Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Underpants Adventures

Very interesting post about what went wrong with the Star Wars prequels that's worth a read for writers and GMs. It boils down to a pretty simple point - if you start with a simple plot, it allows for the characters and story to grow more complex in the telling, but if you start with an overly complex plot, then you've pretty much put a block on those things.

I've always subscribed to the idea that your players should be the most interesting characters in your game, and this advice applies to them as well. Starting from a simple plot creates an opportunity for your game to grow in directions that reflect you and your players.

If you want a practical way to go about this, consider the Underpants Gnome school of adventure design.

Satire aside, the 3 step plan is useful for almost any plot. Start with a villain, whoever it is, and give them a plan that really is as simple as:
  1. Do something simple
  2. Do something complicated
  3. Achieve goal

This is usually easiest if you start from the goal, since that tends to suggest the previous steps. With that in mind, I strongly suggest a concrete goal - "power" (or even "profit") tend to be so amorphous as goals that they don't really suggest a course of action. If a goal of that sort is what you're looking for, then try to pick some manner of specific implementation of it, like leveling up or stealing a particular treasure.

This process is made much simpler if you embrace the cheese. There is a natural inclination to try to make the plots smart, coherent or clever, but realize that a lot of great plots have almost embarrassingly simple underpants structure. Y'know - Take Ring, Throw it in a Volcano, Free Middle Earth. Look at that example and consider how far short of the true complexity of the story that falls - the good parts lie in that difference.

Thus, start with something like:
  1. Kidnap Orphans
  2. Sacrifice them to Orcus
  3. Gain Undead Army

On paper, this looks like the basis of something pretty cheesy, but it need not be. Challenge yourself and consider how this framework might make for a good story. The villain might be interesting, the orphans in question might have compelling stories, the sacrifice might require all sorts of logistics to pull off, maybe the use the army will be put to is interesting. Whatever. The point is it can be done.

The trick is that you don't need to solve all of the problems up front. The underpants plan should seem unworkable on the face of it because it leaves unanswered questions. Answering those questions is a driver of play.


  1. Josh Roby had this excellent advice for players in our most recent Houses of the Blooded LARP: "First stir things up. Then figure out how you're going to benefit from it. Don't do it in the other order."

  2. @Paul I definitely support that approach as a player. As a GM, I flip it. You can do that in a pinch (Since it's ultimately a guy bursting into the room with a gun) but that's fallback.

  3. I have this problem where I create a back story for the setting, and then I am left with, "What interesting thing could possibly result from this?"

    I tend to make it up as I go, including that concrete goal, but it feels like cheating to not have that up front.

  4. @senatorhatty The trick is that when someone creates a fiction, it tends to be very complete and coherent, not cracked and flawed like real life. To find good goals, you need to find the cracks - the inequalities, imperfections and shortcuts - and the people who are unhappy with their lot in the balanced, static world. However much your world makes sense, there must be those who reject that sense.

    Curiously, this echos back to Paul's comment. A little disruption can reveal the world to you in ways you'd never expect.

  5. Since we're talking about villain plans, I'll add:

    With some exceptions, the most interesting villains tend to have sympathetic qualities, people we can find ourselves in, despite not wanting to.

    To that end:
    When you come up with a goal, create an altruistic or good-hearted or misguided goal.

    When you come up with the simple step, choose something that's transgressive and alarming, but not something irredeemable.

    It's that middle, complicated step that should be truly heinous and irredeemable and queasy-making.

  6. Great points and definitely the right way to build up a background. Only thing I'd add is the amount of crazy fun this provides once you start working with multiple "villains".

    Quotes there because we're not really talking about villains, we're just talking about anyone not the PCs.

    My campaigns typically have more than a dozen NPCs who are all involved in various "plots" of their own -- the fun REALLY comes when those start intersecting. All sorts of unpredicatable hilarity ensues, guaranteed.

  7. This is a great condensing of developing plot and villain motivations. And it knocked a few things loose for me, thanks!

    However, I think your example "Fain Undead Army" is just as bad as "Power"*. I have no more of an idea of what someone would want with an undead army than what they would use "power" for. And an undead army comes with problems like upkeep and stench.

    *Though I think "Profit" can be fine. Imagining what anyone would do with a lot of money is pretty easy. You don't necessarily need to dig deeper. Although it's not a bad thing to clarify if they want to buy a private island or a politician or eliminate poverty to humanize the villain even more.

  8. @EZ There is absolutely a "What next?" element to most step 3's, but that's part of the fruitful incompleteness in my mind. The difference between "Power" and "an undead army" is that I'm not really sure what form power will take, so the process becomes muddled.

    (Profit, admittedly, is a different case. Yes, acquiring money in general is reasonable - I would just assert that acquiring money in _specific_ is more play-driving, especially because that usually implies that there's someone else not getting it)

  9. This thread is pleasing because it is simultaneously affirming stuff I already do, giving me ideas about how to do it better, and codifying it for the sake of future reference.

    Thanks everyone!

    I admit I don't always define "profit" until some of the middle steps cause it ti become something more specific. "What more could villains A & B want if they are already the secret masters of civilization? I don't know, but it must be SOMETHING."

    I'm vaguely uncomfortable being in any way hand-wavy, but it's working so far.

  10. I love or hate you right now.

    I do THIS EXACT thing. I have even referred to it as "The Underpants Gnomes School of Villainy." Leaving the middle somewhat blank is a critical part of the design, because it allows the bad guy/adventure to react to what players do in the game, so that they reach a satisfying conclusion the players can steer.

    However now that you have shared the Underpants Gnomes secret others will know it as well! Maybe even my players!

  11. Great post, and it's simple advice but I've seen people (myself included admittedly) trying to create complicated storylines and having to use far too many NPCs, which nobody usually cares about.

  12. @Joe: You've just defined every Final Fantasy villain there is, I think.

  13. The "what next?" after step 3 is the step 1 of the next adventure.

  14. Brilliant. Every GM should read this post.


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