Thursday, June 30, 2022

Idea Generators (Why a Little Backstory Can Go a Long Way)

I had a really enjoyable chat Saturday afternoon with @Samwise7RPG as well as @TicViking after sharing my #100StatementSetting exercise that got me thinking about why we create campaign worlds the way we do in any RPG. And about that one time the multi-page backstory really was exactly what was needed and paid off when I was a player.

GMing is not an easy task. It entails managing a lot of moving parts: the rules, the NPCs, a clear sense of the current events in the game,  etc. When I sit down and talk to players who are afraid to become GMs, or new GMs who find the task daunting, however, I find the majority of them cite the creative demands running the game as the most intimidating. Coming up with ideas for worlds, NPCs, and adventures.  Nervous GMs often worry the most about where to get ideas.

Most reluctant GMs look at the blank campaign notebook before them and then say to themselves "I don't have enough ideas to make this work." They assume that you need a lot of ideas to make a TTRPG campaign work. Some believe that they need a plot or a complex and fully-realized world.

They don't.

All a campaign needs is two or three good ideas. Because when you have just a few good ideas to build a scaffold for a campaign, they serve to generate more ideas. The first region in your campaign world, your setting, and your first adventure are the spark that will create more ideas of their own accord once you start playing.

The job of a GM isn't to have a notebook stuffed with ideas and notes to sustain a campaign. It is to create a few good "idea generators" and let these do the hard work the group starts playing. A good campaign quickly becomes self-perpetuating, and the GM will find that the creative work practically does itself.

So, What is an Idea Generator?

An idea generator is a few good ideas linked together that will inspire the GM to offer hooks to the PCs, or will give the PCs reasons to explore the campaign world of their own volition. They can be any kind of fact, Content, or character in your world. Generally,  the moment they appear during play, the PCs start reacting to them in a way that creates opportunities for new ideas to emerge.

Some great examples from established D&D products of idea generators might include:

Example 1: The Elemental Temples

Idea: In The Temple of elemental Evil, The monsters and villains are broken into factions and pitted against each other in a Darwinistic attempt to identify the most ruthless acolytes for initiation into the inner circle.

Outcome: With this one idea, you have the opportunity for players to learn about and make alliances with a factions. They have assassinations they could perform. Anytime the player characters eliminate an important asset for one temple, the whole dynamic of the upper floors of the dungeon can change. Once the players learn about this fact, they may choose to engage in sabotage to get the factions to fight. The best part is that all the GM needs to do is to let the PCs know about the factions, and the PCs will decide how to use that information.

Example 2: The Spy in the Keep

Idea: In Keep on the Borderlands, one of the acolytes at the local temple is in reality an agent of the Cult of Evil Chaos that secretly presides over the Caves of Chaos. 

Outcome: This means that the PCs might be ambushed, their plans revealed, helpful NPCs abducted, or other unexpected events that lets them know that their is a traitor at the keep. The GM doesn't need to know how the spy will act at first; instead he or she just has to look for an opportunity to mobilize the spy when the PCs let their guard down and say too much. The adventure idea will eventually generate itself. Once the PCs escape whatever terror the spy's intelligence causes, then the PCs are going to want to find them and conduct an investigation. When that happens, the GM has to do is to select a couple of clues to leave and watch the fireworks occur.

Example 3: The Shipwreck

Idea: In my Monday night Swords & Wizardry campaign in Xen, I noted that there was a ruined airship half-buried in sand 12 miles from town.

Outcome: The airship is a centipede-themed dungeon in the desert. Once the PCs decided to explore it, I was able to add a few details about who once owned it and what was to be found inside when it was necessary to know (not before.) Hoping to start an airship pirate careeer, not only did my players clear it, they used magic and laborers to excavate it, had it dragged back to town, and figured out that it needed 48,000gp to repair to full operating condition.

This meant the PCs rapidly started looking for bounties, other dungeons, and work opportunities. Paying for the airship repairs has been the only hook they have needed for the last four months of play.

