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Rutskarn’s GMinars CH5: Foundations, Continued

By Rutskarn
on Wednesday Jun 1, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


Designing Your Session

As I’ve mentioned, there’s no such thing as a “right” way to prepare a session. Some GMs like to plan down to the minute detail, some like to keep it broad and leave plenty of room for improvisation. I can’t tell you what’s going to work for you, but I can provide a couple broad genres of one-off gaming sessions and break down the most important elements of each. Then, in a future session, I’ll address these options in greater depth.

Type 1: The Classic Line

Or: The players encounter a dangerous problem. To get what they want, whether that’s treasure or survival or the answers to a mystery, they need to solve that problem. Doing so means solving other problems, one after another, until they finally get what they want.

The Classic Line is by far the most common and crowd-pleasing kind of adventure. It’s particularly well suited to old-school games like Dungeons and Dragons which encourages players (through comparatively limited, combat-focused rules) not to think too far outside of the dungeon or puzzle room or battlefield they happen to have been led to.

Examples: The party is attacked by assassins, discover the killers were hired by an evil wizard, and must defeat the wizard in his tower to stave off future attacks. The party is paid to discover how a wealthy inventor was murdered, and in the process will face hitmen and the full fury of a technocratic conspiracy. A mysterious buyer offers a reward for anyone who can navigate a labyrinth and bring back the jeweled scepter within.

Advantages: The Classic Line has a set beginning, middle, and end which you can plan out as carefully as you’d like. You can make sure you’ve got interesting challenges planned out and that you escalate and conclude the adventure in a satisfying fashion, an dance that can be difficult to improvise for inexperienced GMs. Pretty much all players like this structure–though some like it more than others, almost everybody is willing to entertain the occasional fun, linear session.

Disadvantages: Remember that you are not writing a novel. No, you’re writing a story outline that your co-authors, the players, aren’t allowed to see. You can plan the greatest scenes ever imagined by GMkind, but once the screen goes up and the music starts it’s up to the players to reach those scenes and navigate them successfully. You can attack them with assassins, you can tell them it was the wizard who wanted them dead, but if they decide it’s suicide to attack the tower and spend the rest of the session trying to figure out how to build a ninja-proof bunker, you need to be able to handle that gracefully. And even if they do attack the wizard’s tower–what if they can’t solve the riddle on the staircase? What if they go around the guard tower? What if someone tries to join up with the wizard instead? Because you’re focusing so much of your effort on planning a few scenes, you’re pretty much locking yourself into ensuring those scenes happen–or else you’ve got nothing prepared.

Tricks: There’s all sorts of subtle ways to get players to follow your plans, but the safest way is always the direct approach. Instead of tantalizing players with a mystery, threaten them with direct and obvious force. If you want them to kill a wizard, don’t suggest they go raid his tower–lock them in his extraplanar dungeon tower with the promise of gruesome sacrifice. If you want them to find a killer, throw them on an airship with him, lock the controls, and drop away the biplanes. If you want them to navigate the labyrinth, put them in the labyrinth with a minotaur. Not only do all of these make for dramatic attention-grabbing beginnings, they tend to focus the players somewhat–instead of deliberating on whether they should have the adventure at all, they’re pressed into action by impending doom. Alternately, do what many have done before you–come up with a level layout that doesn’t have any particular story or arc associated with it, then bake the assumption that players are going to explore it into your introduction.

What You Should Plan: The whole point of this kind of game is that you get to put a lot of work into planning the individual scenes–the clues, the combats, the puzzles, the reveals. Spend as much time on these highlights as possible, as they’re both the fun parts and the parts players are likely to remember. While you’re at it, try to imagine any other course of action your players might want to take that you haven’t considered and figure out what you’ll do if things don’t go quite according to plan–because most times, they don’t.


Type 2: The Open-Ended Scenario

Or: The players encounter a dangerous problem. To get what they want, whether that’s treasure or survival or the answer to a mystery, they need to solve that problem…by any means necessary.

The Open-Ended Scenario is the cousin to the Classic Line. In some ways it’s simpler than the Classic Line–certainly, it’s easier to plan. Instead of designing a bunch of scenarios in between your Intro and Conclusion, you come up with a really good problem for the Intro, plus a few ways for the problem to get worse, and let the players figure out the rest.

