Forward Planning: Playtesting

It’s hard to understate the value of playtesting a game or adventure. The human brain excels at filling in the gaps and seeing what it expects to see, so when you’ve been immersed a piece of work it’s all too easy to overlook simple errors or conflicting information. You know that the map to the dungeon can be found in the secret archives of the thieves guild but then forget to mention that the thieves guild even exists. Or maybe you alter the adventure hook and now a merchant is not only the big bad antagonist but is also found dead during the opening scene. Suddenly the players are paranoid about shape-shifting doppelgangers and you’re left with either retconning everything or trying to adjust the plot on the fly.

In a home game, GMs are expected to adapt as they go but when it comes to publishing an adventure those little (and sometimes large) errors just cause headaches. Another GM reading what you have written doesn’t know all the little details that you omitted due to space limitations or that your players always break into the wizard’s tower on the first floor, hence why there is no description of the ground floor. It’s up to interpretation, which is why published material should always be playtested and read over by an editor. Trust me on this, it’s a lesson I have learned the hard way.

With that in mind last week I ran a playtest for Ghosts of Iron, the first step in identifying any potential issues that I had overlooked or details that I had omitted. As the writer I went in with a few clear questions I wanted to answer:

  1. Does the adventure work as written? Not ‘does the version floating around in the head work’ but does the one-sheet writeup provide enough detail at the correct points for the players to know what they need to do and be able to do it.
  2. Is the adventure fun? I’m serious here, as an experienced GM it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming you will always write a daring tale of thrilling heroics but that is never the case. I’ve written and run adventures that just fell flat before so I couldn’t assume that this one would automatically be enjoyable.
  3. Are the difficulties appropriate to the task at hand? It’s all too easy to write a challenge that is impossibly difficult or, conversely, absurdly easy. This is especially true when you assume a particular party composition with the associated skill sets.
  4. Can it be broken? There is truth in the statement that two heads are better than one. It’s especially true in gaming if there is a challenge that the GM has set then at least one player will think of an unexpected way around it. This is good, and isn’t something to be avoided. The issues you want to avoid are those that completely break the scenario, that turns 4 hours of fun into a 30-minute tale of there and back again.

Thankfully, the playtest worked pretty well. I was careful to keep to the details as they were written and from my perspective, it easily passed the first two hurdles. On the third, we identified a few points where the difficulties as written assumed the PCs possessed a less frequently used skill (which they didn’t) while the combat encounters were appropriately balanced given the action-orientated nature of the mission. As for the final question, can it be broken? Almost. The players did identify a possible way to bypass the first third of the mission due to a missing detail during the mission briefing. It’s an easy fix and one that I’m glad we spotted.

Beyond those core questions, the playtest also picked up on smaller, non-critical issues, such as elements that needed to be clarified or highlighted better. So while a major rewrite isn’t going to be required (this time) I have plenty to work with before passing it on for the next critical step – external editing.

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Forward Planning: Sections overviews

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks dividing my time between a couple of projects, including the research for Ghosts of Iron. While I hadn’t originally planned to pick it up just yet this included purchasing Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition and getting up to speed on the changes to the system. This was made possible thanks to an unexpected conflux of events – the book being released in a near final format and the unexpected surprise that I had made enough from sales of my Demon Hunters adventures to purchase the pdf outright. So to everybody that has made a purchase – thank you.

My second focus has been pouring over the One Sheet adventures released by Pinnacle. When writing my Adventure Starters I have found breaking the text down into sections from the start is invaluable. It provides a clear focus and when faced with a limited word count helps me to judge the respective weight to assign to each part of the adventure. So how do One Sheets break down?

First, the obvious – They’re limited to one double-sided sheet. On average that breaks down into ~1500 words of pure text, including heading the many one/two character words such as d6 that are used for character or monster attributes. In the grand scheme of things that is officially Not Much.

From there, adventures tend to break down as follows:

Introduction & background – A quarter to half page setup for the adventure that details what has already happened and why the PCs would become involved.

The plot – A brief walk-through of the plot covering half to three quarters of a page. Due to the inherent limitations of the format this is usually presented in a simplified linear fashion based on the assumed progression of the PCs. Those same limitations often prevent railroading as the job of providing depth and details is left to the GM.

