February 22, 2024

Less than Legendary

This is a follow-up to “Beautifully Broken,” which talks about the satisfaction that comes from playing a character inspired more by story and less by the considerations of class, subclass, and other mechanical benefits. (TL/DR: Playing suboptimized characters can be great fun.)

However, maintaining the fun of playing a suboptimized character over the course of a series of adventures or a full campaign requires more than just the players’ interest in running their characters from a story-first perspective. It requires a certain amount of buy-in from a GM who understands the players’ goals for their characters — because that GM will figure out pretty quickly that the traditional approaches to D&D encounter and adventure design aren’t set up with mechanically suboptimized characters in mind.

Balance of Power

As a GM running a game that works for characters who are less mechanically robust than the Player’s Handbook norm, you’ll need to deal with the pernicious expectation that D&D (along with many other fantasy games) should cleave to a philosophy of “balanced encounter design.” Narrative-focused characters often come up short in terms of average hit points, damage output per round, and access to magic that the game assumes the heroes automatically have at certain levels (particularly healing spells and area-effect attacks). As such, you need to keep an eye on whether so-called balanced encounters are likely to go seriously off-balance because the characters on one side of the scale have less adventuring mass than expected.

Thankfully, there’s really no such thing as balanced encounter design (which is why that’s in quotation marks above). And understanding that fact actually works in your favor when you’re running a game with suboptimized characters. All the usual tricks for adjusting encounters that are meant to be balanced but go quickly off the rails in any game can play an even stronger part in a campaign with suboptimized characters. Adjusting the foes’ AC, hit points, and damage output are the easy options, and are discussed endlessly by GMs. But even more important is making sure that combat encounters have endgame options other than one side or the other fighting to the death. When building or prepping combat encounters, think about circumstances under which foes might surrender, or how monsters might respond to the characters capitulating or fleeing. Make sure that if the characters or their enemies might flee, the area in which combat takes place allows for a quick exit. Think about options for ambush, or ways in which characters can use the features of the area around them to make up for specific weaknesses in combat. (It behooves me to mention that the book The Lazy DM’s Forge of Foes, lovingly handcrafted by Teos Abadía, Mike Shea, and myself, talks a lot about these exact topics.)

That said, having fun with suboptimized characters is usually about more than just combat — especially given that the concept for many suboptimized characters involves moving away from the expectation that combat skill should be the baseline for heroic potential. 

Role With It

D&D is a roleplaying game, so reminding people of that feels a bit reductive. But when folks at the table are playing characters who are less than perfectly optimized in their combat stats, their exploration-focused features, or their social skill checks, it’s worth remembering that pure roleplaying can easily fill in all those gaps. Players aren’t keen to take on a monstrous threat they don’t think their characters can defeat? Let them roleplay the planning that takes the characters around that threat, or that lets them set two or more potential foes into conflict so that they take each other down. No one in the party has the skill to deal with the locked door leading to the king’s treasury? Let them roleplay the social scenario that’ll allow them to steal the key, or to trick someone else into opening the door for them.

As a GM building adventure scenarios for a party of beautifully broken characters, you’ll want to think beyond encounters that have a single entry point and only one expected outcome. Especially in published adventures, whether the scene is focused on combat, exploration, or social interaction, encounters are often set up with a strong sense of the best and most obvious way the characters are expected to approach a challenge, and the default means by which they’ll overcome it. So spend some time thinking before the game about the less obvious ways into and out of an encounter — and expect that the players will come up with ways you haven’t thought of, which you can incorporate during the game. As a bonus, by making this thinking part of your default GM’s mindset, you’ll find that having multiple approaches and success scenarios for encounters will make your games more interesting even for a fully optimized party.

Resources as Rewards

Players of suboptimized characters have a strong sense of what those characters are good at and where they come up short. So when you’re planning out encounters and the rewards for overcoming those encounters, feel free to offer up specific resources and benefits that can help characters overcome some of those shortcomings.

In a conventional campaign where min-maxed characters are reliant on stock magic item rewards to keep their combat numbers in the sweet spot expected for their tier, receiving useful information, maps showing secret shortcuts through a dungeon, and similar information-based rewards might earn a disinterested shrug from the players. But the players of story-focused characters often treat those rewards as even more significant than magic, understanding how such rewards allow them to get creative. A group of characters who know they’re going to struggle to defeat a boss will make great use of information and maps that allow them to set an ambush for that boss rather than having to confront them in their lair. In a campaign focused on courtly intrigue where the characters are on the outside of the court looking in, the mundane opportunity to pose as servants at the castle might be the most significant reward the party can receive.

