It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. And, it was a good food-for-thought for me to consider while designing encounters for my players. My task is to present them with a challenge. Something that disrupts their expectations and forces them to change their plans. The story comes from the choices the players make, and the relative success of their characters as they attempt to meet the challenge. In an RPG, the dice play a role as well, occasionally disrupting the player’s plans and presenting new challenges or opportunities.
The Two-Tiered Encounter
I was playing in Dave’s Dark Sun game last week where, due to time restrictions, the encounter we were involved in had to be cut short. To be continued next week.
|A sandworm, from the cover of Heretics of Dune. © Ace Books|
The design of the encounter echoed what the librarian had said. As players, we throw our characters into encounters with expectations about how they will resolve. As GMs, we can design encounters that create a set of expectations. What makes for a good story is a complication. A second tier to the encounter. Something that disrupts the players’ expectations and forces them to change their plans. In Dave’s encounter, there was the lurking threat of the creature to consider, but we had our hands full with the NPCs escorting the thing. The scope of that threat is, as yet, unknown.
In my Sunday game my players are fleeing through the sewers and subterranean ruins of a mighty metropolis, escorting a scholarly expert to the site of a rift, where beings from the Far Realm are imposing their aberrant, tentacled presences on the well-meaning folk of a local shrine. This scholar may have insights that are critical to thwarting the menace. Of course the path to the shrine is a hazardous one. In Sunday’s session they encountered a tribe of goblins and their mad chief, Ximenes. The tribe worshipped a creature, the blackworm, that laired in the sewer depths.
The Blackworm tribe demanded a toll for passing through their territory. When the coin offered by the party was insufficient, the goblins kidnapped the vulnerable and valuable scholar and bound him within a metal statue of their god in a huge vaulted chamber. The party, attempted a parley, and then launched an attack, felling swaths of goblin minions as they swarmed forward. The mad Ximenes chanted out a ritual of unknown significance and then joined the fray, wielding magic and a great mace with equally deadly effect. Just as it looked like the party was claiming victory, and with many resources used to reach that point, one of the pools in the chamber seethed and spat ichor, and a black dragon rose out of it, spewing an acidic cloud at party and goblins alike. The ritual of Ximenes had apparently succeeded.
This two-tiered encounter was a surprise to the party, and they had to think quickly about how to deal with the complication. They had liberated the scholar, and their mission could continue only if they survived the current challenge. After a bit of consideration, they chose to flee, engineering covering fire and spellcraft to help ensure their escape.
All in all, it was a successful session for everyone. I have the librarian and my fellow player and GM Dave to thank for the inspiration and reminder about what makes a good story. Stuff I’ll keep foremost in mind as I’m designing encounters in the future. As always I’d love to hear about story complications and challenges you’ve faced, and what made them work, or caused them to fail.