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Archade

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« on: December 30, 2003, 11:34:03 AM »
Hello all!

I am a long-time DM returning to running a campaign after a long hiatus, and I'm still rusty.

I have been running a once-through campaign that's been light on story, to get the hang of game mechanics and the like, and I'll be winding this down, and starting a proper story-based campaign.

Here's the situation I have worked out thus far

- I want to run a city-based campaign, influenced and inspired by the Jhereg series, Glen Cook's Tower of Fear, Lankhmar, Thieves' World, and the like.

- I want to run a 'byzantine' flavored campaign, with Sinbad-style monsters that would be appropriate to middle-eastern/eastern european culture.

- I do not want to wander too far or too long from the home city if I can help it.

- I would like the campaign to be fairly cinematic, and make the story as important as the players' desire to kill things and overcome villains.  I would also like to motivate the players to take the stand of good and righteousness.

I have a few premises for the campaign that I would like to use:

- the Hub of all activity for this campaign will be the Demon Lord Graz'zt.  He is a demon lord trapped in the Abyss, but fond of influencing mortals through agents and cultists.  His style is one of subtlety and guile.  

- Graz'zt goes by many names, but one of his favored agents are the Eaters of the Dead.  The are a monastic order based on the Egyptian belief of Iubenti, a demon (really Graz'zt) that will weigh the evil in a man's soul, and if their is evil in his heart, it would be consumed.  The Eaters of the Dead in my campaign believe that by eating the hearts of evil men, they will accumulate favor with their Lord, and while they are d**ned to an eternity of torture, they can mollify Iubenti (Graz'zt) and lessen their punishment by consuming and concentrating as much evil as possible within their souls.   Hence, these guys are really, really creepy and inscruitable - are they good guys, or bad guys?  Who knows - not the players!

To start the campaign, I'm issuing an invitation to a party.  The party is for an important architect completing a temple, and many middling to well-to-do members of the city will be present.  All the players will have to generate 1st or 2nd level characters that are appropriate to receive such an invitation.

The very next thing we will do is a cinematic prequel of action.  We're starting off with a combat on the roof of the mansion, fighting the Eaters of the Dead.  When the smoke clears, we'll rewind to entering the party.

I've set up the mansion as a series of rooms that the PCs can explore, and meet various NPCs, or spot interesting clues about what's about to happen (that's worked out).

Anyway, after a demonstration of a troupe of fire-eaters (the Eaters of the Dead that the players have defeated in Combat #1), a toast is called by the lord - and everyone but the PCs falls over dead, of poison.

The leader of the Eaters of the Dead grabs some ancient pottery (coptic jars?) that's on display, and dispatches his goons to attack the party (combat #1, already fought).

So, I've got a combat to start, a basic premise why the players are initially thrust together (survival), but I'm stumped beyond that.

- What will keep the players together in the long run?
- What will motivate the PCs to get the coptic jars back?  I'm not looking for a monetary reward, but a epic, moral reason to motivate the PCs.
- How can I interject a mentor into the story, to push along the PCs and give them a resource to return to, to ask questions?
- What's a good conclusion for the first adventure?  Again, I'm looking to be cinematic in nature, and basically set the first adventure up like a TV Pilot, setting up the premise that the PCs are fighting a dark, mysterious evil - but I don't know why.

If someone could thwack my DMs block with a stick, I'd really appreciate it.

Thanks!

Blair / Archade

Offline MoonHunter

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« Reply #1 on: December 31, 2003, 04:14:29 AM »
What will keep the players together in the long run?
  The best way to ensure this is to "story weave" the pcs together.  Have them be part of each other's lives as friends (current or childhood), classmates, apprenticed to the same master, part of the same guild).  If you make sure that every character has connections to two to three other players (figuring five or so players), by motivaing one of the group, you can move all of them.  

I might suggest that one to two member of the PCs have a "secret" like being part of a secret society (this gives them motivations that are not immediately apparent), or part of a spy network, or of a fallen noble line (Malgovians of France for example).  

What will motivate the PCs to get the coptic jars back? I'm not looking for a monetary reward, but a epic, moral reason to motivate the PCs.
(See secret society from above).  It depends what cultural significance the coptic jars have.  Are they from an important person?  Are any of the PCs releated to said important person?  Is the coptic jar from a saint (or equivalent) or of a culturall important person? Religious and Patriotic fever can be used to push the group along.  


