Buffy Adventure Design

NOTE: This is a first draft of the essay, open for comments.

         The Buffy RPG core rulebook has some advice for the GM on creating episodes, which is reasonable for general RPG advice. However, I think one can go much further in creating episodes which better reflect the Buffy series. Roughly, the episode creation advice boils down to preparing a Setup, two Turning Points, and a Climax. The Turning Points should be flexible, as should the Climax.

         However, that is rather vague. It emphasizes being flexible about the Turning Points and Climax, to avoid a linear plot. The following are added points of advice on how to accomplish that.

Choose Meaningful Opponents

         The Buffy series is an intriguing marriage of action-adventure and drama, which in many ways is well suited for role-playing. The physical action can be played out in the game, and can either contrast or parallel the character development controlled by the players. Ultimately most episodes are really about everyday life -- magnified to supernatural proportions. For example, episode 1.3 ("Witch") is about a mother trying to relive her youth through her daughter. While the literal action revolves around opposing a spell-casting witch, the metaphorical meaning is about something very common in the real world.

         Ideally, you should not have to preplan specific plot twists for this to be effective. Once you have a symbolically meaningful opponent, then the physical action itself is almost always relevant. So, if there is a sorcerous mother possessing her daughter -- the players can take a completely practical approach of, say, chaining her up in cold iron, say. In terms of the plot, this could either be appropriate or ironic. Either way is interesting, though.

         As for how to come up with such opponents, there are roughly two approaches:

  1. Start with monster, then come up with issue(s).
  2. Start with issue(s), come up with monster.
The advantage of the former is that the monster (or other opponent) is usually more familiar and symbolically rich. The disadvantage is that the issue might not work so well for the players. The advantage of the latter is synchronicity with characters and their subplots. The disadvantage is the creatures tends to be a generic ugly demon which may not be compelling.

         The first method works by taking known monsters. A great source for this is old (or occaisionally new) monster movies. If you look at movies like Wasp Woman, or The Blob, or others -- they always have a primal fear or tension which underlies them. Use this! Decide on a monster, consider it feels like or means to you, and then see how it can fits into the current action of the game. You don't have to intellectually analyze it into a named issue -- it can just feel appropriate creepy and fitting.

         The second method can be a little more blunt. Take a character's problem (whether from the Main Cast or important Supporting Cast), and blow it vastly out of proportion. Is a character's family taking over her life? Maybe they start multiplying and taking over. Are the Main Cast worried about the future? Maybe they should be treated to a dark possible future. Is someone geeky and having trouble fitting in? Maybe something threatens to banish him from this dimension altogether.

Simplify Planned Plots

         The ideal for pacing is to to get through a complete episode in each session. There are many reasons for this. Having closure gives a feeling of completeness and allows for coherent feedback between session. Having downtime for the characters allows believable changes in characters and allows for changeover of players. It also allows offline character development to happen between sessions -- for example, through email, random discussion, or blogs. The key is how to accomplish this.

         In terms of pacing, it is always easier to throw in complications than to skip prepared material. A good episode generally has a single key opponent, although this can be a close team like the Gentlemen or the Pack. At most, you can have a twist where there is a secret real bad guy behind the scenes -- or what seemed like one is actually two rivals. But this should be done sparingly, and can sometimes be done as a possible extension rather than as a necessary part of the episode.

         The book recommends you usually prepare two Turning Points -- such as finding a body, suddenly facing an opponent, a startling confession, or new information that reverses what the players thought. You can prepare several, but at most one should be required. The others should be optional -- i.e. the scenario can complete even if it doesn't happen. It is always easier to throw in an additional plot twist to extend the time of an episode than it is to remove a designed element.

         It is important to recognize that Buffy is not a mystery series. Indeed, in many episodes the threat is known to the audience from the start -- only the characters are surprised by it. Furthermore, when there is a mystery to the characters, it is almost always revealed by finding the answer in some ancient tome, not by logical forensic analysis. Within the role-playing game, players should never be stuck for what to do. If they are, then they should be able to immediately either move to a research roll or spend a Drama Point for a Plot Twist to learn what is going on. The research roll represents a quick scene of the characters going through books for clues. There is no need to prolong these. They should find an answer, explain it, and move on. If the roll fails or has few successes, then you should give them misinformation -- but that should lead them into a trap or leave them unprepared rather than stopping them from proceeding.

         While it smacks a bit of pre-planned plot, try to have a set-piece Climax prepared -- usually a confrontation with an ambiguous figure or battle with the villain. If the episode is in danger of going over the time you have, look for a way to cut directly to this. You should still acknowledge all the player actions done previously, but if you want to keep the pacing, then move it along.

