"A Campaign is like a Tree" -
Using Cause and Effect (among other tools) to Enhance Your Alternity Campaign
Designing and running a roleplaying game campaign is a labor of love, taking many hours.
When you design your own campaign, you have a better "feel" of what is going on than if you use published adventure modules, and you gain a lot of valuable design experience of your own along the way. Instead of unconnected, isolated incidents that the characters become involved in but never return to, each scenario then becomes a critical part of the campaign and the character's history in it. Eventually, this leads to a richer campaign and more meaningful player involvement. After a time, YOU will be designing scenarios where heroic deeds and narrow escapes are the rule rather than the exception.
This article suggests ways that the Referee can use the seeds of campaign material already developed with players to keep them engaged and involved in a challenging saga of epic proportions by reworking old material already generated by the campaign:
The campaign should not be static. A thriving campaign continuously grows and evolves from the seeds of past events, based on a general understanding of the laws of Cause and Effect. However, to remain interesting, the stories of the campaign should not be linear. Instead, an exciting campaign has "branches" in the ongoing epic story based on critical choices that the players make for their characters. The Referee then uses the critical "branch" taken to determine all future events, from that point on. Consider this basic powerful statement about reality:
Once an event happens, it then slips instantly into the past, as history. The world of Now is continuously changing and evolving, but based (in some part) on what was. In turn, what Will Be is determined by the Present. Essentially, this is what is more simply called, "Cause and Effect."
In other words, selecting a branch in the campaign simulates the real-world effect of time, "making" history. In the real world, knowing the past helps determine general trends about the future.
As Referee, developing the campaign background details and history before play enhances your understanding of what has already occurred, how those events shaped the present, and aids in determining future events.
Realize that in an ongoing campaign, many "background" events should continue to happen, Whether or Not the Characters decide to intervene. This adds detail to the setting, and keeps the campaign constantly moving forward. The characters must take action, or they will passively watch as events flow onward past them. Some if these events will have little significance, while others (based on your direction for the campaign) will grow in importance.
Try to link the storyline of your scenarios to events on a larger scale. Set it up so that Characters can do things on a small scale that affect the overall campaign. This also helps with scenario continuity, because each game session is one step toward a larger goal, which ties them together. A continuous series of these linked stories quickly takes on an "epic" feel. The players may meet setback after setback, but they slowly progress through each scenario toward the final goal. Once the goal is accomplished, a new one is designed, as the campaign takes a major plot turn.
Introduce a returning unbeatable or nearly invincible opponent for the characters. This is good, because of the familiarity that the players develop for the personality and actions of the nemesis character. Players grow to loathe and despise (if not respect) a challenging bad guy. It helps if the evil that this person does is not general in nature, but directed specifically toward one or all of the characters.
Make challenges to the characters affect them on a personal level. Suppose Overlord Doobad is the local leader of a minor world in the local sector of space. His small Navy roams the system, demanding excessive taxes. The locals want to rebel, but have no leadership. Maybe the adventurers step in, out of their "inherently good nature," or perhaps they develop a more mercenary attitude. This leads to a lukewarm motivation, at best.
Contrast this with:
A message arrives reporting that one of the Player Group Character's installations on planet X is aflame! It seems that Overlord Doobad has had a change of heart, and is now moving in on the mining operation that each character has a stake in, most likely to seize it for his own use! Confronted with such a challenge, most characters will not stop until they neutralize this threat, both because it involves income, and if nothing is done, the character group looks weak.
For the previous scenario to work, a Referee must threaten whatever the Player values for the Character. When the distant cousins of the character are threatened with execution, imprisonment, or worse, any poor player can say, "So what? I don't know them, let 'em rot!" However, if the Player has drawn maps of an installation, detailed guard rotations, and mapped out the homeworld that all of this occurs on, rest assured that this is a good "hook" to motivate them to take action before the Character's (whatever-it-is) is lost to enemy action.
As you work out the details of a scenario, try to make a guess where and how Characters might take an alternate path to the goal, or other ways that they might interrupt the flow of the storyline.
When the story you want to tell becomes disconnected, steer it back onto the track by determining other plausible paths to your desired events. Do this by figuring out the most likely result (with a little twist) that leads toward what you want from what just happened, and apply it to the game. (Although it is true that rare events can cause dramatic shifts in history, it is also true that events so dramatic should only occur in a campaign when the Referee plans them.)
Stay flexible in the minor details of the story, and do not leave it up to the "One True Way" of solving any specific problem, challenge, or difficulty, no matter how "cool" you thought it was when you dreamed it up.
