Make Your Adventures Feel Adventurous
From Emmett O’Brian
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #476
A common pitfall in settings that are intended to be adventure is they turn into a combat settings or hack ‘n’ slash games. The simple reason for this is that “adventure” carries the idea of some form of danger.
The problem with RPGs is that dangers are usually designed as life or death. In adventure stories, danger is more often used to slow down the protagonist or to introduce a time limit on them than to cause any physical harm.
Players have been conditioned by movies and video games to take on physical danger no matter what the odds. One opponent or fifty will get the same response if the player has any confidence in their character.
This is completely irrational in a game that is simulating real life, but players have played so many games and seen so many movies where the protagonist defeats hundreds or even thousands that they have come to expect the ability.
The threat of more opponents eventually ends up being boring drudgery. The player thinks they must get through the wall of combatants to achieve their goal and this results in the point of the game being higher stats and better weapons. This is not a proper adventure.
What can be done?
The element of the unknown is the core of an adventure. Players have pre-conceived ideas of what their character can and must do. The game must have unknown elements players do not know how to size up.
Many players are well versed in the NPCs and equipment in a game book, and can usually state their stats off the top of their head. Putting in elements that are not in the standard rules is vital to an adventure game.
The Unknown Element
Unknown elements are the lifeblood of a good RPG story, but they can be overused. Too many unknowns stop a game from being familiar and disrupts players’ ability to imagine their characters. Only a few unknown elements are needed for a good adventure.
Use the right kind of unknown. There must be a compelling story behind why there is a difference. If the monsters are a different color because they’ve been eating an odd diet and it has no effect on anything else, that’s not the right kind of unknown.
Unusual buildings are useful in engendering the feeling of adventure. The idea is not to focus on just another building the players have never been in; it’s focusing on the purpose of the building being unusual. Strange materials or rooms players can’t figure out the purpose of can make a game more adventurous.
Don’t Block the Path
When using standard NPCs, make it obvious they are a threat to get by rather than go through. Avoid putting these NPCs directly in front of where the players have to go, and make it plain there is a way around them.
Do this by having NPCs that are not easily able to give chase to introduce dangers players can attempt to avoid with stealth and speed. For example:
- A guard in a tower is a threat, and is unlikely to chase after the party, but he might summon other guards.
- A character hops on an unmanned vehicle (or removes the driver) and speeds away.
- There is a way to block or slow NPC pursuit once PCs get through a door.
Game masters are afraid of letting players avoid obstacles because they worry players are getting away with something. Truthfully they are but why shouldn’t they?
It’s because if the game is too easy it stops being an adventure because there is no danger. Clearly then this approach can be used to speed up a game and increase the player’s enjoyment because it brings with it an element of the unknown.
The Race Against Time
Introduce time as an element to increase game tension.
However, players should, from the beginning, be able to evaluate that they can accomplish their goal with some time to spare if everything goes right. Then it’s the game master’s job to introduce ways that things might not go right.
For instance, if the race is against an opponent who is also trying to get to the same goal, then have the PCs actually run into him or traps he has left behind. You might also use environmental factors to make it difficult or impossible to move at top speed.
Distractions along the way should be do or die events. The players’ vehicle should not be destroyed. However, it could break down when traveling at a certain speed and require minor repairs the characters can accomplish at the cost of time.
Even when there is a literal (or theoretical) cliff the PCs are trying to scale, the penalty for failing should be a loss of time, not a loss of life.
Chipping Away at The Wall
Players build up defenses to protect their characters from any threats they expect to encounter. However, there is a certain amount of pride that might allow them to make foolish mistakes if they do not perceive something to be a real threat.
For example, walking through cold water to take a shortcut might not harm the characters directly but might cause hypothermia or frostbite.
The point of this kind of approach is not to punish the players. It is an essential element of danger that an adventure needs to be interesting. It might also be necessary to wear down a character to increase the challenge of other obstacles.
Similarly, NPCs might not kill the character, but might wound them and therefore make further challenges harder.
Computer games have taught us that all NPCs are fanatic maniacs that will charge the PCs without regard for the fact that they just marched through hundreds of NPCs exactly like them without a scratch.
In reality, unless the NPC is a robot or the equivalent, after the first ten guys are taken down nobody is going to directly mess with the characters unless they have good reason to think they are better than the rest.
Even if the NPC is a robot, if it is being controlled by anything with any intelligence, after the hundredth robot they better be checking their repair budget.
This might lead to average NPCs fleeing in the sight of the character or spending some time trying to set up a coordinated attack.
This approach to a game is what most computer games associate with adventure. Puzzles are often used to introduce a mental challenge. They are usually not dangerous, but must be completed to progress in the game.
Puzzles might be items or knowledge needed to make it through certain obstacles.
Some puzzles might be combination riddles, although this can end up being tedious. One way of circumventing this is to leave clues to the combination along the way or in a way that the players do not immediately understand.
