Locations and clues – a guide to avoiding railroads

The text of this blog is copyright 2012. Have fun with the content but don’t pass it off as your own or try to sell it, Okay.

After constructing an outline, listing the NPCs, and defining the villain, the next thing I do in preparing a scenario is map out the locations in the plot outline and the connections between them.  This will eventually result in four things; a location map linking the locations with clues, a clue list/chart, and two game maps (one for the players and one for the GM).

Again I begin with the plot summary. What are the locations that will come up in the plot? Which are the ones that players will certainly visit? Which are the ones that players may only possibly visit? What other locations may arise, if any? Once I have the list of locations I populate them with the NPCs (creating any new ones as required). I then record what information is available to the characters at each location and what locations this information links to. These informational links I refer to as clues. They may not actually be clues in the sense of aids to solving a mystery. They may instead simply be pieces of information that advance the plot by giving the players a reason to move out of the current location and into another.
Two really useful ways of looking at clues have been suggested by Robin D Laws (the gumshoe system) and Justin Alexander (thealexandrian.net). Of the two I prefer Justin Alexander’s method.
Every location you wish players to investigate should have three pieces of information pointing to it. In my own design this means that every important location has a minimum of three entry points.  This is also the key that helps prevent the scenarios I design from becoming railroads despite beginning with a fixed plot outline.  If you want to see a fantastic (published) example of this kind of design at work you can’t go past Larry DiTilio’s Masks of Nyarlathotep for Call of Cthulhu (available from Chaosium or RpgNow).

The Clue Map

When I prepare a clue map in the first instance I mark out all the locations as circles.

Locations

Locations

I then draw squares identifying the clues (if any) to be found at that location on the page nearby.  I think it is fine to have a few dead ends (places that do not contain clues or lead anywhere) so long as there are plenty of clues elsewhere to be found. These squares are later going to be turned into props for the players.

Clues

Clues

I group each location and its clues with a border around the outside.  This just makes what can be found at each location clearer.

Location Groupings

Location Groupings

I draw arrows from each clue to the location it points to. The blue arrows indication connections between a clue and a location. Orange arrows indicate that there is a connection between one location and another.

"Points to" arrows

“Points to” arrows

I identify the most likely direct path to the destination point of the scenario that the players may follow and highlight it.  I make sure that there are a number of other paths to get there as well.

A potential path

A potential path

In this example I didn’t have enough room to cover all the places and clues I wanted to include so I needed to add a second map (essentially because I wanted the newspaper to give the players some extra lines of investigation). This second map also provides some alternative paths to scenario resolution.

Second Clue Map

Second Clue Map

Star City Map (Player’s Version)

My next step is to create a more realistic map of the locations. The one below is for the players.

Players' Map

Players’ Map

Star City Map (GM’s Version)

I also create a map for myself identifying all the locations players are likely to visit during the game. This one I key to the clue chart developed below.

Star City Map

Star City Map

Star City Map Key and Clue Chart

The clue chart is a particularly helpful shorthand record of all locations and clue connections in the scenario. I also list all the NPCs and monsters to be found at each location. This has been a must have resource for me in the games I run.

1. Tremere HQ

Eadie Tremere

Dillon Tremere

Tremere Thugs (8)

Ransom Note points to Cnr Cumberland and 14th Streets
2. Cordova HQ

Caesar Cordova

Cordova Thugs (8)

3. Star City Tribune

Mark Jansen – Reporter

Corky Wallace – Society Columnist

James Turner – Editor

Editor’s Statement points to Tremere HQ
4. Indigo Park

Jim and Eunice Jackson – homeless

Ernest Queen – homeless

Michael Hunt – homeless

Sam Collins – news vendor

Homeless Statements points to Railway Tunnels
points to Pevensee Street Mission
5. Police HQ

Police Chief Walter Doogan

Records Officer Jim Pillman

Police Officers (8)

Missing Persons Reports points to Pevensee Street Mission
6. Mayor’s Office

Mayor Frank Wright

7. Star City University

Frederic Fennimore (Biology Dept Chair)

8. Falcone HQ

Jerry Falcone

Tommy Boscone

Falcone Thugs (8)

Ransom Note points to Cnr Cumberland and 14th Street Ransom Drop
points to Sewer Tunnels
points to Ransom Drop Chamber
Falcone’s Instructions points to Star City Central Station
9. Star City Central Station

Claire Templeton

Cinqo Tavolli

Thug Statements
Electronic Disrupter Gun
Claire Templeton’s Statement points to Coroner’s Office
10. Regency Hotel Ball Room

Alligators (8)

Miriam Ribbensberg

Marianne Ribbensberg

Alligator Control Device
Miriam Ribbensberg’s Card points to Miriam Ribbensberg’s Suite
11. Pendleton Gallery

Detective Tony Wells

Police Chief Walter Doogan

Alligator (1)

Tegan Rodriguez

Martin Rodriguez

Lost Alligator points to Sewer Tunnels
points to Cage Chamber
Falcone’s Invitation points to Falcone HQ
12. Rodriguez Residence

Martin Rodriguez

Tegan Rodriguez

Weatherby

Mrs Naismith

Invitation to the League of adventure seekers dinner points to Regency Hotel Ball Room
Tony Wells invitation points to Pendleton Gallery
Newspaper points to Regency Hotel
points to Pendleton Gallery
points to Indigo Park
points to Sanitation Department
points to Star City Tribune
points to Falcone HQ
points to Tremere HQ
points to Cordova HQ
points to Star City University
points to Mayor’s Office
points to Police HQ
13. Cnr Cumberland & 14th Streets

Cinqo Tavoli

Tremere Thugs (2)

Falcone Thugs (2)

14. Pevensee Street Mission

Technomaster

Alligators (8)

Listening Machine
Alligator Control Box
Crates of Disrupter Guns
Schematics for the above devices
Blackmail Ledger
15. Sanitation Department

Michael Prince – Sanitation worker

Derek Watts – Sanitation worker

Sanitation Workers Statements points to Railway Tunnels
16. Coroner’s Office

Theo Tyrone – Coroner

Herbert Whitman’s Meal Ticket points to Pevensee St Mission
17. Sewer Tunnels
Cage Chamber
Ransom Drop Chamber
Cage Trap
Alligator Feeding Ground

In the next article I’m going to talk about how I bring the locations to life for the players.

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