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Offline Monument

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Campaign Plot
« on: July 29, 2005, 11:06:21 AM »
One of the things that most of my campaigns suffer from is a lack of scalability of the threat facing the PCs, of the driving force behind the campaign.  Usually, there is some big bad nasty who has megalomaniacal goals and such, and the PCs are highly unlikely to be able to do anything about it directly until VERY high levels.

Furthermore, the campaign goal itself usually isn't quite so everpresent, especially at early levels(FYI, I usually play 2E AD&D).  Usually the first few levels consist of a string of adventures to grow their power and really introduce the overall plot points.

What I was wanting to flesh out was the idea that a person could be already involved in the campaign goal, be explicitly prepared to deal with that goal, and able to make a difference, even at first level.

I was thinking about some sort of "magically enhanced king" who is using magical devices to subtly manipulate the society the PCs start in, in such a way that nobody really questions the evil that he's doing(some "evil" that is well known, but unimportant at this point in the discussion, except to say that this is the "evil" the PCs are railing against).

I was thinking about something like Star Wars' rebellion concept, where people join the underground "rebel forces" as lowly types, who do minor things, and as they improve in ability, they are given more and more explicitly dangerous missions on behalf of the rebellion.

The PCs could start out as being drawn to this rebellion, which is trying to restore the kingdom to a previous state of being, where people aren't manipulated to do this evil king's bidding.

The manipulation, btw, would be very subtle, and at higher levels, which would filter down naturally.  Basically, to an average joe, they wouldn't even notice it, it would seem normal, like an everyday thing, but the PCs have seen the effects and it's not good.

I was thinking about magical items to control various aspects of normal life, like religion, merchant trade, royalty, etc.  Throughout the campaign plot, you could have strategic subgoals to eseentially "Free" a sector of society from this control.  One would not be powerful enough to immediately go for the source, but if one could weaken the power base of that source, by removing their impact from one sector of society at a time, the overall effect would be exactly what you needed.

You could first free the merchants from being price fixed(by finding a magic item and destroying it), then you could free the thieves guilds from control(again, destroy magic item), then free the army, etc etc.

I was wondering about the specific sectors of a large nation that would be scalably more difficult to free, ie in what order would the campaign progress.  For example, one could not free the peasantry until most of the rest was taken care of(it's just too large of a task, and would be the most guarded of all controls, being critical to the operation of a nation, the king himself would probably guard that magic item).  But what would be of least importance in the grand scheme, in terms of controlling a population without actually controlling them directly?

The reason I'm asking is because one of the major problems I have is that the big bad evil guy is usually too powerful to take on directly, but often if the party were to intervene, it would catch the attention of the big bad evil guy, and then he'd come along and stomp the party out of existance.  If the BBEG doesn't KNOW about the party explicitly, he can't intervene directly against them, especially if he's busy running a nation.

I know I'm all over the place, but any thoughts on this would be appreciated.
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Offline MoonHunter

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« Reply #1 on: July 29, 2005, 12:36:20 PM »
Finally someone who asks for help on a plot and campaign that actually gives enough information in their first post!

Most of your "issues" can be resolved by some preparation before the campaign starts.  The two elements you need to work on with your crew is character weaving (troupe and world) and character motivations.

When you read a story or see a movie, how often are the characters just there, with no attachment or place in the world or the other characters in the setting?  

The answer you are looking for is basically "NEVER". (Okay, okay, The man with no name who is not really a character in the movies, but just a force of nature. If you count him as a character, he is the exception.)

Writers know that audiences won't believe characters that are just "plopped" into the world. Things and people need to come from some where and have a reason to do the things they do. (Even amnesiacs soon find a place in the world, being the exceptions to the general rule).

Most players are reasonably good about creating a character conception and history, no matter how lame. It is easier to play a character when you have a strong background behind it and most players like making play and roleplay easier, so they make characters with a strong conception and history. Yet often these stories do not have any attachment to the world around them.

This is solved by character weaving to the world. It is always best to make a character part of the game world, weaving them into the tapestry of the background story. Players should check out the world pack the GM provides ( http://www.rpgcitadel.com/guild/index.php?topic=378.0 and http://www.rpgcitadel.com/guild/index.php?topic=1606.0 ). If the packet is not available or the players are not the reading type, the GM should have an "elevator speach", a five minute synopsis of the setting for the game, hitting the high points that are important.  

