To Kill a Dragon
There are a lot of things I want to try and hope to accomplish with this campaign. Some things I’m pretty certain about. They are things I’ve done before or things I’ve read about that are concrete in their application. Others are things I’ve read about that seem far fetched or my own ideas (at least, I can’t directly attribute the idea to some memorable source) that I hope work. I am a tinkerer at heart. While it’s great fun to tinker with the character options as a player, DMs have a whole world of tinkerable gaming possibilities available.
I think it is obvious, but it is nonetheless worth stating. This is a game. And a level above that, what is D&D really? A couple nights hanging out with the brothers every month. Good company, a couple of pizzas, and a few hours to enjoy some ass kicking and storytelling.
I hope I can create a campaign that involves and engages my own ideas and interests. I similarly hope to involve and engage my players.
Part of my tinkering is with the rules themselves. I like playing with and adjusting the rules and seeing what comes of it. Also, I have many other goals that are aided and abetted by adding certain rules to the game or modifying existing rules. One of the most profound aspects of tabletop roleplaying games is the ability to change the underlying, governing assumptions and mechanics to fit your taste perfectly. There are things computer based RPGs do better now, but none can touch that flexibility (that I’ve seen) and I love it.
A lot of the fun I have in DMing is trying to weave a story on par with those stories I’ve encountered that really touched or affected me. And I love seeing a good story unfold and suddenly realizing I could use some of its elements in my game. For example I recently had some ideas watching Will Smith’s version of “I Am Legend”. What does Dark Sun have to do with that movie? Dark Sun isn’t really part of the horror genre. Best not to say anything more…
Is time pressure a story goal? Immediacy and the uncomfortable pressure of making decisions without enough time to consider all the options is an interesting, if cheap, way to get an emotional reaction from players. Maybe that makes it a player goal? It definitely has a mechanical component. I’ve stuck it here because a few things mentioned in that wiki page, especially under the “Macro Scale” heading, are story goals.
Who doesn’t like puzzles and riddles? Great and interesting stories often involve riddles and puzzles. Many of them are both presented and solved in character. Great story tellers (whatever that means – authors, screenwriters, etc.) are able to present the clues in-story or in-character in such a way that perceptive audience members have the opportunity to recognize and solve the puzzle before the characters do. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could do that, too? Similar to material presented under character goals and separate story lines, what if clues for some setting altering cataclysm are dropped over the course of the campaign. If the players get it early, the better for them. Otherwise the puzzle will be fully revealed when the story requires. That sounds fun.
Cataclysmic events. Character story involvement. Drama. Conflict. Conflict within the party. Intrigue. The unexpected using guest PCs.
I think I’m going to need Episodic Storytelling. Since it is experimental, as in I’m not sure if I am going to do it that way, I am keeping it in a separate page for now.
There is some cross over here. For instance, I want to create an interesting and emotionally evocative story. That overlaps a bit with
This section is meant as a DM’s perspective. As in, what goals do I have for any characters in my campaign. Also, by that perspective, it includes NPCs as well as PCs. Further, this material isn’t specific to particular characters. Rather, it is the type of thing I want to get out of characters in the campaign in general. See individual NPC and PC pages for the in game goals specific to characters and NPCs in the story.
The main goal for characters is that they be characters, not video game avatars. I want personalities that are demonstrated by the decisions the player has the character make. The characters should have stories that come from the world, interact with the world, and provide for story hooks in the world. If the PC has some hated enemy in the back story, then the DM should be able to distract the character from his current mission/duty/goal by sprinkling the right amount of info about that hated enemy. Even the most stalwart Paladin should at least waver when presented with the opportunity to undue some past wrong.
Something that might help with this is ante adventuring.
A corollary to the above is the party when viewed as a group. See Group Cohesion for more on this.
Hard choices. This one is important. I want to force the PCs into uncomfortable positions and I don’t want the world to be straight forward or binary. Part of this Dark Sun does well on its own: the world is so harsh there isn’t a lot of focus on good versus evil. Surviving is hard, might makes right, and shades of gray color moral conversation. It has that “cruelty of nature” feeling to it. Lions aren’t cruel or evil, they evolved to survive by eating everybody else and eliminating the competition (they routinely kill hyenas, the closest other apex predator of the African veld).
Thus, the sorcerer-kings are tyrants and The Dragon is scary (and demands sacrifice – a pretty nasty trait). But their strength provides the structured basis for what little civilization ekes out an existence under the unforgiving sun. Bottom line, I hope, is that it won’t always be obvious that, “we’re the good guys, and good guys do this”. This coincides with a more open world where the PCs can pick, and change, sides and courses of action. So this feeds the separate story lines idea, and suffers the practical limitations of the same (i.e. am I really a good enough DM to make all this happen? maybe…)
Compartmentalization of PC knowledge. We’ll see how this works in the actual game, but I like the idea of trying a campaign where not everything is group knowledge. One easier, and potentially very cool, implementation is again related to individual adventures. Be it through quests, ante adventuring, or similar there will be opportunities to weave and reveal story elements involving only part of the party. If I am really good, I might be able to give separate PCs clues about the story/future/plot/etc. that they won’t think to aggregate when they again adventure as the full party until some event gets the conversation started. Then there might be that moment of group epiphany when they all share their knowledge and realize they already have most of the story. Looks good on paper, anyway!
Stress and conflict. With the world and within the party. Adversarial character relations need to be handled delicately. It is easy for such to devolve into upset players. At the same time it can create vivid scenes. Some of my best memories of games of old involved trying to unravel the inter-party plots and dramatics.
As with characters, above, this is not a section for the goals of each player. See Other People’s Goals for that. Instead, this is a place where I express my goals for the players in my campaign.
