Monday, April 4, 2011

Modules, Metaplots, and Your Mom

So I few hours ago, to fight off insomnia, I posted this stream of consciousness dungeon and in room 5 I put your mom.

Which at the time was just the sort of the first thing that came to mind but now after sleeping, showering, and microwaving-some-chicken-and-noodles on it I am thinking this is a pretty good idea.

Ok see it's like this:

In the beginning there were modules.

Modules were adventures you could run with pretty much any group and they were, y'know, modular. They could be moved around. They were impersonal--they were full of treasure and obstacles to getting that treasure and anybody could give it a shot. Upshot here is: your mom was not in that dungeon.

Then things changed--TSR (for one) started doing this adventure path thing where the PCs were specific people with specific adventures and specific moms and often adventures wherein your mom is relevant.

That is: metaplot. The module was no longer modular, it was a link in a story.

Nowadays, at least here in the gaming avant garde where all us bloggers live, you have these two factions:

A-planned-story-(or-at-least-planned-theme)-heavy relationship-map-involving you-know-this-guy-and-hate-that-guy New Schoolers, and

B-throw 'em naked into the sandbox with the wolves and hope maybe one of them survives into the end-game Old Schoolers

Now it should go without saying that PCs in faction A often have moms. PCs in faction B sometimes have moms and sometimes don't.

In published adventures it is hard to deal with your mom: the appeal of such products is that they provide everything right there in the box. And so if they are going to put your mom in there than they almost have to put you in there to (i.e. give you a pre-gen) or else how do we know your mom is alive or what terms you're on or whether you even have a mom or were grown in a lab or whether you've already met her or... In other words, giving a character a relationship to the setting in a published product is hard because the designer doesn't know anything about your character or his/her previous adventures. Or at least it's hard to put your mom in there the way Old Schoolers like their moms: with no strings or plot rails attached.

Similarly, same problem comes up if you're building a sandbox for your own personal use: sandboxes are designed to be impersonal--that's their appeal as a challenge. (The Rat Temple will not be easier just because you are 3rd level when you walked into it.) If you put a character's mom secretly in a very specific basement in Slopwankia there's no guarantee the player will ever go there---because it's a sandbox. If you put the character's mom openly in Slopwankia then you are either saying "only go here if you want to see your mom"--which is the least interesting way to meet your mom.

Point is: unexpected visits by mom are interesting and funny. And they can provide the basis for hilarious role-playing for ages to come. However, it is hard to introduce moms into sandboxes or modules without the threat of also introducing pre-planned plots or arcs.

And I think my sleep-deprived dungeon actually has a pretty good solution: in this room is a PC's mom. The GM must figure out how she got there before the game starts and must establish a list of PCs whose mom it could be. Then roll randomly once the PCs show up, then play it out wherever it goes.

Anyway the whole point is, just because it's a sandbox doesn't mean you can't seed background stuff about themselves for the PCs to stumble into around it. And even if you're writing an Old School module it doesn't mean you can't describe certain useful lacunae and instruct the DM to fill them in with relationships appropriate to the situation in their own group. It won't be completely play-out-of-the-box and will require your DM do a little thinking--but then every module does anyway so why not?

I would like to see this sort of hybrid approach in adventures: don't tell the GM exactly what's there, but don't just be vague or "leave it open" either--describe to the potential GM what kind of thing needs to be there in order to make the scenario work and then describe what characteristics the missing piece must have. "The burgher of this town is a man with a vendetta against a PC but who doesn't know an important thing about the situation that inspired the vendetta". Then let the GM find a solution that fits his or her group.

People do this automatically a lot (everybody who playtested Vornheim hacked it a little to fit into their campaign) but it'd be nice if game designers started acknowledging this always happens and actually using the disjunction between the modules assumptions and the group's reality as a feature rather than a bug. Instead of going "If you don't have a good reason for the PCs to be here use this default one" take advantage of the fact that you don't know who is going to be in that dungeon and who their mom is, and make that part of what makes it fun by giving the DM a little design problem to solve.


Albert R. said...