Players should talk with the GM about elements in the game world that the character could have a connection to: recent history (You were at the battle of Kingam Falls!?), NPCs, organizations, other characters, or even just random things. Form a connection to these things and the character is connected to the world. This helps better define the character and gives the player/ character more options in play.

As the GM, innocently steer them towards world elements that will be  important down the line in the campaign. So the Order of the Oak member finally gets his chance to shine as the Dark Druids attack his order house and he gets to lead them stopping it)

In this case, you would make sure that there were people who in the noble circle, associated with the various circles that are important. Or they could all be part of an group or organization that are assigned to such tasks.

By being part of the world, characters are motivated by their connections and positions in the world. They are no longer doing this "because it is the adventure", they are doing this because it is their job, their obligation, a favor to a friend, their chance at promotion. If you spend a few sessions before such the action really starts just having players work their connection and place in the world, they will have a feel for the "way things are". That way when things change, they will be in a position to notice it and change.

Note: Characters should be important to the world. You can be somewhat important and still first level. The prince can be first level, the ambassador (princess of Alderon) is first level, the smuggler with a history and background (and his fuzzy sidekick) could be first level... they just sound like they are a higher level, and you get the idea.

Back to the movie analogy. So, when you read a story or see a movie (a good one anyways), how often do a group of four to six total strangers, with little to no knowledge of each other, get thrusted together to do something and work together well if they had all been part of a well oiled machine?

The answer you are looking for is basically "NEVER". (Okay they might eventually pull their act together later in the film after some time together)

So why do we accept this in games? They are supposed to be inspired by literature and action/adventure movies. Even video games have a back story explaining why the various characters are working together. No matter how flimsy, there is always a back story to make sense of things.

Not so with game characters. In most cases, they are thrusted by fates into a group of complete strangers to face life and death risks. You would hate this in a movie, why accept it in a game?

So where is your group's backstory?

Some players will say, "Well, they are PCs", so they will interact with characters that normally they would of ignored or run away from. The PC halo is a hackneyed game concept that says, if it is PC you are supposed to embrace other PCs, no matter how weird, lame, or dangerous, the character is. (The concept of halo came from the little bright ring that surrounded characters you were specifically using in early computer RPGs, much like the green polyhedron in a sims game or the gold circle at the feet of a character in most modern games).

Players really want stories, though they will often settle for less. However, if they want a story that includes their characters, they should work with the GM to make it happen.

First and foremost, they need to have a "Group". To make a group, there needs to be some kind of relationship between the members. The Character must be weaved together, not only weaved into the tapestry of the world, but into the tapestry of the group.

The weave for the troupe has two parts: metagroup and group. In terms of the metagroup, this is the group of players getting together and doling out campaign roles (Who fights, who sneaks, who thinks, who smooth talks, who leads, who is the back up should someone else be "indisposed". The group weave is a bit more complex.

To help the campaign story along, work with the other players when you create your characters. Find a connection, something in the characters' mutual past that links the characters together. When did they first meet? Did they work together? Did they grow or attend school/ training academy together? Do they have a mutual friend? Was one character the best friend of another's older sibling? Did they meet once at a party? The more connections and history a character has with the other characters, the easier it will be to play with those characters. Your character will have a reason to work with the other character, rather than the lame.. "well he is a PC".

Now even if the troop is meeting each other for the first time as the adventure starts, lets say the smuggler (and his furry sidekick) and Paladin (and the Last Hope-Paladin in training, these characters should be (approximately) balanced as a group because of the metagroup, but the players should also plan on the characters being able to interact with each other on a personal level. Even if the reaction is a "Friend-Foe" one (like Spock and McCoy in STOS or Dr.Who and Tristan (early on), the players will be able to interact and function together.  

Excuse the explanatory excursion here: The GM should always be involved in character creation. Not only will they supply information about the world, but they are a source of ideas about characters as well. They can make sure each character has a protected nitch and that ever character will have something to do in the campaign.

One other thing they can do is run mini-weaving scenes: Players play out or narrate scenes between their characters at sometimes in their histories. This gives them a chance to practice their characters and develop a mutual history.

The various weaving process gives the troupe reasons to be together, some depth to their relationships, and the chance for the group to work out who does what, in addition to adding depth to the character's history and the GM's world. The GM should work with the players to see how the characters are woven together.

I always recommend a cast party, where players make their characters (or finish their characters) together. This of course goes beyond mechanics, but into conception and meta-troupe options.


