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Modular Adventures and Call of Cthulhu

By : Frank Lee
So I'm going to put a little essay up here about modular adventures, so we all understand them better. Simply put, a modular adventure is a story that contains many one acts, which are played one after the other. You might recall a one act is a little self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end all happening in 10 to 15 scenes usually. The modular adventure structure just binds a lot of related one acts together to create a coherent story with them. In some cases that may allow players to explore specific locations, each with their own one-act adventure, or to experience distinct legs of an overall journey, a trek across the mountains, or a ship ride across a sea, and have them all form into one larger tale.

The modular adventure is therefore wonderful for creating big sandbox adventures where the players are controlling where they go and what they want to do, or for creating long journey adventures, stories where getting there is really supposed to be half the fun. Each piece of the story is easily contained within its own act, waiting for you to get to it.

While that pretty much covers the basics of it, I'm going to quickly go over my favorite three modular adventure examples so you can see some of the specific options you'll have when making your own. All three examples come from Call of Cthulhu the roleplaying game, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Beyond the Mountains of Madness, and Horror on the Orient Express.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is widely regarded as the best of the three, and is a big sandboxy adventure, leading PCs on a pulpy thriller all across the world in an attempt to stop the plans of an evil God and his numerous minions. And each of the six locations where the PCs can go is its own one act adventure. In fact each one follows a remarkably similar pattern if you outline them, a 10 to 12 scene main plot, always ending with the players sneaking into an enemy "base" of some kind, along with two diversionary subplots that PCs can get into if they or the GM wants. The author Larry Ditillio seems to have found a working formula and uses it to good effect in each act. Which I think experientially shows  us that it's perfectly alright to use a tight, well defined structural design, over and over again if you need to. Save your creativity for the parts of the work that the audience can actually enjoy.

Of course you could design your one acts however you wanted, I imagine in a lot of adventures you'd want to vary the design to match the theme of the one act's storyline. In MoN the PCs are basically pursuing the same goal everywhere they go, stop evil cultists who already live there from doing what they're doing. If you did a different type of adventure, say knights wandering through a big enchanted woods, you might have very different quests at each stopping point: the Elf King may need some diplomatic help, while the goblin camp may require you to free some prisoners before they're eaten by goblins. And the flow of the scenes in those acts would be quite different, with different types of finales.

Beyond the Mountains of Madness meanwhile is an epically long journey from New York, New York to the middle of Antarctica. This isn't a sandbox adventure, you have to follow the route from point A to point B, but each piece of the journey is split up, so you can experience it in, generally, one self contained episode. BtMoM isn't as structurally certain as MoN either, when you start the adventure you have a handful of one acts centered around notable incidents, really they seem like extended scenes or scene groups, without a beginning, middle and an end. But the labels are all arbitrary, so you can organize up things however you want.

I won't spoil too much, but there are troubles all along the way, from the the hotel in Manhattan to the horrible discoveries awaiting across the Mountains of Madness. The one acts feature little episodes of danger and panic, more mundane work, and opportunities for socializing and fun, again not organized out in a formulaic way. The writing process seems to be to start with what would actually occur in an arctic expedition in the 1930s, then adds in the events and challenges for PCs to get into. Which turns it into a unique adventure.

Horror on the Orient Express is another linear adventure, this time on a train! This adventure is a little bit like a combination of the two above, it's all scheduled along a path, but the acts themselves are all about performing an overall mission, it's not really an important journey in and of itself, the way an antarctic expedition is. This adventure seems to get the most grief in reviews, it's a railroad on a railroad, written more like the author was thinking of a novel with the PCs as characters in events he already thought up and worked out. The individual scenarios themselves don't always fit together either logically or thematically, either, so people take issue with that.

But that brings up some good rules to remember when writing your adventures! Remember, there's a difference between writing an RPG scenario and writing a story. An RPG scenario sets up events, provides places and NPCs to interact with, and even sets a timeline of events for those NPCs outside of the PCs interactions. But then the PCs can show up, learn about the setup, go to those places, meet those NPCs, and drive the story forward themselves. You can of course expect them to drive it in certain directions (if your Call of Cthulhu investigators don't want to solve paranormal mysteries and refuse to get involved in the plot hooks you provide than they can't reasonably expect to have any story waiting for them for the rest of that campaign), but don't pre-arrange events and turn gaming sessions into something more akin to script readings.

Then also, tend towards unification whenever you write a story. If you're writing a modular adventure, try to make the action of the entire story, the central purpose for your PCs being there, loom large through every act. Where novels and plays worry about themes, you should worry about atmosphere, the feel, the emotion of your adventure and try to maintain some constancy, or at least some purposeful design. I sort of like to think about atmosphere like you might think of color theory in a painting. You can have warm colors and you can have cool colors contrasting, but don't have multiple shades of a warm or cool color mucking everything up and looking disjointed and unreal. Because if you don't do those things, people just don't seem to appreciate your work as much.

This was a quick look at how modular adventure design can work for you and your stories, but hopefully it is enough to get you started. Having a good design framework that you trust in frees up your mind to focus on the real work of making fascinating situations and memorable characters that let your scenarios shine.

Until next time,

-Frank

The Shakespearean Five Act Structure... and Using it For Games!

By : Frank Lee
The last structure I'm going to cover on this blog (at least for the time being), is the five act structure as used by Elizabethan playwrights such as Shakespeare. Unfortunately not much of their recorded methods or writing theory survives today, so we're left with very little to serve as a base for our understanding of their favored full length play structure. We have to instead piece it together with what we still have, and we still have quite a few plays.

In this little essay I'm going to use Shakespeare's four great tragedies: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. It won't hurt to have a Wikipedia level understanding of what happens in these plays. I have broken down their action act by act and they will serve as a helpful guide to build on what we do know. I'm also going to be calling on the ideas and theories I've heard and read in many Shakespeare lectures and books, while probably all somewhat conjectural, I trust the better ideas I've picked up to not lead me astray.

Let's actually start, not with Shakespeare, but with Gustav Freytag. If you look up "five act structure" on Google you will invariably see Freytag's name along with his little dramatic pyramid. And usually at best a very, very cursory summary of his take on the five acts. I'll save you time finding that cursory summary, basically he puts the five acts thusly:

Act 1 - Exposition: We find out about the story.
Act 2 - Rising Action: The action rises (upwards!)
Act 3 - Climax: The turning point of affairs.
Act 4 - Falling Action: Look out below!
Act 5 - Denouement: The story resolves.

While I'm sure Gustav was a smart guy and he acquired plenty of experience writing by the end of his life, if you read his actual book, where he goes over this in more depth, he doesn't really have a lot to say. Honestly, his simple little pyramid pretty much sums it up. He knows he's seeing something going on, and he can label it with a made up term (like rising action), and he can certainly point to many examples in Shakespeare to refer to what he's talking about... but that's it. There's nothing there for an actual craftsman to use, and that's pretty much par for the course when it comes to how-to books on writing and structure. Too many vague terms, viewed from the spectators position, but no awareness of how to utilize that knowledge, no comprehension to be able to understand what's truly going on.

It's a little bit like if someone, trying to explain cars to you, popped the hood, gestured to the engine and went, "...and these are the go parts." That's a fine label for somebody who is basically going to do nothing with the knowledge, but it would be useless to an engineer trying to build an engine. "There's some oily parts, I'm pretty sure some of the things spin around, there's a few tubes, it makes a lot of noise, I could go on." That's understanding a car without any real comprehension.

So, I apologize for the divergence, but I wanted that to show, that's exactly what won't help us. And it's important because a dumbed down version of Freytag is basically what passes for most of our understanding of story creation and structure in modern times. And if you wish to read more about that, I would direct you to this all caps essay by Film Crit Hulk. (Warning, it's filled with salty, salty language.) We want to understand how Elizabethan, and Roman before them, playwrights actually structured their stories from a writer's perspective, and then see how that knowledge helps us structure our stories, in this case, for the purpose of making excellent RPG adventures.

