Prepare an Awesome DINO-PIRATES Adventure!

Prepping for a DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND game is actually really easy, but the key elements are not at all obvious. Here’s my system for ensuring game sessions full of crazy adventure.

Having run probably more than a hundred of these sorts of sessions, I have a pretty tight system now for developing them. It really isn’t that much work, but it’s very different than the sort of prep work I do for other games.

Instead of describing a location in detail, or setting up an elaborate plot, this system starts from a high-level idea — the Concept — that’s quite simple to come up with. Then I create three lists of loosely-related and not-very-detailed items, which work together at the table to produce a fun and satisfying adventure story.

Here’s How It Works

I always start with a Concept. It doesn’t have to be very fancy. Once I have that, I build three lists: one of Locations, one of Goals and one of Randomness. Those three lists will form the basis of the adventure. How they get combined is up to the players and myself as we play the game.


Why do you THINK they call me “Heart-Eater”?

So the first thing is a simple, obvious Concept for an adventure — like “Stop the evil sorcerer from enslaving the volcano god!” or “Destroy the SLAVE QUEEN’S mind-controlled army!”

A good adventure concept describes an ACTION to be taken by the heroes. This action needs to be about opposing some evil scheme (like mind-controlled armies, or whatever).

I can come up with this sort of evil scheme just by playing around in the setting, and generating “what if” sorts of questions to myself. “What if an Imperial Sorcerer decided to go undercover and take over a ninja clan?” Even the simplest idea can work.

Once I have the evil scheme in mind, I think about how the heroes would get involved to stop it. I don’t mean “They meet an old wizard in a tavern who tells them where to go”. That’s way too much detail, and who cares about all that crap? This is about choosing a VERB. Do they STOP the scheme, or DESTROY the hidden base, or RESCUE the prince? That’s it. One word does the job.

So that’s my Concept — an evil scheme undone by a verb.

Now I’ve got three lists to create. The order in which they get created isn’t important — actually I always build them in bits and pieces, letting ideas for one inspire entries in the other.

Add the Random

I learned this trick from Kirin, the designer of the original Old School Hack, and it always works great.

It’s surprisingly powerful to supply a random factor that might interrupt heroes bent on saving the day. For the volcano god adventure, obviously I decided geologic activity would be the thing, so the random list includes lava, earthquakes and so on. For an adventure in which a bunch of heroes have to get a little baby to a distant fortress, the baby itself became the random trouble-making element.

I make a little table for a d12. 1 – 6 is always “no result,” so that not every roll causes trouble, and then I come up with six other possible results for 7 – 12. Here’s an example I used for the volcano god adventure.

So there’s six possible results — each with a different in-game consequence. I always make 12 the biggest, craziest one, just because, well, it’s 12. The players have the table in front of them and every so often I’ll just say, “Okay, somebody roll on the volcano god table.” Then there’s a tense moment while they await the result, and then the game carries on.

Provide Some Motives

Another table I create is one full of Adventuring Goals. I try to come up with 12 of these. This is a great way to seed the adventure with possibilities. Keeping in mind the Concept, I dream up reasons why somebody would want to do the ACTION described there. When creativity flags, revisiting the Concept often helps to get me going again. I’ll let my mind wander and go a little goofy, allowing unrelated names to suddenly emerge, like in this goal from the volcano god adventure:

“Master Nobitsuna of the Dragon’s Eye Clan has disappeared, leaving only the word “Tuloanga” carved on his cell wall.”

Who is Master Nobitsuna? Who are the Dragon’s Eye Clan? It doesn’t really matter at this stage. These details might inspire entries in one of the other lists, or they might not get referenced anywhere else. If a player picks this goal, we’ll figure out how it fits into the adventure together.

It might seem like a strange thing to focus on, since in any given session, most of the supplied adventure goals won’t even be used. But I’ve always found it a great way to generate ideas that can feed into the story, even if nobody picks the goals. Thinking about the adventure from the point of view of the heroes, and why they might get involved, is a powerful way to sort of trick yourself into creating a really hero-centered adventure.

And that ends up being more fun for everyone!


Meanwhile, I grab some location sheets and jot down whatever notes come to mind about scenes I might have. I try to think of fun locations for a fight, or crazy bad guys, or some clue that needs to be given to the players. I can play off ideas that came up on the other two lists, and as I flesh those out (or come up with all-new possibilities), I can develop all the different pieces together. And again, I can always go back to my simple Concept to renew my creativity.

