I’ve recently moved from a very rural area to a very urban area. While I loved the small-town feel, I must admit that city life has its advantages. Movies are one area that I have been pleasantly surprised with. Seeing a movie in 3D used to be a treat that simply wasn’t worth the effort of driving an hour and a half to the theater! But when a 3D movie is playing only fifteen minutes from your front door, you have a hard time not checking it out. What opened up to me was very unexpected! Technology has advanced a bit since the days of paper glasses with one red lens and one blue lens! The level of sophistication took my breath away and left me craving more! And then they added reclining seats and adult beverages which is simply over the top!
And what does this have to do with tabletop gaming? Allow me to explain.
First, let’s get some word definitions out of the way. Many games use different terminology for how they describe the various chapters of a game. In my mind, I see a “Scenario” as a single gaming session, usually running about ten hours on average and consisting of a series of “Scenes”. Multiple scenarios make up the “Campaign” which portrays the entire story of the gaming group from start to finish. Since I enjoy books and reading so much, I’ve always thought of it as if the Campaign was the book, the Scenario was the chapter we’re currently on, and the Scene was the immediate action taking place as I’m reading it. In the context of movies, you could think of it as the Campaign being the franchise (Avengers, 007, Austin Powers, X-men, etc.) A Scenario is a single movie from the franchise, made to be consumed in one sitting with your full attention, please! And a Scene is, quite literally, a scene from the movie.
When it comes to creating a Scenario, most people tend to think only about the beginning and the end. “This” is where the characters are at now, and “That” is where I want them to be for the big finale!
It doesn’t work that way when you don’t have a script and each actor gets to choose how to play their part!
Have you ever had a player completely refuse to get with the program? Frustrating isn’t it? The worst experience for me was when I ran a modern zombie apocalypse game. I had several first-time players including spouses of existing players who were encouraged to try roleplaying. This one spouse was a thorn in my side from the beginning. She didn’t like what the others had planned, it didn’t seem logical to her. Here the scene: A family of survivors was trapped in their home; it was planned that the players would come to their aid. Instead, when the zombie horde attacked, she didn’t buy into the narrative and opted to not stick around. Her character got in her car and drove away; leaving the other characters and survivors behind! Do you know why? Because she could see that I wanted her to help save the family! I made my intentions known as the Game Master simply by engineering a set of plausible circumstances to put the group into that situation. It was simply too convenient, it was too unrealistic, and she saw it as a trap. All because it was the big finale I had planned to end the Scenario!
So, what did I do wrong?
Simple. I was doing things in 2D, not in 3D. My regular game group was accustomed to my style and knew that if they went along, they’d have a good time. But someone who hadn’t played before and who was attempting to play as if it were real, wasn’t taking the bait. I’d made things too obvious, I’d made things too easy. Life isn’t that easy, especially in the zombie apocalypse, and she knew it. I’d planned to have them try to save the family; I’d let them find supplies and an old school bus to transport everything. I’d planned for them to be under siege for months as I ran scene after scene of them fighting off the horde with dwindling supplies. And in the end, when they came to a point of desperation, after failing again and again to escape a death trap, they would be saved. The group saving them would be the next Scenario’s challenge, as they were marauders, slavers, and killers who would put them in chains.
And it never happened.
This one woman got in her car and drove away. Her spouse chased after her, which eventually caused everyone to abandon the family in the house. But at least I could say that the group had some solid cohesion!
In looking back on things, this one game was a relatively short experiment that taught me more than I ever thought possible. My games weren’t real enough to suck in a new player and make them want to keep playing. Eventually, I figured out what I needed to do to correct that mistake, but the ability to put it into words didn’t start to become apparent until I saw the updated 3D technology in theaters. So, let’s get into how you can take your game into the realm of three dimensions!
LESSON 1 – NOTHING UP MY SLEEVE
Making a Scenario difficult doesn’t mean that you have to make it more dangerous! Tell me, what do you worry about in life? Money? Love? Relationships? Job performance? Family? Pets? You can pull these aspects into the game world to make things more realistic, more life-like.
Got a gamer who really likes dogs? Give them a stray that keeps shadowing the game group looking for food. They’ll get attached to the animal, then you use the pet to distract the player. Put the dog into danger and watch your player move heaven and earth to save them!
Got a gamer who really takes pride in beating the bad guys? Get them sick with a head cold or even the flu! Reducing their performance adds a level of uncertainty to their lives and makes the scenario more realistic! You don’t even need to tell them the negatives on their rolls, tell them you’ll automatically adjust things. They will think that their failures are due to being sick, and it will add a level of concern to their game!
Making your players worry about money is another great way to complicate matters. While they are trying to figure out how they’re going to afford to purchase basic necessities, you can be moving the story along without too much effort. No money in your world? Then make one resource really scarce and difficult to find! Same effect!
Essentially what I’m saying here is, distract your players like a magician performing a magic show. Make them focus on something else, and watch them stop questioning as much because they’re focused on the threat in front of them.