As a general rule, suboptimized characters understand that they’re starting out somewhat less than legendary. They know that different choices made in the past, different life paths taken, might have granted them a more typically heroic stature. But they also know that none of that is going to stop them from taking on the challenges that the campaign presents to them — and that they can be just as heroic as any min-maxed legend, given the right insight, the opportunity to collect the necessary intelligence, and the desire to succeed.

January 24, 2024

Beautifully Broken

Let me tell you about one of the best characters I ever played — a sorcerer who didn’t want to be a sorcerer. This was for a Pathfinder 1e campaign some years ago, where the characters were setting out to create a new settlement in a monster-haunted wilderness. The original concept for the character was a multiclass sorcerer/archer, a ranged attack-focused, tactically minded double threat with weapon or spell. But then I remembered the inherent problems with D&D 3.5e/Pathfinder 1e contrast multiclassing (as opposed to class combos that feed each other), which inevitably builds characters who can do twice as much stuff but are always half as good at that stuff as everybody else.

So at some point, I thought to myself, “What happens if you play a sorcerer who actually really, really wants to be ranger but could never pull it off?”

On that day, Zabbas Kindark was born — a half-elf sorcerer whose selection of spells was based entirely on making her look and act like the ranger she’d always wanted to be. She used a bow in combat (courtesy of the Ancestral Arms ancestry trait), and filled out her starting spell list with things like magic weapon, true strike, gravity bow, arrow eruption, and the like. And as I put her together and started playing her, I realized very quickly that the coolest thing about Zabbas was that even maxed out with magic, she was never going to be anywhere as good a ranger as a regular ranger would have been. 

Zabbas was absolutely and wonderfully suboptimized. A character whose build was beautifully broken — which meant that I never wasted a moment worrying about how to maximize her mechanical potential. I just let her run headfirst into the challenges of the campaign story without a care.

The Fine Art of Suboptimization

Playing characters who are the best at what they do can be fun. If you’re playing in a campaign that you know comes with specific thresholds of endless combat challenge, there’s nothing wrong with fine-tuning a character and selecting feats and multiclass options that maximize their combat potential. But until the first time you try not worrying about any of that and just focusing on building a character who feels like the right choice as your avatar in the campaign story, you might not realize how liberating the experience is. 

Whenever I’ve played D&D, I’m the sort of player who comes up a cool character concept relatively easily, then spends a lot of time trying to figure out the best ancestry, class, and multiclass/subclass/prestige-class building blocks with which to build the perfect incarnation of that character. And if that’s you too, the next time you’re building a character for a game, try taking a left turn away from that. 

Think about how you want and expect the baseline character concept to fit into the campaign. Then ask yourself, “How would that work as a cleric? As a monk? As a barbarian?” Go down the list of your favorite classes and imagine the feel of each class as a lens through which your character will be filtered. Or think about some of the classes you’ve never been inspired to play, and think about whether a character concept not rigidly tied to maximizing the benefits of that class would be a good way to try it out.

Next time: Advice for GMs and players on how to make the most out of beautifully broken characters in a campaign — especially campaigns making use of published adventures, which don’t expect that sort of thing.

January 8, 2024

Unusual Campaign Starts

Figuring out how to get a campaign going can be one of the most challenging parts of being a GM. It’s relatively easy to build cool encounters and social setups, and the big climactic events at the act breaks and endgame of a campaign often write themselves. But when trying to figure out how to get brand-new characters together for the first time and drag them quickly into the action, it’s easy to feel like all the obvious starting points to the story the campaign will tell feel overly tame, trite, or obvious.

Your mileage may vary, of course, and every gaming group has different needs. Every single in-game campaign start that might seem basic or antiquated to a person who’s been playing D&D for decades (like me) is going to absolutely be the essential best campaign start for some first-time GM somewhere. And even grognards like me might be totally fine with the timeworn meetup in a local tavern that’s launched tens of thousands of campaigns. The game can be just about anything, and so can incorporate just about anything.

