Adventure Seeds

The classic Traveller game I started on Roll20 during the height of the pandemic morphed by degrees into something different, a kind of counter-Traveller, a funhouse-mirror Traveller that takes as its point of departure the same basic premise–you’ve spent your life so far in service to some galactic guild or other, gotten yourself to the other side of those years of obligation, and now have to find something to do with your life–and the same basic character creation process and output–enlistment, promotion, and survival rolls before eventually “mustering out,” leading to characters with stats, skills, and some possessions far from home. But the procedures of play diverge from Traveller quite dramatically. The way I explain it to myself is that Traveller is canonical while this game is oracular–in the former, when you don’t know an answer, you look it up in the library data; in the latter, you consult the dice. We do it a lot in play: Player: “Could just piloting away from the hyperspace harpies without collapsing our space/time bubble avoid them?” GM: “Gosh. I don’t know if that’s even possible. What a good question! [click button to roll] ‘Yes, indeed!’ Roll Space Pilot.” Like a Magic 8-Ball. Sometimes I’ll decide–or someone will suggest–that we “need a table,” and then we make one. People throw out possibilities, I add them to the list, and when we get five or six, I tell someone to roll a d6. That’s how you get hyperspace harpies in the first place. Complication with the navigation roll? What could it be? We need a table! It’s… 1 a giant space dragon; 2 little space dragons; 3 hyperspace harpies; 4 space pirates; 5 our ship breaks down; 6 their ship breaks down.

This approach is the metastasized version of that old gag from Traveller patron encounters where the initial situation would be provided and then the referee would be told to roll a d6, with some results saying, “Circumstances are as they have been represented,” and others telling you, “Yeah, there’s a twist,” or even “The patron is worried about nothing. This job is basically free money.”

Since we only play two-hour sessions, I adopted a technique that my brother and I had been playing around with as a means of low-prep adventure design, essentially asking a series of pointed questions to which players respond as a way of developing an initial situation. I’ve seen John Wick talk about a “dirty dungeon” technique that’s related, but essentially it’s just what some people call “the Mountain Witch trick” (asking questions that put characters in the middle of things) turned into procedure.

One PC is the lead player for the session, and gets to choose the adventure seed from the stack of titles on the tabletop; typically, they’ll ask about two or three seeds based on the titles and then choose the one with the pitch that interests them the most. “What’s Meet Me in the Pit? What’s Scavengers in Space?” I read the pitch:

Meet Me In the Pit: “You have become embroiled in a high-stakes gladiatorial tournament on this planet.”

Scavengers In Space: “You enter a region where scavenging bands of interstellar nomads are known to ply the space lanes preying upon vulnerable ships for valuable cargo and parts.”

The trick is of course to write good questions. One adventure seed that worked out pretty well was Guess What You’ve Won, which had two PCs starting the adventure on a (randomly chosen) world called Terre:

Data Point 1a busy space port
Data Point 2a wealthy merchant
Data Point 3officious bureaucrats
Alien VistasA space elevator where each car is a luxurious manse…
Strange Customs…whose proprietor strives to outdo the others in terms of luxury and opulence.
Game Information for Terre

The questions I asked the players were:

  • 1. TO THE LEAD PLAYER Why do you feel deserving of, entitled to, or in need of this prize?
  • 2. What unusual obligation falls upon the claimant, and how does that obligation reflect the culture, traditions, or history of this planet? 
  • 3. What unique property makes the prize of particular interest to you? 
  • 4. Who else seeks to claim the prize, and what steps have they taken to discourage their rivals?
  • 5. Who is responsible for certifying the eligibility of claimants, and where do their sympathies lie?

Their responses produced a situation where cultural snobbery and legalistic wrangling eventually drove one PC to forgery and covert murder to gain title to the space elevator manse holding the mcguffin, the “Ixiosuasive Seal,” which was an ancient transdimensional artifact I’d introduced way back when we were still playing Traveller; the lead player thought it made sense to bring it back in this context, since he had ironically just brought an old character who’d dealt with the Seal out of retirement.