Player-Made Idea Generators: Backstory

You don't make your campaign world alone. Your players start building it in part for you the moment that they roll up their PCs. it doesn't matter if the player creates a generic "level 1 Fighter in chainmail" that they won't bother naming until he survives to level 3, or if they have an elaborate idea for the character they want to play: that character is going to give you some ideas just by existing.

If your party has multiple magic users, they are going to need to find a mentor, and a lead on finding a lost scroll or spellbook is going to get big votes. If the party has a Lawful fighter on the team, bounties are an easy lead to add. If you have a Cleric, the whims of their god and church will suddenly be important.

This is where players who bring a little back-story into the campaign can be a very good thing. A player who has a character that with some NPC friends or family, a faction, a teacher, or a goal can help you construct the world.

How much NPC backstory you want to allow is going to vary a lot with the kind of game you want to play. Some tables prefer not to include a lot of playacting, and keep the game to kicking in dungeon doors. Others are looking for tragic and elaborate pasts to use to generate character plot arcs (a la Crtical Role), Personally, I find a happy medium, erring on the side of less is better.

I personally enjoyed Stephen Smith's method for the test campaign in World of Weirth of giving a really simple questionnaire:

  • Name two allies and one NPC enemy of your PC.
  • Describe how they dress.
  • Name one thing they love.
  • Name one thing they fear.
  • What is their greatest strength?
  • What is their biggest weakness.

With the caveat that the answers should total less than half a page. You can see it all in the Personal Bio section of this blog entry.

My own home campaigns come in two varieties: dramatic and casual. In my dramatic games these days, I have my players use something akin to the tables in Xanatahar's Guide to Everything where they may roll or choose to come up with a really basic character. In casual, I ask for a paragraph.

How a Detailed Backstory Helped a New GM find Her Legs

For years I played with a woman I shall call Patricia. Patricia was a good player, she loved to add humor and snarky wit into the game. She created simple characters who could be described in a paragraph, but who were always compelling enough to give me ideas.

After about four years of playing with her, Patricia decided that she wanted to start running an online game for a couple of friends... but she was feeling very nervous about actually running the game. I suggested that she create a rough world, and run two campaigns: one for our home group taht I could use to coach her, and one for her friends in the same setting once she got comfortable.

Patricia agreed, but with a little trepidation. She created an island chain called Maelrune for D&D3.5e. It was isolated from the mainland, which had suffered cataclysmic disasters. Now only a few communities on peninsulas and islands are left as points of light at the edge of a now-empty continent. Maelrune had still been a fresh colony when the motherland grew silent, and was still trying to figure out how to self-govern.

There wasn't much more detail than that... but there didn't need to be.

I asked Patricia if she would be willing to look at a slightly heavier PC backstory and then decided what she would allow and what she wouldn't in it, so I could re-write it.

What I came up with was Muradin Thunderchild of the Silverhammer clan: a misfit dward of great intelligence who belonged to the proud warrior family of a local clan of dwarves who joined the humans in colonizing the islands a century earlier. Muradin was no great warrior, and the shame of a father who was desperately trying to uphold the warrior identity in a clan of smiths-turned-merchants. The abuse and negelct of his father led Muradin to spend time among humans away from the pressures of the Stronghold whenever possible. He fell in with a gang of disaffected human youths who had turned agents and smugglers for local pirates. When he helped them commit a crime against a human merchant, Muradin was brought before his father, beaten within an inch of his life, and on the advice of a kindly dwarf cleric, sent to an island where humans learned wizardry to become the first magus in the clan in seven generations... in hopes that his mind might be put to better use than planning heists. Muradin is only now returning after decades of study a broad to be the mage-artificier for his clan.

