Generating scenarios using TaleWeaver
What is TaleWeaver?
I don't remember when nor how I first discovered Andy Haven's TaleWeaver, but I am fairly certain it wasn't too long after its initial publication in 1998. I grabbed it to play with for myself, planning to share with my (at the time) pre-verbal kids once they got older. Lately I've been using it to generate "modules" for Risus.
TaleWeaver consists of a deck of cards and an instruction manual. You might call it a game, but only in the same sense as a deck of flash cards. The deck has 104 cards in four "suits": people (Eyes), places (Lands), things (Hands) and events (Winds). The instructions explain how to use it to teach kids how to create stories, but these days I use it more to combat writer's block. To use it, you first decide on a type of story you wish to tell, then you shuffle the deck and turn up cards until you get to particular types, which you add to your story. You have a choice of nine types of story, but if you are trying to quickly create a gaming module I would advise sticking to a "quest", which is particularly easy. For a quest, you flip cards until you come a character; this is your protagonist. Then you flip another card; it can be of any type and will be the goal of your quest: a person to find, a place to visit, and thing to acquire, or an event to cause (or prevent). If you are telling a story, your job is to devise the connection between the protagonist and the goal, and use it to open your story. For a game module, I change the protagonist into a patron who needs the assistance of the players. The connection between them becomes the player's introduction to the module.
At this point I should point out that the character cards depict mostly medieval occupations, which is fine if you are writing a fairy-tale fantasy, but they should also be thought of as representing archetypes. For example, one card is labeled "the Blacksmith". In a Starfleet type game, you might decide that this represents the ship's engineer.
Also, there are other, slightly more traditional, card games that could be used instead. I don't have any experience with them, but based on my scanty research these should be usable in some form or another: Once Upon a TIme, NanoFictionary (currently out of print), and Talecraft. All of these feature similar types of cards, although they are more restricted in the types of plots. On the other hand, I'll be the first to admit that of TaleWeaver's possible plots, only a few are really suitable for generating gaming campaigns.
An example scenario
Currently, my group is participating in a wild west steam-punk campaign, so everything must be interpreted in that light. Turning over cards from my deck, I discover that my patron is the Minstrel and the quest's goal is an event, Silliness. Really. This is why it is best to do the setup at least a few minutes before your players arrive.
In olden times, a minstrel was someone who traveled from place to place singing songs, playing a lute, and delivering news about what was happening in neighboring lands. I think I will discard all but the last and make the patron a newspaper publisher, Joseph Randolph Hulitzer. As for Silliness, perhaps someone has made off with the paper's comic strips for the following week. (Yes, I know that newspaper comics strips are a more recent invention in our world, but this is a steam punk campaign. Live with it.) With a little bit more fleshing out, I now have all the information my players will need for this module.
The next step in creating the quest is to draw 3 to 6 more cards that will represent obstacles. Usually you will put all of the obstacles between the players and goal, but if I can I like to save one or two obstacles for the return trip; this almost always surprises everyone in the party. The first obstacle is the Lass. Perhaps this is a young woman who is (or wants to be!) romantically involved with a member of the party. Perhaps its an even younger girl who had the opportunity to steal the comic strips and and decided to read them herself before anyone else. The cards all have a paragraph (a poem, actually) of descriptive text to help you decide what the card means. For the Lass, it mentions that this might be someone starting her first job. If I am planning out the entire module ahead of time, I might want to go back and change Silliness into a famous humorist who is supposed to be touring the area. In that case the Lass may be a new personal secretary, enthusiastically blocking everyone's access to her boss.
I turn over another card; again it's a character, this time the Ancient. The associated poem describes this as someone who is wise, but too tired after a long life to be bothered to do anything. Perhaps she is a retired elder, who allows her young granddaughter free run of the estate and thus enables the theft of the comic strips. To retrieve them, you need to convince her that her ward should return them. Or if you decided to revamp the scenario, she may be the famous humorist herself, whose new receptionist is actually doing exactly what the boss wants. In either case, this seems like a good place for your players to actually obtain their goal, leaving the next obstacle as something encountered as they attempt to return with their prize.
I turn over the last card and it's yet another character; this time, the Snake. As I said earlier, I am running a steam punk wild west campaign. I have one player whose character is an inventor, and there hasn't been much in this scenario that would require her specific skills. Obviously this snake needs to be a 200 foot long steam powered robot, requiring someone with mechanical skills to defeat it. The only problem is how to tie this into everything that's gone before and avoid making it seem like a random encounter. I think that after the Ancient is "defeated" (i.e., convinced to take a renewed interest in the outside world), she should apologize to the group and offer to show them what she's been working on that has been distracting her. And when she does, something will go horribly wrong. This first two obstacles have mostly required talking, but this one will require full combat.
There are a couple of different ways to get a copy of TaleWeaver. The cheapest is to use Lulu and download both the e-book (PDF) deck of cards and either the e-book or paperback copy of the instructions. Amazon also has a copy in paperback form which apparently includes the card deck bound as pages at the end; I have no experience with that version. My deck was printed from the PDF onto construction paper. Due to impatience and/or laziness when I was cutting it up, each card is a quarter-sheet of paper, 4¼×5½ inches, which can make shuffling them more challenging than normal.
One other thing that Andy Haven suggests in his book is keeping track of your characters from one story to the next. Well, after writing all of the above, I sat down to generate another scenario. Imagine my surprise when the first card I drew (for the quest's patron) was the Ancient. Obviously, the players had impressed this NPC enough that she wanted to hire them for a job of her own!
In case you are wondering, here's the entire "hand":
So, our one-time obstacle from the previous scenario needs the players to visit a cave. Maybe something needs to be retrieved? I flip cards until I come to another thing: Gems! Family jewelry, I decide, that was hidden away long ago and now needs to be retrieved by someone trustworthy; the Ancient has grown old and is now unable to make the journey. Unfortunately, the cave is now the entrance to a gold mine, and they won't let just anyone enter it. Once that is solved, we get to the cave and, unfortunately, it's autumn. Hmm, that's when a lot of creatures hibernate. I decide that a family of soon-to-be-hibernating creatures (maybe bears, maybe something more mysterious) has found another way into the cave and taken up residence. Once the heroes make it past that obstacle, they must confront the mountains. I decide that they player's won't be able to go back the way they entered; the surviving creatures are too tough, or there's been a cave-in or something. That other way into the cave lets them out on the wrong side of a mountain range. Is everyone prepared to return home overland, without proper preparations? This could turn into yet another new scenario!
Off-topic, but hopefully useful, information
In January, 2013, I ordered a custom deck of TaleWeaver cards from Printer's Studio, wanting something that would be easier to shuffle, deal, etc. It took a bit of work on my part, as I had to covert the PDF file into page images, and then digitally cut each page into four card images. I received the cards yesterday, and they weren't quite as good as I'd hoped. The main problem is that each card contains a lot of colored text in a somewhat small font size; easy enough to read when printed four-up on standard letter-size paper, but causing me to squint when trying to read it on the cards. Also, I used the default settings when I converted the PDF into per-page bitmaps, giving me images that wound up being roughly 200 dpi. If/when I try this again, I'll want to edit the PDF to change the text to black (yeah, that'll be easy!), and increase the resolution of the bitmaps to 600 dpi.