February 25, 2012

The Junkyard, Archvillains & Heroes

If you were reading this blog before the posts mayhem, then you remember about The Junkyard column (aka Bedoos First-rate GADD Dealing Process). By the way, I was hit by this idea yesterday night when I was supposed to be sleeping, and thought I'd formalize it and share it on the blog for the future. In this post I will discuss a generic step by step method for planning very straight and simple plot based campaigns using a single archvillain for the characters to defeat; it is supposed to be used with fantasy games, but you will probably find it generic enough for use with many other settings, such as investigative horror, science fiction, post apocalypse and so on.

Step 1, The End
The first thing you need to figure out is how long you want the campaign to lasts. According to Google (type weeks in a year in the search bar), there are about 52.177457 weeks in one year. That makes for about 30 to 50 sessions for a weekly based game, depending on how long a holiday hiatus you take from time to time. Say you decide to keep the campaign running for two years, and plan about 80 sessions to be played before the ultimate goal (that is, archvillain slaying) is achieved. According to my experience, this is time enough to have a party of 6-7 characters to hit 20th level using Pathfinder, and probably also enough for the same party to reach Name Level using Labyrinth Lord.

Step 2, The Archvillain
So, say you decided you want your party to be 20th level by the time they meet the archvillain to confront in the ultimate fight. Then what you need is someone powerful enough to be challenging even at that point. Well, actually, a little more than challenging: the party should have reasonable possibilities of victory, and that's all. Some systems are better then other for planning this menace in advance, while others offer you more possibilities to go wild. With Pathfinder, you can use EL to perfectly balance your archvillain stats and powers; with Labyrinth Lord, you can go a little more wild giving him/her/it unique powers not described elsewhere in the books. (Well, actually you can probably do the same with Pathfinder if your 3E master-fu is strong enough. I'm not here to questioning about systems, so go your way.)

Step 3, The Archvillain's Servants
Ok so you now basically have an idea of how long you want this thing lasts, and a powerful Archvillain. Now we do a little learning from Tolkien. If you put all the villains in The Lord Of The Rings on a scale, you'll find Sauron on the top, Saruman, The Mouth Of Sauron and The Sorcerer King right after, then the Nazgûl, some not directly related villains (Shelob, Gollum, The Balrog, etc.), and finally the minions (Uruks & Goblins). That is exactly what you need too: so figure out the Archvillain's lieutenants, their direct submitted, some other nasty creature that will come into game at some point, and the army of minions. These will be the foes your PCs will confront with as they proceed by.

Step 4, The Plot
Think about your Archvillain objectives. What does he/she/it wants to get? Why? Why the adventurers doesn't want him/her/it to get it? And, most of all, how can the party ruin, or at least slow down, his/her/its plans? In LOTR they do it by holding The One Ring, for example.

Step 5, The World Around The Quest
We're not going adventure path here. No, not even railroading. No, not even illusion of choice. To be sure your players will not fuck up your plans, we will use another trick: build the world around the quest. Think about the Middle Earth, for instance. Do you think Frodo had alternatives to move straight to Mount Doom and get rid of The Ring? No he didn't. Why? Because the world was built around his quest, and had he decided to get rid of it and go find adventure elsewhere, The Dark Lord had 99% found him and slayed him before he reached 2nd level. And won the war. So, grab a piece of paper and scale the map to the campaign: continent-wide if you want to go epic, kingdom-wide if you want to go big, region-wide if you want to stay small. Now cover all the place you want your characters to explore in this quest. A short description of each should work by now, as you will expand it according to the directions they take. Don't bother with details when mapping, just map in big.

Step 6, Now You Play
If you have no planned plot, you can basically play it sandbox. The Archvillain has his/her/its plans he/she/it is conducting anyway, and you can have your players jumping in like it is a sandbox. The only difference, is that you want anyone in your sandbox to be quest-oriented: some NPCs and monsters will be allies of the Archvillain, some others will be opponents of him. Some others won't align (think about the Ents), but will be clearly connected to the plot in some way. Remember you're the DM, not some kind of writer. Let the players take on your quest the way they want. Right in the mouth of the Archvillain? Fine, they'll be soon dead but you won't have spoiled much work of prep. Too straight on? Fine until they inevitably meet their doom. Too slow? No prob, the Archvillain's plans going ahead should be enough to speed them up. And if they don't, well, they fail. Failing is an option.

Step 7, What About The Climax?
Yeah, the climax. Let me tell you something about climax: it never works if you plan it ahead. Place the archvillain with a knife in his hand ready to slaying the princess from scene 1, frozen until the party arrives. Well, know by now that your players will find another way to beat him/her/it, totally spoiling your planned climax. If you want your characters to do what you want, write a novel and don't fuck with roleplaying games. Instead, have your archvillain dynamic. Perhaps your player's tactic may be the one of keeping him/her/it busy planning counter-plans to their actions; perhaps they want to find a way to avoid direct confrontation; perhaps they find the way to defeat the Archvillain before reaching 5th level. It's all fine.