Core Ethos: Adventure Design via the Nanopitch

Posted on : 03-19-2011 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D, Guest Posts, mbeacom

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Mbeacom comes back to us with a post about brevity and conciseness in regards to adventure design. It’s a good one; I’ve included some follow-up thoughts at the end.

One of the groups I currently run is taking a short break while I prepare for, and go on, a family vacation.  I had this planned for a while so I was able to make sure the narrative we were engaged in had tied up pretty nicely leading up to the break. There are several dangling strands for future adventure but nothing that is time constrained so as to make the break feel unnatural.  As far as my group of heroes is concerned, they’ve earned a nice chance to kick up their heels and let the locals gush over their hard fought successes.

But where to go next?  As I said, I’ve peppered seeds of adventure here and there but now I need plans for what those seeds may become.  Normally, I like to use published adventures as a framework, at least pulling some villains and motivations from them to lay at the feet of my players. Then letting the players show me what they feel needs attention. If they follow the hooks of the adventure, great, if not, that’s fine too. I like the potential for things to happen that I hadn’t thought of. It makes the story feel more organic and it’s a nice surprise to see where things will lead, rather than having all the spoilers in advance. For some reason though, this group has me a bit stumped. I’m relatively new to the group, having only DM’d them for a few months and not knowing any of them personally prior to the start of the campaign (props to Wizards Encounters program for giving me the opportunity to meet other local gamers).  They’re not a particularly vocal bunch but they definitely love playing the game.

It’s this background that I’ve been mulling over in my mind as I try to decide what tasty challenges to put on the gaming menu.  When I’m in a situation like this, I tend to reach out to the web for inspiration. I try to find an article or story or even a random comment that helps me put things into perspective.  In this case, it was a fantastic writeup by Chris Sims over at Critical Hits.  Chris is a guy I’m really starting to sync up with. His great perspectives and original ideas make him a solid source of inspiration.  Back in February, he wrote this story about game design.  That’s right, about GAME design, RPG design mostly.  However, in reading his thoughts and suggestions, I realized that they’re not exclusively relevant to the design of new games. They’re so fundamental and easily overlooked that they’re useful for almost ANY type of design or creative process.

In my case, I’m going to endeavor to use his tips to help me focus on my adventure design. This brings us to “The Nanopitch”.  Chris describes this as the single sentence one might write in an effort to get their idea in front of a decision maker at a company. What is it about your idea or product that makes it unique? Or, tell us about what your idea means and why it’s worthwhile.

Ideally, you want to couch your nanopitch in terminologies that everyone understands. If you use references to common cultural icons, you can sum up ideas and concepts in a very short bit of text. I think this is not only great advice, but it’s a great way to think about your campaign plans, or even more simply, your story designs. Heck, even a villain could benefit from having a nanopitch.

Whether you’re a player or a DM, think about your game. Can you sum up why it’s great in a sentence or two? Can you make one sentence that encompasses what the story is about? Ok, so maybe campaigns can get more complex than a couple of sentences allow. Even so, I think it’s a great exercise to try to apply the concept of a nanopitch to certain aspects of our adventures. Perhaps each character could have a nanopitch. Perhaps each subplot or quest could benefit from this focused approach.  Just one simple concept of what it means or what motivation drives it forward.  Using this, I think it can help us design encounters, both combat and non-combat. Does the encounter serve the concept? Is it “necessary”? I think if we start to look at things this way, we can avoid some of the oddities of adventure design that tend to creep in. Those things that dilute the awesomeness of the story, or confuse the players as to what is really important.  And as I’ve learned from my experiences of running games, diluted awesomeness and confused players are very often a signal that your adventure design needs to be more focused.

So, as I sit here and ponder what unthinkable evils my players will have to overcome, I’m thinking of them with laserlike focus. I’m designing with greater consistency of theme and purpose.  I hope not to lose that 50,000ft view of the world, even as I dig deep into the wild antics of the skirmisher I plan to use in certain encounters.  I’m resolved to create a “core ethos” and stick to it, letting it guide my design decisions. Hopefully this will help over the long term as transition into Paragon tier. I really want my players to look back and feel like they made a journey, rather than just did “a bunch of stuff”.  Perhaps I should ask my players to make the nanopitch.  That could get really interesting.

This nanopitch idea reminds me a lot of something that exists in the Dresden Files RPG: the high concept aspect. Each player character has seven aspects–descriptive phrases that say something about who and what your character is–one if which is the high concept aspect. This aspect sums your character up in a few words to a sentence, boiling your character down into something short, punchy, and memorable. In fact, all named characters (NPCs included) have a high concept aspect, which helps to keep them differentiated in everybody’s minds. Applying a similar thing to D&D (or to other games) can help you come up with a cleaner, clearer vision of your game world and the cast of characters populating it.

I also want to touch on the idea presented at the very end of this post, the idea of letting your players give you the nanopitch. I love this idea. Again, DFRPG does this to some extent. The first session is City Creation (of which Character Creation is a part), and everyone’s involved. All of the players, in concert with the GM, create the game setting in concert, complete with NPCs, threats, and locations. New things can, of course, be introduced during the game, so the GM is not constrained by what is created in the first session, but it’s a great way to mine your group for ideas, and a great way to get them to tell you what they’re interested in seeing in the game. Chances are, if a player tells you that there’s a mob boss controlling the trafficking of supernatural drugs somewhere in the city, that player probably wants to do something about that problem at some point.

Again, the applications to D&D are intriguing. Setting aside the first session of a new campaign for character creation and setting creation takes a lot of the creative burden off of the DM, and gets the players immediately invested in the world (since they helped make it).

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