I came across a comment, I believe on the Wizards forums, that expressed what I want to attempt with this campaign. And now I can’t find it. So I will paraphrase until such time as I find the actual quote:
It is the responsibility of the players to write the story and the responsibility of the DM to provide the world in which that story can unfold.
That is what I want this campaign to do. Relevant writings can be found here.
With that, I want to put some thoughts to paper about my goals for the participation of the players in the creation and unfolding of this campaign. As is hopefully evident by the material on this wiki, I am dedicated to creating a full world with a rich (and unknown) history and many, many people and peoples working together and against one another to affect that world. Once we push the “start” button, I hope to have machinations of story in place whereby the world will unfold on its own, uncaring of the PCs or their actions. Like real life: it goes on whether you choose to get out of bed in the morning or not.
That is not to imply that what ultimately happens is unaffected by your choice of staying in bed or not. While the story of Athas and her peoples will putter along in their collective misery without PC stimulation, the progression of that story could depend on whether the PCs help, hinder, or hide and wait. Most importantly, remember this: we aren’t writing the story of Athas, we are writing the story of a group of PCs on Athas. One may be a subset of the other, but the distinction stands as important.
This then, comes full circle to a point I can’t emphasize enough: I do not intend to write the story of the PCs. I intend to give them a world within which they may write their own stories. I have some preferences, referenced around this wiki, about the tone and type of story I’d prefer (gritty, dirty, mean, dangerous, not “high fantasy”). But the players have the ability to direct it. Given all of this, I wanted to give some in-game examples to demonstrate what I think this could look like. In order to help the players choose what type of story they want to write, I think it appropriate I describe some Athasian options.
One very important point to this discussion is a sort of “mechanics”. The type of story the players intend to pursue should help indicate the types of PCs they want to build and the types of advancement for those PCs they will find rewarding. Keep this in mind: though it is perhaps anti-D&D, I hope the players’ goal(s) are other than to level a PC to 30 and thus be in control of one of the most mechanically powerful creatures on the world. That seems flat. We could simply make 30th level characters, put them “in the ring” with the Dragon, and call it a campaign. I hope the increased attack bonus will be the least exciting part of increasing the PC’s level. The world-based story rewards could be so much more fulfilling: new knowledge, contacts, connections, favors owed, or even feats that demonstrate an ever increasing connection to the world and ability to pull on its fate strings. In this harsh world with barter based economics and chaos lurking around every corner, an owed favor might be as powerful as a magical relic. And just as unreliable.
Option 1: Save the World!
This is my least favorite option, but it is not my decision (as I set up, above). The players are free to be the “heroes”, the “good guys”. They can pursue advancement of their characters with the goal of overthrowing Sorcerer-Kings. They set out to be the heroes of Athas who abolish slavery, slay the Dragon, break the defiling magic, and restore the ecosystem, or any combination thereof. A story of this sort focuses on PCs that need to acquire magic items of great power and learn skills, powers, and feats of Epic effect that will be tested against the greatest powers on the planet. This is a “classic” D&D campaign in my non-classical D&D setting. Mechanically, this type of campaign focuses on the typical combat-oriented rewards and leveling up systems as written in the core rulebooks. This is least compatible with the 4E Lite version of the game I’m envisioning.
A word on scope: it took Athas millenia to break down to its current state. Correcting the apocalyptic trajectory is necessarily similarly gigantic in time and space. It might, even by fantasy reality standards, be beyond the scope of a single group of PCs do “fix” Athas. Beyond that, a word of warning to PCs that intend to oust Sorcerer-Kings. These rulers command immense power, but more importantly they are sophisticated adversaries who seized and maintained control by force and measure their life spans in centuries. Their magic-wielding abilities are beyond the layman’s comprehension or measure. Any players that expect to conclude this campaign with a toe-to-toe “encounter” against a Sorcerer-King will be sorely disappointed. Adversaries of this level of sophistication and power do not stand in a room trading blows (be they magical or otherwise) with other Epic tough guys. They’ve had hundreds of years to prepare for any real threat or confrontation. And dozens of mighty challengers tried and failed to bring them down before the PCs were even contemplated by existence. All that should go without saying and reveals no extra meta-game knowledge. Thus, even the high fantasy save the world player directed story should not expect a “typical” resolution.
Option 2: Start a Slave Tribe
Now we get into the options I find more interesting. One of which is to recognize the prominence of slavery on the world of Athas and the way it shapes and affects any story told about that world. It is possible the PCs will come from, or find themselves a part of, the slave system of Athas. Slaves of exceptional ability, as PCs necessarily would be, often have the means and gumption to escape. But what then?
The PCs could leave slavery behind. Thus begins a story: how do they survive? Do they become nomads? Where do they go to avoid recapture from slavers and bounty hunters? How do they procure resources? Where is their water source? Are they willing to fight another fugitive band for control of a precious oasis or mountain spring? Do they take in other escaped slaves that they come across? Do they raid caravans and purposefully free other slaves? Do they join (and eventually come to lead and control) one of the existing Slave Tribe? Do they instead create a new tribe? Do they attempt to unite the tribes? What would they do with such an army? Overthrow a City-State and its ruler (we’ve discovered a more interesting path to the “fix Athas” story, above)? Mechanically, this story is less focused on collecting rare and powerful artifacts for slaying powerful enemies and more focused on survival and networking skills. Leveling up rewards might focus on skill progression and additional insight into the geography and slave culture of Athas.
