1879: New GM Advice: Creating Adventures
Being a collection of tips for GMs new to 1879 but familiar with D&D or Earthdawn
Where’s the Adventure?
Running 1879 requires thinking a bit differently from sword and sorcery games. If you’ve run steampunk systems before, you’ll have no problems here, but it you haven’t, the lack of nasty creatures and dungeons and such may give you pause. Let’s look at a couple of excerpts from the Adventure Generator, from the 1879 GM Screen booklet.
Within the steamweird universe of 1879, many different types of story are possible. Not all adventures revolve around military conflicts, or fit neatly into the pulp heroism model. The following table provides a few genres that work with this system.
- Crime and the Underworld
- Crisis Management
Famine, fire, flood, plague, and pestilence all create challenges for heroes. The trope of getting the medicine through to the remote location in time to save the dying population exists because it’s a good story, with a Man vs. Nature conflict but also a Man vs. Himself. Can the heroes get through in time? Do they have the endurance for it? Anything from a forest fire to an outbreak of giant fleas could happen in the Gruv. Earth has its own crises to manage, rivers overflowing their banks due to torrential rains in the nearby mountains, crop failures, plenty of possibilities for a group of heroes that wants a challenge that’s not yet another villain to defeat.
Conflict or Theme
As Professor Tolkien said, good times make bad stories. You need conflict to drive plot, to give the characters something to overcome, something to achieve, something to tell a story about. Drama has four basic conflicts, as shown on the following table.
- vs Himself
- vs Man
- vs Society
- vs Nature
Man vs. Man shows up the most often in roleplaying games of this sort. The heroes have a villain or group of villains they must stop. The opposition may be a well-placed bureaucrat, a cult priest, a trade union, or an entire tribe of Saurids, but in the end, the conflict comes down to one person or group of people who believe they’re in the right going up against another person or group of people who believe they’re in the right. Sometimes, of course, a group considers that being in the right means they have a right to whatever they want to take, or take over. Which group prevails may be determined by negotiation or by violence, but in the end only one of the opposing viewpoints can be dominant.
The Vs. Man conflict can be played out on the small or large stage. The player group may be dealing with a corrupt politician at the neighborhood level. They may be up against a large conspiracy bent on taking over the city, or planning a coup against the national government. The conflict may cross geographic or political boundaries, such as a player group working for British intelligence and facing off against their Russian counterparts. The key to this conflict is that both sides take it personally. They see the goals and obstructions as challenges to themselves, not to a larger group or organization. Two organized crime bosses having a territorial war see themselves as pitted directly against each other, despite the fact that their plans will be carried out by their underlings at a distance. The bosses will not face each other in person, but they think of the conflict as confronting their rival, not as a clash of two organizations.
Genre and Conflict are just the first half. Now we need to decide who, or what, is pitting itself against the adventurers. This may not be a direct opposition. If the primary conflict is Man vs. Himself, the opposition exists to create the internal conflict that drives the story. The soldiers must resolve their own feelings about the Samsut in order to sort out the mess. The spy must confront her divided loyalties between the nation that sent her and the foreign power where her family still resides. If the primary conflict is Man vs. Nature, the opposition provides the reason for entering the hostile environment. The Prussians have gotten themselves in trouble in the Swamp of Sorrows, and someone has to go in there and rescue them. A rare specimen of giant butterfly has been spotted, or rumoured to have been spotted, in a remote area of unexplored forest. Give some thought to the opposition, and decide whether they provide the source of the conflict, or just the reason for it.
- Creature or Plant
- Economic Rival
- Foreign Power
- Government Office
- Political Rival
- Professional Rival
- Secret Society
- Social Rival
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Professor Verklempt threw a bit of a tantrum after you took the Ferschlugginer Prize, now he’s put in a bid for the same project as you. Of course, he’s underbid you by a few thousand quid, but then you know he’ll cut corners in order to get it done faster and cheaper. Now the trick is to convince the potential client that your proposal, while more expensive, is the better design, and will perform to greater heights and last longer. Let’s hope you don’t have to trot out the story of that boiler explosion. While it did put a damper on Verklempt’s last effort, telling the client is going to look rather like you carrying tales out of school. Perhaps you have a friend who could drop a word in the right ear, head off this mess before the rivalry between you and the Professor results in another explosion, possibly of a more personal sort?
Finally, what’s in it for the adventurers? Why, ultimately, are they risking their lives, reputations, sanity, or fortunes in this mad exploit? Is there a knighthood promised? An opportunity to publish before a rival? An end to the war? Or does it come down to a sackful of guineas?
- Social Advancement
Fortune may be money, but could also be property, knowledge, or other valuables. For instance, someone of means might decide the heroes should have some kind of support for their efforts, and grant them a stipend, a monthly payment to encourage them to keep on with what they’re doing. Of course, such an income might come with a string or two, a suggestion as to what to do next, but that’s not a bad thing, as it can lead to further adventures, or to conflict if the patron wants the heroes to do something they’d rather not.
Genre: 5 – Exploration, Conflict: 4 – Vs. Nature, Opposition: 2 – Economic Rival, Reward: 3 – Social Advancement
This sets the stage for an adventure into the wilderness, trying to be the first Terrestrials to map an unknown area and return to present the results to the Royal Society. The challenge lies in both the unforgiving terrain that must be crossed, and a rival who’s cost the party a small fortune in pounds sterling before and believes there may be a profit in crossing them again. Getting the results back to London with no violations of the Gentlemen’s Code could result in a knighthood. Avoiding any taint of unscrupulous financial dealings, and defeating a foe who’s willing to spend his entire fortune to succeed, will take all the cleverness the party can muster.