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Three days from the time of this article going live, I’m going to be running a one-shot adventure at my FLGS at their first attempt at running a one-day convention at the store. I honestly hope the con goes well, so that they’ll consider expanding it to a larger venue, more days, etc. I also hope my game goes well, but I have a concern. At this point, I’ve been told that my game slot will be either 2 hours long … or 3 hours long. Bah. One hour difference. Not a big deal, right? Well, if I were being told that my slot would be 5-6 hours, I can work with that. However, potentially losing one-third of my time allotment at the last moment, I have to do some planning for both time allocations.
This got me to thinking about how to seamlessly, and on the fly, drop a full third of my adventure plans on the floor and not have the players notice. As most of you know, I’m a fiction author, so I tend to gravitate to those arenas when I think about things. Here’s what fell out of my head:One-Shot Game Time Fiction Equivalent Less than 1 hour Flash Fiction 1-4 hours Short Story 4-8 hours Novella 9+ hours Novel MICE/MACE Quotients
So, with the above table in mind, I’m looking at telling a collaborative short story. Cool. I can handle that, but how do I tackle unbolting a plot hook or encounter and throwing it away, but still give a consistent and pleasing game experience? In my world of writing fiction, there are two similar ideas floating around in how to structure and build out a short story. One is from Orson Scott Card and the other is Mary Robinette Kowal’s alteration to Card’s idea. Card came up with the MICE Quotient, and Kowal flipped one thing around to make it the MACE Quotient. I’m not going to dive into them here, but you can easily follow the links for your own research.
Now I’m going to present a new twist on both of the above, but with a focus on designing role playing game adventures. While I’m mainly focused on one-shot adventures here, I really believe the pacing, structure, and ideas packed into a longer adventure (or series of adventures) could benefit from this idea.LACE Quotient
Thus, I present to you, gentle reader, the LACE Quotient:
- Locations – Where things happen.
- Asks/Answers – Choices the PCs must make.
- Combats – Rolling dice, lots of dice!
- Events – Traps, riddles, non-dice-based social encounters, etc.
Let’s break down each one of these segments.Locations
This one should be obvious, but I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Some folks consider a single map to equate to a single location. Yeah. I can see this. It’s true. However, I challenge you to drill down to tighter view. Make each room its own location. This allows for more fine-grained tuning to an adventure. You can keep some rooms (that may be important to the plot), but alter or drop other rooms that have little to no bearing on how things turn out at the end.Asks/Answers
Left? Right? Straight? Each time the party has to stop and make a choice, the time dynamic at the table shifts. Some groups act like well oiled machines and always go left (Law of Left) or right (Rule of Right), so these ask/answer situations resolve quickly. If you’re thinking about putting in a dead end or red herring section of a cave system, think about all of the choices the players have to make. Perhaps there’s a chance to cut or add choices depending on the time limits you are working with for your one-shot.Combats
We all know that this is where the game clock and real world clocks fall way out of sync. Six seconds of game time may pass, but in our real world, it could take six minutes to get through it. Streamline your adventure to reduce unnecessary combats if you’re tight on time. Heck, if you are given more time than you need, perhaps that empty room could suddenly spawn a few orcs (or dirty kobolds) just before the party’s dwarven barbarian kicks in the door. Think about the special powers or abilities the mooks have. Perhaps save the spiffy abilities for the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). The more specials they have, the longer it will take for the combat to resolve.Events
This is my generic catch-all for the things that don’t fit neatly into the above categories. In this bucket you’ll find things like traps, riddles, social encounters, weather events, and so on. These are things that take time to work around, get past, push through, or describe. Honestly, these are the fun things of adventures, so I recommend having more events than the other areas, but without a location, the trap has no place to hide. You’ll need locations just as much as you do events.Where’s The Math?
So … I called this a quotient, and closest definition I could find for this approach reads, “a degree or amount of a specified quality or characteristic.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but there’s no straight application or formula where you’ll plug in your L, A, C, and E areas and get a time result. That’s just not possible.
My approach is to figure out how long I think it’ll take to describe a location and allow the PCs to interact with it. I do that for each room, not each map. Just in case they are the types of players that must explore every room, I add it all up. Larger, more ornate, more detailed locations will eat more time.
Then I figure I’ll add in another 2 minutes for each of the small ask/answer sections. These are the right/left type of ask/answers. For the larger ask/answer sections (such as strategizing about “do we use the back entrance or charge the front door”) I’ll allot roughly 5 minutes for each of those. When I’m actually running the game, I’ll keep a strict eye on analysis paralysis and call a stop to the debate if necessary. I hardly ever do that in my regular games, but in a con game, I’m on the clock and must finish and clear out in time.
Combats are more tricky than locations. The more mooks or BBEGs there are in a fight, the longer it will take. The more special abilities the mooks, BBEGs, and PCs have, the longer it will take to resolve than a simple “I swing my sword” action. This is where you’ll probably have to adjust things on the fly. If the combats have been moving slowly, I recommend flagging a few non-necessary combat scenes later in the adventure and just have the room be empty (or not there at all, depending on your map and layout).
I love loading up on events, but these can be very time consuming. Probably the most time consuming out of all of these categories. It’s fairly easy to remove a trap or riddle from an adventure. Sometimes the social encounters can vanish along with the NPC, but if the NPC is supposed to deliver important information for the plot or hook to continue the story in the right direction, this can be difficult.
