Draws, Dangers, and One-Shots, quick thoughts

When I’m building my own one-shot scenarios, I focus particularly on draws and dangers.

Draws are anything that compel people to be somewhere, preferably of their own volition. I want my players, and their characters (the PCs), to *want* to be where they are. I write about this in Be Hungry, a post about making characters, but here I’m thinking of it from the storyteller’s perspective. I want players to feel engaged, for their characters to actively pursue things in the course of play. If they don’t want to be there (player or PC), they have few reasons to stay involved with anything in a scenario. It’s possible to trap characters in a situation they don’t want to be in, but that’s usually more stressful for players. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that it’s a frequent trope of horror stories. More on that later.

Dangers are just that; a danger is anything that might threaten the well-being of a character, or which presents a potentially harmful obstacle between a character and what they desire. A danger’s potential harm could operate on any of several levels: physical peril, social or emotional threat, or jeopardizing other things a character values. The severity of the danger is critical, and needs to be calibrated against both the draws of the scenario and the other dangers present.

Dangers must be calibrated against each other because they shape how PCs react to the world around them. If a danger is sufficiently scary, PCs will do whatever they can to avoid it. This could include facing other dangers which seem less scary, or simply turning tail and fleeing.

Dangers must also be calibrated against the scenario’s draws, because those dangers may scare off PCs or cause them to despair. As a concrete example, if PCs seek a unique treasure but discover that it lies on the far side of a vast pit full of demons, they may decide that the treasure isn’t worth the trouble. If there’s a secret route to the treasure and the PCs don’t find it, the PCs will probably just shrug and move on, marking that treasure as something to come back for later. This is perfectly normal and fine in most games, and such juxtapositions of draws and dangers have their place in stories, but it’s not going to deliver a triumphant story experience in that game session.

“We came, we saw, we turned around and went home because demons are scary.” As a story, it’s a little anticlimactic. Keep in mind, because this post is focused on one-shots, I’m not as interested in foreshadowing large challenges for later sessions… which is where that anticlimactic story may have a larger role.

To tell a dramatic and triumphant story—a frequent goal of one-shot scenarios—PCs should engage with dangers, resolve them, and reach the draw they sought. Ideally those dangers are scary enough to unsettle the players and make players feel good about resolving or bypassing them, but not bad enough to convince the PCs to give up and go home. It’s a careful balancing act. And it’s a balancing act that you can build into the scenario from the very beginning, both by making sure that the draws pulling PCs in are sufficiently exciting, and by making sure that the dangers don’t seem that bad at the start.

Notice the “seem” in there. It’s entirely possible to reveal that dangers are worse than the PCs expected part way through a scenario. Revealing that the danger’s threat is worse than previously realized is a very traditional way of increasing the tension of any story. It’s possible to do poorly, or to wear out the trope by doing it too reliably, but when done well it’s delightful.

Finally, one quick note on how horror scenarios work with draws and dangers.

Horror stories, which I mentioned near the beginning when talking about trapping PCs, can be different. Some horror stories thrive on the PCs’ sense of helplessness, their feeling stuck with a danger that is too great for them to defeat unscathed, or to overcome without losing in the process. In these horror scenarios, overwhelming dangers lie between the PCs and whatever the scenario’s draw may be (usually escape, or resolving the danger without overwhelming sacrifice). Classic movie examples could include anything involving being trapped in a space with something hunting you: Alien, any number of serial killer movies, various murder-puzzle movies like the Saw series, etc.

This doesn’t describe all horror stories though, and the topic is big enough that I’m going to leave the rest of it for another time.

Highwoodshire

Highwoodshire sits atop the hills, overlooking the fertile farming and grazing land below to the south and east. The land rises from river valleys to high meadows, edged by gentle slopes or crumbling cliffs. Several small forests grace the hilltops, along with a patchwork of farmsteads and villages scattered about amongst the fields, pastures, and groves. There are several productive mines in the area, with a long history of moderate use, but most notably Highwoodshire is home to an old set of forts, small temples, and watchtowers, fallen into variable disrepair.

