Mission-Based Adventure Planning for Roleplaying Games

Standard disclaimer: “Stargate SG-1” and related terms are copyrighted, trademarked, etc. by other companies, and nothing in this article is meant to challenge those rights. The game is simply being used for example purposes. Official information on the SG-1 game can be found at: http://www.stargatesg1rpg.com/

There are many different sorts of adventures and plots in roleplaying games, and the “mission” is only one. In mission-style plots the characters are generally members of a team. Someone hires them or gives them orders, assigning them a mission to complete. Military teams and mercenary groups are common sorts of RPG teams. For military characters the mission element of the game is particularly strong–military life comes with restrictions and rigid rules that outside life doesn’t.

Running a mission-style game allows a game master (GM) to do some things he couldn’t with other types of games, but it also requires him to take into account other things that he normally wouldn’t have to. It throws our old topic of free will into a particularly odd light — in a type of plot that’s inherently narrow in focus and comparatively linear, how do you make sure you’re maintaining the free will of the player characters (PCs)? With that in mind, we’re going to get into some of the differences and similarities between mission-style plots and other types of plots.

Differences between mission plots and other plots

The party is supposed to play by a certain set of rules

Team members often operate under guidelines. They’re expected to act in a certain manner, handle situations in specific ways, and uphold particular values. That doesn’t mean they always will, but as a GM you at least have a better idea of how the PCs will act in any given situation than you would with a bunch of mismatched characters.

For example, military teams in “Stargate SG-1” (SG-1) are expected to keep several goals in mind at all times. They’re exploring new worlds, collecting information that could be useful to humanity, looking for interesting alien technologies, and trying to make peaceful contact with any new civilizations they find. Thus the GM can reasonably expect that a team will poke their noses into things they find interesting, examine and possibly take any intriguing devices they find lying around, and try to peaceably approach strangers. There will be circumstances that cause these patterns to break, but the guidelines still help as predictive tools.

The party knows the basic structure of the mission up-front

While plot twists and events can shock and surprise (and even turn a mission completely on its head), the party at least starts out knowing what they’ve set out to do and what their orders are.

Mission-style plots are expected to be comparatively linear

Missions are often expected to be more linear than other sorts of plots. There’s a mission, it’s carried out in stages, and the team fails or succeeds. This is an over-generalization; different sorts of games and GMs allow a different amount of latitude when it comes to how missions are carried out. But often a GM can get away with planning things more linearly than he might in another style of game.

Characters in mission plots are held accountable for their actions

Most teams that take on missions are held accountable by someone — whether the person who hired them or their commander (this can be true in other sorts of games, but it’s particularly true for mission-based games). That authority chastises them when they do something “wrong”, rewards them when they do something “right”, and gives them guidance as to how to carry out a mission. This can be used to influence the manner in which a team behaves and carries out its missions.

The team is the focus

In other sorts of games, you’d probably consider the PCs to be the main characters. In a mission-oriented game, it could be said that the team as a whole is the main character. This does not mean that there can’t be conflict, betrayal or disagreement within the team, and it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for individual personal plots. But it does mean that these things tend to be viewed through a lens of how they affect the team as a whole, and they tend to be less of a focus.

Similarities between mission-style games and other games

Free will is important

The PCs should be able to make their own choices. They should have a real impact on the outcome of the plot. They should be able to fail or succeed on their own merits. There may be a narrower range of choices for them to make, and free will may come in different forms, but it’s still important. See the separate section on free will, below, for some specifics on how to go about this.

Surprises and twists matter

Even if the mission itself is understood from the start, there should be complications, surprises and twists–this keeps things interesting and exciting. It’s also important to vary the structure of the game now and then to keep things fresh. Take the TV show version of “Stargate SG-1” for a moment. The characters aren’t always assigned a mission — sometimes they’re responding to events that happen. Even when they are assigned a mission, sometimes they get swept up in entirely different events, or they find out that their mission isn’t what it seemed at all. This helps to keep the format from becoming stale and predictable.

Story matters

It’s still important to tell a good story (assuming your gaming group cares about that at all). Think about mission-based TV shows for a moment — the good ones are exciting and dramatic. They involve compelling characters doing interesting things, with outcomes that matter.

Characters are important

Not all mission-based games rely as heavily on character interaction and personality as some other games, but characters are still important. Thinking about the TV show again, part of the reason it’s in its eighth season now is that people love the main characters. When one left the show, fans set up an entire web site to try to get him back. There are entire fan-fiction sites devoted to various character interactions relating to the show. The show doesn’t spend entire scenes dwelling on deeply angstful interactions generally, but there’s always that touch of personality to make it compelling and involving. (And sometimes those personal interactions can be all the more compelling for being so brief.)

