Scenario Building


So how do you write a scenario for a convention or one-shot?  Simply don’t know where to start?  Well, if its 4e there’s a ton of things you can buy or download, so just boiler plate one of them and change the baddies round.  If its a left field hippy game then you probably make it up with the players along the way.  But if you want some on advice on how to knock something together, with some interesting bits on the way then you might find the following useful.  Its a method I’ve been using for some time, maybe it’ll help someone else with a place to start at least…


Think of a story, Jackanory. Come up with something that’s happened and why it went wrong, or what’s going to be really bad unless the players do something about it. Either something rather big – a plot to kill a king, undead taking over the world, or something more personal – gangsters want their money from you, survive the zombie apocalypse to get to the helicopter.

Once you’ve got a little story in your head you’ve got the framework of a plot. Then it just needs fleshing out with all the little details that are going to make it cool and the meaty (see what I did there) encounters that are going to be troublesome, memorable and interesting. Add in some interesting details about the player characters, or some conflict and you’ve got the basis of a really good one-shot.

The secret I’ve found is to write stuff down. I have plenty of ideas swimming round, but they never seem to develop until I write it down. Then when I go back, I can add more to this, or see how things will link that I hadn’t noted before etc. It’s a bit like writing a book I suppose. Get some ideas on paper. Go back to it after a break and add some more or refine what you’ve got. Redraft, review and so forth until you’ve got something you’d be happy presenting to the public.

Lets take a small example and go through some steps to see how it might work. You might need more encounters or fleshing out than this in a real write up, but it should give you an idea of how the process works. Lets go for something accessible (always a good choice for a con) and suitably hackneyed so that I can use obvious examples.

Initial Idea

Zombies have taken over the city, the characters need to escape before they’re eaten alive (as opposed to afterwards, which would be considerably more difficult).

Plot Skeleton (another pun)
Group of characters holed up in a house and need to get to Merci Hospital with its helipad on the roof. The streets are rife with zombies and blocked with detritus of society collapsing. The tube and sewers offer a relatively direct route, but are a bit dark and scary. The hospital is where infected where first taken and so is overrun. The helicopter is circling the city and must be radioed in. In the delay zombies must be fought off.

Zoe a hip chick trying her best to survive in a man’s world even before the apocalypse
William is a Falklands war veteran who’s never fit in with normal society, but has come back into his own now the world is collapsing
Frank’s a biker on the margins of society normally, but in the current situation is near the top of the societal tree
Leonard is an everyday man who worked in Comet as a deputy manager and is now on the front line of a war of survival

Cogitate and Revise
So you’ve whacked down in ten minutes what you’re plot is about and who your protagonists are, where the major sources of conflict or excitement could be. All you really need to do then is beef it up. Add bits and bobs and come back to it as often as you like until you’ve got something you want. Here are some ideas of what you might add:

In a parody of London rush hour, the tube station is blocked with “commuters”, restless dead shuffle around a packed platform and are like sardines in the tube carriage itself. How do the characters get through?* Maybe they run along the top of the carriage, what if one of them falls into the masses? Maybe they create a diversion and have to rush against the clock to get through while the horde is distracted? What if there are some zombies that didn’t get diverted by the cunning ploy?

Near the hospital the party hear shouts from a survivor. He’s strapped up in the back of an ambulance and desperate for help. Zombies feverishly hunt about for the source of the noise. Do the group try to help the poor girl or do they set off the ambulance’s “blues and twos” to create a good distraction while they slip into the hospital? Without forcing your players down a path you can make something out of the situation by getting one or more of them to do the work for you. Instead of insisting that they do something with this encounter, you could have in a character’s background that (William) they never leave a man behind, or (Zoe) you don’t want to be the only woman in the world, or (Frank) you don’t want to survive if you aren’t going to get any of the good things in life (hoochie).

You’ve got an example above of how providing the Incentive on the character sheet and the Opportunity in the plot will often lead to characters to do certain things, or at least engage with plot elements. You should similarly make sure that you have the right skills and abilities for your characters. If someone’s got Climbing up the yin yang, then scaling the hospital lift shaft should be an option. Conversely, if no-one has the relevant ability, then don’t make climbing the only way to get past a particular obstacle.

Intra Party
So you’ve got a plot line, a bunch of cool encounters or situations and an idea about how the group might interact with them what else can you do to keep things interesting along the way? Introduce some intraparty conflict or secrets, mutually exclusive goals or suchlike…

1) Zoe is in the only woman in the group. Frank is used to a hedonistic lifestyle and wants to do her six ways from Sunday, who cares if he dies tomorrow – will that lead to him letting others die or get left behind if it increases his chances of getting his way with her? Leonard is a virgin and doesn’t want to die that way. Zoe is his only chance to do something about that. She wants to comfort William and looks to him as a father figure, but also wants to give herself over or something to help him. William is gay and disinterested in the whole affair, in fact he views Zoe as a hindrance that are lowering his chances of survival while she’s in the group. He’d happily leave her behind.

2) William is Zoe’s dad, she’s patched him up many times, only this time (just before the game starts) it wasn’t the rusty nail that scratched his back, but an infected tooth. William is going to turn into a zombie over the course of the session, but he doesn’t know it. Zoe must prevent him from finding out, or anyone else discovering the ghastly truth. (Write handouts for the player describing symptom, or telling them to start ignoring wound penalties etc.)

3) Frank and Leonard are estranged brothers. Frank wants redemption and seeks to defend his brother with his life after abandoning him with their abusive father when he joined the gangs. Leonard suffered long and hard when he was suddenly the only son and his Dad took out all his hate on just one child instead of the two. Len wants to see Frank suffer for what he did and can’t wait to leave him behind to the zombies if the chance presents itself.

There you go. In fact, if you pick and choose from that lot I think you’ve got a good couple of hours scenario there right away. If I walked away and came back in a day or two I reckon I could come up with the same again and then have a really rocking con game. In fact, I might just do that and present it at Furnace. Hope that’s of some use, but here’s the summary whether it is or not:

  • Write your idea down. Three or four sentences should do it.
  • Think of something interesting or different about each character.
  • Come up with some cool encounters that will challenge players on the way (don’t necessarily have a solution in mind)
  • Think of ways to encourage players to pick up and interact with the plot or scenes within it
  • Add some ideas in for players in their character’s motivation and how these might conflict positively with each other or the plot
  • Rinse and repeat. Walk away, have your tea or a night out. Come back and read the text fresh and add more ideas, or revise your initial thoughts
  • Don’t be frightened of having too much. You can always drop things along the way to pick up pace

*Important note: you don’t necessarily have to have a solution in place here. Let the players run with it on the day and see what they come up with. Make it tense, but good ideas should be rewarded, don’t get hung up on having only one “right” solution.


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