Last Minute GMing: Filling the Blank Page

Continuing our discussion on last-minute prep from last week:

The simplest scenario structure is that an antagonist wants something, and is doing something to get it.

We need a bad guy.

Our antagonist is simply the person the PCs will be opposing in this story. He doesn’t have to be a “bad” guy. He can have the best of intentions. The problem is, he becomes a problem for the PCs in some way.

If we’re lucky, our random title has given us our antagonist.

In Ghostborn, we know who our antagonist is: Ghost Mom. We spend a little time fleshing her out, decide that she was super over-protective in life. Maybe she had an earlier kid that she mothered to death somehow.

However, other times our random idea seed doesn’t quite give us an idea of who our PCs might be opposing.

Sky Cave gave us imagery of a floating rock with a cave inside it. That might suggest some possible villains, but nothing explicitly.

We could extrapolate an antagonist from the idea – an airship pirate, dragons, a sentient mountain — but this process is holistic rather than procedural. We have two other elements to explore, and either of them might inform our choice of villain.

What motivates our villain?

Once we know who our baddie is, we can go back and figure out what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Often this gives us our hook as well — it’s something that puts them at cross purposes with our PCs directly.

Options Automatons Face provides a motivation: Automatons want more choices. Maybe they want equal rights, or simply more legal protections. Since our PCs are cops protecting the status quo, this puts them at loggerheads with the androids’ aims.

In Ghostborn our Ghost Mom wants to protect her boy. While it’s easy to think about all the ways that can go horrifically wrong, it doesn’t directly bring conflict with the PCs. Its manifestations might, which brings us to our third point.

What’s their evil plan?

The third thing we need to know is what the antagonist is doing to get from the way things are to the way he or she wants them to be. If the villain’s goal itself doesn’t put it at odds with the PCs, then the means it is going about getting it must, or we don’t have a plot.

In Ghostborn, Ghost Mom’s boy has been in a series of foster care situations. The rough situation combined with being constantly haunted hasn’t been good for his mental state, so he’s in trouble a lot. Ghost Mom has had enough, and is starting to use her ghostly powers to stop the people tormenting her boy… not just bullies, but social workers, foster parents, and anyone else that the troubled teen gets into conflict with. Maybe Ghost Mom starts out scaring people, but this escalates to serious accidents and even deaths.

Options Automatons Face has a spate of android-committed crimes as the machines try to get attention for their plight. It’s intended as protest, but the media plays it up into a crime wave or terrorism. The PC Cops might even sympathize with the androids, but pressure from city hall is heavy, and they have a job to do.

We don’t know who our antagonist is in Sky Cave or what they want, but we know it involves a floating cave. Why is this at odds with our PCs? In Heroic Fantasy tradition we don’t really need much more than “hey maybe there’s cool stuff in that dungeon,” but let’s be clever. Sky Cave is floating around over the kingdom disgorging flying monsters. It’s a mobile base from which they are raiding. This, incidentally, gives us our villain’s motivation: raiding the kingdom. Who is behind it? Well, someone who controls flying monsters and a giant flying monster is obviously a powerful demon lord of some kind. So now we have our three components.

Alright, we have our plot. To make it really useful, we need to break it down into a step-by-step list of what happens if the PCs do not intervene.

Putting it all together

This leaves us with a single-sheet length adventure scenario. We don’t have stats or anything and it might need some fleshing out, but we can do that in play. We’ll cover that in the third part of our series, where I cover how you actually use your one sheet adventure at the table.

Michael Coorlim

Michael Coorlim is a teller of strange stories for stranger people. He collects them, the oddballs. The mystics and fire-spinners, the sages and tricksters. He curates their tales, combines their elements and lets them rattle around inside his rock-tumbler skull until they gleam, then spills them loose onto the page for like-minded readers to enjoy.

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