Character motivations, we finally focus on those. People do things for a reason, usually a good one (in their mind). You need to give characters one to three strong reasons for doing what they are doing (getting involved in the current or future story arc), otherwise they will get bored during a slow part of a campaign and either leave or just express "a lack of enthusiasm"... killing or stalling the campaign

Goals are based on your place in the world (see character weave to world), relationships (history or troupe character weave) or personal need (see character's personal conception). . These motivations are goals, many of them concrete and taking several steps, that the character is striving for. These should stem from the character's conception, but they can be picked up in play.
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Offline MoonHunter

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« Reply #2 on: July 29, 2005, 12:50:18 PM »
The plot is set up for a series of episodic story arcs under the overarching story arc. Characters discover the problem. They ride in. They find the mcguffin. They defeat the plot complication protecting the mcguffin. They ride on. You do this time and time again, with each region or aspect. Make sure the items and complications are varied enough that the players will not be bored with the basic pattern.

Make sure the players have motivations besides the "Stop the Evil Plot" motivation. This gives them other motivational buttons you can press along the way, so he may be trying to "woo the girl", so have her threatened by some aspect of the Evil Plot.

Your people should be somewhat important people in the scheme of things, so they can be in a place to notice and effect change. Sure they might have to ditch their respectable position to become rebels eventually, but they might bring their position with them.

As for the Big Bad, they should never be defeatable by direct force. If that was the answer, then somewhere in the middle, the players get the insane idea to attack the Big Bad and discover how pathetic they are.

People need to have the climax built up to. Not only does this give the players a chance to "buff up" before it occurs, but it gives the players a proper sense of dread and caution when they come up to it.

Near the begining of every scenario (be it a single arc or meta-story arc), heck often the first scene, the potential climax is presented. The best example is in Movies, Jaws for example. From the first scene, you knew it was going to come down to the Sherriff and the Shark. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett Ohara was lectured about "The Land", so you knew she was going to understand its value. In any of the versions of the Three Musketeers, you get an inkling soon after the first fight scene that the Cardnial's right hand man is the main dramatic bad (for D'Artanian anyways). These are just a few of thousands of examples. So when setting up the scenario, try to bring in elements of the Climax in at the begining, even if it is just a hint in the background. The players might not be conscious of it, but it will evetually click in their mind and they will be satisfied with it.

Every climax, be it for the campaign or for a given plot arc, needs to be built up. Dramatic tension must be built up on a solid foundation of example. Something straight from every Storytelling 101 class. A lovely tool to do this, borrowed from our Author friends, The Pyramid of Support. It is a tool that helps us show: Nothing happens without a reason. The more powerful or important something is, the more the GM needs to both explain and foreshadow it. And what is more important or powerful than a climactic event or foe? The power or importance can be expressed in simple explanations, in rumors or stories the characters might hear, or the characters could see the results. Eventually you will have small encounters of lesser minions of the big threat. Then greater threats. Then it will show that this powerful/ important thing is important/ powerful AND THE PLAYERS WILL KNOW IT.

The more evidence and support you make for a claim, the more willing people are to believe it.

If you want your characters to respect and fear a "powerful force" show them how powerful it is. Otherwise, they will yawn, attempt to fight it, and then &^%$@ about their characters being dead or enslaved.

The same things for importance. The more important something is, the more it should show up. It should be foreshadowed by lesser events. Then when it appears, players will go "OH YAH, of course!" or "There it is, I was expecting that" rather than "Where the h*ll did that come from?"

Quote
So to review...
1) Show it early, make it pay off often.

2) Set a foundation for the important/ powerful thing to exist. Rumors, world pack entries, NPCs mentioning it.

3) Begin to show glimer's of its power/ importance.

4) Have these "showing events" appear as time progressing, growing more powerful/ important as time goes on.

5) Thus when the powerful/ important thing finally shows up directly, players will be appropriately respectful/ fearful, and play accordingly.

6) Thus when the climactic thing shows up, everyone gets a feeling of closure and completeness.


It is easy to do, just think of the Pyramid and do it.

