It's not too big of a stretch to say that adventures are the centerpiece of any role-playing game. As has been stated before, players can create characters, vehicles, items and whole star systems until they're blue in the face, but without a story, there's no life to them; they stay nothing more than words and numbers on a page. Adventures are the game. As such, it's important for any aspiring GM to know what elements go into making a good adventure and what's required to create them from scratch.
WCRPG is set in a vast universe filled with exotic locales and strange, alien beings; the stories that could be told about that universe are infinite (as are the ways in which they could be told). Rather than try to create a catch-all system for building adventures, this sub-Chapter will simply offer general guidelines and recommendations; a catch-all system would ultimately do little other than to put a limit on the imagination of an adventure's designer, which is a Very Bad Thing.
Since an adventure is essentially a story told within the game's framework, it should come as no surprise that a good adventure has the same elements as a good story. There are three main things that make up an adventure: the idea behind it (known as the premise or adventure hook), action (the story itself), and resolution. All three of these elements are necessary for the completion of even the simplest stories.
The process for creating an adventure goes something like this in general:
- Develop an adventure idea.
- Develop the idea into a plot.
- Select the adventure's structure.
- Fill in the plot's details.
Though a GM should ultimately try to tell as much of their story as possible, they should not strive to complete it from the get-go - the basic plot and structure are all that's needed. There have to be parts of the adventure wherein the players can steer their characters on their own. What this does is create uncertainty; no one (not even the GM) will know how the adventure will end until it finally reaches its conclusion. This uncertainty is part of what makes the game fun for all involved. It does mean that parts of a story may not be told in the way the GM intended (if they're told at all), while others might become more important than originally intended (and vice versa). GMs should save any parts that don't get used, as they could very easily be incorporated into a later adventure.
To get started, an adventure designer (which can also be referred to as a creator or writer) must first come up with an idea. Ideas are everywhere: the news, events going on in local communities, television, the original games and novels, etc. If there is an event that has happened (or even one that will happen soon), an adventure can be based upon it. All that is required for WCRPG is that the event be placed somewhere in the Wing Commander Universe and that it use all of the terms and conventions found in this guidebook. If the writer can't come up with an initial idea on their own, they may refer to Chapter 11.1.2 to select one. Once the writer has their initial idea, they need to flesh it into an adventure hook, a general statement of what is supposed to happen (think of it as an abstract plot for the adventure, like teaser text printed on the back of a DVD cover or a dime-store novel). An excellent method for developing a hook (and one that creates a lot of detail in the process) is outlined in the next sub-Chapter, though a writer may use the method of plot development with which they are most familiar.
Once a writer has developed their hook, they'll know the major events that will occur during the course of their adventure. That's a good time to determine its overall structure (if an appropriate one hasn't become obvious during development of the hook). Structure consists of the adventure's style (as discussed in Chapter 10.3) and general event pacing (i.e. whether the adventure is location-based, event-based, or a combination of both).
Location-based adventures have their sequence of events centered on particular zones (such as a nav point). For these adventures, a map will need to be drawn up and a key created that describes the contents of each zone. It is generally implied that events in a location-based adventure will be triggered when the characters arrive at a given zone (either the first time they arrive there or on any subsequent visits). Location-based adventures can utilize either static or dynamic sites. Static sites (such as an abandoned ruin) are fairly easy to design as it is unlikely things will change in areas with multiple visits. Dynamic sites (such as a Kilrathi military barracks) are more complicated to create as it is possible that events that are triggered on an initial visit to a zone will affect the events that may be triggered in all other zones (regardless of whether or not events have already been triggered in them). If the adventure is based on a dynamic site, issues such as formulating defense plans, long-term goals for inhabitants and development of conditional requirements for areas must also be considered.
Event-based adventures include a sequence of events that is influenced by the PCs' actions. Such adventures take the form of "Something happens, and if the characters do this, that happens". Event-based adventures are also known as "story-book adventures" because they often play out more like a movie. By definition, the goals of an event-based adventure will change as it proceeds, depending upon how the characters perform and what choices they make. These adventures usually don’t use keys; rather, they use notes of when things will occur. Flowcharts (also known as "Game Trees", which were used by all of the original games to define "winning" and "losing" paths) and Timelines are the best way to keep track of events. These two methods can even be combined, making occurring events dependent upon when the characters attempt to resolve them.