Examples: The players are trapped in a snowy lodge with a pack of werewolves trying to get in. The players need to defend a village against thirty bandits and have ten days to prepare. The players need to kill the queen before the lunar eclipse.

Advantages: Classic Lines are memorable because they’re meticulously planned experiences. Open-Ended Scenarios are memorable because they represent spontaneity and ingenuity on the part of the players, who often find it exhilarating to know that their fate is very much in their own hands. This kind of session is a big part of what separates tabletop RPGs from their computer-based counterparts; no two Open-Ended Scenarios play out the same way.

Disadvantages: Firstly, the players need to be willing and able to make plans, think outside the box, and come up with their own solutions within the abstract game-space you’ve created. This is not always a given. Secondly, if you’re playing with a complicated rules system, your players might not understand it well enough to plan confidently. Thirdly, your players are going to be asking tons of questions you didn’t anticipate. “How thick are the doors?” “Does the count have any relatives?” “Has gunpowder been invented?” “What do I know about trepanation?” “How does grappling work if you’re covered in butter?” You’re going to have to think fast–or at the very least, think persuasively.

Tricks: Once the game’s begun, don’t try to “outsmart” the players by making their solutions fail because they’re too effective or convenient for your liking. However, don’t provide all of the complications at once. Leave a few escalations in your back pocket to ramp up tension if the players get ahead of the game. Let’s say you’ve got three hours to game–if the players beat the werewolves in three hours, great, that’s a session. If they beat the werewolves in two hours, the sick man downstairs turns and attacks. If they beat the werewolves and the sick man in two hours? Wolf king sets the house on fire in a snowstorm. What now.

What You Should Plan: Having some obvious answers (how big a space is, what the names of your principal NPCs are, whether or not there’s any silver in the house, etc) is a good idea. Having those aforementioned backup threats is an even better one. Go ahead and think through a few possible solutions, and if any of them are too simple for your liking, now’s your chance to clearly and visibly block those off. Clever solutions are great, but make your players earn their victory.


Type 3: The Premade Module

Don’t feel embarrassed using premade adventures, either commercially distributed or fanmade. You’ll gain valuable experience, you’ll figure out what you do and don’t like, and you’ll have some help figuring out the rules of the game. Just don’t expect to save any time–it takes a while to study a module. I guarantee it’s less time-consuming than creating any but the most meticulously-planned adventures; since you’re the one who planned the adventure, you’ll have the answers to a lot of fiddly little questions that in the case of a module you’d have to look up.


Comments (33)

  1. Cozzer says:

    I love this series, but I’d like to add a single (but very important, in my opinion) thing to this article: “Classic Line” scenarios need as many carrots as sticks.

    In the “trick” section you talk about “threatening the player with obivious force”, which IS very important in such a scenario, but you also have to make them realize that they HAVE something to gain and not only everything to lose. “You’re locked in the wizard’s extraplanar dungeon, but if you defeat him you’ll be able to copy his unique spells!” “You’re in the labyrinth with a minotaur, but if you do manage to get to the exit you’ll be able to warn the king about that invasion you discovered during the previous subplot!” “You’re locked in an airship with the killer, but he’s also locked in there with you and you’ve been wanting to get your revenge on him for half the campaign!”

    If you use several Classic Line scenario with enough sticks but not enough carrots, sooner or later showing up for the game will start to feel like showing up to be bullied, which will then start to feel like something you don’t feel like doing.

    • Zaxares says:

      To add to this, once you’re familiar with what motivates your players, it becomes a lot easier to tailor your adventures in ways that you know will hook your players in. If John loves accumulating magical knowledge, he’ll almost certainly leap at the chance to battle the evil wizard and gain his spell library for himself. If Macy likes being a heroic paladin who never turns away from aiding the helpless, put in some kidnapped peasants in the dungeon with the party so she has added incentive to help them escape.

      Note that sometimes these motivations can work at cross-purposes to each other (it’s going to be a lot harder to fight said evil wizard while also protecting the peasants), but if your players are generally cooperative and team-oriented, the added challenge will make the resulting adventure that much more memorable. Conversely, if you know you have players who wouldn’t give a second thought to backstabbing the group for their own gain, try to avoid putting them in situations where they can do exactly that (Roger, the party thief, deliberately alerts the guards so they attack the party to create a distraction that lets him, and only him, escape the dungeon), if only to help promote the game’s longevity.

