Friday, 22 February 2013

The Complex: Preparing Episode 1

Since a lot of people are curious about what goes into preparing and running Smallville, I'd like to talk a bit more about Pathways, and how I've approached the prep-work for the first session.

I think the very premise is key to creating a tightly knit group. After Pathways, our Leads have a shared space (the apartment building) and a shared experience (their newfound powers), but they have no history together. This has been a trend in my two games so far, so I can only theorise, but I think if the PCs had a deeper connection and an established history together, it might be easier for the GM to see the "status quo" and figure out ways to push it out of shape. When the status quo hasn't been established yet, it's harder to see where to push, because we only have vague or first-impression Statements. Maybe in this case I should be concentrating more on Value Statements instead...

I made sure that everyone had a character concept ahead of time, but I think it may be useful to go one step further before hitting Pathways. If everyone also has a solid idea of the Extras and Locations everyone's bringing to the table, then they can tie their characters together in more intimate ways. For example, rather than Odyssey Tech emerging piecemeal through Pathways, we'd know to begin with that the company is an element in play, allowing other players to think of connections ahead of time rather than making random connections on the fly. If someone says "I want my character to be an ex-Odysey employee, hunted by the company", then another player could say "In that case, how about I work for Odyssey Tech?"

General advice for players - in a small group, you pretty much want to aim for having one other Lead be an ally, and one be an antagonist. The roles may change over time, but if you only have allies you won't get involved in many arguments, and if you only have enemies you wont have anyone to help out with Stress recovery.

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Okay, so on to actual prep work. I started out by drawing an Episode Map with just the Leads on it, wrote on their current Relationship Statements, and summarised them with a keyword reflecting their opinions. I was a little hampered by having two of Zoe's Statements missing. What I've gleaned so far is a general respect for Takeshi, and general suspicion aimed at Tony. Aki currently has one "affection," one "dismissal," and one "interest" opinion, so she may form the core of something that challenges the standing attitudes.

I also drew up a spreadsheet to summarise the group's conflicting Values. I used larger font sizes for higher dice values, and used a red-orange-blue-green colour code to reflect negative to positive attitudes. So far Truth is the most important shared Value, followed by Justice. These are probably the Values I should aim to provoke Challenges for. While it might be good to Challenge and rewrite a d4 Value, you don't get much in the way of Growth, and you can't actually increase its rating without stepping back a higher Value first.

Since we're going to be fast-tracking the second half of Pathways, one step after each Episode, I should also keep in mind that the loose theme of the Episode should be "Priority" - what is most important to these characters? Perhaps I should consider testing the Leads' highest Value statements - is it more important to Takeshi to keep a dangerous TRUTH concealed, or to administer JUSTICE at the end of a gun? Will Aki choose DUTY to her family and friends over finding her own TRUTH? Can I find a situation that will force Tony to pick between a TRUTH that is not just what he makes it, or admitting that not everyone has a DUTY to pull their own weight?

For a while, I kept trying to knot together a very personal and involved story, but it became increasingly uncertain whether Zoe's player was still participating. Her character sheet still remains unfinished. In the end, rather than stress about it and try to come up with multiple contingencies, I decided to develop a more flexible plot structure. To test priorities, justice, and truth, I came up with a small collection of individual power-users who would cause chaos around the building and give the Leads something to deal with and argue about.

I won't go into specifics since some of their details have yet to be revealed, but my basic process was to come up with a list of things these characters would do, and the order in which they should occur. Once I'd come up with individual lists, I knitted them together into a schedule of likely scenes, and gave some thought to which Leads were required. I sorted the scenes into an order which was not only chronological, but which alternated between Leads to make sure everyone got a fair amount of screen time. The actual situations and Leads required some flexibility of application during the actual game, as I had to adapt to changing circumstances, but for the most part such a schedule acts as a checklist to make sure you haven't forgotten to drop in something important.

Once that was done, I just needed to write some details for the Extras (Rating and Specialties) and Features. I used the Quick and Dirty Features guidelines from The Watchtower Report to stat out a one-shot antagonist, and made some rough notes for The Complex Feature; I'll make sure she adds up nicely at a later date.

Normally I'd make a little reminder list of the conflicts I'm trying to push in a particular episode, but this one ended up being more general. So long as I was pushing for people to question their Justice and Truth, that was pretty much it. Putting people in situations where they had to choose between one thing or another was also desirable.

>>> Episode 1

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