* * * * *

Act 1

We start now at the beginning, Act 1. The first act of course reveals the setup of the play, the story up until now. We meet many or all of our main characters, we find out what they've been up to, and then we have some sort of plot point (turn, reversal, or situation of some kind) which leads a character to an inciting incident. Shakespeare doesn't, nor most good writers, write about stories that just seem to happen, they write about events caused by decisive human action. Rarely does he feature a pure hero fighting the forces of evil either, though we probably will in our roleplaying games.

Another interesting thing to note, none of the four tragedies (and no play of his that comes to mind) starts in a state of total stasis. Things aren't copesetic in the world when we open on any play here, though that is the preferred state of things for many modern stories on television and in movies. In Hamlet the King has just died and been replaced by his own brother, Othello has just managed to marry Desdemona despite her father's protestations, Scotland has just fended off invasion during two simultaneous wars in Macbeth, and in Lear, we really do have something close to a stable start, merely King Lear is old and has already decided before this to split up his kingdom. That's not too far off from stasis really, but generally we open on stories that are taking place in active worlds where it seems like the conflicts merely lead into new conflicts, stories that we don't get to see lead into ones we do. Othello is widely considered an example of Shakespeare playing with this idea, it comes across like the first two acts of that play should be the last two acts of a happy comedy, ruined by a villain who just won't go away.

Adventures tend toward having a pre-existing conflict in place, the Adventure Creator encourages you to create a background for the story when you first start, but things really take off once our heroes get involved in the story. But like I said above, these stories are about somebody making a choice to address some issue before them with an active decision. Hamlet resolves to take revenge, though with the significant caveat that he wants some proof besides a ghost telling him what to do, Lear decides to split up his kingdom because he's so old, Macbeth kills the King so he can take his position, and Othello's treacherous friend Iago commits to enacting a plan to ruin him on their trip to defend Cyprus.

I think we'd be giving short thrift to this structure to say we've basically got all of this covered with the first act of the basic three act structure I use in the book. This structure invites a different kind of story than the usual RPG fare where heroes come into a situation of wrong doing and seek to fix it. At the very least we can consider: what about stories that involve our PCs integrally? Stories that involve a PC who decides he wants a change of life and makes a huge decision, a PC who decides he can't let things continue on as they have been and embarks on a large scheme, PCs who decide to shake up a continually shook up world, this time for their own gain.

It would be different, I can think of lots of objections, it takes you out of the basic set-up of heroes save the day, and the basic set-up is used because it works really well. And it keeps things clean, heroes are heroes, villains are villains, we know what everybody wants, plus the heroes can show up to situations and involve themselves in them, but when they're over they can split cleanly. Also stories done in five acts tend to be about important people, because such people can make big decisions that affect the world, many games feature adventurers who are the "little people," before long we're doing family dramas when we're supposed to be playing D&D. But, as a sometimes variation from what you normally do, I still think this could be quite an interesting story type.

So to sum up, we start off introducing the existing conflicts in our world which are about to be changed thanks to the heroes and villains of the story resolving to take new actions. They are incited into taking this new actions thanks to inciting incidents, something which gives them reason to come up with a new plan. Our scenes have to give the backstory, introduce the NPCs, provide a spark to cause the inciting incident, and then have a character resolve to do something which will in turn cause the entire story to happen.

* * * * *

Act 2

The second act marks the beginning of the actual events of the story's plot. Now that characters have resolved themselves to their actions, what we seem to see here is the results of those actions playing out. Macbeth kills the King, the Princes flee, and the remaining thanes declare Macbeth the new king during an offstage meeting. Hamlet resolves to pretend to be mad while he figures out what to do so he can be sure Claudius is guilty, and the second act is mostly about people trying to figure out why he's mad and finally ends when the players arrive and he figures out that he can put on a play which will reveal his uncle's guilt or innocence.

If it helps to use a single simplifying term to describe act 2, I like entanglement. This newly unleashed plot begins to entangle things, the characters, the world. It's about showing off the consequences of the actions done in the first act. King Lear has given his kingdom up to his two wicked daughters, and now reaps their poor treatment, their power and lack of decency allowing them to treat Lear like he's the child now. Even Iago manages to get Othello's second in command fired for being drunk and disorderly in a single scene, allowing him to use this event to confuse Othello later on.

What does this mean for adventurers? Well it may mean that they need to face some "challenges" they must overcome in order to fully enact their plans by the end of act 2. Or they may face some opposition if they've already successfully pulled their plan off, and now must deal with burgeoning schemes of others who may oppose them or this new order.

We'll summarize the whole mess at the end and imagine a full roleplaying adventure using five acts, but right now we can think of some examples. If we were playing some heroic knights, perhaps they might discover some evidence or are told by a concerned party that the King of Fairlandia is being controlled by the foul sorceries of his Court Magician, a demon-summoning evildoer under an assumed identity. So they may then commit to finding out the truth and saving the kingdom. But the party might decide they can't just rush the guy, they need proof, but they can't bring it before the King or any of his subjects because he may be under the evil wizard's control. So they decide they must find craftier means to discover the truth.

The second act would then involve them discovering their crafty means. Maybe they need to create a distracting event so some of them can rifle through the Court Magician's stuff. Or perhaps they can befriend the Magician's apprentice, ask her if she's noticed anything strange about him. Of course they would need to do something to gain her confidence, which is another challenge all on its own. Though they may unwittingly alert the familiar of the villain, who overhears them and can inform its master so he can in turn take actions against them. This example actually shows a pretty standard setup for an adventure, which of course can still be used despite my thoughts above that you should consider different courses to start a story with.

You get the basic idea hopefully, there's a problem and the characters decide they need to do something, act two is about the resolution of that. Or in the case of Macbeth and Romeo and others, there's a desire to do something and they take it, and the act resolves the start of that. Of course just because they are resolved in their actions doesn't mean conflicts don't continue to occur, as others will invariably stand in their way, or will be incited to as the story moves forward.

* * * * *

Act 3

I think it's fair if you generally consider the 2nd and 3rd acts of a five act story to be the "middle" of the story. The second act shows off what occurs after the inciting incident changes the characters' world, the third act then shows off what that does or causes now that a new situation has achieved some stasis.

Lear having been turned out by his daughters, his former power fully lost, goes mad. His friend and parallel father character Gloucester is betrayed by his bastard son after wrongly trusting him, and turning on his good son. That betrayal ends with Gloucester being tortured and blinded. At the same time we discover an army from France has landed with Lear's good daughter Cordelia leading it. She has come back to wrest control from her wicked sisters and right what they have done to their father. One change leads to another.

In Macbeth no sooner has he been declared king in at the end of the second act, than he becomes paranoid and crazy by the first scene of the third act, hiring murderers to remove his friend and his friend's son so that they do not one day usurp his power. Lady Macbeth too has become restless and distraught over what they have done. Scotland has become a dark place filled with spies and murder. Macduff, a powerful lord, decides to go to England to help one of the exiled princes raise an army. And finally, Macbeth goes back to the witches who he foolishly let get him into this mess in the first place, and they placate him with lies about his invulnerability through magical spirits.

The main characters in these stories face major internal changes due to what has transpired up until this point. Lear goes insane and his actions are largely meaningless outside the confines of the art and poetry of the play (admittedly very important), while Macbeth still has agency to act within his world, ordering more deaths in order to protect his position. He's got what he wanted, but not how he wanted it.

The PCs should find themselves facing increasingly delicate and perilous situations, challenge scenes which they must survive and larger plot arcs they must find their way out of. The goal of completing what they set out to do in the first act may fall by the wayside temporarily while they have to handle more pressing incidents, like attempts on their lives, false accusations, and other such traps. Or they may have carefully spent the second act looking for ways to get what they want, and now that they've discovered the means they will be busy trying to execute them.