  2. Zaxares says:

    One other really awesome benefit of using pre-made adventures is that they often come with a whole bunch of sketches, artwork, maps and other props that can really help set the mood and atmosphere for your players. Describing what the Fae Queen looks like is great, but describing her AND showing your players a picture of her provided with the adventure often has a much bigger impact. The same applies to landscapes, unusual doors, boss monsters, an ancient magical relic from a lost empire, and even a big ol’ pile of gold and jewels that the players just liberated from the dragon guarding it.

    Once you get familiar with the rules, you can modify pre-made adventures to better suit your tastes and the individual goals of your players. Since the pre-mades do a lot of the groundwork for you, it can really be a lifesaver if you’re short on time.

  3. Gilfareth says:

    On the note of the open-ended scenarios, I’ve found myself provided them as a player and feeling monumentally guilty that I couldn’t come up with something clever for my character to do. This has happened a number of times and I’m really unsure how to better prepare for it; how do you learn spontaneity? It’s frustrating because it seems like the kind of thing I would appreciate most, with abstract problem solving being right up my alley, but the process of sitting there and having to act out a response that’s simultaneously effective, interesting and in-character is a difficult obstacle to overcome. I’m curious if have any advice on that front, if that might come up later in Q&A.

    • Matt Downie says:

      There’s no easy solution.

      Most people can either think in terms of, “What seems like the most effective course of action here?” or “What would my dumb barbarian character probably do here?” – trying to do both at once is almost impossible.

      There’s a mindset I sometimes get into where I am in the flow and can spontaneously come up with good ideas, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen and I mentally clam up. Staying positive and relaxed gives a better chance of getting into the flow state. Avoid thinking either, “I am no good at this,” or “I must be good at this all the time or I am a failure” – either way will lead you into an unhelpful negative frame of mind. Negative thinking is useful for not falling into traps, but useless for creativity.

    • Hal says:

      Of course, this is one of the benefits of RPGs being a group activity: If you’re not feeling particularly creative at the moment, one of your friends might have some ideas brewing.

      That said, I think it’s also incumbent on the GM to have ideas ready to go if the players don’t have any ideas in mind. Having 2 or 3 suggestions ready to go can still give players a sense of choice to their decisions while giving them a path forward and making it easier on the GM to anticipate their actions.

      For example, let’s say you’ve given the players the mission “Break into the castle to steal the Trinket of Destiny.” The players might be scratching their heads about how to do this. But if they’re struggling, perhaps their quest giver has more information.

      “If you need a way into the castle, I hear there’s a sewer grate just outside of town that leads to the castle, although I can only guess what you’ll have to do to actually get into the castle proper. Of course, if you prefer something more dignified, I think the Prince is holding a birthday celebration tonight; I bet you could bribe your way onto the guest list, although I doubt you’ll be able to bring any armaments in with you. Speaking of the party, I’ve seen an awful lot of workers coming and going from the castle, with lots of crates coming in from the docks. Maybe you can figure something out from there.”

      Right there the players have been given three different approaches, all of them very different. The first will end up playing out like a classic dungeon crawl; the second will end up being much more about using non-combat skills to get the job done. The third option is still somewhat open ended and could go either way.

  4. Lachlan the Mad says:

    Rutskarn, is the question “How does grappling work when you’re covered in butter” based on your own personal GM’ing experience?

  5. Erik says:

    I like to mix and match these 3 approaches. I usually start with a premade adventure, but customize it heavily, even stringing several premades together into a cohesive storyline.

    This helps if youre having a hard time coming up with encounters yourself. Using a premade makes sure you have several encounters to start with, and that they’re balanced to a certain number of players of a certain level.

  6. James says:

    What Now. is one of my favorite prompts to get the players into action.

    Also fire. Copious amounts of fire.

  7. MichaelGC says:

    Examples: The players are trapped in a snowy lodge with a pack of werewolves trying to get in. The players need to defend a village against thirty bandits and have ten days to prepare. The players need to kill the queen before the lunar eclipse.

    Alright, alright! Which one do you want me to do first?!?

    The ‘However’ in the second ‘Tricks’ paragraph looks a bit errant, like it’s a straggler from a previous edit, now wandering lost & alone … and vulnerable. Muahahahahaaa.

