I’m not a fan of D&D because 3.5 turned my friends into gay satanists. I much prefer wholesome Warhammer RPG games where you roll up a ratcatcher, a watchman, the town drunk and a hedge wizard and die horribly against knights, orcs, daemons or cholera. But the narrative you make together is what it’s all about. No one cares about generic +1 swords. Players want connections. I think more narrative games hit that sweetspot for me.
The Warhammer 40K RPG ‘Dark Heresy’ is a particular favourite of mine. It does melee combat, tactical gunplay, insanity and mutation very well. But the investigative part of the rules is very underwritten. Nowhere are you told how to make an investigation work. This is supposed to be about agents of the Holy Inquisition, rooting out the witch, the heretic and the alien from the Imperium! I’ve run a few games in the past, and a linear A > B > C progression, or going freeform week to week was all I could manage. That worked well when you had experienced people familiar with the setting. But it fell apart when I tried it with inexperienced players unfamiliar with Warhammer 40k. My usual way of running games failed, and it wasn’t enjoyable to play or run. This game only last 3 sessions, partly due to clashing characters and unreliable players. But really because they weren’t involved in the story, and felt lost about what to do next.
6 months ago when I returned to Ireland, I was asked to run another Dark Heresy game for the same group. I thought about what they asked for in the feedback I did following each session: maps for each location and more clues on where to go next. Simply telling them where to go next wasn’t enjoyable for me, and I struggled to make maps for a dark science fiction world.
So I did research to ensure the players were not lost in the setting, and make them feel they had agency in the story, and an escalating threat to counter. We’ve run about 12 sessions now, for a total of 40-50 hours, and I was very pleased with what I put in place.
I edited some generic fantasy maps to have more science fiction elements. While I haven’t drawn many complex maps from scratch, I’ve bashed several together in Paint and they players have really enjoyed the tactical elements of advancing under fire, laying and responding to ambushes, and successfully breaking/making contact as a squad of 10. I even watched ROTC videos on squad and individual movement to challenge them. Great playlist below on this!
Situations, not plots.
After a linear intro session, I decided to have more node-based play. There were several options to begin with: A or B or C. They could be tackled in any order, but all the clues lead to the next layer of the investigation. If they blew their cover, or took too long, enemy factions would take appropriate steps to lock down the area while they hunted the players or even unleash a plague to cover their tracks as they escaped. So the scenario was more about the characters, and the desired ends of the antagonists. This naturally built the story and created tension.
The clues lead to one single location for the climax. They took clever steps to recon the disguised enemy base and degrade the enemy ability to monitor the situation by starting a riot in the settlement. They prevented reinforcements from breaking through by recruiting an initially hostile gang. While they failed to kill the big bad, and were too injured and unprepared to prevent her escape, they had enough evidence to gain clues for the next stage of the mission.
These four sessions were based off “Edge of Darkness”, which I highly recommend as an intro to Dark Heresy. https://images-cdn.fantasyflightgames.com/filer_public/0e/1c/0e1c1623-734b-48d6-85a8-7ed306132b14/edge-of-darkness-scenario.pdf
I try to give the players 3 clues in each situation to lead them to the correct conclusion. Essentially, the first clue should be automatic, and the subsequent clues should be interpreted to find suggest the next possible locations. This lets the players make their own choices and takes much of the pressure off the GM. Edge of Darkness hits several of the points made in this essay:http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/4147/roleplaying-games/dont-prep-plots
Maps again made these situations easier.