Bunnies with laser cannons.
I want you to ruminate on that for a moment, and then I want you to consider that I’ve heard far stranger ideas for tabletop campaigns that totally work. “Strange” and “tabletop” go together like chocolate and peanut butter for folks who don’t have allergies to either, so it’s really no great surprise that it can make a wild idea into something fun to play. But just as often, a notion this nuts is just that, and much too thin to sustain an entire game on.
I mention this because many of us, GM and player alike, are often struck by a bolt from the blue wrapped neatly in the form of a vague concept or oddly specific fragment that instantly seems like the perfect idea for a new campaign, and we don’t know why.
Some ideas sound exceedingly good on paper, especially if that paper is a hastily-scrawled napkin from an IHOP at 2am after you’re three quarts down on the strawberry syrup and high as a kite at Kitty Hawk.
But often what seems immediately cool is nothing more than a sugary puff-ball of tasty goodness with no real staying power in any long-term campaign.
At the same time, some of the more madcap mental machinations are the games we find we love the most. Snakes on a Plane? Hobo with a Shotgun? Fortune rewards the bold, as they say. It’s possible there was a translation error between “bold” and “wantonly ridiculous” – scholars differ on the details.
Which brings me to my point: how can you tell the difference between ridicu-luscious and ridicu-lousy?
There’s a bit of a litmus test for plot depth that you can use before you put any serious work into a campaign to figure out if there’s weight enough to see it through as anything other than a lighthearted one-shot with plenty of alcohol on hand.
If it’s a campaign you’re looking for, use the following checklist to see if you’ve got everything you need. Grab a pen and an index card and jot down an entry for each of the following things. Think of it like packing for a camping trip, only your pack is full of plot and if you don’t make the other campers happy, you may be sleeping outside in the rain.
- Setting – Where the heck is this plot happening?
- All you need is a vague time period (historical, modern, future) and a general notion of a place (urban, outlands, deep space)
- Examples: fantasy desert, modern-day Europe, a remote space station in the distant future
- Theme – What genre is this plot going to follow?
- Use the genres you already know, combining as necessary
- Examples: noir detective story, fantasy epic, space horror satire
- Tone – What feel are you going for?
- Think about what you want your players to be feeling each session
- Examples: lighthearted/humorous, serious intrigue, horror/suspense
Okay, you now have the three big pieces of your packing list. You know where, you know when, and you know what flavor. Those alone are practically a plot, and they’re certainly a good preliminary test for whether or not your idea is still holding water.
Now we get to the first of the nitty-gritty. If you’ve got all of the above, the next pieces will help you start planning the gory details of the game itself:
- The Bad Guys – Who or what is the party up against?
- Be somewhat specific here. Instead of “an evil empire,” try “a militant, conquering empire”
- Have a motive in mind for what makes the bad guy do what he/she/they do. Nothing says “flat” like a two-dimensional Disney villain whose sole aim in life is making the heroes’ lives hell.
- Remember that “bad guy” doesn’t need to be bad, a guy, or even a specific person or group. A bad enough storm can be an antagonist depending on how you spin it
- Examples: a ruler forcing villages to join his war-torn empire, a medical research conglomerate kidnapping subjects for suspect experiments, the star your space ship is being pulled toward
- The MacGuffin – What is the party working toward?
- Whether we want to admit it or not, almost every game has a MacGuffin. Many have a MacGuffin-of-the-Month to keep things unique, but the concept is the same.
- This is the positive spin on the game: it’s not just something or someone to work against, it something to work toward, something to go after, something to achieve
- Like bad guys, MacGuffins don’t need to be objects, they can be vague notions of things or states to be acquired as a driving force for the players
- Examples: a lost city filled with treasure and lore, valuable intel on a an enemy government’s secret project, a way out of the strange pocket dimension they all mysteriously woke up in with these dangerous strangers
- The Starting Location – Where is session #1 going to take place?
- This might seem redundant with the larger setting, but it’s far more specific and localized
- Examples: a tavern, a marketplace at midday, the LA branch office for the evil medical megacorp
Finally, the most important step. Take that card, and put it away somewhere out of sight. Stuff it in a safe place, use it for a bookmark if you have to, but put it somewhere you can’t read it, and leave yourself a note to fish it out again in a week.
One week. No sooner.
Then, when that fated day comes, fish out your card and read it out to yourself. Try to cast out the idea you had before and just read what’s there. See if it sounds exciting still. See if it sounds like fun to run and play in.
And if it still sounds as awesome as “bunnies with laser cannons” once did, then pull the trigger and get the ball rolling. Don’t second-guess yourself now: even bunnies with laser cannons isn’t that far-fetched if you have a real plot to back it up. Stranger things have happened.
I kid you not, if you have all this in place, you could run Angry Birds as a brilliant campaign of kamikaze avian warriors bravely charging their orsine adversaries to recover the last eggs of their people and avert the loss of a generation at the hands of an evil pig-tyrant.
And that could be awesome.
So go forth with your cardfuls of ideas and your crinkled IHOP napkins and see what surprises your ridiculous brain has in store. Check yourself before your wreck your game, but if it holds muster, send the laser bunnies boldly forth in droves.
Angry, fluffy droves.