A Brief Word from Johnn
RPT bi-weekly for a little while
Family illness took me unexpectedly out of town this month for a couple of weeks. That’s why this issue is late, and I apologize for that. Thanks to everyone who wrote in asking about the ezine!
I’ll be in and out of town for the next while, so the ezine will be going bi-weekly to help ease up on time commitments. If I’m able to publish the ezine more frequently, I definitely will, though.
Get a free issue of Kobold Quarterly – deadline Jan 31
I received an email I thought I’d pass along to you about getting issue #10 of Kobold Quarterly at no charge. Just go to the KQ Store and enter the coupon code KQ10Free at checkout. This offer is good until the end of January.
KQ #10 features an interview with Paizo’s Jason Bulmahn, Ed Greenwood’s Dwarven Goddess, Ecology of the Hill Giant, a wicked take on Halflings, Secrets of the Halberd, Monte Cook’s Game Theories and Rampant Elf Lust.
I’m a happy subscriber of KQ and recommend you check it out: http://www.koboldquarterly.com/kqstore/
Gamers raise money for Haiti – deadline is Jan 31
Sorry for the short notice, but RPGNow is selling a bundle of PDFs to raise money for Haiti containing donated RPG products from dozens of publishers. The bundle contains over $1000 worth of products, and costs only $20. All proceeds go to help Haiti recovery efforts via Doctors Without Borders. The sale ends Jan 31: http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=78023
Reader Tip Request
Inspirational Images and Art
Are you an artist with an online portfolio or gallery that GMs have permission to use as inspiration and handouts for their game?
Or do you know of any such sites that would be useful to GMs?
If so, send me the links and I’ll post them in an upcoming issue.
100 Subjects for Tavern Chatter For Your Game
Tavern gossip can be a great source of Dungeons & Dragons adventure leads, and more than one published adventure has begun with the heroes overhearing something over a tankard or two. Many experienced players have been conditioned to listen for adventure leads in this manner, and some might ask, “What do I overhear?” in an effort to glean a bit more information about the adventure.
Often, the only information the dungeon master has on hand for the heroes to overhear is pertinent to the adventure, so he might provide more information than he should, or provide the boring, flat answer of, “you hear nothing interesting,” which even the newest player will see as the DM taking the easy way out of the situation.
It is for this reason that the list below was generated. The next time a player asks what tavern patrons are discussing, a quick percentile roll or five will fill the place with lively chatter, some of which may even lead to adventure.
This list is also available as a pdf: http://rpgathenaeum.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/tavern-chatter.pdf
1. Complaints about the weather: it’s too hot to be comfortable, too wet for the crops, too cold for good hunting.
2. One patron seeks advice about thatching a roof from another.
3. One patron comments on an article of new clothing (waistcoat, shoes, gloves, hat) worn by another.
4. One patron can’t say enough good about his wife’s recipe for braised cabbage.
5. Two women argue about who has better furniture.
6. An old man found a strange article of men’s clothing under his young wife’s bed.
7. A young man has a toothache, and a toothless old woman is giving him advice about what to do.
8. A man and woman are talking about a book they both read.
9. A woman is trying to teach a song to another woman, who is obviously tone deaf.
10. Two overweight gentlemen are engaging in a belching contest.
11. A very thin woman and very heavy man are playing chess.
12. Two somber-looking fellows remember a recently deceased friend.
13. A man with very poor hygiene asks an attractive woman if one of his sores looks like it’s getting worse. The woman is repulsed, and doesn’t know how to answer.
14. Two women are laughing about how one of their children called the local tax baron “goblin face” that morning.
15. Two craftsmen are resolving an argument they had at work today.
16. A merchant is saddened that he lost a silver button from his favorite waistcoat.
17. Three patrons argue about which is the best type of wine.
18. A peddler regales a small audience about audacious fashions worn across the sea.
19. Two very old men exchange obviously embellished war stories.
20. A miller mourns the death of his pet cat, which was the best mouser he’d ever seen.
21. A very thin man is talking about how his wife can’t cook.
22. An ugly woman is giving romantic advice to the scullery boy; she suggests that he use licorice root to sweeten his breath.
23. Two older patrons reminisce about their lives as adventurer’s decades ago.
24. One patron is deliberating with another about possibly running for political office.
25. Taxes, taxes, taxes.
26. An old man is worried about his daughter. She just doesn’t listen anymore.
27. Two merchants talk about the sermon they heard in the temple that week.
28. A patron talks about what she had for lunch that day.
29. Two patrons complain about the condition of local roads.
30. A farmer explains that he found an old dagger while working in his fields.
31. A merchant frets about the rising costs of doing business.
32. A patron is very tired; his infant child kept him awake all night.
33. A woman is convinced that her son is the next great sculptor.
34. A dairymaid is frustrated from dealing with sick cows.
35. Two men, obvious bachelors, ponder where navels come from.
36. Three patrons, obviously active military personnel, discuss siege warfare.
37. Two young men talk about peat-cutters; one thinks that, since they live in marshy areas, peat-cutters have spotted bellies and webbed feet.