Option 3: Become Dune Traders
The PCs might get into the commercial lifeblood of Athas. They could become Agents for an established Merchant House. Rising high enough in such an organization might give the PCs access to resources to break the economy of a City-State and bleed the ruler via economic attrition. Make the city poor enough and the starving slaves will rebel, possibly leading to the death or removal of the ruler! Of course, political instability is bad for business and such actions might cause the House to turn against its favored agents.
The PCs might even adventure until they have the ceramic pieces to toss into creating their own caravan and foray into mercantilism unfettered by the princes of the merchant dynasties. Imagine the stakes if that caravan, representing all the accumulated wealth of the PCs, is attacked by raiders. Could the PCs grow this caravan into a wealthy conglomerate, thus creating a new Merchant House? Before this sounds mundane, remember that commerce on a world like Athas is the definition of adventure: get the goods to the destination before they spoil and without getting eaten by silt horrors, crushed by giants, sacked by gith, or enslaved by slave traders all the while hoping that the City-State you shipped to will allow you to sell your wares without too much interference from the Templars who might be more interested in taking possession of your goods and putting you into the Arenas after hearing about your success in the desert against the silt horrors, giants, gith, and rival traders.
This story focuses on rewards related to political favor, geographic knowledge, and social networking. No matter how great the PCs fighting ability, if the local Templar wants them in arena because of a lack of politicking, it is unlikely the PCs will be powerful enough to prevent this fate. The pen is mightier than the sword, and only the Templars are literate.
Option 4: Explore Athas
If the Geography page didn’t make it obvious, this world is huge. There are tons of named regions to explore, and true adventurers can always push past the boundaries of the known world. While it hasn’t been explained in much detail on the wiki yet, Athas looked very different in the deep past. Remnants of a mighty world that is long gone are to be found in ancient ruins of alien design all over even the “known” regions of Athas. The PCs might literally be able to make an entire compaign of simply figuring out the true history of Athas. This has a “dungeon delve” kind of flavor to it. Cutting through deadly terrain in order to sack ancient ruins pretty much puts the “dungeon” in D&D.
Such an approach to the campaign would strike an interesting mechanical balance in terms of reward. Hopefully, there is a certain amount of accomplishment in uncovering knowledge that provides a sort of built in reward system. Also, much of the past is forbidden knowledge, purposefully controlled by the Sorcerer-Kings. Discovering tidbits of knowledge might be every bit as powerful as discovering some artifact in the ancient ruins dotting the landscape. Such characters would be in need of advanced survival techniques and good combat skills as well, creating a very “balanced” kind of campaign with rewards of many different flavors.
Option 5: Create a secret organization
From crack mercenaries to assassins for hire to specialists in court intrigue, there is always demand for the get hung if caught type assignment. Knowledge is power on Athas, and few have it. Becoming the “go-to” band of underground specialists in whatever industry strikes the players is a keen and interesting way of garnering a very specialized and interesting type of power. And such elite underground organizations are often privy to the types of knowledge that can undo the very powerful. Maybe you could even secretly instigate war between two cities and sweep in to clean up in the aftermath. There is a lot of variety in possibility to this idea, and the mechanics of advancement (as in, what the characters would find truly rewarding as they increase in level) would be similarly varied.
These options described, I hope the point is sufficiently made that there is a lot more to do than simply fight the Dragon and save the world. The campaign to come could, and probably will, involve many of the components described above, as they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is my opinion that this type of campaign would be very exciting for both player and DM. I’ve never played in a campaign that had this type of emphasis, and I am very interested to try one of this type.
I want my campaign to create emotions in my players that lead to good roleplaying and attachment to characters and campaign elements. I want them to care what happens. And not just to their character. To the world and the NPCs in it.
I want to include some alternative storytelling devices also. Some of these will be suggestions I’ve wanted to try from online sources, the DMGs, or print material. Others are ideas I have. As with many of the parts of this campaign, part of the idea is to increase players involvement in the story.
While any of the above could be construed as “personal” goals for me (because they are MY goals), that’s not what I mean here. Whatever “personal goals” remain beyond everything else listed here distill to accomplishing these other goals successfully and learning to do a better job telling a story and building the characters in that story.
A quick look at the House Rules page reveals that we are making some heavy alterations to the fourth edition of the D&D game. Change enough things, and it starts to beget the question, “Why D&D and why 4E?” And it is a good question. My answer is this: the part that is most important and hardest to change is the “core mechanic”. We are going to roll dice to adjudicate success and failure of actions in our fantasy world, and there are lots of different ways people have proposed to accomplish that. I think d20 is the best. I like the flat 1-20 uniform distribution it represents. It is easy to understand, and very easy to manipulate on the fly (+2 ~ +10% bonus, easy). It scales well, is flexible, and, perhaps most importantly, it is fast. All addition and subtraction, then add d20 and compare to a DC. I’ve played d6, d10, percentile, and all manner of other mechanics. They usually involve lots of dice, take more time, and are less intuitively manipulable (try to add +10% to a “roll” that is 4d6, where you count successes as > 4 per die, and you need at least 3 successes to complete the task, a la old school star wars).
OK, but why 4E? 4E’s core mechanic is the best of the best. I love the 4 defenses, the skill system’s simplicity, and the uniform “10 or more” simplified saving throw. That is the “core mechanic”, and that is the part I like best and want to keep. It took 30 years, but everything, from spells to attacks to skills, is on the same d20 versus DC mechanic. It is fast, easy, consistent, and uniform. To the extent that our conversations start to lean towards, “then why play 4E D&D”, the above is my answer. I’d rather start with the core of this system, and add and delete things, then start with the core of a different system, and port over the things we like, such as at-will powers.