Combination adventures combine the features of both location-based and event-based adventures (though one type tends to dominate over the other). Adventures like this may be largely event-based, with the pacing switching over to location-based upon the characters' arrival at a given site (the best WC example of this is a typical mission). Alternatively, the adventure may be location-based but heavily influenced by events (whether the characters influence them directly or not); an adventure wherein the characters must find a bomb within a building before it explodes would be a good example. This pacing format works well for longer adventures and campaigns.
Certain combinations of style and pacing tend to work better for given kinds of adventures than others. The classic "kick-in-the-door"-style adventure will probably utilize a Fast Action style with Location-based pacing. An adventure wherein a merchant must deliver a load of Books from Oxford to Edom within a certain time frame will probably be Event-based and may either have an Action/Adventure or Deep Immersion style. An adventure that involves a lot of political intrigue will likely have a Deep Immersion style, and either Event-based or Combination adventure pacing. As long as the style and pacing are appropriate and work well with a given adventure's plot, a writer may use any overall structure that they wish.
Everything in life is a story; all stories mimic life. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. They have at least one main character and maybe a few supporting characters (some or all of which may not be living things). They all have one or more settings, events that take place within their own context, and some kind of resolution or consequence of those events. It doesn't matter how long or short a story is, these four things - characters, settings, conflicts and resolution - are present in all stories. When presented together in a clear, logical format, these elements comprise a story's plot. It should come as no surprise that since an adventure tells a story, it's crucial for a writer to consider the four elements of plot as soon as they have their hook and have settled upon what structure to use.
The first major plot element is characters, best defined as persons or objects marked by notable or conspicuous traits. All stories have one or more protagonists and antagonists. A protagonist is the central or main character in the story; for most adventures in WCRPG, the protagonists will be the characters created by the player group and the story will need to be told from their point of view. There may be other protagonists within a story (which may or may not be "allies" of the player group) which may have a supporting role and are portrayed by the GM. Conversely, antagonists are a single character (such as Prince Thrakhath), a group of characters (such as the Hakaga Fleet) or an "institution of a happening" (such as the Kilrathi Empire) that represent the opposition against which the protagonist(s) must contend. They serve as a conflicting interest within the story and (for whatever reason) will attempt to prevent the protagonists from achieving their goals. Antagonists are considered supporting characters and are also usually portrayed by the GM.
Allies can be friends, relatives, co-workers, or simply people the characters have met on their adventures. They tend to be friendly towards the characters and can provide help in the form of information or resources. Some allies can even join the characters on an adventure. Allies of this nature should not be included too often (as it may make the players too dependent upon them), but may be necessary if the character group is lacking expertise in a Skill that will be needed to complete an adventure. Allies can even be hidden or disguised as adversaries, such as the cop who attempts to bust the characters early on in an adventure but later comes back to lend a gun when things start getting thick.
Antagonists are the foes the characters will face during the course of an adventure; portraying them can be one of the more entertaining aspects of being a GM. When creating antagonists, the GM should put some thought into what it is they want, why they do what they do, why they are where they are and how they interact with their environment. Antagonists may be lacking in intelligence or they may be very clever, coming up with all kinds of contingencies, strategies and escape plans; major villains tend to be this way and generally use lackeys to do their dirty work. Major villains will only be directly involved or fight the characters when they have to, and only when they are prepared to do so on their own terms (preferably when the characters are weak or unprepared). A GM should not be afraid to make opponents intelligent or evil if necessary. It should be noted that not all antagonists are evil; some may be good-meaning people who simply disagree with the characters’ methods and motives (thus presenting the characters with the dilemma of having to confront someone they can’t or don’t want to fight). Moral dilemmas in adventures (including what happens if an opponent surrenders during a fight or if a villain takes hostages) can be particularly challenging.
