All good things start with stories. It’s not just a buzzphrase, by the way. If you are building a story, whether you are role-playing, storytelling for an audience or writing a book, the story comes first and everything else tends to follow naturally.
So let us start with, once again, a story.
Our story is set in a fantasy archipelago inhabited by dozens of sentient species, and loosely inspired from Ancient Greece, with larger ships. One by one, the islands have fallen to the powerful and evil Spartan Legion, whose overlord now rules the archipelago nearly uncontested.
So far, these are a few sentences that most GMs could improv before coffee. We’ll see more about preparing/improvising campaigns and settings later. For the moment, we’re only interested in major NPCs, so we’ll let the story flow without much detail and concentrate only in the introduction of these NPCs.
Our first player arrives. The GM tells him about the archipelago, the Spartan Legion, the war.
- GM: “So, what kind of character would you like to play?”
- Player 1: “Mmmh… Well, obviously, a future hero. I don’t know much about the setting yet. so let’s start with someone who’s not involved in the war at all. Maybe some kind of farmer’s kid, eager for adventure. I’ll call him Desmondos.”
- Desmondos doesn’t know much about the war
- Desmondos grew up on a farm
- Desmondos is eager for adventure
Entering the plot
- GM: “Alright. This story is going to be about you, and the other PCs, taking an active part in the war against the Spartan Legion. Desmondos, can you tell me how you enter this plot?”
- Desmondos: “Could I receive a message accidentally? Some magical message that’s meant for an enemy of the Spartan Legion, who hides on the same island as me, but for some reason, I got the message, and since I’m eager for adventure, I decide to bring it to the intended recipient?”
- GM: “That sound good. Player 3 told me that she wants to play some kind of princess. Let’s say it’s from her. It will create the first relationship between your characters. Once Player 3 arrives, we’ll see later how she gets drawn into that plot. I don’t know how she wants to call her character, but let’s say Erikaia. We’ll change the names retroactively if she doesn’t like it.”
- Desmondos: “Yeah, I received a message from Princess Erikaia.”
- GM: “Ok, now tell me more about this message.”
- Desmondos: “Well, it seems to be encrypted somehow. But it’s clearly meant for a general, an enemy of the Spartan Legion, who hides on this island.”
- GM: “Sounds good. I’ll need a name for this general.”
- Desmondos: “General Gregorios, of the Free Company.”
- The Free Company fights the Spartan Legion
- General Gregorios, of the Free Company, hides on this island
After a few adventures, Desmondos manages to locate General Gregorios.
- GM: “So, tell me more about this General Gregorios.”
- Desmondos: “He’s in his fifties and he’s some kind of Paladin. He’s very strong, too.”
- GM: “Ok. General Gregorios tells you a bit more about the Spartan Legion – basically what we had established during campaign creation. Also, it’s lead by a general called… Drakon the Undefeated.”
- Desmondos: “Oh, and can Gregorios take me as an apprentice? I want to become a Paladin like him!”
- GM: “Gregorios smiles at your requests and answers ‘Well, you have certainly proven worthy. We can give it a try.””
The GM ponders it a second, and decides that since Gregorios is clearly much stronger than Desmondos – and all threats should be scaled for Desmondos and his friends rather than for Gregorios – Gregorios doesn’t need a character sheet. If necessary, Gregorios may be used as a bonus to make things possible or improve the results of Desmondos’ actions. Not creating the character sheet immediately means that the GM is free to improvise the exact strength and powers of Gregorios as the story evolves, and to tailor it to wherever the story leads.
- General Gregorios is in his fifties.
- General Gregorios is some kind of Paladin.
- General Gregorios is much stronger than the heroes.
- General Gregorios is now the mentor of Desmondos.
- There’s a General Drakon the Undefeated of the Spartan Legion.
Once decyphered, the message tells of a terrible threat, some kind of spell that will forever erase freewill from the mind of all inhabitants of the archipelago. General Gregorios is the last hope of the Free Company and the archipelago. Gregorios and Desmondos decide that they need a ship to reach the hidden camp of the Free Company, to warn them of the terrible danger.
Facts established: - The Spartan Legion is about to unleash a terrible spell
A new challenger has arrived
Oh, Player 2 has just arrived!
- Player 2: “Sorry about that, I hope you guys started without me!”
- GM: “We certainly did. Desmondos, do you wish to tell Player 2 about what has happened so far?”
- Desmondos: […]
- GM: “… and so, we arrive to the moment where the heroes are looking for a way to leave the island and reach the hidden camp of the Free Company. Does this give you ideas for a character?”
- Player 2: “Yeah. Could I be some kind of mercenary… no, say a smuggler? I have my own ship, it’s small, it’s fast, it can get around the islands quickly and unseen.”
- GM: “That would certainly work. So, your plot introduction is that you’re going to be hired to bring the other heroes to their destination, right?”
- Player 2: “Right. And they don’t have money with them, so I’m going to stick with them until they pay me, because I have debts. Also, it’s a good way for me to get out of the way, because someone might be after me to break my knees or something.”
