Day 5 of Effing Open Week belongs to Alasdair Stuart, who’s taking over the blog with a guest post on RPG module writing (as the title may have hinted!). As a sometime dabbler in RPGs, and someone whose writing habit began there, it’s a topic I jumped on when he and I were discussing ideas for his post, and he’s done a fine job of it! I hope you all enjoy it as well. Over to Alisdair …
5 Things About RPG Module Writing
Hello, I’m Alasdair and when Lisa asked for guest blogs I stuck my hand up. I’m a freelance journalist and podcaster and I write for a fair few people. However, the majority of my work this year has been for something a little odd; tabletop roleplaying.
A quick primer in case anyone isn’t sure what that is; one player, the GM, reads up on the world you want to play in and either creates, or reads and uses, what’s called a module. The other players create characters that fit inside this world and, together, start the module. The module is laid out a little like a house, with each event as a room and each ‘room’ leading to others until the story’s finished. It’s a massively adaptable way of playing games, and it sits in a web of other kinds of roleplaying that runs the gamut from LARP (Live Action Roleplaying) to Shadowrun Returns, the Strategy/Roleplaying computer game that’s inhaling more and more of my free time. Done right they’re great fun to play and more fun to run and done wrong, well…there’s at least usually pizza to distract you.
Writing them is a whole different story though. Literally. Here’s how:
1.Everything Is Research
The first Doctor Who module I wrote was called Arrowdown and had the TARDIS arrive in a small Yorkshire seaside town unstuck in time. This was originally caused by a left over ‘Rescue TARDIS’ from the Time War. The RT was a massively scaled down TARDIS that, along with thousands of others, had been seeded through the Vortex to give Time Lord agents a way home. It was misfiring, the town was adrift in time and a faction of the Nestene Consciousness, disguised as the local circus, were trying to get access to it.
Looking back on it now, two things strike me about Arrowdown, firstly that it’s very enthusiastic and slightly over busy and secondly that it’s a cavalcade of references. The town is based on Whitby where I spent a lot of time at that point in my life, the Rescue TARDIS idea was an indirect riff on something from the show and the chip shop was based entirely on my local takeout. I seem to remember reading something about a ghost train around that time too which is why the Autons were disguised as the local fun fair.
Everything is research. Where you are, where you’ve been, what you see, what you know, what you listen to, everything. Use it, let yourself absorb it and it will come out on the page in fascinating ways. It’ll also, regardless of genre of module you’re writing, help ground it thematically and structurally. Culture is a common dialect and if you speak it, your players will at least speak it enough to understand you.
2.The Toy Box
If you’re writing a module, chances are you’re writing it for a game someone else has written. That means you get to play with someone else’s narrative toys and that’s huge fun. With Doctor Who, I’m blessed in having access to a 50 Year long toybox filled with things that not only makes my inner 12 year old squee, but means I have nothing but options.
As a result, the modules I’ve written up to now include the Chessmen of Lewis as a Sontaran tactical device, the secret (And possibly official now) history that connects the Krilitane, the Abzorbalovians and the Slitheen and a slightly dimensionally transcendental chip shop.
Again, everything is research. Read the game you’re running, chase down background material for it and make notes all the time. You’ll find module ideas assembling themselves faster than you think and, once that happens, you’re ready to start laying out the plot.
The Secret is there is no secret. Writing an RPG module is exactly the same as writing a story, because, fundamentally, that’s what it is. You set up an inciting incident, work out where the first, second and third acts end and populate it with characters and smaller incidents. The only difference here is that you have an element of chaos; your players and their actions.
4.No Character Left Behind
You’ll never quite solve that but you can minimize the effect it has by ensuring that there’s always more than one door to every ‘room’. Say you’re running a police module and the first scene is examining a crime scene. A character canvassing the crowd could notice someone acting suspiciously, another could check with Dispatch and find out a 911 call was placed anonymously just before the murder from a nearby phone box and a third, checking the body, could find a receipt from a local convenience store time-stamped a couple of minutes before the murder. Straight away you’ve got:
-Crowd. Does the player talk to this person directly? Subtly? Do they confront them? Does the person run? Why? Is it a trap for the police officers? Are they the perp? If not, why are they running?
-Phone box. Why place a call just before hand? Was it a warning? A statement of intent? Has the phonebox been used since and if not, can fingerprints be lifted? Was the caller seen by anyone or caught on CCTV? Is the caller the person in the crowd?
-Receipt. Does the store clerk remember the victim? Was anyone else in there? Does the store clerk seem disturbed when the characters talk to them? Is the killer hiding there? Was the killer a member of their family? Did they know what was going to happen and make the call to try and warn the police? If so, why?
Three separate avenues out of the scene which take in physical (Chase! Fight! Arrest!), deductive (The inevitable CSI montage as the phonebox is dusted for prints and cameras are checked) and the social (Talking to, or talk down, the store clerk). Always put at least this many exits into every scene. That way every one of your players should have something to engage with. This is tricky to do, because done wrong you get what’s called a ‘glass corridor’ where the players can see other options but can’t go there. Done right, you give them the freedom to do what they want to but to stay inside the ‘museum’, always heading to the same eventual point.
5.To Boss Fight or Not To Boss Fight?
Let’s talk about videogame narrative logic for a moment. The traditional path through video games, for a long time, has seen you fighting through escalating scales of bad guy before you get to Badguyzilla, shoot him a lot and win. I’m grossly generalizing here but that narrative foundation is still the one a lot of games use.
The only problem is, it doesn’t necessarily work for roleplaying. There’s nothing wrong with a good Boss Fight, don’t get me wrong, but you always have the option of going for something else instead. Never be afraid to finish a module with someone being talked down rather than thrown off an exploding bridge into a lake of fire and never, ever be afraid to show the other side of events.
Going back to that police module I mentioned earlier, the ending is, of course, the confrontation with the gang responsible. The characters know they’re holed up in a tenement in the centre of town and also know that if this turns into a fight, countless civilians could be killed. So, as the assault is being planned, one character could be studying the plans to the building, another could be scouting out the security the gang have and a third could be volunteering to go inside and negotiate. So, again you’ve got:
-Plans. There’s a maintenance tunnel that comes up in the basement. The gang don’t seem to know about it and it could be a way of getting into the building undetected. But why is it there? And if the gang don’t know it’s there why do they have guards in the basement? And, in turn, how do you incapacitate the guards? Lethal or non-lethal?
-Scouting. The character notices other gang members on one of the nearby roofs, and, as they look closer, realizes that the building they’re on is a branch office of the private security firm bidding for the city’s law enforcement contract. Are the gang there illegally? Are they contractors for the firm who are actually behind it all? What connection did the victim have to them? How can the characters prove this in time, go public and hopefully stop further bloodshed?
-Negotiation. The character is brought through to the gang’s leader to negotiate and, on the way in, notices something very wrong. The gang members all carry their weapons like trained military personnel and several of them seem to have family in the building. Why did they choose this building? Are they all military? Did they all serve together? And why does their radio stop working the second the character steps into the building?
Again, three approaches to the end, all of which can be tied together into what’s either a The Raid-style fight scene or mid-level action and a sudden, last minute twist. There are multiple ways out of a module as well as in, and as long as you remember that your characters, and players, should have a good time. After all, this is the best sort of game, one where everyone gets to win.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelance writer and podcaster. He hosts Pseudopod (www.pseudopod.org), the Parsec-award winning weekly horror podcast and writes for sfx.co.uk, Bleeding Cool and Travelling Man. He blogs about pop culture at www.alasdairstuart.com.