Do not design scenarios that are an intelligence test of Referee vs. Players. By sticking to a single solution, the game comes to a crashing halt when players miss it. A game rapidly becomes unrealistic when the Referee has to resort to obvious "nudging" to move the characters along.
Think: If this were a movie, would it be cool to watch? A lot of this puzzle business seems to relate to early gaming of players vs. sphinx, or player vs. maze, or (the worst) a confused player vs. an inaccurate map, combined with a cynical, hostile referee.
If the players have access to density scanners, various types of engineering scanners, cans of synthespray Band-Aids(TM) and a satellite-linked computer that speaks 8,654 languages, combined with High Tech firepower from orbit, how long does it take to solve/crack/clear the Thinly Disguised Dungeon Maze, borrowed from an old fantasy module? About ten minutes, because a half dozen players, usually of above average intellect, working together as a team, usually quickly outsmart a lone Referee.
When the players come up with a brilliant solution, you make up another plausible complication. This is the heart of being a referee, keeping the game moving. Make them think you had it all planned and accounted for in advance. If they leave you stunned more than a few times, they'll lose respect for you, the campaign, and the game as a whole.
By staying flexible you can recover your story and put things back on track without missing a beat. You could have SEVERAL ways in which they could solve specific puzzles or challenges, with each solution leading back to the same overall plot. If done right, the players will think that THEY came up with the story, and will brag aloud about how they "outsmarted you." Let them have their fun, keep smiling, and hit them with the next obstacle.
It is generally a good idea to keep the story "branching" in unexpected ways that seem obvious later, when the players learn more about what is really going on. Surprise the players with the twists and turns of the plot. Do not overdo it by constantly introducing unrelated events that might serve as an exciting sideline, but will only become a lengthy distraction in the overall story. Too many "Red Herrings" will spoil a good adventure, unless it forms yet another side-branch that you SECRETLY intend on developing later. Or not. Keep 'em guessing.
Meanwhile, players will carefully weigh and sift everything you present to them, keeping it all in mind. This is suspension-of-disbelief at its finest, as your players are no longer thinking about Getting up for Work Monday, they are wondering, "Is this delivery person just that, or a spy from Doobad?" Wheels within wheels, plots, paranoia, and a good game in the making.
Everything should happen for a reason, even if the players only dimly understand the reason at the time. Almost everything should point toward a well thought out, unpredictable, but satisfying ending for the scenario that is based upon all that came before it, in a logical, or as-near-logical fashion as you can manage. If you do not do this, your game could quickly descend into disconnected, random encounters.
Real life is random, stupid, and pointless at times; with the interactions on even the simplest of levels so complex that it is difficult at best to predict what will happen next.
But players can use the game mechanics to predict, on some level, their chances for success or failure (this is why Min-Maxers exist, taking advantage of this knowledge). Take advantage of this by making the goal known, but the specific challenges that lead up to that end goal not known until the characters have to deal with them.
Everything in a scenario should tie together, woven tightly, making sense on some level. Fictional action stories are about discovering the resolution of difficult problems, and finding out "what happens next." After a story (or a well-designed scenario) ends, we can see how the whole thing flows with each event from the beginning affecting the next until the conclusion. It all makes sense and is comforting, unlike the uncertainty of real life.
Always consider the things that the characters are doing, planning, working on, and how the success or failure of these plans will affect the overall campaign.
Challenge the players, at every turn. When they seek aid from Game Characters, make them struggle to convince their benefactor exactly WHY they should give aid. Do not set it up so that the characters visit a ship or weapons designer and pay X credits for services. This is way too easy. Realize the potential for roleplaying, in even simple situations. Maybe the special services are in demand, and the aiding character realizes that players a lof of money, so that the fee is now on a sliding scale. Also, the schedule is already full with steady work from more "Important, Influential" customers (a hostile corporation?), so that players see that status and influence have value in the campaign. If it's gonna be a rush job, hiring the new help to do it costs more. Perhaps the new help makes a few mistakes, pushing the project back farther.
Eventually, If players push too hard, they make an enemy of their tech help, or a corporation, or both, which adds to the campaign in the end. A hero is defined by the power of their enemies. If a powerful enemy is around, a hero must be equal to the challenge, just to survive. Thus, characters are motivated to grow, and develop strength, and resources.
