JP On Gaming

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

PaizoCon, NeoExodus, Player Impact and CSI

For months now I’ve been working with Louis Porter on Pathfinder-izing NeoExodus. No surprise if you have been following this blog, or talking to me in person. Just this week, I finished my first draft of Enemies of NeoExodus: The First Ones. The First Ones are the top villains or NeoExodus. They are bad. But that is not what I was thinking about this morning. I had a rough night with an odd dream of having to save my kids from Kevin Nealon-turned mad scientist planning to turn the whole world into Zombieland. I’m sure this has to do with my constant classic Doctor Who watching. I’ve been watching the Hartnell/ Troughton/ Pertwee serials online with great delight. I mean where else would such an awesome adventure idea fall on my lap than between 6:30 and 7:30 in the morning? Thank you weird dreams

I digress.

I had been talking to Louis about a number of things I would like to do with NeoExodus. More things than I can do by myself. Note to would-be adventure authors, we’re looking for you. Contact me or Louis. NeoExodus is growing and getting better all the time and it would be awesome to get more people to allow us to make NeoExodus bigger than just the two of us can do right now. I mean we’ve got ideas and a vision that spans a whole mega-verse! But I only have a few hours a day to write and Louis’ adventure-writing skills… Well not so much! This may seem like a cheap jab here, but it’s true! He’s the campaign/ sourcebook/ setting guy. I more the adventure guy and the focus on adventure when you write a sourcebook-guy. That’s why we make a good team! Two sides of the coin.

But I digress. Again.

Over the past weeks, we have been discussing one thing both of us hold dear. We think could add more uniqueness to NeoExodus. Not just to the product, but to the events as well! Back in the LG days being able to participate in the one of the specials was something unique and… special! As if NeoExodus needed more uniqueness: with unique monsters, unique races, a setting that mixes punk, horror, fantasy and some weird science elements I never saw together thus far.


So the idea I’ve been championing and pushing on Louis – I’ll admit it was like preaching to the choir – is to use those events as plot points. Use them to advance our storyline forward, and give players some credit doing so! In a manner very much like LG’s interactive under my jurisdictions (I won’t about other regions). Each public event would count towards some resolution of plot points.

For example, Encounter At Ramat Bridge is the name of the PaizoCon adventure I am currently writing for NeoExodus. Within the adventure (and I am not saying where or what) are a few plot points I want the players to decide. How do the PCs react to certain news? What relations do they establish with the NPC? Did they discover the secret of the place? Did the players seem interested in learning more about this or that element presented to them?

Gage their reaction and adapt future products and events based on that. To this day, I still have people talking to me about my first Weekend in the County interactives: The Defense of Durwich. I really wanted to use that to see what players wanted to do and play, plus the fate of Durwich was in their hands (of course).

I plan to come up with something for any major convention where we will be putting on NeoExodus demo game(s). The result of the events will be compiled and worked into the NeoExodus storyline, something that matters and that gets written in a yearly update or something similar. Therefore, some NPCs may be killed off, some might be saved and some may have changes of hearts. In short, YOU, the player get to impact NeoExodus simply by playing the game!

Of course, the level of the game determines the impact the players have on the world. The PaizoCon adventure will be for first level (at least I have it planned that way for now, but may beef it up to 2nd or 3rd). Good for intro levels, but empires should not topple… Yet.

For talking to many people in the industry, some – like PCI in Arcanis – really embrace this idea of player input into the campaign, while others have difficulty wrapping their head around this. For home games, few would deny that player impact is paramount. But as soon as something becomes public, the discourse changes and then players should not be allowed to mess up a good storyline. Be honest.

Be very honest.

When have the players NOT messed up a good storyline? I’m not talking about players refusing any hook you send their way. I’m talking about coming up with a good plot/ story/ campaign. Then you send a group of players in there.


Yes. Players derail the simplest plot with a comment, thought or even out of character comment. Unfortunately, us adventure writers (whether the home GM or a writer who gets his stuff published) often become enamored or focused on how the adventure SHOULD go, that we do not think about troubleshooting or leave the poor GM who runs it out to dry and make it all up.

What I am proposing to do here is to change our adventure-writing approach. I mean instead of thinking of an adventure plot as the whole universe for X hours, let’s see this as an episode. Many TV shows and crime drama have been doing a lot of this in recent years. I can easily think of Criminal Minds, CSI, NCIS and the Mentalist off the top of my head (since I watch those shows).

In each episode, there is main plot (what the PCs are actively doing) and the meta-plot (elements the GM look at the PCs’ actions and uses those as plot points/ hooks for the next episode). The main plot is expected to have the PCs succeed. The meta-plot is not as obvious.

Let’s take an example using "CSI". The CSIs find two dead bodies. One body is the main plot, so they investigate, do their little thing and find the murderer. They do the same on the next body. However they find clues that link it to the serial killer they have been hunting all season. Through the body they discover more clues about the serial killer but don’t find him just yet. The episode ends on a victory: they caught murderer 1, but also leaves the CSIs with new clues about the murderer.

When writing an adventure, too many authors plan to have murderer 1 be the main villain of the adventure, then have him be a recurrent villain. It won’t work. Your main villain has to be the Serial killer. The PCs accomplish a win by defeating Murderer 1 and find clues about the Serial Killer. But he remains elusive.

For now at least.

At some point, the CSIs need to confront the Serial Killer, but this does not have to be day one. Unlike in classic comic/ superheroes where every week the Joker could escape and come up with a massive scheme to kill Batman, and every time he gets caught, non-superhero fantasy RPGs tend to give a quick and final end to most villains’ plots and schemes. Few PCs will bring Duke Evilton to jail adventure after adventure. Soon he tastes a blade and goes away.

Now how create a meta-plot where the installments are occasional and not always constant? Not an easy or obvious task, but one that can be done. The adventure we want is a dungeon crawl. The PCs go in, learn about the villain and leave with some cool loot.

Split the elements that go in either part. There is no need to be overly specific as some elements may be re-threaded into the main plot later. The Dungeon aspect (flavor of the week): the orcs that inhabit the dungeon and the treasure they have stolen.

The meta-plot: letters from the arch-villain, his envoy/ liaison.

Some elements can be used for both: maps that leads to further adventure (some map may give location to further henchmen of the arch-villain others may not).

What would you be looking for in the meta-plot: the PCs relation with the envoy, whether they found the letters and made a link to the arch-villain. Expect the orc chief and shaman to die. They are not what you are looking for at this time. If they don’t then they become additional player impact and the orc chief may return, now as a lieutenant of the arch-villain (or become his own meta-plot).

With this simple plot twist, we have an adventure and a meta-plot the players cannot "ruin" because we seek to find out how or what they will do. Our plot point is based on what they do with specific elements. Since you are looking for specific things or actions and not whether your villain-of-the-week lives through.

Not everything is crucial.

Even if you wrote or thought it up.



  1. You're so right, these would run so better without the players but you need the gits, the CSI example is really good and makes things clearer. Really good post, enjoyed reading it this morning with my egg sandwich breakfast just falling into the keyboard.

  2. Careful! You can't have downtime on your blog!