We who grew up tall and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
- Queen, Hammer to Fall
Writing adventures for the Fallout: PnP RPG essentially combines the elements of good storytelling with the necessities and freedoms of writing science fiction in the post-apocalyptic environment. Thankfully, there are a lot of post-apocalyptic novels, stories, and films to which we can look to for examples of what to do (and what not to do), and the elements of telling a good story aren't much different when writing for an RPG than they are for writing a novel or short fiction; the only point of departure is that RPG stories tend to be a little more flexible on minor points, while still sweeping the players along as characters and participants in a larger plot.
I've divided this essay into three parts: a basic overview of writing adventures, some tips on writing multi-adventure campaigns (or overlying plots for a series of otherwise unconnected adventures), and some thoughts on writing post-apocalyptic adventures in general. I am by no means an expert on these subjects; I simply know what I like as a player, and what I've observed works well for players when I've been playing or GMing. I will readily admit that I haven't had much experience writing adventures per se, but I have developed several plotlines for extended campaigns in Ravenloft and have studied the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre extensively in books and movies (just ask my future wife, who wishes I would give up that "silly obsession.") Like all the other advice in this book, you can take or leave what I have to say; if I didn't think I could make some decent suggestions, I wouldn't be wasting my time (and yours).
Writing individual adventures for an RPG isn't nearly as hard as it sounds. Like short fiction, there is usually very little room for character development and conflicts are usually very simple - people against nature, people against machines, people against people, or people against themselves (inner struggles). The main things to keep in mind when penning a single adventure are setting, NPCs, and length. There are some other basics to keep in mind, too, and I'll touch on those first.
Usually, there is a section at the beginning of the adventure outlining the plot for the GM and gives some essential background information for NPCs, settings, enemies, and other information the GM might need to know. Unless otherwise marked as a "player handout," the adventure is usually for the GM's eyes only; not only would the players reading about the background of the bandit group spoil their characters' exploration of that for themselves in the game, it might give away some important information they would otherwise have to solve on their own. In addition, statistics for enemies are much less fun if they are simply laid out for the players to browse through; when fighting the giant, sadistic robot, it is much more of a challenge to the players if they don't know it has 100 hit points. This is one of the main lessons of adventure writing and GMing - you have to tell the players what their characters are experiencing, not the numbers game that goes on behind the scenes, otherwise you ruin the mood of the game. Descriptions of anything game related should never, under any circumstances, include statistics. "The door appears to be weak" sounds much better than "the door has 10 hit points."
Length is easy: an adventure shouldn't take much longer than 4 hours to complete, or if it is longer and more involved, it should be divided up into approximate four-hour segments. Four hours is not only the average time span of a tabletop RPG session, it is the average attention span of your players. Believe me, no matter how many times the party fights the big old mutants in the abandoned mine, they are going to feel cheated if they can't make any progress in a matter of four or six hours. Most adventures take two sessions to complete, and have two or three main segments that last about four hours each. Longer single adventures will have lots of "mini-adventures" within them to keep things interesting; essentially, these adventures are small campaigns and the writer should probably keep in mind some of the suggestions for writing extended campaigns.
Aside from length, which is a matter of mechanics, the single-most important aspect of an adventure is setting. You need to provide the GM with a lot of background information about where the adventure is taking place. If the setting has already been detailed elsewhere, you should refer the GM to that source. Otherwise, like a short-story author, it is up to you to fill in the details. What are the locals like? Friendly? Wary? Is there a police force? Does it respond well to armed adventurers walking around? What about the enemies? What are their motivations? What are their weaknesses?
Setting can even be extended to a smaller level, too: in the case of buildings or rooms, a one-paragraph description will suffice, but like a writer, you can compact a lot of meaning into that paragraph. A good place to start is the senses: describe not only how the room looks, but smells and sounds as well. "You are in a dimly-lit bar" is OK, but "The smell of stale cigarettes and cheap beer mixing with the clack of billiards balls assail you as you step into the dimly lit bar" packs a lot of punch for one sentence, and will instantly put your players in a place they recognize and will understand immediately. It may seem tedious to do that for every room, and of course the GM can embellish some of those details, so it may be best to only describe those things in the first few room descriptions and only hit important details in later ones, like the fact that there is a safe hidden behind a loose plank in the wall.