The above may be convincing, but it is limited in scope to my experience. I put this task to the audience: to the extent another system operates within the contraints and goals established here, and elsewhere on the wiki, and does it better than 4E D&D, please tell me. I enjoy exploring new material, and want to be using the best mechanics available.
I suppose that requires that “standard” storytelling be defined. My idea of standard storytelling is simple: the DM crafts and tells the story, and the players participate in and interact with that story.
So “alternative” storytelling would be devices and practices that somehow modify that base relationship.
One idea goes hand in hand with Quests. Since these are one-off side adventures that usually won’t impact the main story arc, the DM does not need to own them. Thus, why not let Player A design and run Player B’s paragon path quest? This gets the players active in the design of the world. The main DM could also experience the player side by taking one of the NPCs along side player B in the side adventure. Ideally, the main DM can take notes on what additions Player A makes to the world, and tie those back to the main story arc in various ways. This instills a heightened ownership of the campaign world for the players (at least, that’s my hope).
The case for ante adventuring is pretty much the same as for quests. Additional considerations unique to ante adventures stem from the fact that they are not concurrent with the main story. Multiple players could participate, running NPCs from the past of the particular PC for whom the ante adventure was created. This adds more element of surprise, since you don’t know what that player is going to do while playing the ante adventure PC’s father/mother/mentor/other. This mechanism could also be used in quests. It disagrees with the idea of compartmentalizing the back stories to keep them secret from other players. But to the extent it adds a fun factor, that is the more important goal.
I’m not sure if this is a “goal” per se, as much as a proposal.
The idea here is to give some emphasis to character back story. My main example, or maybe rationale, is as follows. The last campaign we played, I went through a lot of effort crafting what I thought was a compelling back story for my character. But it never really influenced my character’s actions that much.
To his credit, my DM took the back story and really built it into his campaign. But the personality traits and hatreds I tried to script via the back story didn’t really stick when it came roleplaying time.
I think the reason is because it was concocted. Here’s an example: say a player goes through a lot of effort crafting a back story wherein he is wronged by some NPC. Let’s make it easy, the NPC killed the PC’s family. Hatred galore. On paper. The problem, at least for me personally, with this situation is I know how my PC is supposed to act as a result of this back story. But it is fake, there is no real emotional reaction when I am faced with the object of my back story hatred. It could be just me, but I doubt it.
And the thing is, it can be done. I’ve played video games or watched movies where I really wanted the bad guy to get his. I hated him, simply as an audience member. Mostly because, whether by flashback or development vignette, I came to really want to see the bad guy impaled on a blunt object. In fact, referring again to my last campaign as a player, I really despised the current villains in the campaign. The ones my DM created and that we had to deal with. Again, MG did a good job on that. It was my own backstory stuff that didn’t stick well for me.
So the idea with the ante adventure is to create some of these emotions by actually playing through the flashback or development vignette. And the ante adventure could take place, in real time, either before or after the campaign starts. One thing this requires, I think, to work is releasing some control over your PC’s back story. When you script it, it becomes third party to you. When you experience it, it becomes real to you.
Here’s my idea of one really cool way this could happen:
What I think makes this especially cool is that the other player can add elements you didn’t expect while still sticking to the vague outline you needed to get the character you wanted. For example, say you went with the “something happened to my village” example from above. You might’ve been expecting that the village gets sacked. But instead, the player-DM writes a story where a Hag moves into the adjacent forest and charms the village. Because of your innate potential, you don’t fall under the Hag’s influence. Sensing your ability to resist her charms, the Hag conspires to have the village banish you. So, “something” happened to your village that “forced you into adventuring”, but its not what you expected. And I bet you hate that Hag.
Even better, you might not ever find out it was the Hag! Eventually, you meet someone from your village in a random encounter years later. After recognizing you, the NPC explains how he escaped the Hag’s control himself and made a getaway. Now the village is dying under the Hag’s control. There’s an adventure hook. And the player should really feel it.
Some final caveats:
I think Episodic Storytelling is the storytelling device I need that will tie everything together. This is an extension, in some ways, to the material presented in Separate Story Lines.
First is the real world part of this thought process. There are a lot of people I’d like to invite to participate in this campaign. But I don’t want to be slowed down, in terms of schedule, the way large groups often are. Episodic Storytelling fixes this splendidly. Here’s the idea:
I’ll develop the story in discrete pieces (episodes) with the goal of each episode resolving itself in one to four gaming sessions. Then, I’ll set a schedule for the needed game sessions, and see which players can make it. We could have a rule such as: to participate in an episode you must commit to all (or maybe all but one if three or four, etc.) of the dates scheduled for that episode. All the dates will be scheduled together in advance so players can clear their calendars, and participation by all players is not necessary.
I can concoct whatever device seems necessary to write PCs out of an episode, but if they are really self contained it should be easy. In fact, to an extent this is simply a formalization of, or perhaps alternative formulation of, the ideas presented elsewhere including separate story lines and quests. An ancillary story arc is an episode. A quest is an episode.
Plus, this ties to group cohesion. How? Well, if the PCs have run out of reasons to stick together, they go separate ways (hopefully in groups, but whatever). Each group could run episodes (and develop part of the overall world) separately. Eventually, their paths would again cross, or a group could be presented with a mission wherein, “you know, we could really use PC X’s help on this task”. Then, they could quest to find PC X (an episode) and get back to the task at hand once PC X is found (another episode). Hopefully, the player of PC X is available at that point. It can’t be perfect.
I need to be careful not to lose the serial nature of an overall story arc in this manner. Generally, this campaign is designed with the overall story arc as a background artifact anyway, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. As listed under other wiki pages, the main story won’t really be on the PCs’ minds anyway. At least, not at first. The key is to move the main world in small ways in every (or almost every) episode. And this makes the world very alive.
