The Virtues of Incident-Based Adventures

[pt. 19]

What are the virtues of this approach? Besides a practical basis to structure free-form adventures, it also inculcates GM’s and players with specific attitudes. The GM learns to approach every situation assuming the players can do anything, and that letting them do so is right.

The players learn they can try anything (within the limits of the game’s mechanics and the setting itself). They have a tremendous sense of freedom. The consequences of missing a clue, or allowing an event to happen, make the game world seem more real, more like a place where cause-and-effect take place. Their choices have real consequences.

Writers and module designers are encouraged to think in terms of specific, evocative details. The clothes a band of thugs are wearing, the weapons they use, the language they speak: all of these are potential clues, and knowing an incident needs clues leads the writer towards putting specific and meaningful details in the description of the incident.

The real world has layers upon layers of meaning. My personal writing style tends towards short paragraphs. That tells experienced editors that I developed my writing skills while writing for newspapers. My writing style is evidence of my past.

Similarly, the clues a writer embeds in an incident arise from the nature of that incident, the participants, and the world itself. Because they reflect the facts of the world and the scenario, they are reliable leads to follow to discover the truth. They make the game world come alive and make it seem real.

Incident Adventures In Play

[pt. 18]

Here’s how this method works in play:

The adventure begins in Incident A, a house where a friend (a professor) has been murdered. The primary challenge is searching the house for clues. The house is one incident, and is connected with the following:

  1. If they choose not to go in, or can’t find clues, they can visit the police to find out what happened. (The police station is another incident, Incident B.)
  2. The clues suggest another faculty member has been angry with their friend. They can decide to go to his house (Incident C).
  3. In a journal, the professor mentions some important papers that are in a safe in his office on campus. (Incident D.)

There are likely several more potential incidents than these, but the GM shouldn’t prep too many. (Too many choices paralyzes, rather than empowers. Another empirically-established guideline.) In that same vein, no individual incident should have too many (or too few) potential clues. The players will gladly follow red herrings or their own misconceptions, there’s no need to overburden them with dozens of the GM’s choices.

Eventually, as they explore the scenario, the players can discover enough information to identify the murderer or the murderer could get suspicious enough to try and take them out. Catching him, killing him, or turning the evidence over to the cops ends the adventure.

What then? Assuming the game was enjoyable and memorable, the players can think over what happened, constructing stories from the gameplay. Stories about player conflict or cooperation, stories about characters working together or betraying each other, stories about the mystery they just solved.

It doesn’t matter what the stories are about. It matters that they enjoyed the session, and will remember it fondly.

Some troubleshooting:

What if the players miss all 3 clues at an incident? Players are wily and creative. Likely, they will think of additional places to go. Be ready to improvise new incidents you may not have thought of and be ready to describe clues that could be found there.

What if they miss all the clues? This would otherwise be a roadblock. Fortunately, events backstop the adventure. An event is something that will happen at a particular point in time, unless the party intervenes. Someone shoots at the mayer during his noon speech, for example.

Right away, these events give players a new incident to engage with: the aftermath of the event. And while engaging that incident, they can discover clues to other incidents. You should include a few event incidents in every adventure. They’re an easy way to get lost players re-involved.

Of course, the players can wander off by accident or design. If they choose to do so, that’s what occurs. There’s no need to coerce them back into the adventure.

Last of all, if the players totally fail, they fail. It may not be as fun as a hard-won battle, but success isn’t guaranteed.

Their failure has consequences, and those consequences are fodder for future adventures. That’s how RPG’s work.

∞ Infinity: Action Movie Worlds for an Action Movie RPG

∞ Infinity isn’t an end in and of itself. It is, and always has been, a venue for game settings I’m interested in creating and running. These include:

  • Guns in The Outlaw: Mad Max meets The Lord of the Rings. It’s 2039, and the world has been remade by three apocalypses: The Plague, The Collapse, and The Emergence of Magic (monsters, spells, and non-human races). There are but a few islands of order, everywhere else is The Outlaw, the lawless expanse. “Guns” are Outlaw freelancers: mercenaries, bounty hunters, and, yes, even criminals. When people need protection, when they need revenge, when they need a monster hunted and killed, they hire Guns. In post-Emergence America, where dragons fly and spells actually work, Guns are the heroes and villains of The Outlaw.
  • Infinity ∞ Files: The walls between our world and an infinite universe of alternate Realities are breaking down. Portals to other worlds are opening up, flooding our Reality with things that cannot exist. Magical artifacts. Psychic abilities. Super powers. Alien races. Horrific monsters. Our Reality is being swept away. Agents of the Infinity Group, it is your job to find these portals and close them, to save our Reality from utter destruction.
  • Dead Man’s LandYou are the zombie. The zombie apocalypse has arrived, and you are infected (though not yet mindless and drooling). Slowly dying from the zombie plague, you are becoming more like the dead every single day. You can sense their presence. See through their eyes. And even control them. Exiled from the walled Sanctuaries where the last survivors huddle, you wander the vast territory between the few remaining outposts of normalcy and the many fallen cities of mankind, thronging with the living dead. This lifeless and hazardous terrain is your land, Dead Man’s Land.
  • Storm KnightsTorg, remastered for ∞ Infinity. (A fan’s reworking of an incredible game.)

