Hello everyone, it’s Kyle here with a think piece on adventure design!
I obviously love tabletop RPGs and have designed my fair share of adventures. All gamemasters crib ideas from one source or another. I am frequently inspired by film, novels, and video games. ‘Video games’ provide a huge spectrum of ideas and mechanics. While ideas from RPGs are the easiest to transition to the table, aspects from entirely separate genres can provide a refreshing outlook or useful tool.
Recently I have been playing the game Hitman by IOI Interactive. In this game you play an assassin who is particularly adept at disguise and social manipulation. You are given a sequence of sandbox-style areas where it is up to you to pick a preferred way to dispatch the designated shadowy government villain. Due to the mechanics of the franchise, much of the game’s design is focused around the inhabitants of the level. One hundred plus NPCs wander a gala/bank/city block. Each NPC has their own routine that can be interrupted, manipulated, or entirely broken based on player action.
For example, in an early level of the game you are sent to a fashion show held in the first-floor ballroom of a magnificent mansion. Your given objective is to remove a woman running an illicit auction in the mansion’s upper floors. You quickly become aware of two different approaches. You discover that your target has an upcoming private meet-and-greet with one of the fashion show’s male models. You also become aware of a journalist who has gotten their hands on an invitation to the private auction but is nervously giving themselves a pep-talk in the bathroom before attempting to infiltrate the cabal. Do you decide to take the role of the model? The journalist? Both provide excuses to get close to your target, or do you throw caution to the wind and start detonating explosives? Chaos is a ladder after all…
This focus on interpersonal NPC interaction makes the world feel incredibly vibrant and is a very useful tool for a gamemaster to bring to their table for future consideration. Obviously, you cannot prepare a hundred NPCs with strictly timed out routes, but you can take these lessons and use them to craft a more complex story. By setting the relationship between two of your minor NPCs, you provide an opportunity for your players to interact with that relationship.
Let’s say that you’re designing a heist adventure where your table of players suspect something foul is afoot in Throal and they need to gather evidence from the estate of a reclusive nobleman. If you’re anything like me, you start by designing the noble. You determine his motivation, place him into your ongoing plot, and set statistics to make him a suitable challenge. You then get a layout for the home and determine where best to hide the critical evidence, maybe you even throw in a little bit of treasure. Finally, you determine what sort of security our noble has to keep him secure. Maybe two dozen skilled live-in guards that keep the building and its grounds secured around the clock.
This could be where your preparation ceases. It clearly outlines the foes and gives the players space to come up with abstract solutions to solve the problem. However, if we take a page from the Hitman franchise, and look to the relationships of those within the estate, we could make this environment really come alive.
Perhaps our reclusive noble has other things going on in his life that are not directly related to your cunning plot. His mother is visiting, and she is entirely unaware of her son’s suspicious activities. This neutral third party could be a friend or a foe for your players, or maybe they won’t even come into play.
We look at the monolithic 24 guards, currently they are merely threats to be removed or avoided. But if we provide details for even a few they could become more. Perhaps there is a lazy guard who prefers to take an afternoon nap under a tree near the back wall. Maybe two guards enjoy throwing dice together every evening in a secluded storeroom, failing to make the proper rounds. Perhaps a normally capable guard has fallen ill and is leaving some exploitable gaps in the estate’s security as everyone else is pitching in to cover for their unfortunate co-worker.
As you begin to put life into these characters that were previously just simple threats, you look at the estate in a new light. Where do the guards go when they are off-duty? There must be a break room or two designed explicitly for their use. Who takes care of this home? There are probably a handful of servants who should be considered. Do they also live in the estate? Are they kept separate from the guards or do they intermingle? When other nobles come to visit, do they bring their own servants? Is there an interesting hook there for a servant unfamiliar with the grounds? Etc. etc.
Suddenly we have an estate that feels more like a lived-in place and not merely a challenge for the players to overcome. It becomes a playground for your group, a land of abundant opportunity. It hands your group more than enough tools to succeed and tell a fun story. Even you, the gamemaster, aren’t sure exactly what will happen or how, but you’ve given yourself a framework for how to respond. And hopefully you now have a fresh and memorable session on your hands.
“I shall leave you to prepare.”
About the Blogger: Kyle Pritchard is a second-generation tabletop gamer who has been slinging dice since before he was crawling. He’s been working with FASA Games since 2014 and has been a member of Earthdawn Team since 2018.