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Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
A long- forgotten French SF game very similar to Traveller. The editor returned to publishing traditional books 18 years ago.
A while ago I wrote a scenario for Empire Galactique. The set up was that the characters had bought some gear from a band of pirates and were accused of handling stolen goods, which would lead into the real adventure: pirate hunting.
But, instead of just reading the introduction to the players, with the characters as passive spectators, I decided to play it out. The advantage of playing a long intro' is that the plot isn't signposted; the players are worked smoothly into the weft of the adventure, with the illusion of freedom. The introduction wasn't spelt out in the scenario but I was counting on 15 years of game-mastering experience to improvise it.
I was wrong.
Even though the deal involved the bartering of only four different products (regular software and ingots against stolen cloth and diamond powder), I managed to mix up the number of square metres of cloth and kilos of diamond powder needed to meet the value of the software offered in exchange. And then, of all the things, the players wanted to haggle:
Damn, I hadn't been ready for that at all!
I also hadn't thought about how the pirates-salesmen would react. Put on the spot, up against the players' haggling, my response was a rather bland, "OK, roll the dice against your skill"
I then made a complete mess of the selling on:
The introduction, which should have been an original mini adventure — as we rarely play commercial endeavours — had become arduous. The players were annoyed that it had been badly improvised, that the adventure hadn't started and were no longer interested in the introduction. We were all glad when it was over.
And yet, a little bit of preparation would have been enough to create the right atmosphere and to make the shopping trip an adventure within an adventure, as with "Empire in Flames", an episode of Warhammer's FRPG Imperial Campaign.
I should have set the prices and done the calculations beforehand. I should have made a few NPC buyers to set the scene and interact with, instead of just chucking the dice. I should have made up a table giving the discount rate as a function of the skill check, and thought of some adequate modifiers. in short, I should have been less lazy and shown more foresight.
If I had involved several players, as I would in a fight scene, and not only the merchants, the above monologue would have been far more memorable:
Don't neglect those details, they bring life to the setting and create atmosphere. You can't improvise all of them on the spot, and they'll be sorely missed.
Prepare your improvisation!
Preparation is the heart of good improvisation, it's not wearing oneself out writing pages and pages of scenarios, it's foreseeing a minimal amount of key notes, diagrams, maps, rules and tables, and going to the small amount of trouble it takes to make them.
Some GMs tell you they improvise everything, and need no preparation. Yet, when they improvise secondary scenes they didn't think about before, those scenes look desperately poor and plain: the NPCs all seem to be cast in the same mould and have no depth; settings are interchangeable; dialogues are minimal or clichéd. So here's a few pointers to help with the kind of preparation needed.
Anticipation of PC actions
Preparing to improvise consists in anticipating what the player's character will do out of the main storyline - and being ready to respond. If the PCs have money, expect them to want to buy some things, have your haggling rules at hand. If there's a thief among the PC, he's likely to do some pickpocket; prepare a random victim table. If a techie is present, he'll tinker with some engines; flesh out with rules for laboratory blowups. If one of them is a netrunner. you get to the point. These are probable events, and once you've sorted out something to handle them, you'll have some use of it again in another adventure. Moreover, players will enjoy such care for their characters' secondary aspects. So it's worth taking the pain to write them.
Rules of thumb
I see someone is raising his arm at the back. C'mon, ask your question, don't be afraid. "Sir, do we need to design special rules and maps and tables for everything?". OK, here's the real Truth: rules are here to simulate. Simulate what? Simulate actions and aspects that are important in the game. That's why you have nearly no RPGs without rules for combat, health and magic, because these are essentials features of most adventures. You have to think about what things you want to emphasise in the game. In my example, I tried to emphasise the trading part of the scenario, but didn't prepare any tools to help.
To find what you want to emphasise, ask yourself the question "what do I want the players to feel?".
One of my greatest success as a GM was a Star Wars adventure, set in the Imperial salt mines of Kessel. I wanted the players to feel that their characters were in mortal peril. So in my version of the mines, convicts received food in proportion to the quantity of ore extracted. But the quantity of food wasn't sufficient to regain full strength, so convicts extracted less ore, received less food, and so on, in a vicious circle. This was camouflaged under Mining skill checks and consulting of a home- made table, but when the players realized the mechanism of slow extermination, they became anxious and very eager to make their characters escape. Thus, I had wanted to emphasise the danger of the prison, and I succeeded with a rule of thumb.
There are some clever ideas on How To Design and Balance Rules in Steve Dempsey's Actions Speak Louder Than Words section called "The Rules", so I won't extend on this matter.
Other things you may want to emphasise, and design rules for, include: race against the clock, struggle for food/black market in a besieged city, detection of secret activities, and anything important in your adventure.
By way of example, here is a rule-of-thumb, easily-designed and equally easy-to-use profit and loss table. Remember to involve not just the merchants in the party, but add modifiers to the merchants skill for the Noble being haughty and the gun bunny fingering his blaster during negotiations.
Mr Felzenwalbe, I presume?
Just have a look at some of the links. Just write out of a list of male, female or other names in your notes, put them in non-alphabetical order and go down the list as required.
As for the names, there are lots of name generators on the Web For contemporary games, take the phone book. To obtain ten typical Joe Blows, base occupation and age on local demographics (the proportion of youths, peasants, nobles, non-human races, etc.).
Every good role-playing world gives those figures through their random character generation. Just do it. Ten times. And name your creations.
Here is an example of the table I should have built for my space-opera game. It respects the demographics of the setting, people live a long time, there are 5 careers available and few aliens. Human names are picked up from the Paris phone book. Any resemblance to persons living or dead... is therefore not coincidental.
You may note that by choosing data randomly from each of the columns, I could get 1000's random NPCs. Thus, for more effect, my "Marcus Felzenwalbe, buyer" could have been a 91 year-old woman, or an intimidating alien.
So there you have it. Return to your games and prepare to improvise.
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