Theme, plot, and characters. These are probably the most important parts of any RPG, at least that’s my opinion. I decided that, thematically, I wanted to explore concepts like “Power is a responsibility” “Balance of innocence and adulthood” “Family and duty” and “Generation”. These themes would translate well into a magical girl story set in Japan. The girls would have to deal with these concepts very naturally, and the theme could rise out with ease – “The world is a dark place, and we are the light.”
I arrived at that theme pretty quickly. It made sense, as it is sort of the theme of most heroic anime. The world is grim and very little can stop the spreading evil besides the hero. The theme would be aspirational – hopefully, the players would walk away feeling like they should/could be doing more good in the world because if they don’t, no one will. Given that I want the theme to be aspirational, it meant that most victories would have to be reasonably clear – the heroes win the day, as long as they follow their duty and responsibility, consider their innocence, and act in a way that preserves and upholds what is good and right in the eyes of society. When they don’t the situation gets worse.
The tone, I decided, would fluctuate. I like to vary my tone wildly, and it is kind of my hallmark as a GM – there is humor, but there is also very grim imagery and darkness abound. A scene can slowly devolve from innocence to darkness fairly quickly, and that’s why I modeled my tone after “Sailor Moon meets Madoka Magica”. I wanted to have the happy feeling of friends banding together, close family ties and humor, but also the looming darkness of being the only heroes that the world can depend on.
The plot came together slowly – I started out with just a simple one-shot story about a former magical girl that had stolen a present magical girl’s charm which allowed her to transform. I thought that it would help my concept of “Generation” get conveyed. I felt like that would also help set the tone and define the theme. When the players decided that they wanted more, I developed the plot further. I tossed in characters that would serve as a diversion, but also offer me loose ends to tie together the plot as it came together.
Through the process of playing the game and the contributions of the players, I developed locations and characters, tying them to aspects of the theme and plot. Some would be tied to family and innocence, reminding the characters of what they are protecting, but also what they are giving up in order to protect who they love. Other characters would be tied to the darker aspects of the world, showing what happens when innocence is lost too soon.
Eventually, I built the full plot up in my mind, arriving at the following, which I will keep vague for the sake of my players:
Several people have come into the possession of “cursed transformation rods” which turn and twist their greatest dreams into something horrible. The rods were created with good intentions, but something went wrong. It is up to a team of Magical Girls to find what is at the root of all this.
With a plot in mind, characters sprang out of my mind. Some were parodies of well-known characters, while others were completely original. When it came time for the players to create their characters, I gave them a choice amongst about a dozen anime archetypes – “The Ideal Wife” “The Tough Girl” and so on. I felt like giving them these archetypes to choose from would allow them to build their personalities quickly, and eventually riff on what does and does not resonate with them.
Armed with an army of non-player characters, input from the players, and a few adventure seeds, we were off and running. Subplots would crop up as play unfolded. Players would interact with specific characters, sometimes becoming obsessed with them, and I gradually built them into the plot. Since all of the characters grew from the theme or the concepts that fed into the theme, it wasn’t difficult to bend and shape the plot to suit what the players were interested in pursuing.
I created malleable and non-malleable plot points. Non-malleable plot points would continue to progress along a path as long as the characters ignored a given plot thread – if they did not address the stories that they heard of a vampire vigilante, the result would be a greater loss of life. The vampire would grow more and more powerful because she was being left unchecked. These plots would unfold without character input. Basically, they would hear rumors and stories, and would be given a chance to address the goings on.
Malleable plot points would be a series of “if/then” statements. “If the characters made friendly with the Yokai hunter, then he would offer his assistance. If they offended him/made him an enemy, they would not be armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of spirits/yokai, etc…”.
Another kind of plot point is the Sporadic plot points – things I came up with on the spot. Inevitably, a character would run off the expected path, and now found something that is new or possibly relevant. This is where knowing your overall plot and goals is crucial – knowing your planned endgame means that you can drop hints. Usually, I look at the scenes that I have planned in a session, and try to consider some tasty morsels I can dispense when the characters do the inevitable and go off the rails.
Next time, I will take a look at pacing and discuss how a session is run. I’ll talk about how I plan a session, and how I break everything down so that my players get the most bang for their buck at the table.