One of the toughest balances to strike in tabletop gaming is that between player freedom and narrative structure. An overly structured game can fall victim to railroading, wherein the players have little bearing on the story and are just going along for the ride; this tends to make for a very unsatisfying game from the players' perspectives.
Conversely, an underly structured game can feel deprive the players of a sense of purpose, having no clear goals or plot hooks to hang on to. This can make for a very slow, boring game, as the players wander the setting in search of a plot.
For Silk, Steam, and Steel, a given scenario has three major parts: the hook, the plan, and the execution.
The story begins with a hook: a problem that needs to be solved by the heroes. By casting the heroes in the role of knight errants, motivation is easy to supply: someone is doing something wrong, and you need to go put a stop to it. Example hooks include a friend who has been wrongfully imprisoned, a gang that is adducting people off the streets, or a rash of graverobbings around the city. And so on.
If the players are all in their default role as members of the Mount Liang Society, The easiest way to introduce the hook is via another member of the society - either an NPC, or one of the players.
Sun Zi. Zhuge Liang. Wu Yong. Since antiquity, Chinese martial fiction and culture has idealized the strategist as a hero, and made a great deal of the importance of strategy and out-thinking the enemy.
So while the intended end of those hooks is usually fairly clear (the friend is rescued from prison, the graverobbers are stopped, and so on), the process by which these problems are resolved should be left in the hands of the players. And thus, after introducing expositionary elements, the Narrator should look to the players to make a plan. Utilizing the skillsets of the players. Generally speaking, gameplay is meant to reflect the core skill classes (Martial, Subtle, and Civil), and the heroes should have the option of resolving the problem with any of those.
Take the imprisoned ally, for example: do they take the martial route, storming the prison, guns blazing? Do they take the subtle route, sneaking in in the dead of night and picking the lock on the cell door? Or do they take the civil route, disguising themselves and officials transferring their ally to another prison? Or perhaps it's some combination thereof, with some of the party storming the gates to create a distraction for the one's sneaking in?
The Narrator should work with the player's as they plan, providing nescessary information, guiding ideas, and making sure that every party member has a role to play. During this planning phase, some skill checks may be in order: an alchemistry check to brew up a bomb that can blast through the prison walls, a scholarship check to find the name and personal information of the warden, and so on.
Once the players have a solid plan, the execution begins. It may come to pass that the plan goes off flawlessly, though unexpected events may prove to make for a richer gameplay experience. Perhaps all but one of the player's manage to sneak past the guards, and the last is spotted: do the rest leave him to his fate, or break cover to rescue their ally? In some cases, the villains may have hatched larger plans that the heroes are playing into - the captured ally was only bait to lure out the rest of his comrades, and a trap has been sprung upon them.
It is in the chaos of plans breaking down that action sequences frequently arise. After rescuing their ally, the heroes must flee on horseback (leading to a chase scene); after discovering the grave robbers, the heroes find themselves locked in combat with them (leading to a fight scene).
The Greater CampaignEdit
Typically, the resolution of one problem leads into a greater one, until the story reaches it's conclusion. Thus, upon rescuing their ally, the heroes learn that he was imprisoned after stumbling upon a human trafficking ring with ties to the provincial governor; and now, that problem must be dealt with. Thus, the game can be seen as series of puzzle boxes linked together: each scenario is it's own puzzle box, and how the player's resolve it is largely up to them.
There is a saying: "In tabletop RPG's, hours of travel takes minutes and minutes of combat takes hours."
Ideally, combat should be exciting, memorable, and tense. Sadly, combat in RPG's is often instead slow, laborious, and boring. Given Silk, Steam, and Steel's roots in Chinese martial arts dramas, we really want to avoid that fate for our players, and thus offer the following advice for running combat.
Stunts are Really ImportantEdit
By far the biggest part of making combat exciting and memorable is the concept of stunts, the creative execution of action. A stunt is the difference between "I throw a grenade at the automaton" and "I throw a grenade at the floor the automaton is standing on, so he'll drop the story below." Without stunts, combat is just so much dice rolling (or in our case, coin flipping). While waiting for their turns, players should be planning their next turn. The Narrator, for his part, should also supplant stunts for NPC's in combat.
Know When to Let it EndEdit
Combat can drag. Through rigorous playtesting, we've found that good combats usually last about two or three complete rounds (that is, each player taking a turn). A short combat can be resolved in a single round of player actions, and a dynamic one may take four or more. Remember that the larger the player group is, the longer combats will take: three rounds of combat is goes much quicker with three players than with six.
If a combat is dragging on, there are easy ways to finish it quickly. Keep in mind that mooks and villains are people too, and people are unfond of dying; a clearly losing force may flee or surrender, bringing the combat to a close. These types of resolutions can easily segue into the next plot point, with a fleeing villain leading the heroes back to his base of operations, or a captured one providing information about their nefarious schemes.
Compared to similar mechanics in other RPG's Fortune points have great effect and player's can get a lot of them fairly easily.
Ultimately, we feel that games run better when players are successful; most of the time, hitting your target tends to move the story forward more than missing your target.
The Narrator should be aware of the use of Fortune points; if someone's about to fail a stealth check that will blow the whole party's cover (and you think the game will move along better if they remain undiscovered), an eyebrow-waggle and asking "Would you like to use a point of fortune?" can be a good decision.