Even if I am running some "new-school" adventure-based game (i.e. Dark Heresy or CoC) at the start of game I don't know nothing about the plot / adventure / whatever. Moreover, often I don't have any concept about it :D Everything depends on the players and their actions.
I know that it sounds like shit, but it works and everybody is (rather) happy.

John said...

Death Frost Doom has that altar where the MacGuffin or whatever important thing got them that far is just sitting out of reach.

It's a good technique for a site-based adventure, and would have been much funnier if Mom was sitting on the evil altar instead of the MacGuffin.

Zak Sabbath said...


that doesn't sound like shit, it sounds like a decent way to roll.

but not really the point of this post.


Yet DFD's "whatever quest object the PCs are looking for is here" is a very very limited form of this idea.

John Evans said...

I tried to restrain myself, but I couldn't let this pass without at least one:
"In published adventures it is hard to deal with your mom:"
On the other hand, it's EASY to deal with YOUR mom. HEYOOO

Seriously though, this whole thing sounds like a good idea.

Albert R. said...

@ Zak - yeah I know it but I must say something more or less off-topic from time to time :D

Blair said...


awesome :)

Anonymous said...

In the game of Shadowrun that I am GMing at the moment one of the runners has a very over bearing mum, so I have had her get a call during one runs when they were trying to knock a guy out and put him in the back of the van. Another players character had a cousins wedding, and another has a brother who keeps messing up and get him to take the fall...

Taketoshi said...

hm, this has definitely inspired me!

Will probably incorporate it into some of the upcoming material for my 3E game.

Welcome to Dungeon! said...

I have for a long time liked substituting in NPCs the players already know for NPCs written in modules.

In a sandbox style game, it could work well to randomly chart out a weekly or monthly "path" across the map for surviving NPCs the party have come to love/hate, and extrapolate what they have been up to and how they have impacted the game from that path. You could also take a page from GURPS/HERO and rule "on a roll of 11 or less, your mom is in this hex." Especially if you call the previous weeks game a night as they're about to enter the new locale, it could provide a lot of inspiration for making a prewritten adventure area come alive by improvising how the familiar NPC fits into the rest of the setup.

The Cramp said...

I have a suggestion as a PC, let the players make up some of the rules about their mom. I say this because of a few experiences I have had playing. I was in a Rifts western game, and played the bouncer of a brothel. The hook was that all the girls were his sister, and he was a skinny looking wimp, but was a mind melter. (so, fucking scary to all the hardened frontiersmen, and frankly fun as hell to RP.) At the end of the first story arc, the GM had the big bad kill all his sisters. Now this was supposed to provide incentive to go get him, and move on with the story etc. But it made me not want to play the character anymore. The GM didn't know I felt this way, nor, frankly, did I until he announced it. If the game had turned into a campaign we could have worked it out that they were now all ghosts that followed him around, and that would have been sweet, but the point was that It ended up being like, "your paladin? yeah, he is a thief now, Ok?" Which is to say I wanted to play the brother of a family of prostitutes as much as I wanted to play a mind melter.

As a counter point, I played in another game where "who my character was," got messed up, and ended up being even more awesome than it was in the first place. I was playing a wild elf based on the Cheyenne contrary clown warriors (alla Younger Bear in Little Big Man). He was chaotic neutral. I RPed him as such and generally made the game interesting for everyone. A deck of many things reared it's head, and one of it's consequences was that I inverted my alignment. So now I was lawful good. Now this could have screwed the pooch when it came to trying to play the charter, but ended up being some of the most fun I have ever had playing. I decided that as a lawful good contrary he was even more dedicated to this rite of passage, but now he was wracked with guilt because of the general chaos it was sowing on the rest of the party. Prior to the shift my decision making was easy, "what is the most challenging way I can do this? Ok, do that." it became "Ok what is the most challenging way I can do this which will also benefit my party in some way?" It became this meta game of who my character was and matching that to in game decisions. Sort of tangental, but "your mom" adresses who your PC is, and we're talking about that having an in game effect.

Zak Sabbath said...