LESSON 2 – USE THE ENVIRONMENT
One of the things that veteran Game Masters often forget is the weather. Utilizing weather for dramatic effect is almost necessary for some games so that you create the right atmosphere. If you’re running a game that is based on horror, you should be using the weather to foreshadow and mess with your game group! There’s nothing more satisfying than your players going into a spooky old house with lightning flashing in the background only to have them emerge later with something chasing them and it’s a complete downpour that makes it impossible to find their car for crucial seconds!
Ever notice how dungeons are never dusty? Don’t you think that’s a little unrealistic? How fun would it be for your players to fight back a sneeze in a particularly nasty dungeon while everyone is spying on that big, bad dragon?
Why not have the big showdown with the bad guys in a factory? The look on a player’s face as their character’s jacket gets snagged on the assembly line and they are suddenly whisked away is simply priceless! Don’t know what the inside of a factory looks like? Try looking for documentaries that show you how something is made. You’ll find a huge number of videos online giving you a peek into just how modern factories look, and you can easily see how dangerous they are!
Something that I’ve never understood is why don’t the bad guys ever attack when you’re grocery shopping? I mean, they can pull a gun out at a bar, but they’re afraid of being seen by soccer moms? Why wouldn’t they try to kidnap a player when they are doing something mundane and are completely unaware? And have you ever stepped on dried macaroni on a tile floor? Or a fresh watermelon that’s in a million pieces? You’ll skid all the way to the frozen foods! And speaking of frozen foods, ever been smacked on the head with a frozen dinner? Just gravity and one of those things hitting you are enough to make me want to give up, much less a whole shelf crashing down onto my head because the bad guy shot up the freezer behind me!
So, do you see what I’m saying here? The world is a dangerous place! When you add action and bad people who want you dead to the mix, it gets exponentially MORE dangerous! Things that wouldn’t happen normally, or things that seem ordinary now, will suddenly become another hazard! While creating your Scenario, you should think about the environment of each Scene. Be aware of what could go right or wrong in that environment and get ready for it. If things are too easy, throw your players a curve ball! If things are too difficult, throw the bad guys a curve ball! And sometimes you can make that curve ball part of some comedic relief!
LESSON 3 – THINGS HAPPEN!
A couple months ago I found myself on the side of the road changing a flat tire and the temporary “donut” tire barely had any air in it. I drove as slowly as possible to the nearest gas station and put money into the air machine, only to discover that it was broken! I then had to drive to the next nearest gas station, pay for air again, only to find out that that the hose had a leak! Luckily I had electrical tape in my car and I was able to patch the hose, but still, that was a pretty rough day!
Don’t be afraid to give your players the occasional odd difficulty. In my case, I picked up something from the road that put a hole in my tire. Don’t you think that could happen in your game as well? Or a wagon wheel breaking? Or a horse stepping in a gopher hole and breaking its leg? Or a computer monitor going blank and refusing to work again? A strap holding a piece of armor on breaks for no reason? A car refuses to start? Your spell component pouch slips off your belt in the market and you don’t notice? A lid on a chest catches your finger when you go to close it and hurts like crazy for the rest of the day?
Life sometimes has these weird, strange, completely random bad moments. Usually, I try to work things in on a bad roll the player makes, such as getting a one when rolling to hit on a twenty-sided die. But you don’t have to do it then, you can make it happen at any time you want. The thing that you don’t want to do is have the weird, strange, completely random bad moments happen too often. So, if you connect these moments to the roll of the dice, make sure it isn’t a big deal all the time. You can occasionally mess with your players like this, but too much, too often, will frustrate them into things no longer being fun.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Life is a many-layered tapestry of almost infinite depth. Bringing your game world to life is almost as difficult as actually having the power of creation and making it for real! You have to think about the little things, you have to fill in the holes for your player’s imaginations. Adding layers of various elements will add to the reality of your world by taking what has likely been a very two-dimensional story and turning into a three-dimensional story in your player’s minds. But you have to be wary of going too far as well. Too many layers and your game becomes a caricature of reality, frustrating the players and causing them to resent your manipulations.
I suggest that you focus on one thing per Scenario to add to one Scene and no more. See how your players respond. If they don’t respond, then you’re doing it right! What you’re trying to achieve isn’t supposed to be noticeable to them on that level, it’s supposed to enhance the game world, not overshadow it! When you’re comfortable with that layer (or a version of it) and ready to add more, then add another layer and see what happens. Eventually, each Scenario should have two or three layers, plus everything else that you’ve already put into it. If your players begin to seem frustrated or complain about some aspect more than a couple of times then you should take a layer out, it’s too much!
Eventually, you will begin to add layers to your Scenes automatically. You will get into the habit and it will stick for the most part. However, don’t get comfortable! You should come back to these ideas every now and again. I’m willing to bet that there will be at least one aspect that you stopped doing because either you’ve forgotten about it, or it was simply too difficult to keep doing at that time. No worries! Pick up where you left off and get that layer back into your game! Also, don’t forget that your players may need some time to evolve their skills as well! It may have been too much before, but they may be able to handle it better now, so give it a shot and see how they do!
Previous Beyond the Dice Articles:
Beyond the Dice: Making Legends
Beyond the Dice: Breath of Life
Beyond the Dice: Creating Exceptional 1st Level Fantasy Characters