Lifeforms compose a special class of low-intelligence NPC. Driven by instinct, lifeforms want to gather energy for their own survival, be safe, care for their offspring and reproduce. Some tend to be curious, but most are driven simply by these basic needs. Lifeforms can make good antagonists in a wilderness setting; few characters would have any moral problem with defending themselves from a ferocious predator. When portraying a lifeform, a GM should attempt to emulate it as much as possible (using whatever noises and gestures they feel necessary). This will help the players to feel that the creature their characters are fighting is indeed dangerous. As a caveat, emulating a creature (even if done well) may have undesired meta-game consequences (such as the players taking the situation too lightly or making fun of the GM well after the adventure is over).
An adventure designer will probably realize the need to create an ally or an antagonist during plot development (for example, if an adventure involves the PCs meeting with a Confederation representative, it will probably be necessary to create the representative.) Allies and antagonists may be as detailed or as generic as a GM wishes. At a bare minimum, a GM should have notes on their names as well as their basic personality (provided, of course, that these characters are living, sentient creatures; non-sentient creatures such as animals only require basic stats). Depending upon their role in a story, it may be necessary to go ahead and perform the full character creation procedure. GMs may be able to use an archetype character to facilitate this; character archetypes are discussed in Chapter 2.4.
A final type of character that may be placed in an adventure is the neutral character, one that neither supports nor opposes the player characters. This type of character is often overlooked in role-playing, yet represents the largest group of NPCs; most folks have never heard of the PCs, nor do they particularly care as long as they're left alone. Designers can add neutral characters to their stories as they wish. As with allies and antagonists, all that's really needed is a name and their personality; stats may be drawn up for these characters, though if they truly have minimal interaction with the PCs they will very rarely be necessary.
One of the keys to making a good adventure is for the GM to do their best to make all of these characters seem real. The interactions with the player characters should be intriguing, and the adversaries the characters face should be worthy foes. This becomes increasingly important as the level of immersion the GM wishes to achieve increases.
Setting determines the time and place of the action. It is incredibly important to a story's plot because it provides a stable frame of reference. The setting will set limits on what can and cannot occur logically within the story's framework (for example, if an adventure is going to involve capital ships, it'd be inappropriate to set the story in a medieval setting - at least not without providing a damn good reason as to why feudal serfs may need to travel into space). GMs will have to be exceptionally careful with the settings they choose (particularly if an unusual setting is being used), as a mismatch may strain the players' suspension of belief past the breaking point (and lead to meta-game thinking). Settings are discussed in Chapter 11.2.
Conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests. It may be internal (within oneself) or external (between two or more individuals). Conflict is central to any adventure as it provides both its challenge and its meaning.
There are six different basic types of conflict in literature as outlined below; these also apply to adventures. Note that even though these types are Terran-centric, they can be applied to any character of any species.
- Man-v-Self: This type of conflict is internal and occurs when a character is opposed by a facet of their personality. In WCRPG, most of these conflicts occur as self-control Checks, a die roll performed in order to overcome the negative effect of one of a character's Complications. This kind of conflict can be used as the centerpiece of an adventure, though it may result in one character (and therefore one player) getting more attention than the others.
- Man-v-Man: This is an external type of conflict wherein one being comes into direct conflict with another being. This is probably the most common form of conflict used in literature (not to mention most games); the Wing Commander games in general use this kind of conflict for their premise.
- Man-v-Society: In this type of conflict, a character's main source of opposition is social traditions or concepts; society itself (or at least some specific aspect of it) becomes the antagonist. The actions of the character will almost certainly put them in direct conflict with their community or society (and possibly even their close friends or family; when PCs are pitted against one another, the group as a whole can't help but suffer). Characters may be forced to conduct acts that are morally reprehensible or illegal in their society. Obviously, these adventures can be very difficult on a character.
- Man-v-Nature: This is an external conflict type wherein a character is pitted against the forces of nature. Many disaster and survival stories focus on this theme. Characters in WCRPG may have to focus on this kind of conflict when traveling through the wilderness, particularly in areas of extreme temperature or significant severe weather.
- Man-v-Supernatural: This type of conflict occurs when a being comes into opposition with a force or entity that cannot be described within the framework of normal reasoning. Supernatural forces aren't generally encountered within the Wing Commander Universe, though there's nothing that says a GM can't set up an adventure with this kind of theme. It will require the GM to adapt the existing rules to serve the situation (for example, a being that can magically conjure fireballs might be given a natural attack with the same set of effects as a particle cannon).
