Thursday, May 5, 2011

How I Built My Stealth Module

There was mention of this in the comments earlier this week, so I thought it would be worthwhile to go through the thought process of how the stealth module I wrote for Exiles came to be.

At the very beginning, the plan for the module was the same. It was intended to be a stealth module that would test the PCs with puzzles. IG, this group of notorious bandits were building something big. The PCs were supposed to sneak into the area and identify the five major parts so that they could be taken to an expert to interpret.

The original plan was to have each part represented by a puzzle. When complete, a technical drawing of the object would appear and the PCs would have to copy it. I had planned on having these puzzles require various skills, so that I would be sure that more than one person would be doing the puzzles.

Originally, I had planned the following:

- Plan wrapped in saranwrap, needs a skill to attempt puzzle (Finesse)
- Operation type puzzle, needs a skill to attempt puzzle (Surgeon)
- Box filled with stuff and the drawing is on the bottom, needs a skill to attempt (Strength)
- Riddle, no skill necessary.
- Rock jump area, no skill necessary.

I had thought to implement rules for messing things up. Operation you'd take damage on a buzz. You'd have to start over on the plan wrapped in Saranwrap (as it was supposed to be someone scaling a pole). And so on.

But then, I had a moment of clarity. I needed to scale back the puzzles so that they were still time consuming, but I had to remove myself from the picture. That meant reducing the effects that PCs would have to call, making the puzzles simple enough to be explained with a short descriptive sheet, and to make cheesing it difficult enough that no one would care to do it. I also wanted to make it so that anyone could do anything.

So, I went about modifying the plans.

- The Plan wrapped in saranwrap remained the same (except I forgot saranwrap, so it changed to twine).
- Operation changed to a wire puzzle, where the players had to get a keyring from one side to the other.
- Box filled with stuff now was filled with paper, and one of the papers was the schematic.
- Riddle was gone. Changed it to mazes. When I forgot to bring mazes, we changed it to a puzzle where you follow a line from the top to the bottom, and the bottom had a number that was part of a combination (which actually ended up being pretty bitchin').
- Rock jump area remained the same.

All of these puzzles can be done by the PCs on their own without marshaling. This allowed me to NPC the module, kept everyone IG constantly, and more than anything, allowed the PCs to split up. Had these been marshaled effects, I would have had to stay with the group.

As an aside, I totally understand how guards get surprised in Metal Gear Solid now. One PC was able to contort himself into a corner of one of the small cabins at Lewis Arboretum (for those who know it). He did a good enough job that we opened the doors and had no idea he was there. And he's not a particularly small guy.

Granted, when I first came up with it, I expeceted them to work as a group. Then, as it evolved, I started embracing the full stealth level of it, where even I would have no idea where the PCs were at any given time.

During the module, the 4 NPCs roleplayed guards. We stayed 90% IG (with the other 10% checking on progress of puzzles). We acted like guards, each incredibly bored to be there, taking breaks, and RPing with the PCs that we found. One guy acted drunk and would have gotten away with it (if he didn't set off a schrapnel bomb), one PC was disguised as one of us having a late night trist with one of the other characters, and yet another one acted as if he were the pimp for the previous situation (it's fine, it's a racy game).

The PCs dominated the module, with the exception of getting the bonus for one of the PCs, and that one guy got captured. I'm fairly sure that had I done it the way I originally planned it, it would have been boring for the PCs not doing the puzzle while they waited on someone so they could move to the next puzzle.

What could have been better?
- I could have set up an escape point for the PCs to go to. Some people left the mod and didn't know where to go.
- I could have specified a holding area (but I didn't and it was close to an OOG area, causing some confusion).
- I could have had a better way to handle things when the alarms did go off, but since all 4 NPCs were IG, we couldn't exactly bring more NPCs.

So, my suggestion to the plot people out there - Write your modules to remove the need for marshaling, and you'll get a real effect of not knowing what was going on, and you'll also keep people in-character for a much longer time.


  1. I think that the mistake with the rock jump mod (12 numbers instead of 20) and puzzling out how to make there be 20 numbers was actually more fun then just jumping because it made it have to be solved by 2 people. And we the PC's made a number of mistakes as well, like not having a friendly person signal or ya know a plan. We ended up doing puzzles twice because no one knew what had already been done. The box was truly evil on the stealth mod though. :-) I enjoyed the whole thing immensely!

  2. There also could have been more scorpions bursting out of people's chests. ~hehe~

  3. @Nise
    I forgot about the conveyer accident. There were supposed to be 20 stepping stones, but due to room constraints only 12 were set down. Of course, the description still said 20, so the PCs were confused. I'm very glad that they just did what they thought they could do to get through with it rather than stopping the game to ask a question. I'm so very proud, I might start crying.


  4. So I think I downplayed it accidentally in the podcast so for the record, your shout out about this module was awesome and thank you.

    Anywhoo, it sounds fantastic. Aside from not needing a marsahl, I am *really* drawn to the idea that the PCs could split up if they want or whatever. There is something really visceral as a PC about the ability to tactically plan how you're going to do something and have the freedom to do it in a bunch of different ways.

    Awhile back I PCing a game where a very small group of us had to sneak into a building and *quietly* neutralize everyone in it without the person in the basement knowing. And then sneak up on the person in the basement. Well, the building was a multi-level barn-like structure with several sets of stairs and multiple doors. So there were interesting sightlines, multiple paths, and we actually had to plan out how to go about doing it step by step to try and minimize noise and chance of discovery from guards we had yet to get to. Including watching them covertly to learn their guard patterns.

    It was live-action fantasy Splinter-Cell/Deus Ex, just goddamn awesome. We executed the plan and succeeded. Walking out of that felt so SO cool.