@The Cramp

i generally avoid the "oh-no-your-surprise-revelation-has-ruined-my-character" problem by making sure i talk to the player after the big revelation session and make sure they're happy. If they're not, it's not that hard to reverse most things in a world full of magic.

And trying to know your players in advance--which isn;t alwyas oractical but is a good idea whenever it is.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely agreed, I would love it if modules did this.

The last time I used an adventure path I actually did manage to stick a PC's mom in the dungeon. An adventure specified an NPC that nobody really liked inviting herself along for the adventure for sketchy reasons only to discover her long lost father and reconcile.

I thought that was stupid... but a PC's backstory had a missing mother that would slot very nicely in and replace that NPC. It would have been nice if the module had the foresight to up front go, "replace this NPC with someone that makes sense in a PC backstory... or use the NPC if you're stuck for ideas."

crowking said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
crowking said...

This is just dying to be made into a table.

YMRDT( aka Your Mom Random Dungeon Table)

1) your mom is a vampire

2) your mom is a specter

3( Your mom is a otyugh

4) your mom is a doppelganger.

5) your mom is a random NPC(roll stats and class).

6) Your mom is a Mantacore

7) your mom is a petty god( create stats) if she makes a successful hit, you must save or be t-ported back home as an infant.

8) your mom is KENT

SlurpeeMoney said...

One of the things I would love to start seeing some more of in published campaigns is some of the meta-gaming that happens at normal tables. Not in the "I know this thing, so my character knows it, too," sense of the word meta-game, but more "This is an allegorical point that comes from the real world relationships people have with one another and is going to affect our game world now."

The relationship one of my players has with her mother has deeply informed the relationship her character has with her in-game mother. It isn't the same relationship, by any means, but knowing her mother has given me a way to play this character that is emotionally relevant to the player, as well as to the character she plays.

When I read "Your mom," I didn't read that as being the player character's mom, I read that as being MY mother, some reflection of who my mother is in the terms of the game world. Or perhaps the mother of one of my player characters in an allegorical sense. "In this room is your relationship with your mother. Make that into a game element. Go."

huth said...

Why Is Your Mom Here
roll d6

1 She's here to kill you.
2 She's here to embarrass you with constant shrill derision.
3 She's here to embarrass you by trying to do everything for you, treating you like an infant and getting huffy whenever you attempt to assert your maturity.
4 She's here to embarrass you with passive-aggressive pleading.
5 She's here to make sure you have enough iron rations and that your armour's in good repair and make sure your socks are dry and to remind you to send a message to your poor father.
6 She's risen from her grave to deliver a dire warning.
it'd be nice if game designers started acknowledging this always happens and actually using the disjunction between the modules assumptions and the group's reality as a feature rather than a bug.

It's actually a sessionly occurrence in my regular game (by design), although the GM generally dumps justificationary duties on the players.

crowking said...

Now, I wanna use both tables, as there's something horrifically funny if your mom is concerned that you have clean socks yet happens to be an otyugh.

Zak Sabbath said...


That sounds intensely not-at-all-interesting to me at my table. From a game point of view it seems like it'd create a ponderous impediment to creativity and from areal-life point of view it seems like a half-assed way to think about real life. However, if it works for you then it must mean your game table works different than mine.

richard said...

For my own games I find both a and b over-determined. This here really nicely encodes what I do when I just make shit up as we go along. I tend to work with a palette of elements that I think could happen and then jigsaw them together in play. Wish I'd thought of it this way: I can actually imagine writing something like this in a module, which doesn't work for my usual approach.

This is also a brilliant way to run an NPC casting charm person or illusions on a PC. It's your mom, or someone else important to your past, here in the dungeon. WTF? The very implausibility helps it to work. When the trick is finally revealed the players can look back pn how it didn't make sense at the time.

richard said...

...also if it is your mom I would totally have already complete some part of the quest for you. "You were looking for the prince? Yes, charming young man, he's just fetching me some scones."

Zak Sabbath said...


Both A and B are designed to make player choice and important part of the game. The more improvised thing your describing can work, too, but is not designed to integrate player choice in regular, well-defined ways.