Above all, avoid giving away anything to Players, and their characters. If something is given away, they do not value it as much as something that they earn, whether it is respect, technology, experience, money for their characters, or status in the local political setup. This is true in most cases, UNLESS it is time to reward heroic deeds at the conclusion of the scenario, when all of the hard work really pays off. Still, beware of giving away technology, artifacts, or weapons out of proportion to the risk. Consider using skill levels, medals, social status, or favors from important game characters instead.
When Player's Characters petition for aid from NPCs, do not automatically give it to them, based on past good deeds. Let them know via the aiding character that they are calling in their last favor, or that helping the group is making things "Difficult" to give them aid, financially, socially, or for whatever other reason seems appropriate. This gives the players one last chance to convince their benefactor. Even then, leave the decision in doubt, up to the last second. This adds DRAMA to the game, since the outcome is in doubt, up until the last second. Let the players think that the aiding character may in fact, reject their plea (as they sometimes SHOULD!)
What happens when the players call upon aid, only to find out that it will not appear? They must rely on their wits, or other resources, and the story takes a new "turn." Perhaps they argue with their former ally, forever ruining the relationship, with larger effects in the future. Perhaps the aiding character knows other characters in the same profession, and they will shun the adventurers everywhere they go, because of their thoughtless actions toward a single character.
It will stun the players, the first time they realize that game characters "talk about them behind their back!" Of course, this requires real suspension-of-disbelief by players, but if you as Referee play it out correctly, good role-players will fall into line with this sort of reasoning. They may even go as far as to have their characters do "Favors" for characters, so that they "get back on the inside" of whatever social group they are trying to impress!
Although the players may try to predict the results of the actions of their characters, figuring out exactly what will happen is hard. They lack the behind-the-scenes-information that every good Referee has developed for the background. If the Referee does not set out such information in notes or a planned possible future, at least have a rough mental sketch of possible future events based on current activity.
Compel players to make tough choices for their characters, based on guesses about what may happen. Perhaps they even express their ideas to the Referee, as hints about how they would like to see things go. The Referee should then take control, deciding the campaign direction, and future events based on the past. It is more interesting for the players and the campaign if the Referee "Gives the Players What They Want", but "Not in the Way They Expected It." Always introduce unforeseen complications that make achieving character goals that much more difficult, challenging, exciting, and rewarding.
When using published Alternity scenarios, and Sourcebooks, use the buds of "seemingly insignificant" encounters to expand the growth of encounters or subplots into full-bloom adventures.
Design new events, linking the current direction, goals, and motivations of game characters based on the mundane material in the previously used module:
Minor Characters encountered in the module (such as a Researcher, Scientist, or Historian) might need specific materials of rare manufacture, alien items, or old documents or library data on now-defunct media for their research. Of course, the place is near, leading to a short adventure quick trip with unseen complications that you dream up. Or it could be far off, and Wham! Before they realize it, the Characters have a new adventure!
A Scientist might need transportation to a field research site a few planets away, or access to specialized high-speed library computers that do not exist on his world. It just so happens that one or more of the Characters speak the local language of the computer world in question, or have contacts there, to smooth things along. Since the NPC has worked with the adventuring party before, (in at least a non-hostile capacity), the adventurers are natural choices for such a mission, especially if seen as successful, or especially effective in dealing with troublesome creatures or situations. This works on a few levels; the characters get something else to do, and they expand their relationships with the game character, thus enhancing roleplaying, and campaign depth.
Develop a follow-on mission to continue the story of a previous scenario. If the adventurers have raided a pirate's lair, their job is not over; When they depopulate an area, another threat can move in to occupy the power vacuum. Other bands of pirates will surely expand to fill the void left by their missing comrades. The survivors will seek revenge. These threats will constantly spring up like weeds, and may move in on the friendly group from land, sea, or air, and will usually grow relentlessly until stopped.
This type of advice also applies to marauders, raiders, low tech bandits, or to local officials. When the player characters bring down a small corporation, this leaves a void of territory that is now open for expansion.
The resulting situation could go many ways:
Hire the characters to keep them in sight or send them far away, perhaps trying to kill them later.
An attempt at wiping characters out happens immediately, clearing the way before the enemy moves in himself.
Maybe just watching them, then disrupting their plans.
It's up to you. deviousness works, and it is fun.
Many actors have said that Bad Guys are the best roles. As a referee, I agree. The more competent the bad guy is that the characters face, the more heroic they seem when they finally beat him. The Britons had Dragons, The Norse had Giants, and we have Vader, Khan, The Terminator and The Alien Queen.
Maybe the people I game with are too hard-core. Most of them are military veterans, as I am myself. We used to play Battletech, Twilight:2000, and the Aliens RPG. Now we play Alternity. More than once in a game, they have used a shotgun against a gibbering alien, screaming "EAT THIS!" as they roll handfuls of dice and blast whatever-it-is to atoms, and nobody looks askance.
