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Game Design: Step by Step

Random Acts

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

May 17, 2000


Here's a little scenario for you:  It's a little bit before dinnertime, and you get a call from your playing group.  They're all coming over, ready to play... tonight.  Problem is, you've got nothing prepared---last time you played, your group completed their latest adventure, and for whatever reason you haven't had the time to come up with anything else.

I had encountered this problem a number of times back in my early days of gaming... until the release of Victory Games' For Your Information supplement for their James Bond 007 roleplaying game.  That supplement, which was, honestly, largely worthless, did contain one item which forever changed how I ran campaigns, and later, how I designed games.  The supplement contained something which I had never seen in a game before: a random mission generator.

With a quick series of die rolls, the gamemaster could determine the location, focus and complications of an adventure.  It was great. The results weren't detailed, to be sure, but they were more than enough to get my own imagination fired up to fill in the details. After that, I developed random adventure generators for all other games that I played... at least until Lion Rampant (the precursor of White Wolf) released StoryPath cards, which fulfilled much the same purpose, but in a generic sense (sometimes these can be found in the bargain bins of game stores, or through used game dealers... and there's always ebay... I heartily recommend picking them up).

Anyone who's read my earlier game, Hong Kong Action Theatre!, will be able to see how this affected my game design philosophy.  The main rulebook for HKAT! contained random plot generators for each of the different types of film genres presented (Gunplay, Martial Arts, and Bizarre Fantasy).  The rules companion, To Live and Die in HK, contained plot generators for two additional genres, as well as a random action sequence generator.  I even went so far as to create a random title generator!  All of these random roll tables would combine to allow a gamemaster to create an adventure on the fly... to randomly generate elements that inspire the gamemaster to generate their own connecting ideas.

When writing the Conductor's section for UnderWorld, it was a foregone conclusion that I would include some form of random adventure generation system.  This was more difficult to do than I had first contemplated, mostly due to the fact that the Head Count mechanic does not allow for the wide range of results needed.  I considered a solution somewhat similar to the COPP (Cooperation, Opposition, Personality and Plot) mechanic that I created for NPCs--but this didn't serve my needs. For one thing, to allow for as wide a variation as I wanted, there would have to be much more than simply 4 categories with "off" or "on" results.

What I came up with developed out of another coin-randomizer mechanic that I had kicked around for one of my other designs.  Using 3 coins, read in a binary fashion, you can arrive at 8 different results (Head Head Head (HHH), Head Head Tail (HHT), Tail Head Tail (THT), etc).  Two such rolls, cross referenced, can give you 64 results.  So, with 64different possible results in each category, a large variety of possible adventures can be generated.

The basic format for a randomly designed adventure will be the dramatic core that I learned through screenwriting:  all plots can be boiled down to the following sentence--"the main characters must [DO SOMETHING] but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION] ." This makes a nice structure for any adventure, whether its roleplaying, written, or filmed.  For UnderWorld, however, I thought it would be interesting to expand that a bit more, allowing for a wider variation. So the basic dramatic structure of an UnderWorld adventure would read more like this:  "The main characters must [DO] [SOMETHING] at [LOCATION] , but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION] ."    Since each category has 64 possibilities, this structure allows for 1, 073, 741, 824 possible combinations... more than enough to give the Conductor something to work with.

The main difference there is that I've added the location as something that is variable, and, more importantly, I've split [DO SOMETHING] into [DO] [SOMETHING] ... allow me to explain that a bit further.  The "do something" is the focus of the adventure---it is what drives the action.Making it a single category under this system only gives me 64 possibilities(by cross referencing two 3 coin Head Counts).  However, if I split the "do" (the verb) and the "Something" (the subject) into two categories, that means that each have 64 possibilities and can combine for a total of 4096 results.  For example, take these:  "Rescue the Princess", "Find the Treasure", and "Defeat the Monster".  Under this new system, these three focii can be split, giving you those same results, but also additional ones such as "Find the Monster", "Rescue the Monster", "Find the Princess", etc. etc. etc.  This can also give you some odd results, such as "Defeat the Treasure"... but as a Conductor, that phrase, which, on its surface seems bizarre, makes me start to think... What is this treasure? Why must it be defeated?  How do you defeat a treasure, anyway? Before you know it, I've got an adventure detailing the character's struggle to overcome a malevolent magical weapon that has come alive!

This type of system is not intended to replace planning on the part of the Conductor, but rather as a springboard for the development of the Conductor's own ideas.  It can at least give the Conductor a direction to move towards... and in combination with Intuitive Continuity, that's about all you should need.

*                               *                               *

Just to give you an update on where we stand in production of UnderWorld.... Art has been assigned, and is starting to come in (and you're gonna love some of this stuff... I know that I do.  In fact, some of the work coming in has inspired me to write setting material based entirely upon what I'm seeing).  Layout of the book will occur in the beginning of June, and then it's off to the printer in late June/early July, in time to get the book back in time for GenCon in August.  So far, so good.

Composition on the soundtrack CD continues.  A sampler CD featuring some of the tracks will be available for free with copies of the advance edition (the edition available at GenCon, and through mail order from Synister, before the regular edition goes to stores in October/November).  Again, if anyone wants to check out what some of the tracks sound like (or for that matter, other compositions from the same artist), go to www.mp3.com, and search for the artist page for "the Purest Cobol Project".  There are "draft versions" of the UnderWorld soundtrack material there, as well as several other tracks... all of which I think are pretty damned nifty, and I hope you like them too.  The full version of the CD featuring the full soundtrack, plus a special CD-only adventure, will be available as a separate, full release in November.

Anyway... I've got to get back to work.  Got a game to produce! See ya in 7.

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

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What do you think?

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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000
  36. Endings and Beginnings June 29, 2000
  37. A Brief Return to the Underworld July 13, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

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Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

Other columns at RPGnet

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