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
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.”
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:
- The sum of the ideas in each Triad must be at least 5 (and probably less than 8), and
- 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.
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.
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.
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).
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).