I realize I haven’t posted here in over a year and there have been rumors that I sucumbed to a dissolute lifestyle and died off. The truth is that my baby became mobile and then became a full-throttle toddler, and my workload picked up significantly, which is better than the opposite. As a result, all the liesure time that once I could devote to writing and chatting about games online has been redirected into other pursuits. I still enjoy some face-to-face gaming here and there, but I don’t often have time to comment about it online.
This isn’t a comeback, I just wanted to share one idea that occured to me as I get a bunch of spooky adventures ready for Halloween-season gaming. As a coincidence, today Tenkar published a post asking for adventure design methods for novice GMs, which added some motivation to put my idea out there for ruthless criticism. Tenkar, this isn’t a breakthrough or anything, but you can add it to the more erudite contributions you get.
The idea is pretty simple, and you may have done it before.
- Grab a book or DVD from your shelf, something in the realm of fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it before, and it doesn’t even matter if it’s good.
- Read the blurb on the back. If it sounds like a situation that you might like to explore in a role-playing game, you’re on the right track.
- Copy the blurb into your notebook, but replace all the setting or character details with numbers.
- Adjascent to your blurb, list all the numbers, along with the type of thing each number represents. For example, say item 1 is a city in the book’s setting. You would list it as “city name”, or “location”. Likewise, item 2 might be a “villain name”, “landmark”, or “description of atmosphere”. Just write down whatever tag you think will help you fill in the blanks later.
- Take a break, or do a bunch of blurbs from other books or media. The point is to get your mind off the original fictional situation and let your mind wander abroad to loosen up and connect with other ideas.
- When you go back to your list, don’t look at the blurb. Just fill in the blanks with stuff from your campaign setting that fits the description you wrote down. You’ll probably discover a bunch of interesting twists that have nothing to do with the original fiction. Run with it. (If you’re group is creative and you have a high-trust gaming culture, you can do this step exactly like you would do a Mad Lib, calling out the description and letting your players generate the details.)
- Read the blurb again, with the new items. If you’re Playing Unsafe [PDF] [print], you might be done already! But chances are, you’ll want to write down a few more ideas and details based on your new adventure seed: Stat up the villain, for instance, or list any threats, rewards, assets, or problems that you want to remember. If you need more, this might be a good time to run through Rotwang’s Adventure Funnel. You can use the funnel without any input from the Mad Libs Adventure Generator, but if I told you to do that, I wouldn’t be writing this!
Let’s do an example! I just grabbed a book— it’s Watership Down by Richard Adams. Here’s the blurb on the back:
First published in 1972, Richard Adam’s extraordinary bestseller Watership Down takes us to a world we have never truly seen: to the remarkable life that teems in the fields, forests, and riverbanks, far beyond our cities and towns. It is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival; an epic tale of a hardy band of rabbits forced to flee their fragile community and their trials and triumphs in the face of extraordinary adversity as they pursue a glorious dream called “home”.
This one is more fluff than details, but maybe it’s not useless. Let’s see what we can do with it. First, replace the details it has with numbers:
[10: Adventure Title] takes us to a world we have never truly seen: to the remarkable life that teems in the [1: A Wild Area], [2: Another Wild Area], and [3: Another Wild Area], far beyond [4: A Civilized Region]‘s cities and towns. It is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival; an epic tale of a hardy band of [5: Vulnerable Creatures] forced to flee their fragile community and their trials [6: List Some Threats] and triumphs [7: List Some Resources] in the face of [8: A Major Problem] as they pursue a glorious dream called “[9: A Mythic Goal]”.
That gives us the following list of items to define for our setting:
- A Wild Area
- Another Wild Area
- Another Wild Area
- A Civilized Region
- Vulnerable Creatures
- List Some Threats
- List Some Resources
- A Major Problem
- A Mythic Goal
- Adventure Title (Even though this was first, I put it last here, because it’s easier to name an adventure when you have an idea what it’s about.)
Okay, I’m back from my break. I’ll try to fill in those blanks now, using elements of Northmarch, a weird fantasy setting I use for Tunnels & Trolls:
- A Wild Area: savage tundra
- Another Wild Area: frozen peaks
- Another Wild Area: foaming seas
- A Civilized Region: Northmarch
- Vulnerable Creatures: restless spirits
- List Some Threats: ravenous goblins, wandering wizards and holy men, Nibelung dwarves
- List Some Resources: sentient animals, encounters with the fey
- A Major Problem: crossing the netherworld before the harvest moon fades
- A Mythic Goal: the roots of the World Tree
- Working Adventure Title: Harvest Moon
Now let’s read it back, making some revisions as needed:
Harvest Moon takes us to a world we have never truly seen: to the invisible ley lines that cross the savage tundra, frozen peaks, and foaming seas, far beyond the cities and towns of Northmarch. Once a year, after the harvest has yielded its fruits and the daylight dissipates into Winter, restless spirits venture forth from ancient graves, summoned forth by a power beyond their understanding. Appearing by night as Will-o-wisps, they gather as if on a pilgrimage, risking ravenous goblins, wandering wizards and holy men, and the dark Nibelung dwarves who would harvest them for fell magic. Sentient animals and encounters with the fey form the guideposts along their grim marches, as they cross the netherworld pursuing final rest among the roots of the World Tree. But they have only seven days to complete their journey before the harvest moon fades, else they are doomed to roam Northmarch forever in desolation.
Hired by a conclave of wizards, a dwarven merchant, or tasked by the Weird Women, the delvers must follow a mysterious migration of Will-o-wisps and capture as many as they can— their master will pay them handsomely for each coveted spirit they bring back. But the restless spirits endeavor to lead would-be captors into peril and danger, using every trick they can to evade capture. If capture seems imminent, the spirits may even reveal their true nature to the delvers, pleading with them to aid them in their quest by defending them against other wizards and dwarves who have come for the harvest. To complicate matters, some of the Will-o-wisps may be ancestors of the delvers, or even their comrades, slain in previous adventures.
Of course, you needn’t take it as seriously as I did. Your group might love adventures that take advantage of mad-cap, ridiculous, and hilarious results a “Mad Libs”-style adventure might create.
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