Quest Writing

So I’m about to come out of hiatus for the Nemo crew and their DnD game. We took a break because during the holidays we couldn’t consistently have everyone there. It was a good time to take a break as well.

I used some of that time to talk to them about alignment and character motivation. A couple times now characters have used a version of the phrase, “Why are we doing this again?”

That’s fine if you are losing track, or your attendance hasn’t been perfect, but there was one line said that made me really start thinking about characters and quests. The tiefling cleric player said to the other players:

“I know Dan is trying to steer us towards this…”

I have been thinking about that line basically since she said it. I want my players to feel like they have choices, but more importantly that those changes matter and will affect the world around them.

Around the same time, my Rogue Trader players were busy trying to figure out where they belong in war on Port Footfall. Without any discussion, or even any questions, they sided with one merchant over the other. The decision made sense to them emotionally so I wasn’t too worried, but what I found interesting was that they sided with him without knowing what he was asking them to do.

It occurred to me (and was revealed to me by some more experienced GM’s online) was that I was doing this all wrong. I was writing grand scenarios and plot twists and stuff, when really that should be on the players. They were playing like they were actors in a play. There was a script, and they followed it.

Now— that’s not a bad way to play. But what was missing was character engagement. The players were doing what was asked of them, or picking from a limited number of choices instead of making their own.

Players making their own choices is what the core mechanic of RPG’s is. In my quests, I still put plenty of things in their path that they could choose to interact with and would change the course of events, but even more fundamentally, the players didn’t choose this quest for themselves. They didn’t say to themselves, “Hey! Let’s bring a Merchant Fleet to the Koronus Expanse and establish Battlefleet Koronus.” or “Hey! Let’s go bring down a rival merchant and steal a bunch of his assets.”

I had inadvertently made the choice for them. This gets tricky the more you think about it though, because the GM needs to prepare and the like. But what I missed was that I didn’t provide them options. I can still prepare quests, but it needs to be their choice to go on them.

It’s why my players went to Rain all died that one time. For the first time in the game I had let them loose and they chose an adventure to go on.

It’s why some of the greatest stories are simple. It’s why the heroes journey is so prevalent. There is a deed that could be done, and the hero wants to do it. Whether it’s taking down Darth Vader or riding eternal on the Fury Road; adventures need to be fun because someone wants to do it.

So I’m going to change the way I write quests. I will present issues and let the players decide what to do. I’ll still write all of my planned quests, but they will have to be the ones to choose to do them. I will instead present them with some primal reward, whether its rewards or revenge, but I think the possibilities will be a lot more satisfying to discover if the characters are finally in the story. So to speak.

—DTM

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Fantasy v. Sci-Fi: My GM Preference

I’ve mentioned before on this very blog that I have loaded myself up with stuff to do.  But one thing I don’t think I’ve spoken too much about is that I am a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Game Master for my coworkers.  I figured a lot of them might find it fun, and at the very least we can broaden some horizons and introduce my coworkers to another side of myself.

Recruiting players at work was fun.  I had to try and find people who would be in it for the long run, but I also wanted to find people who had never played a tabletop role-playing game.  I wanted to make sure we had both enough boys and girls.  To my surprise I actually encountered a lot of eager candidates.  With players selected, it was time to make a world.

I drafted up a map and a couple cities and dove in hard on development.  As of now we are on holiday break, but we have played approximately fourteen sessions— all about two hours each.

This post isn’t about that game, but I just want to establish that I’ve been running two campaigns for several months now.  The contrast between doing sci-fi versus fantasy has been illuminating for me.  When I have more knowledge and experience I may do a more speculative post on the pluses and minuses for running sci-fi versus fantasy, but this one I just want to talk about what it personally represents to me.

It comes down to choices and consequences.  My style— as I see it— is that I love having a greater theme at play that will require my players to make a choice and deal with a consequence.  I love seeing how my players are going to respond in an imaginary situation.  I do not like clear cut choices.  I am not a huge fan of Good v. Evil.  I love throwing my players into a grey zone and seeing how they decide what to make of it.

