I never been told I have a great imagination, and honestly, I don’t think I do. It’s a bit of an inconvenience when designing things — I can build almost anything, once I know what it is, but deciding what to build is a challenge.
My brain categorizes things and looks for patterns. A useful ability professionally, but when I want to design something, to be imaginative, it gets in the way because I keep falling back on familiar patterns. When I my campaigns fall in a rut they fall a long, long way, far enough to see stars in daytime.
That sucks, so I have developed a toolkit that hopefully helps me avoid that. I describe the five major components of it below.
In no particular order, since they can end up being used in just about any order, the major elements of my toolkit are
- Random Generation
- Structure and Template
- Challenge, Response, and Secret
- Crowd Sourcing
- Large RPG Library
First, random generation. Generate something randomly, then find a way to make it work. I usually generate a fairly large number of things randomly and look for something that sparks ideas. I have said before that the Tome of Adventure Design is my ‘weapon of mass construction’ (though I see it is still on my ‘review this’ list). Matt Finch did a great job building a large set of tables that can handle many situations and topics. Long ago I build a program that makes it easy for me to randomly generate strings from tables, and I’ve imported many of Matt’s tables into it. Then I combined them in strange ways, making combinations that are larger than suggested by the original tables (and mixing them up at the same time). When I devised Rime Tower I started with a randomly-generated list of place names — ‘Frozen Demense of Ice’ prompted me to think of ‘Rime Tower’ as a central feature, and things built from there. The Polyhedral Pantheon techniques start with this, assigning domains more or less randomly to deities in a way that sees consistent coverage (each domain or its subdomains are accessible to 4-6 gods, and each god has access to 4-6 domains) that results in some coherency in the randomness. Some randomness is pretty manual (Polyhedral Pantheons is a good example here), but a lot of it is handled for me by programs I write. The ‘Random Adventure Structure’ shown at the bottom of this post was generated by a script I hacked at lunch today.
Structure and Template
Second, I rely on structure and templates. By building to and around a framework I am prompted to be consistent in what I consider. The Entity Template I updated and posted a few days ago is a prime example of this. By always thinking of the relationships between things, how they can be recognized (whether present or not) and so on I am forced to look beyond the obvious of what I am dealing with. The relationships section forces me to think about how each entity fits in with other entities, and why people want the entity, or fear the entity, or have some other relationship to it. Rime Tower and the Ghost Hills were both further developed and documented, guided by the Entity Template.
Challenge, Response, and Secret
Third, I make use of an article I read from Dariel Quiogue in Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter: Challenge And Response: Designing Cultures For Your Game World Using Toynbee’s Principles. I actually adapted it a bit to incorporate a tip from one of Ray Winninger’s Dungeonmastery columns in Dragon Magazine: every significant game entity should have at least one secret. The result was my Challenge, Response, and Secret article… which is coming up on eleven years old. It basically amounts to asking the “five Ws (plus How?, but especially Why?”) until I am satisfied. Every element of an entity — character, place, thing — can have this asked. Gidr Farnsehame bound a dragon into a sword: why did he do it? what happened when he did? how did he manage it? who cares about it? why do they care? how is Nakeshrontaraan planning to break free of the binding? What is the red dragon planning to do after that? Does anyone want to help? Why? Does anyone want to prevent? Why? Where does the treasure go that Beobachten takes as payment? I can do this for a long, long time. I don’t even need to find answers, the questions themselves might become secrets associated with the entity.
Fourth, I take advantage of crowd sourcing. If I can get others interested in the topic I can lean on their ideas — if not to use as they are presented, then to spark my own ideas. GreyKnight is a wonderful resource for this if you can get his attention — he saw the ‘Some More Randomness’ post I linked a couple paragraphs ago and Random Leads to Awesome happened. The recent Seekers of Lore Microscope and Lexicon exercise was a crowd sourcing exercise that was going quite well until everyone got too busy. This tool gets relatively little description here because it is a fairly new addition. Historically I have always been willing to accept and consider suggestions from others, only recently have I begun to solicit them.
Large RPG Library
Finally, I have an RPG library that quite possibly weighs half a ton… and that’s the PDF portion. (I kid! That’s the physical RPG books, we moved probably about 3,000 pounds of books last year when we moved house). Once I’ve got an idea and some direction chosen, I can look for relevant and related content in those books and find something to build on or from. I also have a large hard drive full of PDFs and an entire world wide web of blogs and other online sources of content to help me flesh things out.
These all tie together into my Campaign and Scenario Design processes. The Node-Based Megadungeon was designed, to the degree of detail it was, using these processes. The sandbox I’m building right now (have to remember to build a Hall of Fame page for it, I think) is being developed using these processes.
Sample Random Adventure Structure
The diagram below might be used for an adventure structure. I identify the major elements of the adventure, but not the navigation paths through them. Certain conditions may need to apply in order to advance (“you need the blue key!” to go from H to I… or you might find the secret path from F to I) so it might be necessary to successfully ‘complete’ a number of the encounters, but the order they are done is largely uncontrolled. To generate this diagram I wrote a program that took the specified number of areas (ten), made sure each was connected to at least one (possibly itself) and may have a sub-element (the greyed and numbered circles), then I randomly joined them up a certain number of times (with some percentage of potential links actually being sub-elements).
Just looking at it I might consider I being the ‘boss room’. C or J might be the primary entrance. With each having a large number of sub-elements and being at opposite ends of the structure, B and E could be showpiece encounters of some sort. E probably isn’t critical to success since it’s at the end of a linear chain, but it’s possible B could be because of how well-connected it is. E is even self-referential, something about E ‘connects it to itself’. I don’t know yet what it means, but there could be something special about it — perhaps a ‘state change’ of some sort, as action or consequence elsewhere changes what E means. F doesn’t have a sub-element but does have a connection to the boss room, so I can imagine the connection is itself special, and probably either a secret way in, or a more difficult but advantageous way in.
I don’t know exactly what it all means yet, but it has me thinking. There are relationships implied by the diagram that I will want to enact somehow later in the design, and they will keep me thinking about how to satisfy them rather than on accepting the simple solutions.