Campaign starts are a necessary evil for fantasy RPGs. Arguably, they’re a necessary lawful evil, insofar as they follow well-defined rules but often do so in the worst way possible. Many too-familiar campaign starts can come to feel like a handshake agreement the GM sets up to give away a plot point they know they won’t be able to otherwise sell. They make the players feel obliged to say things like, “Why yes, we’ll talk to this mysterious old man who’s heard a rumor about trouble at the abandoned abattoir out of town,” ignoring obvious contrivance for the sake of getting the story going. (One of the most common campaign starts builds on the hook of the NPC in need, which I expressed my thoughts on previously.)

Getting Things Going

If you’re at the point where too many of your own campaign starts — or the starting points of specific published adventures you’d like to run — are feeling flat, the following campaign starts can be used as setup for lots of different types of campaigns, or can serve as inspiration for unusual campaign starts of your own. 

All Fired Up

Sometimes it’s fun to subvert expectations by turning a tired trope on its ear. Rather than having the characters meet up in a tavern for the first time and hear a rumor meant to draw them into the campaign, have them getting ready to meet up in a tavern — except the tavern across the street explodes before they can get introduced. The process of rescuing victims and helping to put out the ensuing fire brings the characters together, even as the cause of the explosion can tie into their first adventures.

Not-So-Secret Map

Another classic campaign start that’s easy to turn into something more interesting is the wandering NPC selling a map to an old ruin. Certainly, there must be treasure there! But then the characters quickly discover that this NPC is one of many NPCs selling copies of the same exact map in multiple settlements across the land. The question of who’s running these NPCs and why they’re trying to bring multiple adventurers to the same location becomes an initial mystery in the campaign — or perhaps even the central mystery — that the characters need to solve.

Who’s on First?

One of the most abrupt ways to kick off a campaign is to have the characters start off in a combat encounter in a cool location of your choice. Except they have no idea where they are, who they are, or how they got there, except for a vague sense that they know and trust each other — and a stronger sense that everyone else at the site is trying to kill them. When the fight’s done, the characters’ memories start to slowly return, and the magic relic or other McGuffin that caused their amnesia becomes a secret that feeds into the rest of the campaign.

Unseen Connections

A group of characters who don’t know each other learn of some secret connection between them — the same seemingly mundane trinket that each picked up at some point, a tattoo they barely remembering getting after a night of drunken revelry, an NPC they all interacted with as youths, and so forth. An unseen connection can provide a core throughline to the campaign if the reason behind it connects to an NPC or other force intentionally wanting the characters to come together. Or it could be just be a happenstance moment that the characters can look back on with a sense of “Isn’t it wild how we first met?”

Piece by Piece

If time and your gaming schedule permits, it can be a lot of fun to start a campaign as a series of short adventures for small numbers of characters, who then come together to create the party as a whole. Two characters accidentally meeting in a tavern or caught up in a monstrous attack and bonding while they fight back to back often feels more dramatically palatable than some sort of “the gang’s all here” full-party meetup. You can run this sort of small-start scenario quickly — for example, three sessions in which two different characters meet up, followed by a full session where all six characters come together. 

Alternatively, you can have different characters interact with each other during many mini-sessions, slowly building up the relationships that will define the party. As an even more interesting setup for those who are comfortable with this sort of roleplaying, bringing the party together slowly can let the players decide that their characters really don’t like each other after their first interaction, letting subsequent interactions fully build out the characters’ eventual adventuring bond. 

Hunters and Hunted

In a party where some of the characters are notable do-gooders while others are a touch shifty, having the campaign kick off with the good characters hired or inspired to track down the scoundrels can be a nicely novel approach. The trick with such a scenario is making sure that common ground can be quickly found to bring the characters together — for example, the scoundrels convincing the do-gooders that they (truthfully) have been set up or are wanted for crimes they didn’t commit. Likewise, the good characters could realize that the reason or patron behind their hunt only gave them half the story for their mission, and that delivering up the other characters is no longer in their interest.

For players who don’t know each other well or who don’t like surprises in their story setup, talk about this potential campaign start in session zero or even earlier to make sure it doesn’t present any problems. But if you’re playing with a group of friends you know well who have enjoyed similar unexpected twist scenarios in your games, try telling some of the players that the campaign is going to start out with the party wanted by the law, then tell the other players that the campaign will initially be about them working to track down some notorious criminals. Then reveal the more complex setup in the first session.