What I love about sci-fi is that for me a lot more of the game is about consequences or outcomes, while fantasy seems a lot more about making choices.  And it’s all because in one setting magic exists.

Now obviously you can write either setting to encompass any theme, but in general I feel as though there is a pretty clear divide.  Fantasy is a realm where magic and alignment are massive forces in play and the players must deal with things as they rear their heads.

The peoples are hungry because their crops all wilted.  What do you all do?

We cast “Plant Growth” at a lowly level 3.  It rejuvenates the land and instantly grows much of those lost crops back!  Or we find (or create) a supply of food and extort the starving populace for all of their hard earned gold.

You can essentially orchestrate anything you want since there is powerful magic out there.  You spend more time thinking about the solution because anything is achievable, and the quest is more about whether you want to be good or evil or neither.  Whether or not you get them food is moot since magic will solve the problem, but what you choose the outcome to be is where the game becomes fun.  It’s not a choice of whether or not its possible, but where you stand in the greater scheme.

Sci-Fi is much more difficult because you must solve problems without a wand to wave.  You cannot create from nothing.  The choice that you make to solve the problem often comes with its own consequences that will also need to be dealt with.

There is plenty of food and fuel in most futuristic settings, but now the problems become how they are allocated and utilized.  Great power exists because such power is needed to keep humanity strong in the vast, inky ocean that is space— but people are behind that power.  There is no clear good and evil when there isn’t a great, neutral power like magic to draw upon.  Whether or not the outcome will work out in the end, the players will have to choose— often the lesser of two evils.

The people are hungry because the crops all wilted.  What do you do?

We can help the city recoup their losses by helping re-sow their farms.  But that will take time and we will lose out on other opportunities while we toil on this planet.  Or we could spend a lot of money and bring them food to survive the season.  But that will cost us all of our resources.  Or we can steal food from another planet and bring it all here.  This population will eat while the one we stole from will starve instead.

I’ll reiterate: you absolutely can spin either setting to be about good and evil, or choices and consequences.

Fantasy seems so much less concerned when it comes with choices because you choose the outcome before you begin.  We need to help the people, or we need to slaughter the enemy.  Both are possible, but which is better for us?  Are we good or evil?

Sci-Fi is about the hard choices.  A pirate fleet is coming to raid the frontier cities, but we can only defend one planet since space travel will take too long.  Which colony do we save and which colonies do we doom?

-DTM

I’m Finally a Game Master

I did it, Emily.  It’s been a long, arduous, frustrating road.  But I did it!  I’m a Game Master!

My first overarching quest is coming to a head!  Not by itself impressive, but what is is that my players are slowly realizing that the scenario is bigger than them— and how important the decisions they have (and will) make will echo in the halls of eternity!

Whoo!  I successfully communicated the ideas and themes behind this plot-line in a way where I didn’t need to ham-fist exposition.

My players thus far have made very straightforward decisions based on where they think they are supposed to go.  The problem with that is they do what they think I want them to do; as if the game is scripted and they are just parts in a play.

But in the last session, when faced with a political decision, it forced them to take a step back and realize that there is more to this than simply showing up and rolling dice.

To be frank, I don’t think some of my players enjoy this part.  But this is what I want the campaign to be: choices.  I want my players to find themselves in situations where their actions and choices are going to shape the world around them.

But my worry up until recently is that they wouldn’t care about making an informed choice.  They do care about the game and having fun, but it would be easy for them to be like, “Uh, that one- I don’t care, where is my laserfist.”

<exposition.exe>

The quick version: the players had made it through the Maw into the Koronus Expanse and they moored up at Port Footfall.  They met the rich merchant Zulfikar Raheem.  He has worked with them on a few jobs, but then it starts to become apparent someone is messing with Zulfikar’s affairs.

Zulfikar suspects (and with provided evidence from the players, ascertains) the Kasballica Mission is trying to screw him.  He implores the players to go distract the Kasballica in a gambit to buy him some time.

