- How to develop and use the heart of my campaign technique
- Spice up your game with relevant events
The Gunmen finally are the centerpiece of my game mastering technique. They are a list of things that can happen to the PCs, similar to what you would call encounters – but the main difference is that each and every one of them is part of the overarching plot and represents some element of the setting that can relevantly be interacted with. Depending on the players’ progress and understanding of the world, they can make relevant decisions as they come to grasp the larger context and meaning of each of these Gunmen.
To clear things up first: An entry on the gunmen list is any kind of random interaction between an Entity and either the PCs or something else with the PCs just witnessing the event. This can include a crime committed, an NPC talking to the PCs, the discovery of a body, a larger-scale event, a newspaper entry or anything else you can think of that you can throw at the PCs at any point in time.
These random encounters present different story and scenario hooks especially in the first few sessions of your campaign. Later on, probably a large part of them will just be consequences to player input and Entity agendas progressing.
Now, in order to prepare the gunmen list, you can pull off all resources you have created thus far. Go through every Entity Card one by one, then every cell on your Relationship Grid, then every connection on your Plotmap. Write down everything that could bring players into contact with any part of your setting. There are no wrong ideas here (as you will carefully choose which events you deem appropriate later during play), so just write down every part of an NPCs Agenda, every large-scale event you can come up with, every news headlines, and every marks left by some kind of Entity involvement you can think of.
You will notice that writing down the gunmen list is actually not a lot of work. Neither will it take much time nor does it require a lot of effort, because everything you are going to write down is pretty much already there, either on the other documents created thus far, or as ideas in your head. Your setting should feel somewhat alive in your imagination up to this point, so writing down events that could logically follow from what you prepared will probably go pretty smooth.
I felt like it is more than enough for dozens of sessions if your gunmen list includes about 1-4 entries per Entity. For me, this will usually amount to a number somewhere between 10-50 Gunmen entries. This way, I will always have enough to work with should player input get hesitant – and I also get a general idea about the means my Entities employ in order to reach (or work towards) their goals.
The reasons why the Gunmen list (and the Consequences of course) is the most important document to me are manifold:
- Hooks: The Gunmen events provide incentives to interact with the setting. Whenever I have something happen to or in the vicinity of the PCs, this is actually a separate scenario hook. The players are free to act on or ignore as many of them as they like (as first I will always have more to give them, and second their ignorance or degree of involvement will have an impact on later events as well, making passiveness a conscious decision as well). Still I present them lots and lots of different motivators to engage with some part of the setting, both illustrating their freedom of choice within the setting and always presenting them entry points to a possible emergent story without needing to default to cliché game starts (you all sit in a tavern, when suddenly…).
- Pacing: I can use my Gunmen events to control the pacing of the game, slowing it down or speeding it up whenever I feel the need to. When play feels slow, I throw in a (reasonable) Gunmen interaction that presents players with an action-paced scene and something thrilling to experience (like an assassin attack), while I either completely restrain from using Gunmen in hectic and confusing scenes or use Gunmen that lead to a slower, smoother game experience (like suddenly meeting a beloved friend). They also allow me to improvise scenes of different intensity, thus creating a thrill curve over the course of a session.
- Liveliness: Using Gunmen (and communicating the complete freedom of choice to players) will first and foremost give the game the impression of a breathing and living game world, where life happens event without player input. Players will probably feel like you have prepared a whole world that runs on its own (which in a sense you really have), and this will make the setting more believable and interactive. It also gives you the chance to conceal more meaningful scenes with ones of lesser importance and let it be up to the players to decide on which to act.
- Consequences: Most direct or indirect consequences to player decisions explained in the next step will find their way to the Gunmen list. This way, the further your players progress into the setting and color everything with their decisions, the more will the events that happen to them be directly related to everything they did in game. Not only does this kind of reflection provide a good and satisfying feedback to your players, it also includes them in the process of collaboratively telling a story and changing the world around them. After a while of playing, your players will really feel like they know their way around and can relate to most things that happen (or have at least enough information or information sources at hand to try to understand the events they witness or experience).
- Meaningful Decisions: Since each of these Gunmen encounters is deeply connected to story elements, players will always have the chance to make meaningful decisions about them, as there is always more to them than is immediately obvious. They can hit up on contacts and information sources, apply their previous knowledge, or simply relate the events to the motivations and aspirations of NPCs they already know in order to be able to foretell what kind of reaction might be reasonable. Since there are no random events and everything has a reason, that also means players can learn and understand these reasons and can manipulate the setting in a meaningful way.
- Revitalize: Whenever players run out of ideas what to do next, you can have them experience an event from your Gunmen list in order to get them going. You do not force them to act, but they will suddenly have another source of input they can draw from to come to a meaningful decision. Even if the Gunmen event just leads to a short intermezzo where they can regather their thoughts, this if fine as well and probably more than most other campaign structures are able to do.
