Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a fallback scenario for those weeks when you just don’t have time to prep a new adventure for your group?
I’ve never tried this myself, but it seems sound in principle. The goal would be to write a light, quick adventure that you can easily slot into your campaign — but how do you do that when you don’t know in advance when you’ll need it?
Here are three ideas for ways to come up with backup adventures.
The first is to write a “side quest” that’s very easy to scale. It shouldn’t have much of an impact on the main storyline (just like side quests in video games), as you don’t know exactly when you’ll be using it.
To make it simple to drop into your campaign, you’ll need to write it with flexibility in mind. Think about where your game is set, and what your players most enjoy doing — and also consider that the PCs may be more powerful down the road, which means it’ll need to be easy to scale.
Side quests are a good way to break the mold, and try things you might be hesitant to tackle in your “real” campaign: a new GMing style, a different tone, etc.
The second approach is to delve into your campaign’s distant past, and write a scenario that involves the PCs before they became a party (or at least, before your first session).
You won’t want to start the session by saying, “Okay, everyone stat your characters out as teenagers,” so play it fast and loose — the goal is character development, and accuracy should take a back seat to fun.
This might work best if you focus on one PC in particular, which would also open up the possibility of writing one for every character — giving you several backup adventures for your files. As a player, I know I’d love to be the star of a scenario from my PC’s past.
Finally, you could write a scenario that doesn’t involve the PCs at all, but is still tied into your campaign.
Give each player a premade villainous character to play, and let them see how the other side lives. Or have them play their NPC allies, while you (with kid gloves and your best sense of fairness) play the PCs as NPCs.
You could also involve them in another level of the world — perhaps the “big picture” level often reserved for evil overlords, or as footsoldiers in a war where their PCs are the real movers and shakers.
Since their PCs won’t be on the line, you can run a very different style of game with this sort of adventure — pull fewer punches, play for humor (or against it, if your game is usually on the lighter side) or otherwise shake up your usual formula.
What other ways could you approach writing a backup adventure? Have you ever used this technique in your own games?
With my GMing style, pretty much all my adventures have some elements of “backup adventure” about them. I’m never really sure that the players will follow a lead until they actually do, though some adventures I can make a good enough guess to put in a bit more work than you normally would for a backup. Still, I have adventures that I thought would be important that get bypassed. And that is a great way to have a backup adventure: Something that you already started–that didn’t get used for whatever reason–but might be useful later in a slightly different form.
I like for my side treks to always be a change of pace–even if it’s only a different environment or creatures with odd motivations. For example, we had a few sessions of fairly standard “us versus them” situations (not all combat) leavened by a side trek where the PCs were kind of caught in the middle of a three-way feud (political, simmering violence) as more or less innocent bystanders.
For distant past (or even future) scenarios, I’m not afraid to occasionally whip out a time-travel schitck and use the main characters. A couple of characters in our group have been claiming that they are “immune to death” because they visited the future and found a note from themselves, to themselves, written sometime between the main story time and that future visit. I keep asking them how they know that they really wrote the note, considering that they haven’t written it yet? 🙂
All three choices sound good, and add something to the campaign as a whole. I do know that I’d have to worry about mutiny if people showed up ready to play the game and got handed a whole new set of character sheets– but maybe that’s the kind of shake that’s worth trying.
Side quests are an excellent way to add character depth. Since they can expand or squeeze to fit any available amount of time, those loose ideas might work as a side quest anytime– even when they just finish your main quest an hour early tonight.
I’ve got a search and destroy type adventure that is generic enough that it could be inserted anywhere into a campaign chronology. It’s highly generic, and doesn’t have a lot of impact (unless I edit on the fly, or write it in), but it works if I’ve got nothing else. I’ve actually run it about 3 times with different “skins” on it. Once as hunting down Orc’s, another time as chasing the crew of the Serenity (in a Serenity RPG game), and again as bandit’s who needed to be brought in. All I really have to do is provide a good hook for why the players should want to get these people, and then bam they take it and run.
A good and irresistible “side quest” hook is to have someone (something) steal an item from one of the PCs that they need in order to finish the main quest. Your side adventure is defending a town from invaders? The “thief” is hiding out there, and if the town falls, the item is as good as gone forever. Your side adventure is a dungeon crawl? One of the denizens of the dungeon is the thief.
I recommend using the old ancient tomb dungeon crawl for a fun to design adventure that you can throw in anywhere. All the cool little ideas for dungeons that don’t make it into the main plot can get incorporated into the tomb.
I’ve got a related point:
Has anyone ever had the main quest get eclipsed by one of these backup adventures?
Along simialar lines, but totally different;-)
When we have an unexpected absence, one of the other players run a one-off. We determine beforehand who’ll do the next one. (Like good gamers we roll for it!) Then just have it ready to play in case of emergency.
My preferred backup is the side quest, but I think the “mooks of the PCs” one has huge potential.
…Especially if the GM plays the PCs as caricatures of themselves.
My players are crewmembers on a ship of essentially privateer/explorers. If I need time to hone a scenario or they take things in a direction I am not ready for, there are always castaways, sea monster attacks, intracrew squabbles, enemy warships and a few odd little undiscovered islands in my kit to be plugged in if needed. Not to mention the chance of being hailed by traders or messengers bearing clues or instructions if steering is really necessary. Most of the time though, I just note that “things are quiet” or “this will be a long voyage in an empty sealane” and my players will fill time themselves with gadgeteering, roleplaying, tricks, squabbles, and plans to move up in the ship table of command.
pretty much every adventure is backup adventure for me. i either don’t plan anything and wing it all, or always have at least several of the most likely avenues for the party thought out for a night or two. i make pretty good use of random story element generators, and piece things together as i go. it works well for me.
Just this past week I dropped bait in front of my players regarding an unnatural weather pattern and some black riders who had last been seen riding towards the temple of the weather gods…
So they took that as their prompt to get the hell out of Dodge.
They decided to leave by boat so the Innkeeper recommended them to the Harbormaster. I already had a plot on-ice about the local smuggling operation and the Harbormaster being in league with one another and how the Mayor and Sheriff had been after both for some time but without any evidence to make it stick.
This ended with the Rogue having finagled a “Get Out Of Jail Free” type of arrangement from the Sheriff and negotiating for first dibs on whatever loot was recovered from the Harbormaster’s private ship.
The backup plan completely undermined the “main plot”, insofar as there was one, and has actually resulted in the PCs leaving the only town I had done any development on. It was a good time had by all but it’s easily doubled my homework for the next session.
I wish my current group’s dynamics tended towards the one-shot idea — that sounds like a lot of fun, and all four us could do it.
clem, your point about theme is a good one: military groups, travel-based games (like yours) and others with a structure along the same lines are great for slotting in side quests and other elements on short notice.
I’ve run a “Distant Past” quest before. Most of them had provided very basic backgrounds for their characters so it was easy to put something together. Things did feel a bit artificial though, because I had to make sure that everyone stayed alive despite the outcome of the dice.
I like the idea of having them run premade villainous characters, and giving them a chance to see what’s going on with that side of the story.