Monday, February 9, 2009

Other Knobs to play with

Here James Maliszewski talks about his Dwimmermount campaign. This paragraph caught my attention.

The session went well enough, but I have to admit that I think I need to mix things up a little next time. The initial thrill of a good ol' fashioned dungeon is starting to recede and what we're left with falls a bit flat at times. Granted, I have plenty to work with already: relics of a Thulian cult to Turms Termax, the presence of Tsathoggua-worshipping Ranine, and some peculiar artifacts that may point to deeper mysteries of Dwimmermount. So far, though, I haven't really given the players much opportunity to dwell on these things nor have I pushed them to investigate them. Part of it is that I'm still quite reluctant to take an active role in shaping the campaign's focus and/or direction; I'd prefer to be more reactive. However, I think I may be a little too passive at this stage. Likewise, I think I need to present more opportunities outside the dungeon. I want to keep Dwimmermount as the center of the campaign, but to be a proper center, there need to be things revolving around it and I haven't really set much in motion in the wider world just yet. Since the PCs will be in Adamas for time next session, I intend to use it as an opportunity to do just this.
Mike Mearls replies in the comment

Finding the right carrot to keep "modern" (for lack of a better term) Finding the right carrot to keep "modern" (for lack of a better term) gamers interested in a dungeon is tricky. IME, gamers are used to having external reasons to go into the dungeon, rather than creating their own motivations.

I think this is a symptom of how games have shifted over the past 30 years. When D&D first arose, the idea of an interactive, reactive game was so new and exciting that simply experiencing the game was enough to hook people.

Today, with consoles and computer games and MMOs, people are used to the idea of messing around in a fantasy environment. They go through that initiation phase (Cool! I can explore a fantasy world!) much earlier, and now want other knobs to play with.
In previous Dwimmermounts post James states he wants his players to be the prime drivers of the campaign and keep the heavy hand of plot as light as possible. I have developed a few techniques over the years to help this particular problem.

The DM is the only source of information on the campaign world. If not enough information is given then the players don't have anything to base their decisions on. This can be frustrating. Opposed to this is too much information which I call the dreaded info dump. The GM just droning on with reams of information about the setting. You want just enough to promote immersion so that the player feel comfortable with the setting and where his character fits in.

I do several things to avoid the info dump. I keep the initial handout to two pages of which about half is local information. Of the two the local information is the most important. You are going to weave a web around the character so that he embedded in a specific time and place with a past and sense of a future. Because the character is going to be an adventurer instead of marrying his lady love and having a dozen kids, the interconnection should be interesting and have the potential for future adventures. Some of these interconnections should done in conjunction with your player in a pre-game. While other you make for future surprises. If some area or dungeon, like Dwimmermount, is the centerpiece of a particular campaign then some of the interconnections should be setup so that it draw the players to that locale.

If you already have an existing campaign you can start using this yourself. The next time the players are back in the town make up a roster of inhabitants. With the character's personalities in mind group them so that one or more of the groups appeal to the individual characters. Then when you have your session introduce them. One surefire way of getting to look positively at these NPCs is too treat them like heroes.

For example Alaris the Rogue is invited to the Dagger's Inn where she's treated to a private feast by Boss Noggar in honor of freeing the Gem of Varasin from the 2nd level of Dwimmermount. During the feast Alaris meets Palis Geravis a lower rank thief that who is also a fan. She immediately takes a mutual dislike of Yagu the Noseless who feel that as a non guild member she should be made an example of. At the conclusion of the feast Boss Noggar offers her full membership, in addition he pull out an old map and wishes to discuss something else that can be found in the Dwimmermount. All the while Yagu is looking on with greedy eyes.

You can get as complex as you like with this. Once the players get immersed with their NPC social circle then you just handed them a bunch of knobs to twist.

An additional way of getting the players immersed is remember that your setting can be a living breathing world.

The Harn/Wilderlands route of infinite detail is one way provided it is not dumped on the players all at once. They to tend view the campaign as more fair as they feel that they can more easily discover things that will remain so. I will be honest, the work involved in getting to this point is tremendous and it is not practical for every DM.

But there are other way to give your setting that lived in feel. One technique is before a campaign I make up a list of events. These events are not like a Dragonlance style railroad plot. Rather these events represent what going to happen if the players were not involved. To add the lived in feel add more events that are not part of any plot or ideas you have.

For example in midsummer, the annual Crimson Merchant Adventurer's cattle drive runs into a problem and now the herd is scattered all over the North Way and points surrounding. This event has nothing to do with the fact that evil twin overlords are gathering all evil to attack the civilized lands.

Star Trek the Next Generation was noted for having as part of their formula the A Story of the episode, a B Story, and sometimes a C Story. The same way with these list of events, you have A list, a B, C, and D list, and then a bunch of random stuff. They don't have to very detailed either, no more than a paragraph for each entry is needed.

I can't stress this part enough, after you have your list of events it not a storymap. It what would happen if the players were not involved. That means when they do get involved your list is going to change. Not everything, but you will have alter it in response to what the players do. Now the good news is that in any long term campaign you are going to get fairly good at predicting what the player will do. This way you can prepare before hand. But there will be surprises.

Now James's Dwimmermount doesn't have a lot detailed for it and that was a deliberate decision. These things can still help for that situation. The key to remember is that he is using a megadungeon as his centerpiece.

Megadungeons can be thought as a lot of levels stacked every which way. But I recently played the Mines of Moria expansion for Lord of the Ring Online a MMORPG. It's version of Moria is very well done and drove in one important point. That megadungeons are their own setting. Any tool that you can use for a setting you can use for a megadungeon.

So my suggestions for megadungeons like the Dwimmermount is to treat them like their own little realm. Make sure that not only there are interesting rooms but interesting groups of room. But more importantly don't make it static. Make up a list of events that are going to happen if the players are not involved.

For example Maybe in three months the Kobold Chief that on the first level will die causing a civil war to erupt. You can plant clues that this event is going to happen and when the players uncover them they now have something interesting to decide about. Multiply this by all the other groups and bits that are part of a typical megadungeons and suddenly you have an interesting place with all sorts of knobs to turn.

If you think of stuff that connects back with the upper world setting and the main towns then you have something that can pull the character from the town into the dungeon, out again, and then back again.

For example Alaris agrees to the deal with the Boss and takes the map. When the party gets the treasure Alaris is ambushed by Yagu, the party kills Yagu and his evil band and return to the town and upholds the deal with the Boss. But the remains of the goblin tribe that guarded the treasure has vowed revenge and sent their best assassins to kill the party in the town. In the ensuing crossfire Palis Geravis is killed while saving Alaris. Alaris vows revenge on the remaining goblins and want to return to the dungeon. Meanwhile Yagu's lover Serais has made a vow of her own and begins to gather her own party. Unbeknowest to anybody the surviving goblins have allied with the losing faction of the Kobold war staking out a home in an area of the dungeons the party thought was cleared out.

And it can go on and on like this with lots of knobs for the players and GM to play with.

1 comment:

Chgowiz said...

I can testify that the idea of having a "What could happen if the PCs don't do anything" list is a great brainstorming idea. I've got one rolling for each campaign and they help to give me some context. Life goes on with or without the PCs and having some sort of an idea of the general jist of things helps me to determine reactions.

I go back and twiddle these lists as the players do stuff. They're only about 10 to 12 items each, but they help out a lot.