December 24, 2023

Heroic Gifts

’Tis the season of giving for many folks this time of year — and why should the player characters in your campaign be left out? Here are a few ideas for special gifts, gratuities, bonuses, and benefactions you can bestow on the characters after a successful adventure leaves them in the debt of a monarch, a noble, a fey lord, a grateful dragon, or some other NPC with wealth and influence to spare. Sure, you can dish out gold and gems easily enough, but a truly memorable gift should be something the characters can cherish — and might just happen to come wrapped up a few new campaign hooks for your next adventures.

Wealthy Estate Starter Kit

The characters are bequeathed a hundred acres of “exclusive hunting estate” that turns out to be a monster-haunted bog. Time and investigation soon reveal that the livery of the numerous undead humanoids in the area suggests that those who died here generations ago were the palace guard from a distant realm that fell to invasion — and whose crown jewels were stolen away before the palace fell and never found. The characters’ new lands might just hold a missing fortune, but they’ll need to clear those lands of threats if they hope to find it.

Heirlooms of Evil

Each character receives a valuable piece of ornamental finery seemingly perfect for them (a fine cloak pin for a paladin, a jeweled scabbard for a fighter, a beautiful necklace for a stylish warlock, and so forth). The pieces all share a similar design that suggests they are part of a set, though their provenance is unknown. As it turns out, the pieces belonged to a legendary group of evil adventurers who were executed for horrendous crimes a century ago — and who managed to instill their blighted souls in each of the items so as to corrupt whoever now wears them.

Research Grant

The party is gifted with a special badge that allows them lifetime access to the services of any royal sage or scholar across the land. Using the badge can grant the party mundane information, advantage on checks to seek old lore, and so forth. But the badge was also once the secret sign of membership of an assassins guild that operated within the order of royal sages, using the order’s operations as cover. The characters might find themselves mistaken for members of this still-operating guild, and either recruited for a dastardly mission, or suspected of trying to infiltrate the guild and targeted for elimination.

Sweet Ride

The party is given a magical means of conveyance consistent with the campaign and the characters’ idiom — a magical wagon, a small flying ship, a number of tokens that allow each character to summon a magical steed, and so forth. Only it turns out that the conveyance was originally claimed as treasure from its extradimensional original owner — a fiend, a celestial, a fey prince, et al — and has a failsafe mode that triggers to bring the characters to the dangerous realm where that owner now dwells.

Gallant Tapestry

As a reward for their adventures, the characters receive a huge custom-made tapestry depicting one or more events from those adventures. The tapestry might provide some initial opportunities for planning and roleplaying as the characters try to figure out where to hang it and how to move it (with the tapestry as arbitrarily large and heavy as it needs to be to make both those things complicated). And it can then provide fodder for darker adventures as NPCs at the location where the tapestry is ultimately displayed begin to suddenly vanish — even as they appear as terrified figures within the tapestry’s epic images.

In Repertory

The characters receive a heroic homage in the form of a dramatic play detailing their exploits, which is to be performed over a month-long run in a major city. It might turn out that the night of the premiere before the nobility of the city becomes a night of adventure, whether from an attempted assassination against someone in the audience, or because nefarious elements plan on targeting multiple nobles’ estates while they’re all out on the town. Or it could be that a powerful villain the characters defeated but didn’t capture during their adventures plans on using the play as a kind of template to magically undo the events of the past, rewriting the play so as to rewrite history and defeat the characters.

December 6, 2023

Foundations From Fast Prep

Last week, the marvelous M.T. Black posted on the social mediaz to ask whether anyone had “a proven formula for creating an enjoyable 2-hour session of #dnd with less than 10 minutes prep?” I responded with the following:

  1. Map of old ruins, five rooms or so. 
  2. Two cool traps or hazards, one placed conspicuously at the entrance. 
  3. Place two easy encounters. 
  4. Have one incorporeal or teleporting hard encounter stalk the characters, then attack just after the second easy fight finishes.

This was an easy response for me because it’s a formula I’ve used a lot — mostly because I really like the kind of focused adventure it creates, not because I’m consistently short of prep time. But in ruminating on why I like this setup and how it works for me, I thought it would be fun to break the formula down a bit and explore what it’s actually doing. Because through that process, we can think about the underlying foundations of each step of the process, and how those steps can create actionable hooks for adventures of all kinds.