NPCs are the second-most important aspect of an adventure. Like characters in a story, the main NPCs need detailed backgrounds and motives. You don't have to explain all of these in the adventure itself (although explaining enough for story purposes is always helpful, and too much never hurt!), but you should definitely keep these things in mind as you are writing dialogue and potential actions that these NPCs would take. For instance, would a ruthless bandit leader have a soft spot for brown-haired women in trouble? If so, you need to tell the GM that. Even better, make that part of his background story - maybe he fell in love with a brown-haired woman but she was killed by ruthless police who were little more than thugs, inspiring him to a life of crime that has since spiraled out of control. The possibilities are literally as endless as the human experience, but a touch of realism is always nice, too.
A great trick to fleshing out NPCs, especially villains, is to give them a quirk and a decent background story that might explain that quirk. You should never have a two-dimensional character. Stephen King said that all characters in novels are nothing more than bags of bones, never more than shadows and skeletons of real-life people, and this is true to a point, but how flat your NPCs will be is up to you. Everyone has motivations for doing what they do, from the most noble do-gooders to the most vile of warlords. Touching on these will not only give the GM more to work with when playing the part of these characters in the adventure, it will make the NPCs far more believable for the players - and a villain with a motive is always more interesting than one who is simply a mindless killing machine.
Now that you know what to focus on, the idea is to craft a story that will be fun and diverse enough that the players will remember it. Role-playing games usually focus on a mission with a "dungeon crawl," a journey through a dungeon (a generic term usually referring to a structure like a castle, a cave, or a tower) where there are a lot of monsters to fight. Then, the players find a bigger, badder monster and hack/shoot it until it dies, and then get whatever that monster was keeping - an item, the mayor's kidnapped daughter, or a reward from the grateful citizenry of the local town. These adventures are fine, and will make a good one-episode diversion, especially if the party needs experience points, items, or money, but they begin to get formulaic and tiresome, like romance novels or Louis L’amour westerns. There are only so many Giant Rat Kings the party will eradicate before they begin to get bored and want a different kind of challenge.
That being said, adventure plots are never restricted to hacking the biggest and baddest monster 'till it dies. Perhaps the party is sent as a peace convoy to another town, and they are ambushed and left alone deep in enemy territory - the plot becomes less of a hack-n-slash than a simple matter of survival. Perhaps they have to sneak into a high-security building to recover a lost item, each party member using their talents like the members of a Mission: Impossible team. Maybe the adventure is contingent upon whether or not the party actually does make peace with the other town - smoothing over past troubles, or offering something as a sign of good faith. Maybe the adventure is something as simple as getting an important message to the survivalist General who is attempting to unite a series of towns - the party has discovered an assassination plot, for instance, and must get the message through before they are assassinated themselves.
Writing campaigns, which are a series of adventures that are all related to each other, or background stories that unite a series of otherwise unrelated adventures, is a little more difficult. The process is much more like writing a novel: you still have to deal with plots and conflict, but now there are a good deal of sub-plots, character development, and (sometimes) changing settings to contend with. There are several approaches to running a series of adventures together into one coherent campaign, and I'll discuss the ones I've had the most luck with.
If you are writing a background story, it might want to hinge around why the party has come together in the first place. Are they looking for someone or something? Maybe they are all members of a village that was destroyed by one particular army that they alone could never take on, but together, with enough experience and equipment, might stand a chance against? When I've written background stories, I try to make them a part of the campaign as well.
My favorite method for writing a campaign of linked stories, or writing a story to link unrelated stories, is to involve the characters in an epic plot that starts as something small and innocent. I would have to point to "The X-Files" as a brilliant example of achieving this tactic; about half of the episodes involve the "plot" of the show - the conspiracy Mulder and Scully are fighting. It started small, with Mulder's obsession about aliens, but grew into something much bigger as they realized what they were up against. Other shows use this tactic as well: Star Trek: DS9 and Voyager are two notable mainstream sci-fi examples. The two Fallout games used the same strategy, actually: the Enclave was only hinted at in Fallout 2 until the player had a better idea of what he or she was actually fighting, and the final showdown didn't take place until there was much preparation and sub-plots.
Like "The X-Files" though, using every adventure as a step in the campaign story can get tedious. If time allows, an adventure totally unrelated to the "main plot" might be slipped in; these not only offer fun diversions, but they allow the players to catch their breath before the next part of the main plot.
Another great strategy is to offer a "flavor of the week" approach. Usually, these adventures focus on a character each week - one week it might be the repair person, the next it might be the sharpshooter. These campaigns needn't focus on the character's skills per se, but might offer that character opportunities for relationships, heroism, and so forth. The best example of this campaign style is probably the television show "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Many of the episodes that didn't focus on the ship usually focused on one or two characters, taking time to develop them more with other characters taking supporting roles. If your group's dynamic is good, these kinds of adventures work really well, especially if you have the luxury of time to spend making a campaign and story for each character.