I think the way to finish this is to tie it to guest PCs. There will be some players available so infrequently that I can’t keep them as part of the main campaign. Instead, those players could hop into the occasional episode as a guest PC.
This subject is a bit of a corollary to the idea of strong, independent character back stories.
Development, not assumption
I want development, in terms of characters, and not assumption. Many parties start off in a tavern, get hired as the rag-tag mercenary adventuring band to complete some task, and set about their merry way. Starting the campaign will always be a little contrived because, for practical real world reasons, we know which 4-7 dudes in the bar are going to get picked for this mission. And there is nothing wrong with that.
My criticism is after this first task resolves. Then what? Maybe they get another task, and another, etc. because they did so well and their reputation grows. Great, but think about this for a minute. Presumably, these guys started out as loners or wanderers, which is why they were in that bar in the first place. One or two missions together, they make some coin. But it shouldn’t take too long before there is nothing left holding these people together. They all had agendas before that first hire, and those agendas probably don’t all lead to the same place. So what is holding this “party” together? Why don’t any members cash out and go their merry way? Assumption versus development.
The reason, of course, is because that would “split the party”, and from a real world perspective just doesn’t work. So in order to simply continue on in the “story” the PCs all stick together for gaming convenience. That is not compelling, and irritates me. For gaming convenience, I understand the necessity of keeping the party together. But it should involve some roleplaying and development effort, not a wave of the hand: “well, we had our first mission together so we may as well risk our lives for each other for the duration of our natural existence.” That’s bogus.
And the above leads me to another question in this vein: why, exactly, would character 1 go out of his/her way to save character 2 in the first few missions? They aren’t friends. The mission itself provides a certain agenda, sure: an “it will be easier to complete the mission if we have all our people” kind of thought process. But that only goes so far. Especially on the first mission, PC X should really think of every other PC the same as s/he would think of some randomly hired henchman, “what the hell, if so-and-so dies that’s more money for me.” Because to PC X, the other PCs are just randomly hired henchmen. These aren’t mighty heroes. They are level one whelps. In any other context that makes them disposable.
Some of what I just mentioned is character dependent. For instance, good aligned characters should go out of their way to save the life of their “mission colleagues”. That has a roleplaying angle. And if played up and developed, great. For the unaligned, however, the roleplaying angle is not tidy.
I want to offer a couple ideas I have on how to handle this. These are not exhaustive. They are propositions.
The common back story
This one is a cheat, but you gotta allow it. The common back story simply pushes these questions into the background where they don’t bother us anymore. The PCs all arrived at the bar together, already a team, and it was an all-or-none hire on that first mission.
They could all be siblings or cousins from the same clan. Or members of the same village (the last survivors? now that’s compelling…). Whatever the reason, they are already glued at the hip by the time we start our story.
One thing, from the DM, on this approach: it isn’t foolproof. While we pushed many (most?) of the questions about group cohesion from the above into the background, there still should be some strife and some differences of opinions. No two people share completely parallel lives, let alone 4-7. So, while they may be buds now, they weren’t always. If the players go the common back story route, I still want some individual info on each PC. PC X can still have that personal injustice in the past that will cause decision making out of sync with the party when the chance for revenge or redemption presents.
“Actually, we don’t see any need to stick together…”
Calling the DM’s bluff? Touche. This one is interesting. As under the quests discussion, there is no reason the party needs to be together all the time. The players could go to the ultimate push-back on this idea and splinter into subgroups or individuals after that first mission or two precisely because they don’t feel compelled to hang with the other PCs. Actually, I think this would be an awesome result.
An awesome result with a lot of work. The meta-game consideration of keeping everyone together for the story and gaming convenience hasn’t gone away. So this approach works fine, short term. I would DM each group individually. That forces me to look at the back stories for all the PCs and the overall story I am trying to craft. And then I need to find a way to bring them all together in a way that will keep them together.
From a roleplaying perspective, at the point of reunion the players need to help me out. If life conspired to cause these PCs to cross paths again, they already have some common experience and now they might just stick together. This still needs to be developed, not just assumed, but that development is already part way done.
Example: I traveled to New Zealand for three weeks about a year ago. The first week I was there, I met a British couple on a wine tasting tour of the countryside. Two weeks later, at the end of my trip, I bumped into the same couple two days in a row in the fjords in the far South of the country. We now keep in touch regularly via email. It didn’t take much. But, no matter how well we seemed to connect on the first meeting, we didn’t exchange contact info until coincidence brought us together again.
Somewhere in between
The above two scenarios aren’t the only answers. If the players put some roleplaying effort into constructing PC relationships, that is fine too. The party doesn’t need to start together or else inevitable split. And I realize that, when the players are already friends, it can be a little awkward to roleplay through the “hi, how are you” lines of PCs meeting for the first time. I don’t really care what the reasons or how it is accomplished in game, as long as the players do more to create group cohesion than simply assume it for gaming convenience.
The idea here is to fit in players that are only available for an occasional session or two. Or whose schedule is too restrictive to fit into the group regularly, but sometimes it can be made to work.
Such an on again off again player could either be given control of an NPC for an episode or could create their own character who would be a sort of pseudo-NPC.
This goes a little with Alternative Storytelling. It injects some unexpected into the campaign, and especially into NPC behavior. I could give the player a rough outline of the NPC’s goals, and the player is free to accomplish those goals as s/he sees fit over the episode.
There could even be plants: NPCs that are working against the PCs. The guest player could be setting up some double cross to keep the players on their toes. I like this idea for creating intrigue and drama.