- Equality: The Gunmen list also is a resource you can pull off to ensure that different Entities of the setting receive similar exposure. This way, all elements of your setting will come together as a whole. For example, should you feel that play has really focused on the more gloomy parts of your settings recently, you could throw in some more light-hearted Gunmen events in order to change the emotional direction of play (or to interest players in a different topic). This is also useful if you want to direct play towards or away from certain topics, like supernatural phenomena (in case not all of your characters are magical), so that not only your Entities, but your players receive similar exposure and stage time as well. Naturally, you can use it to achieve the opposite as well – for a Halloween session, for example, you could decide that suddenly the vampire threat in the city grows, and choosing the related Gunmen will shift the session accordingly.
- Main Source of Input: At least to me, the Gunmen list is the main source of input during actual play. Whenever I need ideas or reminders on how the different Entities work and pursue their goals, I look at the Gunmen list to get a general idea of their agenda, and can even right then decide to throw something in that sparked my interest.
- Foreshadowing: My Gunmen list is one of the most powerful tools I have for scalable foreshadowing. Sometimes I would write down the same event on the list that presents no real complete story hook, but only a bit of foreshadowing, and vary each entry by the degree it foreshadows something. This has both the advantage of hiding among other events and interactions (thus not being too obvious as foreshadowing for players) and I can build up anticipation towards a certain closure for all the different hints. Of course, whenever players decide to follow one of these hints, I will always be readily prepared to have them and construct the story from there.
- News: Never was there a situation when players asked me they check the newsfeed on their character’s phone, read a newspaper or ask around for gossip that I did not have an idea what to tell them. I can always take some elements from my Gunmen list and use it as an inspiration for a news or gossip story in order to provide players a conscious entry point to the setting. This way, it is even easier for them to decide on which to act and which to ignore – and for me it is even easier to hide fateful foreshadowing or important pieces of information behind bigger stories.
- Color: Some Gunmen entries even don’t necessarily have something to directly act upon. Sometimes I just throw them in to color a scene or the whole setting with a certain feel or flavor. For example, nothing screams the theme of despair as effectively as the PCs constantly running into begging or crying people, seeing misery and poverty everywhere and witnessing crimes or their aftermath all over the place – with a story and Entity connection lurking behind each and every of these color scenes.
- Add-in: As I will elaborate on in a later article, my planted campaigns are more than easy to expand by adding-in new game elements. This is most evident in the Gunmen list, as naturally new Entities and setting elements also spawn new events on the Gunmen list, ready for me to introduce them to the players (and thus the game world).
As you see, using the Gunmen list has many valuable advantages and several different applications. But as with any technique, there are several important things to keep in mind when using the gunmen list. These include both techniques and tips to use it and traps to avoid when doing so.
- Frugality: Do not overwhelm your players with too much random input. Not any street corner should have a Gunmen event, and not every minute of gameplay benefits from random encounters, be they connected to the plot or not. Play can easily feel random and disconnected when you just throw content at your players without any input happening on their side of the table. You have to always keep in mind that although everything is connected to you, they are not yet able to see the bigger picture of all your setting’s connections and can only handle so many fractions of it without getting confused.
- Meaningfulness: Whatever you do, make sure all decisions your players are going to make are meaningful. Of course it is a great deal of fun both for you and your players to navigate through mysterious connections and figure them out, but all consequences you throw at them should always be foreseeable by them to a certain degree (when they took the time to assess the circumstances), or at least reasonable once they happen. There is no fun and also no point in decisions, when to your players all options look identical. Rather should you act on the contrary – whenever they propose an action to circumvent problems or take initiative, you should definitely go with it (except of course if what they propose is hilariously breakneck).
- Avoidability: Whatever events you have on your Gunmen list, foresightful players should always be able to avoid them through clever play. For example, say you listed the failure of the amnesic singer on stage (and the following quarrel with her sister) as a Gunmen event, but one of your players really emphasizes with and spends lots of time reassuring her. You should restrain from letting the failure still happen, but rather give the player positive feedback for his investment and have the gig end in a close shave.
- Kill your Darlings: Not everything on your list needs to happen. You will often notice that when preparing consequences, you will have to delete many items from your gunmen list, because they either don’t make much sense anymore in light of recent events, or players have actively prevented them from happening. This is fine (and desirable), as the idea here is for the players to experience the campaign as an area of total freedom and flexibility. It is not a shopping list you run off and see how your players deal with it, but rather a fall-back for you to introduce more elements of the setting whenever you are not busy reflecting the actions and choices of the PCs to them.
- Restraint: Do not over-prepare. Once your players start following one or two specific hooks presented, you will spend much more time reacting on their input (and later preparing consequences) than you will throwing additional hooks at them. Also, it can cost you a lot of time preparing additional material attached to a Gunmen event when you suddenly realize your players don’t go with it and choose the legitimate option to ignore the input.