How can I interject a mentor into the story, to push along the PCs and give them a resource to return to, to ask questions?
     Put the mentor in some player's back story.  Have a reason for the PC to visit that mentor, perhaps they are visiting the city again and are staying with the mentor.  So they go there to rest and regroup and get the info from the mentor.  
     Of course, members of the secret society can get info from them.
     And why do the player's need a mentor?  All the mentor seems to be is the GM Help Button. A research library could solve this issue.  If the characters and players are properly motivated by personal, professional, and ethical drives, who needs an NPC to keep them going.  The NPC will often end up as being (or worse seeming) more important to the game than the PCs.  It is the Player's stories, let them be the important ones and direct the action.  It should not be the NPC's story with the players in it.  
     
What's a good conclusion for the first adventure? Again, I'm looking to be cinematic in nature, and basically set the first adventure up like a TV Pilot, setting up the premise that the PCs are fighting a dark, mysterious evil - but I don't know why.

Find out why!  If you don't know what the climactic ending of your first seasons is going to be (Who is the Big Bad and What will they be doing at the last episode), you will never be able to plan out how to get there.  Now this is not like setting up a railroaded plot, just an outline of the Big Bad and what their goals are (and the steps they might take to achieve them).  That way you can plan the crisis for each "episode".  

I personally like to mentally set up each campaign as a TV series, 10-16 episodes a season.  That way I can gauge progress and set up a general flow of events.  

As for the first adventure, have the players regrouped and going Hmmmmmm. Then have "The Evil" unleash something against them, just because "The Evil" assumes they know too much. This should be a cool and dramatic fight scene, tailored to the setting and the PCs.  The defeated evil thing should have a clue or serve as a clue that leads them to the next step.  This makes it personal, gives them clues, and gives you a bang up ending scene.  

Check out www.openroleplaying.org/tools/tips/  
Search for " Just a Story ", " Bit Cards", "Role Cards", "Score!" and " Block".  Then just hit F5 alot and search through tips that might be useful.
MoonHunter
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Offline Erebus

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #2 on: December 31, 2003, 04:14:46 AM »
Some good ideas there.

Re the mentor I'd be tempted to introduce two levels of mentor.  First a high level druid or priest with whom the party can converse sometimes.  Secondly the mentor's own protege - someone of comparable level to the party who can travel with them and be the voice of wisdom, while sharing the incremental struggles.

Ending the session dramatically?  I vote for something powerful and tradgic ... yes and, as Moonhunter suggested, the introduction of a particularly vile villian.
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Offline MoonHunter

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Hmmm
« Reply #3 on: December 31, 2003, 06:27:33 AM »
Actually it does not have to be a really vile villian... just one of his minions.  

If that minion is powerful enough to give the group pause, they will be shaking in their boots when they think they have to confront the main villian.  

The minion does not have to vile, but does have to be a) bother the players in some way (personal habit, violent, racist, ect) and b) be a dramatic challange to the group.  If the minion is "just another combat" than what is its point to exist?  Either the minion has to be interesting and challanging or the setting where they have to confront the minion must be interesting and challanging. (Ever see Mortal Combat- the Movie?)
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Offline nitouken

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #4 on: December 31, 2003, 08:21:36 AM »
A good way to introduce a mentor, if you don't want him to be able to fight alongside the pcs, is to have him be a significantly older character, who wants the pcs to continue his work. Thus, their initial reasoning could be monetary, but after you have built some party unity, you can have the mentor die. Suddenly the pcs are left without a significant motivation other than that which he had already placed. This method can fall apart, though. I once thought I had a party well and truly adhered, when I killed their mentor through a random mishap (another story, for another time), and they promptly flew apart at the seams.