This might be a lot... it certainly is for me. But for Patricia, I knew it would be exactly what I needed:

Here she had a dwarf clan, and a reason why they were on the colony. She had naming conventions and a little of the clan's structure. She had a sense of how the dwarf's honor culture shapes them. She had the idea of a gang of msifit youths in league with pirates. She had the idea of pirates who had to be subtle now that the mainland was gone. And that there was another island where magicians come from.

None of this had been in Maelrune before she handed me her three-page campaign primer. Once she had it, though, she was able to add all kinds of ideas about gangs, pirates, dwarves, merchants, and even decided that Maelrune was leaning to an oligarchy. She did ask for a few changes for me and that was fine, too.

This was called "front-loading" back in the official D&D forums at the time. And she had never imagined that a Player could have so much power over the campaign.

I sat down and explained how her previous character in my campaign, an elf named Cazial who wore a half-mask to hide terrible burns from the goblin raid that took her family, had inspired an entire goblin invasion arc that spanned a year of play.  I hadn't even planned their being goblins in the campaign before she handed me that character story. But I asked myself, "what if that goblin raid had been a precursor to something big?"

Muradin's father became a powerful Lawful Evil figure in the setting, one who was a patron  for PCs in the other Maelrune campaign. The academy of magic became a staging area for players in the other campaign during raids to the mainland. A cult-leader-like pirate king became a secondary villain in both. All ideas she was able to harvest from my backstory.

Maelrune ran for four campaigns, often two concurrently, for five years or more.

Villains are Idea Generators

If you have a few bad guys in your campaign that you intend to use more than once... or who happen to get away, you have a pretty solid idea generator. Knowing what your villain wants means you can always pause and ask yourself "What is their next move to get it?" at which point you can have a raid, mystery, race against time, or a revenge plot to build on. Using something like a Fronts system to plan what your bad guys are up to is worth doing once the campaign is rolling and you are comfortable with your world.

Idea Generators that Evolve from Play

Dominion-level play gets neglected in modern Dungeons & Dragons much to the detriment of campaigns everywhere. There seems to be a impression that once a player becomes a lord of a keep or tower, their adventuring days are over.

nothing could be farther from the truth.

Dominions are designed to be Idea Generators, too. Establishing a stronghold is the obvious part of this. If you are following the old recommended rules in AD&D or BECMI D&D, establishing a dominion begins by petitioning (or threatening) a local liege, finding a parcel of land and clearing or monsters and other dangers, attracting laborers to build the stronghold, protecting your claim as you get established, and then building the community. This alone is at least four adventures.

Once you have that area, regular threats, from aggressive local neighbors, to monster migrations, to  natural disasters can constantly threaten the PCs' people. The Dungeons & Dragons Master Set and Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia have fantastic rules for generating monthly events and measuring the happiness and security of a settlement. You can also get them for free in Gubintroll Games; Dark Dungeons if you do not have the original material.

In Mark of the Odd games such as Mausritter, Death is the New Pink, and Electric Bastionland, characters May establish war bands and allow them to fight larger and more dangerous foes. Keeping up these war bands has a cost, as does training them. Death is the new pink also includes random tables for ways in which the warband might get into trouble, or events connected to it that the PCS as commanding officers would have to deal with.

Mausritter also includes its own version of the Dominion rules that are much stripped down from BECMI. 

In Xanathar's Guide to Everything, Dungeons & Dragons 5e discusses using downtime to run a business as an option for PCs. This is mostly a simple method of random gold input and output, which is a missed opportunity. Just like a warband or a dominion, a business could randomly produce opportunities for adventure ideas or to otherwise enrich the campaign. One of the first sets of house rules I developed here was for creating a business that generates ideas for your campaign entitled Selling Water in the Wasteland.

Starting Small Really Does Help

As a final thought about getting started as a GM in whatever game you choose, I can't stress enough how valuable it is to start small. One village, a map of a day or two of travel beyond it (which includes a couple of adventure sites), a few facts about the community, and just one or two ideas about your campaign world is all you will ever need to make a campaign go for months. Definitely long enough for a few Idea Generators to form spontaneously on their own.

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