  8. Dove Boyett says:

    I’ll add to your list a style that I really enjoy, but that requires a fairly stable group willing to put in work up front that is not for everyone to make a long term game. I’ll call it “Reactive Worldbuilding” (never named it before).

    I give the players broad strokes idea of a setting… High Fantasy with psychics instead of magic, Steampunk invaded by Little Grey Men, Modern Earth but with no peanuts, etc. They pick one they like and I build a bit more detail (The game will start in Farn, a city based on 1890’s London with Zeppelins and Steam Cars, Rumors have started to drift in that cities in the Republic of Orland, a major trading power far to the south, are being conquered by an unknown army with fierce air power. Major Factions have started to develop, some wanting to try and ally with the unknown invaders, entrench and prepare local defenses, or build a coalition to free Orland and gain trade concessions for the future.)

    Then we build some details together (Key places, people, events etc. that the Players want in their world)

    At that point the Players each give me a backstory (usually about 3-4 pages, definitely not a style for everyone) and I add lots of new details to the world, NPCs, Events, Political movements, Forgotten Secrets, etc. that either connect to the backstories or are driven by the motivations the backstories lay out.

    After that, we sandbox. The players collectively decide why they are a party, and they just start exploring the world, and select their own motivations and goals based on what they run into.

  9. Hal says:

    I’ve found that Open-Ended Scenarios necessitate a good deal of world-building and setting description. The more buy-in the players have with these elements, the more they’ll be able to create their own unique solutions to the problems around them.

    To use one of the examples above, if the players are defending the village of Generica against bandits, it would help to know what makes the village special and why it’s being attacked. If it’s a center of smithing and metallurgy, your players might decide that arming the populace is the best bet. Or perhaps it’s just a podunk farming village and this is a personal matter to the bandit chief. Maybe in that case, diplomacy might really be the best option, or at least convincing the chief his wrath should be directed elsewhere.

    Having a location and description of the town would help, too. Are there walls that can be reinforced? A forest where the women and children can be hidden away until after the battle? Do the players want choke points in the streets they can funnel those bandits towards, or perhaps some way to create an ambush?

    Or maybe you already know that the local Baron grew up in Generica, and he’d have a personal interest in the town staying intact. Even better if he already owes the players a favor.

    But the point remains: The players need to be acquainted with the setting, at least to a degree, for any interesting solutions to be available to them. Otherwise, they’re going to treat the Open-Ended Scenario like a Classic Line.

  10. Victor McKnight says:

    For a variety of reasons, I have a couple players in my group who really like the Open-Ended type of game rather than the Classic Line. Sadly, this also leads to another disadvantage of the Open-Ended system you didn’t mention – “analysis paralysis”.

    I’ve even presented the group with fairly easy secondary problems only to watch the group over-think it for hours. Of course, if the problem is one the players are reacting to, you can put them on a timer or something or escalate if they take too long, but if you give them the initiative, it may be a while before they do anything.

    • krellen says:

      You aren’t secretly my GM posting under a pseudonym, are you?

    • Hal says:

      I’ve found that analysis paralysis happens because players get too wrapped up in the “game” part of RPG. It’s a desire to “win” as smoothly as possible, with no setbacks and minimal consequences.

      One thing that’s really helpful is to emphasize the RP in RPG. The point of the story telling is to have some drama. Failure and setbacks can be opportunities for character growth and interesting, memorable stories.

      It also helps to have some trust and understanding between the players and the GM. A competitive GM who will kill PCs without hesitation will inspire analysis paralysis. A GM who will work with the players and won’t maliciously exploit imperfect plans will see less of that. (Of course, the latter might be accused at times of having “low risk” games, handling things with kid gloves. Your mileage may vary.)

      • Victor McKnight says:

        Its is exactly the “winning as smoothly as possible” part. One of my players is absolutely of the “tactician” mentality, with some “power-gamer” thrown in. So he wants crunchy situations to think through, but then he spends forever agonizing over solutions.

        My other players are better, but at least one likes to come up with “the best” solution to problems too, even if his definition of “best” is often more character driven.

        I do not kill characters readily. I tend to run somewhat gritty swashbuckling settings. A beautiful/cool/meaningful death will be accepted by players, so they usually aren’t afraid I am going to kill them in some cheap way.

        But yes, if you can get them role playing, that seems to help.

