Listening to: I Am The One – Inon Zur (Dragon Age: Origins)
For a recent Geek Life event, I ran a workshop on running D&D campaigns in preparation for our upcoming One-Shot Night event. My agenda for this meeting included what I call my “Five-Step Plan for Adventure,” a technique for campaign construction that has served me well over the time. The Five-Step Plan for Adventure is fairly simple in structure:
Step 1: Exposition.
Step 2: The Introduction.
Step 3: The B.B.E.G.
Step 4: The Grand Quest.
Step 5: The Climactic Moment.
Step 5.1: The End? (Optional.)
I’ll break each of these steps down in the following posts, in the interest of making the ideas therein accessible to a wide range of prospective DMs. Take notes: this will be on the test.
Step 1: Exposition.
I’ve spoken about exposition before, and it’s just as important in a tabletop game as it is in a movie, TV series, video game, or book. In a story you’re running–especially if you’re creating your own setting for the campaign–this step is all-important. It’s here that you’ll set the tone of the entire game, as well as introduce many of the elements that will recur throughout.
I’ll use my own campaign as an example. When we began (two years ago), I began with a grand narration of past history. Some of it was fairly standard fantasy stuff: a continent created by a pantheon of gods, a dark power sealed away thousands of years ago, and the three standard fantasy races–elves, dwarves, and humans–sharing this continent. A good portion of it was of my own design: each of the six nations (and one city-state) represented one of the seven gods, and was ruled over by a “Paragon” who exemplified the ideals their respective god or goddess represented: Order, Love, War, Wisdom, Fire, the Forest, and the Sea.
With the basic information about the setting out of the way, I was able to move on to what was truly important: setting the stage for the rest of the story to come. I began the story with a definite destination in mind. The party, at the behest of the Paragon of Order, would attempt to prevent a war from breaking out. Whether they succeeded or failed was immaterial, so long as that was a goal that they were working towards. Accordingly, I planted rumors of growing unrest between the Silvan elves and the dwarves of Ignia.
“Elves versus dwarves? Hasn’t that been done a million times?” Why, yes. But the value of a story isn’t in how original it is, it’s in how the story is told. There’s a reason why the original Star Wars trilogy is considered a classic while Eragon is… not. They’re the same story, but they’re told in completely different ways. In a campaign, it’s the same way. What matters most is that your players enjoy the story and feel immersed in it. Which brings us to…
Step 2: The Introduction.
Also known as “the plot hook.” For best results, picture this as a literal hook. For even better results, picture it as a whole series of hooks falling down all around the players until they can go nowhere without being caught on them. …all right, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration.
The Introduction is the phase of the story where the major characters are introduced, the plot kicks off, and the party begins working together. This can take multiple forms. There is, of course, what the Dungeonmaster’s Guide refers to as “the cliché,” entailing the party meeting up at Some Tavern, Somewhere and deciding to go on an adventure together. There are, of course, countless variations. My own campaign looked like it was setting up for “the cliché” at the beginning, but abruptly left the rails when the majority of the PCs (player characters, for the uninitiated) started a bar-fight, were arrested, and chose conscription into the army to mitigate their prison sentences.
In this situation, hooking the party into an adventure scenario was a cinch: I simply had the paladin who was their parole officer lay out the tasks they were to complete. In the event that you don’t end up having leverage over your party, however, there are several different ways to encourage them to choose the path of adventure. The key in these cases is to know the PCs’ motivations well and bait the hooks accordingly. For example, let’s say the quest you want the PCs to undertake is to slay a dragon that has been ravaging a forest. You can draw in the rogue with the promise of the dragon’s wealth, the paladin with the opportunity for heroic deeds, the druid with the motivation of saving the forest, and the wizard with the opportunity to study exotic species and gather materials for crafting magic items. Understanding the way that the PCs’ minds work is one of the best way to make the party feel like their characters matter, rather than just being an afterthought. Once you’ve gotten your players sufficiently interested, it’s time for the next step in the Plan for Adventure…
Step 3: The B.B.E.G.
Every campaign needs a villain.* (*This hypothesis has not been confirmed by empirical evidence.) Whether it’s a scheming vizier, a bloodthirsty warlord, or an evil sorcerer, your villain needs to be a legitimately threatening figure. Their master plan will be the cause for most of the conflict in the campaign. They are the Big Bad Evil Guy. (Or Gal. Evil is an equal-opportunity industry.)
Ideally, you’ll want a villain who can actually recur throughout the campaign without the party being able to kill them effortlessly. I’ll once again refer to my campaign for reference. The first time that the party encountered General Galdrad, the arc villain for the second section of the campaign, they hadn’t yet discovered the full extent of his villainy, so their interactions were limited to the exchange of meaningless pleasantries at a meeting in the city of Valence. Their next encounter was when he led his army into Valence, forcing the party to flee by ship. By their third meeting, they had exposed his treachery to the Paragon of Order and he was on the defensive, summoning demons in order to flee from a duel. Finally, the party managed to corner and kill him, though they had to fight a dragon in order to do so.
In order to motivate a group to go after a villain, you need more than simply the idea that they are the villain. Perhaps the party has been ordered to defeat this particular enemy, or perhaps the villain is constantly trying to interfere with the party’s plans. If the villain makes things personal–Renloth, another villain in my campaign, did this by capturing, torturing, and cutting out the tongue of a PC’s sister–then the party is ten times more likely to go after him than if they are told that he drowns cats and blinds puppies.
I’ll finish up the outline of the Five-Step Plan for Adventure next week. Until then, signing off!