Synopsis Based One Shot Design
Hello heroes! Hope you’re having a great day out there in gamer land. As you may know, event submission is open for a few major conventions happening later this year, so I imagine quite a few of you are starting to put together the wonderful games you’re going to run this summer. I got my start in this business running games at Origins Game Fair in Columbus, so this time of year is near and dear to my heart. All year long I compile a list of characters or topics I want to write an adventure about. I love the excitement of narrowing down those ideas to create the perfect playlist. I enjoy coming up with a punchy title, deciding how many players I want to run for, and coming up with that sweet 1-2 sentence synopsis about the game. This synopsis is required at most conventions. It’s the snippet they’ll use to describe the scenario to the public in the hopes of getting people to buy tickets to your game. What you might not know, is that it is also a valuable tool you can use in adventure design.
I might be weird in this instance—as opposed to all the other times I’ve been weird—but I usually create my synopsis long before I put together the adventure. Sometimes, it’s all the adventure creation I manage to get to before the convention arrives, but we’re not here to talk about my procrastination habits. This synopsis is my favorite place to begin because it forces me to ignore any extra information and cut to the heart of the story I want to present. I tend to think of it as starting small and building out. Sort of like designing a village in your game world before moving on to building the epic history of your cosmos.
Knowing the core action of the story gives you as the writer a perfect place to begin your planning. You should have an idea of who the major players are going to be, what the driving action is going to be, and what research you’ll have to do to plan your scenes. The synopsis doesn’t have to give away the whole story, in fact I find less is more when it comes to pulling inspiration from it. I try to limit myself to 30 words or less.
I’ll give you an example of what this process looks like to me. My most recent actual play for Green Ronin—link here in case you missed it— was titled Freedom League: All in the Family. I knew before I wrote the synopsis that I wanted to tell an unconventional story with the Greek gods set in Earth-Prime, so I started thinking of who the main NPCs were going to be. I decided to go sort of stereotypical. The synopsis for this wound up being: “All isn’t as it seems when Zeus requests the Freedom League’s assistance in foiling his brother’s latest scheme to take over Earth-Prime.” I kept it short and sweet, knowing that it would be the springboard to a larger outline process.
Hades is a known villain in Earth-Prime, and this pantheon is known for their family melodrama so I figured it would be a knockout story. I kept the synopsis simple, sharing to the players that Hades was going to be the villain and Zeus was going to be their insertion point to the story. With the synopsis in hand, I set about researching various Greek myths. They were going to be the “antagonists” for the story, not necessarily villains but the thing standing between the heroes and a saved Freedom City. I looked at Zeus and Hades’ immediate circles and started brainstorming where some of them would be lurking in the modern world. I built a through line from Zeus to Hera to Hephaestus to Hera to Charon to Hades, and then built scenes around those characters.
Starting with the synopsis narrowed the range of possibilities to make selection easier. It helps you find the beginning of a story, especially in a genre of infinite possibilities like superhero stories. I hope the next time you sit down to design a new adventure that you consider starting with a synopsis or a title. Happy writing!