Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Just Insert Imagination's Plug & Play Adventure Format

It has been a privilege for me to write for +Just Insert Imagination  in the Plug & Play format that was first introduced in Fuhgeddaboudit!, and later with Size Matters, White Noise, Aliens vs Rednecks and recently Ashen Thorns.
This blog aims to explain how and why this format came to be, and what constitute a Plug & Play adventure.
Back in March 2016 we released a system agnostic GM aid named Vamonos Pizza. It would be the first in a series of products called Snap Sites. These were designed to be maps, props, a cast of characters and story ideas tied to one location that a GM could use to run a scene or a whole session. Back in college I studied literature and learned about theater. One act is one location with characters. During the entr'acte, the crew would change the set and the action took place in another location. The more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of what happens during a role-playing game session when the GM pauses the game to change the map on the table or draw the new location on the mat. It's also how I tend to build my scenes: interesting location, dramatic characters and sparks to make the whole thing come alive. This is essentially what Snap Sites are. But enough of this, this blog is about Plug & Play. Let's get on with it.
The decision to lay out the information on three landscape US letter panels (that can be inserted into a GM screen) is also common to each Snap Site product and would end up being the foundation to Fuhgeddaboudit! that would be released later that month.
When I first started getting into Savage Worlds one of the first thing I did was to download and read every free product I could find. One of the gems out there is the Wizards & Warriors bundle. It comes with a 5 pages PDF containing expanded rules on running a medieval-fantasy game in Savage Worlds. Keep in mind that this was before the Fantasy Companion. Same mechanics are now part of the Fantasy Companion. You also found pregens, a One Sheet named Tomb of Terrors, tiles for the mini dungeon, rat swarm templates and treasure cards. It was an amazing value for a totally free product. With the test drive rules and this bundle you can try out Savage Worlds with your friends, and use it for a pick up game or convention game with little to no prep. Pinnacle has since made a few such bundles like the Moscow Connection, The Wild Hunt for Free RPG Day with a new Test Drive rules version and more recently with the latest Test Drive rules version that includes a Lankhmar adventure and pregens.
As far as I know the only other publisher to do something like that is Triple Ace Games. No other Savage Worlds Licensee has taken full advantage of this format on a regular basis.
Something else I really like are the savage tales in the Savage Worlds Deluxe and Savage Tales of Horror. Right from the start are Setting Rules for the adventure. Without leaning on a fully fledged setting the rules instantly make you feel like you are part of one, though at a much smaller scale. I felt I could take that concept a bit further.
Part of what makes a setting to me is what the GM brings to the table for the player characters to interact with. The other part are obviously the characters. In a short format such as Plug & Play where you want to limit the bulk of the material to three or four pages there isn't room for many character options. And,because this is meant as a one-off, you want to just sit down and play. Pregenerated characters are a no-brainer. As a designer, you have the opportunity to make the characters a part of the setting. You want the players to get a good feel of the setting through these characters.
Every time I write a Plug & Play adventure or work with someone who's writing one I like to follow these guidelines.


This excludes pregens or handouts. 2000-3000 words.
  • Fuhgeddaboudit!: 2,300 words
  • Size Matters: 3,045 words
  • White Noise: 2,100 words
  • Aliens vs Rednecks: 2,400 words
  • Ashen Thorns: 3,200 words
This is mainly a layout restriction. Ideally, you want everything to fit on three landscape pages so that you can insert them in your GM screen or lay them flat on the table in front of you without taking too much of table real estate. Also, for digital GMs, landscape is much easier to read on a monitor.