The Kasballica Mission hires them to do a job; that job was to fuck with Zulfikar’s affairs.

The mission is to go to a mining colony and setup a facility that will break the compact Zulfikar has with a Rogue Trader.  They go to the mining facility and realize that the planet itself is embroiled in its own conundrum.  So the players need to wade through the planets politics while also furthering their own ends.

Then for the first time the players asked themselves what they are doing.  Thus far they have been making whichever decision is presented to them.  But once they started to understand the stakes involved with the planet, and with their various political relationships, they finally started asking questions of themselves.  Not questions like, “Where are we?” but more like, “Why are we doing this?”

They slowly started to question the ins and outs, the benefits and consequences, and that’s when I ascended to a new level of Game Master.  That is when one of my players asked himself, “What is Zulfikar doing?”

I had done it.

It’s the moment I was never sure that would come because it was heavily dependent on my ability to playact a story for them.  Playact it in such a way that the pieces fit together, but might not be presented in order.  And in that session my players began inspecting the pieces and realizing that the picture is far bigger than they thought.

Now to be utterly fair, maybe my players had greater faith in me than myself.  Maybe they had been piecing it together and just making notes until the end.  Usually after sessions I get a lot of, “It’s fun!” and “Campaign is awesome.”

But this was the first session where I began to see them deliberate.  To engage with the story and talk about their investment.  Listening to them make theories and compare evidence.

I will never be able to fully describe the feeling.  I think I have a long way to go to become a GM of legend, but its good to have affirmation that the setting I’ve built is doing its job.

This post comes out on Friday.  The following Saturday I have to run the game again.  I cannot wait to see what happens next.

-DTM

Your GM Screen is More Important Than You

I’m now GMing two campaigns that have made it past their opening missions and will be delving into the world at large.  I have made a significant goof because I’ll never have free time again.

Its great inspiration for a dungeon crawl though.

 

But its fulfilling.  Its fun to write.  This medium is especially rewarding when your players are as into it as you are.  As a GM I really want to try and have my players be immersed, invested, and enabled.  But GM styles are for another post!  Probably sooner than later since I love talking about RP games.

A big part of my work is trying to be prepared for my players, as well as enhance their experience.  I am constantly trying to find new ways to improve the game play and the flow.  When something trips us up, I try and remember it so I can brainstorm how to move past it.  As an example, I do “ratchet battle maps” with tiny grid paper and thumbtacks.  I recently bought a new compliment of colored travel pins, just so everyone can be a different color instead of everyone being the same color with numbers drawn next to them.

I felt that the GM screen I had didn’t have the things I wanted on it.  One of my great investments of the year was commissioning and purchasing a wooden GM screen from our friend Mark.  He’s damned good at wood work.  I designed a GM screen with the ability to change inserts and paid Mark to build it for me.

So now I have it and I produced my own Rogue Trader inserts.  The information I want is now readily at hand.

Since I started GMing Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition) at Nemo, I have slowly been brainstorming designing my own inserts for that game as well.  Then I started thinking about how interesting and powerful a concept the GM screen really is.

When I have to improvise, or assist a player in their task, my first instinct is to scan my GM screen for the information I need.  If I find it- great!  If I don’t, I make something up.  You should be improvising the story and interactions- not improvising the rules. Hear me out.

I’d guess that I’m approximately 75 – 80% fluent in the rules for Rogue Trader and coming up on that same fluency for DnD.  With that level of knowledge in my brain, its still strange that I look at the GM screen first, but I always do.  Like a spreadsheet “Where’s Waldo” I desperately skim my charts hoping to find the ruling I need.

What used to happen before was I wouldn’t find the information I’d need so I’d change the situation to suit the rules I had placed in front of me.  I could look it all up, but I don’t want to halt the situation so I can figure out if the penalty for juggling while on a motorcycle is -10 or -20.

“Oh wait- you want this to be a team attack?”