- GM: “Sounds good. Do you have a name?”
- Player 2: “Mmmmh… Frankos the Sailor.”
- Frankos the Sailor has a small and fast ship.
- Frankos the Sailor has debts.
- Frankos the Sailor has a contract with Gregorios and Desmondos.
A third challenger has arrived
After more adventures, all three characters find themselves hidden in the hold of Drakon the Undefeated’s own ship. Right on time, Player 3 arrives.
- Player 3: “Sorry guys, I told you I’d arrive a bit late. Did you keep me Princess Erikaka, as I asked?”
- GM: “Yes, we did. Player 1, Player 2, can you tell her about what has happened so far?”
- Player 3, now Erikaia: “Ok, then it’s simple. I’m prisoner in that ship!”
- GM: “Tell me more, why are you held prisoner?”
- Erikaia: “Well, I’m one of the leaders of the Anti-Spartan Legion…”
- Desmondos: “We decided to call it the Free Company.”
- Erikaia: “Ok, I’m one of the leaders of the Free Company. Also, I got word from a terrible threat…”
- Desmondos: “Oh, we got that one, too. There’s a freewill-wiping spell, and the Spartan Legion is going to launch it soon.”
- Erikaia: “Er… right. So, the bad guy…”
- Desmondos: “… General Drakon the Undefeated!”
- Erikaia: “You’re annoying. No, his boss, The Demagogue, ordered me arrested.”
- GM: “Sure. You managed to somehow send a message to General Gregorios before being arrested, with details about that spell.”
- Erikaia is prisoner in Drakon’s ship
- Erikaia is one of the leaders of the Free Company
- Drakon the Undefeated’s boss is called The Demagogue
Erikaia, Desmondos and Frankos manage to remain hidden but General Gregorios isn’t so lucky. He’s somehow separated from the PCs, who can only witness from afar as Drakon the Undefeated shows up.
- GM: “It’s Drakon. You recognize him easily from the description given by Erikaia. He’s strong, he wears a mask, and he seems to be the same kind of Paladin as General Gregorios.”
- Drakon the Undefeated wears a mask
- Drakon the Undefeated is also some kind of Paladin, like General Gregorios
After a short battle, General Gregorios is mercilessly executed by Drakon the Undefeated, while the heroes manage to escape the ship.
- Drakon the Undefeated is über-badass
Towards the finale
Frankos the Sailor manages to bring Princess Erikaia and Desmondos to the Free Company. Ensues a discussion on battle tactics, led by Princess Erikaia and the leader of the Free Company.
- GM: “One second, Erikaia. Tell me something about the leader of the Free Company.”
- Erikaia: “She’s called Myra Medea. Also, she’s dressed in white.”
- Myra Medea is the leader of the Free Company;
- Myra Medea dresses in white.
After debate, the conclusion is that the only way to save the archipelago is to send several groups of the Free Company – including the PCs – to board Drakon’s ship, carrying counterspells, hoping that one will be able to apply one of these counterspells to the pentagram that will be used to carry out the spell. Of course, the attack must be launched immediately.
The Grand Finale
Big battle ensues. Drakon the Undefeated illustrates his strength by killing dozens of unnamed NPCs (since Drakon the Undefeated has been established to be so very powerful, the GM and players conspire to tell how he always has something more important to do than chasing the PCs). Eventually, once most friendly NPCs are dead, Drakon the Undefeated decides to attack the PCs, but an explosion throws him overboard.
The counterspell is launched, the spell is averted, everybody rejoices, and Drakon swears revenge.
As for you, reader, you may have realized a few things:
- the major NPCs of this story (Drakon, Gregorios, the Demagogue, Myra Medea) didn’t need much in terms of character creation;
- with a few tricks, the GM managed to entirely avoid character sheets for these characters;
- most of the creation for the characters was actually done by the players, rather than the GM;
- you already know this story.
Oh, yes, did we forgot to mention it? We should thank our actors, who came specially from Star Wars Episode IV to take the exact same roles in this antique variants:
- Luke Skywalker (as Desmondos);
- Princess Leia (as Princess Erikaia);
- Obi-Wan Kenobi (as General Gregorios);
- Darth Vader (as Drakon the Undefeated);
- Han Solo (as Frankos the Sailor);
- Emperor Palpatine (as the Demagogue);
- Senator Mon Mothma (as Myra Medea);
The Spartan Legion Strikes Back
Another Grand Finale
The story is not over, of course. Eventually, Drakon the Undefeated will manage to trick Princess Erikaia and Frankos the Sailor into a trap and lure Desmondos the, er, Hoplite of Light into a hopeless fight.
As our example is a Role-Playing Game, this scene may now go two ways. Either it can become a by-the-book round-by-round combat, or the GM and Players may come up with something a bit more inventive. In fact, since Drakon is so much stronger than Desmondos, a by-the-book combat scene would probably be rather boring, with Desmondos’ player rolling attack after attack, only for them to be deflected by a Drakon who could certainly kill Desmondos in a single half-hearted blow.
