It feels good to be running again, both on and off line. Mostly for the reasons the gentle reader would expect, but also because it provides fodder for this blog. Today I am thinking about the beginnings of campaigns.
A good campaign does not begin all too quickly. It's good to get people on the road, or on the move - to get them equipping themselves and working out strategies in how to function together ... but I don't advocate slapping them with an McEncounter the second they've designed their characters. This is somewhat disfunctional online, where things move more slowly; an off-line session can get a decent adventure off the ground in a couple of hours. Online, I've found, it takes at least two weeks.
That is because of the ground that needs to be covered. First and foremost, a strong setting. Someplace which the players can identify, and which is not overly threatening. Traditionally D&D has always preferred a tavern or an inn, but anywhere relatively safe and patrolled will do: a populated city square, a well-travelled road, a walled-in village or yes, a large, well-maintained ship.
I tend to start my players in circumstances over which they have no control - the inn is mastered by the innkeeper, the local church by the clergy, the ship by tough sailors - and this sometimes creates an immediate sense of distrust. What if the shipmaster turns on the party? What if the other guests violently plunder the inn? What if the sun suddenly goes down and bandits attack?
I'm sure other DMs play that way. For myself, I want my players to feel - initially - safe. If they get into danger, it won't be on account of my putting them into a situation and trapping them. For the first while, I want my players to feel there's a way out.
For example, consider the two campaigns I'm running online.
The party moving along the road can stop at any time. They don't have to fulfill the 'quest.' They can wish the cleric cheery-by and part company, and no hard feelings. The NPC might lose respect for them - but he isn't railroading them along.
I've been very careful to allow the party on board ship a way out. The ship will be stopping at Corfu - and if the party feels suddenly they don't want to travel to Egypt and work for the strange archeologist, again, no problem. In the meantime, I am working up a shipboard adventure - no different, really, than a dungeon adventure or a city adventure. Certainly a bit cramped. The trick, however, is to make it voluntary.
How is that done, exactly?
My experience has been that parties will respond to some very definite motivations, if given the chance and if those are delivered correctly. I list them out, to encourage other DMs to try them. I'll begin with the most obvious:
Greed. This hardly needs an explanation; throw out a promise of gold somewhere and people will go for it. However ... an ordinary monster and treasure does not a good adventure make, not in my experience. To really play on player greed, and build a long term adventure, the end 'treasure' needs to be more than merely a plundered lair. It needs to be the gold that keeps on giving - magic or power. Both of which corrupt quite nicely ... even if the objects or the power is clean, the players are not, and will create their own messes somewhere.
Injustice. Ordinary injustices, such as poverty, abuse, crime - I don't find these things motivate a party very well. DMs usually have to railroad to make them work. But an injustice that a particular player can really identify with, something that hits them below the belt ... works every time. Women in the party, all I have to do is have a woman beaten to death right in front of them and they are on board. Got a bard? Wreck an instrument ... make it a nice one. Give a villain a rod of cancellation and ruin the chief player's +2 sword. Have the giant deliberately target the paladin's warhorse with boulders. Nasty.
Insult. This always seems a bit strange to me, but I've repeatedly found it to work. Have an assassin step out from behind a pillar and attempt to kill a player, fail, and die, and you'll get nothing. Have the assassin say, a round before dying, "We all said when we started that you were a greasy bastard," and the player will spend four runnings trying to find out who 'we' are. My favorite is to do the Finnegan from Star Trek thing; have thieves stand at a distance, taunt, and get away with it ... parties get very hot under the collar.
Two Camps. This is perpetually my favorite. Wherever the party is, whatever they're doing, have some conflict going on between total strangers ... and watch the party pick sides. It's human nature. The more realistic you can make the motive for the two camps, the better. If you get a really good riff going, you can get the party switching sides over and over as new information comes in, as they won't know who they should back. What's particularly funny is that most of the time, while the party is saying, "We're on OUR side," they are still willingly getting involved in something that never had anything to do with them in the first place.
And, of course, you can have both sides haul the party in for a 'chat.' This has long been a standard trope for thrill plots - Hitchcock used it, Star Trek used it, most Sci Fi / Fantasy TV uses it, hundreds of quality writers and directors have used it. The mistaken identity, the party assumed to be helping Side A when they're not, driving them towards helping Side A because Side B are clearly such a group of assholes.
What's more, when you're ready as a DM to make it more complicated, you make it three camps, and then four camps, and so on.
You can't set things like this up in five minutes. Like a good stew, it takes time. It gathers strength and then melds, the rich aroma pulling the players in and holding then on the brim of the pot, while you stir and stir.