For an adventure meant to last a few hours, I usually find four to six scenes is about right. What I normally do is come up with four “required” scenes and then a couple more “extras” — sidelines or flavorful moments that aren’t essential to getting the heroes to the big bad guy.

Structuring Scenes

I know my first scene is always going to be a fight — an immediate threat the players need to deal with in order to survive. But it must do two other things: it must lead the heroes into the adventure — there must be some clue or threat that draws or pushes them along. The first scene cannot be self-contained. It must present a mystery (“Why are these flying lava monsters attacking us?”) or force them into immediate action (“Well, the ship is sinking and there’s an island over there.”). Or both!

I used to spend a lot of time setting up the adventure, providing the heroes with “hooks” to draw them in, but in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, that’s really pointless. I’ll just start right in the middle of the action, and can just tell the players, “Well, you decided to check out Captain Red-Eyes’ secret warehouse, and you got in okay, but now these pistol-packing lizard people are attacking you.”

Other details can (if anyone cares) get fleshed out in later scenes.

And I know my final scene will be a big set-piece battle, preferably involving lava, dinosaurs and maybe some shotguns. My other two key scenes might be more sneaky-around scenes, or get-someone-to-tell-us-whats-going-on scenes, although often they’re just more fight scenes.

I use the location sheets not only because they allow me to note down all the necessary details on a scene, but their small size prevents me from putting down too many details. This is a LIST of locations I’m creating, not a guide book.

Putting It Together

Locations, Goals and Random — three very different lists, each contributing something unique to the Concept upon which the story of the game will be built. Because they’re so different, when I get stuck on one I can easily jump to another, and usually my brain lights up again. And because they each need players to bring them to life, I know the game session is going to be spontaneous and creative for everyone.

One of the real joys of running games, for me, is seeing a story emerge from something that wasn’t a story before. It’s really magical, especially when it happens from something like this — with just a basic concept and three lists of disconnected items. I have time and time again seen how a group’s imagination will take off and make a story happen right in front of us all.

I’ll be publishing a sample adventure using just this format very soon — stay tuned! In the meantime, please share your adventure prep ideas in the comments!

Marketing Hurdles

This past weekend, Anime North served as the launch of full-on marketing for my upcoming comic book, REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS. But I had a few hurdles to overcome:

  1. I know nothing about marketing comic books.
  2. I have no budget.
  3. Nobody has ever heard of me or my comic book.

The best thing about being in a situation like this is that no matter what I do, I’m probably going to make things better. So here’s what I did.

Know Nothing: So Give

Like I said, I know nothing about marketing comic books. But I do know that everyone appreciates something valuable, something fun and entertaining.

Just printing up an ad or a flyer and trying to get people excited about that seemed to run counter to that idea, though. Whatever we did, we wanted it to be something that people would actually appreciate getting. Something they might take home, read a couple of times and share with their friends.

So we didn’t know anything about marketing comic books, but that seemed like a winner of an idea.

No Budget: Work With What We Have

Anime North is clearly our target market, but we were super-tight on two resources: money and time. Every second Dave (the artist) spends doing a “special Anime North thing” is another second our backers don’t get their books, and we’ve taken up plenty of time already.

But we do have some great material already on the website and otherwise kicking around — the stories I’ve written about the girls, and of course the eight-page prologue we did last year while raising our funding. The latter seemed like it could hold some real potential.

“New Girl” has been available online for just about a year now, but only people who have been to the site will have seen it. What if we did a print run of that?

Sure, anyone can read it online, but a nice print version is always welcome, and it made for a cute little self-contained comic book. We didn’t put any real advertising in it. Anyone keen to learn more, we figured, could find REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS easily enough.

I felt particularly vindicated when the very first person to look through it exclaimed, “I’m so glad there’s not a big ad in the middle of this!”

Nobody Knows Me: I Know Some People

A free comic book for anyone who wanted it, no strings attached, seemed like a solid offering. But how to get it into people’s hands? We didn’t know anybody at the show.

But I’ve got friends. So I asked everyone I knew if THEY knew anyone who would be working at a table at the show. And it turned out, a few did. One of my co-workers was even working a table at the show himself. Man, I’ll tell you, learning to ask my friends for help has been one of the most life-changing lessons ever.

So we got ourselves passes to Anime North and schlepped in a few hundred copies of New Girl, and they got handed out with every purchase at a couple of big tables there. Right into the waiting hands of the very people we’re hoping will buy this book.

So What?