The shire was once the seat of a knightly order, home to skilled soldiers and a strong fighting levy, held closely by the knights for many years against encroachment from the north and west by the pale people known as the Hungry Ones. The knightly order was eventually disbanded in disgrace, and their primary seat in the shire was sieged and burned when they refused to surrender to their ostensible liege. But their holdings were well built and many remain to this day. Their northwesternmost watchtower still stands strong, watching over the wide, dry grasslands of the northwest, never taken by any sieging force. It was only lost after the order was disbanded, when the small garrison finally starved to death holding off a mass of Hungry People, never receiving the support they had expected.

After the destruction of the knight’s order and several further waves of conflict, the Hungry People and the folk of Highwoodshire co-mingled and settled in peace on the hills overlooking the river valleys beyond. The temples of the order were mostly either neglected or rebuilt for the new beliefs of the mixed folk, though a few smaller ones still retained followers who held to older ways. Much of the knowledge and wealth accrued by the knights was looted or destroyed in the sacking of their forts after they were disbanded, but it is said by many that there were still more treasures and tomes hidden deep within their forts and temples that were never found. The locals are proud of their stories of the knights, even those who are conspicuously pale, and they relish telling stories of the obstinacy of that order… even as they disavow their more reviled practices.

Those in the know doubt the locals’ claims of religious and cultural propriety. There is some evidence that the practices publicly reviled by the folk of Highwoodshire are in fact maintained in secret. Some even say that the knights never partook of those practices, despite their reputation to the contrary, and that they instead were vilified for the practices of the people under their protection. There are scholarly disagreements among those who maintain the knights’ innocence as to whether the knights were aware of the practices and intentionally sheltered the people in their lands, or whether they were unaware of the habits of those they protected. Of course, most people simply lump the knights in with the rest, and say good riddance to the whole lot—ignoring the rumors of people going missing on the high hills, or the odd habits of those who live there still.

Highwoodshire remains strategically valuable as a geographic strongpoint with many remnant structures, but it has been some time since any group was permitted to maintain fortifications in the area. Instead, it is a fairly quiet place these days. Its quiet is only marred by the rumors of old treasures, secrets, and shames hidden deep in the old ruins, and by the whispers of forbidden rituals and almost-forgotten ways maintained by ancient sects in the wooded hills overlooking the peaceful farmland below.

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh drops from the jungle floor deep into the rock below. Far below the surface, dark water glimmers in the noon sun, patinated by streams of leaf-filtered sunlight. The ruins above have long since been worn away or overgrown, but within the cenote it is different; an entire city remains there, etched and built into the walls of the broad cavern’s mouth.

Though all (or almost all) agree that the original inhabitants left long ago, few agree as to why. What is known for sure is that the cenote still holds great importance to many despite its relative neglect. Some see the cenote as a religious site, and a brave few force themselves through the jungles around the cenote in order to make their pilgrimage and pay homage. Others claim that the cenote is in fact an entrance to far more important and extensive networks of caves and waterways, which were (they claim) the reason that the city within it was built in the first place. Everyone agrees that the remnants of those who once lived there are valuable, even though most of the remaining artifacts lie below the water deep within the pit.

The buildings which line the wall of the pit all open onto a spiraling thoroughfare which runs, like a screw’s thread, up and down the pit’s edge in one long line. Here and there steeper, faster routes up and down exist: ancient stone stairways, carved ladder rungs slick with condensation, even what must be carved eyelets for rope and pulleys to maneuver loads up and down the cenote’s walls. Most who visit do not venture within, instead staying safe as they pay their respects above.

There are those who claim to have traded with dwellers below, and those who have ventured in who say that they have been chased out by the things still there inside. Certainly some have thrown valuable goods into the cenote, usually gold or other precious metals and gems, explaining that they do so to propitiate the things that dwell below. Others have thrown goods into the cenote in apparent expectation that they will receive goods in return, or perhaps have their wishes granted. It is not clear to what extent they have received either goods or fulfilled wishes.

The few who do venture down into the cenote quickly learn that centuries of neglect and the constant dripping of water will make nearly any surface perilously slippery.

The cenote smells of wet stone, dirt, mellow old rot, and moss and other greenery. It echoes with birdcalls from above, croaking frogs from below, and the chirrups of peepers and other small insects. The jungle’s regular storms resound in the confined space, the sound of rainfall drowning out all other noise as it reverberates from the water below like a massive buzzing drum.