- Man-v-Technology: This type of conflict occurs when a being must contend against a piece of technology. While any office worker might say that this is a type of conflict they experience every time they try to use a photocopier, this type of conflict is usually more world-shattering. Wing Commander: Special Operations arguably uses this kind of conflict (as success in that campaign depended upon destruction of the Sivar dreadnought and its Proton Accelerator Gun). This kind of conflict can also arise in critical situations where a normal, mundane piece of technology malfunctions at an inopportune time.
In WCRPG, a story's overall plot consists of a series of goals which are listed in a given sequence and which the PCs must do their utmost to overcome; the characters will experience one or more types of conflict in each goal they must face. Fulfilling a goal requires a tailored encounter, a pre-planned encounter designed to move the adventure's plot forward. In these encounters, characters will have to fight (a combat encounter), make a crucial Skill Check or solve a puzzle (a challenge encounter), or succeed through role-playing (a role-playing encounter) in order to continue with the adventure. Tailored encounters should be designed carefully; these are the main events that take place within the story. As a general rule, tailored encounters that occur earlier in an adventure should be less difficult than ones that occur later on.
One of the last one or two tailored encounters in an adventure will comprise its climax, the final, most important conflict and crucial point that occurs within the story. This is when the action within the story should reach its peak and where every event that happens in it should point; ultimate success or failure is in the balance, important questions may be answered, and all that follows serves to resolve the plot. This is the most important encounter in the adventure and so planning it carefully is vital for its overall success. A designer would do well to focus on the key elements and circumstances of the climax, and to pick a good, dramatic setting for it. Climaxes should be flexible enough that prior events don't render them impossible or meaningless. Above all, the climax must be more important than every that's happened in the story up to that point. A GM should not be afraid to kill off the entire character group during an adventure's climax; things should be that important. A climax that fails to be more important than everything else (known as an anti-climax) leaves an adventure flat and meaningless, and (more importantly) it disappoints players.
Interspersed throughout an adventure may be one or more random encounters. There are two types of random encounters. The first is the pseudorandom encounter, an encounter that is planned but does not constitute the completion of an adventure goal; "side-quests" are good examples. The other is the true random encounter, one which is not planned beforehand. These are usually indicated by a die roll, such as what happens during a planetary transit when a vehicle encounters foul weather. Both types of random encounters do not count towards the completion of an adventure goal but can give the characters additional opportunities to improve themselves. For example, a resident of a town may offer to hire the characters to transport their dying offspring to a hospital on the far side of a planet, even though the characters are already on another job; the end result might be a financial bonus, which the characters can use to buy better equipment for the adventure's final showdown. Conversely, these encounters may be used to waste the PCs time or to drain off their resources.
The final piece of an adventure is its resolution, also known in literature as the dénouement. It consists of a series of events that follows the climax of a drama or narrative, and serves as the conclusion of the story. Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or the release of tension and anxiety. In an adventure, the resolution addresses the question of "what happens next". Usually something in the universe has changed in regards to the characters whether for good or for ill; the adventure's outcome may have even had an effect on the universe as a whole depending on what took place. This is when any loose ends of an adventure are tied up. Characters may make decisions that were deferred from earlier and discuss what they need to do next.
The resolution is a good time to reward the player characters for their part in the story. There are several ways in which a character can be rewarded. Probably the most obvious reward is money. Money gives characters the ability to purchase the things they need to stay housed, clothed, fed, and equipped. For a non-military crew, money means the ability to purchase newer, better equipment, which in turn means faster travel, better combat survivability, etc. The amount of money given to characters should be appropriate to the size of the group. A single character operating on their own may only get ¤300-¤600 for completing a job. A large, non-military crew could easily receive upwards of ¤1,000,000 for finishing a critical job.
