DM Tips

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Good advice

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Design for situation A, B, C to all lead to D (wiebertjes model)


The advantage of situation-based prep is that it’s robust. Surprisingly, however, that robustness doesn’t require a lot of extra work. In fact, as we’ve shown, it usually requires a lot less work. Here are a few things to consider while doing situation-based prep.

THREE CLUE RULE: I’ve already devoted a lengthy essay to the Three Clue Rule. Basically, the Three Clue Rule states: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

The theory is that, even if the players miss two of the clues, you’ve got pretty great odds that they’ll find the third and figure things out.

The Three Clue Rule can also be applied to adventure design in general: For any given problem in an adventure, you should always prep at least one solution and remain open to any potential solutions your players may devise. But for any chokepoint problem (by which I mean “a problem which must be overcome in order for the adventure to continue”), try to include three possible routes to success.

That may sound like a lot of work, but these distinct paths don’t need to be particularly convuluted. (In fact, they shouldn’t be.) For example, a problem might be “Mickey Dee has a piece of information the PCs need”. The solutions can be as simple as (1) knock him out and take it; (2) negotiate with him for it; or (3) sneak into his office and steal it. The actual prep that you do for any one of these solutions takes care of 99% of the prep for the other two.

It should be noted that, just because any given solution is “simple”, it doesn’t mean that the scenario will be (or should be) simple. The convulution of the scenario arises from the way in which a series of problems are overcome. And the nice thing about situation-based prep is that you don’t have to figure out exactly how these problems will be strung together — that arises naturally out of the actions taken by the PCs.

GOAL-ORIENTED OPPONENTS: Instead of trying to second-guess what your PCs will do and then trying to plan out specific reactions to each possibility, simply ask yourself, “What is the bad guy trying to do?”

The most effective way of prepping this material will depend on the particulars of the scenario you’re designing. It might be nothing more than a sequential list of objectives. Or it might be a detailed timeline.

Note that some scenarios won’t be based around the bad guys trying to carry out some specific scheme. They might just be going about business as usual when the PCs decide to show up and make a mess of things. In other words, the “goal” might be nothing more than “maintain the standard guard rotation”.

If you’re interested in seeing this type of prep work in action, I’ve put together a lengthy example of using detailed timelines from my own campaign. (My players should not click that link.)

DON’T PLAN SPECIFIC CONTINGENCIES: Whatever approach you take, the key aspect is that you’ll usually be laying out what would happen if the PCs don’t get involved. If you get some ideas about contingency plans, go ahead and jot them down, but don’t waste too much time on them.

I say “waste your time” because that’s exactly what most contingency planning is. The basic structure of contingency planning is: If the PCs interfere at point X, then the bad guys do X2. If the PCs interfere at point Y, then the bad guys do Y2. If the PCs interfere at point Z, then the bad guys do Z2.

Of course, if the PCs don’t interfere at point X, then all the time you spent prepping contingency X2 is completely wasted. Even more importantly, if the PCs do interfere at point X then point Y and point Z will generally be fundamentally altered or even cease to exist — so all the prep work that went into Y2 and Z2 is also wasted.

This is where situation-based prep usually gets maligned for requiring more work: People think they need to try to prepare themselves for every conceivable action the PCs might take. But, in point of fact, that’s not situation-based prep. That’s plot-based prep juiced up on Choose Your Own Adventure steroids. It’s the type of prep you would need to do if you were programming a computer game.

But you’re not programming a computer game. You’re prepping a scenario for a roleplaying game. When the PCs choose to do X or Y or Z (or A or B or C), you don’t need a pre-programmed reaction. You’re sitting right there at the table with them. You can just react.

KNOW YOUR TOOLKIT: In order to react, you need to know your toolkit. If the PCs start investigating Lord Bane, what resources does he have to thwart them? If they lay siege to the slavers’ compound, what are the defenses?

Typical “tools” include personnel, equipment, physical locations, and information.

For example, if the PCs are investigating a local Mafia leader then you might know that:

(1) He has a couple of goon squads, a trained assassin on staff, and two bodyguards. You might also know that he has an estranged wife and two sons. (These are all types of personnel.)

(2) He lives in a mansion on the east side of town, typically frequents his high-end illegal casino in the secret basement of a downtown skyscraper, and also has a bolt-hole set up in a seedy tavern. (These are all physical locations.)

(3) He has blackmail material on one of the PCs. (This is information.)

(4) He has bribed a local cop. (This is a different type of personnel.)