Those storms constantly refill the cenote, though its water level varies more than the casual observer might anticipate. Many floors of buildings remain un-flooded, eroded by plants and the constant drip of water, but there are several floors which are only sometimes inundated, and a few more below the usual waterline that sometimes drain. Without any warning, the cenote has been known to fill rapidly on a sunny day, or to drain suddenly during a storm. Those who pay careful attention have their theories, but a few of them are quite able to forecast reliably when the cenote will lose more of its water and reveal some of its usually sodden secrets.

The recovery of those secrets is a remarkably rewarding exercise, even if it is a dangerous one. There are many who would like to have something from within the cenote, but who are not willing to venture in there for themselves—and there are some who would like to have trustworthy company for such a quest. The removal of those secrets, be they artifacts, ancient valuables, or even simply knowledge of those who once dwelled there, is strongly opposed by some others, and it’s possible that there have been murders committed both for and against the recovery of such things.

All who would venture in do so at their own risk. Even during the height of the day, little effective sunlight reaches into the cenote’s depths. Those who would bring their own light are well advised to make sure that it will withstand constant dripping water from above. Those who would bring anything that might soak through, rot, or otherwise be destroyed by moisture are best advised to abandon their attempt, or come to terms with the temporary nature of such things. Furthermore, the constant gentle passage of water (and the occasional violent passage of it) has left much of the cenote’s architecture unstable. The thoroughfare crumbles and collapses in places, and nearly all of it is slick.

There are many rumors told of the things that still live within the cenote. Some claim that they are little more than monsters, others say that they are people, others even claim that they were the original inhabitants of the cenote and have merely been changed. Yet other people claim that all the rumors are no more than that, and should be ignored. But those disbelievers struggle to explain the vociferous choruses which rise from deep within the cenote at odd hours, instead falling back on the tired claim that it is a natural phenomenon. Few agree, and the cenote remains an only half-known piece of the landscape, calling to those with more bravery, curiosity, or greed than sense.

The Twin Falls

The Twin Falls drop in a single stream from a cleft cliff face. One river splits into two mouths at the cliff’s edge, their columns of water remerging into one for the plummet to the impossibly smooth waters below. Some strange trick of the depths beneath the falls sucks the roaring water into a still lake, the surface mirror smooth from the edge of the falling column outwards.

This, perhaps, is the true source of the Twin Falls’ name; standing on the low rise that rings the lake below like an amphitheater’s seats, looking into the lake shows two waterfalls, one dropping from above as the other meets it from below—an unbroken column across the plane of the lake.

The low rise is itself well shaped, as though it might have been intentionally sculpted into place. Here and there one may find tiny nooks carved into the rise, large enough for a picnic blanket were one to hew space from the jungle’s covetous grasp. Each nook offers a view of the falls, every one from a different angle. No large trees grow on the rise, though several tower along the cliff’s edge high above and many more soar in the space beyond the berm.

Where the lake’s water goes, no one knows.

It is said that people once lived around the Twin Falls. Certainly those who know where and how to look will see their traces. Those suspicious enough to pry or imagine will find plentiful fuel for their ideas—whether from those conveniently sized nooks and their alignment through the mouths of the falls with astronomical bodies above, or from the many hillocks that dot the rainforest beyond, or from the shapings still visible in the stone of the cliff face and the land past it. Regardless, none of those people still remain.

Stories are told of why they disappeared. Those with a predilection for the sword speculate that the missing people were invaded and subjugated, though little explanation is given for why no one remained. The more mystically inclined wonder at the deep knowledge needed to build such an astronomical sighting system, and argue that the people obtained enlightenment or found some higher truth of the world. Those whose suspicions run deeper speak in hushed tones of the lake itself, claiming that it must be a cenote deep enough to swallow the river above, with a belled top perfectly shaped by masterful stoneworkers in order to preserve the mirrored surface. These speculators, the especially paranoid and fanciful, whisper of the sun’s path on the longest day, the way it illuminates everything below, how the lake’s reflection twists for just a moment as the sun finally sets, and how there are stories of folk going missing in the jungles there on the longest day. Stories of a city in the lake, painted gold by the setting solstice sun, are easily explained away as sun-blindness.