Another possible reward is an increase in one or more of a character's Skill scores, though there is also the possibility for a decrease in those scores as well. GMs should keep track of whether or not the player rolled any critical results during the course of a session as well as what Skills were involved when those rolls were made. An extra Skill point should always be rewarded for critical successes, with an additional Skill point rewarded for every ten points in the group leader’s Guidance Skill score (if the group has a designated leader). Conversely, a point should be taken away for any critical failure; no modification due to the leader's Guidance score takes place in this instance. Points should not be rewarded for Checks wherein a player took fifty or zero. Adjusting points for Skills in this manner may require more bookkeeping during the course of a session than a GM is willing to do. In that case, the GM may simply make a quick 1d10 roll and reward a point on a result of zero and penalize a point on a roll of nine. Of course, GMs are always welcome to reward points arbitrarily for good role-playing; they should never arbitrarily remove them. When rewarding Skill points, a GM should remember that characters cannot go over the normal limits for the total number of points under a given Attribute (150), Discipline (250), Skill (25) or specialization (50), though they may pick up a new specialization if the GM feels it's appropriate.
Depending upon how a character was played, the GM may reward them with a new Talent. For the most part, rewarded Talents should be limited to any non-intrinsic Traits of the character (Variable Traits such as Wealth, Reputation, Social Status, and Education are considered intrinsic). Awarding the Contacts Talent should be handled with care; it should be reserved for very pleased patrons for whom the character has more than adequately performed a task. Any adjustments to a character's intrinsic Traits should be done as a result of events that happened during the course of the game (a character that helps out the mother of a sick child might gain a couple of points in Reputation as a philanthropist, one who blows his wad gambling might lose points in Wealth, etc.). It may also be necessary during an adventure's resolution to inflict a character with a Complication (a character that shoots up is probably going to become Addicted, a poorly role-played character that was supposed to be level-tempered but takes a swing at an NPC for some minor infraction should take a couple of negative points in Temper, etc.). GMs should be careful when inflicting a Complication on a character; since it will negatively affect a PC, the player may be (understandably) upset about it. In those cases, the GM should explain their rationale and listen to the group's input, and be willing to be gracious enough to change their mind if the situation warrants. Complications inflicted upon a character after an adventure do not give that character any additional "building points" as was the case during the character creation process; conversely, any Talents rewarded do not cost the character any building points.
There are other types of rewards that may be used under less usual circumstances:
- Receiving free items can be a very nice (and in some cases life-saving) reward. Characters can receive items as gifts, as free offers, in exchange for a service, or by discovery during an adventure. When rewarding a character with an item, a GM should be careful not to give them permanent access to any item that is powerful enough to unbalance the game (see Chapter 10.4).
- In a region ruled by a monarchy or oligarchy (such as the Kilrathi Empire), a character may be presented with land as a reward for their aid. Land is an invaluable resource upon which a character may do anything. They could use the land to set up a personal stronghold or base of some kind. They could use it for personal living space to retire upon. They could develop it for use as a source of income (to establish a business or upon which to build residences). They can always place it in trust to their parent government for a good price. Or, they can sell it outright (though this may insult the sovereign who gave the characters the land in the first place).
- Titles are another possible type of reward handed out by a monarchy or oligarchy (for example, a Kilrathi honorific name like "The Heart of the Tiger"). A title always carries with it a degree of prestige as well as the continuing scrutiny of the sovereign who bestowed it. Even if a character doesn’t care about the title, the sovereign may look upon them as a source of national pride or even as a political adversary (regardless if the character is gunning for power or not). Outside the government, a title is a decoration, just like anything else. Perhaps the greatest use of a title is as a way to access the sovereign, to ask for favors, or as a means to establish diplomatic relations.
- Both military and non-military characters can have honors bestowed upon them by others. Honors can be as trivial as the Keys to a City or as prestigious as the Pewter Planet. Honors are generally reserved for prime accomplishments.
The final part of an adventure's resolution involves the meta-game. A good GM should always ask the players what they thought of the adventure once it has reached a final conclusion. In particular, they should ask what parts they liked or disliked and why they feel that way. A GM should pay particular attention to what the players are saying in regards to what they'd like to see happen next. They might say that they'd like to see their characters doing something different, or perhaps they'd like to see a particular NPC again in another adventure. Players are an awesome source of adventure ideas, oftentimes without even realizing it; GMs would do well to consider everything they say, no matter how minor it seems.