Sunday, 7 May 2017

Records, Railroads and Rewards

I find one of the persistent issues that DMs - myself entirely included – find difficult to balance is the relationship between choice and structure. Ideally, you’d deposit your players in a multiverse of endless possibility and they’d gallivant merrily about pursuing their hearts desires. Realistically, you do need some structure to ensure something is happening. I personally as a player find little more frustrating that endless dithering over a quest or environment to undertake or overrun, and as a DM my eyes glaze over entirely.

To solve this I have three maxims:
- There’s adventure everywhere.
- All roads lead to Rome.
- Constraints power creativity.

Like most DMs, I have a ball-park idea of what The Company of the Noose will one day do, but I wouldn’t railroad them into it. But to ensure action actually takes place there needs to be some overview of options. To this end, I regularly update my Quest Journal and endeavour to summarise options for the players to pursue. Constraints power creativity. If they choose to ignore the main quest, fine – that villain advances their quest correspondingly. The world is alive.

if you have a brief look over it, you can see a number of Main Quests, Side Quests and Personal Quests. You’ll also notice that most side-quests or personal-quests are linked explicitly to a Main Quest. If the players pursue Landar Farshield’s personal mission to slay Valakshanya, the Vampire Queen of the Bleeding Mountain, they will also be combatting long-time party foes the Cult of Ouroboros, and will no doubt stumble across clues related to other Cult of the Ouroboros quests, or even ones related to the main quest. This is not the Quantum Ogre – if the players had instead chosen to pursue Crown, Hourglass, Sword and adventured to Zunia they would have found entirely different lead to an entirely different aspect of the ‘main’ quest – potentially related to Pursuing the Metagnosis. The point is that wherever the players go, they find something pertaining to the larger picture: a lead, a rival, an ally, an item an artefact: a feedback loop to where there is more adventure to be had. All roads lead to Rome.

An example of this is when my players, disinterested in their ‘Main’ quest, endeavoured to instead build up the keep they’ve acquired, and strike up an alliance with a Pirate-King (Blind Agni Nine Fingers) of the acquaintance. Spontaneously, they decided to curry favour by setting out to humble one of his rivals, Rasselas.

They set out for the Sea of Desolation, and there I sketch out some made up locations. I’d dimly thought of the Sea of Desolation before, and had a gist (it’s magical so islands move and shift, there are gaps between planes so weird monsters can pass into the world here, and it’s got a Sinbad meets Stranger Tides meets The Scar vibe). One of the places I’ve sketched, The Weeping Isle, I tell them is a cursed island riddled with tombs. That piques their interest, and they presume it would pique that of Rasselas, so they set out. There’s adventure everywhere.

On the island, they uncover and explore a Duergar ruin – twist, it’s a millennia-old ruin only from the future, and the Duergar meet a horrible fate at some unspecified future date. Tom’s character Rongrim, previously uninvolved in the main quests, now has a connection to explore which will eventually lead him to having a connection to the main-main quest, Pursue the Metagnosis. Additionally, the players encounter the remnants left by a former rival and ex-PC on the very same island, and have another feedback loop to combating the Cult of Ouroboros.

The players are choosing their goals, their methods and their priorities, but there’s a reward for each avenue explored, and they’re never not pursuing their main goals. This prevents the strange situation common in PCRPGs like Skyrim or Dragon Age where players cease averting the apocalypse to help a farmer find his lost sheep or look up a companion’s poorly sister: they’re always combating their enemies or growing their organisation’s strength in some appreciable way. Additionally, no one is too bored pursuing that quest that’s the baby of a single player, because ultimately they’re always pursuing their own goals simultaneously.

Additionally,  I’ve found my players love reminiscing about that time they fought on a giant chain hovering over a cavern, or when they burnt a city’s grain supply to wreak economic hell, or when they slew Sheng-Lung, a mighty water-beast in Loquista’s arena. Now, I use milestones for levelling, but that only gives you twenty or so moments per campaign where you can acknowledge a victory or moment of renown.

So as an alternative, and to keep the players mid-level long enough to have a campaign, I’m going to introduce reward feats for completion of those endeavours, either for quest milestones:

Reaper of the Raven Queen
You have vanquished three of the abominations marked by The Chooser of the Slain. Faced with you, even dead hearts shudder with fear.
Once per day, you may make all undead creatures within 15 feet make a CHA check versus fear. The DC is 8 + your level.

Or just moments that inspire bragging rights:

You have slain an apex predator – a beast whose eye had appraised civilisation as a wolf watches sheep. All shall raise a glass to your name.
You have advantage on all rolls to track dragons, or knowledge rolls about dragons. If you are a Ranger, you may treat Dragons as your favoured enemy. You need never pay for a drink again.

Power Behind The Throne
I am altering our deal. Pray I do not alter it further.
You have played kingmaker – there is a crowned head who will always be accommodating to you.

I find these are smaller power-boosts than a level, meaning I don’t have to constantly readjust the scale of my campaign to accommodate players who can now throw around a Circle of Death or turn into an Elemental or whatever, and there’s something massively cool about fucking up an enemy using an ability you won with your previous badassery, and it gets players remembering their party’s shared history or achievement and loss – something key to cohesion.