1) An Adventure Flowchart

“The entrance to the old dungeons can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into darkness,” were the words I read in the Holmes blue box version of Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager. “But the few adventurous souls who have descended into crypts below the ruin have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all.”

And with that, I was hooked. I saw the blue-box rulebook’s Tower of Zenopus in my mind as clearly as any place I’d actually visited in real life, because there’s something so primally attractive about the idea of being brave enough to walk through a site where secrets, history, and danger surround you on all sides.

Dungeons are fun. But they’re more importantly one of the best frameworks for adventure design, as the name of the game has pointed out for nearly fifty years now. A map of a ruined keep, a subterranean temple, a warren of rough-walled caverns, or any other isolated site cut up into a number of distinct locations makes an easy-to-follow flowchart for exploration, intrigue, and adventure. If you don’t have a lot of time to figure out the shape of the adventure you want to run, a dungeon map gives you that shape, creating a literal path that the characters are compelled to follow.

2) Seeing the Unseen

Traps and hazards are one of the most effective ways to remind the players and characters that what they can’t see is potentially as big a threat as what they can see. Traps and hazards help to focus the players on their characters’ surroundings, giving you the opportunity to bring those surroundings fully to life. But one chronic problem of traps and hazards is that when the characters don’t spot them in time, those threats can end up feeling like a sucker punch — a beat of punishment narrative built on failure.

So give the characters an automatic success against unseen environmental threats early on in an adventure to give them a feeling of accomplishment. A trap or hazard that reveals itself easily feels like a victory, and can focus the players right from the start into problem-solving mode as they figure out how to get past the trap or hazard. By establishing early on that the players’ thinking is at least as important to getting past challenges as the characters’ capabilities, you set up a framework to have the players and characters fully engage with their adventuring environment, and that engagement helps bring an adventure to life better than anything else.

3) An Early Win

Easy encounters are the fastest way to turn new or uncertain players into adventure-obsessed veterans. Success in combat spikes a special kind of RPG dopamine straight into the gamer brain. And just as with regular dopamine, once we get that first hit, we want more. As every GM understands, a campaign composed of nothing but easy combat encounters can get stale quickly, but easy encounters are a great tool for a one-shot or a campaign start. Give the characters and players a chance to feel heroic right from the get-go, and they’ll keep coming back for that heroism fix — along with the gradually increasing levels of challenge that make the fix that much sweeter.

4) The Threat That’s Coming

A lot of adventures (especially site-based adventures) set up a kind of rhythm around first seeing monsters, then fighting monsters. It’s a reasonable and logical approach most of the time. But when the characters have very little time between the revelation of a threat and the process of dealing with the threat, the players sometimes don’t have a real opportunity to feel the weight of that threat. That’s where it can be handy to have a formidable foe who can teleport, move through walls, or otherwise reveal themself to the characters, then quickly slip away in a manner that prevents them being followed. 

Playing up a slow-build threat goes hand in hand with the players’ engagement with the environment (which you’ve set up initially by letting them see the unseen). As the characters focus on interacting with what’s around them to stay ahead of unknown dangers, they inevitably end up face to face with the danger that’s watching them, slipping away from them, waiting for them, watching them again. Then when that danger finally strikes, it does so at a point when the feeling of impending threat has been escalated to its highest possible level. The result is an encounter that engages the players fully — because they’ve been engaging with it from way before the encounter even begins.

November 21, 2023

Alternatives to the NPC in Need

D&D adventures have been around for fifty years now, and over that much time, it’s inevitable that elements of newer adventures will start to retread old ground. Sometimes that’s for good reasons, as when a designer wants to create an homage to a classic adventure, or to invert tired adventure tropes to do something now. Sometimes it’s because original ideas are hard to come by, and every writer inevitably writes something that someone else has written before.

But a third factor that often leads to tired adventure design is the fundamental paradigm of RPG adventures needing to be a bounded framework for an absolutely unbounded story. Because that paradigm sets hard limits to what kinds of story we can tell in certain parts of an adventure. And there’s no part of an adventure in which that’s truer than the adventure hook.

