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Hey, even bad scenarios make good tales (later)

The referee was speechless. Although he had read the words on the paper, he hadn't understood them fully until then. Surely, that was the intent. The infinitely complex puzzle had been slipped into place by turning the ancient wheel. We had deciphered the words and spoke them. He searched through the odd sheets for the hidden words that would make our revelation true. Alas, it was just kids, crapping themselves, whining to each other, and then running like the sheep we were. We were taken and slain on the spot. Another bad tale ended.

As I write this, it is just around the corner from GenCon. I packed my stuff up and joined gamers around the world for a few days. Every convention I try to play in a scenario or two. Most have been painful and, sadly, a waste of time. When I was younger and less jaded, I would play in scenarios where I played the female character that outwardly didn't care for the elf orc shaman croupier warrior. But, in reality I respected him (it) but because of a personality flaw I couldn't show it. I'll digress for a minute to a few games and then share what I think should be done about it. (Start warming up the tar and feathers.)

Two years ago, I played in an rpg scenario in the second round of a three round tournament. The first day was spent being a mundane farmer in search of our precocious children who had fled the magic school where they were learning to be masters of the dark arts. (Okay, I added the dark arts part.)

We chased those kids in a region on the world that must have been known as the Duchy of Monotony. The kids were always two steps ahead of us, themselves being chased by doppelgangers, that were as well one-step behind them. Evil men who intended harm to the kids were chasing us, or so we thought. So if you do the math, it was kids, monsters, parents, and evil men -- an interesting chase. We weren't complete farmers, but we could have been for the difference in the game it made. Just mostly. I didn't actually get the half gnome 1/8 pixie, 3/14 balor transvestite who had problems with authority in this scenario. (My buddy picked that character when the referee hinted a touch of the wild magic in that one.) But, the characters were just bland.

We chased the kids around the map and caught them when we took the shortcut across the giant lands and promised to buy three subscriptions to their giant hot rod magazine plus separate our recyclables from our normal trash. Well, maybe it wasn't quite that bad, but there was no actual adventure.

We had a number of mundane conversations with bar keeps, rag vendors, and the odd old curmudgeon as what appeared to be unusual things happened around us. The scenario culminated in a meet-up with the kids at the end of the map (imagine that) just as the big moment was to occur. That would be answered in the next thrilling issue of Tales of Dulldom (conveniently numbered round two).

So, round two starts as we are offered the kids character sheets, who guess what, were actually the children of the farmers. So, you weren't actually the secret keeper of some grand and arcane magic, you were a d4 hit point kid! Now, the first time we did that, it was cute. When we were kids for the 10th time in a scenario, it was getting old. Am I the only person who remembers that game in the Dragon in the early 1980's where you role-played kids going on an adventure as Boy Scouts in a haunted house? As a person who was a kid in the cub scouts and who has been in more than one haunted houses (hand to god - haunted), I gotta' say, pretend playing it at GenCon is not all that fun.

Any case, we were faced with the danger of running from farm animals, escaping from a decrepit sheriff and fleeing in terror as a small dog barked at us. Then, it got interesting.

We were confronted by the doppelgangers that were chasing us. I'm sure that we as characters had no way of knowing they were doppelgangers, except to get to that moment we had to play in round one (and chase them for four hours of our long, slow lives). It appears that we are caught but we have the option to urinate on ourselves and escape by dragging ourselves through bovine slop. Okay, the first round was dull but we pondered maybe it was a set-up. Those hot rod magazines were pretty good after all. Sure, we were the nameless flotsam in your average fantasy tale (including the bad poetry), but maybe this was something else. Perhaps, we were supposed to be over-come by the doppelgangers, and flung into sacks. And all the strange things we saw in round one were actually us shape shifted into these strange creatures. Wouldn't it be cool to tour the country-side, knowing what we knew from the day before, causing havoc first as the decrepit sheriff then the seemingly incompetent boatman who let our boat go accidentally. "Hey mister, you want to buy some rags, real cheap," the ragman barked. That could work. And, why exactly were those giants content to sell those hot rod magazines, when pounding us into lumps of human putty made more sense?

Then, round three would be us, as the evil guys coming to the final location and playing some massively complex multi-round interactive climax in a yin-yang thing as we tried to control the destiny of the innocent children. The parents wanted them as protectors of the meek. The evil men wanted them to exploit them for some arcane talent that no one else could know, and the monsters representing chaos wanted them because the other two groups have shown they have value. What a grand idea, we thought aloud and picked details and odd occurrences that could be explained no other way. Rock, Scissor, Paper set against a back drop of social responsibility, the quest for power, courage, deception, and competing interests in a world gone mad.