One reason, not particularly good, not particularly bad, to hold the party together, is have a "right place at the right time" feel. If the party members consistently run into each other at fairly important events, then they will eventually begin to work together. This approach is VERY time consuming, but it leads to some of the most cohesive parties you will ever have, especially if you have cooperative players. If you are willing to devote an adventure (or three) to getting the party tied together, you can also get them to go after the jars. Have references to the jars and the Eaters of the Dead cropping up all over the place, then eventually they will go after them. It works, but is VERY slow. You may want to think about running this adventure as a second or third adventure. If the pcs have run into each other before, and have heard about the coptic jars, then when they see the leader steal the jars, they should be motivated to go after them. This relies on some player cooperation, though, so I wouldn't advise it unless you know you have a very good group.
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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #5 on: December 31, 2003, 05:09:18 PM »
The mentor is indeed supposed to be a 'help button'.  My players tend to be a bull in a china shop, and it would be good to give me a prodding stick to point out obvious things to them, as well as give them an ally and a resource.  

However, I think that NPCs that accompany the party detract from their heroics, so I plan on using a washed-up Rogue, a la Tommy Lee Jones (he's seen it all, but doesn't plan on holding the party's hand - hard nosed, experienced, and with a gruff exterior).

Offline Erebus

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #6 on: January 01, 2004, 07:02:01 AM »
Guest wrote; "I think that NPCs that accompany the party detract from their heroics"

My friend, that kind of thinking is the first step on the road to running a munchkin campaign.
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Offline MoonHunter

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HUH?
« Reply #7 on: January 02, 2004, 02:02:42 AM »
Quote from: "Erebus"
Guest wrote; "I think that NPCs that accompany the party detract from their heroics"
My friend, that kind of thinking is the first step on the road to running a munchkin campaign.


What chemical substances/ imbalance has infected your thinking Erebus?

Having a competent and or capable NPC along the party does diminish the players.  It can be seen by the players as a mark against their ability to actually accomplish the scenario at hand. The reasoning being, "Oh the GM thinks we can't hack this one so he is sending help along". The other option is their thinking, "our mission is to get wizard NPC to here, so he can destroy the demon", rather than "our job is to destroy the demon". NPCs can be a slap to the players's ego.  

There are times this can not be helped. You can understand why the Prince might want to rescue his stolen bride.  If he is fairly equal to the PCs (or worse, better than since they might be less experienced), he becomes not a plot complication but a major force in the party.  In addition, you now get to order your PCs around.  (You their knight. You will ride over and flank them. You knight will stand here and use your bow. The rest of you follow me. Charge!).  All very in character, all very appropriate, but all so very annoying to the PCs.  Who likes getting ordered about (appropriate or not)?

The NPC, especially one which is in a "mentor" or "advisor" role, becomes an instant "get help from the GM" link.  At first they will be asking for information/ facts, but eventually (IN CHARACTER EVEN), they will ask for opinions on courses of action or ideas.  The NPC (IN CHARACTER) will have to respond.  This puts the GM in an awkward place, especially if the NPC is wise/ intelligent/ experienced.  This creates situations of miscommunication, distrust, and players guessing and secondguessing what comes out of the NPCs mouth "Do I do XXX now that he said it was a good idea. That information could be a deliberate wrong and the GM know I will do the opposite, so he told me the truth".  These connundrums distract from the game and diminish the trust the PCs have for the NPCs information.  

And if a compentent NPC is a long "for the ride", there will come a time where the NPC will out shine a PC. The NPC could even cut out a PC from a chance to be heroic. (Aldar(NPC) is a better rider, so he will rescue Seri from the run away horse... leaving the rest of the PCs just "sitting arround") If you try to protect the PCs and give them the heroic options, they will turn to the NPC, who will decline, and after an argument... somebody will try the heroic option... but now the PCs are wondering why this NPC is along.

This last problem, of the NPC out performing the PCs in a heroic vein, is a common GM blunder.  It also leads to PCs earning less exp (divided amongst everyone involved) and having fewer options because the NPC is there.  The GM, playing the NPC passibly well, will eventually take a dramatic moment from a PC.  This begs the question, who's story is it anyways, the PC's or your NPCs?

Now, this is not to say you can't have minor NPCs along with the party.   Send the stable boy or henchman along for support and comedy relief.  Send the inexperienced boy prince along so the PCs have to protect him and not make him look bad (plot complication). However, if the NPC is competent or capable, without a debilitating hinderance (The sage is blind, the wizard is frail and old), then you have an able bodied member of the party that the PCs can not completely trust (see above) and will occasionally not perform (see above).  

