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Modern Mythras: Writing Tabletop Adventures I Want To Play


Alex Greene

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Adventure is adventure, so - according to custom - every adventure should be the same, right? There’s a dungeon, and an evil wizard’s tower, and an army rising up from the East, and only this bunch of idiots stands in their way, and …

So how come adventures like these utterly fail to whip my cream?

Because they’re not really adventures.

They’re computer programs.

Your characters are the code; the mooks, monsters and the final BBEG are just input; and treasures are just output. Put return 0; at the end, and you’re done.

Far too many adventures are written as if they were, well, video games. They borrow their structure from video games; the objectives are the same as for video games (mindless slaughter as the only form of engagement, must clear the room of every single target before the next level opens up); and we have the terminology of video games (mooks, BBEG, buffs, debuffs).

People crunch the numbers (“If Faloney’s Shout of Cringe has a 65% chance of activating, and we can throw in Shagnall’s Gaze of Wither at a 69% activation, together they can increase the percentage probability of survival to, er, 55.55 recurring” and adventure encounters are treated as exercises in arithmetic.

I love numbers, but come on, man, I find more pleasure checking out an accountant’s Excel spreadsheet than running games like this.

Adventure

“Adventure” is often defined as “unusual, exciting, daring experience” and “daring and risky activity.” The noun derives from a Latin word, adventurus / a, meaning “a thing about to happen.” In the 1200s, it meant “something happening by chance, or by luck.”

As a verb, “adventure” can also mean "to expose to danger or loss," "to venture upon," "to undertake," "to proceed despite risk," or "to take risks."

Adventures should be just that - activities which entail some sort of risk, with a suitable reward to provide an incentive to push yourself.

Not soulless number crunching.

Risks, Rewards, and Stakes

Adventure must entail risk. There must be something to lose, if the character fails. The danger is what prompts the adventurers to focus on pushing themselves, to exceed their capabilities and pull off the awesome deeds which yield the rewards awaiting them at the end of the adventure.

In order for there to be a risk, the adventurers must have something to lose, something whose existence and/or wellbeing and/or evolution and improvement are tied to the success of the mission, and dependent on that success.

Life

Life and death stakes. The highest stakes of all. Somebody lives, if the adventure succeeds. If the adventurers fail … somebody dies. And it isn’t the adventurers.

To make the risks work, the person or persons being jeopardised must be people the adventurers care about. Which means writing them in to character generation at the “Allies, Contacts and Connections” stage of character generation.

This part of character generation is often overlooked. Players just want to generate characters which can dispense the maximum damage, expressed as numbers, while taking only minimum damage from the enemies and monsters, again expressed as numbers.

Dependents, relatives, and backstories, are somehow considered to be irrelevant to so-called “power gamers” who just generate characters who are efficient at killing or destruction.

Actually giving such characters people to care about is often considered to be a weakness; and players want characters who are all strong, or who at least don’t have weaknesses which impact on the story.

Advantages

If you look at the rule sets for tabletop roleplaying games, you’ll find that the rules as applied are designed to make the characters numerically the most dangerous beings on the board, while nerfing the monsters and bosses' ability to seriously harm the characters.

Traveller, for instance, has Imperial characters who operate at the highest technological level - Technological Level 15 - while at the same time putting most of the alien races’ maximum Tech Level as between 12 and 14, giving the technological advantage to Imperials in combat by granting them access to weapons at that TL which do not exist at lower levels.

Players are accustomed to fighting under circumstances where they have the upper hand. Put them in a situation where they are at a disadvantage, or actually allow the enemies to operate with strategy and tactics, and the players cry foul.

Characters should enter adventures where they are at a disadvantage. It might not lead to character development, but the prize for victory comes from the players getting the upper hand despite the odds.

Politics

Something has got to bring the characters into the adventure, and to motivate them to fight through the scenario, to see it through to the end.

How about a machination?

The characters could become involved in somebody else’s mad scheme in some way. Perhaps a rival faction is spreading scurrilous rumours about the adventurers, or an enemy has discovered one of their critical weaknesses and is threatening to leverage that weakness, such as exposing a deadly secret which the characters are motivated to keep quiet.

The stakes at hand could be reputational: the adventurers’ reputation could be damaged, if they fail to give their all to the resolution of the conflict.