So make sure to sprinkle the bits about the big bad over the course of all these episodic story arcs. So the players should be quaking in their boots about this big bad. They know they can not confront it directly. So have them search for ways around it:
They might have a might orb of whatzit that supports their power over the other items

They might have a huge three headed watchdog to protect them (so they big bad is somewhat of a wimp)

Perhaps the Big Bad can't exhibit their powers in public for some reasons (plan your attack carefully)

You might need item/ spell X to neutralize their power for a moment, they might take out all the intermediate powers, so when they confront the Big Bad he is not as scary because his army of minion are no longer at his beck and call.

So you can work it that way or fake it and go with what ever the players think will work after they have stressed about it for a while -thus giving them a magician's choice.
MoonHunter
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Offline Monument

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« Reply #3 on: July 30, 2005, 02:23:23 AM »
Moonhunter, I am thankful for your detailed response, and all of the information was QUITE useful.  The suggestions are good ones, the ideas are excellent and the theory is sound.

However, unfortunately I must confess that my key question was not really addressed.  Make no mistake about it, very good information, but ultimately, it was about something I didn't ask.

Basically, my problem with this scenario does not center around character motivations or world issues or anything like that, all that sort of thing tends to fall nicely into place for our group.  Instead, the issue revolves around the progression of the campaign itself.

Knowing that a big baddie is controlling an entire society by subtle magical manipulation, and the overthrow of the big baddie was the ultimate goal of the entire campaign(ala Star Wars, rebels vs empire), what is the logical progression of low priority to high priority of "things to take down"?

I can easily see that certain things would not be as much of a priority for the bad king, and others would be of a high priority.  The army is obviously a high priority, he must control the armed forces.  What about criminal elements, religion, wizards guilds, mercantile interests, agriculture, infrastructure, etc etc, everything that makes a magical country run.  What would be the low level targets for "freedom", as opposed to the high level targets?

What could be a logical progression of strategic events to both captivate the players and make somewhat logical sense(for a lowly person to do)?

I was thinking that the first thing they might want to do is run around collecting things to create a magic item to destroy each of the magic items that are controlling the society.  The king may not be aware they even exist, so would not be looking to protect them, a great adventure for low level guys.  Then, once they collect all the low level stuff, they are high enough level to attack the magic items themselves.

I'm looking at lots of political intrigue, combined with a bit of hack n slash, and a lot of underworld stuff(the rebellion is shunned, of course).

Again, I thank you for your excellent information, and I will DEFINITELY be preparing a "world packet" for my players for next campaign, but the questions I have are ultimately about the progression of the campaign plot itself, rather than the world around it.
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Offline EchoMirage

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« Reply #4 on: July 30, 2005, 06:51:35 PM »
Just for the sake of variety: you might want to make some of the controlling elements something else than mind-control items.

Perhaps the military is controlled by an extremely charismatic, yet loyal, general.
Perhaps one of the Domination Items is a person who is maintaining the enchantment - so, a Siren might hold sway over the navy.
The king might have focused the power in people who know nothing of it: so might fair damsel Linoire be in fact what keeps a warding enchantment of the fortress running... the PCs will be faced with the dilemma of either killing her, and thus going the easy way, or seeking a different way to sever the link to the warding.

Some of the items might have different functions also: so might one power the airships, but also support the warding on a prison for magical deviants. So, if the PCs blow it up, not only will the air navy fail, but also a few dozens of mad sorcerers will roam the country.
Or, the item might power a hospital, or something else the PCs would hate to see go without the juice.

An item might also allow access to other more important ones: So, while the PCs might easily dispatch the Dimensional Flux Agitator that keeps the king's gate system online, without it, they cannot access the pocket-dimension where the controls for the Battle-Golems are kept.

I hope some of this will help you.
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Offline Monument

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« Reply #5 on: July 30, 2005, 08:50:27 PM »
I like all of those ideas, and must confess that I was already a few steps(but not THAT many steps) ahead of you.  You took me in directions I hadn't even thought of, though.

I had an idea to include actual PEOPLE for the party to need, as opposed to items.  When it's JUST items, my guys tend to get very "Plan A"(kill em all, let god sort em out).  I wanted to include people who very specifically could not be killed, otherwise their usefulness would be negated, and especially really bad guys who will continue to cause them problems over time.

Those sorts of things are very plot dependant, of course, but make no mistake about it, I would include just the sort of things that you suggest in order to make the game interesting and varied.  It's relatively easy to blow up some magic item, if you're committed to that task.  What's much more difficult and interesting is keeping alive someone who you DESPERATELY want to kill.  

