Flexible Adventure Design – Ridmarch and the Open Sandbox, Part III

Team of "adventurers" (players) at a...

So you've defeated another random cottage!

The Tao of Random Encounters and Possible Rewards:

The real heart of the “random encounter” or “wandering monster” is the idea that the setting is an active fantasy world that exists independently of the player characters.

That’s obvious nonsense. If you don’t have players, the only use for the setting is as a backdrop if you’re writing a novel or something. Even if you’re developing it to go along with the game you’re writing it’s still being created for the benefit of players – it’s just for LATER players.

Of course, if you have lots of players – whether they’re spread out over time or you’re running multiple groups in the same world – you’ll have to track the effects they have on the setting. If they overthrow King Fendahl the Basically Useless, they’ll want to know what the new king is like. They’ll probably want to know about a few of the things he’s done, so that they can be prepared for the future. That’s just asking that their actions have an effect on the setting – which they should if you want to keep it interesting and absorbing for very long.

Now, suddenly, you have a lot of background “events” – such as the Dire Deeds of King Karsack the Dread Destroyer – that no longer involve the player characters directly.

Once you get into deep immersion role-playing or really long-term games the notion becomes vital. Not because it’s magically become any more sensible – but because the illusion that the setting is a living, dynamic, place is a large part of what makes a long-term game fun. The setting needs to grow, and change, and develop depths to be investigated, and become “real” to the players and a background for their characters. Otherwise it will probably never become a really long-term game – and you’ll be missing out on something.

Random encounters said that creatures were out moving around for reasons that had nothing to do with the player characters. That they had lives (or un-lives or quasi-lives) and routines of their own and that – just as in real life – a lot of the activity you ran into had nothing to do with your personal goals and quests.

At that point random encounters went from being amusement for the game master, a part of the obstacle course for the players, and bothersome interruptions and resource drains (to be avoided if at all possible) for the party to valuable props for creating that illusion of reality. Secondarily, they became game master prompts, since no game master had the time to dream up ALL the background events for even a small campaign. You rolled up a couple of parties of goblins? Had goblins moved into the area? Were they searching for something? Why were the goblins here? Was the party in a graveyard? What else might be haunting the graveyard at the moment? A quick check on the “graveyard” encounter table would tell you what was there. WHY it was there was up to the game master – and might be the springboard for a new adventure.

Quite a few perfectly good adventures – and even grand sagas and epic quests – sprang from random seeds.

Some areas in adventures would even list the chances that their inhabitants were moving around. Thus Olaf the Guard Captain would check the guards posts every so often – and so might randomly turn up at a guards post, in the corridors, in his chambers, or out and about for some other reason. If he found that the guards had been attacked, he’d have a heavy guard of his own along, since he’d be actively searching for the intruders. You might find Olaf in his quarters (where he had some nasty surprises set up for intruders and attackers), but you might not – and if you killed Olaf, the rest of the guards would lose their organization and he (of course) wouldn’t be appearing any longer.

Eventually, however, a growing tendency to stress combat, set-piece battles, and “balance” (as well as, at least in d20, the pernicious notions of “expected wealth by level” and “13.5 encounters per level”) started to make this awkward. If Olaf was supposed to be a difficult-but-possible fight in his personal chambers full of tricks and traps, he was a lot easier to deal with if you lured him out or caught him alone in a corridor – but things changed again if you found him in the company of a dozen guards. Worse, if you defeated him and a bunch of guards, but didn’t manage to get into the living quarters where the bulk of their “treasure” was, you had a bunch of encounters with no rewards – and if you snuck past everyone, and looted their quarters while they were out, you got a bunch of treasure with no encounters!

That didn’t matter in the old school. There “balance” was a lot less fragile since the characters were intended to avoid any battle where the danger outweighed the reward and a lot of things relied on the player’s investigative skills rather than the characters talents. As games grew more structured, and characters grew too complex to make a new one in five minutes, “balance” started to matter a lot more.

Thus random encounters and wandering monsters started dropping out of many adventure designs. That was very appropriate in some long-sealed crypt, where the only “encounters” would be ancient constructs, traps, and imprisoned undead waiting for some foolish adventurer to come along and let them out, but made less sense in more active communities.

