The Entity Template is one of the more frequently used tools in my campaign and scenario design toolbox. Whether I actually present it or not, the template guides my thoughts to ensure I don’t miss any standard design elements.
There was a time, long ago, when much of my scenario preparation would focus on mechanical elements needed or useful for play. I would draw the maps needed, choose monsters, roll up NPCs, and so on, then wrap a story around them. This was good enough for murderhobo adventuring (“wander around, find things, kill them, take their stuff”) but eventually I concluded it did not lead to the type of scenarios I wanted to run.
I started thinking in terms of story, and adventures became an exercise in resolving the story, seeing how a particular situation played out. This was an improvement in my view because it shifted the focus from the mechanical elements to a more narrative view. In the end I decided this was still somewhat lacking, especially when the players didn’t particularly care about the answer to a particular question.
Now I spend my time at a higher level of abstraction. I identify and describe the major actors and elements that could be involved in a scenario. I refer to these actors and elements as ‘entities’, and in their initial design I focus almost entirely on ‘story-based’ considerations. In the early stages I only note mechanical elements if they relate to specific abilities or effects I want the entities to have (such as high-level wizardry, or an afflicted curse of distraction). I implement the entities mechanically when it looks like the mechanics may become relevant.
An ‘entity’ is anything significant enough to document for my game. This is most often a person, place, or thing (which might be a physical object, a concept, an event, or some other thing that is not a creature or place). Almost anything story-oriented can be an entity. Game elements such as feats, spells, or character classes are unlikely to be entities — though entities may ultimately be closely related to these game elements and mechanically defined in terms of them.
By defining a scenario in terms of the entities, the major actors involved, I can focus on the tensions between the entities. I know what each wants, and can extrapolate pretty easily what might happen when the PCs stumble into things and interfere.
The template presented in minimalist form below, then defined and explained below that.
Entity Template, Short Form
Titles and aliases.
Varies by entity type.
Optional, often not included at all.
Entity Template, Explained
Everything is named, even if somewhat indirectly — “Dragon of the Northwood Vale” is adequate to start, it can get a more specific name later.
This may include specific titles or aliases.
This section identifies the purpose of the entity in the game, and why we care about it.
Theme is a very brief description of the entity, usually one sentence. “Ambitious prince with rigid ethics” or “massive wall of ice, growing larger by the year” are both reasonable themes. A short and simple element, but critical because it drives the rest of the entity definition.
Purpose describes the open-ended intentions of the entity, the wants and desires and commitments that drive the entity to do what it does. Many of the entity’s goals will be in support of the entity’s purposes. An entity may have more than one purpose, and they may conflict.
Goals describe what the entity wants to achieve, or even just wants. Ideally these will be ‘SMART goals’ such as “ascend the throne of Tirebanil!” [well, it could be SMART if it were time-bound]. Something more general such as “survive at any cost” is probably a purpose. An entity may have multiple goals, and a single goal could support multiple purposes.
Threats describe how the entity may be involved in a change in the status quo, as either an instigator or a target. “Ascending the throne of Tirebanil” may require forcing the current ruler to abdicate (forcing change), or surviving the regency period to reach majority and be granted the throne when there are those willing to act to prevent it so someone else gains the throne (entity is threatened by potential usurpers). A glacier might threaten to destroy a town in its path or block a trade route through a mountain pass.
Rewards describe what you can get from the entity or why you might seek the entity out. The ambitious prince is a potential path to power or could provide a boon. The glacier has at its heart Everfrost, a special material that is associated with ice magic, and is home to a race of cold-bound creatures.
Most sentient entities should have at least one purpose or goal. It is not necessary for an entity to have a purpose in order to have a goal, especially if the entity is of limited scope. It might be enough to know what the villain is trying to achieve in this adventure, without needing to know why… but knowing why can provide more breadth in how the villain can be used.
Most non-sentient entities probably don’t have an actual purpose or goal — it’s hard to want something if the entity doesn’t have thoughts. However, even a non-sentient entity could exist for a reason, which would be its purpose. For instance, a dungeon made to incarcerate a particular demon may well have specific design features because of that, and that could help answer other questions about the dungeon. A glacier bearing down on civilized lands probably isn’t trying to obliterate civilization, but that’s what might happen if nobody stops it.
This section describes specific links between this entity and others. Many entities might have ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’, but I leave this section pretty loosely defined. I like to include why the relationship exists. It is possible for a pair of entities to have multiple relationships but I try to characterize them as positive, negative, and conflicted/neutral (such as an ally with obligations that cause conflict within the alliance).