And just like a real toolbox, you should have some idea what the tools are useful for. You know that a hammer is for nails and a screwdriver is for screws. Similarly, you know that the goon squad can be used to beat-up the PCs as a warning or to guard the bolt-hole. You know that the estranged wife can be used as a source of information on the mansion’s security system. And so forth.

You can think of this as non-specific contingency planning. You aren’t giving yourself a hammer and then planning out exactly which nails you’re going to hit and how hard to hit them: You’re giving yourself a hammer and saying, “Well, if the players give me anything that looks even remotely like a nail, I know what I can hit it with.”

(For example, you know that the estranged wife is familiar with the details of her husband’s operations and the security of the mansion. That’s the hammer. What you don’t have to figure out is how the PCs get that information from her: Maybe they just ask her nicely. Or bribe her. Or offer to protect her. Or they plant a surveillance bug on her. Or tap her phones. Or kidnap her sons and threaten to kill them unless she plants a bomb in her husband’s mansion. These are all nails. The players will provide them.)

The other trick to designing your toolkit is organizing the pertinent resources into usable chunks. Take the goon squads for example: You could try to track the actions of every individual goon while running the adventure, but that quickly becomes incredibly complicated. By organizing them into squads you give yourself a manageable unit that you can keep track of.

On the other hand, don’t let this organization shackle you. If you need an individual goon, just peel ’em off one of the squads and use them. You’re drawing a forest because that’s easier to map — but if the PCs need to chop down some firewood, don’t miss the trees for the forest.

Advice to a new DMs":

Ways to make an NPC interesting:

No. The world should follow certain logic and consistency. If the players say something about a back door, and you just forgot to put one in, you should, of course, put it in, if doing so makes sense.

But, surprise is the difference between a campaign that feels on rails and a campaign (or any story, for that matter) that doesn’t. And we, as people immersed in narrative tradition, often work against ourselves in that regard – we gravitate towards cultural narratives, tropes, and archetypes. Putting ourselves at the mercy of the dice, to some small extent, forces us out of those grooves.

Here’s an example. The party has learned that a cache of valuable armaments is buried out in the wilderness, within the ruins of a town, abandoned centuries ago. There are maps that would lead them to those ruins, but they are in the hands of a local baron, who has also heard the legends, but doesn’t have the manpower to brave the wilderness. The party goes to him to propose a deal in exchange for the maps.

Here is where our archetypes start to take hold. We expect the baron to be kind of greedy, duplicitous, and suspicious (it’s built into the name, “baron” after all). He’ll probably extort the PCs and demand a large share of the treasure.

Now as DM, I haven’t really thought this through. It was all just on my list of local rumors and legends, and now it’s turned into something my party wants to pursue, so it’s time to plot it out.

The approach I favor in this kind of situation is to jot down about 5 or 6 “reasonable” options:

  • Agree to let the party copy the map in exchange for 10% of the loot
  • 25% of the loot
  • 75% of the loot
  • half the loot, and he gets to come along
  • n Refuse to let them see the map. He doesn’t want to stir up the monsters in that wilderness.
  • 25% of the loot, and his incompetent son gets to come along to learn to be a man.

Then I throw in a few oddballs:

  • The PCs have some nice stuff. Give them false directions and send mercenaries after them to kill them and take their stuff
  • Give them the map with no strings.
  • They can have the map… if they assassinate the Baron’s rival.
  • There is no map, but let’s give them false directions and charge them for it.

Now we assign probabilities.

  • 2% The PCs have some nice stuff. Give them false directions and send mercenaries after them to kill them and take their stuff
  • 5% Give them the map with no strings.
  • 10% They can have the map… if they assassinate the Baron’s rival.
  • 5% There is no map, but let’s give them false directions and charge them for it.
  • 5% Agree to let the party copy the map in exchange for 10% of the loot
  • 10%, 25% of the loot
  • 10%, 75% of the loot
  • 10% half the loot, and he gets to come along
  • 5% Refuse to let them see the map. He doesn’t want to stir up the monsters in that wilderness.
  • 43%, 25% of the loot, and his incompetent son gets to come along to learn to be a man.

I’ve given 43% to the last option, because I rather like the “incompetent son” storyline, and I’d like to see that. The oddball ones get lower chances. Once I’m happy with the choices and the probabilities, I roll, and whatever turns up – that’s the direction.

It may be a little extreme. Maybe I should go with the “incompetent son” storyline, since I like it. But maybe that would have been a dud.

BTW, I’m pretty transparent about this methodology with my players, mostly because when a coincidence comes up that seems contrived, I want them to know that there was genuine serendipity at work.

Anyway, that’s a long meandering discursus on “surprise”, probably not relevant to the original point, but whatever…

DM Tips

The road goes ever on and on... Crazy_Croco