Advantages to mission-style plots

The PCs know where to start

When the PCs have a mission they’re usually told explicitly where to start. This can be helpful if you have passive players or inexperienced players who aren’t sure of what they’re doing.

However, it’s possible to sabotage yourself here. Mission plot hooks should ride a balance between being too open (“we’re supposed to assassinate someone, but we don’t even know where to start looking for him? Just great”) and too closed (“jeez, every last thing has been planned out for us. Wake me when I have to roll some dice”). PCs should have enough information to get them moving, but they should also get to plan things for themselves.

The PCs have some guidance

There tends to be a ready way to provide aid and guidance for players who are frustrated, confused, inexperienced, or lost. The detail level of orders, mission guidelines and resources can be tailored to the ability level of the players and PCs. Players/PCs that like to come up with their own ideas can be given the loosest of guidelines and the barest of mission outlines and oversight. Players/PCs who aren’t sure of what they’re doing can be given specific orders and closer oversight (this can even be used to turn passive PCs into more active PCs with a little care, by very gradually easing back on the level of detail and aid).

Caution: think carefully about the kind of guidance the PCs have ready access to. They shouldn’t just be able to call home and get the magic answers to all their questions. (See point #5 of disadvantages, below.)

The GM can predict actions and outcomes more readily

When you know what guidelines the PCs are acting under, you can predict their actions with greater accuracy. Don’t let this make you complacent — you should still think about all the other things they might try, however unlikely. But at least it does tell you which possibilities you should spend proportionally more of your time on.

The GM can shape and influence the plot more readily

You can shape and influence the direction of the plot(s) through orders, mission guidelines, and the reactions of superiors. This has the same benefits as #3 (it helps you to predict outcomes), but it also helps you to actively shape the direction a specific plot or plots will take. For instance, a team has been ordered to report back to their commander in seven hours. This will strongly affect how the PCs respond to time-critical situations, and can impact pacing, tension and drama.

Warning: there must always be a believable reason behind any order the team receives. Last night we watched a movie in which a military character carrying out a mission wasn’t told about a second half of the mission that his teammate was supposed to carry out. While this complicated the plot and created tension and drama, we never were able to figure out why on earth he would have been left out of the loop — there seemed to be no good reason for it, and plenty of reasons why it shouldn’t have been done.

Parameters are predictable

You and the players all know what to expect from a mission-driven plot, at least to a certain extent. It will often be easier to predict the length of a mission than that of some other types of plot. The players probably know something about what they’re getting themselves into (how dangerous the missions tend to be, what sort of missions the team usually takes, the kinds of people who would be on such a team), and thus they’re less likely to have incorrect assumptions that cause them to develop characters that are inappropriate to the game, or strike off in undesired directions.

It’s also easier to swap players in and out, or to have a player be away for an episode or two, because missions tend to be of limited duration. It’s easier to keep a party of PCs together because they’re required to work together (however, there’s still room to allow them to do things separately).

Simplicity

Mission-style games usually have fewer plot threads going on at the same time. This tends to keep things simpler, which some people prefer. However, those who desire complex, interwoven plot threads can still work them into a mission-style game, it’s just that the game will start having more plots in it that aren’t strictly missions.

Disadvantages

Restricted format

If you’re playing with mission-style plots, well… you’re playing with mission-style plots. Although you can still vary the plot style, by and large most of your plots will be of a certain limited format. Not everyone enjoys this. Make sure your players understand what the game will be like and are happy with the idea ahead of time.

Restricted character choices

Although there can be a range of choices when playing a member of a team assigned to a mission, there will always be choices that are inappropriate. For instance, in a game of SG-1 where the characters are all members of an SG team, they must be smart enough, competent enough, ethical enough, fit enough, and responsible enough that the government would feel comfortable hiring them for such a sensitive post. This might not sound so bad, but there are a lot of choices these requirements eliminate. And while it’s possible to come up with reasons why the government would ignore or not know about deficiencies in one or two of these areas, there’s a limit to your flexibility.

If everyone is interested in playing the appropriate sort of character, and players are willing to put some creativity into making their ideas and characters fit the game, this is fine. But not everyone wants to be that limited in character choice, and it can also make character creation difficult–if a player rolls particularly low attribute scores, for instance, it can be hard to justify how this character would end up on an SG team.

Restricted character actions

Depending on the genre, a team’s actions may be severely restricted. Again, there’s the example of the US military. There are many rules and regulations that should govern characters’ actions, and plenty of people will chafe at that. You can find ways to make things less strict (for example, the characters are considered so valuable that they’re allowed some latitude), or you can make sure your players are comfortable with those restrictions. Sometimes it can be exciting to try to play a game within such guidelines, but it isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.