         In short,

Maintain Plots and Subplots

         The Buffy Core Rulebook outlines the typical plots and subplots: dealing with an foreshadowed event ("Approaching Doom"), stopping a villain ("Curses! Foiled Again"), resolving an ambiguous figure ("Friend or Foe?"), and romance ("Love is a Battlefield"). Another important category is personal growth. However, it is not always clear how to drag these into an episode which generally has a plot arc of its own.

         My experience in role-playing is that bare subplots don't work. That is, if we only see a character's boyfriend in sideline scenes of going out on dates, the boyfriend never develops as an interesting character. You need to make the boyfriend a part of the main plot of that episode. A dull (but still sometimes effective) way to do this is to have the boyfriend be threatened by the villain.

         However, finding more interesting ways to do this is preferable. A simple suggestion -- draw a sheet with all the Main Cast and their related Supporting Cast members on it. When you need a character for the plot, try to pick someone from the chart. For example, if you want someone transformed into a slime monster, or someone be the long-lost cousin of Afghan royalty, or someone transformed into a -- pick someone known. This could be a Supporting Cast member or a Main Cast member.

         Don't shy away from drawing Main Cast members into the plot. If someone needs to get split into his geek and jock half-selves by a magic spell, then getting a player in on the plot is ideal. Given half a chance, most players love to cooperate and cause trouble.

Make Player Actions Important

         Once play has started, keep your prepared material in hand -- but also respond to player actions. The plot should ultimately flow out of player choices, for good or ill. If the Main Cast sneak into enemy headquarters, then they should overhear a vital conversation or conversely walk into an ambush. When you play out Main Cast actions, they should be important. Conversely, if they are not important, then don't spend time on them.

         It is tempting at times to move things along by Supporting Cast action, because that is reliably under your control. For example, if you feel a vital clue is needed, then you may have a Supporting Cast member walk up and tell it to the heroes. Resist this urge. It weakens the Main Cast by overshadowing them, and it weakens the Supporting Cast by reducing them to plot mouthpieces rather than personalities with goals of their own. Remember, that the Main Cast are the center of the story -- they should always outshine the Supporting Cast and background. If you have a vital piece of information, then it should be discovered by successful action of a Main Cast member.

         In a continuing series, a single episode's plot is not the most vital element. Continuing characters and background are also vital. At many point, you might have the choice to more pleasingly structure the pacing or outcome of an episode -- by taking liberties with Supporting Cast characters or established background elements. In general, it is better to accept a wrinkle to the pacing rather than damage a Supporting Cast relation.

         The player's actions should reap real and important rewards, or if they fail then have serious consequences. If they investigate and roll well, then tell them what is going on. If they fail, then they should be forced to another route, or given misinformation. If they sneak into a place successfully, then they should catch the opponent by surprise -- or if not be ambushed.

         Conversely, if something is not important, don't spend time on it. Every GM knows not to require rolls for everything -- i.e. if a Main Cast member is practicing weapon skills during the day, you shouldn't call for a Getting Medieval roll for every knife throw at the target. However, often there is an urge to assert control by slowing down the game -- particular if things are not going the way you planned. Resist this. Even if things aren't going how you thought, you should proceed ahead at the same pace. If you're stuck on what should happen, go to the bathrooom or call for a break. Don't slow down in-game. If nothing interesting is happening before the midnight, then move ahead to midnight.

         If things really seem to be moving too quickly to resolving the episode, then you can throw in a complication -- such as one of your optional Turning Points, like finding a dead body, an attack by henchmen, or suddenly revealed information. As Raymond Chandler supposedly once said, "When I get stuck, I have a man with a gun run into the room."

Once in a While, Push the Boundaries

         In the Buffy and Angel series, there are a few episodes which push the boundaries of the medium. The most extreme examples are 4.10 "Hush" and 6.07 "Once More, With Feeling". By setting the entire episode in silence for the audience, "Hush" was a commentary on the television genre and on the nature of communications as well as an intricate study of character. Similarly, the self-reflective musical episode probed the nature.

         In a role-playing game, the boundaries are different. Thus, you need to look differently at where to push things. Your elements are the players, the character sheets, the dice, the communication, and the rules. For example, you could have a game around struggling with fate -- where you lay out everything you have prepared to the players in advance. Instead of rolling a die, the players take from a visible sequence of random rolls that are printed out.

         I would advise only trying this rarely at first -- no more than once every five episodes, perhaps. There is plenty of room within the usual game boundaries for interesting play, but it's important to test the limits once in a while. Take time to see how well it worked in retrospect. If the players aren't awkward about it and enjoyed it, you could try more often. But the specialness of it depends in part on rarity. If you change the rules too often, then the boundaries simply become indistinct.


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John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Dec 30 00:44:50 2005