Personally I think that random encounters are pretty important. They set the tone of an area, their unpredictable danger level and general lack of major rewards means that the players will eventually learn that they’re better off only fighting when they need to, and they can – if properly used – go a long ways towards producing the illusion that there are things going on that aren’t for the benefit of the characters.

Admittedly, that pretense is indirectly for the benefit of the players – but most of a game is.

Possible Rewards:

So what are some of the possible rewards for adventuring in Ridmarch?

A lot of literary adventures simply end with the protagonist(s) safely back at home, perhaps a little older and wiser – but their “reward” is simply resuming their peaceful life.

That won’t work in most role-playing games. In most of those (with rare exceptions) the characters are presumed to be more-or-less “professional” adventurers – in it until they’re killed, until they accomplish some mighty goal, or (possibly) have enough treasure to retire very rich indeed.

Other stories end with the satisfaction of good deeds well done, an epic tale to tell, the acclaim of the masses (well sometimes), and treasures stored up in heaven. Heroic deaths fall into this category as well; they may mean the end of a character, but the reader, viewer, or player will often find them satisfying and worth recalling long after the book, movie, play, or game ends.

For most role-playing games, however, a large part of the satisfaction and attraction lies in gradually building up a characters abilities and resources. Hence the dissatisfaction when the characters go to a lot of work and “don’t get anything good!”.

The trouble with that approach is that accumulating stockpiles of cash, magical devices, concubines, and objects de’ art will – sooner or later – start to strain all credulity. Where does it all come from? Why doesn’t this massive influx of cash wreck the economy? Why go after monsters instead of going after other characters with similar stockpiles? Where are the monsters getting this stuff? Are there taxes? If something happens to a character, who are his or her heirs? Will the – very likely totally unrelated – replacement character get it all? Why?

Obvious, but unanswered, questions are generally bad for the game. They make it hard to take the game world seriously – and from there it’s a short jump to the bad puns and Monty Python references. Sure, that’s fun too, but it’s much less sustainable fun. Eventually, the jokes are no longer funny and the game dies.

Real “adventurers” – like most modern sports and movie stars – spent money almost as fast as they got it, buying properties, holding parties, and climbing the social ladder. Thus most of the Conquistadors who made it back to spend the loot they’d gathered died poor. Footloose adventurers who come into money generally wind up broke again in short order. They’re in a very risky profession, and they tend to spend it and enjoy it while they’ve got it.

That may not apply if you can turn your money directly into power – whether by buying super-powered gear or more directly – but the ever-greater accumulation of money-based power runs into it’s own problems, such as “why don’t the Gnomes of Zurich (and other wealthy merchants and heirs) rule the world?”.

Besides, plundering dragon-hordes, while exciting, is only fun as long as it doesn’t become routine. The same goes for magic swords; when they go from “marvelous wonders!” to “and you’ll be needing at least a +3 at your level, may I suggest something from our Wayland Smith line of enchantments Sir?” your setting – and game – has really lost something.

Perhaps fortunately, unless your party is powerful enough to go into the infernal planes to assault “Harkold”, this particular adventure doesn’t really provide masses of gold, jewels, and magic, although parties with less ethics may be able to grab some artwork, goods, sacred temple vessels, and slaves. More likely rewards in Ridmarch include:

• Honors and Ego-Stroking: Rank, titles, and social status are always impressive, often come with special legal privileges, and greatly enhance what you can get away with – whether it’s excusing a brawl in the streets, charging excessive fees for your services, or asking for special favors. Public recognition, local lordlings willing to help you out, and portrayals of yourself and your heroic deeds may be less portable than gold – but they are also less perishable. Get yourself a few medals, and perhaps the “key to the city”, and you can impress people with your heroic credentials across the multiverse. Having bards sing your epic may not sound very useful – but when you need to get into some noble’s party, it may prove pretty handy after all.

• Hospitality and Properties: By the time the Dark Legion has been driven back into the abyss from whence they came there are likely to be quite a few properties around Ridmarch with no remaining heirs – and a pressing need for the remaining nobles and authorities to recruit more capable guardians for the area. Ergo, at the least, the areas saviors will be honored guests whenever they’re in the around – and they are quite likely to be granted lands in the area. Admittedly they won’t be able to sell them (if only because lands are a glut on the market at the moment and will be for some time to come) but a home base, a reliable income (even if a lot of it is in goods and services), a place to raise a family, and people to look after your stuff while you’re busy adventuring, can be pretty handy.

