... now with 35% more arrogance!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Re-Thinking Story: Scriptless Planning

One of the RPG story polarities I brought up earlier was "pre-planned vs. improvised" approaches to story. On one extreme of this continuum is the set-piece-and-cut-scene approach favored by new school published adventures: you have a villain's planned actions/events, with specific recommendations on forcing events to occur in the proper order and prevent PCs from de-railing the plot. The better-designed adventures have multiple branches and allowed substitutions (this battle can happen in multiple locations, this henchman can be replaced if killed too early.) This is all in contrast to the monster-puzzle-list approach of classic dungeon modules: you have a map with things placed in various locations, and can theoretically visit them in any order, with no requirement to face every encounter. Critics complain that this old school approach produces events that don't feel like a story.

The problem I have with the set-piece-and-cut-scene approach is that scripted events enforce story by limiting variability. Certain things always happen in new school adventures: at the very least, the villain will antagonize the PCs. You can't have a good reaction roll derail the plot.

I've talked before about listing goals and preferences for villains and how they react to types of behavior, letting a villain's actions emerge naturally from interaction with the PCs. The important part to remember is to not write down what the villain does in advance, but write what the villain would like to do, and when, if appropriate. The part you improvise is what the villain actually does. and the best way to improvise is to inject a random element:

  • Use reaction rolls. Not only does rolling a villain's reaction to the PCs make for a more interesting and adaptable story, but it can be used for any undefined situation. The villain's underground lair floods as a side-effect of PC actions in the upper levels? Roll a reaction, if the villain's reaction isn't obvious. What if the villain doesn't care and ignores the flood? What if the villain actually sees the flood as an unexpected boon? On an extreme reaction, positive or negative, the villain comes upstairs to investigate, or sends an emissary.
  • Use other improv rolls. For example, roll 2d6 or 3d6 weekly or daily using charts similar to the one I described here to determine the villain's basic behavior for that time period. This helps keep the villain surprising.
  • Use wandering monster rolls or event rolls. What's good for the PCs is good for the villain, right? Have a 1 in 6 chance each week that some creature from an appropriate wandering monster chart comes into contact with the villain. What happens? Do they become enemies? Allies?
  • Use 1 in 6 rolls in other cases. When you roll wandering monsters for the PCs, give a 1 in 6 chance that the monster is connected to the villain in some way. If you're not sure how... make a reaction roll for the villain. Likewise, if the PCs seek out a new NPC, make a 1 in 6 roll to see if that NPC has a connection to the villain. Just created a special encounter or trick for a dungeon (not the villain's?) 1 in 6 chance it's relevant to the villain's current interests, somehow.
These techniques focus on improvising from random input; the next chapter on re-thinking story will focus on non-improvised random input.


  1. Something I've done for years is roll a D8, D10 and D12 in secret to determine the reaction of a marginal NPC. I cup the dice and see where they fall, the dice nearest me is the most important.

    If the D8 is nearest, the NPC will react in a way that makes it more difficult for the players. Regardless of their own interests.
    If the D10 is nearest, the NPC will react in their best interest or let the PCs have another go at convincing them etc.
    If the D12 is nearest, the NPC acts in a way that helps the players.

    I use the difference size dice so that it is easy to see at a glance which one is nearer. A friend does the same thing with three opaque D10s - Red, Yellow and Green. I don't want to be doing any adding up because that will take my attention away from the conversation and doing this means that I can roll while speaking and keep the flow going.

  2. Good idea, Rob! Do you do anything with the number rolled?

    I've settled on the reading-left-to-right schtick for now, but I'm tempted to changing to near-to-far, since it seems easier to explain. Especially the part about dice lining up: "If two dice are equally close to you, read both results together". Hmmm...