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Storyboard: Cooking up a roleplaying event, part one

Eliot Lefebvre

There's a philosophy for organizing good roleplaying events that runs something like this: If you have a strong overall theme for the event and a bunch of good roleplayers, all you need to do is throw the two together and the next few hours will be fun for all. By the same token, if you have good ingredients and a good oven, you don't need to bother knowing anything about cooking -- just throw all of it together and you'll come out with a cake.

Those of you who have tried this and wound up with a cake composed of corn bread, beef, teriyaki sauce, frosting, candy, graham crackers, and fresh-chopped onion will probably be having flashbacks right about now. To make all of the ingredients work together, you need a recipe, a plan -- more than just good intentions and a good group of parts. Otherwise, you're asking for trouble. It's not enough merely to have a good plan for a roleplaying event and a good group of roleplayers to take part. You need to have a plan for why characters are taking part, a way to make the group actively gel into a coherent unit instead of into just a group of people standing around.

Of course, no one cooks without a recipe, the ingredients, and the necessary tools. But a lot of roleplaying events I've seen have neglected one of those three elements. So let's start off with the basics, with the things that crop up right in the planning phase that should make it clear your event is going to have some pretty major issues to overcome.

Don't greenscreen more than absolutely necessary

Have you ever wondered why the Star Wars prequels are so badly acted compared to the original? One of the obvious reasons is the fact that the originals did special effects with props and costumes versus sitting a team of graphical artists in front of a workstation to digitally edit-in half of the movie. Even if you know that the alien assassin is actually a dude named Ralph wearing a seven-dollar Halloween mask, it's easier to act like the assassin is real when you do have a guy sitting right in front of you.

Obviously, no one is editing things into a roleplaying session in post-production. But I've seen a lot of events that rely on the players imagining that something is going on around them or imagining that they're being followed by monsters or the weather is stormy or the player character looks like a robot or something to that effect. And it's a short step from there to losing all sorts of verisimilitude.

It's not because roleplayers aren't imaginative; it's because whenever you're tying to imagine something is there in a world where it clearly is not, you're asking for a big leap. It's really hard to turn off the impulse reminding you that you look ridiculous when you can see everything else in the game except the imaginary additions. More to the point, there's the simple fact that everyone involved is going to be picturing something slightly different -- and if the imaginary addition to the scene is supposed to be interacted with in any fashion, you will run into some pretty huge issues if no one can agree quite what it looks like.

Imaginary props (like papers or bottles or the like) generally work out all right. Anything larger is going to cause some issues.

Don't pretend to be in danger when you aren't

One of the big problems that you run into when planning events for a wide range of player levels is that if you interact with content, some players will vastly overlevel what you're facing and some will vastly underlevel it. That's fine; I've had some charming events run in World of Warcraft where players merrily cleaved through dungeons acting as if the enemies were a threat without being an overwhelming one. That's not a big issue.

The issue comes as a variant of the last issue, when someone tries to pretend that there's an overwhelming threat right around the corner, or -- worse yet -- that a single individual at level 1 is a threat to a dozen well-armed individuals.

Now, to be fair, that lone person could be a big threat to everyone. But it's going to be a political threat, something you can't just beat up. All too often, people make a throwaway character to act as a villain and have him march up and explaining (loudly) how easily he could fling the assembled group around if he so chose, which doesn't just make no sense but sounds like something out of a bad episode of Dragonball Z. (I know, picking out a bad episode is like picking out your favorite skin cell. Work with me, people.) Or worse yet, the dangerous villain is perpetually off-screen or greenscreened-in, meaning that everyone is in Imminent Invisible Danger.

It comes off as a cheap attempt to grab interest at best. Running a villain in an event is fine; just make said villain a credible threat for whatever reason. I've had a character posing a credible threat to several adventurers, but that was because she was sneaking about, she was striking with lethal force against people who wanted to capture her alive, and she carefully chose her base of operations as a dangerous place. Which brings me to the next point...

Do carefully consider your setting

There are two elements at play here. The first is the one that seems like a smaller problem until you see it in operation: Do not have everyone meet up in location A just to travel to location B. If location B is where things are happening, meet there. Yes, sometimes a couple of people will need to meet up first to ensure that everyone can get to location B, but there's a good reason that Star Trek episodes just tell us that the ship will take two hours to warp somewhere and then cut ahead. The actual travel is usually boring, and arranging for something to happen mid-travel rarely works out all that well.

Of course, if you have a plan for something interesting to happen while the group is ostensibly making a boring trip, great. But don't make the trip part of the event otherwise. It's just not worth it.

Second of all, it's well worth the time it takes to scout out future locations for roleplaying scenes. While you're questing, farming, grinding, or wandering lost in the hopes that there will be some familiar landmark just around the corner, take note of which parts of any given map are visually interesting and relatively free of enemies. These are the places where you should really be setting your roleplaying scenes, rather than the middle of a random city. Setting your roleplaying in a variety of locations creates the feeling of living in the midst of an active world instead of the midst of a world where nothing of importance happens outside of major population centers.

Yes, sometimes these locations will demand that you help lower-level players reach them successfully. Yes, sometimes there aren't any regions that provide quite the mood you're looking for. But setting the stage is just as important as the many ways you can set the mood, and so it's important to consider the environment before you just throw up your hands and say, "Sure, it'll be at a bar in the capital."

But wait, there's more!

I've already written significantly more on this particular topic than I do for a regular column, and I haven't even scratched the surface of issues beyond just three big mistakes. So we're going to take a break for the moment with the knowledge that these three issues are important to consider right off the bat before you even get into the small details like who you're inviting and what you hope to accomplish.

As always, commentary is welcome in the comment field below or mailed along to Next week, I'm going to take a look at creating new characters versus re-using old standbys from a personal perspective. The week after that, we're back to talking about events -- and this time we're going to move on to all that stuff I mentioned not quite covering in this week's installment.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.

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