I made mention that I like to try and have the game-play be fluid so we don’t have to constantly open rule books and make judgment calls.  I want my players focused on role-playing, not focused on the rules.  This is what I wanted to get the custom GM screen for.  I want to think about the story, not be sitting there going “uhhhhh” while I try and find a ruling or a challenge level.

My GM screen has also quietly influenced which rules I use a lot and which I kind of let fall to the wayside (I find less important).  Narrative time movement as an example.  You go to the building, and I don’t really care how fast you get there in minutes.  My customized GM screen for Rogue Trader has also introduced a lot more elements to my GM style that I think enhances things.  For instance, the official GM screen for Rogue Trader doesn’t have a comprehensive list of the skills.  So I always had to try and recall the skill list when my players were trying to do something.  And I would constantly forget that some skills exist- like Inquiry or Logic- and I started letting players use other skills for that.

I’ve added my own list and now I use a wider breadth of skills that lets my players feel like their skill upgrades are more useful.  I’ve added the rule blocks for ship morale.  I’ve added the rules block for NPC disposition and information recall.  I’m sure for my players the experience rapidly shifted.  I have a lot more role-play and interaction rules directly in front of me, which I use to make my players make more nuanced choices.

I highly recommend you get a customizable GM screen if you run a campaign.  Think carefully on how you want your campaign played and structure your GM screen that way.  And you don’t even have to get a fancy hard wood one!  Customizable sleeve and white board screens exist.

I want to reiterate this sentence.

“What used to happen before was I wouldn’t find the information I’d need so I’d change the situation to suit the rules I had placed in front of me.”

I don’t think you should ever make an improvisational adjustment to a core scene or beat simply because you have the rules for shooting in front of you instead of negotiation.  You have carefully crafted your beats, scenes, and acts to have specific effects- changing them at the last second undoes all of your work and potentially fucks your story line up.

As an example:

“Your players walk into a bar to meet a man whom has information on the local port administrator whom is skimming tolls.  The players recognize the man and the very first thing that Soldier does is point a gun at him and threaten him.  Well- as the GM you were prepared for a negotiation, not intimidation.  So what do you do?  Glancing at your GM screen, you don’t readily see anything that helps you- but you do see the rules for grappling.  You think: ‘this really pisses the Man off, so he’s gonna retaliate with a grapple and a knife to the mans throat!  It’ll make a point of don’t fuck with me!’  Your NPC grabs the player, but then the rest of the players kill him.  Your whole scene went to shit because you had to improvise, you picked a convenient ruling not the correct one, and now everything is much harder because the NPC with the information died.”

“That ruined my mastah plan.”

The flavor of your campaign isn’t solely a vision in your mind or a glint in your eye.  Structure and story matter the most, but remember- in your moments where you are caught off guard by the situation, just remember where your eyes fall first and put the information you want there.  You want your improvisation to be supported by the rules, not have your improvisation affected by them.

And don’t put the grapple rules next to the NPC disposition chart.

-DTM

Writers Block?!

“I don’t believe in writers block.  Do plumbers get plumbers block?”

— Django Wexler

So writing has been my new big hobby.  I am now running two campaigns and write in one of two blogs each week.  I am slowly drafting a real book or novella.  I am in the middle of Story by Robert McKee, a book about crafting story and making the most of your words.

I was bound to encounter this writers block I kept hearing about.  And its proving a difficult thing to overcome!  Specifically I’m encountering this with the Rogue Trader campaign.  I have a ton of content written up already and is just waiting for me to flesh out, but the last story arc of the campaign is eluding me.  I’ve work-shopped it a couple times, and the ideas are pretty alright, but I’m having quite a time trying to fill out interesting and unique quests.

Past posts I’ve made have put forward the strong ideas I have about narrative and goals in story writing.  My goals for the Rogue Trader campaign are to have a campaign that my players have a vested interest in, and I always want it to be actionable by the players.  The moment that I run a campaign and I’ve talked for more than five minutes I feel like I’ve failed.  Its a role playing game, and I never want to have my players become bored listening to me talk.