In a novel, a short story, a film, an episode of a TV series, or any other form of locked-down story, an author can start that story any way they like. Most often, the start of a story is directly set up by the characters, either through their direct choices or their indirect reactions to unexpected events around them. But in an adventure, that initial hook (what’s often referred to as the inciting incident in fiction discourse) can’t be customized to the characters — because an adventure has no idea who the characters are. The hook has to be generic enough that it can work for literally any group of players, any party, any GM.

And so, long, long ago in Lake Geneva, the extraordinarily tired hook of “An NPC hires the characters to solve some problem” was born.

As you can probably tell from my tone, I’m not a huge fan of the NPC-in-need-hiring-the-heroes adventure hook. And there are two specific variations on that hook that I dislike most of all: the “characters hired by farmers and ranchers to take on some great peril” hook, and the “1st-level party recruited to fight some great evil” hook.

For the former, I grew up in cattle ranching country, and I can tell you with great authority that when farmers and ranchers face peril, they deal with that crap themselves. If any of the ranchers who were neighbors of mine when I was a kid had ever seen an owlbear stray onto their property, that handsome monstrosity would have been a stuffed head over the mantelpiece by the end of the day. The 1st-level troubleshooters hook is equally frustrating by virtue of how badly it breaks the verisimilitude of the adventuring world, because in a world with adventurers, no one has any real reason to hire 1st-level characters to fight evil when higher-level characters must be out there somewhere. Especially when the evil in question has huge stakes, all of which are known in advance. (I’m looking at you, Tomb of Annihilation.)

Mixing Things Up

Whether you’re looking at running a published adventure with the “An NPC tasks the characters with X” hook, or are running your own adventures and looking for ways to break past the oldest of D&D tropes, here are a few suggested alternatives. With just a bit of fine-tuning for your own game and its players and characters, you should be able to work in any of these hooks as an easy replacement for the NPC in need.

Part of the Solution

Instead of helpless NPCs beseeching the adventurers for aid, have the characters come across NPCs who are fully capable of looking after themselves — but who will happily take any additional assistance offered to them. Rather then being the only ones who can accomplish the adventure’s central task, the characters become part of a larger group capable of doing so — searchers, hunters, researchers, survivors of a natural disaster, and so forth, depending on the task. Then the characters just happen to be the one part of the larger group in the right place at the right time to jump into the larger adventure.

Close to Home

Rather than being hired by an NPC stranger, the characters discover that someone they know personally is in peril, create immediate stakes and a sense of urgency. Be cautious with this hook, though. Using it once or twice in one campaign with an NPC who has a habit of getting into trouble can be great fun. Using it multiple times — and especially with vulnerable NPCs placed into real peril — will quickly put the players into a mindset of seeing every NPC you introduce in the campaign as a potential plot-trigger victim.

Mistaken Identity

Having a plot hook handed to the characters takes on a different feel when the hook was intended for someone else. Being mistaken for another group of adventurers or specialist troubleshooters offers an ironic or comedic take on this alternative hook if your campaign runs in that direction. Or you can take a hard left from humor by having one of the characters targeted for attack or assassination after being mistaken for someone else.

Does This Sound Familiar?

A bit of prophetic prognostication given by a soothsayer, found in a previous adventure, or tied to a character’s backstory seems trite on the face of it — until events unfolding around the characters start to echo the prophecy a little too closely. By virtue of its potential to seem contrived, this hook can be problematic in its own right. But granting the players and characters a sense of being caught up in events they might be able to control is a powerful draw, even if that control turns out to be illusory. 

Mysterious Lore

A trope far older than D&D, stumbling across secret information is a great way to inspire the curiosity of players and lead the characters into an adventure. The discovery of an old map is a great way to draw the party into a site-based adventure. Likewise, finding part of a note or a letter can introduce the characters to a problem needing solving, while a troubadour’s song can tease a legend that needs investigating. The trick to making this hook shine is to introduce the revelation before it becomes relevant. Have the characters find the lore in the course of a previous adventure and not think anything of it, then discover a second bit of context (recognizing a location on the map, hearing a name from a mysterious note, and so forth) that fully hooks them in. 

Mysterious Relic

A party member comes into possession of some odd trinket or bit of minor magic that reacts strangely when the characters wander into a specific location or engage with particular creatures or NPCs. The relic can most easily have some connection to an adventure location you want the characters to go to, rumors you want them to investigate, an NPC you want them to meet, and so forth. As with mysterious lore, this hook works better if the relic is something picked up earlier, and which seems innocuous until its purpose is revealed.