The ambitious prince clearly has relationships with the regent (ally, enemy, or even neutral — the regent will ensure the nation prospers until an heir can ascend the throne, but will do little to help the heir survive because the heir must be or become strong enough to survive without the regent) and the usurpers (almost certain enemies). Loyal servants and ambiguously loyal friends, all these and more might be relationships. Subverting a servant or friend, assassinating a member of the court (who sides with the usurpers), convincing the regent to increase or decrease support or restrictions on the heir could all have impact on the heir, and the rest of court.
The glacier might be part of a wizard’s plan, the home of a horde of white dragons, or held back by a circle of druids. Changing one of these related entities could affect the glacier, and changing the glacier could have impact on the related entities.
An entity without links doesn’t really have a significant role in the campaign. A wizard who spends his time alone in his tower researching a spell is a curiosity. If instead he is a senior member of the Academy of Ter Liatri (relationship, to the Academy) researching a spell at the request of the Emperor (relationship with the Emperor) to drive away the armies of Trollskov (relationship, Trollskov would be happy to see the research fail) he becomes much more relevant. Interacting with him may have greater consequence than before, which can lead to greater player agency by allowing them to change how a situation plays out.
This section indicates how players can know or identify the entity.
Description describes how the entity may be recognized. Often this is a physical description, but may include a nonphysical description if it can be sensed. In a setting with magic, for example, a necromancer might ‘reek of death’ to those able to sense magic or spirits. Pretty easy to understand, what does the entity look (and smell and sound and taste and… etc.) like? It isn’t necessary to exhaustively list all the senses — three is a good number — or use them all, all the time. I do tend to identify them all simply so I can be consistent later, but usually use only a few at any given time.
Signature describes common signs of the entity being or having been present, or involved in something, without the entity being directly observed. In one adventure it was pretty easy to tell a set of murders were related because all victims were killed the same way and under similar circumstances, making it possible to predict the next murder and get a lead on the murderer. It is possible to tell when the Kreshtar Tribes are around because of the signs of their horses and the nature of the wounds found on their enemies. Sometimes one entity is a signature of another — in The Elenium trilogy by David Eddings, encountering Adus meant Martel or Krager were somewhere nearby because Adus was a formidable fighter, but much too stupid to be trusted on a mission without close supervision.
Location describes where or how you might be able to find the entity. ‘Places’ tend to stay put (though the Wandering Inn doesn’t…), but others can move around quite a bit. Still, even most mobile entities are often found in the same places (I’m usually at work or at home, or less often at the gym, dojo, or shopping; I’m usually not hard to find). Some entities are even more mobile, but still somewhat predictable if you can get close. Telwas the artificer could usually find either near a crafter broadening his education, or in a high-end brothel… doing much the same, after a fashion.
Scope describes how broad an influence or effect the entity has. The amount of detail I include in an entity definition is roughly proportional to the size of its scope. The scopes I use are
- ‘Encounter’, an entity that basically exists primarily for a single encounter, but does not have much impact beyond that.
- ‘Scenario’, an entity that is prominent in a single adventure or scenario.
- ‘Campaign’ or ‘Story’, an entity that is prominent in a single campaign, series of related adventures or scenarios, but perhaps does not have much effect or influence outside it.
- ‘Setting’, an entity that could be encountered or have influence (meddle with…) just about anything in the setting.
As with other entity fields, the scope of an entity can change over time. Most often this increases, such as taking what was planned as a one-shot NPC (possibly an ‘encounter entity’) and reusing him again later in a scenario, which might lead to a recurring character that appears several times over the course of a campaign.
This section describes the current circumstances of the entity. These are things that generally do not describe the entity, but affect how it is used in the game. Many of them can be identified from or inspired by the information above (especially relationships, goals, and threats).
Entanglements describe things the entity is currently involved in, or other major interactions. These could be plots instigated by (or against) the entity, or something ongoing that could potentially affect the entity (such as an adventuring party exploring a location entity). The ambitious prince has a goal of surviving to ascend the throne, his entanglements might include an attempt to discredit a particular noble to weaken the position of his enemies, or his enemies trying to manipulate the regent into forcing the prince into an arranged wedding. Both plots may be transient, as they succeed, fail, or are abandoned, but they are things the prince is involved in or that could affect him. Most entanglements, if they don’t involve the PCs, are likely to be resolved offstage. In fact, it could be said that most entanglements describe what will happen if the PCs don’t get involved.