So, let’s be a little more inventive.
- GM: “I have bad news for you, Desmondos. Drakon is really, really, really much stronger than you. You don’t stand a chance.”
- Desmondos: “Er… right. Should I create a new character?”
- GM: “Not quite yet. We’re going to tell together how you fail to beat Desmondos, but he won’t kill you. Perhaps you’ll be captured, as Erikaia and Frankos, or perhaps you’ll manage to escape, I don’t know yet, but let’s face it, you have no way of actually beating Drakon.”
- Desmondos: “Oh, right. Escaping or being captured, sure, that sounds good. Do I get to pick now?”
- GM: “Well, you can, if you – as a player – have a strong preference, but otherwise, we’ll see as the scene progresses.”
- Desmondos: “Sounds good. Should I roll for attacks?”
- GM: “Doesn’t sound really useful, but you can describe your attacks, and how Drakon evades or deflects them. But in fact, this scene is more a conversation with the swordfighting as a bit of background noise, rather than a traditional fight scene.”
- Desmondos: “I run at him, yelling « YOU WILL NEVER GET ME, DRAKON! » while I attempt to stab him with my spear, but he deflects it effortlessly.”
- GM as Drakon: “Oh, but I will, young Hoplite. My master, the Demagogue, has foreseen it.”
As usual, it would be surprising if this exact dialog took place during a Storytelling performance or a Writing session, but the reasoning applies just as well to either case.
- Desmondos: “As I drop my spear and try to go under his shield with my dagger, « I know that you killed my father ! », but he manages be able to catch my wrist and force me to drop the dagger.”
- GM as Drakon: “Who told you that?”
- Desmondos: “Could Gregorios have told me that?”
- GM, taking notes: “Sure.”
- Desmondos: “Gregorios told me, before you murdered him, like the coward you are!”
- GM as Drakon, with a smirk: “That old fool lied to you, Desmondos. I AM YOUR FATHER.”
Facts established so far:
- Gregorios claims that Drakon killed Desmondos’ father
- Drakon claims that he’s Desmondos’ father
- Drakon claims that the Demagogue has somehow foreseen the capture of Desmondos
So, what now?
- GM: “It’s time to end the scene, by the way. Are you going to be captured, injured, are you going to escape?”
- Desmondos: “I think he actually broke my wrist. Let me draw a card to find out how I manage to escape.”
- Desmondos: “We were fighting close to this gaping hole, right? Being ready, always, can I have had time to look at the bottom of the hole and realize it communicates with the sea?”
- GM: “Yep.”
- Desmondos: “Then I take one step backwards and drop into the hole. The fall will certainly hurt me, but I hope that my friends can rescue me in their ship.”
- GM: “Very well. When he realizes what you’re trying to do, Drakon the Undefeated attemps to grab you, but he’s just one tiny instant too late, and by then, you are already falling down. Falling down is the last thing you remember. You’ll lose consciousness when hitting the water.”
Subverting round-based combat
What we have done here is subverting the round-based combat (hero acts, bad guys act, hero acts, bad guys act, …) dear to many role-playing games, in particular video games, but also to many action movies and rephrasing this encounter as a conversation between Desmondos and Drakon. For one thing, the combat would have made no sense, as Drakon is so much more powerful than Desmondos. In a role-playing game, a combat scene would have been both frustrating and limiting. Regardless of storytelling format, making it a conversation made it interesting: the characters exchanged both threats and informations, moving the plot forwards. While we do not know, at this stage, whether Drakon is telling the truth, he undoubtedly had a good reason for his claims. Investigating the relationship between Drakon and Desmondos sounds like a very nice hook for the next part of the story.
And, once again, letting the player (or, in other formats, the audience) decide the rhythm of the fight and the mean of escape of Desmondos both avoid the frustration of this one-sided fight and setup the means of regaining hope in the rest of the story.
Oh, and in a role-playing format, it also means that we still don’t need a detailed character sheet for Drakon the Undefeated.
We’ll stop the story of Archipelago Wars here, on this apparent defeat of the heroes, and we leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine just exactly how much needs to be prepped ahead of time about the characters of this story for Episode VI, Return of the Hoplite of Light. Hint: we can get away with the answer “nothing”.
Things we did
In this chapter, we have rewritten Star Wars to examine a few things:
- introducing major characters / Player’s Characters into the plot;
- introducing antagonists and supporting characters / Non-Player Characters into the plot;
- starting with a bare bones idea of a character and progressively coming up with the details;
- turning NPC encounters into obstacles, rather than fights;
- avoiding character sheets for NPCs.
That is not to say that if you have time to create detailed backstories and/or character sheets ahead of time, and if you enjoy this task, you are of course welcome to do so. But hey, this is a book about improv – so if you need to improv, or if you just don’t enjoy spending time prepping characters, know that you can very easily get away without doing it.
While we concentrated on NPCs, the techniques introduced here work just as well for other parts of the story, including places, factions and the plot itself. We’ll see more in further chapters.