Research, in some cases

Again, SG-1 makes a good example. If you’re going to GM a game involving lots of military missions, you really should have some idea of how the military operates–its culture, its structure, its rules and regulations, its traditions, and so on. These things should have a large effect on how characters act and behave, and they’re a large part of the feel and atmosphere of such a game. The players should also have some understanding of these things.

This can take some research and reading; for instance, in order to play an Air Force officer in an SG-1 game a player might read the “Air Force Officer’s Guide.” This can make a real difference in your understanding of a character, or of how a mission might be carried out. In most mission-based games–even those that don’t involve real-life organizations–you’ll want to have a good idea of how the organization operates and what it means to be a member of it (and so will your players).

Resources vs. game balance

One of the difficulties of running a game in which characters have access to the resources of an organization is knowing how and when to limit those resources. In SG-1, mechanics such as “gear picks” and “resource points” help to limit resources, as does the lack of gratuitous manpower (not to mention budget issues). In many games it can be difficult to justify why the organization in question doesn’t have a particular item or piece of information to give to the characters. If you don’t take this into consideration, it becomes tough to justify why the PCs can’t solve a plot by walking into the supply room and grabbing the right piece of equipment. After all, shouldn’t their superiors want to give them the supplies to do the job well?

You need limitations on resources. Scarcity is one limitation; almost any TV show involving team-based missions introduces budget troubles as a limiting factor. This doesn’t have to mean the organization is poor — they just have to be very careful with the equipment they have. A team that routinely requisitions excess equipment and brings it back d0amaged (or not at all) will probably lose some of its ability to requisition things in the future. The culture of an organization is another possibility; it could be a matter of pride and competitiveness that teams do a job with as few resources as possible. Practicality is another limiting factor: if you’re going someplace you have to walk to, there’s a limit to what you can carry on your back.

When designing a mission take resources into account. Think about supplies and information the team might have access to. Decide what they can and can’t get or find out, and WHY. Have an overall picture of just how powerful and resourceful this organization is, and what its individual members have access to.

Where does free will fit in?

As already mentioned, plot focus in a mission-style game will be narrower. The GM will have a greater influence on PC actions and plots are likely to be more linear than usual. On the one hand this is fine, as it’s expected. It’s a part of the genre. You can’t have a mission plot without having a mission! On the other hand, there are still many elements of free will that can, and should, be worked into the game.

The PCs should have some autonomy

Orders should leave room for the PCs to make their own plans. The level of freedom can be tailored to your players, with more experienced and proactive players receiving broader and more vague instructions. For instance, orders might consist only of “acquire item X from warehouse Y,” leaving the team to decide how — a stealthy nighttime raid? An all-out attack? A con game? A slick plan involving disguise and forgery? This allows for more creativity and freedom, and it allows the PCs to create their own consequences by how they choose to achieve a goal. The PCs should always have at least some autonomy to carry things out in their own way.

PC decisions should have a real impact on the outcome of the plot

The actions and decisions of the PCs shouldn’t be irrelevant to the outcome of the plot (except in rare instances where that’s meant to be an interesting and dramatic aspect to the plot). Don’t make their decisions irrelevant in order to make sure the mission ends the way you want it to. Along the same vein, don’t just pass the PCs off from important NPC to important NPC, always telling them exactly what to do and how, or always having them sit back and watch someone else be the hero.

It’s important for the PCs to be active participants in the world who help to shape it, rather than passive watchers who get led around by the nose. You aren’t writing a novel or a short story here — you’re helping to create a fun and enjoyable interactive experience for your players.

Both failure and success should be possible

It should be possible for the mission to fail or succeed. This is really an aspect of point 2, but we think it deserves separate mention, as people often don’t realize it’s an aspect of point 2. If the outcome of the plot is pre-determined, then the PCs aren’t being allowed to truly influence it. To definitively state, “this will happen, no matter what the PCs do,” is to deny any possibility that they might try something totally unexpected that should upset those plans of yours.

This doesn’t mean you can’t try to plan out the ending of a plot. You can plan for what should or probably will happen, and you can try to shape things to create a good story. You can even write up that nifty ending scene you’re hoping to accomplish. But it’s important to realize that if the PCs come up with something that counteracts your plans, you need to respond to that rather than simply disallowing it in order to keep your desired outcome intact.

