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Genre Tweaking (Part 2)

What the hell’s a Triad?

Tweaking your genre is all about growing your campaign from the start and keeping it healthy as it matures. Part of ensuring this is careful cultivation of the campaign’s ornamental characteristics, or trappings. Simply put, when you load up on too many unconnected trappings—no matter how cool each one is on its own—you risk campaign inconsistencies, which can lead to player confusion, their inability to suspend disbelief, and difficulty creating new and cohesive adventures.

Last week, Part 1 of Genre Tweaking advised that you start with a genre and choose a setting as the foundation for your setting. The next step is to make a list of ideas—any ideas—you want to incorporate. The diligent (and hopeful) among you will recall that each idea on that list was assigned a number from 1 to 3:

  • 1: Ideas and concepts aligned with neither the genre nor the setting
  • 2: Ideas and concepts aligned to the genre or setting
  • 3: Ideas and concepts aligned to the genre and setting

Used properly, these values will help you “apportion” your creativity so that your campaign has internal consistency. More importantly, you’ll see how to use these values as your campaign grows, so that no, one “rogue” idea upsets the cohesion you’ve created.

Sample Idea List

Zeppelin Bomber

Zeppelin uber alles!

For convenience, here’s the list of campaign ideas from last week’s article:

  • Platoons of Undead (2)
  • Demonic commanders in old castles (2)
  • German vs. Allied infantry fighting in trenches (3)
  • Allied commandos (3)
  • Alchemical potions (1)
  • Zardoz cave and requisite ~Sean Connery~ guardians (1)
  • A sect of demonic cultists (2)
  • Tricked-out zeppelins that serve as aircraft carriers, gun platforms, transports, and high-altitude exploration vehicles (2)
  • An ancient fighting order dedicated to warding demons (2)
  • Magic weapons designed to defeat undead and demons (1)
  • Dungeon crawls(1)
  • Teleportation gates (1)

The more closely tied an idea is to the genre and setting, the higher the value. Conversely, the more disconnected an idea is, the lower the value. This is where we start using “math.”

Campaign Triads

One of something—a single instance or example—is, in absence of related factors, an anomaly. Two of something, or a relationship between a pair of things, is enough for it to be taken seriously. But arguably, three is the minimum number required to establish credibility.

Campaign cohesion is established through the relationships shared by its components: Villain A is looking for Item B, which is hidden in Location C. Alternatively, Hero D is wielding Weapon E, which was stolen from Villain A. String enough of these together, and you end up with a web of connected ideas—tug on one element, and all sorts of people, places, and things start to feel the pull. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what you put in your campaign: if you weave into the existing web, chance are that it’ll probably work.

The Campaign Triad is a construct based on this loose (but intuitive?) premise. In short, a Triad is a threesome of ideas, a little triangle of plot potential, just waiting to be nurtured.

You need 3 ideas from your list to create each Triad. Each idea in the Triad must be related to the other two, but the nature of that relationship is entirely up to you—you can use whatever connection is most appealing to your various senses of logic, consistently, creativity, fun, or the bizarre. When you’re creating Triads, there are only two rules:

  1. The sum of the ideas in each Triad must be at least 5 (and probably less than 8), and
  2. An idea cannot appear in more Triads than its value (i.e., 1, 2, or 3)

Add a tick mark next to each idea to track how often you use it. Note also that these constraints may prevent you from including all your ideas in the first pass. That’s fine—you’ll have a chance to use them later.

Arranged this way, each Triad ensures that disconnected ideas (i.e., those with values of 1) are supported by connected ideas (i.e., those with values of 2 or 3). The Triad also limits the occurrence of disconnected ideas, but promotes the recurrence of concepts appropriate to the genre and setting. Finally, this construct makes sure that no idea—regardless of how fanciful or commonplace—is left unconnected to the campaign as a whole. In this way, the Triads result in a campaign structure that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Example Time

WWI British machine gunners

Let's use silver bullets!