The thing is, they can't complete the adventure yet, no matter their plans they shouldn't be in a position to reach that final goal, that final challenge. They're just setting things up, or other people are setting things up against them. Let's try another example! If our heroes were Victorian detectives they may have discovered evidence of a murder plot that goes right up to the top of the social strata in London during the first act. They found enough evidence to convince them of who the villains were in the second act, but not enough to stop them or accuse them openly. Now as they look for a way to get the villains to out themselves so they can be arrested, the villains can turn the tables on the heroes and frame them for a crime. That new stasis of "detectives on the trail of villains" has caused the villains to act. And so our detectives must escape the officers of Scotland Yard, find a safe hiding place, and then also continue their quest to solve the case.

That would just be one challenge that could be sent the heroes' way in the third act, you would probably provide several, completing some of them would help the heroes get closer to resolving the story, and some of them would simply be challenges to survive.

There's one remaining thing about third acts we need to cover, and that is the third act climax. Third acts have their own sort of second inciting incident, where the main characters commit to their final course of action. Or at least, they often do. Hamlet has been ordered to England and on the way to the ship sees the Norwegian army on its way to Poland to fight and die over a pointless piece of land. Moved that so many could commit to die over nothing but the bragging rights of winning worthless land, Hamlet himself commits to actually doing what needs to be done in order to revenge his father. Macbeth sees his kingdom coming apart all around him, but after meeting with the witches and receiving false promises of invulnerability commits himself to seeing his wicked kingship through to the end. Othello becomes totally convinced of his wife's infidelity during the third act and ends it by swearing before God that he shall punish those who have wronged him.

King Lear meanwhile doesn't have any such moment, though he's lost his faculties and gone mad. Instead the third act seems to end with Gloucester being blinded and cast out into the wilds to die. This brings up a point about Shakespeare for those following along with his plays that I would like to mention. The act breaks we have for Shakespeare's plays were actually added later, they weren't in the original scripts they had saved. That has led some well meaning but confused souls to suggest that Shakespeare actually just wrote his plays as a pile of scenes and the acts are totally made up. No... just no. But while he did write his plays in five acts, these were writer's acts, as we're seeing, made up to provide structure to the infinite chaos of writing a story, and subsequently weren't recorded, leaving the editors of his collected works to have to try and to put the acts back in. But you kind of have to wonder if they get it right sometimes. Both Hamlet and Macbeth's climaxes are officially listed in the fourth act, showing no discernible reason for the act breaks in either play. So I think it's fair to assume those are both the actual endings to the third acts of those plays. And both are in turn followed by scenes which one would expect to find in a fourth act.

Back to business, within the context of an adventure I think the clearest route to take is to allow the PCs to finally see that final means they could use to achieve their goal, even if it's a bit vague or broad as far as goals go, at the end of the third act. They've made it through the challenges of the act and survived, perhaps even advanced their plans. Now they see the opportunity, even if they don't also immediately see the means to achieve it. Our detectives for example may now be holed up in a safe house, but they realize there is a way to reveal the guilt of the villains publicly, if only they can do X, Y, and Z. And that ends the act.

* * * * *

Act 4

Now I'm going to be honest here, the fourth act seems kind of awkward for the purposes of an RPG adventure. That's because Act 4 is designed to resolve on-going subplots, provide a set-up for the final events to occur in act 5, and also to get the lead of the play off-stage so he or she can finally have a ten or fifteen minute break and get ready for throwing themselves into the ending scenes. In our case we don't need to take the main characters away, as the players are also the audience. But we can still resolve subplots and set-up things for the big finale.

In Hamlet we watch as Ophelia goes mad and dies, while her brother Laertes raises a mob and storms the castle all in response to their own father dying. In Macbeth, Macduff's family meets an untimely end while he is away in England. In King Lear, the wicked daughters Goneril and Regan fight over the wicked son Edmund, and preparations are made for a decisive final battle. Lastly, in Othello, Othello appears in the scenes more than our other leads, but the act is mostly about his wife Desdemona discussing her current predicament.

If you have subplots in your story now would be a good time to resolve them, or at least resolve them as fully as can be done without the final resolution occurring. NPCs who have had their own problems outside of the main plot can have them resolved, situations or characters that were planted earlier in the story can come back now and reveal that they may yet have a part to play in the ending.

In game terms I think this is the time to present final challenge scenes for smaller problems. Again, if there were subplots that could be resolved at this time. That clears lesser events out of the way so you can have a smooth, uninterrupted ending. You could also have event scenes where NPCs or past situations come back so they can be utilized in the fifth act.

I think for the purposes of a game you can feel free to be a little more exciting with events than Shakespeare was. Let's suppose that you were playing some Jedi knights trying to stop a secret Sith Lord who is also a planetary governor. One subplot could involve a group of Mandalorian warriors serving as his personal bodyguard, but the PCs manage to arrange for them to be led into a trap, where they are captured by Alliance soldiers. This gets them out of the way for the finale and resolves them as a subplot. Or perhaps they can fight a lesser boss, like the lord's apprentice, who must be stopped before he messes up their final plans to take down the villain. It's a big challenge, but not as big as the one they will face to resolve the story once and for all. And of course, with the Sith Lord isolated, they can reveal who he really is to everyone and then fight him one on one in the inevitable battle that will follow.

* * * * *

Act 5

Now at last we reach the final act. In Shakespeare the final act will often fly like an arrow to the resolution, especially since all the lesser matters of the plot have been resolved. Let's take a look at how all four of our tragedies finish things (warning, major spoilers about 400 year old plays to follow!!!).

In Macbeth the English army led by Prince Malcolm and Macduff are already marching on Macbeth's castle. Lady Macbeth kills herself right before the battle, offstage, and Macbeth uses the moment to discuss what he was already discussing, which is how upset he is and how much he hates life. Then the battle happens and he's killed. The end.

In Hamlet, Hamlet returns to Denmark after an ill-fated attempt by the villain Claudius to send him to England where he would be murdered. He starts the act by attending Ophelia's funeral, then accepts a challenge to duel Laertes in a fencing match, taking time to explain the entire point of the play to his best friend Horatio on his way. The duel is a secret assassination attempt, everybody dies except Horatio. The end.

King Lear has a battle, which the French lose, Lear and Cordelia are sent off to be executed, Goneril kills Regan and then herself, Edgar kills Edmund, they try to save Lear and Cordelia before the execution but are too late, Lear himself has murdered the executioner with his bear hands after Cordelia was hung, but she is already dead, and then he dies from old age and the weight of events. The end.

Finally, Iago tries to have his unwitting toady kill Cassio, but fails, Othello decides to kill Desdemona and smothers her, her handmaiden Emilia, who is also Iago's wife, then explains that Othello's supposed evidence is all wrong since Iago used her to help unwittingly plant it, Iago stabs Emilia and she dies, Othello stabs Iago, both are placed under arrest, but Othello kills himself rather than be put on trial, while Iago is drug off to be tortured and executed. The end.

These are obviously tragedies for a reason. But things are resolved. In an adventure you're likely to have a final battle of some kind to stop the villain. You can spend the fifth act with scenes setting up and then performing that finale. As you can tell from the plays above, sometimes you have a lot to resolve. In King Lear for example, both the wicked sisters need to die, the English army wins, but the side of good still needs to prevail, so Edgar kills Edmund and the Duke of Albany demands Lear and Cordelia be saved from execution since they were taken without his approval. It isn't enough, both Cordelia and Lear then die before the end. Not only does the battle happen but the English have to sort themselves out, and King Lear must find his end.

So you may need the PCs to resolve some lesser matters even after the fourth act if they only make sense being finished now. But each scene in the fifth act should lead clearly and inexorably toward that final challenge.

To reuse our examples, the heroic knights reveal the evidence against the Court Magician and break his control on the King, leading to a spectacular knight vs. wizard fight. The detectives get the appropriate evidence to Scotland Yard and other high ranking characters, before chasing the head villain through London and finally catching him after a dangerous fistfight on the rooftop of Parliament. And lastly, the Jedi knights reveal the identity and wrong-doings of the Sith Lord before the Planetary Council, only to have him turn all wrinkly and come at them with a red lightsaber! (And, yes, I realize all my examples have actually been the exact same story with a different setting smeared across the top, but it's a good example!) That's how to handle your fifth act.