Don’t fall into the “think like the GM” trap

Some GMs present obstacles and problems in a game that boil down to “think like the GM or lose.” This happens when a GM assumes a certain tactic will be used, action will be taken, choice will be made, skill will be used, etc. and bases the survival or success of the party on that one assumption. This works fine if the team does what the GM expects, but tends to be extremely frustrating for them if they don’t. Especially because what the GM sees as the obvious or only solution to a problem is often something that’s heavily based in personal preference, and thus unlikely to be seen the same way by all other gamers. This way of writing up plots inherently punishes players for being creative in any way that the GM hasn’t already thought of, and usually leaves the GM feeling that he must force the PCs to carry out the plot in a certain way.

This is a particularly easy trap to fall into with mission-based games. Because many people think about missions in a very linear manner, GMs are likely to make assumptions about how a problem or obstacle should or will be solved. In order to avoid this:

  • Go through your adventure write-up and list out the obstacles to be overcome, problems to be solved, etc.
  • Write out any assumptions you’ve made about how they’ll be solved.
  • Brainstorm at least two other ways to overcome each obstacle (look through PC character sheets to see if you can work in some character interests and abilities). If you can’t think of any, then work more resources into the game that can be used to come up with alternate solutions. Make notes on what might happen if the PCs take these alternate routes through the plot.
  • If you feel you must present such a choice, make certain that failing to try your one specific solution doesn’t result in automatic death or catastrophic failure. (See point #5.)
  • Make sure you’ve put in enough background information (NPC information, plot background, setting information) that you can respond and adapt to unexpected solutions the PCs might try, so that you don’t have to effectively say, “you didn’t read my mind, so you fail.”

Most important choices shouldn’t be binary

Binary choices are those that result only in failure or success, yes or no — particularly if the outcomes are complete success vs. catastrophic failure. They tend to mean that choosing the wrong course of action (failing to think like the GM, point #4) or having a bad roll of the die (oops, rolled low, we all blow up and die) can screw over an entire plot or get the entire team killed. This tends to be pretty anti-climactic.

This isn’t to say that all choices must be equal, nor that binary choices are entirely bad. It’s perfectly fine for one choice to have a much better chance of success than another, or for binary outcomes to have an effect on the plot. But you still have to be willing to throw out or change pretty much anything pre-prepared if it becomes necessary. Because choices that you see as obvious will be seen differently by other gamers, binary choices can end up being the equivalent of telling someone, “roll a die. Odds you win, evens you lose.” Most people play RPGs because they’re looking for something more than that.

Some starting suggestions

Limit speeches and description

Usually we recommend against writing much in the way of specific speeches, conversations, and descriptions. The longer, looser, and more complex your game, the less you can predict how things will proceed, and the more likely such fragile material is to become obsolete. All it takes is a PC asking one unexpected question to throw an entire pre-prepared conversation out the window.

We’re going to alter this recommendation for mission-based games, however. Here you should just restrict yourself to small amounts of conversation and description that you can easily pick and choose from and alter as necessary. If you must write a passage of description, then summarize important bits in bullet-point form as well (thus if something makes the pre-prepared description partially irrelevant, you don’t have to search through full text to find material to improvise new descriptions from–you just have to glance at a bullet-point or two).

Use tone to keep things interesting

While pre-prepared speeches and descriptions make things a lot easier, particularly if you aren’t so good at improvisation, they also tend to sound “canned” and stiff, which can cause players to tune out.

Although we prefer to solve this by improvising, sometimes it’s just handier to have something pre-written. Try to write material that will sound as it would if you were successfully improvising it. Sentences should be comparatively short and simple, and it might help to use a conversational tone. Read the description aloud a few times and alter it until it sounds natural — things that look good on the page often don’t sound right out loud.

Keep scenes flexible

Try to restrict yourself to loose descriptions of scenes and encounters with notes about how you might handle different PC actions and decisions. You can think of it as being a cross between a tool-kit and one of those old “choose your own adventure” books. It’s like having a box in which you’ve laid out the tools you’re likely to need (background info, NPCs, stats, encounters, potential scenes, descriptions, etc.), as well as notes on what to do when the PCs do x, y, or z (“if the PCs attack the creatures, the creatures will defend themselves [look up the pre prepared stats and start combat]. If the PCs try to approach the creatures, the creatures will stand their ground and try to scare the PCs away without attacking them. If the PCs leave, the creatures will bide their time for now. They don’t want to have to fight the full force of the team — they’d rather pick them off one by one”).

Mission-based plots can be a lot of fun. They have their own advantages and a couple of disadvantages as well. They allow for more precise planning, but you have to remain flexible and open-minded with respect to PC actions. Missions can provide an exciting sense of purpose and drive to a game, and are particularly appropriate to action-oriented genres, but they aren’t right for everyone.

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