Hooks are ideas for specific ways the entity could become involved in a scenario or campaign. This is perhaps a note-taking area, mostly so an idea inspired by other elements doesn’t get lost. The ambitious prince needs people with particular skills and abilities (and no ties to local nobility), or recently acquired a precious (but very politically sensitive) piece of jewelry he needs to see returned to its rightful owner, with no tracing back to him. These might be smaller pieces or introductions to current entanglements, or change entanglements as an entity discovers its resources change.
Events are things that have happened (probably recently) that can or could result in changes to the entity, and potentially to related entities, but their impact has not yet been determined. A friend of the ambitious prince was killed while on a hunt, or one of the prince’s enemies turned coat. Adventurers have slain a dragon that threatened the duchy. Something has happened that changes things for the entity, but the specific impact is not yet known.
This section describes how the entity is implemented mechanically. For characters it likely includes race, class, ability scores, feats, equipment, and so on. Monsters will have suitable statistics as well. A dungeon may have a map (or a node map, as my Node-Based Megadungeon does… which incidentally is a good example of applying this template) and list the creatures and treasures held within. I generally find this to be the most tedious and tiresome part, and the most likely to be ‘wasted effort’ if the PCs never see it, so I tend to put it off until needed.
Most of the template exists to capture information about the entity that makes it easy to use the entity in preparation and play. I usually don’t write down much by way of story, explaining how the entity became the way it is. Most of the time it is not important, and in fact I have learned that most often ‘back story’ included in an adventure is either not used or is meaningless box text to the players.
Sometimes I do write it, and whether I use it directly or not it may have an impact on how I prepare and adjudicate things in play. For instance, when I prepared the entity definition for the Ghost Hills I started with an idea and expanded on it, filling in the gaps in the originally abstract location and ironing out the details. Usually there will be links to enough entities that the story should really stand apart from them, but there are times — especially when presenting only one entity — that I might include the story with it. If I do, it may get added to the end of the entity definition.
I’ve accumulated a fair few entities in this blog.
I hosted an RPG Blog Carnival in January 2012 with the topic “Fantastic Locations”, and defined the entities listed below.
- The Ghost Hills are a desolate, unwelcoming range of hills, shrouded in death. Cake is not an option.
- Rime Tower is a bastion of good, protectors of the icy north from the warmlanders who would invade.
I hosted another RPG Blog Carnival in May 2012 with the topic “Fantastic Creations”, and defined the entities listed below.
- Beobachten, the Dragon Watching, is a bastard sword enchanted by binding the soul of a dragon, and retains a surprising amount of its original spirit.
- Palavirea, the Burning Green, is an alternate wand of fireball. It is a portable source of sizzling pain for the wielder’s opponents.
- Kaiho-sha, the Liberator, is a symbol of freedom, liberty, and vengeance, coveted by those who are oppressed, trod-upon, and enslaved.
The node-based megadungeon page has links to more information (including a graph, a ‘node map’ of the dungeon), but the defined entities are listed below.
- The Abandoned Tower: Abandoned, broken-down wizard’s tower.
- Wolf Den: A large wolf pack bent on mayhem and domination of weaker creatures.
- Goblin Warren: Desperate goblin clan looking for a way to escape their erstwhile ‘allies’.
- Fungoid Cavern: Overgrown region of fungus, slimes, oozes, and other non-plant vegetation.
- Dwarven Safehold: Military base staffed by professional soldiers. Not a lot of amenities, but dwarves don’t need them.
- Clockwork Hell: Mechanical madhouse, with lots of inexplicable machinery (and servitor automatons to protect and repair it). I am suddenly reminded somewhat of Castle Heterodyne from Girl Genius, and of the ‘advanced civilization’ areas of recent Zelda games.
- Aristothanes’ Sanctum: Sanctum of an eccentric wizard who wants to know “how everything works”, and is prepared to disassemble anything needed to figure this out.
- Pit of the Misshapen: Civilization, such as it is, of broken creatures.
- Fane of Baalshamoth: Alien source of knowledge, though the price is often misunderstood.
- Aboleth Conclave Outpost: A sink of depravity and treachery, where those in power oppress their subordinates while appearing to work together until active betrayal becomes a viable path to power.
- Shalthazard the Pale: Spectral wyrm so consumed by lust for knowledge and manipulation he did not notice his own death.
The Kreshtar Tribes are horse-riding nomadic orcs (elites ride pegasi).
Having a consistent format for describing game entities makes it much easier for me to work with them. The template guides my thoughts during design, identifying relationships and associations that I can develop into more detail for use in a game. The information in the template itself tends to be fairly sparse — ideally, an entirely-defined entity fits on a single page — but gives me an anchor, a base for building on.