* * * * *

An Epic Summary Conclusion

So let's see if we can take that entire breakdown and make it quicker to read. It's my own little Freytag summary, except for me and not him:

Act 1: Exposit the existing conflicts and nature of the world in our story. Introduce all the characters and then provide some turn in the story which leads the inciting incident.

Act 2: Show off the immediate consequences of the inciting incident, watch as the characters figure out what they want to do next, or enjoy the fruition of their past planning.

Act 3: Now that a new normal was presented in the last act, see how people respond to it. Characters change because of what they've done, or they resolve to take action because they don't like how things are playing out. The act ends with a third act climax, the main character figures out what he's going to do now to end things.

Act 4: Resolve lesser plots and set-up the ending. Make sure everything is in place, and get unnecessary stuff out of the way. Also if you're writing a play, get the main character offstage, they need a break.

Act 5: The ending. Play out the final events as the main character follows their commitment in the third act climax to its eventual conclusion. If you're writing a tragedy try to kill everybody, except for a few side characters to drag the bodies off the stage.

And there you have it. How to write five act stories. Well, kind of.

* * * * *

The Five Act RPG Adventure

Okay, now lets have one little bit at the end to apply what we've learned and see how we can make it into a cool adventure with swords and laser guns and portals to other dimensions!

I apologize in advanced if I use some jargon and concepts that I haven't fully fleshed out here, or which you have to read the entirety of my Kickstarter page and take notes to understand. I shall try to explain things quickly but completely.

I think the five act structure will provide a good alternative to the modular adventure, the long kind of adventure that plays out in self-contained acts one after the other (see Masks of Nyarlathotep, Beyond the Mountains of Madness, or Horror on the Orient Express from Call of Cthulhu for examples). It's the three act structure expanded to greater dramatic depth and also gametime. The three act uses a first act with event scenes that provide some set-up to the story and ends with an inciting incident, a second act with challenge scenes that block our heroes from getting to their ultimate objective too easily, and a third act where they reach that ultimate objective and overcome the final challenge to get it.

Now in the five act structure we've got a similar first act, a second act that uses challenges which the heroes must overcome and more events which just present things and information, a third act which does that again but with more intensity, and then two final acts, one for the small resolutions, and the last act for the big resolution. Which is a vague outline, but let's see if we can't get more specific with an example adventure.

I'll stick with Call of Cthulhu as my setting for this example, it handles big adventures quite well obviously. So just spitballing here, let's assume we're in Arkham during the 1920s and one of the ranking members of The Order of the Silver Twilight decides the cult's latest scheme is just too evil, and that the leaders are playing with forces they do not comprehend. This defecting cultist has already been accosted by a private detective due to his suspected involvement in a murder actually performed by the cult. This first meeting is obviously hostile, but the detective has made friends with a local professor who knows a lot about the supernatural, a local nun who has collected evidence the devil is at work in Arkham, and let's just say a professional boxer who owns a lot of shotguns. Since this cultist is having a change of heart, he decides to find this detective again before his own cult brothers quietly eliminate him and bury him on the Unvisited Isle.

That's our first act. Maybe the turncoat cultist is an NPC, or maybe the GM finds a player who is game to perform the role, even though it's a little pre-scripted. We can have scenes about the characters meeting, scenes of the cultist finding out about the Order's newest evil plans and seeing they don't make sense for the continuation of humanity, and some random events that just take place around Arkham, so we can meet NPCs, find out the police are no help, that the diner is a good meeting place, and so on. Then we end the act with the cultist coming to the detective himself, explaining what's going on and having the detective agree to help, however skeptical he is of the man's claims. All that would come off the first act chart and creation set-up that I already have for first acts in the Adventure Creator.

The second act may be about the cultist proving his outlandish claims, maybe that's one of the challenges, he needs to break into the Lodge and steal some magical artifact which will blow everyone's mind. Or steal some journals which reveal that they really do operate this secret cult. And then maybe have the rest of the characters sneak into position so they can witness some terrible rite the Order does somewhere outside of Arkham. And they can also have more event scenes and more scenes run by the characters. They happen into some scamps who break the detective's car window with a slingshot, and the detective's overly hasty attempt to turn the cultists into the police after what he's seen causes him to be thrown out of the station and told to leave town or face the consequences from the officers tired of dealing with him. The sum of the act is that the cultist is now working with the PC group, and by the end of it his resolution to get them on his side has led them to see all manner of supernatural horror and they actually believe him.

Now we contend with this new situation in the third act. The PCs are all heavily motivated to stop this evil cult. But a good GM will throw in a few twists. No sooner do the PCs take the initiative than the cultist is outed as a traitor. Now they are all on the run, and some of the most powerful men in Arkham have it in their interest to see all the PCs murdered as quickly as possible. Whether the cultist is captured or stays alive might depend if you found someone to play him, but let's assume you did, maybe the other characters have to rescue him before the cult is through interrogating him and drives him to Innsmouth to throw in the outgoing current. The PCs now face several challenges in order to survive, perhaps we can dispense with event scenes entirely, all the action is about the main plot with no time for diversions. So they all have to hide from the cult, hide from the police, save their cultist friend, secure food and shotgun shells from the friendly NPCs they know, and maybe even break into the office of a head cultist so they can find out enough specifics on their secret plot in order to actually stop it. When they do, we have the third act climax, the PCs will need to get out of town by finding a ride, and head upstate to the Pit of Shoggoths where the evil ritual is to take place.

In the fourth act they resolve lesser plots, the detective knocks out a local mob tough who was threatening the diner owner, the nun gets the scamps to help them steal a car by creating a distraction, and they manage to slip into the local magic shop on the way out of town to get what they'll need to prevent the ritual. A combination of lesser final challenges and some preparatory work.

Events are now running downhill, the PCs get to the ritual location, going in on foot so they aren't seen, maybe they have to knock out a few guards so they don't raise an alarm before they get there. Then the cultist throws on a robe and tries to slip in close enough to throw some eye of elder thing into the summoning portal to Azathoth, stopping the ritual, all before a big shotgun battle resolves everything. The nun gets eaten by a shoggoth, but the boxer knocks it out with a right hook and pulls her out of the gelatinous mess before she takes any wounds, then they blast damage away the cult leadership in just a few rounds and run for it.

Add in a denouement where they all decide to leave town before they are killed in revenge and you've got a got yourself a real five act adventure! It probably need some more polish to get it ready for the book, but that's the gist of it.

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The Actual Ending

Well I hope you enjoyed this little breakdown of the five act structure and how it can help us rethink the way we write adventures. If I was writing a comprehensive look at the five act structure for playwrights I'd probably have several hundred pages to go before I did the subject justice, and the methods still need further refinement before I decide on how to present this act variation in the book, but you might still have learned a little useful knowledge from my breakdown, and I've had the chance to share with you some of my notes and methods for creating what's going into the Covetous Poet's Adventure Creator and Solo GM Guidebook. Thanks for reading!





The Hourlong Drama Television Structure and What an Act Is

By : Frank Lee
So to keep you up to date on my work the last few days, I'm going to go over episodes from three different television shows as an exercise in understanding how we organize narratives. The shows will be Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek: The Next Generation (Excelsior!). And I'm going to start by taking an example episode from each one, analyzing its act breaks, and then I'll look into how one might create an adventure scenario around one of them.

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Game of Thrones on HBO is a popular fantasy-genre drama right now, normally the episodes fly all over the place focusing on 20 different or so characters, often only giving one scene to each, maybe two if they're special. If I had just looked at their episodes on paper, I would wonder if such a design could ever work, but of course it does. Your brain easily flies all over Westeros and then across the ocean to see whatever the Khaleesi is up to. But unfortunately that ensemble design doesn't have much use for creating roleplaying games.

So instead I'm going to focus on one of their uncommon single focus episodes, Blackwater, where the siege of King's Landing is about to to take place, pitting the crown-holding Lannisters against the invading Lord Stannis Baratheon.