Gary Gygax’s Lejendary Adventures (the game he created after getting booted from D&D) left one important impression on me: he got rid of the intelligence ability for PCs. The reasoning was that it is too hard for players, even good ones, to properly roleplay a PC with an intellectual ability different from their own. I don’t know that I completely agree, but the point is an important one to consider, especially within the context of problem solving.
What I mean by that is: PCs might be capable of solving things their players are not. Even if I do the best DM job ever, the PCs really have far more passive knowledge about their world than the players ever will (remember, the PCs grew up there). Also, the genius wizard with a 22 INT might be a better riddler than the controlling player.
I am going through the trouble of all this discourse to present my idea for handling problem solving in my campaign. I think I will make it a skill challenge. I.e. riddles and puzzles will be skill challenges. But that could take all the fun out, right? Maybe. My hope is to present a problem to be solved to the players, and they may enjoy the task of attacking that problem. If they are stumped, they may have the PCs participate in the skill challenge, and each success reveals a clue to the problem. If the PCs fail in the skill challenge before the problem is solved, the in-game effect is the problem goes unsolved permanently, even if the players solve it out of game afterward.
I think this mechanic maintains the right balance of fun problem solving for players, drama for failed skill checks in the challenge, and the means for getting needed clues when the players are stumped to the point of boredom or frustration.
Our current campaign has a big (six PCs) group. While I love the large group and think it is a fun way to play the game, it has its headaches. The biggest headache is getting seven grown up schedules to align. Wives, jobs, studies, these all conspire to prevent the party’s coming together for a gaming session.
The idea of side quests is in part a reaction to that situation. By allowing, and in some cases requiring, side quests that don’t involve the whole party we can get our game on more often. If two PCs are questing together, that’s only three schedules that need to align. And because of the experience rules this shouldn’t cause those that have less time to really fall behind in power level. I am hoping this creates an inherently dynamic campaign framework.
The non-mechanical thinking behind the quests has to do with my desires as a DM to implement some optional rules and build a world that makes sense to me. All editions of the game that I recall reading had optional rules for character advancement. Things like training rules before acquiring the power of leveling up, for example. I’ve never played with any of those rules. Mostly, the reason is because of logistics: given how hard it is to get everyone together we’d spend all our time on training issues and none of it moving the story forward.
At the same time, those rules always made sense to me. Discrete leveling is such an abstract device that has no real world analog. Movies often have the “training vignette” where the hero essentially spends his time leveling up for the big fight, and it is training with a master or working out under arduous conditions that brings a tangible, and believable, increase in power. I am trying to duplicate that feel with the advancement quests.
Hopefully, I will find the right balance between requiring advancement quests for certain power increases and allowing the rest to happen in the background. These quests have the double implementation benefit of allowing more gaming and fleshing out my desire for some foreground power increases.
Advancement quests are inspired by, as described in the above section, the “training vignette” in many movies. While it makes sense that certain power increases take place in the background (both in terms of story and convenience), some deserve to be the center of attention. There is no reason to find a teacher for every new feat, or perform some heroic quest to learn every new encounter power. There are plenty of things people (characters) get better at just by practicing their current skills.
On the other hand, adding a new discipline or training under a new philosophy does require a suitable teacher or life altering encounter. That sounds to me exactly like what acquiring a paragon path or epic destiny is. Hence, I think there is a mechanical justification to requiring quests to acquiring the benefits of paragon paths and epic destinies. Looking at the paragon path descriptor text in the rulebooks we see that many are associated with a special group that teaches their way to worthy acolytes.
And there is more to it on the story side. I want to get a real investment from players in terms of constructing a PC by putting flesh to a theme, not numbers to a paper. It is perfectly fine for a player to be enamored with the power a paragon path or epic destiny provides. But it should be more than a numbers decision. Requiring a Warlord to journey to the North Lands to train at the prestigious College of the Battle Captain gives a story impact to the paragon path choice. It also forces the player to think about what type of quest befits the PC. Basically, I want it to mean something when a character gets access to these powerful new features.
It is incumbent on both player and DM to find a way to write these quests into the story. It would be wrong for the DM to outlaw paragon paths by saying, “there’s no place to train to become a Battle Captain, so pick a different paragon path.” There could be good reasons for denying access to paragon paths or epic destinies. This example is just laziness.
See Experience for the rules side of this. Other thoughts include maybe doing quests for daily powers, but that is a lot of quests. Again, “normal” things like feats and encounter (maybe all) powers won’t require quests.
Multiclassing is a special exception. It makes sense to me that a PC could pick up some outside-of-class abilities from other party members. It is a different story to pick up traits of a class that is not represented in the party make-up. If a PC does not start with the multiclassing feat and there is no member of the party with the class the player wants the PC to pick up, it might require a quest.
Magic Item Quests
Characters will be allowed to quest for components to construct magic items. See magic item rules for the technical side of this.
The thing I like about magic item component quests is the self limiting nature. For example, say a 10th level character wants a 16th level item. Well, he’s going to need to accomplish something equivalent to slaying a 16th level monster (it can’t always mean just killing something…maybe he needs to outwit a 16th level merchant at a bazaar). That’s going to be pretty close to impossible for one 10th level character. He has two options: shrink his goals or recruit some help.
Shrinking the goals is self evident. A single PC with the advantage of a well planned approach could possibly take a 12th or 13th level task. Recruiting help is a different manner. The PC can always implore party-mates to help. This has the real world limitation of requiring the requisite players get together to play their PCs. The PC could hire some help. This would be interesting and very subject to available resources.