Using the idea list above, here are my Triads:

  • German and allied infantry are locked in a trench warfare stalemate (3), directed by demonic commanders (2) who control and construct teleportation gates across the countryside (1) [Triad total = 6]
  • Sects of demon-worshiping cultists (2) is raising platoons of undead (2) through a secret alchemical process (1) [Triad total = 5]
  • Demonic commanders (2) use their powers to create advanced and multi-purpose zeppelins (2) in an effort to break the trench stalemate (3) [Triad total = 7]
  • An ancient order of demon-hunters (2) is composed of Zardoz dudes (1) who are sworn enemies of the demonic cultists (2) [Triad total = 5]
  • An elite unit of Allied commandos (3) pilots a captured zeppelin (2) and is known to wield magic weapons against undead (1) [Triad total = 6]
  • German trenches (3) link to larger underground dungeons (1), where undead platoons are raised and held in reserve (2) [Triad total = 6]

Note the connections between each point of the triangle. The fact that I’m making this stuff up illustrates my earlier point: it’s the relationship between ideas, not the details of those relationships, that establishes cohesion.

You’ll also note that I have a few left-over ideas. Or, more accurately, a couple of ideas I didn’t use as much as I could: Allied commandos (used only 2 out of a possible 3 times above) and the ancient order of demon-hunters (used once out of 2 possible times). These “omissions” will become useful later, when I expand the campaign.

Campaign Expansion

As time passes, you’ll come up with more ideas. In fact, you’ll come up with more ideas constantly—even (or especially) if your campaign stagnates. This is usually where campaigns fail—it’s not for lack of ideas, but lack of cohesion among those ideas.

Kaiserbot M1915

Kaiserbot M1915

However, the Triad system can help with this. Whenever you come up with a new concept, add it to your master list and assign it a value of 1, 2, or 3. Create new Triads either by arranging 3 new ideas or by incorporating new material with unused ideas already on your list. It’s okay to tweak or expand an existing idea—if you do, just add it to your list as a new idea.

For example, over the course of a few sessions, I come up with the following:

  • Demons are vulnerable to silver (2)
  • Zardoz guardians know the secrets of abjuration magic (1)
  • Real vampires in the Balkan states (2)
  • Kaiserbots (2)
  • Allied units deep into enemy territory, either cut-off or conducting black ops (3)
  • Some teleportation gates lead to Dis, the demonic realm (1)
  • Gas that turns victims into zombies (1)
  • Special Occult R&D branch of Allied army (2)

As a result, I can make a few more Triads:

  • An ancient order of demon-hunters (2) wants to capture a teleportation gate leading to Dis (1) to conduct black ops (3) [Triad total = 6]
  • Zardoz guardians provide protective magic (1) and silver weapons (2) to Allied commandos (3)  [Triad total = 6]
  • Kaiserbots (2) armed with zombie-gas grenades (2) patrol the countryside to eradicate Allied units (3) [Triad total = 7]
  • Vampires (2) own and fortify silver mines (2) to prevent their capture by Allied units (3) [Triad total = 7]
  • Special Occult branch of Allied army (2) reprograms a Kaiserbot (2) for anti-Vampire (2) warfare [Triad total = 6]

Note also that this can work in reverse, like when you have only 2 elements of a potential Triad. The third element might be suggested by the first 2, so feel free to add it to your list (just make sure you assign it a value like the other ideas). For what it’s worth, this is how I completed the last Triad above (I was down to only 2 unused ideas).

Final Words

The Triad approach helps you coordinate your campaign ideas into a cohesive whole, not only by forcing you to create relationships between disparate elements, but by throttling each element’s usage to prevent over-saturation. It’s by no means foolproof, and it’s entirely possible to create a shambles out of it, but it’s hard to do. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the system, and if you’re truly game, please share your own idea lists and Triads in our discussion forum (use your genre and setting as the topic title).

  1. November 24th, 2010 at 13:44 | #1

    This sounds a lot like a numerological approach to basically weaving elements together. It seems somewhat over-complicated for what is basically:

    “Try and make sure each of your ideas are connected to at least two of your other ideas.”

    This is basically mathematical network building. There’s a bit in there about weighting, so your strongest ideas connect to your strongest ideas, to determine their pull.

    But here’s another option: How about allowing the weight of ideas to change based on what the players enjoy and interact with. The more an idea is used, the stronger the weight of those elements, and thus more ideas they can support.

    In this way what might seem to start out as anomalies can quickly grow to become key parts of the campaign and setting, while what you thought of as the foundation may actually be a little off the mark.