I want to keep my players engaged, and much like a video game, I keep trying to play to their innate desires as characters and players.  Players want to have fun and do things while their characters can have fun, emotional arcs through the story.  My players with few exceptions give me very little to work on that front.  I’ve asked them for more to work with and I’ve begun role-playing exercises meant to try and make them think about their characters in complex ways.  However, this has availed me very little.

I press on though, and that’s suitable.  I feel like I’ve blown through all of my unique ideas though.  The remaining ideas I have for quests don’t align or link up to form grand, overarching ideas.  It feels mishmashed and I hate it.  The quests I want to write have interconnecting threads, themes, and motivations that make sense and are possible.

I don’t want to fill in the blanks with meaningless filler just to navigate towards something I want to do.  Tools like that cheapen the effect I’m going for.

I hate NPC’s that have emotions or motivations that translate to “convenient for the GM.”  Having combat encounters for the sake of keeping the players entertained is almost always a poor idea, at least in Rogue Trader.  If I have a hive gang attack because they are looking to score some cash, the players will assume that they must’ve been sent by somebody.

I can’t really elaborate on the questline I need to flesh out because one to two of my players read this and it would be wiiiiiiiiild spoilers.  I have some cool moments I want to navigate through and I don’t want to rob them of the experience.

There are a number of things I’ve read about doing to try and clear my problem but it doesn’t feel like it works.

  • Keep writing anyway.  Stuck on one part?  Write another until the problem clears itself up!

My issue is that my next big hurdle is campaign order and structure.  Which quests happen in which order.  Since I don’t even know what the individual quests hold, I can’t even do placeholders!  Maybe I’m over thinking it?

  • Back up and try something else.  Write a bunch of scenarios and see which one is the best!

This has failed me.  All the scenarios I write feel like they lose something personal and begin to feel like filler.  If a scene or an act doesn’t have a premise and a meaningful conclusion I feel like its pointless.  Now I get as a role-playing game these things can be fun because the players make it their own but all I keep coming up with is “Go to location.  Do the thing.  Return.”

But its Rogue Trader so I need to try and write things in such a way that the players don’t fly away out of boredom or blow it all to hell.  This is why Dark Heresy is the #1 Warhammer 40k system: there are no fucking spaceships.

  • Don’t try and jump in and write.  Make the outline, then the draft, then write it.

I love this one, and its how I actually usually write my quests.  This is what I’ve been currently trying but since I’m stuck with even the core idea of the quest line I still feel stuck, even when I begin to list out segments and settings.

On top of all of this: the campaign is continually marching on.  I can’t take a month to work on it since my players expect to play every other Saturday.  And if I take a month off to work on it, something else will fill that RPG void and I’ll lose my platform to run my campaign.

I acknowledge that I’m probably wildly overthinking this.  My difficult has always been brainstorming and coming up with ideas.  I’ve never felt deeply creative.  Many of my friends are an endless font of inspiration and ideas, but I feel like I struggle to even come up with set pieces.

My players are finally on the trail of the story at large.  I’m hoping this is the event that kicks my brain into gear.  I usually produce good work at the eleventh hour.  I learned this in college- all nighters were my bread and butter.  I don’t want to work that way, but we will certainly see what happens.

-DTM

Learning to Do Hard Things

This isn’t one of my posts digging at the bottom of my existentialism, but its definitely a lovely trip to the shoreline of my wandering thoughts.  Let’s have a picnic!

I’m still searching for the thing I want to be doing.  Not sure what I want to do, or what exactly I want it to do for me, but I definitely feel like I’m searching for my next big thing.

So I’m about to GM my 15th session of Rogue Trader.  That is nearly three times as long as my first attempt at GMing.  But I think I’ve found my groove- I’ve know what I want the campaign to be, I’ve learned what systems work best for my players, and I’ve compiled the tools I need to keep the campaign at a nice, semi-immersive level.