As you’re going through your adventure design, mark things with a special highlighter (mine’s pink) that can be easily dropped from the game without impacting the overall story. This will allow you to sit back, think, consider, and then slather some pink (or whatever) highlighter over a room, stat block, riddle, or NPC. This will allow you to “on the fly” remove the element, but without having to do the thinking on the fly as well.Another Option: Play Test
If you have the luxury of running your one-shot for some friends, I highly recommend doing it before the con rolls around. However, if you don’t have that option (which I don’t for the upcoming FLGS con), then approaching adventure design with the LACE Quotient could lead you in the right direction for hitting the target on length. Whatever approach you use, I hope the addition of the LACE Quotient to your toolbox will assist you in future designs.
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There is a thing about designing a setting that I have come to learn as I have gone from designing and playtesting Hydro Hacker Operatives, that I did not realize. Eventually, the setting is not your own anymore. Once the game goes out into the world, everyone will read it and play it, with their own interpretations. None of those will be exactly like you, the designer, play the game. There is nothing wrong with that, but it does take a moment to realize and let it go.Like A Game of Telephone
The setting of Hydro Hackers came from my thoughts and ideas. For a long time, that was the only place it resided. I knew how I wanted the world to work, and in the various playtests I ran I would convey that to the players, sometimes at the start of the game and always throughout the game.
Then when I started writing the manuscript for the game, I wrote several chapters on the world. I wrote a detailed history as well as a whole chapter dedicated to things that were different between our world and the Poisoned World of Hydro Hacker Operatives. It’s not a small number of words, about 15K.
But when we made the decision to do an ashcan, I could not include all that information. So I cut the setting to 2000 words, leaving out a lot of the minor details, while trying to convey the most important elements that make up the setting.
But that is as far as I can go. I can just write the words down and hand it over to the reader. What the reader interprets as they read it, is out of my control. Those readers become the GM and the players who sit at the table and run the game the way they want. And it’s impossible for them to do it exactly like I did when I ran it.Letting Go
I had my first taste of this, at Origins this summer. Senda and I both ran games of Hydro Hackers and ran the same exact adventure. Of course, our tables had very different experiences. Right before we finished lunch to head to our respective games, it occurred to me that a new version of Hydro Hackers was about to be created. Those players who played with Senda would now have a somewhat different view of the game than the one that I created. There was a small pang of anxiety at that, but it has to happen this way if the game is going to move from a thing that I do to a game that people run and play.
And now, as I am on the verge of releasing the ashcan (coming in early September), I realize that the world of Hydro Hackers is no longer my own. I will always have my version which people can experience when they play it with me at conventions, but there will now be other versions. All sorts of variations from what I designed. That does come with some excited anxiety.Lessons
So what did I learn? What can I impart to any of you who are designing your own games?
Here are some thoughts…Keep it close until you can explain the core of it
So I did not let anyone run H2O until I was able to write down what the setting was, which was later in the process. In the early days, if too many people had run the game, the idea of what H2O was could have been diluted from what I wanted it to be. Once I was able to write it down, then it was solid enough to express to others.History is More Interesting To You
I have a pretty elaborate history for how we get from now to the world 150 years in the future, but honestly, I am the person who is the most interested in that. Most people want to know a little history, but then are going to be focused on the game setting as it is for the characters. For the ashcan, I condensed 15 pages of history into one page.Explain What Is Different They know our world, so telling them what is different gives them a shortcut to understanding the setting. Share14Tweet22+11Reddit1Email
This is especially true for Sci-Fi settings, but I think it works in other settings as well. The bulk of the setting I included in the ashcan was text that explained how the world was different from our world. How was water different, how was technology different, how was the world different? Those are the things that people need to know to get into the setting. They know our world, so telling them what is different gives them a shortcut to understanding the setting.Put the rest in the back of the book
In the front of the book, include enough setting to get everyone playing the game. When I go from the ashcan to the full game, I am not changing the setting info at the front. But I will take the rest of the setting material and add it to the back of the book. The people who are interested will go to the back and read it. By putting it in the back of the book, you are also signifying that it’s not necessary to get started, but it’s there for those who want to go deeper into the material.No one will run it like you
Once the game goes into the wild, the setting is no longer uniquely yours. Find your peace with that. People are going to play it in ways you do not intend, but it is their game and not yours, now.Send It Off Into The World
So as Hydro Hackers gets closer to its release date, I am getting ready to hear about all sorts of games that people have run, and to be thankful that people are playing the game I created and not get hung up if they describe something that the Water Authority would not do in my game. I suspect that as I create more worlds and set them loose that this gets easier, but Hydro Hackers is my first kid and the school bus for the first day of school is getting closer.
Deep breath…deep breath.
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Going Through Forbidden Otherworlds, or GTFO (cute huh) is again a case of me getting something that is exactly what I need. While I am not going to play it as-is, there is a tweak mentioned in the book itself that works perfectly for me. In fact, a lot of this book works perfectly for me and my next set of adventures. I can't believe I am saying this, but I will turn up the gore factor in this Lamentations product for my needs.
Not a real fan of the art inside but I see why it works for this.