I've heard that HBO shows often use a four act structure, though I know no more than that. As we'll see, one of the main points of this blog post is to show that an act structure is a lot more than the number of acts. But I will assume a four act structure since after analyzing the episode that makes as much sense as any other possible structure. I won't go so far as to post the whole scene list, but there are 25 scenes (more or less), starting with [SPOILER ALERT] the prelude to the attack by Stannis showing worried Lannisters, especially focused on Tyrion Lannister, the disrespected dwarf son who is nonetheless commanding the defense of the city by proxy for his nephew King Joffrey.

After about 7 scenes the battle actually begins. Things go well for Tyrion in his first moves of the battle, and I think that's the point of this second act. We identify with Tyrion and as his prospects rise and fall, so we also gain hope or feel despair. Tyrion manages to blow up half of Stannis' fleet through alchemy, severely cutting into the invaders 5-to-1 manpower advantage. There is some additional plot covered as Cersei Lannister, mother of the King and brother to Tyrion drunkenly berates Sansa Stark in a cellar hiding place.

Now about 15 scenes into the show, Stannis lands his forces and we see a reversal in the tone of events. Lannister forces try to force back Stannis with arrows, and by sending a small force outside to hold the vulnerable gate he is sending his battering rams toward. But the force falls back and the arrows aren't enough. Cersei orders a knight to go get her son King Joffrey off of the walls and into safety, which suits the cowardly Joffrey just fine. The men are dispirited to see their King flee, and the logistics of Stannis' advantage in terms of men is becoming apparent. Characters see that there is little chance the outmanned city forces can actually prevail. We come down as an audience by this point, things are bad. Though we may also want to see the Lannisters get what's coming to them aside from Tyrion, in which case, things are good. But either way, things are going poorly for the Lannisters and Tyrion, and well for the stiff and characterless Stannis Baratheon.

However, now at the 22nd scene Tyrion gives an inspired speech to his men, and leads them outside to ambush the Baratheon men at the walls and destroy their siege equipment. Now will this work? The truth is, as television audience members, we don't know! We don't know how many men remain, or what technical factors are currently affecting battle conditions. After all, historically speaking, running outside of your walls to fight a sieging army is a really terrible idea, because the walls are what's giving you an advantage. So who knows, the point is, dramatically speaking, it feels like anything is possible. We've had an set-up act to get us worried, we've had a positive act to get us hopeful, we've had a negative act to make us despair, and now it comes down to this. It's going to be a life-or-death struggle to decide things.

Tyrion has some success before almost falling to a murder plot by his own sister. As he passes out he sees even more men charging his position and we in the audience are left with no knowledge of what is happening for a minute. But right before Cersei poisons herself and her little, far less evil than Joffrey, son, Tywin Lannister, her father, bursts in the doors of the throne room announcing they have won. The men were his relieving army and they cast Stannis back to the sea.

As you read, I think the act structure behind such shows is predicated on the flow of the narrative emotionally. There's four acts, but more importantly, the design is such that we have a first act for exposition, two acts in the middle to bring us up or down, and a final act where things are meant to seem precarious for both victory and defeat. That's a different philosophy than you're going to use when writing an RPG adventure, though the up and down, yo-yo of drama is still a tool you may apply. Heroes can face whatever issue the plot throws at them and succeed at first, then face a second wave of tougher challenges that they must largely survive, only then to face an even wrestling match to decide who will be the actual victor.

Of course one can reverse that order, have the first wave of challenges be overwhelming, then allow some success, only to find that success partial, and face a renewed enemy for a final confrontation. Or you can repeat the process indefinitely for as many acts as you like.

You may recognize this up and down tool of the narrative if you've ever read any screenwriting books. It's definitely a way to inject conflict and interest, rising and lowering our hopes over and over again. Though using it as the primary tool (as I've read it suggested by some popular how-to books) seems rather shallow when writing a screenplay.

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Next let's look at an episode or two from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here the acts are clearly defined by the script, this show uses a teaser to start, then follows with four acts. If you spend much time analyzing television show scripts you'll see some of them follow a structural formula very closely in just about every episode. Not just in terms of the act breaks which must remain consistent for television production purposes, but the events within the acts themselves are like a paint-by-numbers for plot. Buffy is one such show.

My favorite episode of the whole series was Hush, despite taking place within that stupid "Initiative" plot arc of season four. The teaser on Buffy sets up the eventual main plot (the plot with a villain, often a demon), here Buffy has a creepy dream warning her of a coming menace to Sunnydale.

Once those couple minutes are out of the way the show can spend a leisurely first act introducing us to what our main characters are currently up to. Demons come and go every episode, but the characters themselves have arcs that last all season, this first act doesn't worry about the main plot of the episode so much as it worries about continuing those character arcs, as well as defining the episode "moral," which will be explored further thanks to the main plot.

For Hush, every character is about to lose the ability to speak, so they all have trouble communicating with words. For Buffy, words get in the way; for Xander, he can't adequately express himself through words; for Willow, she can find no connection at college through the local Wiccan group, as they are all talk. But at the end of this act a group of demonic "Gentlemen" roll into town and use a magic box to steal the voice of everyone in town.

The second act of Buffy is about things going wrong. In this episode it's obvious right away there's a problem, the entire town has lost their voice completely, and the characters know black magic is invariably going to be the cause. In other episodes the fact that an evil plot is afoot may not even be known to start the act. The characters look for solutions and struggle with the fact that they must communicate with erasable marker boards, until the demons strike that following night, finding victims in their beds and cutting their hearts out, all while they are unable to even scream for help.

The third act is about figuring out what to do about the main plot, while in turn the villain ratchets up their efforts. Giles discovers information on the demons in question, and silently explains that they come to a town to collect a certain number of hearts before they move on and that the only way to kill them is with a live human voice. The characters must figure out what to do from there. Also the plot will usually resolve lesser subplots during this act.

Anyway, the efforts lead to Buffy finding the demons hideout in a tower, where she and her boyfriend fight them, meanwhile Willow's new Wiccan girlfriend discovers a spell to return everyone's voices, but is found by the Gentlemen on her way over to Willow's and is chased until she meets Willow and two of them try to barricade themselves in a laundry room.

Finally the fourth act resolves things, Buffy sees a magical box containing all the voices, recognizing it from her dream during the teaser, Willow and her girlfriend combine magical powers to move a laundry unit in front of the door just in time to prevent it from being broken down, Buffy's boyfriend smashes the box and Buffy kills the whole lot of demons with a scream. Then we have denouement where everyone moves on.

I don't like to ever shoehorn on ideas that don't fit, but with that in mind, I think it is possible to imagine designing adventure sessions along similar lines. In four acts you start with just the characters engaging in on-going troubles or relationships or other maintenance level needs. The second act is where trouble falls, but the heroes are not in a position to confront the problem, they don't know enough. The third act allows them to finally get their resources together and begin overcoming challenges that stand in their way of eliminating the final problem. Then the fourth act is the big climactic confrontation.

It's actually quite similar to the three act structure one sees in investigative RPGs, where the first act is spent gathering info about a known problem, the second act is spent overcoming the hurdles between the heroes and their ultimate plan to foil villainy, and the third act is a climactic battle. Except we add in another act at the beginning, basically an act one where nobody knows any problem exists, and indeed the evil plot only really gets kicking at the very end of that first act (though you can always tease it at the very beginning).

Conceivably you could do shorter(-ish) adventures using this structure with a group of RPG characters who have lives outside their latest adventure (lives that are dramatically interesting that is). Let them play out four scenes in this first act, then another four in the second act as they react to the trouble befalling them. Once they've got a clue or two about what's going on, give them just two or three challenges to overcome in the third act so they can get through them quickly, and then of course, have a final battle at the end for the fourth act. You've got a 12-15 scene adventure right there.

And you can even use some additional formula within the acts to make it easier on yourself. Buffy often has characters split up in the third act and one is solving the problem and the other is surviving the problem (makes it easier than cramming everyone into the same scenes I suppose) along with a variety of other commonalities. Just something to keep in mind.

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Finally let's look at Star Trek: The Next Generation. Who wouldn't want to run an episodic sci-fi adventure like that as an RPG? Star Trek is written in five acts with a teaser at the beginning. Star Trek is not radically different from Buffy, but it does show more variation in how the plot works because there are a variety of different types of stories they can go into. It's not always just a villain causing trouble.