I really want to keep doing this.  When I’m in the right rhythm, and my players are nice and interactive, its a lot of fun.

It’s been giving me an outlet I didn’t even know I needed.  I’m a daydreamer.  I listen to music and think about cool moments or short little tidbits.  And I’ve always done this- in fact, if I listen to a lot of music I used to listen to when I was young I remember what I used to daydream about.

So running a Rogue Trader campaign has sort of made me evaluate the idea that maybe I want to be a story teller.  Maybe I should write a book, or pursue GMing professionally, or perhaps try and become a game designer.

It’s also made me wonder whether it would be fun to be an actor/voice actor.  I have a lot of fun play acting the characters.  Practicing their voices, writing their stories, and trying to really refine how they feel.  During Rogue Trader I really want my NPC’s to come across like living, breathing characters.

So writing and acting both sound like a lot of fun.  But now I have to learn to write and act.

And its going to be hard.  It takes years to get truly good at these things and I get discouraged that I’m discovering these things so late in life.  I did my time in college, and now I have to start over.

But I mean- that’s what I wanted to find.  Something that I wanted to do and I’m willing to start on the ground and work my way up.  I’ve been getting books on writing, and listening to podcasts and stuff.  I just have to start actually doing it.

I need more time in the day.  I need to take the time to take the time.  Things are hard, but the hard things are worth doing.

 

I Back-flip Into Holes

I’ve always envied you Emily.  You have maintained a focus on yourself and your goals your entire life.  You’ve been falling down holes for years.  And luckily its usually the same hole!

My hobbies shift with the times.  I get really into various things for like a year or two and then I move to something else.  Well recently I sold off the majority of my Magic cards.  I also traded in a huge portion of my Batman comics because I just couldn’t keep up.  Last year I was in an in between phase when I decided to run a Rogue Trader RPG campaign.

Its probably my only solid hobby right now.  I am reading for entertainment less, I’m not getting through my video game backlog, and I have essentially stopped watching shows.  I fancy myself an ‘immersive GM,’ so I spend my time writing what I hope are interesting settings, quests, and enemies.

I bring all of this up not to brag but to emphasize how much time I spend on this.  I’m always thinking about it, planning for it, and writing down ideas and quest lines.  Most evenings after work I probably sit down and write at least a little bit.  I agonize over it, but I really love it.  It’s fun and satisfying!

But Emily, I back-flip down holes.  I throw myself into whatever my current hobby is hard.

So I decided I’m going to run a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition campaign for my work.  Some of my coworkers will get to be players in their very first campaign.  I’m going to have to write a campaign that’s not only exciting, but introduces these people to the campaign setting.  On top of all of that, the quest line needs to slowly teach them how to play the game.

One campaign was sucking up a huge portion of my time.  Now I’ve agreed to two!  I’m going the distance.

Did I mention I’ve never officially run a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition campaign before?  So I need to learn how to GM it like a boss.

But fuck it, ya know?  I’m enjoying writing.  So much so that I am considering writing an official book.  So to keep my writing muscle flexing and getting swole, you and I are starting a brand new blog in which we will write a story back and forth, 500-ish words at a time!  Starting next Friday?!

BUT FUCK IT, YA KNOW?  I’m going to start my own writing project on my own goddamn blog.  I have been playing with the idea of writing a motherfucking prequel story to the Killian Rage from my goddamn Rogue Trader campaign.  It would be my first semi-serious online novella series.  Just to see how it goes, fuck it.

You may occasionally trip and fall into a hole Emily.  And its refreshing to see someone so dedicated to their self and their hobbies.  But I’ve never been known to trip.  My hobbies go too fast and hard for me to nurture them appropriately over the course of years.  So if I’m going to full enjoy a hobby, the only way I know how is to overload the machine and shove the whole damn thing into a hole.

And then I’m falling; surrounded by the elements of my work.  Running two campaigns, and potentially three blogs at one time?  Sometimes you see the the ground rushing up to meet you and all you can do is point and scream:

“ROLL INITIATIVE!”