Munchkining, on the GM's side, most often happens when the GM has a MarySue character in the party.  While most NPCs are not that bad, competent NPCs are a slippery slope that is best avoided.  It is very easy for a competent NPC, run by a competent player (like say.. the GM) to be the hero of the moment, come up with the good idea, or do the dramatic.  EAch time the NPC does that it diminishes the PCs, by taking away their chance.  

So just keep in mind that the PCs are the hero of the saga and nothing should diminish that or take it away from them... not even the GM.
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Offline Erebus

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #8 on: January 02, 2004, 04:56:27 AM »
I participate in a good many forums and I have to say Moonhunter that you are among the very best posters that I have encountered on any of them.

That having been said I am surprised at your attitude on this particular issue.  

Consider the words of Ray Winninger (Dragon 293) 'Many Dungeon Masters... make the mistake of trying to devise a stroy instead a world... In short, their worlds are secondary to their stories; the story comes first, and the world is built to support it.'

This is a lesson it took me a long time to fully grasp and put into action.  One of the outcomes of grasping the virtue of creating a realistic environment, ecology and society first is understanding that anything the PC's will strive to do - others will also take up arms to achieve.  The PC's will not always be the ones basking in the glory of their deeds, sometimes others will accomplish more than they do.

I know that my PCs:

1. Enjoy travelling and interacting with well realised NPC's who add something to the group dynamic
2. Enjoy a realistically scalled environment where exceptional achievement or fame does not come easy. Where they are not, by birthright, the most powerful or influential people in the game.  Where making a difference is hard earned and really deserved.

As an extreme example - some of the best group dynamics have worked around the PC's being merely acolytes to a powerful NPC.  Having his or her reputation and achievements to aspire to.

When you say: "keep in mind that the PCs are the hero of the saga and nothing should diminish that or take it away from them"  - My group would find that a bit of a masturbatory approach to role-playing.  They play to strategise, fight and work hard against tough odds to achieve victory.  Not to make-believe they are important celebrities.
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Offline Ria Hawk

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #9 on: January 03, 2004, 12:06:59 AM »
I think the crux of the matter at hand, and what you both are trying to say is that NPCs, competent or not, are the Sidekicks.  They don't get top billing.  At the very most they get equal billing, and only if they are a major, MAJOR character.  But that's not to say that a competent NPC is a bad thing.  Just so long as they are not -consistently- outdoing the PCs.  Here's a movie example:  Yoda in Star Wars.  That lil' green dude kicks all and major butt.  In the one fight he gets in to.  Yoda, although powerful as all get out, mainly gives advice.  
I think what MoonHunter said wasn't that nothing should ever outshine the PCs.  I think what he meant was that they have to work hard for their glory, and that they have to think that they'll be allowed to actually get it.  What's the point after all, of getting a powerful wizard close enough to smite the demon, if other characters only acknowledge the wizard that did the smiting?  As long as the PCs feel like their contribution was not only important, but vital, all is right with the world, or it should be, if you have mature players.  A deus ex machina is cheating, and it sends the players the message that you don't think they can handle what they're up against.  A spotlight hog is annoyiong, no matter if it's a player or the GM.

Here's an example of kind of what I mean, off the top of my head.  

You have an evil baddie.  The objective is to kill this baddie, preferably before he does More Bad Stuff.  The PCs go in and after a heroic and difficult battle, emerge victorious.  They go home happy.
Change the plot.  Now this baddie is d**n nigh invulnerable, and the only entity readily accessible capable of killing him has unfortunatly been spellbound into the service of said baddie.  Overall objective is still the same, but now the means are different.  The PCs can't go at him head-on; that's suicide.  So now the challange is to release the entity from the binding.  The PCs are very clever, and after many trials and tribulations, do so, and the entity lays the smite down on the baddie.  Now, the PCs did not do the actual killing.  But without their intervention, it would not have happened.  And that makes a difference.
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Offline MoonHunter

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #10 on: January 03, 2004, 03:44:35 AM »
Quote from: "Erebus"
Consider the words of Ray Winninger (Dragon 293) 'Many Dungeon Masters... make the mistake of trying to devise a stroy instead a world... In short, their worlds are secondary to their stories; the story comes first, and the world is built to support it.'