The Post-Nuclear EnvironmentEdit
The first complete short story I can remember writing was one involving a man who survives a nuclear holocaust in a cave and stays up listening to the radio, waiting to hear another human voice. It was pretty simplistic, but it managed to capture the truly human essence of the post-holocaust genre - people, put in a truly desperate situation, and how they would act in that situation. The idea has always fascinated me, and it's one I've stuck with ever since (by no means exclusively, but I find it creeping into other things I write sometimes). That being said, there are some suggestions I can make to the budding post-nuclear adventure (story) writer, and some things the writer might want to avoid.
Writing adventures within the post-holocaust genre isn't terrible difficult, but there are some things the writer might want to keep in mind. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction offers the information that the post-holocaust/post-disaster genre is one of the most popular in sci-fi, meaning that there is a lot out there to get inspiration from, but that most of it borders on the realms of survivalist fantasy, not meaningful science fiction. Having read a great deal of post-apocalyptic stories and books, I can confirm this; a lot of them are simple tales that glorify the idea of stockpiling guns, digging fallout shelters, and shooting anything that tries to rob you of your God-given American rights after the bombs hit. Unfortunately, these stories are usually coupled with racist propaganda or worse, and offer very little in terms of decent science fiction plots except for paramilitary types who are the only ones who can sense the impending race wars/disintegration of 'gub-mint'/etc. Some post-apocalyptic writers have gone so far as to parody this movement in the genre, most notably David Brin's "The Postman" and Michael Resig's "The New Madrid Run." In both books, the villains are the survivalist-types who have established racist feudal-kingdoms built on brute strength and the fact that they have the guns. The unforgettable Holnists in "The Postman" are violent rapists, butchers, and thieves who epitomize the worst of the ultra-conservative survivalist mentality and the ethical egoism inherent in authors like Ayn Rand. Both situations are not unlike the Enclave in Fallout 2, with its utter disregard for human life and feelings of superiority simply because it has the bigger guns.
The good news in both books, however, is that the good guys manage to mobilize and fight off the threat. They become survivalists, too, but manage to do so without the propaganda found in so many other post-nuke rags available to read. Science fiction is such a varied genre, and nearly any science-fiction idea can fit within the post-nuclear environment: artificial intelligence, cloning, human rights, etc. The great thing about all science fiction stories is that they take contemporary problems and place them in a totally different setting, usually offering solutions and insights as to how to deal with those issues. That kind of deep reflective power is lost on much of the post-nuclear genre, where it is reduced to silly propaganda or worse. A great example is the mid-1980s Reagan-era flick "Red Dawn," where a bunch of NRA-member highschoolers fight off a Russian invasion because THEY KEPT THEIR GUNS. Any chance for meaning is lost in the glorification of a political ideal based partially on misunderstanding and bigotry in the first place.
That being said, there is plenty left to tackle in the post-holocaust genre without getting sucked into the simplistic realm of pure survivalism. As I mentioned, anything in the realm of science-fiction is possible in the post-holocaust environment, and using contemporary issues is always a great way to guarantee player interest and perhaps even stimulate some thought on the subject. Since Fallout is set anywhere from 50-200 years after the devastation, some old standards of the genre are no longer possible - scenarios like those in Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon" or movies like "The Day After," "Testament," and "Threads" won't make good adventures, since they take place immediately after the attack. Others like the end of all human life in Larry Nevin's "Lucifer's Hammer" and Nevil Shute's classic "On the Beach" are out, too, because they don't really make good campaign material.
Some ideas to base adventures on include the search for "Eden" or a better place ("Waterworld"), pockets of civilization gone wrong ("A Boy and His Dog," "Six-String Samurai"), fighting bigotry and hatred ("The Postman," "The New Madrid Run," Fallout 2) tribalization of society ("Earth Abides"), a religious conflict ("The Stand"), genetic engineering and mutation (Fallout, "Waterworld"), and a host of others. I've merely laid out some suggestions, and pointed to an area I think ought to be avoided, because it can be an easy one to slip into - and one I personally find distasteful because it cheapens the possibilities of the genre as a whole. I'll say it one more time: the post-holocaust genre is very much all-inclusive, because it allows the writer a great deal of imaginative freedom. It also allows the writer, the reader, and the players to speculate about what we - they - anyone - would do in an extreme situation, perhaps the most extreme of situations - the end of civilization as we know it. And, like T.S. Eliot says, the end of that exploration will be to return to our lives, where we started, and to know them more fully for the first time.