So maybe I just got lucky with that game. I’ve found I really have to be on the ball as I listen to the PCs to make the subsequent situation pop in an engaging way, but really so do the players as they give their answers. I am still trying to figure out the most useful rules of thumb for writing adventure seed questions. Here’s what I ‘ve got so far:

  • Enlist the lead PC through their ambition
  • Get other PCs to commit to supporting or challenging the lead PC
  • Get them to establish the biggest problem they’re facing
  • Get them to close off easy solutions
  • Allow them to introduce angles or opportunities for themselves

I feel like this is a pretty rich vein to tap, so I’m going to be paying attention to what sorts of question sets produce the best outcomes, and what exactly happens at the moment when the questions are all answered and it’s time to throw things back at the PCs so they can start taking action.

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8 responses to “Adventure Seeds”

  1. Hi Bill!

    Here are a couple of variables to pull apart. One of them is the halfway aspect of each bit/option of presented content (e.g., an item on that table). “Halfway” meaning it is more than a void with a label on it, and less than a fixed and essentially complete assignment. It isn’t nothing, but it’s non-functional until the actual human finishes it.

    I’ve found the best versions even include a certain instant intuitive effect, so that the person experiences the completion as obvious, even though the final content is highly individualized and would certainly have been different had anyone else done it. I don’t think there’s a good term for this effect; even “prompt,” for example, is too directive.

    I’ve found the worst versions not to be the overly-completed ones (I can always sharpie out some of it, after all), but the fake ones that look like content but make the person provide it all: “why does your guy hate the character played by the person on your left?” This sort of thing means you have to make up both the action done by that character and your character’s response of hatred – basically spinning two dials, talking to yourself. There’s no sense of response, so people typically fill it with pudding that isn’t honored in play or with disruptive nonsense that hampers play.

    The other variable I had in mind, reading the post, is the upper limit for the amount and extent of input. Whether it’s one person or everyone at the table, the situation of play as actually experienced (not prepared) is both bounded and dynamic. So certain things are known “to be,” certain things are specifically in some unstable state, and plenty of active entities are capable of responding to anything relevant which happens.

    There’s something about your questions and process, at least for this game and with these people, which hit within the “good range” for these things: not so tightly bounded that all they can do is follow your bread-crumbs, not so widely bounded that who cares what they do, not so stable that everyone would be happier if the player-characters weren’t there (probably including them), not so unstable that player-characters’ activity has no direct link to consequences.

    I think understanding this variable is more than merely aiming “somewhere in the middle,” but instead is tied to aspects of play and system concerning what can change, for little things as well as big ones.

    Thoughts on any of this?

    • Yes, absolutely! I found it really helpful to have you point to the different levels or variables involved here; the first having to do with the questions themselves, the second relating to the situation produced by those questions.
      In terms of those questions, my main takeaway from your remarks is that they should have a kind of interpretive openness or flexibility that nonetheless lets the player *recognize* where their character fits into the emerging situation. Jason Morningstar likes to use the word “apophenia” for this kind of thing: the mind finding patterns even in the absence of an underlying “real” structure. I guess you could call it “abduction” as well, asking what makes sense given the available information. Understanding what I want the players to do will help me facilitate the process as well as write good questions, which is the place I started from.
      The players are trying to connect the dots of the existing world description, the scenario pitch (maybe call it a “probe”), and their own character’s drive, vision, and ambition (which they have formally articulated during character creation–something like what pushes you forward, what’s the next step for you, and where do you want to wind up?) as well as their imagined connections to the other PCs.
      So far so good. But I think it’s super useful to have been reminded–and this is what I was struggling to articulate in my post–that the output of this process is the raw material of a situation that then I need to interpret at least in its initial shape of presentation such that it produces something that fun to play out.
      I think it makes sense to say that such a situation will be bounded and dynamic: sufficiently open that PCs see themselves as having choices while sufficiently closed that PC action has consequences; sufficiently unstable that PC have scope for action while sufficiently structured so that PCs face some clear adversity, opposition, resistance, or sacrifice. Something like that; they’re not quite orthogonal as dimensions.
      But I’m afraid that I’m falling into the trap of just aiming for a middle ground; your point about “what can change” big and small is the next thing I need to mull over.

    • Before addressing the variables which change, which is probably a long-term topic, I think I can identify one specific thing in the “halfway” concept which will kill the middle-ground problem dead in its tracks.

