Monday, October 15, 2018

The Cultivating and Care of Campaign Mysteries

I wrote a post last week that was a follow-up to a previous posts where I outlined a few mysteries that had come up in our new 4 years-old Land of Azurth campaign. Anne of DIY & Dragons asked if I had in thoughts to share regarding who these mysteries developed and the development of this sort of stuff in general.

I should say this campaign is not an open sandbox. Most adventures come about by me as the DM laying out the particularly setting and situation, and the PC's confronting the problems as presented, or reframing the problem as something else and confronting that. The applicability of what I say here will of course vary based on how you run your campaign and the degree you care about such things, obviously.

Embed mysteries. I constructed the bones of the Land of Azurth setting to have some deep mysteries. I hinted at these but didn't strongly telegraph them, or push them on the players. They are to this day, not aware of most of them--though they have brushed against them once or twice, and are interested in things that connect to them. You have to be patient, but if you want the player's interested in the mysterious background of your setting it has to be there.

Don't make it all up. Some people feel like the fixed details of the setting are necessary for player's to make maximum meaningful choices about their actions. I advocate a more of a tv series looseness as I've discussed before. So, if one of my initial ideas was "the World Emperor is mad!" or whatever, but as I'm dropping hints to this, the PCs become convinced the "World Emperor is possessed!" well, you know, maybe he could be? Also, you have to leave room for the players' to become interested in things you hadn't thought of yet, and no need to waste all your good adventure seeds on fallow ground.

Recurrent NPCs with their own agendas. My players are suspicious that Viola, the Clockwork Princess of Yanth Country, despite most appearances as a benevolent monarch, may have a sinister agenda. What made them suspicious? Well, the Princess's somewhat callous behavior and general "need to know attitude," and conspiratorial musings of a pirate queen they once interacted with. These things would never have mattered if the PCs hadn't had frequently and suggestive interactions with the Princess for them to start wondering about her.

Treasures with a story. Magic items and treasure serves a utilitarian purpose, but it shouldn't just be --or even mostly--be that. In prepping for the session, I substituted the Book of Doors for a spell book in the original run of Mortzengersturm, and added a portal to 19th Century Earth in Mort's chamber. That has gotten at least one player very interested in portals and incursions from or too other worlds, and given me further references to drop in later adventures. The Projector to the Etheric Zone was another adventure seed lying in wait for the player's to take interest. And potentially valuable mysteries tend to get their interest first!

Work with the Players' creation. Most of my players came up with a little backstory at creation. No multi-page epics, but a paragraph or so, based on the map and campaign intro materials I gave them. Plus, I had asked them all at the outset, "Why are you in Rivertown?" Jim's bard, Kully, for instance had come looking for his missing father. He had initially told me a talking calico cougar had told him to seek his father in Rivertown. I suggested maybe it was a Calico Cat Man, and Jim agreed. Now, part of the setting intro was that their were no cat folk in Azurth. So, now we had a mystery--and a coincidental name connection to the mysterious crime lord I had already named. Then of course, there was the recent return of Kully's father to set off the recent adventure.

So that's it. Or, at least that's all I can think of at the moment. It's been gratifying to run a campaign where the players aren't just interested in the adventures, but in the world behind them.


Jack Guignol said...

Player backstory gets a bad rap in some circles. Like you, I've more often found it to be a good source of adventure seeds and additional setting flavor.

Aos said...

Nioce write up, as far as the back story goes, it can be the best or worst thing, depending onthe player and their level of self-awareness and restraint.

Anne said...

These are some really great, practical ideas. Thank you for writing this!

I think character backstory is one thing I miss out on playing DCC. When you're generating and killing off characters by the half-dozen, you can't necessarily know what kind of person your character is until they've survived a few scrapes. 5e seems like it has more potential to include it from the start, and to develop it over time.

Trey said...

Thank guys!

@CJK and Aos - I think a lot of the negative attitude of character backstory comes from our adolescent gaming experiences, where I think it was probably most bad. In my adult gaming, I feel like it's mostly good, but you do occasionally run into the players Aos mentions.

@Anne - Yeah, it really just depends on what you want out of the game. If the lethal dungeoneering is the primary focus, it probably takes a little more outside the box thinking to work the things I'm talking about here.

Billy Longino said...

What I found interesting here was the way you planted the seeds early on but seemed to allow the players to cultivate the mystery themselves over the course of the campaign. Did you find that you often had players drawing connections between seemingly unconnected situations/NPCs/locations and these mysteries, or at least their understanding of the mysteries? That's been my favorite part of running my Spear! Fang! Raygun! campaign, which it seems I'm running similar to Azurth in that it's not a sandbox but a series of open-ended scenarios presented to the PCs to approach how they will.

Chris C. said...

Very nice ideas. I always dig campaign world mysteries.

The thoughts on backstory here in the comments are interesting too. Since I tend toward OD&D with its low hit points, I hesitate to ask players for any real backstory. But one thing I have found that works nicely (as a compromise in a high-mortality-rate game) is to just ask for three or four bullet points, like "where are you from?" and "list two people your character is intensely connected to" (people s/he loves or hates). Simple list, little time investment (so no great loss of effort if the character dies), but enough to engage each character personally in the world and serve as the basis for adventures.

Trey said...

@Billy - Definitely. Without giving too much away in a place where they might read it, their are definitely places where they've jumped to conclusions or were suspicious of links that weren't necessarily there.

@Chris C. - I think that's a nice minimalist approach.

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