Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fudge, with bells on it

I've started outlining my new Fudge campaign. If it gets off the ground, I'll let you know how it goes. At this point, though, I want to write about two tools I've used at this stage in the design theory: Long Knives and Island Design Theory. I encourage you to check them both out, as well as the sites that host them. Amagi Games, which I've only just discovered, has a ton of little plug-ins and tools for planning and running RPG sessions. They're all extremely simple to implement, system-neutral, and clever. Gnome Stew, home to Island Design Theory, is a GM's blog, run by a bunch of wonderful fellows, gives general advice for running your games. It's worth your time trawling around the archives, and checking it when you get up with a cup of coffee (or whatever your morning ritual is).

I'm trying to create a campaign set in a city-state with numerous internal factions vying for control. Long Knives is absolutely perfect for designing this. At first I thought it was a bit extraneous, but forcing yourself to map out all of the relationships between factions, design a few plot hooks, and considering interests is worth the effort. On the one hand, it suggested relationships I hadn't thought of before. As I filled out the chart, I saw that some factions were diametrically opposed, whereas some had possible common interests. I know now that my campaign could take several directions. A, B, and C could ally against D and E, or A D and C, or whatever. This unstable state of affairs makes the actions of a few motivated individuals a lot more important, so the party will have a real role to play. It also helped me when I went onto the second phase of planning.

Island design theory uses individual events or encounters as its building-blocks. These are loosely linked into a story, but players can skip between them or go back and forth. The order isn't set in stone (even though actual ISLANDS are, in fact, set in stone). This allows the GM to react a lot better to player initiative, while still retaining some narrative control, and some ability to plan ahead. After filling out the Long Knives chart, I found it very easy to write out 25 possible events (one for every interrelationship on the chart) on scraps of paper. I sorted these events into three piles. Because I had been brainstorming, I found that my largest pile was events that could in and of themselves form the basis of a gaming session. A few events were totally earth-shattering (coups and assassinations and things like that), and really couldn't take place without the players first becoming immersed in the campaign and having a hand in events. And a fairly large stack were somewhat interesting, but contained no possible plot hooks for the pcs, and really didn't stand up on their own as adventures.

I knew I wanted my first adventure to be interesting, to get the party involved immediately, and to set the tone for the campaign. So I randomly picked one event from the first pile (reasonable adventures) and two from the third (slightly interesting events). I looked at the three I had selected and saw that because of the interrelationships set up with Long Knives, these events were all far more interesting in relation to each other than they would be individually. I sorted them out into a logical order (one order out of several possible orders). These will form the central events of my first adventure. I have a lot of detail to fill in, but it's obvious at this stage which characters I should prepare, what settings I should put together, and some of the encounters, combat or otherwise, I should be ready to run.

I'll probably run an island process again for this adventure, writing out linking events that lead from A to B to C, and roughly arrange them. This will give some narrative structure to my adventure, while still allowing a fair bit of player control. Rather than setting up a flowchart, I'll instead make a timeline. The timeline will be structured as such:

Event A --- Linking group A --- Event B --- Linking group B --- Event C

I'll know roughly that after event A, the players will head in one of several likely directions, and I'll be ready to engage them. Come event B, they'll have explored the world a bit, be more committed to events, and start to understand a few of the ramifications of what's happening. Similarly, the linking group B events will allow players to start situating themselves in the world (I work with These Guys, Those Guys are my enemies) so C will be able to wrap the adventure up nicely with a decent cliffhanger, leaving them wanting to know more.

I have been using these tools partly because I haven't GMd in a while, and in the interim have read a lot of ideas about it. I've been eager to try out some new tricks. Please share any experiences you have with any of these.

Regarding Education

From an educational standpoint, both of these tools would also be useful. Long Knives would make a good worksheet for students trying to understand complex political events (like the French Revolution, for instance). The first section would allow them to jot down some initial impressions about the actors, the second would allow them to decide what events leading up to the crisis seemed most important, and the third would let them explore the interrelationships in a tense situation, and see why a crisis had to occur, but also that it could have gone several ways. Comparing results between students would make for fruitful discussion.

Island Design Theory would make a perfect planning tool for teachers. Have a good look at the curriculum and figure out what the main concepts you want to explore are. Give each of these a colour code and use coloured post-its or index cards. For medieval history, you might make pink cards about society and culture, blue cards about historical change, and green cards about historiography and history skills building. Write out every lesson and activity you have on one of these cards. Sort them roughly into units of work, of 2-4 weeks. This is your semester plan. You can always grab a later lesson and move it up. You can add cards if students show a particular interest in a given topic. If you have more possible lessons and activities than you have teaching time, you can ask students to pick which ones they would most like to explore. Inform them that they need a few from every colour, and let them collaborate with you on curriculum development. Cards could carry reminders about lesson timing, resources you will need (dice, videos, construction paper, etc), and links to other topics. These cards are also re-usable from year to year, assuming you make them sturdy enough.

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