      That thing is you. Let’s get away entirely from the concept that a “situation of play” is something you give to a group of other people. It’s still lurking in your prose, e.g., “… something that’s fun to play out” [emphasis mine], and in the following paragraph, the multiple references solely to player-characters as responsive and decisive. I don’t think I’m over-reading those or nitpicking … I think they indicate some remnant of the chef-mentality, that you are serving something to them, no matter how much they got to choose from the menu.

      We’re talking about situation as play begins, which is fun actually right now. Whoever made up (or makes up) things to be in it is irrelevant, and whatever is and isn’t known by whomever is irrelevant. Or rather, those are procedural features, which will be handled however they are handled for this game. All that matters now is that everyone, you included, plays responsively within the purview of each person’s array of authorities and constraints, both of which wiggle a lot for their “shape” at any moment.

      So you’re playing just like everyone else does, regardless of whether you made up more than they did, or whether you know more than they do, or whether you exert the moments of transitions in space or time more than they do, or whether you are playing more things than they are, perhaps out-of-scene.

      OK – and assuming that the preceding paragraphs are review, and not kicking off U.S.S. Enterprise red-alert sirens – this means that any rolled item during preparation, and anything stated by anyone else, is “halfway” for you too. And that you need to bring it to “all the way,” meaning, ready to play at the start, just much as any of them do or has done. All the terms you mentioned, “abduction” and so on, that includes you as well. Again: for play at the start, not in terms of “how it will play out” or “what kind of story we are telling” or “adjust as we go for maximum fun [for them].”

      Does it make sense that the middle-ground issue now disappears? Because what you (the GM, the actual you) bring to each term and concept is wholly idiosyncratic, exactly as it is for anyone else. It’s not an artifice aimed at something they will like, or at anticipated moments of wow-excellence or hmm-that’s-interesting. Each person in play must cope (if that is the right word; I prefer ”celebrate”) with every other person’s input in terms of the content they have brought to complete/interpret/abduct the terms and concepts they have rolled or chosen, and that includes yours as well.

      The result is a matrix or stew constructed by the pack of you, socially and creatively, in which no abstract notions of too-much or too-little make any sense. Each and any “thing” in play is Goldilocks for that person, to the extent of their authoritative input about it in play, because they abducted it however they wanted or needed or intuited.

      Now, all of the above is a lot of pretty talk. As text on this page, it is no more than a rosy, overpaid, corporate seminar, perhaps by some outsourced “inspiration and excellence” company providing a well-scrubbed speaker, a colorful PowerPoint, and a scheduled breakout intersession. I.e., big fucking deal. Much more important is that, as you said in the post, it worked … so the task now, I think, is to backtrack a bit and see what you made or did with the “things” in play such that you liked them and enjoyed playing them.

  2. I take your point. It raises no red alerts for me to have you remind me that I am also playing, and that as a group we are playing together. I am skeptical of the transactional approach to GMing that says, “well, if you had fun, I had fun.”

    But isn’t there a skill element to this kind of play, where an utterance (a “move”) of a certain quality or kind creates a more satisfying range of possible replies? In that sense maybe I am using a language of service, but hopefully less like a chef and more like a tennis player.

    We’re playing later today, so I will be thinking about
    what ‘we made or did with the “things” in play such that [I] liked them and enjoyed playing them’ as well as remembering that fleshing out the adventure seed is indeed already play.

    • I completely agree with you that skill is critical! I have extensive views on what those skills are, how most people have them already in nascent form, and how they are either developed or crushed via hobby interactions.

      My only tiny quibble is with the term “satisfying” but there is no widespread or even useful body of vocabulary about any of these things; we’re all making do as best we can. I’m certain that we are overlapping in meaning, rather than you taking a service/chef/”story guide” position.

    • I just want to complete the circle here, saying that starting today’s game with the idea that when we start fleshing out the adventure seed we have already begun to play–we are already having fun!–underscores how enjoyable in fact it is. The notion of “celebrating” each person’s contribution was fruitful for me as well. It was a fun and engaging session; the players seemed to like it, and I know I did.