Without heroes, there is no hope, no future, nobody to depend on to Make Things Right. Make your players' character's heroes. Create an evil nemesis for your games. Make them enemies of your Characters. When they smoke him good and for all time, after many attempts, it will be high fives all around the game table. As it should be.
Revisiting the site of old ruins: the adventurers have found an old ruin of a lost civilization. There are many things that can be done with this:
PCs can petition the local ruler to help gain control of the surrounding area, repair the installation, and set up their own research base.
Perhaps the planet is far away from the central campaign area - in this case, pirates or raiders who use it have taken over the installation, (and perhaps repair it) as a base for their operations (in effect, becoming the local rulers of nearby systems themselves, by demanding tribute in hard credits for their "protection").
A local religious order friendly to the adventurers uses funds from their church to repair the place, and add it to their growing religion, until a rival religious group, or local armed force that dislikes the new religion lays siege to the place, requiring an open field battle or a dangerous rescue mission by adventurers.
In all of the previous situations, the added complication of the discovery of secret rooms, or even more underground facilities or passages can add spice to what was formerly considered a 'controlled' installation.
This allows you to use, and reuse old maps repeatedly, requiring less work, overall. In addition, if new parts or defenses are added to an old site, and copies of the old maps are kept separate, you now have a graphic record of the historical development of the place. This is vital if you use things such as time travel in your campaign. In addition, another use of such maps on a campaign scale is to track the settlement of an area, or the migration of Races, Corporations or Religious groups.
Roleplaying is also enhanced when Players face moral dilemmas and tough decisions for their Characters or impossible choices between Worse and Worse outcomes. Each of these situations promises to transform the characters and the campaign into something different, serving as another possible "branch":
You could use an ongoing conflict as the focus of a current political struggle, with an interesting potential for drama as follows:
Ten years ago, a small mining concern made a good profit in the area, until driven off, after being nearly wiped out by the Evil Corporation (that now dominates the area). There is a nearby Asteroid Belt where (unknown to the current inhabitants), the former CEO secretly plots his return, in a wave of blood to retake "his" mining claim, possible involving mercenaries, missile attack runs by converted ore haulers, stolen weapons, or just maybe one old Passenger liner sold for scrap, but is now a guided missile aimed at the Orbital Starport where the current Regional Manager of the Corporation has an office! The catch is, both sides have claim to the area! Who is right? Roleplaying this situation out can be of great benefit to the campaign, especially if the adventurers have ties to BOTH sides of such a conflict and the adventurers must choose sides. They do not want to make enemies, but the opposing sides force the choice upon them.
As always, do not let the players get off too easy by allowing them to make their choice based on simple economics. Make sure they GAIN from allying with a side, and LOSE an equal amount by opposing the other side of such a conflict. If you set it up correctly, players will tear their hair out in frustration while trying to decide with whom the characters will ally!
Surprise turns can also occur in the story when Referee engineered plot twists strike without warning:
In a strange twist of fate, the raiders from a previous scenario that adventurers defeated return, but this time, they ask that the characters join the forces of evil, instead! Perhaps they send a messenger, or "Ambassador" from the pirate, or raider base with tribute, in credits, or even a minor technological artifact!
When the characters return to the site of the old base, the Group finds that they are now trapped, surrounded by much more powerful forces, and the characters have no good escape route! In this situation, the commander of the enemy force sees the adventurers as powerful, effective warriors, whom greed may turn, or (in a darker scenario) threats to loved ones of the characters as a tool to compel Player Characters to do their bidding. What will the characters do, when they realize that they are UNABLE to defeat the enemy in open battle, because they are now vastly outnumbered? If they stay, they must commit evil. If they try to leave, they will be killed, or enslaved! What will they decide to do? Tough choices here will drastically affect the future campaign, and serve as an effective "branch" in the lives of the characters. Hint: Give them a few outs that the "bad guys" will not expect, but could lead to a plot twist that makes sense...blowing up a fuel storage area as a distraction, or perhaps leaping into the nearby raging river canyon to escape...buckle that swash, I say.
Detailing a Specific Location - Select a world that is currently only a dot on your campaign maps. Flesh it out by zooming in on the scale, and adding mysterious marshes, forbidding forests, or a haunted battlefield from ancient days. Virtually any area in the campaign can be expanded with the ruins of the past, even if it is only a small colony site from the first settlers, years ago. Were there rampaging bands of mutants, or creatures in those days? Maybe there was a settlement of an ancient race, with the local woods having a marsh that is the last remnant of a great city (with lost technology perhaps?) that covered the land? The "rediscovery" of an exciting past can generate many interesting adventures.
