I’m running a table-top roleplaying game.
Early in this blog I posted several articles about building a home-brew RPG. My current game group isn’t in to homebrew, so I’ve been playing D&D 4e for the past year or so. A month ago I was elected the game master for a series of adventures that are supposed to compliment a much larger storyline scripted by Judah, our principal game master.
D&D 4E is a fairly rigid design for an RPG. So rigid some players of earlier editions called it “a computer game without the computer”… unfair criticism, I think. It has a carefully structured and extensive library that makes it difficult to unbalance a character. I’ve both blessed and cursed this system already as it has helped me balance things out and has made my life painful when a story in my head won’t fit in the rules. I thought about posting more on this subject, but since I doubt many of my readers know 4e I decided it wouldn’t interest others.
I was asked to master this game in order to give everyone a chance to play with different characters while also giving Judah a chance to collect his thoughts and decide where the story should go next. We didn’t want to go completely out-of-story, though, nor did we want to have me step on the toes of the main story. And we wanted to target a dozen play sessions, so I needed a quick hook, a clear goal, and a definite end.
The same-tale different-story constraint was fairly easy to meet. In the main storyline many of our enemies came from the same violent expansionist societyOur V.E.S.: Netheril, so I picked them as the enemy of the new story too. Since the main characters haven’t traveled more than a few dozen miles from one cityBase: New Velar, it was pretty easy to put the new characters in the same world without stepping on the parts Judah had fleshed out. There was also a background thread of the characters finding a lot of related powerful-but-pointless magical items For example, there’s a pipe that produces a thousand cubic meters of smoke when you blow in it and soap case that has a few dried peas inside each time it is opened. that all came from the same peculiar origin, so I can weave that in for continuity if I want.
I needed a compelling hook that would give a group of random independent adventurers a clear and unifying goal with a definite end. I picked one of the classics: The other two classics: “something bad will happen unless you stop it” and “you’re greedy, and this is the score”. Romance stories usually cover all three. “something bad happened; deal with it.” As a detail I decided to have people or objects dear to each character be stolen by a too-strong-to-fight force; reclaiming those was the shared objective and the strength of the opposition an additional motivation to work together.
I let each player decide on the details of the loss individually, but made sure to put in a few hooks as well. For example, I decided to have all of the captured people be wielders of magic. I picked this without a clear idea why initially, but I was confident I would find a reason later on. I also crafted a short tale before and during the loss loss that gave each a unique lead on how to reclaim their friends and possessions. One watched the strike force split into three groups; one observed a rare fighting style used by one of the attackers; and the other two had connections with a druid and a foreseer who would likely have marked the passage of / foreseen the actions of the foes.
I try to build a world that feels full without being confusing to the players. I take a two-pronged approach to this.
First, as I noted earlier, give them real choices that change how things go but do not get them stuck. Giving them four leads, one of which lead three directions, meant I needed to be ready for them to take any one of the leads and for all of them to provide some information. I also needed to be ready for them to ignore any of the leads and not get trapped. In planning, this means asking “And what if they do X?” I’d normally not suggest quite so many leads at once; coming up with six contingencies and enough storyline to allow them all to be followed without contradiction is a bit of work. But it was fun to see how they played it out, which leads they ignored and which they followed. It isn’t the story I would have written, but it’s still on task.
Second, I try to add in some side stories. For example, I decided to throw in a dragon in the neighborhood and not tell any of the players about him at all. I scribbled a few brainstorms about why the characters wouldn’t know about the dragon, adding a few “wait—does that mean…” hooks, slight incongruities between what they thought they knew and what they’d discover if they asked. If they had dug up all those hooks and decided to follow them I’m sure we could have crafted a whole series of play sessions around them. Instead they discovered only two of the five hooks I noted and wanted to investigate only one; I flesh that one out a bit between sessions and used it as the main motivator of our third session.
Several of the options I prepared and side stories I sketched never came up, or were barely mentioned. They were still useful, though. Knowing there was a dragon in the area helped me color the behaviors of random people they talked to when, as players always do, they asked things I hadn’t thought about. I could freely go into as little or much detail about this “gossip” as they characters wanted, neither forcing it on them nor hiding it from them. It gives the world a richer, more lived-in feel.
One of the most important activities I’ve found with this group of players that I haven’t noticed as much in the past is the need to switch between talking about the world and talking about the game. As a recent example, this week we were discussing in-character the option of having the heroes lead an army of 200 against a target and at one point I had to stop and ask “Do you, as players, want to play out a large-scale battle?” The answer was “no, but our characters might” so I “rewound” the story a bit and removed the opportunity.
I may, in the future, post a bit more about the story and how I’m building it, as well as how the players, rules, published setting material and I interact.