On Design: How to Throw a Party With MURDER

This is the first example in my design series. The series may be found here.

So, how do we use these tools to improve our game?

The befuddled duke
Well, have you ever had the PC's take part in a murder mystery? These tools are perfect for setting something like this up without resorting to heavy handed tactics.

Clearly an evil wizard
The first place to start is with Power Structure. And the first place to start with that is what the PC's want. To keep this simple we're going to keep the PC's as a single entry on the spider web chart.

We start with Power Structure because this is the most complicated step.

Let's say the players want to stop the evil duke. This is a problem for three reasons.
  1. People don't believe the duke is evil
  2. Access to his land is restricted
  3. The player's don't know that the evil duke is being controlled by his sexy wizard adviser.
So the player characters have 3 goals. Get information about the duke, gain access to his land, and find the people they can trust to share the proof of his evil deeds.

If I knew it was going to be that
kind of party. . .

Now you need some party guests. I'm not going to outline each individual party guest, but you should have someone to host the party, several people allied with the duke, several people allied against the duke, one victim, and a murderer. Note that several of these could be combined.

Also, each person can have a variety of goals and desires, many of which could be solved at this very party, giving the players both information and things to accomplish at the gathering.
As an example, let's say there are three party guests that can provide the players access to the duke's land. One is frustrated over the King's new tax, and names a different person at the party who is responsible for that. They party can ask around about his claim, either with the person he named or to other party goers. Then they will get information that he's upset over the tax, because it gives the befuddled duke a financial advantage and they are currently in competition for an estate grant. Now the party has something to offer him in exchange for access to his land.

Because I'm talking about old school games, this is an actual opportunity to role-play, not simply a series of die rolls, though if you were intimidated by the idea of giving the player the information in an interesting memorable way, you could 'roll a die' to determine their success. I recommend against it.

Numerically, it's a good idea to give each person a minimum 3 pieces of information, and 2 things they want, 1 of which can be accomplished at the gathering.

It doesn't matter what the goal of the adventuring party is. I'm sure your current party has a list of a dozen things that they want. Use that, here. Use whatever goals they currently have and allow them to make some progress or headway towards those goals at this party. Looking for a lost artifact? Someone has some information about it. Needing to hinder an opponent? Someone can cause them trouble. Need access to a specific person or item? Someone here knows how to get it. Want access to the thieves guild? This is the entrance test.

You don't need more then 10 actual NPC's at the party. A number around 6 for your actual spiderweb structure is probably best to start. Each should have one or two things that they want and something, either information or resources they can use to help the PC's. One or two could be 'ringers' with no information or desires. I am fond of making ringers romantic interests. These party guests are an excellent method of passing on information about your plots, schemes and gameworld.

When designing these goals, remember that there will be a murder, so someone will die, and someone else will have a reason to kill that person. Each of these people in addition to having information about one of the PC's pre-existing goals will have information about the murder itself, which is likely to become of some pressing concern to the players (because they are suspects, see?)

You can see it will not be difficult between the murder, world information, and player desires to hit those minimum information counts.

Remember the duke? Of course you do, you saw his picture. That's why visual aids and cues are so important. Now you get pictures and write the seven sentence NPC's out for each of the players in our little drama. 

The evening session should start with an introduction of each person, and as DM you should give each person something to hang their hook on, in addition to the picture. A stance, prop, voice or some other cue to help your players keep the people separated. It is super maximum best excellent if you can find a way to make a couple of the party guests pre-existing NPC's that the party has met before.

So that's set up our Power Structure. Remember, the PC's don't have to go here to this party, but they're here because they plan on getting something they want.

What do we do next?

We use Space Structure to lay out the environment or 'map' of the party.  Contrary to popular thought, a session like this can provide the opportunity to show useful information visually, letting the players see who's allied with who, and allowing personality to show through by where people congregate. It is important when you are laying out this space structure that you have several areas or rooms that are shielded from view of the players. This is important for the murder. Once the layout of your area is completed, you are almost finished.

Finally, you use Time Structure to set a course of events for the evening. These are events that will occur at specific times. You will want to track time closely. If the players have no warning of the murder mystery, they will be looking for opportunity to accomplish their own goals. Keeping close track of time, and informing them of who's leaving and returning from the areas they can see will initially be treated as flavor text. Once the murder occurs it may be far more important. In the past, when I've used this particular technique, my outline generally goes something like this:

6:00 PM Welcome and Introductions (introducing each of the players)
6:10 Introductions over
6:30 Loud disagreement between 2 people (This is an opportunity to pass on information to the players)
6:50 First course (At this point I have given the players each 4 turns to listen and talk to people individually. I use the power structures to guide how I move people around during this time. Then, since everyone is at the table, this is a structured opportunity for more clue dropping and information gathering.)
7:00 Person A excuses themselves, NPC engages players in questioning them over their past or actions, playing up the players notoriety - during this conversation. . .
7:02 Person B excuses themselves
7:05 Person C excuses themselves, players have an option to escape the table, or continue the conversation.
7:15 Persons D & E excuse themselves together
7:30 Duke Announces it's time for the show. "everyone" moves to watch the show.
7:45 Lights dim, start describing whatever entertainment is common in your world.
8:00 Lights come up, moment of silence, then a scream. OH GEEZE DEAD BODY. At this point, there is little need for other scheduled events, because it is assumed the party will take more of an aggressive role in setting the agenda.You can however continue to schedule twists as the evening progresses. (The inspector general shows up! Someone is a witch! Someone else is a doppelganger that had nothing to do with the murder! Another scheme is exposed through investigation! etc.)

I'm batman. Surprise party guest.
I generally allow each player one conversation during each 'turn' or 10 minute period. As you can see, there are 4 actions each PC can take before sitting for the meal, and 4 actions each PC can take while eating but people are leaving while this is occurring. Each interaction is defined by the party learning 1 new piece of information and achieving progress on what they want to know. Many of the guests will want something in return (such as getting the name of that other pretty guest, who won't give it, unless you find something out from a third guest). The fact that the players really only have 8 or so actions to accomplish these tasks should leave them feeling like they didn't have enough time to do everything they want. For a beginner I recommend simply making each of the players take turns, like in combat. Once you are comfortable with this type of time limited interaction, you can switch between players based on cliffhangers and drama.

One of the primary problems found when interacting with NPC's is specifically mitigated within this structure. Mainly that it is not necessary to engage in police room interrogation tactics to find things out, because each person, although reticent to answer direct questions about themselves, is eager to talk about what they want and how other people are keeping them from getting it.

So now you have your Power Structure, Your Space Structure, and your Time Structure, and with these three sheets of paper (and some prep work with your seven sentence NPC's) you can run this entire complex adventure completely prepared for any wrenches the PC's may throw into the night. You are able to adapt to whatever curve balls they throw you. This is possible because you haven't constructed a specific series of events that must happen, but simply defined what everyone wants, and what everyone is doing. This gives you the perspective you need in order to shift gears to whatever the players want to do.

One final note - you should let the players do what they want. If they want to jump up and follow person A from the table, then let them. No matter what they do, they are closing off other options for themselves. You may help explicitly remind them what's at risk if they are having difficulty noting the stakes. (e.g. in this case, not alerting the duke to their plans by letting it slip to someone who's allied with him, and later, not being thrown in jail for murder) Let them make whatever choices they want, and be subject to the natural, logical, and applied consequences of their actions.

Next time, using these tools to create a super dynamic wilderness sandbox.

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