Losing the Plot

While working on Daldordon, my Strange adventure, I’ve been grappling with what it means to “create an adventure”. There’s the physical product - the words, the maps and everything else, but what is it that will make the experience at the table an actual adventure for the players?

I had a vision of creating something wholly new. Not new mechanics or a groundbreaking storytelling methodology, but an adventure not based on an existing fandom or lifted from a popular TV show or book. True confession: I am a bad geek. I don’t like comics, I am not a particular fan of Star Wars or Star Trek, I don’t want to run a game of superheroes, and Tolkien elves have pretty much worn out their welcome with me, too. I decided Monte Cook Games’ The Strange would be perfect for what I wanted to do. Through what is known in The Strange as “fictional leakage”, any story (or perhaps even a dream) can create its own world - a new “recursion”, which suited my purpose perfectly.

My inspiration for the setting came from an article I read about the Altai, the part of our world that spans corners of Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and southern Siberia. The traditions of shamanism and falconry, the colorful folk tales, and the ancient deerstones were evocative and interesting, and I’d never seen the region’s cultural elements incorporated into a game. Rather than just lift an existing people’s culture, I decided to create an alternate world based on a mixture of several prehistoric threads from the region.

So then, as any writer would, I set about writing a plot. Warring dragonlords! Nomadic clans! Deerstone teleportation! There was plenty of material to choose from and be inspired by and I plodded along for a bit, but then things bogged down. Plot. Why was I writing a plot? What would the players do in this plot of mine? What if they didn’t want to do it? What if they did something entirely different? I’m sure all these questions are obvious to anyone who has ever written an RPG adventure, but I had to figure this out for the first time. And when I finally realized that plot is what we do at the gaming table, not what the RPG writer does at their desk, it started to fall into place.

Instead of a plot, I decided to build the world, answering important questions about each element within it. Much of the plot work I’d already done informed the answers to many of these questions.  Maybe some players will enjoy reading that backstory, but, while I might lift an adventure hook from my story line, most of it won’t be an interactive part of the setting.

Here are the elements and details I decided to incorporate:

  • Places – What locations can the PCs visit? What can they do there - shop for gear, stay at an inn, play a game, be assigned a mission, other activities? Who lives there? What does this place look like? What natural laws govern this place – magic, standard physics, something else? What features of this place have special powers/significance?
  • Organizations/Groups – What factions, agencies, cults, or other groups exist in this world? What is their purpose, stated or otherwise? Who controls the group? Who belongs to the group? What is its relationship to other groups, if any?
  • Characters – What are the names of the sentient characters? What are their goals, both short-term and long-term? Are they likely to be initially friendly or hostile to the party, and why? How are they involved with other NPCs, if at all? What weapons/powers do they possess? Who and what, if anything, is under their control?
  • Information – What pieces of information are important and how can the PCs access that information? Are there multiple ways to get the same piece of information?
  • Creatures – What creatures are in this world? What can they do? Are they friendly or hostile? What motivates them - pure aggression, protection of territory, hunger?

With the setting material complete, creatures and NPCs can be statted up, adventure hooks can be plugged in, and the storytelling can begin at the table. Where it belongs.

Note: If you want to know more about deerstones and the Altai region, here are some links. Be warned, though. If you are anything like me, this is a limitless rabbit hole.