The bottom line here is that getting a whole party together is required to land the really big items from the really hard quests. And that will probably only happen, in reality, for party-level quests that are mission critical (get the thing to make the other thing to kill the powerful enemy type stuff). And the greater the challenge the PC tackles alone or outgunned the greater the chances he ends up dead with no one around to know he needs to be raised.
See also Alternative Storytelling
I like the idea of a campaign that is, in MGs words, “not on rails.” But how to build such a world?
The GTA model
Starting with Grand Theft Auto 3, I found the GTA games to be the best RPGs the industry ever produced. Better than the Final Fantasy, Better than Dragon Warrior, etc. That might surprise some people, as officially I don’t think GTA really fell under the RPG genre. No dragons, no swords (well, there were the katana and chainsaw…), and the leveling system was far more informal.
What GTA did right was the open world. You could go anywhere, at anytime, almost without limitation. I never played an RPG allowing open exploration the way GTA did. Before this starts a huge fight, there are tons of RPGs I never played, including many from the FF franchise as an example. I’m not interested in debating the merits of video games, only setting up a point. So don’t waste my space with comments about video games, please.
Back to the open world: go anywhere at anytime. Including places you shouldn’t be, where you will suffer the consequences. I would love to craft such a world in which my players can operate, but I don’t think it is feasible. D&D requires a lot of planning on the part of the DM, and I don’t have the time or the resources to write an entire world for the characters to explore at will. Also, this type of game play requires an impromptu genius. I’m OK on my feet, but not nearly good enough to accomplish all my campaign goals while storytelling on the fly.
Again, only my opinion (and again likely to light people’s fires), Majora’s Mask was the best Zelda I ever played. Sure, I missed the princess. And not undoing Ganondorf for the umpteenth time was weird. But it was the first (and only? I haven’t played the new ones) non linear Zelda. Zelda was like most of the RPGs, above. They had huge worlds with a billion NPCs, bad guys, and items to make them feel open. But there was one, linear, scripted story that only went one way. Try to do the castles out of order in Ocarina of Time.
As much as I don’t think I could DM a campaign built on the open world design of GTA, I think I can build a world on the multiple story line format of Majora’s Mask. That game had an overall plot that consisted of only four castles (not the seven+ typical of other Zeldas that had to be completed in order). The rest of the game consisted of dozens of side quests of varying difficulty and puzzle intricacy. And you, as the player, had a choice about what order to do the quests and what quests you wanted to do (some limitations apply, see store for details).
Main Story Arc(s)
I want to have a campaign level overall story arc, with some ultimate climax. It is impossible, really, to write that from day one of the campaign. You just don’t yet know what the players want to do or how their PCs will affect the world. At the same time, I want to put some cataclysmic, world-changing events in motion on day one. These will slowly build on a scripted (but behind the scenes adjustable) schedule, and hints as to how the world is (or could be) changing will come at regular intervals. By the time of the day of reckoning, the PCs’ other actions will determine much of the range of possible outcomes.
I think the best time to resolve these epic events is around level 25 (assuming we can actually play this thing all the way through). That way the PCs have the ability to see and respond to the world they created (whether by action or inaction). And this gives ultimate choice: they can choose to ignore what is happening in (to) the world and then are stuck with the consequences (or trying to undo it) or they can risk life and limb trying to thwart it.
Character Story Arc(s)
A fully developed character is a story unto itself. I’d like to “complete” each character’s story over the course of the campaign. This involves a high expectation level for the degree of character development. There is no story arc to complete with undeveloped characters. It is also built on a premise: the PC is an “adventurer” for a reason.
In the campaign, then, there will be one of these story arcs per PC. They will be conceived by the player’s design notes and the resulting ante adventure. They will resolve over the course of the campaign. Some PCs will have their stories resolve quickly (i.e. at low levels). Others won’t meet such an opportunity until much later. Some will resolve individually as single PC quests. Others will require the combined efforts of several (or all) of the party members.
I am hoping this device serves as a means for providing decision making tension for PCs (and the players) between actions dedicated to the story arc versus the character arc versus the ancillary arc.
Just stuff to do on the side. Ancillary story arcs might make up the bulk of the play time for the duration of this campaign. That will depend a bit on the overall story arc(s) and the character story arcs. The first tavern hire assignment is a great example of an ancillary story arc. It is a trivial mission in the face of whatever cataclysmic events will develop (or are developing). But it is the most immediately pressing action item on the party’s to do list.
There are two components to the ancillary story arcs that really make them the instrumental piece of the Majora’s Mask design theme. First, they are potentially meaningless. Not everything the PCs do should push the story forward. In fact, if it did then the campaign is back “on rails”. This requires a lot of work on the part of the DM. Actions and missions that directly relate to the main plot line are interesting and worthwhile because of that relationship to the plot. Ancillary missions need to be self-contained and interesting unto themselves. I think Majora’s Mask did a great job with quirky side adventures and interesting puzzle solving such that they were worth play time despite not affecting the overall story. You could “beat” Majora’s Mask having only played a small fraction of the actual game.
The second component is choice. Again relating to the main story, if all actions tie back to the main plot the PCs don’t have any real or meaningful options in directing the adventure. They are always pursuing the “beat the game” path. They may have choice in how to pursue that path, but it isn’t the same. That is why I want an overall story arc that can develop on its own. The PCs have the right to choose to ignore the overall story arc. There may be consequences (many unknown) to this choice. But the choice itself is important. Again using Majora’s Mask as an example, if the player chose to spend all his/her time doing side quests, s/he would never “beat the game”, but would enjoy an interesting gaming experience. Hence, I want there to always be several options, or choices, for what the PCs do for the next “mission”.
The idea of ancillary story arcs works great with the idea of quests. The PCs have the choice to determine what the next mission is by seeking magic item components or pursuing an advancement quest. These are, in a very strict sense, totally unrelated to the overall story and a great example of the type of ancillary story arc I’m envisioning.
