Scenario Stress-Test: The Cross-Genre Gauntlet

Without playtest and blindtest, any work of RPG design is doomed to be its weakest self. As a designer, I know that song by heart ... but as a campaign Game Master, I don't have the resources to test each week's adventure before I run it. To address the tension between my standards as a designer and my desires as a GM, I've devised a handful of stress-tests: modes of interrogation for untested adventures. Bolts of lightning, in the brainstorm.

Stress-testing doesn't replace real testing, but it can help me spot weaknesses (so I can carve them out) and strengths (so I can play them up). Each is a mental exercise, a quick solitaire game of sorts, taking just a minute or two. One of my oldest and most reliable is the Cross-Genre Gauntlet.

To send a module down the Gauntlet, I challenge myself to adapt it to three other genres, rapidly. Sometimes I scribble out the adaptations on paper or on my phone. Sometimes I do it entirely in my head while I wash the dishes or cook a meal.

There’s just one rule in the Gauntlet: the superpower swap rule. If the adventure’s home genre includes superpowers (in the broadest sense, including spell-casting, psionics, and Sufficiently Advanced Technology), then two of the conversion genres must be devoid of such things. If the adventure's home genre is already devoid of such things, two of the conversion genres must contain irrational super-stuff.

For one example, if I'm designing an adventure for some Space Opera gaming, that's a genre well-stocked with superthings, from super-sensors and gravitics to the occasional green-blooded pointy-eared psychic. So to successfully run the Gauntlet, I must adapt my adventure to at least two genres where that isn't the case: Cold-War Espionage, for example, or the world of The Three Musketeers.

For another: if I'm designing a mystery or caper or gang-war drama for Fly From Evil, that's a game of fictionalized history devoid of supernatural elements. To send such an adventure down the Gauntlet, I must adapt it to at least two genres where the laws of physics are something that happens to other people: Elfy-Dwarfy Fantasy, perhaps, or the genre-colliding oddity of Encounter Critical's world of Vanth.

The process of conversion amounts to identifying the bones of the design (things like goals, obstacles, motives, stakes) and re-dressing them with the props and costumes of the target genres. The value of the process is roughly threefold: recognizing the adventure's parts, sticking the adventure more clearly in my memory, and challenging its robustness.

Recognizing the Parts

First, recognizing which parts are 'the bones of the design' and which are just 'props and costumes' is enormously valuable for my focus as a GM. It highlights those things as tools for when I need to goose a lagging pace, or help a conflicted Player Character find their own focus. It's hardcore wheat-from-chaffing. You set your fantasy adventure on a magical airship? Great, that’s colorful, but is it just color? What happens if you move it to a Midwestern American town? PCs now have too much access to the broader world? Okay, the flying ship wasn’t just about color, it was about isolation. Move it to a remote archaeological dig, or a hard-to-reach Appalachian community, perhaps? Did that do the trick? Role understood. And so on.

Sticking in the Mind

Second, it's a powerful mnemonic. I have no patience for mid-game page-flipping or other pace-killers, and spending a few seconds re-dressing the villain's henchman for Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, and France in the 1620s doesn't just give me perspective on his role and nature, it decorates him with colorful symbols I'll remember easily, because in my mind he's now wearing the lace-and-leather gloves of the French court, a green-and-yellow HYDRA uniform, and the stupid little hat of an Imperial officer. That's a version the PCs will never see, not directly, but it's a potent tool for my own mind's eye.

The Stress-Testiest Part

Finally, thanks in part to the superpower-swap, I'm kicking the tires on the module's robustness. Superpowers are super-fun and super-atmospheric, but they're also super-shortcuts which can weaken a design when we sleep at the wheel.

For example: I love mysteries. I love them in part because, as a player, I'm a role-player and problem-solver, and mysteries zero in on both. As a GM, I also love them because I'm a lazy GMing so-and-so, and mysteries are the simplest adventures for me to design, prep, and run (they're chock full of pacing handles for one thing, and easy to stock with eccentric NPCs that form the adventure's connective tissue).

In a world dripping with superswag, though ... mysteries graduate from "easy" to "almost too easy," thanks to a dozen super-rugs to sweep things under and a row of super-butts to pull answers from. If your adventure depends on the supernatural to make sense, it’s often too weak to stand. If your adventure crumples when the PCs start casting spells or pointing tricorders at it, it’s too weak to walk. A robust adventure can run, leap and soar in both rational and fanciful environments. Adventures that can’t do so aren’t necessarily bad (some precious flowers wither outside their greenhouse) but they could be better, and one of the benefits of stress-testing is seeing how. If I design a mystery for Uresia or Call of Cthulhu or Star Trek ... and then mentally adapt it to a straight-historical or hard-SF setting, those lazy dependencies leap from the design and punch me in the eye. In the nice way! On the flip-side of the GM screen, if I adapt a historical mystery to a fantasy world, I begin to spot thin zones where PC magic might render it bland or un-challenging to the PCs: faults in the structure, load-bearing walls that are not up to code.

The Gauntlet might seem an oddball practice at first. After all, if you designed a Space Opera adventure, you’re only going to run it as a Space Opera adventure in your Space Opera campaign with Space Opera characters who have Space Opera expectations ... what difference does it make if it would falter as Cold-War Espionage? Maybe none, and yet ... when you take your adventure for a jog through other genres, you will learn things about it, and you'll GM it with clearer understanding, sharper recollection, and the confidence that comes from a well-kicked tire. If you're lucky, the players will kick even harder, but you'll be a little more prepared.

I love writing about GMing and chatting about GMing, and I'll write more about the stress-tests in the future. If you'd like to discuss this post or float a GMing thingy you'd like my perspective on, drop me a line.

It'll Make Sense to A Few. Not Me, Mind You.