Scenario Design

Cross-posted from Gametime, please post any comments there.

Last night I played in a re-run of Slayage by Gaslight. A fun little Victorian adventure with a Buffy overlay. Or alternatively, a Buffy game transplanted into an unfamiliar setting.

Sprawling over the game was a discussion about how to write convention scenarios. Which is an old issue, and touches on a lot of general roleplaying questions. I think it is very interesting to revisit these fundamental questions from time to time – there’s usually some small new nugget there for extraction and processing.

Our discussion was framed by Fright Night, because a lot of the challenges in scenario design are more urgent in horror, and because the con’s brain trust has recently been discussing the convention format.

The main part of our discussion revolved around enticing player buy-in, without with it is obvious that any game will struggle. There is a lot of information that needs to be transferred between the GM and the playgroup – setting, characters, theme, tone and some actual plot information. It’s no easy thing for the GM to convey their part. I expect players to absorb 1 single-sided A4 page in the 10-15 minutes you have for set-up at the start of the game. Anything that can’t fit on that page has generally got to be communicated by showing during the game.

I think the assumption is generally that the information flow will be one-way. Certainly that is the default standard still, though I expect the shared narrative crowd is making some inroads there. Thinking about it: this is where the convention-standard “tunnel of fun” starts. A one-way information flow instantly starts to empower the GM as setting all the rules, and constraining player choice.

For my last half-dozen convention games, I have instead relied on providing a paragraph or two of setting information, and then using a questionnaire. The concept was stolen from Dread. Really roughly, a series of questions allows the players to determine most of the salient details about their own characters. I have found that most players seem to be able to answer 5-8 questions in about the same length of time it took them to read my one-page character backgrounds.

Dale asked me some tough questions about this process, and probably the most important was: how do I deal with dud players? The questionnaire needs to be very carefully constructed, because if the questions are too open, then both dud players and overly creative players struggle. I got back one questionnaire that took 2 pages – there was a little essay for every question, which was impossible for me to assimilate.

The main answer is that I’ve noticed from years on the Wellington convention circuit, that most of the folk who struggle with the questionnaires also struggled with reading their write-ups and assimilating them: so you’re not necessarily worse off.

Other factors help too. By removing your ability to disseminate information, you force the scenario to stand on a show-not-tell basis. It also instantly identifies players who will struggle in your game if you don’t happen to know already. It means you don’t run quite such a risk of giving a comparatively plot-important PC to someone who can’t play them adequately. Which also means you must be more careful about making sure that all characters are actually viable.

The ability for the player to communicate information to the GM is very important. In my play-test of Trail of Blood, the players used my leading and open questions to populate the majority of the scenario’s NPCs and horrors. They created their own fears, and the game worked extremely well as a result.

But more important is the creation of buy-in from the player about who their character is and how to play that character. In the three runs of A World of Possibilities I was never able to make much use of any of the background information provided via the questionnaires, but I found every character in every game came across very strongly: they were much better defined than 90% of the characters I’ve seen in my convention GMing career. A success attributable, I think, to strongly structured questionnaires – I got the formulae right.

Of course, all the possible instant buy-in can’t rescue your scenario if it doesn’t work as an experience. I think horror suffers the most here, because it is difficult to honestly and straightforwardly engage with horror in a short time-frame. Buy-in helps, but unless the scenario is very carefully managed, the stage scenery and plot mechanisms can become jarringly obvious and break the sense of engagement.

For a convention game, structure is usually a fairly naked question of pacing. The sensible GM will usually have 4-6 plot moments culminating in a spectacular action scene. So in SDC entry write-ups and the like, you will usually see some kind of time-line and time-table for events.

This can often be called a “tunnel of fun” i.e. “railroad”, but that’s not necessarily the case. A number of the better scenarios present a sand-box with a bang that transitions into a thrilling finale – all roads lead to Rome, but they’re not all the same road.

It is obvious that the more prescriptive the adventure, the less requirement there is for players to actually do much – and I think this has a direct impact on how much they’re prepared to buy-in to their characters and the game premise as the game wears on.

For this reason, I think investigative games are often the least immersive and engaging for me: while the puzzle presented is often interesting, they are often written as “one clue leads to another” – and your “railroad” is replaced by a “ginger bread trail”. With all the problems that poor Hansel and Grettel found with that solution in the fable. There is a casual de-protagonization at work there which neither Gumshoe nor The New Columboism particularly address, but which is the absolutely essential quality of Malcolm’s original solution.

My current best idea is that investigation must be an expendable overlay to your story – if anyone ever has to search for a clue, I think you’ve probably set up the probability of your scenario coming unstuck, either because they don’t find the clue, or because they come to realize just how powerless they are to affect anything in it. And make no mistake – the true sand-box scenario is vanishingly rare. I have myself only run one in the past 20 years: The Storm Breaks, which came distinctly unstuck when faced with a group unfamiliar with the concept of true player choice.

It is possible to compensate somewhat for a railroad with colourful scenery. I flatter myself that the high-scoring Spirit of the Tentacle packs enough excitement into its scenes and characters that all the players forgave the necessarily constrained plot and had a good time.

I realize all of this stands to be challenged – there are some very fine GMs out there with a very different take on all this stuff. But despite not exactly selling this line to Dale and Sophie last night, I think that whenever you write a game, you should ideally satisfy yourself that you’ve adequately considered the following points:

1. How will I cause buy-in from my players?

2. Is there any point in my game where player ineptitude/disinterest will cause the game to come to a halt?

3. How will I ensure that the players feel important?

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