I am excited for all of these. As development continues on ∞ Infinity, I am making notes and trying out ideas, slowly building on the core descriptions here. When the game is finished, then the real work begins.

Incident Design

[pt. 17]

Let’s delve into incidents a little deeper. First, what is an “incident”? It might be a location (a house where a friend has been murdered), a situation (a masked ball), or an event (the enemy storms the gates). An adventure consists of a number of these, inter-connected in various ways.

Second, each incident is a challenge, a problem the players must find a way to solve. At the end, the players can chose to continue on to any other incident.

How does this implement the desired “retroactive story-telling” play pattern mentioned in the last post? What we’re going for is “Incident A causes or leads to Incident B, which causes or leads to Incident C”.

How do we do that? With 3×3 incident design. Under this method, each incident follows these guidelines:

  1. Give the players the three most obvious features of the incident as soon as they arrive. (This tells the players what’s going on, and makes each incident distinct.)
  2. Include at least three clues leading to other incidents.
  3. Think of at least three radically different ways the party could solve the primary problem of an incident. (They probably won’t choose any of the three, but it’ll help you be prepared for what they do choose.)

Each incident leads to three others, which ones the players choose depend on their choices. (They can even choose ones the GM didn’t think of.) Each subsequent incident has its own challenges (a primary one and a couple of secondary ones), and each also leads to at least 3 other incidents.

This allows the players to choose which path they will follow, making the module as flexible as it can be.

Alpha Test 2 is Live!

Hey playtesters, the first draft of the 0.2a release of Infinity has been uploaded to the Yahoo group. It’s in MSWord format, so download, give it a read-through, comment and mail it back to me.

Please?

Link: the doc. (You must be a playtester to access.)

It’s been a long, hard slog but the second playtest is looming. Look for 2-player PvP bouts once I’ve received and incorporated feedback on the 0.2a release.

Thanks for all your time and effort!

– Jasyn Jones


Update (Feb. 1, 2013): Judging by the site activity, there’s some interest in the Infinity Alpha 2 rules revision, beyond just the playtesters.

If you want access to the Alpha doc, send me an email and I’ll send you a copy. Access will be predicated on a deep and solemn promise that you’ll comment and send it back. (Fine, a pinky-swear.)

If you’re interested, drop me a line: jasynj@gmail.com.

If you’re interested in joining the Alpha Test, indicate that as well.

Gathering Advice

[pt. 16]

The previous two posts presented some analysis of the medium, and drew some conclusions from it. That analysis was based on actual play, how the medium functions at the game table.

But what about rulebooks (and their kin, GM advice articles)? Any analysis of the medium must include understanding what has gone before.

Use evinces utility. Something that’s been in use for a long time has been battle-tested at the hands of many, many players. We geeks prize novelty, but shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to throw away the tried and tested. If it survived, it’s for a good reason.

By learning the past, then taking tips, tricks, and techniques others have devised and using them, or adapting them, we can build on the insights of others to make our own work better. This aids both gamemastering and game design.

For “3×3” incident design (next post), I looked to previously published gamemaster advice, and adapted it to the incident structure detailed in the previous post. (And, of course, the notion of a non-linear adventure is nearly as old as the hobby itself.)

So, where did I derive it from? The “three most obvious statements” I adapted from an article in Dragon magazine, about NPC personality traits. The “three clues” I adapted from an approach to mysteries, devised by Justin Alexander. (It should also work for adventures, was my thinking.) Non-linear adventure structure is an old, old idea. I just tried to tune it up a little.

In other words, I took a bit from a lot of different sources, mixed them together, and made something new.

(-ish. Or so I thought. But when looking for the url above, I discovered something unexpected. One of my mottos is “everything you think of has been done by someone else”. And so it proved to be: Node Based Scenario Design. Whoops.)

Of course, at this point incident adventure design is just a theory. It hasn’t been tested in play. Once a handful of cunning and intelligent players get their hands on it, no doubt I’ll be writing down caveats, addendums, and expansions to make the pristine theory fit messy reality.

Which takes me back to the top. Anything new hasn’t been extensively tested, and until it has, should be viewed with suspicion. For every new idea that proves useful, there’s dozens lying discarded, because they just didn’t work out.

There’s a lot of collective wisdom out there, detailing what actually did work out. That collective wisdom — put forth in rulebooks, advice columns, and blog and forum posts — is a resource well worth tapping into.