Material

A recent TV show had law enforcement characters running around a major American city, looking for some sort of buried pirate treasure. There is a famous series, National Treasure, which has a similar premise: a set of elaborate clues which lead to a buried treasure of immense importance.

The McGuffin Hunt plot goes back centuries. Treasure Island and the real life hunt for El Dorado; Captain Kidd’s buried pirate treasure; all the way back to the hunt for the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.

Player characters need to be motivated to be sent haring after lost treasures. If you present the players with a lost treasure, and their development does not depend on their succeeding in finding it, how else can you push them into joining the hunt? A rival chasing after it - good luck to them. An old friend tries to rope them in - well, let us know how it works out. Wait … dead already? Damn, let’s not go where they went.

Crime

Sometimes, the thrill of the hunt comes in the chase, never in the capture. Heist adventures are a prime example.

Sometimes, the aim of a heist adventure is not to steal the money, or to boost the flash drive. Sometimes, the aim is to destroy an undesirable who’s taking over a block, or to flush out a mole in your Agency by hinting that the flash drive might contain incriminating data which could expose them.

The prime motivator in running a heist is to plunge the characters into the thrill of being the bad guys, breaking their own codes of good conduct and showing how much smarter they are than the average gun-toting hood. Any thug can wander into a bank, wave their guns around and walk away with the contents of the teller’s drawers. It takes a mastermind to break into a vault and make off with half a billion in uncut, unengraved, untraceable diamonds, knowing that the bad guy whose vault it is can hardly go to the cops, since they are all conflict diamonds.

Revenge

The sweet scent of vengeance, the dish that is best served cold. The Count of Monte Cristo and The Stars, My Destination are two perfect examples of a vengeance story. The protagonist, having been sorely wronged, seeks to avenge their injury upon the perpetrator. Inigo Montoya’s quest to end the life of The Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride is another example.

The adventurers must have something to lose - and the bad guys (i.e. your characters) have just taken it away. The damage has been done, and the characters are hurtin’. As well as locked up somewhere.

Part 1 is getting out. Part 2 is getting even. As the Games Master, you really need to make it hurt, to get your players thinking so hard about getting back at the bad guy that they could potentially destroy their new-found lives and new connections, in their efforts to settle the old score.

Hooks and Pushes

It’s your job, as Games Master, to open the door to let the characters walk through it, to find themselves caught up in divers hijinks, running around looking for that vital clue, or chasing after an elusive bad guy.

There must be a hook, to draw them in, to engage the players’ attention. There must be a push, something to avoid (which can only be really averted by joining the adventure). And as well as the stakes, what they may stand to lose if they fail, the rewards must be worthy of the chase, even if the rewards are intangible such as having the Cardinal owe them a favour, or a new ally to stand by their side on a battlefield, or to provide much-needed muscle at the last minute.

Most of all, the one thing that I really want to see in an adventure is the thrill. Your character is about to plunge into a situation which will have them doing virtually impossible things, certainly foolhardy things, and the high stakes and high risk should keep the players on the edge of their seat, not only looking at the outcome of the dice roll, but also on the consequence of their decisions on the spot.

What happens to the adventurers must feel like it’s affecting the players. That is what excites me, draws me into tabletop gaming. Immersion. Not number crunching.

Edited by Alex Greene

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Nice piece Alex.. particularly since you quoted one of my favourite characters in the movies..Inigo Montoya 

Drawing the characters into the scene is the most important aspect in my opinion, the rationale for the game. Making it personal, making moral choices, been seen or acting as the baddy.. all of those make it different and memorable 

Equally, protagonists acting with agency is in my mind important. I just read Design Mechanisms newly released Factions and in the course of reading it I had so many ideas for groups, cults, factions with which to irritate players who have goals and missions that they will carry out that will annoy the players.

I remember being ‘burnt’ trying to run a bought scenario, when the players heard what they were facing, they understandably decided not to do it as there was no real hook or investment to pull them in. They just said..this isn’t our problem. And on the face of it, I had to agree. It was my fault for not providing a hook. Interestingly, their backstory was not enough for that one. 

More food for thought on a Sunday morning, drinking coffee on the terrace in the sun

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