Without any knowledge of marketing, with a minimal budget and just by exploring our network, we were able to get about two hundred copies handed out over the course of the weekend, which means (if each one got passed to at least one other person) we reached around 400 people — people who maybe had never heard of REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS before, but who we know are interested in non-mainstream, Japan-themed comics.

Not bad for a couple of guys who don’t know anything about marketing comic books.

Wanna Help?

We’ve still got more than a hundred copies of this little mini-comic — if you think you could do some good for the cause with them, let me know and I’ll send you a bunch!

Finding an Artist: Auditions

REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS, the comic book I’m writing, started life as a set of conversations with my old friend, Claudio Pozas, who’s a fantastic fantasy artist. Claudio and I tossed ideas back and forth and came up with a set of final character designs we loved. They were strong, bold and easily distinguished one from the other.

The original designs

But in the end, Claudio didn’t want to do a comic book. So, character designs in hand, I needed to find an artist to take on the project. That meant finding some candidate artists, and then choosing the best of the bunch.

I had no idea how to do either.

Finding Some Artists

The first problem was relatively easy to solve. I know that if I tell everyone I know what I’m trying to do, SOMEBODY will have better ideas than me. So that’s what I did; I told everyone I knew that I was looking for an artist. And sure enough, a couple of folks referred people THEY knew to me, and so I was building a list of candidates.

They all had sites where I could look at their work (if you’re an artist and you don’t have some sort of online portfolio, well, good luck with that), and it was easy to set up quick coffee-shop meetings with them, just to make sure they weren’t obviously crazy people that I was going to hate.

They weren’t. So now I had to solve my second problem: how to choose among the bunch.

Choosing One Among Many: A Paid Audition

The artists’ portfolios weren’t going to be sufficient for me to make a decision. It’s impossible to tell from pre-existing art if an artist can deliver images to my own specifications, my own scripts, and I have no way of knowing how long it took them to do the work, if it was delivered on time or six months after the due date.

So I wanted to audition them, but I knew from working with Claudio and other artist friends that a professional artist doesn’t exactly have a lot of free time. I wanted to be respectful of that time.

I decided to pay for an audition.

At that first meeting, I pitched each candidate my audition idea: I would give them two pages of script and they would deliver inked pages, at a date of their choosing, and I’d pay them $100.

$100 seemed like a sufficient sum for that level of work. I wanted the artist to know how much time they could spend on the audition pieces. And it was worth it to me to pay a few hundred dollars if I ended up with a great artist who could meet a timeline.

So the process was in place. Next I had to decide how I was going to judge the entries.

Choosing Part Two: Judging

Pole-vaulting is, well, about as hard as it looks.

I chose the two pages for the audition carefully. One was the “pole-vault” scene from the online prologue — a very tricky bit of physical business. The other was a dialogue scene from a later issue — where a couple of characters get into a tense debate about what to do right before the big finale. It needed comic timing, the ability to handle a bunch of characters in a room, and a quick transition to a new locale.

They were both challenging pages (in very different ways), and I expected artists to struggle with them. I also made it clear that I wanted them to follow the existing character designs, and I expected them to keep my up-to-date on their progress.

So now I had some good criteria for judging candidates:

  • could they draw what was in the script, and keep to the guidelines?
  • if they couldn’t, would they reach out and ask for my help?
  • could they meet their own timelines and keep me posted on their progress?

Having those simple questions to answer made me feel like I could judge the candidates with some sort of confidence.

And I got fantastic stuff back. Not everyone got their stuff in on time, however, and that was a good lesson to learn early on. Not everyone was able to exactly picture what I’d asked for in the script — some people asked for help in solving what were admittedly tough illustration challenges. Some folks didn’t ask for help, and then didn’t do what was asked, so that was interesting to learn, too.

It Worked!

And in the end the choice was clear: Dave Knox, who’s now the artist for REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS. His style was very different from what I’d originally pictured, but we had so much fun talking about the book, and he hit his timelines, talked with me all through the process, and followed the guidelines perfectly.

He also watched dozens of pole-vaulting videos so he could nail the five-panel sequence of Masayo’s awesome triumph over Shima. You can see the final version of that in the online prologue: New Girl.

So in the end, despite not knowing really anything about art or artists, I was able to come up with a reasonable process for finding a good artist, just using basic networking and some simple criteria up front. It was actually kind of fun! And sure, it cost a few hundred dollars, but given that I intend to sell this comic book to make money, I ought to believe that it’s worth investing a little money in it up front.