    Ultimately, the core definition of genre is basically a set of trappings, tropes, themes, and ideas that make up certain generic configurations for standardised for easy consumption, but each genre itself is specifically defined by the specific combination or “network” of such ideas. Step beyond an established genre, and either the genre changes to include your campaign setting, or you end up establishing a new genre that is defined by your campaign setting.

    Industrial-Pulp Fantasy Horror anyone?

  2. November 24th, 2010 at 14:56 | #2

    @Da’ Vane : I’d quantify your summary a bit and say, “Try and make sure each of your ideas are connected to at least two of your other ideas, in sufficient weight to ensure that each idea group can stand on its own.”

    I like the idea of weight based on popularity–you’re right, because disparate stuff can become central if given enough attention. The numerology is just to get things started, in a somewhat ordered and quantifiable fashion. The goal is to establish a sufficiently strong foundation, and your suggestion is a very organic (and logical) way to build upon it. If one wanted to stick with the system as outlined, I suppose it would be easy enough to change an idea’s value over time…

    So let’s see your Industrial-Pulp Fantasy Horror ideas and Triads…

  3. November 24th, 2010 at 17:11 | #3

    I would love to share, if I wasn’t already working on D-Jumpers Volume #2 right now, but I might be willing to share some ideas from there as teasers. Of course, if you keep coming out with all the kickass ideas for free before I get around to writing them up, I’m going to be out of a job.

    Suffice it to say that my own system for D-Jumpers isn’t too far off this, and essentially each encounter in D-Jumpers is basically a campaign story arc based on one or more associated triads. They usually focus on one or two, but leave enough network weights dangling for GMs to add more triads to, including us if we get enough feedback to warrant developing specific ideas further.

    The only difference is that you’ve chosen a genre to start with to develop your ideas, and I tend to go straight to the ideas. But then, D-Jumpers is multi-genre, so by definition all genres are included and have the same weight, so each encounter is to provide a focus or theme to a certain set of ideas. But as we’ve established on your previous article http://www.welshpiper.com/whats-your-genre/ we normally have this difference of approach and meet somewhere in the middle.

  4. November 24th, 2010 at 17:18 | #4

    @Da’ Vane : Fair enough. I think a lot of GMs use your approach, or something similar to it. All kidding aside, my advocacy here is more about establishing order out of chaos, though I’ll concede that others deal with chaos much better than I.

    One point I should have clarified earlier:

    This approach is not meant to replace that described in Chimera Basic. Quite the contrary: Think of it as one of many possible ways to expand Steps #1-#2 of the Campaign Creation guidelines (CB/24).

    As a side note, any scenario that includes a Kaiserbot will be loftily regarded (and, not oddly, I’m sorta looking at MacKenzie to deliver on this one)…

  5. deimos3428
    November 24th, 2010 at 22:49 | #5

    I’d say this is far closer to combinatorics than numerology.

    In fact, if it were using weighted connections between nodes instead of varying the numbers of inter-node connections, it’d be quite like an OSPF algorithm. (I think that’s what Da’Vane is describing.)

    It also has some obvious parallels in neurology and the absorption of new concepts into a neural net.

    Will it work? Yeah, yeah it will. Unfortunately, as it is itself the a new idea (a “1″ if you will), it’s going to take some time to process.

    That said, can’t we skip ahead to Step 3? We can, I think, at least in one particular scenario: if we’re simultaneously designing the setting.

    If I’m running a pre-existing setting, be it World of Greyhawk or an established one of my own design, I need steps 1 and 2 to stay faithful to that setting. If I’m making up something completely new anyway, may as well jump ahead to Step 3, and wing the values.

  6. November 25th, 2010 at 07:14 | #6

    So you are a fan of WWI/WWII Pulp Action then, Erin?

  7. Greg MacKenzie
    November 25th, 2010 at 09:17 | #7

    I had similar ideas along those lines in which I created a pulp scenario which had an old fashioned clunky robot. However to play along with the Kaiserbots!

    Parallel earth (1)
    In the final days of WWII GIs square off against Dr. Morgue and his sinister creations zombies (2) When the GIs enter Skull Forest where Castle Morgue is they activate long dormant “Kaiserbots” which somewhat unreliably attempt to defend the Fatherland (2).