Old Obligations

Tying to the characters’ backstories or backgrounds, some piece of the past suddenly reveals itself, drawing one or more characters back into unfinished business that conveniently ties to the adventure at hand. This hook can incorporate all kinds of fun scenarios, from an old enemy seeking the characters out to settle a vendetta, to a rival or ex-lover showing up unexpectedly, to a revealed secret putting the character and their companions into peril.

Dreams and Visions

One or more characters experiences a strange dream that lingers in memory, granting an urge to engage in some quest, seek out a specific location, seek an NPC they’ve never heard of before, and so forth. This one can feel pretty hokey as a concept, but it works surprising well in action, as dreams and visions create a strong connection between character and campaign story in the players’ minds. Properly wrapping up this sort of hook usually requires the characters discovering the actual source of the vision, whether it connects to a character’s deity, a supernatural agent involved in the eventual adventure, and so forth.

Movers and Shakers

Rather than the characters cultivating a positive but predictable relationship with NPCs in need, think about a relationship with someone in power who hates them. Operatives moving against the characters can easily push them in the direction of many different types of adventures, especially if the operatives are more powerful than they are, or if the characters are prevented from openly fighting back.

In the Thick of It

A monster terrorizing the countryside is always good fun for a GM. But rather than having the locals warn the characters about an existing terror in the area and plead with them for help against the threat, have the characters attacked first by happenstance, then put into the position of having to warn the locals. To make the hook even more engaging, have the locals not believe them.

Cash on Delivery

A scenario in which the characters are hired to take care of business as bounty hunters is obviously just a specific instance of the characters-as-hired-troubleshooters hook. But it can put enough of a spin on that hook to make it feel fresh, especially if the characters stumble across the bounty offer as a mysterious lore setup (above) rather than having someone seek them out with the offer. For added oomph, make sure the characters are aware of other adventurers or mercenaries on the trail of the same prize, so that the goal of attaining the prize is complicated by the need to prevent others from doing so first.

October 25, 2023

Go Your Own Way

In my regular Sunday game two weeks ago, thanks to a teleport scroll that could carry too few people, we wound up with the party of four (plus a bunch of NPCs) (including two characters the party was kidnapping) (but in a good way) (well, for one of them) divided up into three groups, each about thirty miles apart. Now, that’s probably an extreme example of splitting the party — but as with a lot of such examples, keeping the game running when characters decide or need to go off on their own isn’t as insurmountable a task as many GMs and players think.

State of Play

“Don’t split the party” is an oft-heard refrain in RPGs, for two fairly solid reasons. First, in any game that focuses on combat, any subgroup of the party will have a tougher time dealing with threats than the party as a whole would. If a GM’s setup involves encounters balanced for a large group, things can quickly go sideways if a bunch of foes are suddenly surrounding a lone scout doing recon, or if an encounter that expects a full range of magic and martial prowess is suddenly being taken on with swords or spells but not both. And second, splitting the party creates logistical challenges in the way the game is run. It requires the GM to effectively run two or more scenarios simultaneously, as separate storylines spin out from the actions of different groups of characters.

The first point can be a challenge for sure. If splitting the party means that the GM of a combat-heavy game needs to rebuild encounters on the fly or run the risk of flattening characters without meaning to, that game can bog down or go off the rails quickly. And even for a GM deftly able to adjust encounters during play, doing so can break the sense of verisimilitude if what should have been a full squad of guards turns into a single sentry with no backup, or if a monster whose threat level the players know has clearly been scaled back to not overwhelm one or two characters.

Outside of combat, though, the challenge of splitting the party can actually be an asset to your game, as long as players and GM approach the process in the right way.

Making a Break

Part of the reason that splitting the party is a constant topic of conversation among players and GMs is that splitting the party often makes narrative sense. Breaking things up and allowing different characters to take on individual tasks can be a great opportunity for character development, especially when certain characters are typically overlooked in certain types of encounters and scenarios. When a party features a charismatic bard with a Persuasion modifier in the double digits, that character likely does most of the talking during negotiation or diplomacy scenarios. A warrior defended by plate armor and a ton of hit points likely always takes point in melee. So it can be fun to give the players of other characters a chance to take on a role outside those characters’ core strengths.