Is it possible?
The idea of PC-directed missions and multiple, simultaneously developing stories is awesome. But can I do it? First, it is a lot of work. There is a ton of planning in developing a world enough to allow for the open choices I want to create. While I hope to control this by offering several options at each branch in the decision tree (Majora’s Mask) instead of a totally open floor plan (GTA), it is still a lot.
Second, the real trick might be in creating ancillary adventures that stand on their own as interesting and fulfilling. Keeping track of the “big” story is probably the easy part. Majora’s Mask did this with puzzles and problem solving. Trouble is, I’m no puzzle designer. I hope to poach loads of material as side adventures from movies, video games, and RPG written sources. And I hope to bring the correct puzzle element from some research and relying on the aformentioned RPG sources. We’ll see if it is possible.
I think time pressure is an interesting device for evoking emotional responses from players. And by evoking emotion, we are preventing the third party perspective that can prevent player immersion. In this sense, time pressure is used to create a shared emotion between the player and the PC. In the story, the PCs may be in a time crunch situation where they need to make decisions quickly. This emotion is completely lost if the players are allowed to take as long as they want for each decision they make.
I see two types of implementation of time pressure:
Micro scale time pressure is an explicit situation or encounter where the players are quite clearly on the clock. Ever played a video game that has some sequence of self destruct at the end? I’m thinking of Metroid, myself. A coundown clock goes up on the screen and you have a fixed amount of time to get outta Dodge. That is micro scale time pressure: one continuous scene on the clock.
The most obvious example of micro scale time pressure is the 30 second rule. This puts everyone’s turn on the clock. It keeps the encounter moving forward quickly, and prescribes a set of consequences for not making the cut off. The specific rule page fully describes my reasons and thoughts. Suffice to repeat that I think the net benefits to the overall gaming environment outweigh the frustration the players will no doubt feel. Fights are scary and the results can hang on quick decisions. I want to capture that in the game.
There are other types of micro scale time pressure, even within combat encounters. One I’ve seen multiple times before in written materials is the “kill the Wizard in less than 5 rounds or the princess gets sacrificed” kind of stuff. Putting triggers on round counts adds a different and complementary time pressure element to the 30 second rule.
And this stuff isn’t, and shouldn’t be, all combat oriented stuff. Many of the story level time pressure elements are going to be Macro Scale (see below). Non-combat encounters can be put on the clock, and this makes navigating trap-laden areas especially interesting. Go fast and don’t check (as well) for traps or go slow to check all the traps but risk not making it somewhere in time. What do you do?
The above example begs another point that might deserve a whole page to itself: interesting decisions. Time pressure is mostly a headache inducing artifact if it doesn’t connect well to the story. And the way to make it connect well to the story is to make it a choice and have interesting consequences to that choice. Putting everything “on the clock” because I can might make it fun for me to watch the players sweat, but it will get old and isn’t good storytelling. Its better to let players know they are in a time crunch situation and how quickly they accomplish something affects its ultimate resolution. Then sit back and watch what they do.
It should be a decision making process wherein the characters can weigh their choices in a sort of risk-cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes the results of not making time should be explicitly known and sometimes they shouldn’t. If a VIP gets captured, we don’t know how long we have or what will happen, but we can surmise that the longer it takes to find the VIP, the worse it will be. Movies do this all the time.
Macro scale time pressure is the type of time tracking that makes no sense to count in rounds or track with a stop watch. This is a device that I will use to create a living world that is bigger than the room the PCs currently occupy. Putting the whole world “on the clock” and making it change over time is a key component to bringing it to life.
Some examples of this are obvious and simple. Seasons, for example. The PCs could be on a mission that is long lived and involves travel over large distances. We don’t need to draw these scenes out too much, but we can provide benefits and detriments for parts of the sequence taking more or less time. And faster shouldn’t always be better. Maybe if they really take their time helping the villagers through the winter they get a double benefit: the village shaman does a ritual to grant them good luck and they didn’t hit the mountain pass in the middle of winter where blizzard conditions are a real risk.
Much of the macro scale time pressure element just involves DM planning and fleshing out much more of the world than simply where the PCs currently are and where they are going. Taking a look at the map all around the PCs, for example, the DM could put patrols, caravans, migrating monsters, etc. all on certain paths at particular paces. Then, depending on when PCs traverse certain places, they will avoid the monster, meet the caravan, or find the remnants of a battle the patrol had in the course of its duties.
Macro scale time keeping necessitates the use of an in game calendar. I will either use one of the calendar “services” I’ve read about on RPG forums or else do it myself here on Obsidian Portal. The calendar is the synchronization piece for everything from seasons to random encounters “on the road” as described in the previous paragraph.
One final point in this discussion: as per the story goals, I want to have a campaign level overall story arc, with some ultimate climax. It is impossible, really, to write that from day one of the campaign. You just don’t yet know what the players want to do or how their PCs will affect the world. At the same time, I want to put some cataclysmic, world-changing events in motion on day one. These will slowly build on a scripted (but behind the scenes adjustable) schedule, and hints as to how the world is (or could be) changing will come at regular intervals. By the time of the day of reckoning, the PCs’ other actions will determine much of the range of possible outcomes.
I think the best time to resolve these epic events is in the 25 level range (assuming we can actually play this thing all the way through). That way the PCs have the ability to see and respond to the world they created (whether by action or inaction). And this gives ultimate choice: they can choose to ignore what is happening in (to) the world and then are stuck with the consequences (or trying to undo it) or they can risk life and limb trying to thwart it.