For example, in the episode Cause and Effect, the teaser shows the Enterprise collide with another ship and explode. But they immediately come back for the first act, only to end the act by replaying the events we saw in the teaser, and they explode again. They're stuck in a time loop and each act ends with them colliding with another ship and exploding.

But the show still manages to follow it's normal arc. The first act introduces the problem. The second act "deepens" the problem, things usually get worse for our intrepid crew. The third allows for the crew to react somewhat to the problems, but generally things get worse. In the fourth act, things get worse still, but finally the crew seems to figure out some solution that may or may not win the day. Then the fifth act allows for a final struggle in which the outcome of the plot (and often whether several characters live or die) is resolved. In Star Trek the heroes always win, like in most shows, but we go on that journey anyway. Basically the show spends the first act introducing the problem, the next three acts digging a deeper and deeper hole, and the last act allows our heroes to finally implement a solution. One they more or less use the third act and especially the fourth act coming up with.

If you were going to do an adventure like this, basically you're going to pile on the PCs, using a problem that just keeps getting bigger and more unbeatable, until at the end, when the chips are really down, they are presented with challenges which they can overcome to save the day. One could organize an adventure around a very involved first act where we quickly find out the problem (usually we find out some inkling of the problem, then the ship takes awhile to fly through space to get there so we can have some character-based scenes, then we go back to the main problem). Then you just have challenges that the crew has to survive, maybe one or two per act, through the second through fourth acts, except in the fourth act the challenges also include ones like figuring out how you can save the day given what you know about the problem.

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Different act structures suit different story types better or worse. Television is all about a roller-coaster ride. The acts yo-yo you around, worrying about the heroes, watching them get out of sticky situations, only to get right back in them again. The acts all end on cliffhangers (well at least on network, where antiquated ideas about how we watch TV still rule with an iron fist), so we are left wondering what will happen after all those commercials are over. (I usually forget what I'm watching halfway through the commercial break, and certainly don't remember the cliffhanger, not to mention even if I did, how many thousands have I seen and how many of those always ended with the heroes surviving and the show not derailing? Like all of them.)

An act is really just a term for a group of scenes, how you group them, that's up to you! The five acts used in Star Trek are quite different than the five acts used by Shakespeare. And you can even apply that to your adventure writing or solo roleplaying efforts. If you start with the three act structure I present in my book, where you have a first act of events that introduce the story, a second act of challenges where you must overcome hurdles until you can enact your final plans to save the day, and a third act where you save the day, you can begin modifying those acts into smaller and more focused units. A "first act" that is only about stuff that doesn't involve the main plot for that adventure, followed by a "first act" that is only about discovering clues over a mysterious criminal incident. Or a "second act" where the challenges are all about dealing with the villain's attacks, only later to be followed by "second acts" that involve discovering means to thwart said villain.

In such a way you could make a five act adventure with a totally idle first act using the first act design of the basic three act structure from my book, then a second act using the first act design, except focused solely on events caused by the main plot. Then have two acts following that based on the second act design, where the first of the two is all about the villain enacting his evil plan, while they second is all about the heroes striking back. Then a traditional final act where the forces of good and evil battle it out.

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Hopefully that all helps you expand your story structure horizons assuming you've never studied TV shows before. The things I appreciate most from them is their great attention to the dramatic back and forth of danger/failure to hope/success, and the many different forms they show us we can use when designing a story. They oftentimes lack the depth in act design you'd hope to see in, say, a play, but even Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation offer us themes and morals behind their stories of demons or space anomalies.

Next time I will look at Shakespeare's Five Act Structure using his four Great Tragedies: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and MacBeth. And then after that I'll get back into RPGs proper, and look the designs of the great-sized modular campaigns of Call of Cthulhu: Masks of Nyalarthotep, Beyond the Mountains of Madness, and Horror on the Orient Express to see how they function and how they could even be improved. Hope you enjoyed this long post, and enjoy the rest of them as well, until next time-

-Frank

Working with One Acts and Two Acts

By : Frank Lee
When it comes to story design for RPGs there seems to be one principal form which has three parts: a problem arises, the heroes then take an active role in solving it, and finally you have a climax in the action and the problem is resolved (if the heroes are successful). To put it in an example, a dragon steals a town's entire population of fair maidens, your heroes decide to help the town by tracking down the dragon and finding a weapon big enough to use against him, then they sneak into his lair and do battle.

This is how three act adventures work, this is also how one act adventures work. One acts that I've studied have the same structure, but they're pretty short so it seems silly to call them three acts. Still you could if you wanted to. Some one acts I've broken down may only be 6 to 10 scenes in length, but they'll spend the first 40% providing exposition for PCs, the next 40% throwing challenges and demanding action from the PCs, and then save the last 20% for setting up a final confrontation (because you want the biggest challenge/fight/difficulty to come at the end).

This information is hardly mind=blown, but once you know it, and you know you know it, you can use it to guide story building tools like the Story Charts in my upcoming book. The two work hand-in-hand. So you're not just pulling random ideas out of the ether and wondering how to turn a jumble of potential events into a story that doesn't feel lame.

Two acts are a little different, but instead of coming up with a different form of events as covered above, they simply take two one acts and put them back-to-back within the same narrative. So what does that mean? You start off with a problem and exposition, the heroes take some action to resolve it, except when we get to what normally would be the ending, instead a bigger problem arises because of their efforts. And then the process is repeated, the heroes gather information, develop a plan of action, and finally this time we reach a climactic ending.

You've seen countless two acts in your life if you watch television sitcoms. It's a great form for allowing characters to over-react to an initial problem, cause their own new problems, and then struggle to get out of them. It allows for a lot of comedy at the expense of the constantly messing up characters, and it also allows for an eventual return to the original stasis we started the show with.

For example, on The Simpsons in an episode I recently rewatched, the Simpsons' house has a foundation problem and is sinking sideways into the ground (an initial problem!). Homer can't cover the cost of the repairs, but after an old man is forcibly retired from Mr. Burns' nuclear power plant, Marge applies for his job to make the extra money (an active attempt to solve the problem). But while she gets the job and the money to repair the foundation, Mr. Burns falls in love with her at first sight and tries to woo her (an even bigger problem arises out of our heroes attempts to solve the problems of the first act). He then fires her when he finds out she's married, so Marge tries to get Lionel Hutz to sue Mr. Burns (attempt to solve problem of second act). But that doesn't work, however, an angered Homer demands Mr. Burns apologize to his wife, and Mr. Burns, touched by Homer's concern sends Homer and Marge on a romantic weekend getaway.

Two acts, both completely silly, starting with what is really just some throw-away problem in the first act to cause events to happen, leading to a problem involving greater emotional stakes for Mr. Burns and for Marge, then finally coming to a happy ending where stasis is fully returned (Marge no longer works at the power plant, the house is level again, and the characters can move on with their lives).

Of course one does not need to return the characters to their original lives, with no progression, just because you use a two act. And you could also write sitcoms in three acts.

Now good stories for consumption as a viewer, and not as a character yourself, often have different requirements for success, ones that are usually accomplished by taking the middle of a story and breaking it down into its own necessary parts. But there's still something to learn by studying those methods for a GM. I'll cover what we can glean from popular one hour television dramas (in case you want to have your own Game of Thrones or Star Trek style game sessions), provide a proper 5 Act analysis from the Shakespearean perspective better than any you'll find elsewhere on the internet, and discuss modular adventure design in my next few blog posts. And post some samples from the Horror and Sci-Fi story charts so you can see how they're coming along!

Until next time-

Arkham [Trail of Cthulhu solo roleplaying and story creation]

By : Frank Lee

Welcome to Arkham, a solo campaign and story creation using Trail of Cthulhu. The idea behind this adventure is that it's set in a story-verse akin to an HBO series about Lovecraft's writing. Imagine a cross between Game of Thrones and Lost, but in Arkham, Massachusetts. The great thing about the Adventure Creator is that it's tools are completely expandable and adaptable, meaning you're free to use any story structure you want, including a TV script act structure! Much like a viewer tuning into a show for the first time, I have very little idea as to what the actual plot is, or who the characters will be. But I don't need to! Let's begin.

