afford it. Maybe he knows it’s a mob bank, and he wants to bring down the mob, so he figures hitting that particular bank is a virtuous act. Maybe it’s something else, but whatever it is, it’s tied to his core beliefs, and has the potential to satisfy his long-term wants. 

This influences everything the villain says and does, and he should take no action that fails to satisfy his wants. If he’s doing something, anything, it’s because the thing that he’s doing is important to him in some way: it protects a secret he doesn’t want anyone to know about, it solves a problem for him, it fits in with his core beliefs, or pushes forward a long-term goal. If it doesn’t do any of these things, then why would he bother? 

The bit about where the villain is and what he’s doing or saying is for your benefit. You need to be able to picture, in your head, what this villain is likely to do or say in any given situation, and often this means coming up with something on the fly. It really helps if you’ve worked out beforehand the kind of thing he’s likely to say in a particular situation, because you can use that as a jumping-off point to work out what he’s likely to say in other settings.

So how does this work in practice? 

I’m going to use an example villain from a Bookhounds of London campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. You don’t need to know the ruleset to understand the villain; for the purpose of this example, all you need to know is that Bookhounds is a horror game set in London, England, during the 1930s, and the core idea of the campaign is that the characters are booksellers dealing in occult tomes. That means the villain has to be interested in buying or collecting occult grimoires, for whatever reason.

  •  Stanley David Fentiman. Caucasian Male, in his early 30s.

  •  Tall. Wears good quality clothes that have seen hard use. Is missing two fingers on his left hand.

  • He always has a catalogue on him for a forthcoming book auction. Trench art RFC swagger stick. Webley Mk IV revolver, RFC issue.

Already you can see a bit of his history in what he wears and owns. He’s been injured at some point in the past; that suggests a catastrophic accident, or some kind of fight. The Great War isn’t that far off, and if he’s in his 30s now he could easily have been old enough to have served. The two RFC items indicate he was in the Royal Flying Corps, which means he can fly, and since one of the items is trench art, Fentiman’s probably quite talented as an artist. His clothes have seen hard use, which suggests he hasn’t the money to replace them when they get torn or worn out.

  •  Oxford, and is also a member of two London clubs, which is where he stays when he’s in the city.

  • Private tutor, formerly an Oxford don, disgraced and thrown out of his college.

He’s a very educated man, who formerly held a good position but now does not. That explains the good clothes, and why he can’t afford to replace them. He may also find it difficult to afford his club dues each year, but someone of his social status would probably hang onto those club memberships even if it means he has to eat beans for a month or two.

  •  Fentiman is confronting his enemies just before a fight, either in his tattered apartments or in a school room. “Dear boy, you ought to have a better grasp of grammar at your advanced age. Not that you will have an opportunity to improve …” [draws Webley]

  • Problem: he wants to establish a Satanic school of necromancy, but lacks the resources.

Satanic schools are a staple of folklore. Allegedly the Scholomance high in the mountains of Romania admitted ten students, each of whom was taught by the Devil himself. When the course of learning was complete, one student was sacrificed to the Devil as payment and the others were allowed to go free. Dracula himself is said to have studied there, and the Scholomance also turns up in World of Warcraft

Fentiman considers himself a master occultist, a true Satanic lord, but he’s also a teacher at heart. He wants to pass on his knowledge to future generations of occultists, but for that to happen he needs a lot of money, and also needs to conduct several powerful magic rituals. He may even need a school building, perhaps an old Victorian one that has fallen into disuse which he can then convert to his own purpose. 

  • Secret: he lost his privileges at Oxford when he was caught helping several of his student cheat; he was using the money the students paid him to buy occult books. He gets very angry if reminded of this disgrace.

Secrets can be very useful to the players. They reveal weaknesses, something that the characters can exploit to help them defeat the villain. In this case Fentiman gets angry if reminded of his fall from grace, and anger often makes people careless. Maybe in a critical moment the characters could use this information to upset Fentiman, at which point he starts making mistakes. That could be very bad for Fentiman, if he happens to be in the middle of a ritual or summoning.

  • Fentiman believes he is one of the most powerful occultists alive today, and one of the most knowledgeable.

Just because a person believes something, doesn’t make it so. Fentiman probably has some ability – unless he’s completely delusional – but there may be people more powerful than he, and more knowledgeable. He would probably be very upset if something happened to contradict his core belief.
  • Fentiman wants to establish a Scholomance of his own, to teach others.

If there is such a school, then there are students. Fentiman probably has some picked out already, and if he ever gets this thing going then there will be more students, eager to learn. There may be a school building, perhaps some decayed old Dotheboys Hall, abandoned decades ago after an awful scandal. There may be staff, but what kind of person – or creature – is Fentiman likely to hire?

Consider this tactic, when designing your own villains. Find out what they want, what they fear people will find out about them, what they’re prepared to kill for. Once you know that, you know how to make your villain memorable, and then it’s time to make the player characters shake in their boots. There’s nothing more terrifying than a well-designed villain, out for blood!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Total Party Kill (Escapist)

I no longer write for the Escapist. Until recently I had a regular column, and as I completed several pieces which now will not be published there, I thought I'd make use of the material here. Thus the first in a short series of unpublished stuff, this one about the notorious Total Party Kill.



The Total Party Kill is the one thing players, and usually Game Masters, want to avoid, yet it happens so often you’d think people actually enjoyed getting fried by dragons. Usually it’s a very sudden event, and almost completely unexpected. Someone tanks a save, or whatever it may be, and before you know it, six stalwart heroes are being mashed into jam for the next orcs’ tea party. What went wrong?

