Series Info...#8: Building Blocks, Part 2: Scenarios

by Travis S. Casey
May 4, 2001

At the start of last week's column, I said that an RPG is made up of three parts: system, background, and scenario. All of these are important, but I'd venture to say that for a computer RPG, scenario is the most crucial of the three. Why? Because scenarios are what give players something to do with their characters. Without scenarios, players can do nothing but sit around and chat. (Well... they can start to develop and play out their own scenarios, which is the basis of a lot of strong-RP online games, such as many MOOs. However, there are still scenarios involved there.) While that's interesting for some people, there are many who want to do more than that.

The basis of any scenario is a plot. Let's stop and talk about plots for a moment. A lot of tabletop RPG gamers have a bad reaction to the word "plot" when applied to games. For them, it summons forth awful memories of bad GMs who had a plot – actually, let's make that a PLOT – in mind. GMs who knew exactly what they wanted to have happen in the game, and weren't going to let any players mess up their carefully-crafted PLOT. If those kinds of memories are coming up for you, please try to put them aside – one of the wonderful things about online multiplayer RPGs is that a player can always have his/her character wander off and do something else, so this sort of "it's my plot and you will stick to it" game is much less likely to happen.

Ideally, a plot for a scenario is simply an outline of a story – a "there's this bad guy who's oppressing the peasants, and the heroes come into the village and find out about it, and they decide to help the peasants, and they bring the bad guy down" type of thing. Note what's been left out here – there's nothing said about how the heroes find out that the peasants are being oppressed, nor about their motivations for helping the peasants, nor even about how they go about defeating the villain. This is deliberate; framing a plot in such general terms leaves the scenario designer plenty of wiggle room. A plot like this allows multiple ways to go through the scenario, while still providing enough of a framework for there to be a scenario.

Overly-specific plots are bad – especially in an online RPG, where you're likely to find great variation in player characters. Taking the example above, there are a lot of ways that you could start to get too specific with it. For example, a version that ended with "they storm the castle and bring the bad guy down" implicitly leaves out such options as sneaking into the castle, luring the bad guy out into an ambush, etc. Similarly, specifying how the heroes find out that the bad guy is oppressing the peasants with something like "they see several of the bad guy's men roughing up the peasants at the inn" creates problems if the players don't go to the inn.

Avoiding this sort of overly-restrictive setup is one of the most important things in creating a scenario, and can be one of the hardest to learn. Especially when getting ideas out of movies and books – it's easy to work things in such a way that the players' only option is to do things the same way they were done in the movie or book.

With current computer games, at some level, you have to restrict what ways players can accomplish things – after all, every option is going to require the scenario designer to set up a way to handle it. Ideally, what you want to create is a network of possible paths that the players could take through the scenario. Thus, you might have three or four different starting points where the players could see an act of cruelty by the bad guy's minions, a half dozen or so places to get more information, two or three ways the characters could get into the castle, a couple of ways to get the bad guy out of the castle, and a few other random bits just for color.

These should be set up so that the players can move from one to another in several different ways; for example, they might encounter more than one of the acts of cruelty, depending on what they do. They could visit multiple places to get information, and might even try to get to the bad guy more than once.

Now, so far, this isn't anything different from what someone writing a professional module for a tabletop game needs to do. The differences come in the fact that there isn't a live GM running the game while the players are in it, ready and able to adapt the adventure as necessary. There are three extra requirements this places on the designer of a scenario for a computer game:
  • Detail. The scenario designer has to come up with everything the characters will see, hear, smell, and otherwise sense. In many cases, just doing this can take up most of the actual time of creating the scenario. Skotos' object creation system should help with this, especially if it allows placing already-dressed areas – e.g., a generic "bedroom" or "common room of an inn."
  • Repeatability. As things stand right now, it's generally too much of an effort to create a scenario from scratch just to be used once. Because of this, an online RPG scenario needs to be reusable, either in whole on in part. To be reusable in full requires careful planning, especially if there are elements of mystery involved, but the problems aren't impossible. Portions of the scenario can be randomized or otherwise vary from one run of the scenario to another.
  • Lack of character hooks. A GM making an adventure for a group he/she regularly plays with can use his/her knowledge of that group's characters in designing the adventure. This can save a lot of effort, and can make the campaign more interesting to the players, since the GM can play to their preferences. In a pre-designed scenario, however, this is impossible, since you don't know who the players will be. (And, since repeatability is important, there's probably going to be a large number of different characters going through the adventure.)

Now, all of this may make it sound as if creating scenarios for online RPGs is a lot more trouble than it is for tabletop RPGs. In some ways it is, but there are compensations – as Shannon pointed out in TT&T #34, it's possible to do things in an online game that either can't be done or are very difficult to do in a tabletop game. Further, it's not as hard as it sounds, especially with good tools. Once you've built a couple of scenarios, you can re-use components from them in other scenarios. This can be done either by copying them to a different place with a different name and some alterations to disguise them (like a set redress in a TV show), or by simply reusing them as is – for example, just because the evil overlord of the village from the example scenario has been defeated, that doesn't mean that something else couldn't happen in the village later. And, for that matter, if the evil overlord's been defeated, is his castle going to remain vacant forever?

The lack of character hooks is more of a problem, especially for creating an engaging scenario. Here, however, you can make use of the player types that were discussed in my last column. A dramatist player wants drama – derring-do, noble deeds, foul villains, and other such things. A scenario with opportunities for such things, then, will tend to draw dramatists in. A gamist player enjoys the game – figuring out puzzles, managing resources in order to accomplish tasks, thinking up new ways of doing things, etc. To keep a gamist happy, you need to make sure that the scenario is challenging but fair, and set things up so that a little application of brainpower can make handling the scenario easier. A simulationist wants to be able to do anything that would "really" work in the situation – which requires a well-thought-out scenario, but in many ways is more of a requirement on the system.

On the side of Bartle's types, an achiever wants to be able to get something out of a scenario. Experience points or such might be enough, but a more explicit reward may be more likely to get them involved. Explorers want something to explore and learn about – secret paths, hidden entrances, shortcuts, and all that sort of thing. Socializers want other people to talk to. That's not something that you can directly put into a scenario (or is it... ELIZA, anyone?), but you can build a scenario to allow for, or even require, multiple players cooperating. Lastly, killers want to show their superiority over other players. Competitive scenarios can allow that directly; other scenarios can allow it indirectly, through mechanisms such as "top score" or "fastest completion" lists.

Of course, to keep players around in the long term, you'll need to interest them with your setting or system... and we'll talk about those in the next couple of columns.

your opinion...