Last week, I was scrambling to prepare for my bimonthly 13th Age game session. We’d just completed the campaign’s first story arc, one I’d run with tight narrative control (That’s fancy jargon for “railroading”). I wanted the next arc to be more episodic in nature and allow players to chose where the story would go.
I am, however, well aware of the chaos and paralysis that can occur on both sides of the proverbial gaming screen if the GM opens up the world and waits for the players to do something. As I was brainstorming to find a good compromise, I stumbled on an idea.
What if I chose a number of hooks left hanging from the last story arc or from character One Unique Things, enough to have three to five possibilities which I was comfortable running with minimal prep.
As I worked on the idea, I decided to break each hook into the following categories:
- A one sentence pitch. Enough to guide me if my players grabbed onto it.
- Challenge. What main problem would the PCs likely have to overcome.
- Interested Parties. A list of 3-5 Icons that could be involved in this hook. (Optional: write a one sentence statement of interest).
- Outcomes. How the story is likely to move forward if PCs succeed or fail at the main challenge.
- Potential Trouble. Complications that might pop up with minor failures or to spice things up.
- Opposition’s Agenda. What are the goals of those opposed to the PCs?
Then, and here’s the important part, at the start of the session, I decided to present EACH hook as plainly as possible to players, out of character. Since I picked the hooks from established threads, or things the players had already established with their One Unique Things, I didn’t feel like I was breaking any RPG dogma by asking my group…
…Not that I much care about any “RPG Dogma”, but that’s another subject.
So lets break these points down:
You write one sentence that either asks a question or declares an action. “What happened to that Imp working for the Archmage?” “Find the 3 remaining pieces of the Thunder Scepter.” That pitch should mean enough to you that you can start working out possible challenges, foes and environment for your adventure.
While each hook is likely to develop into a one (or multi-) session adventure, you want to establish one key obstacle or challenge to help guide you when you start the ball rolling. Consider it a spark that ignites your creativity. As characters succeed or fail, you can move on to the next challenge or decide to close the hook and move on to the next.
This might be where you decide to pick (or create) likely monsters and opponents to face your PCs. This is also where you might pick the environment (town, wilderness, dungeon, etc.)
For example the challenge could be “Recover then decipher some of the Diabolist’s scrolls without accidentally summoning a horde of Dretches.” You might decide the scrolls are a MacGuffin that supposedly reveals the location of future new Hellholes. You may then decide the scrolls are located in one of the Hellholes the Crusader currently besieges. You’d pick a few demons and create stats for the Crusader’s rank and file troops and officers.
I think this is the really interesting and innovative piece of tech. You need to make a choice of which Icons have a vested interest in the outcomes of this adventure hook. Doing that makes you start thinking about how their agents need to get involved and what they would be after. This creates potential allies and opponents for the PCs, which in turns can be called upon or triggered by the players’ Icon relationship rolls. Make an effort not to pick all the Icons. Restraining the possibilities will help direct your story in directions you might not yet be aware of… but may make a lot of sense later.
I think therein lies what the designers of the game meant when they said even the GM should get surprised by where the story goes.
For instance, in the previous example, the Interested parties would likely be: The Diabolist (One of her Hellholes is being assaulted), The Crusader (Making a move on it) and the Emperor (He needs to know where to expect future trouble). The kinds of relationships the PCs have with these Icons may send the adventure in wildly different directions. And maybe you may even get characters working at cross-purposes!
This step is really a placeholder for you to put to paper where you expect the story to go if PCs succeed or fail at achieving the hook’s overall objective. What are the likely consequences of a PC victory, what would a campaign loss mean?
So in the Diabolist’s scroll adventure, I’d say the outcome would be having the characters decipher the scroll (possibly with help from an allied faction) and learn a secret far more somber than the location of future Hellholes. If they fail, they may actually unleash a horde of demons so numerous that it ends up slaughtering all of the Crusader’s amassed troops. That would earn them his ire and possibly get in the awkward position of being in the good graces of the Diabolist.
I’ve found that one of the hardest things to do is to “make failure interesting.” All the cool bloggers and designers have been talking about it for the last decade but doing it is a challenge. This is where you put a few ideas about what could go wrong or where the story could go if characters hit a small snag (i.e. failed check), make a very bad choice or just because the pace needs a swift kick in the butt to pick up. From random encounters to traps to difficult choices, you pick something that will spice things up.