Oh I would have *SOOO* much fun making some middle management annoying nemesis of the party be the exact thing that needs to be kept alive.  As DM, there is nothing more enjoyable than making the players annoyed at my baddies and then giving them a reason NOT to kill that NPC.  ;)

Aside from that, any thoughts on the order of progression of the campaign itself?  What sectors of society would be freed in what order of difficulty, the least important to the king would be easiest to free up.  The unfortunate part of this is that arguments for the importance of EVERY sector of society are readily available.  Free the farmers?  Well, they make the food, so they are important.  Free the merchants?  Well, they keep the economy running, so they are pretty important.  Free the religions?  Well, they keep the masses in line, so they are important.  GAH!  What's least important???

I'll note that everyone is avoiding that question, probably because they are having the same internal arguments as I am having as far as which parts of society would be more and less important to a controlling king.  Ah, such is the hardship of being the story author, eh?  ;)
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Offline manfred

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« Reply #6 on: July 31, 2005, 04:08:58 AM »
If you can't decide (and it's no easy decision) why don't you leave it simply to the players? There's no need to write the whole script for them, let them do something, too. And as they start doing their thing, appropriate problems will show up. They could easily take something strongly controlled first out, after a long preparation of course, so the rest could be easier.

As for the king, create his character and personality, and if it still doesn't help, roll a dice to decide what's more important to him. ;)
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Offline Monument

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« Reply #7 on: July 31, 2005, 05:00:56 AM »
I find that if you leave the campaign direction up to the players, they don't tend to provide what you need.  They are more than willing to provide color and abstraction, but when it comes to the guts of the campaign, it's important to make it yourself, so that they players don't feel "lost".  That's my personal perception, anyways.
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Offline Strolen

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« Reply #8 on: July 31, 2005, 06:40:56 AM »
Let me stab this one and see if it bleeds.

First I need help getting how this magic works. You say that they are trying to restore the kingdom to the previous state of being. Did they live through it or was it stories? Either way, this would imply that they knew how it was previously somehow, which would then imply that some are not effected by the magic. If they learned it through stories, then the king super slipped by not destroying all the information about the happy shiny time of the kingdom and these books would still be banned and actively sought after to be destroyed. If it is because they lived through it then he would know this happens and would be having some sort of inquisition find those unaffected by his magic.

So, one thing to do would be figure out why the rebels aren't affected by the manipulation of the magic and use that to their benefit. Might be something they can use on a limited amount of people to help the rebellion before they get this magical item.

Second, I am having difficulty in how the subtle control is able to be divided into job types. It is one thing to have some kind of magical hold on a few people manipulating them or even an area effect, but when you expand that to an entire class spread over an entire kingdom then that seems a little too much power to me. More details on the magic items and their effects would be needed (unless that is part of the flesh it out then we can play with that) for us to understand them enough to know what would be weakest.

Then if you do free one class, they are constantly intermingled amongst those that are still under the influence so the chance for conflict between these classes could (or should) be something that happens. This could get the whole kingdom ugly fast.

I think a more logical way to do it would be using an area of effect type thing. Then you free sectors and you aren't throwing a freed portion scattered throughout the entire kingdom into conflict, just the big section vs. the small section. But that is probably too LOTR for you so I can see how maybe a twist being it controlled by class instead of area.

I don't think we are having problems with deciding what is most important just that the importance will depend on the personality of the person, their fears and experience. Manfred is right about figuring out the king, for it is his personality, past actions, and history of the land that will define everything else and that will give the players the clues to know what may or may not be as protected.

Perhaps the previous king was taken over by a peasant uprising, or a merchant boycott that eventually got the king assissinated, these would drive the importance of those classes and make him fear them and make them the most protected. Perhaps he (since he is evil) came up through a conspiracy through one of the guilds so they would be the most protected. Could be a hundred things that happen to drive the _king's_ decision to protect something so any opinions we have would be arbitrary.

I definately agree about leaving the direction up to the characters though. Give them the clues and let them decide in what order they want to tackle them. I don't quite understand where the items will be, but as long as you have a plan for the power level and protection of each magical item then I would plug and play them in regards to how the characters react. If they pick something you thought would have been middle level (in your opinion) as their first thing to attack then reevaluate your thoughts comparing it to their decision process, then swap around the protection of that to be the lowest respecting their decision. Their decisions are no less valid then ours or yours, they are actually probably better since they have to actually accomplish the mission. Trust your players, just be prepared for whatever they decide I say.

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