Splitting the party also makes it easy to add additional layers of complexity to a game’s narrative. When all the characters are in the same position to see events unfold and to glean the insights of exposition at the same time, the game typically advances as a single path with forks, with players and characters collectively advancing, making decisions on which new direction to go in, then taking up that direction collectively. But when characters have a chance to do their own thing, the story of the game gets to flow in parallel for a while, with different narrative streams advancing and complicating independently, and the players subsequently determining how to resolve those complications in ways more interesting than simply choosing whether to go left or right.

In almost all cases, popular vote among the characters and players is the definitive way to choose the best option for moving forward as a group. But sometimes it can be fun for a player to mess around with an unpopular option, and giving that character a moment of split-the-party spotlight does that. As well, the kinds of focused moments that splitting the party provides can also give quieter players a chance to step up that they might otherwise have trouble finding within a full-party scene. And under some circumstances, one or two characters working alone can make discoveries or come into possession of unique secrets in ways that heighten the presence of those revelations in the narrative. (But read on for additional thoughts on handling exposition in split-party play.)

Timing is Everything

It’s up the GM to keep a rough sense of how much time is being focused on each individual group when the party is split. In some cases — especially during fast-paced, high-tension encounters — shifting back and forth between short scenes of five or ten minutes can heighten the roleplaying experience. In other cases — especially when separate scenes might take a drastically different amount of time to play out — it works just fine to run a full scene with one group of characters, then run the other group’s scene next.

A conversation between GM and players is the best way to determine what approach feels right for a split-the-party session, and all players should feel free to speak up if one approach or the other is causing the game to flag. This can easily happen when short scenes aren’t providing enough time for players to really dig into what their characters are doing, or when long scenes cause players to lose track of what’s going on in their own side of the story.

All In

When splitting the party, a GM’s first instinct is often to physically divide the characters, setting up in different rooms of a physical play space or in separate video feeds or chat streams online. Indeed, the old adage of “Never split the party!” is often trotted out in response to the complexity of running a game in two locations simultaneously, whether physical or virtual. But there’s another option.

In any split-party scene, let all the players take part — not just the players of the characters in the scene. Players whose characters aren’t present can ask questions of the GM and offer suggestions for the players engaged in the scene, just as they might for a scene in which all the party members appear. In the same way, the players of absent characters will watch the developments in the scene as they happen, even as their characters will learn of those developments only when they regroup with their comrades.

As always, the players whose characters appear in a scene can decide which questions are worth following up on and which suggestions they’d like to explore. Each player is always the sole arbiter of their character’s decisions and actions. But being able to consider the other players’ ideas can make those decisions more interesting.

When a stealthy rogue makes a solo incursion into a noble’s office in the middle of the night, any player can make suggestions as to which features of the office seem worthy of investigation, just as if their characters were there. When the paladin and the cleric meet with the temple high priest to try to convince them of the danger presented by a dragon cult, the players of the other characters can offer up suggestions about how best to make the party’s case, or even offer up pithy one-liners that the characters present might say.

This approach absolutely breaks dramatic realism. But it creates a better play experience by keeping all players engaged in the scene, and by giving the characters in the scene the widest possible range of options and decisions as they navigate the narrative. Under certain circumstances, if it’s important for only the characters in the scene to learn something, you can pass that information on as a note, a text, a private message in chat, and so forth. (And of course, never be afraid to pass a note or private message asking a player to pretend the note said something important, just to keep the other players on their toes.) But that approach should be the exception, not the rule.

Most of the time, letting the players interact regardless of whether their characters are interacting helps maximize the flow of ideas between players and the fun of the game. And letting everyone engage in this way also helps to ensure that the players who aren’t running characters in a scene remain focused on what’s happening in the scene, even as they’re thinking ahead about their own characters’ course of action for when the focus shifts to them. 

An absent-character player who tries to overtly direct the other players’ characters is a problem in this sort of scenario, to be sure. But such players can be a problem in general if they fall into the habit of telling other players what they should do, whether providing unsolicited combat advice, suggesting another character’s course of action, and so forth. As such, talking to such players about where to draw the line on offering advice is the same conversation regardless of whether you’re in a split-party or a full-party scenario.