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Soapbox: About the Industry

Murphy's Law for Adventure Writers

by Sandy Antunes
Nov 07,2003

 

Murphy's Law for Adventure Writers

by Sandy Antunes

Murphy's Law: Whatever can go wrong, will.

Sandy's axiom: Things only go wrong when you aren't prepared, and only go right when you waste effort preparing for failure.

So, while writing the Redhurst adventure for Human Head, on the day it was due, just as I was running a final proof of the to-be-submitted draft... my computer died. Just plain locked up.

To some, computer lockup may be a regular event. However, my current linux system has been running without need for a reboot for about half a year now. That's over three thousand hours without fail. So, for it to just up and die during the 1-hour window that I was submitting something, that's just plain Murphy.

Fortunately, I had everything backed up on CD. As a result, I didn't have to _use_ the backup CD-- my system rebooted perfectly. Hence my axiom. If I _hadn't_ had a backup, my system would not have rebooted itself, and I'd have lost the scenario.

I didn't need to _use_ the backup copy, it simply had to exist. If it hadn't existed, though, the universe (mischievous entity it is) would have killed my system for good.

In short, the universe only bothers to ruin things when it knows it can get away with it.

In Japan, this was handled by bringing an umbrella. If enough people carried umbrellas, it wouldn't rain inconveniently. If people forgot their umbrellas, though, nasty rain would result. Thus, in perfectly good weather, many people would still be seen carrying a perfectly handy umbrella. And the universe was pleased and smiled upon them.

Within gaming, this has the familiar effect that GMs are well aware of. When you prepare for a possible player choice, they won't choose it. If you are unprepared for a specific player action, they will choose it.

This means, astonishingly enough, that players are basically just like raw nature itself. They are, in a word, non-sentient, and exist purely to persecute GMs. Which, in itself, is a minor revelation.

By considering players as, not 'people to entertained' or 'opponents,' but simply as forces of nature, scenario design becomes much easier. You don't have to design for what they do, you simply have to design around where you don't want them. Like water rushing down a hallway, you sandbag to keep them out, trusting them to rush through anywhere you haven't protected.

So take a typical scenario, "Characters encounter orcs while traveling in the woods." An optimistic GM would work out 'how tough are the orcs,' 'what is their treasure,' 'what clues do the orcs carry that leads the players to the next scenario.' Silly GM. Here's how to design it.

"The characters can't set the forest on fire because nature spirits enchanted the trees. The moon will remain in orbit because it has level 60 spells on it. The orcs have no families nor tribe, so no genocide can be done. The forest is a generic forest and has nothing which can or cannot aid the characters in setting traps or planning bizarre strategems. All the orcs are mute and none have possessions, other than this one hardy-yet-not-indestructible map."

There, you're set! Now just toss off some Orc stats and go to town! Since the general goal (Orcs will die) suits Murphy's Law (for the orcs, at least), you don't really have to worry about that part. Besides, whether they die or not doesn't matter. If orcs die, the players are happy. If orcs live, the players feel challenged by your masterful scenario. Win-win.

Note that your players won't actually try _any_ of the wacky schemes you just prepared for, or even think of trying them, because karmically you've blocked them off. That's the beauty of this system-- by preparing for idiocy, you pre-empt idiocy! When the only path unprepared for is 'the smart thing,' players will instinctively act smartly.

We'll call this school "Designing for Defeat." Assume things will get killed, munched, ruined, etc. Only design to prevent things that will actually make your life as GM hard. In the manner of an advice column, then, I'll wrap this up with two final examples.

"Dear Dr. Nature. I have an NPC in my game which I can't let the PCs kill. How do I manage this?"

"Easy! Place the NPC in a solid steel safe, tucked away in a different universe that uses a different rules system, which the players hate to play. This guarantees the NPC will live for at least two more game sessions! Beware-- don't even hint towards having the NPC ever encounter the players."

"Dear Dr. Nature. How did your computer crash again?"

"Well, let's see, I went like this and

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What do you think?

Go to forum!\n"; $file = "http://www.rpg.net/$subdir/list2.php?f=$num"; if (readfile($file) == 0) { echo "(0 messages so far)
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