Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 08, 2012
 
Double opt-out

In yesterday's thread about my D&D campaign, Dàchéng asked: "You mention twice the Kobolds' lair, though your players weren't in the least interested in it. Might you be using this blog to influence your players' decisions out of game?" Direct answer is no, I know that half of my players don't read my blog (remember my campaign is in French, but the blog is in English). But there is a reason why I mention the possibility of the kobold's lair turning up again: The double opt-out principle of adventure building.

The idea is that if the players come to a fork in the road with one way going to the Caverns of Doom, and the other to the Pyramid of Curses, chances are that their decision on where to go is relatively random. Maybe just the priest hoping for undead in the pyramid, against which he is extra powerful, and persuading the group to come along. The decision does not mean that the players are necessarily not interested at all in the Caverns of Doom. Thus in an adventure like that, I would always put another story hook somewhere later leading the players to the option they decided against. If they still don't want to go, chances are that they really aren't interested. But by giving a second reminder of the other option being there, and maybe some more information what to expect there, there is also a chance for them to decide that they actually would quite like to go there.

In a way that is a compromise between making adventures more or less linear and forcing the group to visit every encounter the DM prepared, and making adventures completely sandbox where the players skip half of the encounters for no good reason. The players aren't forced into anything, but they need to opt out twice before the DM throws his carefully prepared encounter or dungeon into the garbage bin.
Comments:
Does your adventure have a persistent world or do maps disappear forever once the adventurers have cleared them?

In a computer rpg for example you wouldn't have to create a second hook for the Caverns of Doom because the adventurers can always go back to the forest of bifurcation after clearing out the pyramid and explore the other path.
 
They could, but unlike a computer RPG a pen & paper RPG is more story-driven than location-driven. Players do things depending on what they think of, not depending on where they are, because "travel" doesn't really take time.
 
Sounds like a sensible strategy to me, and it's good to recognise that the players failing to pick up an adventure hook is not necessarily the same as rejecting it. We did kind of struggle with this once when we tried to play a game with the DM giving us more freedom, because apparently we walked right past a lot of adventure possibilities without even knowing, they were never brought up again, and then we ran out of things to do. :P
 
In the tabletops I've played in, this practice tends to lead to a more connected world, as the adventure shouldn't just disappear if you take a detour.

I do know it's a bit harder to maintain but one practice a DM and I use to try out was a mind-map of the various items within a given world. Small things, like rumors that so-and-so's family tomb was robbed but not having a direct quest for it. Then sometimes you'd happen across it in an adventure and go back to the original person.

Questing without overtly questing is the best part of the PnP table.
 
In a sandbox, you generate the encounter when players stumble upon it. From your head or from random tables. Therefore no content is missed or bypassed. There is no need for player railroading.

For a DM this is a demanding task. He will have to be able to generate convincing stuff on the fly, and draw the dungeon maps too! On the other hand it is easy because there is no need for complete, pre-made material. In any case, sandboxing is a great way to run adventures, full of surprises for both the GM and the players. If you are able, try it sometime. I do it very often.

@Shintar, I wonder what went wrong with your sandbox session. Once my players were bored, so they decided to burn a city and all the people in it, because they figured out they would get 1 XP per person. Did not go too well for the adventurers, I have to say.
 
But you never have to throw that carefully planned dungeon away! Be green! Recycle, Reduce, and Reuse (well, mostly recycle). The dungeons that get "skipped" can just as easily be co-oped into a new adventure with a different set of encounters, especially since you're putting your NPCs on index cards; now, if your guys decide to go in a random direction on a whim, you've got a dungeon layout in your pocket, and you can just pull some appropriate index cards from your stack and use them. That's the beauty of modular DMing (and what makes "good" sandbox games possible; if you couldn't do that, if you had to generate things on the fly, it'd go poorly).
 
In a sandbox, you generate a lot of brief plot ideas in advance and bulk up the ones that players seem interested in as you go along. You also prepare interesting encounters and NPCs that you might be able to slot in depending on what players decide to do (ie. a bar room brawl could happen in any bar, or a run in with the town guard could happen any time the PCs do something that is legally dodgy in a town).

And sometimes you have to say to players that you will need time to prepare a plot properly so they're welcome to investigate the whatsit but could that wait until next week.

You also get good at winging it.
 
where the players skip half of the encounters for no good reason.

I was gunna say something, but then realised there's not the issue of which choice would be more lethal to them. Character death is fudged out, isn't it? And the unspoken contract (or plain missapprehension) is that players put in a good show in tactics so as not to expose that their character can't die?
 
Character death is fudged out, isn't it?

No, not as a general rule. There might be DMs that fudge death, but I don't think the majority does.

But this isn't a MMORPG, so players never get to fight the same encounter a second time if they fail it a first time. How deadly an encounter is can in most cases not be known before starting it. Players have to assume that, like in a MMORPG, that if they stick to the story, the encounters are doable and designed for their level.
 
It really depends on whether you're using the old 'you're strolling along and then monsters leap out in ambush' (which I myself have used far too many times). This cuts off any clue finding on the monster type and strength to a great degree. But even then as they wander you could describe the trails of giant rats or whatever the encounter is as they walk in, then they could pull back and consider another route IF there is another way to continue with 'the story' (ie, if they have to follow a story). If you don't use the ambush thing, you can open up opportunities to scout (wow, the ranger could actually...range!) and gather data on enemy numbers and apparent strength. Or even fighting just one monster in a too easy encounter, so the players get an idea of it's strength when they come in proper force.

The problem with story is it often starts to be put ahead of player choices, ie "What if they choose the wrong route, TPK and ruin the story!? Gah, screw giving them a chance to screw up the story, I'll just make sure every encounter is doable and intervene if that goes wrong!"

Story tends to push an agenda of reducing player choices/the effects of choices to zilch, because like no plan survives contact with the enemy, no pre written story survives contact with the players. Not entirely, anyway.

I mean really this isn't something any edition of D&D covers at a mechanical level - players using limited information gained on enemy forces to decide which battle they will head into and which they will avoid. So when it's not mechanically covered...there's kind of the inclination to ignore it. Which leads to needing doable fights, etc.
 
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