This adventure will start soon!

So I already have some ideas about what this will be about. It's a story that slowly involves an ever increasing group of characters who in are in Arkham, who must oppose or otherwise be entangled in the plot of an ancient warlock who plans to utilize his profane knowledge to take a large step into godhood.

I'm going to try and organize things into ten episode seasons, each using four acts like I covered in my post about using TV structure. This could of course turn into an overly long nightmare of a campaign if I plan on going several seasons and don't do something to manage the time. As such I'm going to be trying to emulate a television show's speed as well as structure. Scenes will occur quickly, I'm going to try and improvise rather than roll and consider the setups to scenes, and instead focus my story-creating energy on each act and what I want it to contain.

Let's get started making up some basic characters from the Trail of Cthulhu system. I'm going to try and keep the action and description more narrative, including in the character creation, though I will interject with information about the crunchy rules and such with little editor tags [Like this!]. So let's think up some characters and get their character sheets filled out.

I know the first character I want is a young woman, an out of towner who is Arkham for some extended stay. She'll be a nice viewpiece for the audience (that's me and you!), and perhaps the heart of the story as one of the main characters. Let's say she's 24, named Alice Cobbleton and we'll figure out her job and why she's in town.

Looking over the rules, I have a background in mind, Alice is the daughter of a well-to-do family and has been sent north to Arkham to help take care of her ailing grandmother, who none of the family thinks has very long, but may as well be comforted by the presence of a close granddaughter than just the company of some nurse. She doesn't have to work a job, but instead plans to provide some pleasant company and generally have a low-key few months in a city she doesn't think will have much to offer her.

Alice is not the type to join in the party of the roaring 20s, yet a part of her secretly wishes she could: the anonymous newspaper accounts of famous speakeasies, the people there, the wild times being had, she wishes she could write stuff like that. She's an amateur columnist, but she has a hard time finding anything truly worth writing about.

[Alice has the Dilettante career, and since she's an aspiring writer she's received a variety of related skills such as library use, art, and oral history. She's also a wily and resourceful protagonist and has received a variety of helpful skills for someone in her position such as assess honesty, sense trouble, and stealth. She has a 6 Stability (lowish), meaning situations can easily shock her, but an 11 Sanity (highish), meaning she has a deep inner reserve of strength and is able to withstand horror and stress over the long term.]

Now let's figure out some other important tropes of a Lovecraftian world that we just can't leave out. We'll have a private investigator, he'd work as the perfect foil for our young lady. We'll need Miskatonic University involved so we'll need a professor or two, maybe a grad student. There's no way I can't have a jazz club in town be involved, so why not make a jazz musician and a few NPC buddies. That won't be everything, but that's a pretty good start for now.

Our private investigator, Henry Moscinski, he's the tough as nails type. Knows a lot about the world of cops but would never work as one as he has a neurotic distaste for society's authority and means of control. Slightly more handsome than a Dashiell Hammett character, he's not the type to deeply question himself or how he lives his life. He'll handle terrible situations without stopping to think too deeply about them, which will provide him some small protection mentally.

[He's a pulp style P.I. He's good at beating people up, talking people over, and being moody in a masculine sort of way. He's only got a Sanity of 8 to start, he doesn't have a lot of pillars of mental strength to begin with, he isn't religious, isn't a patriot, and doesn't really have faith in anybody but those who show they possess moral character explicitly.]

For Miskatonic University, I'm sure the tale may eventually pull in a pile of NPCs, but we'll start with a PC professor and graduate assistant. They'll both be involved in the field of ancient languages and writings. Our professor, let's make him male, English, and around 60. The graduate student can be a woman, around 26.

Arthur Pennrose is 61, a professor of ancient languages, and is well versed in many of the mythological writings of early human history. He's generally going to be good at academic things like ancient languages and history and dealing with department chairs. His main drive will be Curiosity, he's not some out of control academic seeking ever higher plateaus of knowledge, rather curious and likely criminal events at Miskatonic will lead him into discovering more of the story.

Mildred Daly is his graduate assistant. She's getting close to receiving her PhD herself, maybe in another year or so. She knows basically what Dr. Pennrose knows, though her general skills include more athleticism and stealth, being young and still fit. Her main drive is that of a Follower.

The jazz musician character will be a sort of diamond in the rough type, he lives a fun life of playing jazz music in speakeasies, but he's surrounded by mundane people without much purpose. He, however, has the spark of adventure in him, which causes him to be quick to get himself involved where he doesn't belong. He's part of a jazz trio, so he's got two good friends and bandmates with him.

Let's name him Glen Harper, trumpet player, occasional singer, and leader of a jazz trio. Him and his friends Angelo and Bernard make enough to get by playing in the clubs around Arkham and some surrounding stops. Being up late at night at anti-authoritarian establishments can lead to spending time with trouble causing people. Glen's only 28, but from the way he acts if he told anyone he was 40 they'd believe it without question. His drive is Adventure.

That'll be enough to get the story started and we'll find the rest of the characters as we go. For now I think these characters will all provide different introduction points to the story, and we'll be able to bounce around between them until they eventually meet and become one unified PC group. Which should take a few episodes!

With all that said, let's move on to our pilot episode...


Knights of the New Republic [FFG Star Wars solo roleplaying]

By : Frank Lee

Welcome to the Knights of the New Republic solo roleplaying campaign! Using FFG's new Star Wars roleplaying game, this game is set around 40 years after the end Return of the Jedi, and naturally assumes the Prequels never happened and ignores them completely. So let's get started!

This adventure will start soon! Like right below this line, it's already begun! That's fast!

Inspired by the new JJ Abrams movies and some amount of the classic DarkStryder campaign, this adventure will use the "cinematic" rules of Fantasy Flight Games new Star Wars roleplay books, Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion. I've decided to not try and include a "movie style" adventure structure proper in my book (movie structure is both quite variable, and largely quite sucky), instead this adventure will follow the modular adventure design which is itself very cinematic.

Let's setup the story...

A long time ago in a galaxy a super long ways away the Galactic Empire crushed the millennia-old Galactic Republic and nearly wiped out the Jedi after they had fallen into a period self-righteous decline. Fortunately that only lasted for like 20 years, and then the Republic was restored, which one would assume should be pretty easy since it had been going on for thousands of years and was only interrupted for a couple decades. Still the threat of the evil force using Sith remained, along with a large renegade presence fostered by periods of both lawlessness and tyranny. To combat these threats task forces are routinely launched to the edges of the galaxy, helping to make sure the Sith do not rise again and that the civilized law of the Republic is observed by those who would wish to suppress and oppress worlds that cannot defend themselves.

The 'Dawn of Serenity' is a cruiser of the Republic used in such a manner. A fast ship, only requiring a small crew for actual operations, it carries a compliment of commandos, a small squadron of fighters, and three young Jedi knights of the reformed and refreshed Jedi Order. The crew has recently received new orders to investigate a disturbance along the Outer Rim. Freshly supplied and ready for their mission the ship departs for it's destination.

Let's meet the crew...

So this adventure is going to do a couple novel things to show off what you can do with a solo adventure, one of those things is utilize a large ensemble crew. There are eight featured characters in the game, along with a crew of lesser recurring extras that will only appear when needed.

Captain - Jenyss Ghraystar
Attitude - Serious; Social - Unflappable; Character - Egotistical to Moral
Flaw - Can be callous.
Oddity - Afraid of insects.

Commander [NPC] - Teggo Iyonsteen
Attitude - Inquisitive; Social - Merry; Character - Righteous

Navigator [NPC] - Kloos Klango
Attitude - Anxious; Social - Fast Talking; Character - Self-Deprecating
Oddity - Loves science.

Chief Mechanic [and Astromech] - Kaymee Hutstruff and NVM-5
Attitude - Show-Off; Social - Vulgar; Character - Calm to Obedient
Flaw - Untrusting
Oddity - Very young looking.