The referee was speechless. Although he had read the words on the paper, he hadn't understood them fully until then. Surely, that was the intent. The infinitely complex puzzle had been slipped into place by turning the ancient wheel. We had deciphered the words and spoke them. He searched through the odd sheets for the hidden words that would make our revelation true. Alas, it was just kids, crapping themselves, whining to each other, and then running like the sheep we were. We were taken and slain on the spot. Another bad tale ended.

Now some would be mad that they had been ejected so unceremoniously from the tournament. After all, dozens of dollars in dealer's coupons were riding on our decisions. But, a strange thing happened. The referee was sad that he had to be the one to administer the ultimate punishment in the game. He genuinely wanted to see us become the shape shifters, alter this small slice of the world, rearrange it so that it was worth more than a passing glance, and in the end, have that "High Noon" moment when good and evil meet to be matched again in the eternal struggle. He apologized.

But, we weren't mad or sad. Each had come to the realization that to have stayed and played for four hours with the payoff being that we were twelve-year olds running in a world that we didn't make and couldn't change would have been a complete waste of time. As it was, we could go watch that demonstration for the new version of Empire of the Petal Throne. (Yeah, another one.) Maybe get a few minutes to gawk at the National Security Decision Making Game. And, even another hour in the dealer's room. Who could be upset by that?

The strange part was that we all came to the same conclusion independently. Man, did we dodge a bullet there. I thought I was Gary Cooper or at least Jack Palance. But it really was four hours of Wesley Crusher (with difficult apologies to Will Wheaton). We walked away happy that to do nothing was better than to do that. Before, we knew how bad the scenario was, the hope that it would be good compelled us to try. But, we were given an easy out. I regret I didn't come back to see what round three was. Hell, I could stretch that calamity into a whole series of articles.

Now, after I've piled on, let me say that I applaud the writers of the scenario because they had to suffer longer and with a higher intensity than I ever did. They had to prepare their material, take a shot, get it past the endless committees, prep the referees to run it, and maybe it was originally as I wishfully described (or better). There is no way to know what their original intent was. Try offering an adventure to a convention tournament committee sometime and you'll see. Finally, if the author is reading this (improbable after so many years), he'd have to endure a hack like me being critical of the work. So, I applaud the writer and ultimately I had fun imagining what the true story was.

But, what to do about it?

Some would say, you could open the sissy third edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide and read about environment, setting, crafting the adventure. Now, there are two competing thoughts here. First, I did write sissy, because that's what the DMG has become (sissy, child friendly, sad). Nothing wrong with being sissy, but that's what it is. Second, I did such a nice job praising the author of the Children of Boredom scenario, and then I went and smacked on the DMG. Sorry, that's my opinion and frankly, there is no help there.

Now, I do recommend that you read the DMG; you need it to prepare good scenarios, but they take a lot of words to say some very simple things. I don't plan to go into the simple details like, use graph paper, but I thought I would capture the big ideas for you to ponder.

So, my suggestion is to:
  • Learn the Rules

  • Overkill some part of the rules

  • Remember the Point of the Exercise is Fun

  • Have Some Adventure

  • Let the Players beat the scenario

  • Give the Players what they want
Learn the Rules: I must say, I have gotten a tremendous amount of mileage out of the simple phrase "Hey, D&D isn't that complicated." When I ref in conventions, someone always suggests something that D&D doesn't really let you do and most of the time it doesn't make any sense at the moment at hand. But, rather than debating with the player about the kinematics of ballistic flight, how the gravitational constant of this world may not be that of our glob of rocks, or really the difference between infra-vision and ultra-vision, it really is just simple enough to say, hey, the game is just not that complicated. You roll the die, if you roll well; it works, if you roll badly, something bad happens. Yes, I realize you believe your understanding of quantum mechanics suggests in some strange alternate world that this might work. The calculations aren't worth the thirty hours to test your hypothesis. I'm not saying your idea is flawed. I'm just saying "The game is not that complicated." Players do respond when you let them in on the hidden secrets of the universe and reveal the mechanics are sometimes just a die roll.

Learn where the game is bounded and how the simple things are handled. Yea, we could debate in painful detail how you dodge that dragon breath or we could just accept that if you make the specific saving throw you survived (somehow). The referee should be master of at least his version of the rules.

Overkill some part of the rules (each event): My suggestions apply to convention games, but this works at home as well. For the typical example, everyone knows D&D, so let's start there. To swing a sword, roll a d20, consult chart or do calculation. If you hit, roll damage, subtract from hit points. This is pretty straightforward. But, do you know how to pummel, grapple, overbear? The rules are somewhat different and give you different results. If the players were only allowed to pummel, grapple, overbear for a few hours, it would change their perspective. And with a careful reading of the rules, they are not hard to master. Everyone would remember that event and take those rules home to torture their buddies.

I mention combat but you can also leverage this new perspective with other things as well. Have the players design a castle using the siege rules in the old DMG for example. Make them count bullets in a Wild West game. Deal with language problems or spell components. Focus on encumbrance or lighting in the underworld for a short time. Now, there is a point where you have done too much, so only do it for some important aspect of the game. Don't heap all the rules on at the same time.

