Thursday, January 10, 2013

Coloring an Adventure

Let’s go on a trite adventure!

Then again, let’s not and say we did.

It’s easy to color by the numbers and create fairly generic adventures. Not only is it easy, it’s natural. That’s just the way that the human brain works. Using default answers vastly simplifies our creative processes, enabling us to quickly create and to have our creations be understood. However, the penalty for that mechanism is trite and predictable creations.

The question to you, as an adventure creator, is how do you create a colorful adventure that does not feel trite, yet can be understood by your players?

Step back a little, and the answer turns out be quite simple. Identify your default answers, then change one or more of those answers.

Think of an adventure structure as a line drawing, like a coloring book. By habit, you color certain areas in certain ways. By changing the choices, you change the feel of the colored page. Your default answer for outside is blue skies, a yellow sun, and green trees. What happens if you change the sky color, and what does that imply? You could color the sky gray, giving an overcast feel, or color it black, implying night. With that, your entire interpretation of the scene changes even though your framework, those line drawings, remain exactly the same.

We can use this same technique for altering adventures.

For example, let’s say some great evil came to town and the characters must look for a rare object to defeat this evil. That’s fairly stock and trite. A little blatant evil is nice sometimes, but overused, the scenario gets rather monotonous. How else can we color that? Let’s change the villain. Instead of a villain, the hero’s mother is dying and he must quest for her cure. The structure of the adventure is still the same, yet feeling is so very different. The two scenarios don’t feel like the same adventure at all despite the fact that both consist of running about in search of a McGuffin..

How else can we vary the same scenario? Let’s call it the “there and back again” scenario. You go out, do something, come back, and everything is set right.

  • Your mentor is accused of a crime and wants you to find proof of his innocence. You must go to someplace and find the proof.
  • The princess has been kidnapped. Not only must you rescue her, but you must get her back alive through a terrible wilderness.
  • The king has recovered a terrible artifact. You must travel to somewhere secret and hide it away.
  • The prince is traveling to a friend’s wedding. Help him get there and back again safely.

Each feels different, will play out different, and will seem different to the players, yet underneath, they each have the same narrative structure. Only the bookends truly differ.

In the end, there aren’t that many adventure structures. I’m sure that they have industry names, but I don’t know them, so I’ll make up my own.

There and Back Again - Your standard Quest. You go “there” (to one or more “theres”), then eventually return back again.

Mission - Somebody tells you to do something. You don’t choose this type of adventure. You don’t even have an emotional attachment to the outcome. Yet, this is what you are doing. If the king is telling you to do something, it’s a mission.

Mystery - The adventure is structured around what you don’t know, and your work is uncovering what you don’t know.

Romance - Usually relegate to subplot status, romances are staples of the game. Romances exist more as plot hooks.

Simulationism - There’s lots more to do in a sandbox style adventure than the kill monsters and take their treasure. Simulationism has to do with all those things that don’t involve hitting enemies with pointy sticks but are still challenges. Packing food, surviving in the wilderness, and trying to buy a truly great pizza in Pioria are all part of simulationism.

Exploration - What’s out there? There’s no villain, or even a mystery, but finding out what is out there is often it’s own reward. Don’t underplay exploration. It’s one of the main axis of role-playing interest.

Eliminate the Scum - These are straightforward adventures where some evil is doing something terrible and you have cultural and legal carte blanche to do terrible things back to them. This typically involves killing bandits, pirates, raiding orcs, and wandering giants.

Horror - You are outgunned. The more that you know, the more that you want to run away. If you don’t slow down and think about what’s going on, you will die.

On the Lamb - Your job is to keep yourself free and eventually restore yourself to your station. Robin Hood is the classic example of this.

I’m sure that there are more stock types of adventures. As scenarios aren’t exclusive, you can get many adventures just by mixing up types. So between coloring, and by mixing up adventure types a bit, you can get quite a bit of variation in the game with almost no originality required on your part.

So if you combine there and back again, mystery, and mission, you could write the adventure: go to the enemy castle, find its secret entrance, and get the information back to your commander. Add in horror, and you realize in the middle of the adventure how dangerous it is. Add in realism, and the players could examine terrain maps to pick out likely locations for the secret tunnel.

There are other ways to mix things up as well. Most TV shows have an A plot and a B plot. Your game can have a B plot, too. Basically, a B plot is something that helps fill out your time and keeps the A plot from becoming overwhelming. You might be fighting orcs, for some trite reason, but you also know a general that wants maps of the area for his future campaign. He will pay a prize for any ruins that you find and document. So now your players have an excuse to search ruins along the way, some being more exciting than others.

That’s it. Simple, no? So now you have no excuse in creating a trite adventure.