NVM-5
Personality - Squeamish

Squadron Leader [and three NPC pilots] - Argo Highwind
Attitude - Aviricious; Social - Alluring and Strong Presence; Character - Narcissistic to Respectful

Ellaxo Blacksun
Personality - Charming

Varin Hothsleet
Personality - Moody

Penerioa Whallquex
Personality - Strange

Commandos - Greer Xulon and Namarri Lightspear
Attitude - Sanguine; Social - Dumb (purposefully so, graceless); Character - Generous to Chivalrous
Attitude - Clever; Social - Spontaneous; Character - Resolute to Humble

Jedi Knights - Haywren Mordkall, Bing Fallaxen, and Leandrre Groulkynn
Attitude - Enthusiastic; Social - Plain; Character - Romantic to Brave
Attitude - Gallant; Social - Prim and Proper; Character - Mercenary to Exacting
(Mercenary in that she quickly gravitates to those who will give her an advantage or what she wants.)
Attitude - Dangerous; Social - Cranky; Character - Disciplined to Honorable

That should give me some good guidelines to roleplay by. And the characters can all develop and grow as the campaign moves forward. So now let's get on to the Plot Sheet...

The Play's the Thing [WFRP Adventure Creation]

By : Frank Lee
The Play's the Thing is an adventure written for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I'm creating it using the Adventure Creator as an example of how you can create full size adventure supplements for your favorite RPGs to play with your group or share with others.

In the case of The Play's the Thing it is being used to replace the Something's Rotten in Kislev adventure in The Enemy Within Campaign. Using the Adventure Creator I'm confident I can create a far better fitting tale for the storyline of the campaign, and also set an adventure in the independent city of Marienburg, which is the subject of Anthony Ragan's delightful Marienburg: Sold Down the River sourcebook.

The adventure writing has already begun and let's check out the first step!

So if you're a fan of WFRP 1st edition, you probably know about The Enemy Within Campaign, and if you know about The Enemy Within Campaign then you probably know its reputation as three incredible starting adventures, followed by a fourth total-WTF-off-the-rails adventure, and then a not-that-great epic finale that totally rewrites the setting of The Empire and was completely ignored. And if you didn't know about those things, now you sort of do.

Alright, so we know what we want to write a spiffy new adventure with the help of the Adventure Creator and we know what we want the adventure to be about. Let's do it!

* * *

Step One: The Adventure Creator Plot Sheet

Whenever we want to create a new adventure we start by coming up with an overall plot outline. And the Adventure Creator helps us do that with the Plot Sheet, which is just a premade series of idea prompts that you'll fill in with the Story Charts. Here's an example of what I mean:

Plot Device: New Leadership - Villains plan to replace the current hierarchy of power.
Plot Device: Death Cult - An evil group gets innocents involved under false pretenses.

What we've got above here are two "Plot Device" prompts, and I've rolled twice on the Plot Device Charts (one of the many charts that make up the Story Charts and provide you with ideas) to get the results. So the first roll on a d1000 was a 349, which is "New Leadership." And the second one is 770, which is "Death Cult." I just copy down the result, along with the short blurb describing the result so I'll remember what it means.

The Plot Sheet just provides me with a premade sheet that has a variety of different prompts for me to fill in with the Story Charts. All those random ideas will then help me add onto the ideas I already have.

* * *

I already know I want this adventure to take place in Marienburg. Also I got some inspiration from that old adventure Something's Rotten in Kislev, and thought I should make another title based on Hamlet. Since I like theatre I went with The Play's the Thing, and decided to include the theatre scene in Marienburg as an important element in the story. Also I'd like to have a famous young actress be one of the important NPCs, and since I think this story should be about important people and events, the backdrop to everything will be high society functions and dealings with very important city figures.

Now let's roll up some results on that Plot Sheet, and I'll give you a little warning here, I decided to add on even more prompts than you'll find on the basic Plot Sheet just to experiment and give myself lots of ideas. And it's important to remember, you're encouraged to adjust and add-on to everything you find in The Adventure Creator and Solo Gm Guidebook. But let's see some of the results I got...

Scheme/Plot Maker
Genre: Evil Group
Opposition: A Close Friend
Motivation: Further Goals
Plot Device: You Didn't See Anything - A power group wants people to keep quiet.
Action + Thing: Judge Mystery

Story Background

Plot Device: New Leadership - Villains plan to replace the current hierarchy of power.
Plot Device: Death Cult - An evil group gets innocents involved under false pretenses.

Action + Thing: Represent Show Trial
Action + Thing: Increase Corpses
Thing: Pirates
Thing: Patriarch
Location: Dining Room
Location: Secret Room
Location: Infirmary/Hospice

Additional Story Background!


Plot Device: Thing of Beauty - A very beautiful NPC is at the center of events.
Plot Device: He's Not Seeing Anyone - An important/necessary NPC refuses to see the PCs.

Action + Thing: Manipulate Noble Title
Action + Thing: Setup Workers
Thing: Mask
Thing: Saint/Legendary Religious Figure
Location: City Gates
Location: Terrible Place
Location: Mill


Once you've got your results your imagination should start filling with ideas. I like to just brainstorm for a few minutes, look things over, let ideas jump up, then fall away, let new ideas jump up, and so on. My first idea is rarely my best idea, so giving myself at least a few minutes to consider the possibilities helps.








The Adventures of Illy and Ludwick! [WFRP 3rd. solo roleplaying]

By : Frank Lee
Welcome to the adventures of Illy and Ludwick!

Solo Roleplaying

By : Frank Lee
So what is solo roleplaying? It's playing RPGs all by yourself! Of course solo roleplaying can be hard because rulebooks are written with several players in mind. Normally you have a Game or Dungeon Master who will handle running the narrative and all the people the heroes meet, while everybody else plays a Player Character. In solo roleplaying it's just you, so you need a way to fulfill all those roles while still having a good time.

Supplements like the Adventure Creator and Solo GM Guidebook provide a system for solo roleplayers to use so that they can wear all the hats of gameplay, while still having a good time, and not spoiling future events for themselves. After all, not knowing what comes next is half the fun!

The Kickstarter

By : Frank Lee

The Kickstarter campaign for The Covetous Poet's Adventure Creator and Solo GM Guidebook ran from August 16th to September 16th 2013. Designed to help me raise funds in order to be able to create the book, the Kickstarter was a success and hit quite a few stretch goals along the way to the finish line!
You can check out the Kickstarter page here.

About the Book

By : Frank Lee
The Covetous Poet's Adventure Creator and Solo GM Guidebook is a roleplaying supplement meant to be used with any RPG system, and allow GMs to create their own adventures or solo players to play all by themselves.

The book is split into two different parts, the first is the Adventure Creator. GMs who write their own adventures will find help structuring their stories using several popular methods (as well as instructions for how to create their own), and inspiration using charts of hundreds of plot devices, adventure types, and so on, which will help to drive your creativity with novel and inventive suggestions. The book will include General (for any RPG genre), Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Horror themed charts, and mini-charts for other genres such as Super Heroes may be added to the Bonus section of this blog.

The second part of the book contains the Covetous Poet's Solo GM System, designed to allow solo roleplayers the chance to play their favorite RPGs by themselves, while still being able to create satisfying and well structured stories for their heroes to face. The Solo GM system uses the Adventure Creator to create an adventure act by act, as your characters unlock each new part of the story, while you take on the role of both the GM and the PCs.

Besides creating the narrative behind your solo adventure, the Guidebook will help you effectively play through each scene using its Answer Oracle to provide you immediate answers to yes/no questions, how conversations go, jobs and requests the PCs are asked to do and more. In addition helpful techniques for improvisation and acting are covered so you can free up your mind and trust your own creativity.

While other good systems exist for solo roleplayers, the Solo GM System is designed specifically for creating cohesive and satisfying narratives for your adventures. It does not provide a mere series of random scenes, but an entire story the way a true RPG supplement would provide. The difference is you create it as you go!

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