One question I’ve often gotten at “Beginning GM” panels is, how do you write an RPG scenario? For a lot of beginning GMs, this can be a daunting task; it feels like you have to write a novel from scratch, except that you need to come up with thousands of possible plots, not just one.
My advice? Well, actually, my first piece of advice is to not think in terms of complex plots all laid out ahead of time. Not only is it excessively time-consuming, it’s a sure-fire way to end up with a railroaded game. (Though perhaps your players want that.)
But more practically, my advice is this: Think of a bad guy. Give that bad guy a plan. Then give it some flaws.
The bad guy
If you know your setting, you probably know of some bad folks going around.
Perhaps there are bandits near the Baron’s Road. Perhaps there’s a corporation who cares only about gaining a monopoly over the oxygen supply. Perhaps there’s a mysterious spy organization who are up to no good.
Find a bad guy somewhere in your campaign, one who interests you and one who could present an interesting opposition to your PCs.
It’s good if the bad guy is slightly more rounded than just ‘bad’.
Why are those bandits near the Baron’s Road? Why is that corporation not trying to monopolize the media instead?
Think about the bad guy’s strengths and motivations. Think about why they do what they do, and what they want to accomplish.
Maybe those bandits are sticking near to the Baron’s Road because the bandit queen was once a baroness herself, and she has dreams of taking the barony as her own.
Now, give the bad guy a plan. Something a little more ambitious than they’ve had before, something a bit more dramatic than the average.
Let’s say the bandit queen wants to build a palisade across the Road so she can get her ‘tax’ more easily, and because it will give her a ‘castle’ that she can claim as a baronial seat.
Look at the bad guy’s motives and strengths and find something they can do, with a bit of effort, that will advance their goals.
Detail that plan a bit more. How will they achieve it? If it’s ambitious, it won’t be done easily, so it’ll have several stages and requirements.
To build her palisade, the bandit queen will need many things:
- Raw materials: Strong wood (perhaps not available locally), lots of rope and fireproofing materials
- Expertise: Architects or engineers to help her design and build it, and those experts might not be easy for her to find
- A good place to build: Someplace on the Baron’s Road, where a palisade will be unassailable and impossible to just skip around.
- Security: Protection from do-gooders before the palisade is done, and some way to make sure the bandits don’t rebel, either.
The plan doesn’t have to be ultra-detailed; just think of a few important steps that the bad guy will need to do in order to achieve their goals. And remember, because they’re a bad guy, they’re not going to go through their plan in completely legitimate ways.
How will the bandit queen build her wall?
- She might reasonably decide to start assembling raw materials first, while at the same time trying to ascertain who the best available engineers and architects are.
- Next, she plans to send out some of her bandits to kidnap whatever experts she can find, while keeping a few busy chopping wood at the hideout.
- She might send out a few more to recruit new bandits, probably in a different direction than where she gets the experts from.
- Once she gets the experts, she’ll keep them hostage in the hideout’s most secure spot.
- Then, she’ll have the new recruits do most of the building while the experienced troops keep an eye on the new ones.
- When she’s done, she’ll kill the experts and have a nice, big, powerful newquarters, and tough new troops to go with it.
Now, the critical stage: look at that plan and see where it has flaws. Every bad guy’s plan has flaws, because every plan has flaws. Further, bad guys will often skimp on materials or time, or discount human factors, or simply overestimate their own abilities. And, in metagame terms, if the plan is flawless, then the PCs can’t possibly defeat it.
Think about the stages of their plan. Think about what could go wrong in each stage, and ways in which the PCs could stop the bad guy’s plans from coming to fruition.
The bandit queen’s plans have numerous failure modes:
- Perhaps the rope isn’t available anywhere near her hideout, so mysterious strangers all across the land are buying rope in large quantities.
- Bandits aren’t always the best judges of expertise, so they may accost the wrong ‘experts’ or have to search far and wide to find someone suitable.
- At the hideout, morale might be low, leading to fighting between the bandits.
- Or the new recruits might be disillusioned; they thought they were going to be engaging in adventurous robbery, but instead they spend their days chopping wood.
- And whoever the queen has kidnapped might be trying their hardest to escape.
Of course, you don’t have to detail everything the PCs can do to defeat the plan. In fact, it’s good to leave things a little loose and allow the PCs to devise their own counter-plans. If the ways to defeat the plan are few in number, rigidly defined and hard to discover, the players will be frustrated and the game will suffer.
Early stages of the bad guy’s plans can make for a good adventure hook.
Perhaps the PCs hear rumors of mysterious strangers buying large quantities of rope, or one of the PCs gets accosted in an alleyway by a bandit trying to kidnap architects.
The plot of the scenario then depends on two things: the bad guy’s ability to advance it, and the PCs’ ability to stop it. Make sure that the bad guy is working to advance their plan, and that the situation changes as they do so. But at the same time, make sure the PCs have the ability to make progress against the plan. If the plan continues apace regardless of what the PCs do, then it’s less an RPG and more a novel.
Part-way through the adventure, perhaps the bandit queen has kidnapped several experts, and has her bandits building the palisade. But morale is flagging, and as the PCs come upon the camp, some of the bandits are arguing over who has to dig the next set of holes.
Will the PCs be able to divide and conquer the bandits, fighting them in small, manageable groups? Or perhaps they’ll be able to convince the bandits to turn on the queen. Or they’ll convince the queen herself that the old Baron has died and named her heir. Or something even more outlandish. Let the players try whatever they come up with!
This system doesn’t work for every session, of course. You don’t want to do this style of scenario multiple times in a row; your players will likely start to tire of it. And many campaigns will evolve to have much more organic scenarios that arise naturally out of conflicts that are woven through the larger fabric of the game. But if you’re a beginning GM, trying to create a scenario from scratch for the first time, this can be a good method to start with.