    Have you seen the old serials, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe? Makes me think of these old Buck Rogers serial cartoon strips too http://rolandanderson.se/comics/buckrogers/buckrogers.php I find them a bit dated, they do have some content which is objectionable these days, but there are many interesting ideas in them.

    Greg

  8. deimos3428
    November 26th, 2010 at 00:55 | #8

    I was flipping through “Roleplaying Mastery” tonight, and came upon an interesting line from Gary’s chapter on designing your own RPG (NB: this was in 1987.)

    “Before a single rule is written or even thought about, the designer must make three important decisions concerning his game to-be: its genre, its period, and its scope.” In short, the campaign you’re describing.

    For those able, it is an interesting read and quite similar to Erin’s musings in some ways.

  9. Greg MacKenzie
    November 26th, 2010 at 12:59 | #9

    I think this notion of triads could use a supporting graphic, svg anyone?

    Greg's Kaiserbot Triad

  10. November 26th, 2010 at 15:32 | #10

    @Da’ Vane : Sure am. I’m a big history buff, especially WWI and WWII history, and the “what-if” potential is HUGE.

    @deimos3428 : Interesting. I’ve not read it, but I did read a lot of Gygax in DRAGON, and I can’t tell you how many times I read (and re-read) the 1st Edition AD&D books he authored. I probably picked up his admonishment through osmosis.

    @Greg MacKenzie : Please stop blowing my mind. The concept is great and I love the graphic! It looks like a playing piece, and I’m now thinking of how to make this into a party game…

  11. November 26th, 2010 at 20:35 | #11

    @Erin D. Smale I like time-travel stuff for the same reason.

    Got to love the pulp write-up Greg. You want a job as a writer for DVOID Systems?

    I wonder if I could get “I fought Kaiserbots defending the Fatherland and all I got was this lousy T-shirt of Humour +1″ on something… maybe a sweet hat!

  12. November 26th, 2010 at 23:37 | #12

    @Da’ Vane : “I fought Kaiserbots and all I got was this beschissene T-Shirt”

  13. Greg MacKenzie
    November 29th, 2010 at 10:56 | #13

    @Erin D. Smale Sounds like a novel, Tomy Aitkins V.S. the Kaiserbots. Chapter One – Unexpectedly finding the Kaiserbot Factory Tommy and Bill fix bayonets and charge the door. The rusting remenant’s of two robots flank the doors. “Halt!” say’s one, “bzzrt! Verboten!” It’s red eye lights flash intermittently then it dies. The other waves its arms, but it’s legs are frozen, rusted in place, one arm flies off and hits the other robot in the head. “Nicht Shiessen!” it cries before falling to bits. “None too reliable these Kaiserbots!” says Bill. “Yes,” remarks Tommy, “but what’s inside the factory may still be working!” Whirring and other clanking noises tell them the factory is still in operation…

    @Da’ Vane It’s an idea at that but I can’t take on any more projects at the moment. I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire for Chimera I’ve promised Erin I’d finish. :)

  14. Greg MacKenzie
    November 29th, 2010 at 11:03 | #14

    Erin D. Smale :@Greg MacKenzie : Please stop blowing my mind. The concept is great and I love the graphic! It looks like a playing piece, and I’m now thinking of how to make this into a party game…

    Party game eh? How about RPG Triad Twister?

    I meant to show the connection of “2″ to another triad. I think that was what you had in mind, not unlike a mind mapping exercise?

  15. deimos3428
    November 29th, 2010 at 14:33 | #15

    I’m reminded of Tri-ominoes, an 80s boardgame variant on Dominoes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triominoes
    http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/4040/tri-ominos

  16. November 29th, 2010 at 15:23 | #16

    Pretty much, although it’s actually quite hard to do with some mind mapping and organizational software these days. It is literally plot weaving – weaving hooks into the fabric of the campaign.

    It is no secret that triangles are the strongest structure in natural networks, as the two weaker nodes can always combine to stop a stronger node from overpowering them. Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, even when they are also your enemy…

  17. November 29th, 2010 at 18:26 | #17

    @deimos3428 : I love Triominoes. Seems there’s a latent effect on my subconscious… Next up, Chimera stats for Mille Bornes.

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