Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Adventure Structure (superheroes)


Let's talk adventure structure, because I am setting up adventures for the ICONS Drop-In sessions and thinking about the adventures.

For the Drop-In sessions I have a couple of requirements, at least until I find out who (if anyone) is showing up regularly:
  • Minimal soap opera; you can't plan a heart-felt talk between a player and an NPC if you don't know who's going to be there. This results in something a bit more like JLA than like Spider-Man, but that's life.
  • Any game mechanic used for the climax of the session has to be used earlier in the session, in case newbies show up. Usually, that game mechanic is fighting, and I use the minion rule to ease them in, fighting minions and later fighting actual bad guys. However, if I envision that a big part of the climax is, I dunno, defusing the nuclear bombs in a pyramid text, then a pyramid test should be part of the first half of the adventure.
  • The situations have to be suitable for any character type or class. I do tend to gear them to the pre-generated characters, but because two players have said they're showing up tonight, the adventure also has to handle them...and they're high-level characters. Fairly rolled—I'm not kvetching about that—but high level. Like, do-anything powers at level 6 or higher.
  • Wide open to the interpretation of Qualities. I want to encourage stunts, stunts require Advantages, one of the ways to get Advantages is Determination points, getting Determination points requires using Qualities. Even though I'm not sure who will be playing in a given session, there have to be opportunities to use Qualities, for good or ill.
  • I promised that adventures would be over and done in three hours. Some day I might go back on that, but not yet. But I still want some kind of continuity; I want the actions of the characters to affect the on-going saga. So I have an underlying reason for the initial happening, and it has a large enough scope of effect that I can look at different parts of the city. It's not, "Oh, Vibroman has begun his evil plan; now we need to stop him." No, it's more, "A darkness stirs upon the face of the city, and here are the side effects, as well as the effects from the player character actions." So here, in the second session, we're looking at a side effect. This is something that happens as a result of the plan to get rid of the Centurions, but it's not related to the plan at all.

That being said, let's look at the structure that Steve Kenson suggests in the ICONS rulebook. It's a four-part structure,w with the parts being (my names for them):
  1. The Evidence of the Disturbance
  2. The Investigation
  3. The Mistake
  4. The Final Conflict

If you're familiar with Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient, this is pretty much his Event structure.

With a three hour session, each part should take roughly forty-five minutes. That's what I plan for.

The Evidence of the Disturbance

I put it that way because we have only three hours: the plan must have already started. This is the first that the player characters learn of it. It doesn't matter what beautiful things you have in mind, if the player characters don't learn of it, they can't act on it.

This is the first set of robots in the Rumble Room, from last week; this is the attempted bank robbery by the mind-controlled stooge, the sabotage on the military satellite so it's shooting random parts of Kansas, the gang warfare. For now, I don't know who's playing, so this is something the PCs can win at.

Despite the textual evidence of a lot of Silver Age stories, I'm not going to pull out a "but the Space Apes got away!" at this point. If you do it, give everyone a Determination point. And make sure that you have made clear, earlier on, that this sort of thing might happen in the first half of the story. (It's better if it doesn't: doing that has weakened my relationship with my gang. Currently I'm philosophically opposed to that tactic. Still, I'm weak and it might happen.)

And this is the part where we introduce whatever mechanic we'll need later. Usually combat.

The Investigation

This is the part where they discover that the poor guy is showing signs of PTSD and has two curious burn marks, one on each temple, talk to the museum curator and discover the history of the artifact, check the Centurion database for criminals with a known interest in the word "riddle", find out what the current state of gang tensions. I kinda skipped this last week (the cause was obvious) but it's also a place where you'd slip in soap opera. If you could.

The clues have to be obvious. There should always be a clear idea of where to go next. (The players can ignore the clue, but they should at least notice them.)

This part seems to me like one of the most difficult parts. You don't want to spoon feed them, and yet things are never as clear as you think. This is an area where I'd figure that you want three things that lead to the next part, but you also want them to be able to follow up on their ideas, which might be better than yours.

The Mistake

We could also call this "The showdown that goes wrong." Basically, armed with information from the investigation, the player characters take on the problem, whether it's the guy who can control minds, the arms dealer who is fomenting revolution between gangs, the woman possessed by a space rock who is attempting to establish a kingdom, whatever. Unless time is tight, they don't win...or rather, they don't achieve a final victory.
  • They fight and lose and are set up for part four (usually by being put in a death trap).
  • They spend this quarter of the adventure dealing with the distraction that the villain set up: they deal with the killer robot, the meteor that will hit earth, the plague that turns everyone into monsters, the Tau Radiation bombs, whatever.
  • They fight and win, and discover that it's not the real villain after all. (This is a version of the previous one, except the distraction is the apparent villain.)
  • They fight and win, but it takes a while and we call it there.
  • They fight and the bad guy escapes.

The Final Conflict

The players try to deal with the root cause of the adventure's problem.

Sometimes this is a continuation of the previous showdown, as I've said.

The players are captured or humiliated because they {lost|the villain got away}, but armed with the knowledge they got in that encounter, they take on the villain again and win (or don't; I'm not insisting that the player characters win).

That's Very Nice, But What Does It Mean?

The parts that I bump my head against:
  • Player focused It's always always always about what the players can see and what the players can do. I often build nice stories in my head that fail because there's no way for the players to know about them. Adventures start when the players notice them and end when the players have dealt with the situation that they think caused the problem.
  • Clues, clues, clues It is a professional problem in tech writing: what you write doesn't necessarily mean the same thing to someone who reads it. And players often look there instead of here. Part of leading them on, I guess, is not leading them. Some things you're going to have to make up on the fly; others can happen over there because it doesn't really make a difference.

    As a rough rule of thumb, you can move stuff over there during the first half of your session, but it can be perceived as railroad-y. So if the characters really need to know that StarPanda believes that eliminating human life would be a good thing, but they're nowhere near the Centurion database, well, the information is known and said by someone where they are.

    In the second half, you are better to make stuff up. You have to make stuff up that is the consequence of what they did in the first half of the feels more organic, and you get much less of the "you lose until I say you win" problem, which I've alluded to before.

Will those ideas survive conflict with players? Maybe. Keep your eye on this space to find out.