Dave Noonan, back in the days of 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, suggested that lack of communication between players is one of the big issues. “When times get tough at the game table,’ Noonan said, “It’s easy to stay focused on your character and lose awareness of what your comrades are doing.”

Noonan noticed that players, when faced with a significant threat, stopped thinking like a team and started reacting like individuals. As a team, a group might realize that a fight’s too tough, and decide to withdraw. But each of those individuals has a character sheet, with a long list of combat abilities and spells. It proved too tempting to study that character sheet, looking for a way out that wasn’t there. Players would say they wanted the group to retreat, then engage in combat themselves, or start spellcasting, hoping for a good roll.

Funny thing: every single player I’ve ever met has worked out, in advance, how fantastically awesome their character will be, if they roll a critical success. That’s partly because every player thinks they’ll be the one to roll that critical success, right when they need it the most. Just like diehard gamblers, they think critical failure is something that happens to other people, not to them.

In a TPK situation, the chance to retreat is usually a fleeting thing. Before too many rounds go by, the enemy might have blocked the escape route, or knocked out one too many important characters; the cleric, say, with all the healing magic.  Then it’s too late. All that’s left is to order the pizza and start the post-game argument.

On the other hand, if the players – or even just one player – step up and devise a plan for getting the whole group out, the TPK problem might never come up. Assign one player the task of picking up the unconscious or critically wounded, assign a couple others the task of securing the exit, and then tactically retrograde as fast as your feet will let you. Job done!

That’s in situations where the combat system is crunchy, with lots of add-ons and modifiers. Call of Cthulhu used to be famous for its TPK situations, and its mechanics about as crunch-free as can be, while still using dice. There’s no leveling system, so the 10 to 15 hit points you start the game with are the only ones you will ever have. There’s a percentage chance to hit, a chance to critical succeed or fail, and a damage roll, but the system lacks many significant combat modifiers and situational adjustments that Dungeons and Dragons players would be familiar with. What counts as a TPK situation in that system?

Let me just give you the brief low-down on one such situation, from the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. Very mild spoiler warning, but really, we aren’t talking plot here. The situation is described as:

Present at the ritual will be twelve priests, including [powerful and important NPC] and [equally powerful and important NPC], nearly 800 cultists … and 100 [powerful monsters]. The rest of the [friendly NPCs the group will have encountered previously] will be there, as sacrifices. The din and screams will be loud and sustained. Eventually, at the height of the ceremony, the enemy will summon up a godlike creature capable of demolishing a city.

Now, if your first thought is, ‘Attack! ATTACK! ATTACK!’ there’s clearly a disconnect going on here. If ever there is a moment for stealth and caution, it’s when you’re facing off against a battalion strength group of dangerous people backed up by another small army of monsters. Yet I have seen otherwise rational players, without any special equipment beyond a few sticks of dynamite and a couple rifles, happily charge in without a moment’s thought. Tell you what I rarely see: I’ve rarely seen those same rational players get together, as a group, and plan out what the group was going to do about the problem.

I get that everybody wants to be the hero. I really, really do, but there is such a thing as overwhelming odds. Bilbo Baggins, when meeting Smaug for the first time, doesn’t rush up and try to kick the old wyrm in whatever passes for its genitals, hoping for a critical success. Maybe that’s one of the bonus scenes on the DVD; I’m not in a hurry to watch it. In the book, Bilbo’s more sensible than that. He hides, and schemes, and bluffs, because he knows that, if he puts even one foot wrong, there isn’t a Reflex save high enough to save him from becoming a charcoal briquette.

So far I’ve been talking about the player’s side of the equation. What about that sinister fiend behind the screen? How much responsibility does the Game Master have for the TPK?

As Wizards of the Coast designer Andy Collins once pointed out, “It's no challenge for the DM to kill off the whole party; the challenge is in creating encounters that are just tough enough to put a scare into the PCs without actually killing them all off.” Sometimes, particularly for novices, finding that balance is a tricky business, and it doesn’t help that some monsters are well over the top to begin with. However there’s no advice anyone can give to help you there, beyond ‘be careful’; finding that balance is a skill that only comes with time and practice.

That said, there is one way that better communication between GM and player can help avoid a TPK. The players don’t always know when a monster is going to test their limits, and that’s sometimes because the description the GM’s given so far is insufficient. If the group’s about to march into a boss encounter, the group needs to be aware of that fact, and that means clearly signposting the threat. It might be plenty of corpses lying around, or scorch marks where the deadly trap’s exploded several times before. Maybe the Doppleganger’s impersonation of an ally is just a little bit off, or that doorway just radiates evil. But there has to be that one clue, or warning sign, that things are about to get very nasty, to put the group on alert.

This goes back to something I’ve said before: the GM should always be open in all of her dealings with the group, because even perceived unfairness can ruin the session, if not the campaign. This doesn’t mean the GM can’t be clever; it means the GM has to always be seen as a fair arbiter. Therefore the group gets one warning, whether it’s as cheesy as a talking skull on a stick, or as menacing as a fresh bloodstain on the dungeon floor.  What the group does with that warning is out of the GM’s hands. The heroes want to be mashed into jam? Fine. Let ‘em get squished, and maybe next time they’ll be more careful.

This isn’t a time to get hung up on ability checks either. Just give out the necessary information; don’t make them roll for it. A failed Spot check might put the group on alert, but it lacks drama. Suddenly realizing that all the birds and wildlife in the forest have gone quiet, fearful of some large predator, is drama personified. 

So next time you and your buddies are down in the dungeon, wandering around without a care in the world, remember: you get one warning, sunshine. Just one, and if you march headlong into trouble regardless, you’d better be ready, and willing, to run. None of this hero nonsense. The orcs already have a jar picked out, just for you!