The Bone Orchard – Kill your darlings

Previous posts in this series

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

Last time I listed the various lessons learned from the best OSR modules. Now I want to talk about using them for other games, specifically horror investigation scenarios. Like the mysteries in the scenarios, there are various pieces to this puzzle.

The first and second come in tandem: how the copy – the text – is written and presented, and then layout and design. That was largely what I was looking at last time. For most GMs, there isn’t much they can do about this as they’re not publishing the scenarios they use. However, by showing what is possible they’ll be able to recognise and support better products and so encourage publishers to improve the way they currently write and layout their scenarios.

We can also use some of those lessons about the copy for how we write our own scenarios, whether that’s just for our own use when we, reluctantly have to take notes on published scenarios, or whether we want to share/publish our own (more on that in another post).1

An example of the outline method for taking notes
  • Write your scenario, or makes notes from a published scenario, using the outline method. Bullet points, bolding and underling are your friend!
    • I’d actually also recommend combining it with the Cornell method (same link) for having micro summaries of key areas (as we saw in Mortzengersturm in part 2) and for making notes during the session.
  • Clump the information together as much as possible.
    • For example, keep all of the information about an NPC or monster, who will likely reappear throughout the scenario, all in one place.
  • That also includes any stats and special rules you need.
    • If you know there’s a good chance you’ll need to reference a certain rule – such as chases – in a scenario, make sure you read it beforehand and write a quick summary of it on the page where you will need it – see the Cornell side panel concept above.

      Alternatively, write down the page it’s found in the rule book. That way, if you absolutely have to consult the rule book in the middle of a game (usually a big no-no, but sometimes you just have to) you can find it quickly and keep the disruption to a minimum.
  • Backstory is only of use to keep the plot logically consistent and/or for the players to discover. Anything else is fluff and should be saved for that novel you want to write. Kill your darlings.
  • Folding back into the outline method, keep descriptions to a minimum:
    • Adjective and noun combinations are great for most minor NPCs and locations, such as an angry librarian, a drunk beat cop, a humid library, a dusty school room. Different enough to hang a memorable description on that you can flesh out in the session.
      • This method is also great for floating NPCs so that not every example you pull out of your hat is called Bob.
    • If you have to include a minor NPC or location, such an empty room in an abandoned mansion, make sure to add something there that drives the theme or tone.
    • Even longer descriptions, for major NPCs, monsters and locations, need to be brief. Keep them to no more than a sentence or two (max. 40 words).
    • Bullet point the key information, clues and leads each NPC or location can offer. As they reveal each piece, cross it out so you can see where leads might have been missed.

One of the things that emerges from this is that by clumping a lot of the information together you suddenly find that a lot of the content in published scenarios is redundant, especially when they assume how the players will behave. Not only is this a waste of word count, but it doesn’t help a GM when their players inevitably do something different.

That can be exhilarating or frustrating depending on your skill at improvising and if the players are deliberately trying to be arseholes. Most often it’s frustrating because the GMs are labouring – as I did myself for many years – of trying to stick to a plot and predetermined path through the scenario. Become adamant that players stick to your preconceived plans and you get railroading2.

Cut Scene

That’s when you need node-based scenario design. Created by Justin Alexander on his Alexandrian blog the method focuses on linking together nodes, not scenes, where a node is an NPC, location, organisation or even event. You connect these through clues and leads, without assuming how players will react.

Alexander’s node-based design is great, but it’s evolved over a decade and the blog posts tend to be heavy on the theory and less on being concise. I recommend reading some of them, but be prepared for disappearing down a rabbit hole if you want to read them all.

Now that we’ve talked about the basics of page layout and design (I’ll definitely be coming back to this in the future) I’m next going to start discussing scenario structure, drawing heavily on Alexander’s nodes and some other useful sources, and the potential for investigation sandboxes.

1 How to improve the graphic design of your scenarios if you intend to share them will be a subject of a later post. For the moment I suggest you take a look at Clayton Notestine’s Twitter profile and blog, The Explorers’ Company. On both, he does an excellent job of reviewing the graphic design choices of various RPG products and gives advice for how to design your own.

2There’s actually a case for some railroading to actually be a good thing, but most people have horror stories from their youth of extreme examples that put them off the idea violently. That’s a discussion for another time.

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