38. Two farmers agree to have an ox race to determine who has better livestock.
39. One patron is getting legal advice from another.
40. A harlot is flirting with a young man.
41. Two court fops are wondering what games will be offered at the next market fair.
42. An inconsolable man weeps over someone finding and taking his life savings from its hiding place.
43. Two patrons are discussing why you should never trust a locksmith.
44. A table is debating whether or not the town needs more watchmen.
45. A very old man is telling a young man how to grow walnuts without shells.
46. A man complains that the flowers his wife uses to decorate their house makes him sneeze, but she won’t change them.
47. Two old men are talking about how elves reproduce. The prevailing theory seems to be exposing dead elves to moonlight; baby elves then crawl out of the corpse and start climbing trees.
48. A woman is worried that her son’s pet snake escaped.
49. A very hairy man insists that the town needs more barbers.
50. A merchant is afraid that a war may break out between the heroes’ home nation and an adjacent kingdom.
51. Two men, already drunk, are composing a poem about mead.
52. Two women, apparently scribes, argue about the shape of the world. The stronger argument suggests that the world is shaped like a peanut.
53. Three townsfolk discuss how to grow the best radishes.
54. An old man begins telling a ghost story that he’s obviously told a hundred times before, and everyone is ignoring him.
55. A young man is asking everyone who will listen how to win a woman’s heart.
56. Two old-timers complain about how lazy youngsters are these days.
57. Two patrons talk about a “secret invention,” but stop when they see a hero looking their way.
58. Two merchants are discussing conversion rates between regional currencies.
59. Three young people are talking about whether or not dwarves float.
60. Two intoxicated patrons begin arguing about who can drink more. Bets are already favoring the smaller of the two.
61. A plain-looking man tries to flirt with the barmaid, but she obviously isn’t interested.
62. Four patrons discuss which season of the year is best, and each has a different opinion.
63. A commoner talk about the one time he was admitted to the king’s palace, and describes how grand it was.
64. A guardsman worries aloud about an escaped prisoner.
65. Two women share recipes for squirrel stew.
66. An old man swears that his oak tree talks to him at night.
67. A young woman talks about her recent visit with her husband’s family. It wasn’t very comfortable for anyone involved.
68. Two patrons play chess. They don’t say a word, but they clearly don’t like each other.
69. A commoner boast about his son beating up the guard captain’s son – then looks about furtively.
70. A woman with poor hygiene explains to all who will listen about the evils of bathing.
71. A group of women complain about men.
72. A group of men complain about women.
73. In a booming, bass voice, a hunter tries to explain how to move quietly in the woods.
74. Two patrons quietly share a rumor that this tavern’s stew made a dwarf sick to his stomach.
75. A young woman is discussing wedding plans. The first item on the list is finding a husband.
76. Three patrons argue about why dragons hoard gold. The prevailing theory is that they burn everything else with fire, and gold is a relatively soft metal for sleeping.
77. A patron talks about his bottle collection with a friend.
78. Two patrons share a rumor about a local beauty eating earthworms.
79. Two women are betting about where a housefly will land next.
80. A group of patrons are dicing at a nearby table. One of them is accused of cheating.
81. Two women talk about a third woman, who is having an extra-marital affair.
82. A man is arranging for his son to be apprenticed to a local blacksmith.
83. Another man complains that his wife snores.
84. A woman complains about the floors in her home; the wooden floors are too squeaky, and the tile ones are too cold.
85. A woman wonders aloud why the town doesn’t use magic to remove sewage, instead of letting it flow down the middle of the streets.
86. Two fishermen talk about “the one that got away.”
87. A woman is describing a new dance to a young man, who isn’t really listening.
88. Two music enthusiasts argue about who the best minstrel in the kingdom is.
89. A craftsman is crestfallen, since his dog bit his best customer today.
90. Four patrons try to establish which mushrooms are safe to eat.
91. A young man explains that wishing on stars doesn’t work; she married the other fellow.
92. A wife is complaining about her husband’s hunting trophies. She can’t walk from the kitchen to the privy without being stuck in the ribs by an antler.
93. One patron plans to build a fence around his cottage, because his neighbors stare into his yard all day.
94. An old woman swears that a blackbird winked at her this morning. The bird must be a familiar of some sort.
95. A very ugly young man with an abacus has discovered the law of averages, and has come to the realization that if there were thirty times more women in town, it would be mathematically impossible for him to remain unmarried.
96. A woman complains that a skunk has taken up residence under her home. She blames her neighbor for luring it there.
97. A man wonders why his son has to have a pet turtle – why can’t he just get a dog like everyone else?
98. Another man is dejected because his wife threw all of his belongings into the sewer.
99. A woman is angry that her neighbor’s child threw rocks at her geese this afternoon.
100. A watchman is annoyed that a notorious pickpocket escaped from custody today.