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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, General Gaming » A Study in Pre-Game Collaboration

A Study in Pre-Game Collaboration

So the first session of my Google+ GURPS Fantasy game just ended. We played for about two hours, had a couple of crashing and glitches, but all-in-all it was a fun session.

My preparation for this game started long ago with some world building. Most of it was big picture stuff:

What’s the religion like?

How does magic fit in?

What are the large-scale conflicts in the world?

I also wrote up a few short adventure hooks. When I wrote them, I didn’t even have players, so they were very general, and mostly they were ways I could introduce prominent people and places within the world to the party.

Well, I got players, four of them, and I got characters — and everything changed.

That’s not quite accurate. Everything didn’t change, but my perspective on the world changed dramatically.

I got four characters who were anything but stereotypical fantasy characters. Here’s a run down of what I got:

  • a fairly powerful mage who is trying to leave his magical past behind him and peruse his career as a private tutor to the children of the nobility.
  • a halfling, who is a failed haberdasher, and now works as a circus performer.
  • a hedge wizard, with ties to organized crime, who is trying to put that life behind him.
  • and a wealthy, handsome merchant who just inherited his dead father’s shipping business, who has designs on joining the nobility (as many wealthier merchants have been able to do).

Certainly not a “let’s go find bad guys and kill them” sort of party is it?

The other interesting thing what that several of the characters had some sort of tie to the thieves’ guild. I hadn’t even thought about a thieves guild at all when designing the world. Sure, I assumed there would be crime, and it would have some sort of organization, but beyond that, I hadn’t given it any thought.

Once I had the character sheets in hand, I began concentrating on aspects of the world I hadn’t considered at all. I decided, since so many of the PCs had ties to the thieves’ guild, I would concentrate on that. Instead of having one stereotypical thieves’ guild, I would have several families who ran various sections of the city of Arballa, where the game started, sort of like a fantasy version of the Sopranos.

Additionally, several characters spent points on advantages (contacts and allies) that are only applicable within this one city, so I decided to vastly expand the scope of the city of Arballa. It went from a walled city with perhaps a thousand inhabitants to this:

A vast walled city with perhaps 100,000 residents (maybe more), several neighborhoods (each controlled by a different crime family), and a political situation that is creating economic pressure on every neighborhood, making the war over turf and resources a real, serious concern, not only for the crime families, but the honest citizenry, the city guard and the nobles.

Not only did it cause me to rethink and expand upon several aspects of the world building I had already done, but it changed the scope and subject matter of the adventures and plot hooks I would write and run.

“So there’s a band of goblins that have moved into the nearby forest, and they’re marauding the local farmers? That’s terrible! Someone who knows how to use a sword should do something about that!”

Instead, the initial game started with a grizzly murder of a young boy who is somehow tied to a rival crime family. He was in another family’s turf, and he was killed in a very torturous way, and the party found evidence that the crime family with which they are affiliated may have been responsible. They do not know who the boy was specifically, but everyone in-the-know is worried that this is going to touch off a bloody street war. The local crime family wants to bring somebody in to placate the rival family. The rival family (once they realize what has happened) will want blood. And the constabulary seems disinterested and willing to let the families sort this matter out on their own.

The party believes (maybe hopes?) that the evidence is planted to frame their affiliated crime family, and they’ve taken it upon themselves to solve the mystery to avoid a blood crime war and perhaps stop an innocent man from being scapegoated for expedience sake.

This wasn’t the type of adventure I was  intending on running when I started designing the world, but it’s certainly the sort of adventure this party would be engaged in.

And it be perfectly honest, this is a far more interesting story we’re telling that what I had in mind when I was world building.



Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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5 Responses to "A Study in Pre-Game Collaboration"

  1. tentagilNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks to you and the rest of the Happy Jacks crew I’ve been trying more and more to allow my players to build the world for me. I come up with a very basic framework and then let them populate it with people places and things. When they mention things to each other during RP I write it down. I actively ask them for ideas between sessions, and often times even out of character banter ends up creating parts of the game world. Its resulted in us having a world they seem much more vested in and taken alot of the deep prep work off me.

  2. Curtis JacksonNo Gravatar says:

    I think the above “collaborative story experience” is why we still bother playing these wacky games. Its interesting to see this background resurgence in “good ol’ days gaming” with Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics and other such revisits of Old School Rules. My group enjoys maybe one or two sessions with that flavor to it but in the end they end up interviewing the trussed up kobold band and trying to find out what their “inner motivations” truly are. Don’t even get me started with trying to ever bring out a gelatinous cube…

    My PC’s characters take nods from the incredible direction that writing has taken on shows like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Game of Thrones, etc…No plotline or story background is too convoluted…Fifty shades of grey…shite! More like a couple thousand. “Wheels within wheels and plans within plans” are what really drive our games these days. Just when you think you’ve got it all settled and roll up the plot wagon the bastards steal the wheels!

    Thanks for the post.


    Curt (d20 Pints)

  3. GeorgeNo Gravatar says:

    Stu, I notice that you have written/talked on the podcast a lot about GURPS fantasy campaigns, which is cool. I also recall on a recent podcast you mentioned that a HERO system Bestiary is very necessary. So what do you do for your GURPS bestiary needs? For me, that is the thing about the current GURPS run that is annoying, as I’d love to have a single-book bestiary (or a Fantasy one, then a Sci-Fi one) to use as a resource. Some of the stuff on the inter webs is cool, but some of it is….special. So, do you monster it up from scratch? (I am talking about beasts–obviously this campaign you are currently writing about is more NPC-filled than creature-filled so far). Anyhow, great aricle!

    1. StuNo Gravatar says:

      I have a copy of the 3rd edition Bestiary, which I use for creatures. I also have one of the Dungeon Fantasy Bestiaries in PDF.

      I RARELY use monsters in my GURPS Fantasy games, though, as the party is normally up against the two-legged variety.

  4. […] love it when GMs and players collaborate to create something both will enjoy. The Douchey DM is running a new GURPS Fantasy game over Google+ and apparently though he had some ideas while doing world building, the characters offered a very […]

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