    • topazwolf says:

      I like to enforce the rule that there is no OOC talk at the table and that talking is not a free action (while I normally let it slide a bit during combat) so that if they are analyzing something for too long I can poke them along. Say they’re stumped by a puzzle. After a while of discussion, I will start making them do hearing checks and stuff that imply a monster is approaching. Sometimes they’ll try to brute force the puzzle to avoid the monster, and if that’s what it takes I’ll let it work so we can continue even if the puzzle can’t be solved that way.

      Of course, this needs the GM to want the PCs to succeed. I want them to solve the puzzle correctly, but if they can’t a reasonable solution (even a wrong one) will do. If you want them to fail, then you’ll be locked in a stalemate with the players.

      • Victor McKnight says:

        Oh man, you must have a really focused group of players. That would never work with my group. Bless their little player hearts they might try to go along with it, and then fail after 20 minutes.

        I envy you.

    • Falterfire says:

      The trick is that if you’re not being open-ended, you should probably make that clear. I had a particularly bad GM who was not interested in trying to improv. One memorable instance involved approaching a castle near the beginning of our adventure and being told we had to get in. We weren’t allowed to leave, we weren’t allowed to go around the castle, and talking to the guards at the front of the castle were unwilling to talk.

      Basically, the GM had decided we had to have a fight with these guys. Which, okay, fine. But he didn’t have them be obviously aggressive, and he didn’t really push us towards directly fighting them (and the party didn’t have any hostility for these particular guards) so we talked about different things we maybe could do for like twenty minutes before I finally was forced to just make the out of character declaration “Okay, we have no other options besides drawing weapons. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I guess we attack them anyways.”

      (The GM was not terribly good at describing things either – the castle was literally just described as “a castle” and the guards were just “guards”. It became a running joke that any time we looked around and asked what we saw, the answer was always just “you see a room”)

  11. Cinebeast says:

    The players are trapped in a snowy lodge with a pack of werewolves trying to get in.

    Isn’t that the plot of Until Dawn?

  12. TMC_Sherpa says:

    ICE (Rolemaster) of all people used to make some fantastic moduleoids(?) for their setting Shadow World. They covered a specific section of the world ranging from continents to an island and set up the people who lived there, important characters, cities, ruins, weird plants, adventure hooks, you name it. The nice thing is the descriptions are generic enough that you can work almost all of it into any fantasy setting you want. Some of it is available on DriveThru so that’s kinda cool. It’s late 80’s material so don’t expect the best writing but at least they tried something different.

  13. Xaos says:

    “I guarantee it's less time-consuming than creating any but the most meticulously-planned adventures; since you're the one who planned the adventure, you'll have the answers to a lot of fiddly little questions that in the case of a module you'd have to look up.”

    I think you meant to say “I guarantee its less time-consuming TO CREATE any but the most meticulously-planned adventures; since you’re” yadda yadda yadda

    • Cuthalion says:

      I was trying to figure out what he meant there. That makes more sense.

      As someone who is running from a big module for the first time, in a system I only halfway knew (Pathfinder), I’m finding this has been a huge frustration for me. When I plan my own games, I have trouble making the plots connect or creating memorable NPCs. I thought running a premade module (Hell’s Rebels) would fix that as well as lowering my prep time.

      It did not lower my prep time.

      Plus, now I have to be careful with what I say, lest I contradict something in the module that I end up using later. If I take lots of notes when I prep, now I have to look things up in my notes all the time. The burden of keeping the details straight — because this is a months-long adventure path series, and I don’t want to improvise stuff that will be contradicted later on — slows down the game a lot. For someone who’s used to coming up with a few key details and making up the rest as I go, it’s hard to know when I can do that, when I need to stop and look things up, and when I should have spent even more time prepping.

      Running a module has traded time spent building the adventure for time spent researching the adventure. Plus, there are too many details to memorize, so I have to keep checking my notes or the module itself.

      It’s still cool that I don’t have to work as hard to create an illusion of a detailed, pre-existing world (because the module provides this). It’s easier to maintain immersion in that respect. But now I feel much more obligated to go by the book, lest I make trouble for myself later!

      And like Rutskarn says, it didn’t save time.

  14. Blackbird71 says:

    “How does grappling work if you're covered in butter?”

    It works kind of like a cross between a Three Stooges movie and a Japanese game show…

    Lots of falling down, and you’re never really sure who has actually won.

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