In our example, what if the scroll is kept in an suspended state linked to the life force of four hapless prisoners. Liberating the scroll leads to the death of the innocent citizen of what used to be a city before it turned into a hellhole. Saving the citizen leads to the return of the scroll to Hell. That’s the kind of hard choices that characters have to make. (Of course, there should be some sort of solution to get the scroll and save the citizens… or not.)
This is where you decide what the “bad guys” have planned… if they have a plan. Alternatively, this is what you think people (Icon agents or just monsters) will do to oppose the PC’s plans. Pick one or two Icons who might have interests that go against the character’s overarching goals. In our ongoing example, the Crusader’s forces will try to prevent the PCs from entering the Hellhole. They may also sent a team of elite forces in, intent on getting to the scrolls first. The Diabolist will have her own demons and cultists, but maybe she may also have more subtle ways of impeding the character’s progress, like a double agent posing as an Emperor’s spy.
Let’s compete this article with examples taken from my last game session.
The PCs have completed a series of 4 game sessions:
- Half-orc paladin hired to escort tiefling bard to sing a funeral dirge at a drow settlement.
- Tiefling bard unwittingly opened a hellhole at the bottom of drow burial mound
- Two formerly dead party members get resurrected in the chaos
- Party rallied around menace of nearby flying fortress where orcs and mindless undead fought for its control
- Recently resurrected PC sorcerer is part-time guardian for the Prince of Shadows’ vaults. Got whisked from party at an unfortunate time
- Party defeated keep’s undead leader, handed control over to Orc Lord troops.
- Party secured artifact that can protect a whole region against fortress
- When artifact was grabbed, whole party (minus missing sorcerer) got teleported onto the back of a Koru Behemoth emerging from water.
- Amnesic sorcerer found in a halfling village on back of the Behemoth… she’s showing multiple, strange lacerations.
Wow, fastest play report ever!
So here are the 4 adventure hooks I came with:
Hook #1 The Tentacled Menace
- Pitch: What the hell happened to the sorcerer and where do the lacerations come from?
- Challenge: Investigate wounds and surroundings. Discover sorcerer was assaulted by tentacled monsters from another world… and they’re nearby.
- Interested Parties: Prince of Shadows (Vault), Elf Queen (What’s in the vault) or High Druid (Protect the natural world from beyond)
- Outcome: PCs discover Behemoths are used as very secure, mobile vaults. PC discover Behemoth is “infected” with
- Potential Trouble: PCs manage to take something from Vault they aren’t supposed to… Which means dealing with Princes’ ire.
- Bad Guy Agenda: If vault is opened, Hungry Stars attack to get at something they want! If vault left alone, Hungry Star attacks village, see Hook #4.
Hook #2 What About the Keep
- Pitch: Should we inform someone in power about the existence of Skullforge Keep?
- Challenge: Influence someone powerful enough to do something about it before bad things happens.
- Interested Parties: Archmage (Magical menace to Empire), The Three (A source of power?), Emperor (Military menace of orcs), Orc Lord (New toy is MINE).
- Outcome: Expeditionary force mounted, PCs invited in overpowered environment again.
- Potential Trouble: Diplomatic/political incident. PCs caught as scapegoats.
- Bad Guy Agenda: Lich King and Orc Lord have agents that don’t want this to become public knowledge.
Hook #3 Hell’s Bells!
- Pitch: Inform someone about the Hellgate forming under the Drow settlement
- Challenge: Get anyone except the Crusader to care.
- Interested Parties: Diaboless, Crusader, Elf Queen, Priestess
- Outcomes: PCs asked to go back and purify/secure the site.
- Potential Trouble: Multiple factions fighting. Drow civilians caught in the middle, Diabolist’s plan glimpsed at.
- Bad Guy Agenda: Diabolist, Crusader, Elf Queen or Lich King agents clash for control or safeguard of .
Hook #4 Tentacles and Colons
This hook was the default one if PCs didn’t settle on another.
- Pitch: Tentacled horrors raid village to kidnap halflings, leaving strange gems behind.
- Challenge: Find where the Xenians come from, identify weird gems.
- Interested Parties: The Archmage (menaces from beyond), The High Druid (something’s screwing with the Behemoths) The Prince of Shadows (Gems? Traders from another world?)
- Outcomes: PCs discover an incomprehensible strange slave-for-alien-gems trading ring
- Potential Trouble: Characters must explore some very gruesome elements of Behemoth biology
- Bad Guy Agenda: Too alien to understand (Actually, I’m keeping this one secret as its a huge reveal in my game)
For the record, my players chose Hook #3. We had our best session yet and we completed the adventure in one session.
That approach is a keeper for sure.