No matter the reasons, Twin Falls is a place of stunning grandeur. It does not take an overactive imagination to see why some might once have settled in the lands nearby. Nor, from the eager greenery that clings tightly and encroaches day by day, is it difficult to see why one might choose to leave. Molds fester in dark places, and rot takes hold and does not let go. Nor are the jungles around Twin Falls quiet. Hungry things prowl there, and travelers are wise to go armed and ready. The wild beasts of that place are territorial and indiscriminate where they are not simply predatory. Worse still are the dreams some say come to them there as the days lengthen, the call of the lake, the powerful tug of its waters and the songs heard from a city that hangs golden in their dreams just beyond the mirror of the setting sun.

The Churn, Starhome, Ozbek’s Folly

The Churn is a place of ancient cataclysm and ruination, a vast crater many miles across with a still molten caldera at its heart. Called Ozbek’s Folly by some, Starhome by others, the bowl of the Churn is shrouded in endlessly circling winds that carry the dust of millions dead. These winds harry sand over bedrock, stripping down all that cannot find shelter in a safe lee. Where ridge lines of fractured rock rise above the blasted terrain, narrow ribbons of greenery thrive in their wind-shadow. So too do crevasses harbor streams, rivers of life that the knowledgable may follow into the crater’s center where oases ring the caldera in the eye of the Churn’s storm.

The stories told of the Churn say that whatever caused it still lies at its heart, wreathed in the molten rock it wrought so long ago.

There are those who live within the Churn’s ever-windy desolation, people who have grown strange over time. They have changed in their generations of clinging to the green, of braving the scouring winds to find new life or old traces of the time before. They have altered themselves in their generations of imbibing the waters which rise from the rents in the earth near the caldera’s heat. Feared by those who live beyond the Churn’s high and crumbling walls, the crater-folk mostly keep to themselves.

When people from outside the Churn venture in, they all report being watched and tracked. Some outsiders who have visited and survived tell stories of their companions being eaten; some say by crater-folk, or by other hungry things which dwell within the churn—sometimes both at the same time. Others dismiss these claims, or accuse the storytellers of covering their own desperate cannibalism. These others point to the tiny but highly profitable trade with crater-folk as proof that they are not hungry monsters: some few have managed to exchange good tools and supplies for rare herbs and rocks, or for small precious otherworldly things much sought after by the outside world.

Despite its permanent dust storm and the vicious nature of travel within the Churn, people continue to seek its heart.

Those who call it Starhome claim that a fallen star sings from the center of the caldera, its song raising the winds which circle it without cease. They wish to gaze upon its beauty, and to discover its secrets. Some few, no doubt, would take it for themselves if they could. Starhome, to hear them describe it, holds at its center a marvel from beyond this world, something so purely divine that it could make one like unto a god. In their eyes, the caldera’s molten rock is merely the final barrier to the shining glory within, while the waters of the oases around it contain the essence of that star and may share its blessings on those who drink of them.

Those who call it Ozbek’s Folly put more weight in the stories told of the land as it was before the Churn. They say that the crater obliterated the city of Ozbek, a once towering center of might and learning. According to them, the city had such power as to seek the inner mysteries of the universe, and such poor judgment as to succeed. But because of their mistakes, which cost the lives of uncountable people and their city, the remnants of their civilization are now available for any who would venture within the Churn. At the city’s dead heart, now a smoking caldera, the most precious of their artifacts may yet remain.

Those who dwell within the Churn have other stories. But beyond hints which needle at the lies the curious tell themselves, the crater-dwellers keep those stories to themselves.

World Building: The Thousand Year Empire

I’m putting together a game for teens stuck in social distancing mode due to Covid-19, to be played over Discord. I’m using Exemplars & Eidolons, which I mentioned here. This is all being run through the auspices of the LARP camp where I work. I created this setting years ago, and have expanded it through several games since; for the quick and dirty version, think Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Avatar: TLA, with a soundtrack by Lustmord and Dead Can Dance.

***

The Thousand Year Empress disappeared 20 years ago. No matter what else they disagree on, everyone can agree on that. Some say she was murdered, others that she died of disease or old age, and yet others claim that she ascended into the Celestial Firmament and left the mortal realm to its suffering.

Another thing all agree on: the Empire has suffered ever since.