The twist/set piece – More often than not this involves a climatic combat against the major antagonist followed by a brief conclusion. Typically half a page long. For Ghosts of Iron my intention is to slot this into the middle of the adventure, to provide a transition scene between locations and to showcase a mechanic that is often underused (in my opinion).

One major antagonist and an Extra – A half page, condensed entry detailing the major antagonist, their stats. If space allows for it this may also include the stats for an Extra, although many rely on references to associated setting books to save space. Unless the adventure is combat oriented this is usually a quarter to half page in length.

So now that I have an a breakdown of the format how do I proceed? My first step, unusually, is to just ignore all of the above. Instead I concentrate on fleshing out the adventure via bullet points and notes. For this I mostly rely upon a design notebook that I carry in my work bag and I just jot down any and all thoughts that come to mind, connecting and cross-connecting them as the adventure comes together. The process is as much a way to stimulate my mind as it is to produce any actual output.

From there is the first bash at writing, the stage I am currently at. Using my section breakdown as a guide I start to put the adventure together. At this point word count isn’t important. While writing my PhD thesis I learned the hard way that I tend to overthink my writing and try to edit as I go. It’s not a process that works, I go round in circles trying to perfect a single paragraph before I even know what the rest of the page will look like. Part of why I maintain this blog is to work on this, I try and keep my editing on posts here to a minimum. They may not be as polished as I’d like but it forces me to just write and get my thoughts down on paper.

So that’s where I am – Working on the first draft, mostly during my commute to and from work and then slowly pulling it all together.

Forward Planning: Savage Worlds One Sheet Adventures

With the successful completion of the Crystal Heart Kickstarter in December, I find myself in the fortunate position of starting 2019 with a commission to write RPG material for somebody else. The brief for the adventure was broad – something that an Agent of Syn might face, including an NPC ability or hazard to demonstrate knowledge of what makes Savage Worlds fast, furious and fun! My pitch, as presented during the Kickstarter campaign was:

ghosts

So where do I start? How do I go from a pitch to a finished adventure? I’m aiming to cover that process through a series of blog posts as I develop Ghosts of Iron.

Right now, that answer is research. While this may be my first commission there are a wealth of resources I can draw on. Firstly, there are my own adventure starters which were designed around a similar framework to One Sheet adventures – streamlined overviews that outline the adventure but require additional GM input to fully flesh out. It also helps that Pinnacle, the company behind Savage Worlds have a treasure trove of One Sheets available as free downloads from their website. I’ve begun mining that to put together a framework – what should be included, how do I highlight sections, how much detail do I give locations vs NPCs vs plot. Once I have identified those I can start to take my existing notes and begin to fit them to the page.

Secondly, there is the Crystal Heart setting itself. While the book is still in development Eran and Aviv have already showcased the world through the webcomic and accompanying page notes. Over the coming months, I’ll be going back to that repeatedly, to pick up on details that I might have missed and to ensure that my adventure embodies the spirit of the setting.

Crystal Heart Kickstarter: Now with stretch goal by me!

I’ve posted already about the Crystal Heart Kickstarter and how amazing it is going to be but as of today, it becomes personally awesome. Why? Because I’m going to be writing one of the stretch goals! If the campaign hits £20,500 then I will be writing a one-sheet adventure titled ‘Ghosts of Iron’. The teaser, courtesy of the Kickstarter:

Piracy is nothing new to the Islands, but of late a new name has come to the fore: Arakil, the iron-clad ghost ship that attacks from beneath the waves.

The Kickstarter runs for another week and at the time of writing is sitting at £18,629, well past its funding target of £12,000. Find more details (and back it) via the Kickstarter page or head to Up to Four Players to read the webcomic that showcases the world (and the fantastic art by Aviv that will be throughout the setting book).

