Roleplaying – Islands of Content

This is the second in my series of posts on roleplaying. Last time I talked Emotional Experiments, which I’ve tried from both sides of the table, but this time I want to talk a bit about a refinement I’ve developed while running games.

I used to find being the GM deeply unsatisfying. I was worried that my players were not having a good time, maybe because I hadn’t prepared enough. As a consequence I sometimes ran games out of a complex love-hate desire to put creative work out there rather than an honest wish to entertain people. As I’ve previously intimated, I’m a process guy at heart, so that makes sense.

Weirdly, though, it’s only really the last few years GMing that I’ve actually taken the time to actually work on my process in any serious way.  I think the seed of it was planted when Gabe started writing about the stuff he was doing, but I didn’t really think about it coherently at that point. I made clay maps and props and wrote one-off minigames with new, badly broken mechanics instead of developing more holistic techniques for writing adventures that might hang together.

I was still very much in the linear mode of story composition, which is odd when you consider that I think of myself as an improvisational GM at heart. Unfortunately most of that was the kind of improv that makes Angry GM angry and/or rewriting my story to fit whatever happened last week. Both of which are a) hard and b) a lot of work.

Gradually (and, sadly, close to the final days of my lovely D&D group), I came to adopt a more suitable style of writing based on what I call Set Pieces. These are not really the traditional RPG set pieces with long pieces of narration prefixing and many-layered maps detailing them; rather they are like islands of content which exist, sandbox-esque, in the area local to the players.

There may be other things they wish to do besides the things I’ve prepared in these isolated chunks, at which point I have to take off my bum-cap and start conjuring, but they have to work pretty hard to find a situation where my work becomes entirely useless.

Here are some of the islands of content the players have encountered in the last few sessions of Rifts:

  • A Coalition squad has set up a checkpoint. Players with magic or psionic powers are at risk of detection. The NPC allies have a “safe room” of sorts in their Mountaineer ATV, which one of the players can avail of if necessary.
  • A group of castoffs from the Dog Boy manufacturing facility in CS: Missouri have fled to the southern Appalachians and founded a village there. They have very little in the way of spoken English, but will respond to offers of trade and exchange of entertainment
  • A Lankton’s Knot with resident Faeries has grown over a doorway. The faeries cast illusions to cause the party to think that the doorway itself is relatively free of the plants.

These aren’t complex situations, but they offer the key things that you need for good roleplaying scenarios  – each group of NPCs has a particular flavour, there is the potential for conflict, and the players have the means to bypass these threats to at least some extent.

Just as importantly, they can fit into other action. The CS squad could be on the highway they were taking to their stated goal, but it could just as easily be an aggressive move towards Tolkeen should the players decide to make their way back there instead.  The dog boy ferals would be harder as written, but they’d make a nice low-power encounter somewhere else, and would have basically the same narrative power (ie the players would learn a bit about how the CS treats these individuals). The swamp-dwelling man eating plant would be out of place somewhere else, but give it a different name and it’s fit for use anywhere outside civilization.

I’m not super great at this stuff yet, but I’m getting the hang of it. I like writing one-page treatments of specific encounters with flavour text, stat blocks, and a bit of background context as a reminder to myself of how I originally intended to use the piece. I like creating simple maps (which the players never get to see) and seeing how they interact with that environment just from the descriptions they’re given.

Sometimes all of that goes well. Thus far, it all has gone to plan, give or take. The players haven’t taken the bait on a few things, and I’ve repurposed my set pieces accordingly. Writing them more or less in isolation lets me do that without a lot of extra work.

I’ll talk about this a little more another time; right now I have just rewritten a piece, and I’m interested to see how and if it comes into play.

In the meantime, here’s the set piece for a recent encounter

Set Piece: Encounter – WILDLIFE!


You see an open space ahead where the trail widens into something approximating a clearing. The trees rustle in the wind, and the sun shines brightly down through the area where the canopy opens up.

As you get closer, you see what seems to be a featherless chicken wandering around. As you enter the clearing, it looks up at you and emits an odd trilling call. The bushes around you come alive with rustling noises. Too late, you realize this is no chicken.

Scamper SDC 600 Att 5 Strike +2 Dodge +6 HF –2
Attacks Name Damage
Bite 2d6
Claw 1d6+2
Abilities Spell Effect
Death Trance Appears to be dead, 10 rds
Chameleon 90%/70%/20% undetectable at 0/2/6 feet/rd, 18 rds
Cleanse cleans dirt off
Armor of Ithan 10 MD, 4 rds