Yes. This is a very valid point.  The setting is important to a campaign that will have several stories/ plot lines set in it for the course of the campaign.  So story becomes very important, it must be hung on a good setting.  Tangentally, most NPCs are part of the setting. Sure they move and talk, but they are part of the rich and diverse background you need to sustain  verisimilitude for the game. They of course will have their own goals, personalities, and shticks- they will be people.  They may even move the history of the world along if they are in the right positions, but they are IN THE BACKGROUND. Occasionally they enter the foreground and interact with the PCs on the stage of the game, but most of the time they are off camera.  

 Those that become integral to the story... well are now part of the story... not the setting.  Different rules now apply.

Quote
I know that my PCs:  1. Enjoy travelling and interacting with well realised NPC's who add something to the group dynamic  


Are you sure? Have  you asked them?  And in all this time, nobody has been annoyed that the NPC "stole their thunder" or did something they could of done.  I used to believe exactly what you did, until someone mentioned one of the reasons he was leaving the game (the main reason was being he wanted to play StarWars D6) was the NPC travelling with the party (who was important to the story) made him feel useless most of the time.  I thought this was an isolated incident, until it happened to me in another game, under a GM who is quite excellent.    I asked around, and most players have experienced this... some on a fairly regular basis.  

Quote
Enjoy a realistically scalled environment where exceptional achievement or fame does not come easy. Where they are not, by birthright, the most powerful or influential people in the game.  Where making a difference is hard earned and really deserved.

No argument there, but this does not completely apply to the current point. Power has never been a requirement for enjoyment (unless you are a powergamer or a tactician).  Many players play quite happily in Pendragon... under the rule of Arthur. Power is not a requirement for good play, achievement and satisfaction at achievement is.

Quote
As an extreme example - some of the best group dynamics have worked around the PC's being merely acolytes to a powerful NPC.  Having his or her reputation and achievements to aspire to.  

If this is the campaign the players bought into when they started up, then this is the exception to the rule. They knew what they were getting into when they started.  They had no illusions.  It is like playing Star Trek with an NPC captain.  You have to accept the rules of the universe, like rank, and the GM has to be careful about how he uses it as to not annoy or anger the players.  

AND if you brought the NPC leader in after the campaign started, do you think all the players would be feeling so warm and fuzzy about the situation?  Would they be gaming in the game because that is the game?

Quote
When you say: "keep in mind that the PCs are the hero of the saga and nothing should diminish that or take it away from them"  - My group would find that a bit of a masturbatory approach to role-playing.  They play to strategise, fight and work hard against tough odds to achieve victory.  Not to make-believe they are important celebrities.  

I never said make it easy on them. If they do not feel a sense of accomplishment when they achieve something, then you have slid into munchkinism.  One can have a dramatic and powerful story written about the lowliest of people.  It is not about celebrity or fame, it is about who is important in their life.  If your players are not writing the stories of their characters life via play, then what are they doing... just amassing points and treasure or are they extras in someone elses story?  And trust me, being an extra can really suck.
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Offline Erebus

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My new campaign has hit DMs Block - help?
« Reply #11 on: January 03, 2004, 05:56:38 AM »
I don't find myself disagreeing violently with anything you have said above, Moonhunter.

Certainly it would be frustrating for any PC to constantly be in the shadow of someone else.  This includes other players - which I'm sure you'll agree is another common pitfall.

Where we might differ hangs on a smaller nuance.  And let's not lose sight of the fact that every group is different and plays to it's own strengths.  My own group's feedback has always been that PC's like to adventure with NPC's who are as entertaining (in whatever way) as the story or environment.  Equally as a player I love developing relationships with the vivid NPC's my own DM creates.

Hence I tend to run NPC's as party members in cycles.  This will usually involve working with someone whose particular story the players will play an important part in.  The PC's in such instances are always rooting for the success of that character.

Usually the NPC will move on (or die) and soon the PC's might expect to be travelling with someone altogether different...!

I find that the presence of a clearly presented NPC actually helps my PC's to talk in character - and can supply humour, discomfort, romance, hatred or inspiration depending on the nature of that NPC.  All good emotion fare.

As with anything - handled well - NPC's should be nothing but a boon to a good adventure.  As you rightly point out - handled badly they may well cause confusion and disharmony.  However, the same two-edged sword applies to handling dungeons, magic items and elaborate plots.  It's what you do with it that counts.
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