The current political details of a region should be shaped and influenced by the past events of the campaign, with both good and bad consequences for the campaign in general, and the Character Group in specific.
Under the right conditions (and some work from the Referee), an encounter (with an item, event, or game character) that is initially seen as small and insignificant (a "seed" event) can grow into something of monstrous proportions.
If, for example, the initial event is of a negative nature, such as the establishment of a power hungry minor noble in the region, it may seem to be of relatively minor significance in the larger scheme of things, but (if left unchecked) this type of leader could grow in power and status until his actions overshadow the campaign with gloom and despair, that MUST be corrected by character intervention, before everything surrounding them withers and dies. The real-world historical figures of dictators (pick an era) readily come to mind in such cases.
To add to the continuity of the campaign, it's a good idea to design events and encounters of future scenarios based (at least in some part) on present actions. Show the consequences of both positive and negative actions of characters by introducing events that reflect the long-range effects of the past. This gives the campaign a sense of internal consistency, since the future is based on the past, just as in real life (and it makes the lives of the characters integral to the campaign.).
Game characters, Items, or creatures encountered in an adventure can also branch off into further adventures, forming a never-ending "adventure tree" of ongoing story lines that can be continued along one branch for a while, going back to previous "root" adventures, and continuing there, or combining two or three story lines together.
Set up the hook by foreshadowing events early in the adventure, and then pay it off by introducing the foreshadowed event at a critical branch in the plot. This allows players to predict some of what is going to happen, but they receive the effects, only not in the way that they expect.
Take a critical look at the big events going on "behind-the-scenes," that only YOU as the Referee know about. How can they be re-worked to generate new information, by adding detail? It's amazing how much detail can be added, by just focusing in on the specific details, and critical choices of previous adventures. Because the characters decided to do A, what is the likely response B of Enemies, Rulers, or Social Groups in the region? How can you make this response an immediate, pressing situation, that the characters MUST deal with, or suffer loss of equipment, prestige, or status? This leads to characters choices (branches) C, D and E.
In this way, nearly every single item, encounter, character, or world encountered in a previous scenario can in some way be expanded into a detailed future scenario! Along the way, the enterprising Player Group discovers that the world of the campaign has taken on a "life of its own," as future events of the campaign's "branches" grow from the "roots" of the past, guided by the loving touch of the Referee.
When generating material for the background, beware of detailing information just to have it available for reference. Make sure that the things that you work on are likely to be used, or the time spent on such things risks being wasted.
In my early days, I ran an Alternity science fiction campaign that had whole sectors mapped out, with planetary maps in color. I detailed seismic fault lines for dozens of worlds, travel times between planets in systems, using trade tables for cargo, and mineral resources for planetary maps on a hex-by-hex basis. It was lots of fun, and I stroked my own ego with the wondrous "Universe" that I had created, but I was always so busy generating detail for the setting that it never got played. Even packing it up to take to a game took a few milk crates of books, binders, etc. It was not a waste, but valuable time could have been spent playing, instead. Share your work with the world, or you will surely perish as an unknown, a might-have-been Referee.
Remember, it's YOUR campaign. Do whatever you want with it. As a Referee, YOU are the caretaker responsible for the care, upkeep, and, if necessary, removal of the parts that no longer work. Make campaign maintenance a habit, not something that you rush through, two or three hours before your regular gaming session. As you work on it, you'll find that it gets easier, day after day. You'll also probably discover that your campaign and your technique as a story-telling Referee will both benefit. You might then becoem a full fledged game designer or article author in your own right.
Remember, A Campaign is Like a Tree:
Use your rules manuals and other sourcebooks as the basic tools to break new ground. Dig deep into everything you've already designed. Plant new seeds in the form of chance encounters, legendary items and places, and expansions of interesting areas. Nourish with a fertile imagination, and maintain a regular flow of new ideas to keep it from becoming stale and dry. Once it takes on a life of its own, be strong and firm in the guidance of its growth, and carefully trim when necessary. Once it starts growing, the only limits are those that you set on its expansion.
Using these tools, the character's lives and their adventures can become the roots of a campaign that if cared for and managed properly, should last through season after season, for years of adventuring. If you do all of these things with loving care, you're sure to grow a breathtaking, and wondrous creation: An enduring Alternity campaign.