This tool is aimed primarily at games that have a party or player group working together towards a common goal – but you could probably use it for characters working at cross purposes, though the complexity would step up a good bit as you would start considering problems from multiple angles and goals.
Start with the general situation of the scenario/campaign. This should include a general problem that will affect the PCs, and, helpfully a direction or general goal to meet.
“You were ordered to take the city and wait for the main army, which would then proceed North to drive out the invaders. That was 3 days ago. You’ve just figured out they’ve abandoned you to be a diversion while they shore up the defenses down south. The city is in disrepair, full of refugees and your supplies are low. The enemy is not far away. Will you stay, will you run?”
A list of problems
Consider two or three likely directions of action the players might take. Think if you were planning out what to do, and then make a list of all the problems involved in any given path. Don’t try to plan for every possible solution- just pick the most obvious ones, because the point of this is generating the problems as below, not HOW they’ll get solved.
The problems will be if not immediately obvious to the characters, they’ll be clear with the most minimal of investigation/inspection. These aren’t “gotcha” problems, these are logistical and political problems that the players will have to figure out how they’re going to navigate.
The problems generally fall under these categories – it’s usually best if you include at lesat 1 of each category in the probable solutions.
Stuff and Resources
What resources are missing that you’ll need? Are the resources under someone else’s control, in a place of danger or risk, or will you have to sacrifice something else to get them? Hong long will it take to get the resources? How many people will you need to send to do this?
(Food, Medicine, Weapons, Troops, Money, Shelter, Building Materials, Magical Materials, Horses, Carts, Boats, Clothing, Firewood)
People and Politics
Who are the people in power? What individuals? What groups? What are their goals or motivations that have NOTHING to do with helping you? In a way, think if you were doing a big project and needed to figure out which people you’d need to either convince to help you or at least stay out of your way. You can always take crappy office politics as a good example.
(Nobles, Officials, Rivals in your organization/clan, Religious figures, Leaders, Zealots, Popular Locals, Ridiculous Orders from Higher Ups, Petty or Incompetent People working with/for you, Personal feuds, Other people’s grudges, Other people’s petty ambitions, People lying about you, People who never keep promises)
Time and Entropy
Everything is getting worse. How much time do you have, before it gets worse? What does getting worse look like?
(Enemies on the way, weather that will keep you trapped, illness/starvation/exposure, needing medicine, gear that is falling apart, being surrounded, a deadline imposed by your superiors, flagging morale and people leaving, weather that is getting too hot, rising waters, a boat you have to reach or be left behind for 6 months, doubtful allies who will abandon you if you look like you can’t keep up)
So, with the scenario described above you might have the following options:
1. Hold out in the city
– Diminishing food supplies
– City walls in disrepair- needs shoring up
– Sui Clan only is concerned with keeping their wealth
– Zhang Clan wants to see the Sui Clan fall
2. Make a run to the South, through the plains
– The invaders can move quickly, might surround you
– Food is low, will not be able to stop to resupply
– The main army may not welcome you with open arms – you might be punished for retreating
3. Retreat into the woods
– The invaders will be slowed, but so will you
– Foraging will be hard
– Your troops might get lost/split up
– Your troops are superstitious about the “Cursed Woods” (Note, there’s no gotcha about the woods actually being cursed. Your troops believing it is bad enough)
Lay out the problems, not the answers
So you’ve laid out these problems, more so that you have things to improvise with when the players act. What if they do something OTHER than the likely solutions you’ve laid out? No problem!
The point of doing this was to get the idea of what resources are lacking and who are the major players are and what their angles are. If the players decide to take different routes, you can probably figure out where problems overlap into what they’re doing, or, at least, what the NPCs are aiming for regardless of anything.
Don’t think of outcomes, don’t think of solutions, don’t think of what “X will do in case of Y” beyond knowing their motivations and personality – you’re creating a set of things from which you can improvise, not put together an elaborate “if-then” response chain.
Remember, throw all the potential problems at the players as part of play, before they decide which way they’re going to go. Your list is the “Known Problems” or “Trivially Easy to Find Out Problems” – play to find out what the unknown and surprise problems are.
Also, your problems should NEVER act as blocks. They’re all surmountable problems, just depending on what level of pain in the ass it’s going to be for the players. The players will need to think about what they want to tackle and which things to avoid to make smart choices about the problems. Maybe they try one way and find out it’s really hard or screw it up and hastily try another option.
Players pick their objectives, reward creative choices
Though you’ll throw the problems at the players, you won’t throw the solutions at them. Let the players figure out which way they want to go, and deal with the problems that apply as needed. If the players find a method that avoids some problems completely – let them! That’s good thinking. If the players come up with a creative solution that overcomes a problem or two- reward that.