I asked Brian if he’d be willing to flesh that concept out a bit and turn it into a TT guest post, and he was kind enough to do just that.
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When I design an adventure, I usually start with a single scene that’s been stuck in my head for a while.
You see, I have that sort of obsessive nature that is specific to geeks, and when a particular game is in my head, I often find myself playing hypothetical scenes in my head that are related in some way to that game.
At first one of these scenes is vague, sketchy; it consists of a few lines of dialog, some faceless characters, maybe some hastily crossed swords. After a couple of replays it starts to solidify, though. The faces come into focus, the dialog becomes more defined, more realized, more…verbose.
Often the scene becomes a sort of set-piece encounter, something either very climactic or very memorable (potentially, at least). For example, I once built an entire Eberron adventure around the idea of a dramatic fight with an Emerald Claw necromancer atop the lightning rail.
As time went by I added the concept of this necromancer being an escaped prisoner of war, and eventually the encounter was between the PCs and the necromancer — who, along with a slew of Emerald Claw soldiers, was using a mercenary airship piloted by an illegitimate Lyrandar heir in an attempt to get a powerful artifact back to the Claw and out of the hands of the Aereni elves. It started with a train-top battle, and became an entire adventure.
My NPCs come about in much the same way. They are created specifically for the focal scene in my head, or as a means to get the PCs to that scene. As these NPCs start appearing in my mind, however, more scenes start to play out in my head.
Oftentimes, I focus on a particular verbal exchange between one of my NPCs and one of the PCs, imagining the conversation from both sides. I usually do this multiple times, with different permutations; I find that this mental exercise allows me to avoid dialog that doesn’t work and find dialog that does. It also helps me to imagine what my PCs might say or ask, which prepares me for multiple branches of the conversation.
As a side effect, almost, my NPCs tend to become very defined in my head during this process. While the PCs might see a particular NPC only once during the adventure, and might only have a brief exchange with that NPC, I’ve imagined multiple hypothetical conversations with that NPC, and he/she has become akin to a real person in my mind.
I find that this helps me to play my NPCs in a more convincing way, and it also helps me to remember NPCs for later adventures, rather than always inventing new ones.
I don’t know for certain how this technique will work for other people. It’s not something that I came up with after trial and error, or something that I specifically designed; it just grew out of my mind, a natural extension of my personality and way of thinking.
It certainly works for me, though, and if anyone else uses a similar method, I’d like to hear about it. There are a number of ways that you can create adventures and characters for your games, and no single one of them is “right.” This is just my way.
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Brian’s approach sounds like it would mesh well with one of my favorite prep techniques: using your mental back burners to develop gaming material. And it could easily be extended to include playing out scenes to get an idea of what your players might do in advance. (I wrote a little bit about this tip in Robert’s Rules of GMing.)
What do you think of Brian’s approach?