Without the Empress’ guidance, her vast Empire has descended into chaos. Provinces take up arms against each other, proclaiming themselves Protectors of the Empire or rightful people’s rebellions. Several provinces claim to have the Empress’ true heir to guide them: sometimes one of her children or more distant descendants, sometimes claiming to have the reborn Empress herself.

Drought, flood, and famine scour the lands. Bandit armies rise and maraud. Some provinces fall to plague. There are rumors of disappearances, of demons, and of other worse things. And it is known that in some places the dead themselves rise and set themselves against the living. Some even say that the dead walk at the behest of the Empress, whose talking corpse leads them to retake her domain from beyond the grave.

The Empire as it was is gone.

But it need not be so forever; there are still pockets of stability, and many struggle to protect the land and each other. Many members of the Empress’ ancient knightly orders—both honorable and disgraced—and many of her ministers still strive to prevent bloodshed, to restore peace, and to build upon what they saved from that which came before. Here and there provinces band together in amity, supporting each other against the dangers of the world. It is a dangerous time, but it is a time when a dedicated few may make a difference.

What will YOU do?

Haunted Mines of Frozen Time

In the western hills, below the growing height of the volcano Tupol, ancient quarries etch the slopes and lay bare the stone beneath. Near their bases, where erosion paints runnels through the scarce remaining dirt and channels the upslope waterfalls into a well-fed river, tunnels gape like burst cysts in the quarries’ walls. These tunnels eat into the hillsides, following the thick sheet of soft, mottled blue-green glass which miners first sought ever deeper under the old, cold lava flows which buried it.

The trees which grow on the abandoned mines’ tailings twist in odd shapes, their forms uncannily human. The forests below, fed by the river which leaches those tailings, echo those uncanny forms over and over again. The forests are well-known for being haunted.

The glass those long-dead miners sought still lingers in the hills, precious and coveted by archaeologists, alchemists, and artificers. It shivers in the cold, and shimmers with a light from within that waxes with the dying of the moon. In the deepest dark of the new moon, the glass is even said to whisper, growing louder and louder as it Continue reading

Don’t Know Where the Story’s Going, Quick Thoughts

This post follows Be Boring and Be Hungry. It’s all about making characters for roleplaying games, and how to think about RPG character creation from the perspective of a writer.

Playing RPGs recently, one friend of mine was struggling with how to make and play her character. It was not her first time playing RPGs, but she felt less experienced than most of the other people at the table and was anxious to make a good impression and make good story contributions. She has a writing background, and is familiar with arcs and storyboards and how to make a good dramatic narrative. But she was foundering as we sat at the table, sinking beneath the weight of making a character who would be interesting enough to the rest of the players, a character who would have a complete story. She couldn’t see a way to do that, couldn’t see a way to tell the stories that seemed right for the character she had, and couldn’t reconcile her knowledge of how to tell stories with the structure of our RPG.

In a darkly funny sort of way, Continue reading

Temple in the Blasted Plain

North of the mountains of The Spire lies what was once the heart of an empire. That stretch of fertile rolling plains is now untrammeled, abandoned. The capital city which once dominated that horizon, gone.

A vast temple complex stood at the core of that capital, dedicated to the god of agreements and law, ruler of his pantheon. From there the priests of the empire oversaw the rise and spread of a power few have since matched. Certainly no realm which now rules lands once claimed by the empire can rival its ancient might.

Now that city lies buried, stricken at its height. The central temple is the only building which still emerges fully intact from the land around it, crowning the city’s tallest hill, uncomfortably preserved against the passage of time.

The fall of a god is unkind, never gentle.

Now, few ever visit the city’s stricken corpse. Fewer still dare to enter the holy grounds of the fallen god of order. The skies above wreathe themselves every day with the same storm, an eerie and unrelenting echo of the city’s swift and brutal end. It rolls north from the mountains, the gloom-black cloud front grinding across the sky like a sarcophagus’ closing lid. By the height of midday, the ruined city’s only light flickers from cloud to cloud in dazzling arcs. The blasts, when they come, fall in endless succession; they smite the city’s ruins again, every day, exactly as they did the day the city’s god was deposed and swept, fragmentary, into the abyss.

At midnight, the storm dissolves once again.