Adventure Content

  • A quote intended to capture the essence of this mini-setting. Using pop culture references is quite useful here since it's something most people can wrap their head around.
  • A reminder that all you need to play this adventure are the Savage Worlds Deluxe and what's included in this bundle. This is important. The core rules have so much potential, yet, most products require you to own another product or two to use a setting or adventure. This is also the perfect opportunity for YOU to show the audience what the core rules can do.
  • Setting Rules. If necessary, add two or three setting rules that can be explained in a short paragraph. If the adventure uses Setting Rules from the Savage Worlds Deluxe, list them here.
  • The Adventure. The premise needs to be simple. You don't have the space for a deep and complex background here. Fuhgeddaboudit! and Aliens vs Redneck are sandboxes, it starts out with a simple mission. The rest is all "what ifs". Size Matters and White Noise are location based scenarii. Ashen Thorns is a linear adventure with some choices leading to "traps". I prefer to write them more open because I believe the format has more replay value but it doesn't really matter what type of adventure it is.
  • Flavor. Things like custom Dramatic Interludes and a lexicon really help flesh out this "universe" the group will be creating.
  • Bestiary. Three to five personalities or creatures. You should point out to the core book and modify whenever you can. Stick to what is likely to be encountered.
  • Gear. If there are weapons, equipment or vehicles needed for the adventure, put them here.
  • Twists & Complications. Ashen Thorns and White Noise uses very few, if any. I prefer to use a lot of them. As a GM, I like to improvise. This is the kind of thing that end up in my notes when I prep a game. When things bog down, I need to make it more challenging, or stretch it out, I use these. Also, again, it gives the adventure more replay value.

Pregenerated characters

Not only will they save everybody time come game time, they serve as archetypes for the mini-setting the adventure is set in. By looking at these characters, the players should have a better idea of what they are getting into and the world their characters will be in. Also, you have the opportunity to make characters that will have a chance to shine during the adventure. 
Finally, this is where you can introduce new Edges or Hindrances and highlight the use of trappings. Aliens vs Rednecks is probably the best example for that since we went heavy on the trappings for two powers and introduced a new Racial Template. Aim for five or six pregenerated characters of a rank you believe is best suited for the adventure. I usually go for Seasoned rank whenever possible because I feel it's easier to flesh out a character concept, but the player (who may be new to Savage Worlds) isn't overwhelmed with character options. This is just a personal preference, not a hard rule.

Extras & Handouts

Anything the GM doesn't need to have in front of him and will be handed out to the players ends up here. In Fuhgeddaboudit! and White Noise for instance, there is an intrigue between the characters and the players are handed a card with information on it. Size Matters has cards illustrating the scale of every creature encountered compared to human size.


Most people don't have the skills, software or time to make maps, figure flats, table tents and character sheets. I don't. At this point, +Morne Schaap happens. The man is very talented and happens to be a professional graphic designer for a magazine in South Africa. Without him, Plug & Play adventures simply don't happen.
Usually the first thing he works on is the cover. As with any cover, it needs to capture what the adventure is about. This sets the tone for the rest of the props he'll design. It's also a panel you can slide in on the outside of your GM screen and potentially attract strays at conventions or your local game store.
Next, he usually works on the character sheet. The challenge here is to have a clear character sheet but at the same time contain enough trade dress to immerse the player holding the sheet into the setting. 
For Fuhgeddaboudit! Morne drew inspiration from Reservoir Dogs. In Aliens vs Redneck he went for a tabloid look.
Then he usually moves on to maps if necessary. White Noise has a radar-looking map; for Fuhgeddaboudit! he opted for pop art, Size Matters has the kind of emergency evacuation map you'd find at a hotel or in this case, laboratory; Ashen Thorns has maps as if drawn by the children the heroes are trying to rescue. You can relay a lot of information on a map. In Aliens vs Rednecks, adventure seeds are all over the map if you look closely.
Lastly, Morne will create figure flats, table tents and art needed to sell the theme or make the layout fit.
What more can I say? The guy nails it every time.
While this is happening, the manuscript is sent to our editor to make sure everything is kosher. When we're satisfied with it, it goes live. It's hard to accurately say how much time goes into this but there's easily 20-30 hours of labor that goes into creating a Plug & Play adventure.
So there you have it folks. Thanks for reading!