  3. Hi Bill! I’ve been enjoying reading these Traveller posts and hope to read more in future. I wanted to ask a question that zooms the discussion even more closely on the act of play. Is there a specific moment in play you can point to where an adventure seed went from being “A cool idea we’re casually tossing around” to “A reactive and motivated piece of the played fiction?” I’ve been working to identify these moments in my own play, where something gets picked up and reincorporated by the players and becomes a character in its own right.

    • Hi Noah … that’s a great question. I tried to pay attention to it during today’s game: two players, one playing one of the longest-running characters and the other playing one of the newest. The adventure seed, picked by the long-running PC (who ironically hadn’t been there in a while) was “The Dragon Mother.” The player had told me that he was interested in getting to the end of this character’s narrative arc this session, so that was an additional factor in play.

      Each adventure seed has five questions; with two players, we alternate so that the lead PC winds up answering three and other winds up answering two.


      An expedition is assembling on this world to prepare to travel to a nearby planet upon which the legendary Mother of All Space Dragons has reportedly descended.

      GIVE EACH PLAYER TWO CARDS FROM THE DECK OF WORLDS; each gets to choose one to play to define the nearby planet. [These are just playing cards that are tied to sci-fi motifs to create planets impressionistically; planet Kraka turned out to have vast oceans, anti-matter, and a prominent artistic figure; sounds like an artist’s colony where naturally occurring deep sea anti-matter vents cause the oceans to boil and create other dramatic weather events.]

      1. TO THE LEAD PLAYER Who is the leader of this expedition? [The lead PC’s reaction: “My first instinct is to say it’s me.”]
      a. If it isn’t you, what is your relationship with them like?
      b. If it is you, who or what is the biggest challenge to your authority? [something like all the rivalries among the space pirates and dragon hunters and others who’ve gotten word of the expedition].

      2. What evidence do you possess that makes you think the expedition is about to bite off more than it can chew? [The second PC’s answer was that they’d heard a prophecy from an omniscient being that the lead PC was going to drawn.]

      3. What danger, unanticipated by others, have you foreseen and taken steps to prepare for? [The lead PC wasn’t really happy with his first response, which was ” I bring along some gill weed,” (an enabling plot device from an earlier adventure) and my notes have something about the underwater anti-matter vents; I think this is where that got a little more pinned down.

      4. In what way does your motivation for accompanying the expedition differ from what you take to be that of the average member of the expedition? [The second PC: “I’m not going to worship the dragon; I want to gain its wisdom.”]

      5. In what sense are you responsible for what most people consider to be the expedition’s biggest advantage in dealing with the Dragon Mother? [Lead PC: “I’m pretty sure they can tell I’m glowing.” He was right, of course; his character had gained a bunch of super-science “Omniscience” powers as well as what amounted to comic-book super-serum; the character was basically a sci-fi superhero.]

      The next step was for me to ask the PCs about their “immediate objectives”; this is I think the turn to play. The lead PC wanted to confirm or reject the hypothesis that space dragons fed on energy as well as satisfy the unsettled feeling that was drawing her there. The second PC wanted to keep the lead PC from drowning.

      So then we started playing! We started on one world, did a little role-playing there, then zipped through hyperspace through the destination world. The artist colony there sent up a distress call, and there was some business with rival dragon hunters sticking their noses in and needing to be distracted.

      We learned that the Dragon Mother had laid a clutch of eggs at the bottom of a deep ocean trench and when they hatched the planet would be destroyed. The lead PC came up with a plan involving using her superpowers to teleport down to the bottom of the trench, collect the clutch, and teleport across interstellar distances to the “Dragon Gate” (a star gate discovered during a previous adventure). The PC pulled out all the stops and everything went perfectly, although the effort did cause her to undergo startling physical transformation (dragon wings, antenna horns) The eggs hatched and the new dragonlings started forging new “slipstreams” through hyperspace. Amazing!

      So the lead PC resolved her ambition at the end of the adventure, and is probably floating around in slip-space keeping an eye on those little dragons. She’s the Mother of Dragons!

      I think you can see how set-up winds up turning into play; there’s a key moment of transition that begins with, “What do want out of this situation, and what do you do now?” As an aside, it’s interesting to notice all the reincorporation that happens.

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