This endless cycle has played out for centuries. It has pulverized the ancient empire’s remains. Those who dwell in the lands nearby know not to travel near that god-cursed ground.

But others—the faithful, the learned, the foolish—seek to know what has preserved the fallen god’s sacred place in the center of such destruction. Their stories are inconsistent.

Those few who arrive untouched at the center of the storm, those few who see the fallen god’s holy house, cannot agree. Some find the pediment as it was, the order of the world from top to bottom in gleaming bas relief, the god front and center and larger than life. This temple still stands, but its doors are shut with verdigris and time. Others claim that the temple still stands, yes, but has been replaced by something wrong; the god of that temple screams from his carved likeness, the rain falling from his open mouth as blood. That temple, to that overthrown god, echoes from within with sounds unsought: the voices of those you thought safely dead, the secrets you wished kept, that which will undo you. Its doors stand wide open.

Some claim that those gray-green doors sealed by ages long past have opened at their touch. Few believe them. No one claims they’ve entered the open temple, but a lie of omission is still a lie.

The adventurous speak of other temples taking pride of place in that storm-wracked necropolis, others found instead of the two most well-known. They have told tales of wooden statues brought to life, of warm and welcome darkness with a heartbeat inside, of torchlight and the endless sounds of drums. They have spread rumors of passages into the several hells ruled by the shattered lord, of ways into the precarious past before the fall, of awe-inspiring visions of the broken god’s injustices and of his all-encompassing rule.

But it is the crazed who speak the truth as to why any still venture into that land of lightning and destruction: they would have a glimpse of that old god… and seize a shard of his power for themselves.

Paradise at the Titan’s Feet

Twin buttes rise above sparsely forested foothills, close together and nearly parallel. Unlike other buttes, they broaden towards their rough tops, nearly touching. They’re known as the Titan’s Feet—their eerie resemblance of ankles and calves is made worse by the way their foothills only stretch in one direction, sloping down to end in smaller hills known by locals as The Toes. Though the resemblance isn’t perfect, no one denies it exists.

The mining town of Paradise lies nestled in the high saddle between the buttes. Everyone living there is connected with the many mines which dot the buttes, either as a miner themselves or as someone who supports the miners. Ruled by a junta of powerful locals, Paradise is beset on all sides. It has only remained under local control for so long because of the town’s natural fortifications, and through careful manipulation of its neighbors.

The products of the buttes’ mines are wildly precious and widely sought after. Reputed to have magical, mystical, and alchemical properties, the long veins of precious gems and rare metals command attention from all over. Unfortunately, that includes the attention of various warlords and pretenders to the throne. Originally a crown holding, Paradise’s independence has been tested constantly ever since the realm encompassing it fell apart in political crises and succession wars. Many say possession of Paradise is proof of legitimacy; certainly, controlling access to its resources and drawing from its wealth could sway the tides of war.

In better times, both learned folk and occult practitioners devoted their lives to studying the Titan’s Feet and their origins. The Feet rise out of a broad plain, some days’ ride from the nearest large rock formations. They are entirely distinct from the local bedrock. And though some have tried to explain the Feet as a natural phenomenon, most explanations simply cover speculation with a thin sheen of intellectual authority. Many scholars have acknowledged that they are better off collecting local folklore.

Some stories tell of a blessed woman who swore an oath to hold her ground in the face of a god’s wrath, a woman who grew in stature to match her obduracy, yet was petrified by the upset deity for having defied them. Other stories say that the Feet were built by unknown ancients, a beautiful statue of marvelous height now mostly-missing. Yet others claim that the Feet grow taller every year, bit by bit, and that one day they will finish growing the rest of their body.

Some miners who’ve spent too long underground in the Feet swear that they hear a heartbeat. Others tell of how the stone flexes around them at times, nearly like living flesh, or of how the buttes’ stone tries to close itself as flesh would a wound. These stories are shared around Paradise but often derided; few tell them while sober, or admit to believing them even when drunk. Regardless, everyone agrees that the Feet aren’t truly safe. Though they’re fabulously rich in gems and ores rarely found elsewhere (let alone in conjunction), they also contain strange things that scuttle in the darkness or which have made their own small tunnels. Much like the encroaching warlords, reports of these strange things in the mines have grown worse since the fall of the Crown.

Some people think that the problems are related.