The Point of the Exercise is Fun: There is a great skit on Saturday Night Live where contestants work at length to win some meager prize by coating themselves in honey and jumping in a tent of wasps, jamming their arm in a bowl of rusty razor blades and other tortures, only to be thwarted at the end by the host asking them to name a color. When the contestant says yellow, the host says, oh I'm sorry, I was thinking of an off yellow.

The players are playing the game not to win some crappy prizes (I hope) but to play the game. This is a hobby where the players want to enjoy themselves playing a game. There is no reason to worry about focus on teaching a complicated moral lesson to make us better humans. Perhaps we may get that message in the tale you tell, but don't make that your first priority. Make having fun the first priority. Fun means succeeding, interacting, using bad accents, doing something that seems important, and all those bad gaming clich├ęs. Yes, it should be more than that (and still be a game), but don't worry about that. The higher message will take care of itself.

Have Some Adventure: JRR Tolkien spent a lot of his time telling the tale about gardening and the various types of soup you can make with funny Elfin leaves and potato mash, but the reason we read the book is because Gandalf may do something we don't expect. Yea, he's an old curmudgeon but when he goes toe to toe with the balrog insisting that he is the Flame of Anor, now we're cooking. (Was I the only one asking why if he is the Flame of Anor, did we have to muck our sad hobbit asses up this mountain to be whacked in the dark by all manor of foul creature.) And, there's the thing about the ring, the Return of the King, the elephants, and some serious war craft. That's why we chose to read those tales. Yea, the poetry is interesting but there are plenty of poetry books that no one reads. So, do something exciting in your scenario.

It's a lot more adventurous to be a shape shifter making your way around the land of the giants and men than to be children running from small animals. It is more fun to have the climax about a battle over great and strange magic than to be just a nice family reunion.

Let the players beat the scenario: More than once as a player, I've seen situations where the players divine what the referee was planning and develop the perfect solution. But, in all cases, the referee stubbornly clings to the story line as written, refusing the shortcut. I've been accused of running games, which give too few options (which is a different thing in my opinion). Giving no option to shortcut to the climax is not the same as refusing an option that the designer did not consider.

Every time I play a dark future / fantasy game (e.g. Shadow Run), it seems the first guy you meet in the tale is the villain. So, if you bump into a janitor (or be he cyber-janitor) on the way to the big meeting with the patron, it will turn out later the janitor is the master criminal who is putting a bug (cyber-bug) on you to follow your movements (cyber-movements). So, the best solution is always to shoot the first person you meet (and doubly so if that person has a name). There are so many ways that person can harm you. Once done, the referee doesn't waste his time on pointless characters; besides, he rarely just throws a useful character in your path. So, unload on this guy.

Now, I've told you the secret. Don't worry if the referee stops you, you know who the villain is. If you shoot an innocent, hey it will give the game an new twist. If the ref is a "really cool guy"(TM), and lets you whack the villain off the bat, it will still be an interesting tale. You exploit your patron who can't know the villain is dead, or make off with all the villains good stuff.

Give the Players what they want: There's a new trend in gaming to make fun of what is known as Munchkins, which are the power gamers who collect stuff and kill things with wild abandon. Munchkins disdain character development and interaction and go for the stuff and mega-treasure. In the old days, this was called Monte-Hall gaming. Now part of the fun of these games is that they are over the top, but the hidden message is that players do want vorpal blades and duro-armor. I don't recommend the gaming inflation of giving the players everything without merit. (Beef up the opponents accordingly.) But, players want to see these truly great items in play. It doesn't hurt convention play to splurge a little.

But, this doesn't just apply to stuff. Players want heroic characters that partake in grand tales. Being children fleeing in terror is not worth the price of admission (paid in time). When I run events at conventions, I let the players create their own characters using simplified rules or throw a pile of pre-generated characters on the table. I always throw more sheets on the table than players to see what happens. Every group does the same thing. They assess their needs: one spell castor, one tank, one healer, two weapons masters, one technician (in the lingo). Then, they take the characters they prefer to play. No one ever picks the nutty, unplayable, emotionally unstable character. Yet, when I sit at conventions like GenCon, nine out of ten are pathetic flakes (the 10th is generally incompetent). If you as a designer want to see how others operate your emotional wreckage, put them in but letting the players pick bland heroes as well. The mix will give you an interesting perspective.

Conclusion: So I've been in dozens of terrible scenarios at conventions. And, I've complained mightily. Some would ask, why do I continue to torture myself, and anyone who will listen to me gripe. My buddies and I still laugh at the terrible scenarios that we've been in. And the few times when we see the greater plot hidden in the mundane is a delight. Hey, even bad scenarios make good tales later.

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