The Hidden Places Are The Best Ones

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0783

Happy Friday %FIRSTNAME%

I was struggling with a player request until I hit upon a good idea last weekend.

The wizard wants to “break reality.”

That’s the entire request.

After wrestling for a long time, an idea from the Stranger Things show hit me.

The principle is, hidden places have immense mystery. They draw curiosity like halfling rogues to locked chests.

Create hidden places in your campaigns. Leak info about them. Watch players seize the hook.

For my Demonplague game then, I chose the ethereal plane as the hidden place.

I could have picked anywhere for this, including something I made up. However, this ties to another GM design principle: tie fluff back to the rules when possible.

I don’t mean rules lawyering or confining yourself to just RAW (Rules As Written).

I mean, tie a mechanic to game fluff to make a game out of it. The more integrated mechanics and fluff are, the deeper your gameplay.

In this case, D&D 5E has loose mechanics for the ethereal plane out of the box. Monsters and spells tangle with it.

By having the Mysterious Place tangle with etherealness and the wizard, I loop things back into the game and the meta-universe layered on by the rules.

I’m not describing this well. Imagine a city roads system. If every road, exit, and turn-off went separately into the horizon without connecting, no one would be able to drive around the city and reach their destination. But if roads, exits, and turn-offs loop back and connect, you can then get someplace.

I’m not saying every piece of fluff must be tied to a game rule.

But in this case, I get extra wins.

For example, as a house rule the characters of absent players just disappear. Now we know why. The wizard is being sucked into the ethereal plane against his will.

To his fellow party members, he just disappears. But now we know he’s going to a Mysterious Place. In addition, it’s contagious. Other absent player characters now get sucked into the ethereal too.

Here’s a third GM design principle: weave together story and rules.

So what’s happening here? I’ve decided it’s an ethereal curse laid upon the wizard’s family. (GM principle number four: bring character backstory into the game.) The player let me know he’s on a quest to find his family who were researching something forbidden.

The story now grows. The ethereal plane is broken. The wizard’s family is currently lost in it. Eventually, the whole party will be too, as a side plot. Meantime, ethereal monsters and dangers are drawn to the wizard because of a rift he’s causing between planes.

Thus, reality is broken.

Whew. That was a tough nut. But we got there.

Meantime, in your campaign, create more Mysterious Places. Your players will love them. Perhaps even make one an entire Campaign Seed.