Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 12, 2012
Crowdsourcing adventure starts

I must admit that crowdsourcing ideas for the adventure Stubborn and me want to write together didn't work out quite as intended. We had asked for a fantastic location, item, or event, but most commenters replied with a complete plot for an adventure. We'll probably end up cherry-picking ideas from the various plots proposed.

What was very visible during that exercise is that the ideas you get by crowdsourcing reflect the background of the crowd. On a gaming blog unsurprisingly you get a lot of adventure ideas that read a lot like computer roleplaying game story hooks. Two commenters proposed variations of Diablo III. And a great many story hooks were about railroading players into the adventure: Enslave them, have them possessed, have them suffer memory loss, throw them into jail, introduce previously unknown family members. If you played a bunch of computer RPGs, you probably experienced all that as start of one adventure or another.

Unfortunately such adventure starts don't make for good pen & paper roleplaying games. The very strength of a pen & paper system over a computer game is the much bigger freedom of choice that players have. You *can* force players into an adventure by events, as opposed to just sending them an NPC asking them to do the adventure; but you need to be very careful how you go about it. Making them lose control of their characters or making them lose previously acquired treasures is sure to be resented.

That can get problematic if you end up with your players actively working against your plot of the story. If you send the city watch to the tavern where the group stays to arrest them for a trumped-up charge, there is a significant chance that the players will start a fight. And before you know it half the city is burning, and your plot of how the players escape from jail and prove themselves innocent is down the drain.

One reason why computer game story hooks work badly in pen & paper games is that computer games tend to be just one adventure, while the pen & paper adventure is part of a campaign. A typical D&D adventure stretches over 1 or 2 levels in a campaign of maybe 30 levels. I used the old "enslaved and freed by a shipwreck" story start as starting point of my campaign, but once a campaign has started you can't use such story devices any more. Computer games use them to "reset" the story to zero, to a common starting point with no equipment regardless of what race, class, and background you chose in the character creation screen. But having a campaign with a dozen or so resets is going to feel very forced and piecemeal.

That is not to say that in a pen & paper campaign you can only use the mysterious stranger in a tavern story start. You can apply a lot of force against the players, as long as that force appears to be a logical consequence of previous actions. Few groups will refuse to go after a villain that escaped them in a previous adventure. And it is surprisingly easier to trick the players into committing a crime for which they end up in jail than to throw them into jail for a crime they never committed. Just avoid deus ex machina story devices coming out of nowhere.

> Two commenters proposed
> variations of Diablo III.

Three, if you count mine :-P
"Unfortunately such adventure starts don't make for good pen & paper roleplaying games."

Of course they do. They make for the BEST canned adventures. You need to corral players into the story, you can give them more freedom later on.

They're called adventure hooks. You can give GMs some freedom to tailor them for their groups but if you're writing a scenario for public use, you cannot make any assumptions about the specific group so it has to be more generic.
I thought it was instructive that you chose to start your crowdsourced adventure at Level 8, which was around the level where I decided AD&D was getting too silly and stopped playing. By level eight D&D characters are already godlike. Structuring any society that would even be able to contain or co-erce half a dozen of them means creating a setting that's unfeasibly alien. Or, as most games do, fudging it horribly.
If you're going to give your players lots of freedom, I don't think it's worth garnering plot hooks from your blog audience.

Your adventure is starting 'in media res', so I think that, from a story perspective, you first need to decide how that came to be.
By level eight D&D characters are already godlike.

That statement got me scratching my head until I realized it was made by Bhagpuss, who is probably talking about 1st edition AD&D and not about any current system.

I do agree that D&D goes from "players fighting a cave full of kobolds" to "players liberating a kingdom" to "players saving the world", which can be disconcerting. But in 4E that transition happens every 10 levels, so level 8 is still pretty low. The "godlike" stuff happens starting from level 21.
I also roleplayed with 1st & 2nd Ed D&D, and usually around 8th level, I prodded my players into thinking about their own base of operations.

At 9th level, warriors could create a freehold, or perhaps a small castle to attract recruits, mages would undoubtedly take on an apprentice, clerics could build their own temple.

That begins to open up different kinds of adventure hooks - political meetings, alliances with other lords, enemies threaten borders, small but no less important issues like bandits attacking villages under their tithe/protection, etc.
I guess you get what is foremost in people's minds and as such your own pondering for several days seriously is likely to fit better with your intent/goals that short term thoughts from comments. The method did not match the goal.

"We had asked for a fantastic location, item, or event, but most commenters replied with a complete plot for an adventure"

This has all to do with how the players will integrate, and as such a plot device of "book of hidden names, might be recently found in hidden cache" will only be epic within the context of a wider story and setting.

You can force the players, but then they know they are forced and will either accept that external barrier, or reject it and the game suffers.
Hehe I'm with Typhoonandrew on this one. :P Let's see how "fantastic" I can make my previous suggestion if I boiled down my overly verbose response before to what you actually wanted:

Fantastic Location:
A supposedly cursed village

Fantastic Item:
Stolen non-magical heirloom

Fantastic Event (I just picked one):
Zealous clerics on a rampage?

Heh, that's not even barebones you have with that response but if it's what you wanted - there you go. ^_^
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