Introducing: The Undesirables

I’ve got a few Demon Hunters projects in the early stages of production right now. One is planning a game for my own stag weekend, which will kick off by getting my old group back together for a one-shot of Demon Hunters. The adventure I’m planning is actually part of a bigger mission, Rocket Demons of Antiquity. Ultimately the finished product will take place over two time frames, modern and the Victorian eras. For the latter, I intend to include a set of pre-generated characters, led by none other than Mina Harker from Bram Stokers Dracula. Her draft text is presented below:

 

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Image copyright JEShields

 

Mina Harker, leader of the Undesirables

After their encounter with Dracula, the Harkers were brought into the Brotherhood by Abraham Van Helsing. They had already seen too much for any other option. While Johnathon rapidly progressed within the organisation Mina was side-lined thanks to the inherent sexism of the era and unspoken fears that she had been forever tainted by Dracula. Relegated to the archives she took it upon herself to form a team comprised of those who the Brotherhood considered incompatible with modern Victorian morals. Supernaturals, infernals, undesirables.

So long as they retain a spark of good within their souls Mina will work with them. Using insights gleaned from mission reports, historical records and the Brotherhood’s ability to tap into telegraph/telephone networks worldwide Mina directs this group of outcasts, operating outside and around Brotherhood channels and limitations. Her intellect and position within the Brotherhood ensures that her team are able to get to and deal with incidents that fall outside the remit of all but the highest Chapters.

Approaches Disciplines
Forceful d6 Mystic arts d4
Sneaky d8 Covert ops d10
Quick d4 Social engineering d6
Careful d8 Combat & tactics d4
Clever d10 R&D d8
Flashy d6

Faith: 3

Concept: Ostracised mastermind archivist
Trouble: Forced to prove myself over and over
Discipline 1: Operating under the Brotherhood’s radar
Discipline 2: No detail too small
Discipline 3: Just a woman!?! I’ll show you, you $@&hole!

Stunt 1: Because I just need to collate the evidence I get +2 when I cleverly overcome or create advantages by piecing together existing clues
Stunt 2: Because I must be free to act despite the expectations of society once per session I may flawlessly fashion or obtain a disguise that will let me act freely in my current location (The disguise may be male or female but not of a specific individual)
Stunt 3: Because I will not fall under their control I get +2 when I forcefully overcome supernatural attempts to influence me

Vulnerability: –

Conditions: 3 mild, 2 moderate, 1 severe

Mission Planning: Rockets and demons and succubi (oh my)

Happy Anniversary, the second episode from Demon Hunters: Slice of Life was released to Kickstarter backers this weekend and as with the first episode I have pledged to release an adventure starter inspired by the episode (you can find the first one here). I don’t want to drop any spoilers for the episode but suffice to say that it has already provided the seed of an idea centred around something I haven’t tried before: a hostage situation. The format will be the same as for Missionary Opposition, 3-4 pages with a combination of background, locations and NPCs. In place of the magical tome for the first mission I’m going to introduce something shamelessly stolen from The Sprawl – a mission clock with a twist, as well as being affected by the actions of the PCs it will serve as a timer for the mission. I’m still only fleshing out the details but my aim is for it to work akin to the GMs Demon Dice pool but restricted to a single roll to set the difficulty of the final skill challenge. In addition to adding dice over the course of the mission as a countdown character actions at crucial points will increase or decrease the pool, even if the reasons why aren’t immediately obvious to the players.

Alongside this adventure starter I have a second adventure in the works. This one is at a much earlier stage but will be getting a partial playtest when I GM it at my own stag party in a few weeks. Set, at least partially, during the Victorian era it will focus on a non-Brotherhood team. A team of outsiders, of outcasts. Of undesirables battling steampunk Rocket Demons.

Because why not?

Demon Hunters: Missionary Opposition

It’s here! Well actually it’s here, at drivethruRPG and it’s free to download!

Missionary Opposition is an Adventure Starter for Dead Gentlemen’s Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. It was inspired by the first episode of Demon Hunters: Slice of Life and is the first in a series that I’ll be releasing for the game. Going forward each will be based upon an episode of the series and will provide adventure inspiration in a condensed 3-4 page format. In the vein of Dungeon World’s adventure starters these are not fully fledged adventures but serve as building blocks. Within each you will find:

The Briefing – The background to the mission, an opening teaser and the core Mission Sinistra to guide your planning.

Locations – Important locales with suggested aspects, intel, threats and events. How they link together is left for the group to determine during play.

DMCs – The individuals and monsters central to the events detailed in the briefing. The aim is to detail the primary antagonist, a supernatural threat or mob and a normal who has been unwittingly caught up in events.

As always please do share, repost and reblog to spread the word that this is out there.