Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 25, 2013
Iterative adventure design

In a pen & paper roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons the DM's role has two major parts: Preparing the world and adventure before the game, and improvising the details during play. Normally the sequence of these tasks is going just one way: Adventure design comes first, and what is written in the adventure then is the base for what happens during gameplay. But as I discovered in my current campaign, playing the sandbox adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey, sometimes events during gameplay change the situation to an extent that process becomes iterative: The adventure is the base for gameplay, and then gameplay developments necessitate changing the adventure.

As I told in my campaign diary, in the previous session the players opened the door to a boss encounter, only to then decide to run away. If this was a computer game, the next time they opened that door they would find the situation unchanged, because a computer game doesn't usually have this iterative adventure design mode, and the actions of the players don't change the adventure. A pen & paper game is more flexible, and more based on what would be logical, and not forced to stick to a rigid script. So I went back to the drawing board: Why is that boss NPC in that location, what is his motivation? How would he logically react now that he found out that a group of adventurers is around?

Of course this "logic" still is more a fantasy logic than a real-world logic. Who would want to live in a dungeon in the first place? I can't just decide that the NPC in question decides to leg it and take a holiday on a tropical island instead of sticking around in some catacombs, as reasonable as that might be. The NPC has a specific role in the overall adventure, and I can't just eliminate that function from the story. In this case the overall adventure is about collecting the cards of the Deck of Many Things, and the players already know that NPC has cards, so if he fled it would be impossible to finish the adventure at this location. I could then force the players to give chase, but as the adventure is already huge, I don't really want to extend it much more.

So it is more a question of modifying the encounter with the logic of "forewarned is forearmed". If an NPC lives at the end of a dungeon he might consider the monsters of the dungeon as his lines of defense. Once the NPC becomes aware that those lines of defense have been removed, he will rethink his defense strategy. The general idea here is that the players had an advantage of surprise, and that by running away they lost that advantage. And how the encounter plays out when they come back needs to reflect that logic. You can't just announce your presence to some villain NPC and think that won't change anything.

This was just one example, but there were other changes to the adventure I did based on the actions of the players. This is quite fun and interesting. The adventure grows from a script to a living world which reacts to what the players do. That is especially helpful in the context of 4th edition being encounter-based, and the actions of the players helping to flesh out the connection between those encounters. In the end you get an adventure which is unique to your group, and not a copy & paste of everybody else's experience in Gardmore Abbey.

Hmm, does the NPC boss know for sure why the adventurers are seeking him out?

There are a lot of scenarios which would be possible:
- the NPC flees, forcing the party to hunt him down (converts the adventure from dungeon crawl to search/explore)
- the NPC decides to dig in: fights will become a lot harder and the party risks getting killed
- the NPC decides to run, he leaves the items behind, but bobby traps the entire place and flees. The adventure become an indiana jones-like dungeon crawl
- the NPC decides to negotiate and get something in exchange for the cards, this open up two possibilities: it's real and the adventurers must do some other adventure to get what he NPC wants, or it's a trap and they get lured in a dangerous fight, possibly getting killed or losing some of the items they had collected.

All stuff which is impossible in an MMO, of course, since a table-top adventure has the advantage of being a personalizable experience, something which an MMO cannot provide.
It's not entirely true that it isn't possible with an mmo. A lot of encounters now seem to set of timers once someone has entered the zone and alerted the NPC to their presence. Of course the options available can't increase the difficulty if someone takes too long (since weaker groups will take longer by default), and the boss can't retreat but some very basic story changes are beginning to creap in.
Perhaps in future the boss can simply be found at a local inn, carousing. Or perhaps a timeline - he gets various monsters hauled in, perhaps charmed so they stay in a certain area. He stays in the dungeon until they arrive, then he installs them as the main guardians, while he goes somewhere nicer.

Although I might put a few days on how much time it took for him to flee, I'm not sure I'd give up the idea of him just leaving. But then again I wouldn't expect the players to 'do the whole adventure'.
Given the competing crew already knows about them it will be silly if they just sit in the same spot given they don't actually reside there (in your case).

Other than a "chance" meeting with them elsewhere I'd either let that group escape, let your group find that group's corpse (if they need an item from them), or most likely the competing group will ambush your players for the cards they hold.
I guess to me the perfect movie version of a game dungeon is the cave scene from The 13th Warrior. There is a solid story behind why the "bear people" are living in a cave, why there is a "boss monster" at the bottom of the cave, and then an exit out of the cave that doesn't involve fighting the entire way back up. Additionally, the party of adventurers didn't have to fight their way down to start. To me it's what every game dungeon should strive to be.
I love this post, as it gets to a real weakness with pre-planned adventures (which you and I have discussed before); it's impossible to predict player behavior, so pre-planned adventures only work as written if the players never leave the rails (even if the rails go all over a sandbox).

If I had this situation happen, I'd have resolved it as follows: the BBEG leaves, killing anyone who's not going with him. They find the place abandoned, and decide whether to follow up or not (if that's an option). The trail leads to a nearby town that's been looted and wiped out (if that makes sense based on the bad guy's personality). FIghts occur at ambush points as the BBEG uses his last few minions. When there's no left, he vanishes into the woods/river/whatever to reappear later in the campaign.

I love "punishing" players for making bad decisions based on the fact that it's a game. I love playing out logically the consequences to their actions, and often, those consequences make for better challenges that anything I would have planned. My Vampire game was ENTIRELY about consequences, though the PCs may not have been consciously aware of that, but Vampire lent itself more to that design.

So the PCs fled, but that decision lead to some blood on "their" hands and a villain who gets away to wreak havoc elsewhere later.
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