• Benisons: While ever-increasing heaps of treasure are awkward, blessings are very classic, are about as easily portable as it’s possible to get – and do NOT accumulate endlessly in a party. For example…

  • The monasteries and priests of Ridmarch will remember their rescuers in their prayers and ceremonies for centuries to come – and, since prayer, priests, and gods have direct and obvious powers in most fantasy worlds, benefits will accrue to those being prayed for. Perhaps they will be better protected from injury (increasing their armor ratings or gaining more “hit points”), they might gain the benefits of a low-level priestly spell effect as needed a few times per week, or they might gain a small bonus to virtually anything else. Secondarily, their souls cannot be possessed or imprisoned for long because the prayers of the faithful shall win their release.
  • Similar results might be obtained through the blessings of some local godling or spirit. Perhaps the spirit of a sacred grove will grant the gift of communicating with birds or some such – or the valor which empowers the Eagle of Ridmarch will come to the parties aid in some future grave emergency.

Of course, if such a Benison fails, it’s a sure sign that you have to go to the rescue again to get it back – the good old “your magic item has been stolen” plot without having to bother stealing an item and without frustrating the players; if somethings gone wrong with a Benison, they know where to go – and what, in general, they have to do, to get it back (or perhaps even get it back with improvements).

Benisons can also scale with the characters development. After all, the more important you are in the world, the more attention its supernatural denizens are likely to give you – and you may well do the source of your Benison further favors, thus earning additional enhancements. Even failing that, characters may become better at focusing or channeling such gifts. Why shouldn’t practice help with supernatural blessings just as well as it helps with combat, stealth, casting spells, and other adventurous talents?

Thus a Benison may grow with a character, and continue to be of value throughout his or her career.

In general, it’s best to go with small enhancements as opposed to powers and more active aid for Benisons; a slow progression towards becoming a mighty hero is usually better than a rapid rush towards demigodhood – and a selection of “+1’s” and “+2’s” doesn’t clutter up a character sheet nearly as much as things like “gains the benefits of a first-level priestly spell with a caster level of 15 three times a week whenever the player decides that this benefit should be invoked”.

More esoteric benefits – such as the bit about “immunity to soul imprisonment” – may rarely come up, but the game master should make sure that they do at least once, and preferably in a very dramatic fashion.

Game masters who wish to keep careful track of how much “treasure” the characters have accumulated should just count Benisons as magic items. They fact that they can’t readily be stolen or cancelled is neatly balanced by the fact that you can’t pass them around, give them up, or trade them. (If you’re calculating values in d20, The Practical Enchanter is good for that).

• Allies, Connections, and Favors can be invaluable – allowing characters to obtain backing, take refuge in emergencies, get reinforcements, borrow special equipment, ask for information, and a thousand other things. While this sort of thing has pretty much dropped out of some game systems, which focus almost entirely on the personal abilities of the player characters, it’s always good to remember that the characters should not be wandering from adventure to adventure in their own personal limbo. If you need to drain a lake to weaken the water-serpent which guards the mystical item you must retrieve to save a city, it’s a LOT easier (and much faster) to get the local duke to send over a working party to dig a drainage ditch than it is to undertake the project yourselves.

• Fate Points appear in Runecards, and might be described as “good karma”. They can be spent to survive terrible events, imbue items with magic, to make items and creatures a part of your personal legend, to find companions, to add items to your backstory, to swear mighty (and magically binding) oaths, and for various other purposes. They’re earned through heroic and mighty deeds – in effect a mechanical implementation of divine favor, destiny, or plot devices. They – or some similar mechanic of choice – make an excellent method of rewarding characters without turning them into supermen or creating the stockpiled wealth problem; a stockpile of Fate Points may help you accomplish mighty deeds – but they are a strictly limited resource that cannot be stolen or be passed on to new characters. New characters must build their own legends.

3 Responses

  1. […] first appeared in Part III of the Flexible Adventure Design series (Part I, Part II, Part III), but I’ll put them here for conveniences […]

  2. […] I’d suggest The Basic Adventure article, as well as the Ridmarch articles (Part I, Part II, and Part III) – in part because Ridmarch is a good demonstration of the way that foreshadowing flows […]

  3. […] far as “Blessings” go, to refer back to an older article that discussed a variety of possible alternative “treasures” to reward …. Among other options it […]

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