At last, I may be hitting the end of this series. I think I may have one more after this, but then it will be time to move onto other things.
The party, one might remember, will have gained a sense of relief from having just killed a group of giant ticks. They're still hunting for the party of goblins that took away two women. I had spoken of 'softening' up the party.
Let's look at the possible options for the adventure going forward. The most obvious would be that the party finds the goblin village, kills all the goblins and rescues the two women. This is how almost every module would write it. The party gets their share of combat, the women are rescued, there's treasure and everyone is happy, yes?
As Scarbrow asked yesterday, however, where is the maintenance of tension or threat? Once the village is destroyed, the rescue managed, the air is let from the bladder and we're back to square one, yes?
Well, not quite. My book, How to Run, speaks of the importance of triumph, that being one of the best emotional states in the game. Triumph allows treasure to fund new opportunities, to buy new toys, to expand the player's investments or interests, etcetera. It also helps bind a party together. There are lots of good things that triumph brings, even if it does release the tension. Tension should be released, now and again, in order to change up the challenges and troubles a party faces. After all, a new hook can always be created.
One of the worst things about a story arc - and certainly television has taught us this lesson - is the need to milk and milk the same damn conflict or narrative until it is a sickly grey bag of thin, putrid bile. Too often the players are forced to pursue some enemy or mcguffin forever and ever, simply because the DM won't allow a resolution. Many a campaign has died for lack of a change.
Moreover, it can be greatly beneficial to let things evaporate now and then, for it eliminates the party that is SO sure of how the immediate future is going to play out. For example, what if they don't find the goblins? Does that ever happen in the worlds we play in? It is always assumed that, sooner or later, whether the women are alive or not, the party is guaranteed to find the village.
Why? Surely its believable that the party will be left staggering around endlessly in the wild, until they have to give up. How long would they keep trying? They don't even know for sure that they're looking for a village - perhaps what they need to find is a small, hidden hole in the ground, concealed beneath a shroud of huckleberry bushes. Hell, the party could have walked straight past it four or five times. Even if the ranger does find a path, what is to say the path doesn't just lead straight out of the wilderness to some other road? It would be very easy to miss a side path, or if the goblins had turned down one of the little brooks the party had passed, hiding their tracks.
Then again, suppose the players simply found the corpses of the women and no goblins? What then? They don't know these women - would the party really feel a sense of revenge, or is it more likely they'd think the DM expected them to feel that? What does the party feel like if they discover the dead women and no goblins - ever? What message does that send?
Depending on how it is played, I don't believe it has to send the message, 'adventuring is pointless.' Typically, the DM trying something like this will rush the sequence of events, saying something like, "Many days pass and you don't find anything." Blah. Two or three false trails would be better. A bit of cloth, a broken weapon in the grass, something to suggest that the party is not out there alone. The distraught, painful cries as Mazonn screams at the wood, perhaps as he tries to kill himself over the bodies of the women. There's plenty of opportunity to create a moment that is poignant. There's lots of opportunity to tease.
Helplessness is a discomfort too, and there's nothing more frustrating that being loaded up with equipment and ability and power, only to find yourself impotent because you can't find the enemy. Then, worse, that melancholy in knowing that you've failed. The women are dead, the goblins are nowhere to be found.
The classic trope of finding the village and taking the treasure is more 'fun' . . . but ask yourself if the party always needs things to go predictably. There will be plenty of time for hack and slash later; here is a chance to give the party something else. Tragedy. Pathos. A message that the world doesn't present itself as expected. Nothing - not even battle - is certain.
I urge the reader to seek other ways to resolve adventures - not in every case, of course, since hacking and hauling are intrinsic to the game's acquisitional format. The players need that, or else they'll quit playing. But even a baseball pitcher throws a changeup now and then. Something that alters the speed, confusing the players and mixing things up.
Doesn't have to be something bad. Suppose that the two women, alone, come stumbling into the party within half an hour of their leaving the road? They're filthy, but they haven't had time to have all their clothes stripped off.
"Eliska hit one of them," breathes the sister Marta. "Right in the face! The others were so surprised, they didn't see me grab this stick on the ground."
"Yes!" adds Eliska. "Marta hit the biggest one on his shoulder and he howled! I pushed one down and shouted that we needed to run. I saw Marta throw the stick at one of them and then I grabbed her and we took off together."
"They were right behind us," says Marta. "We jumped over bushes and ran around trees, not even looking. They were a lot smaller than us but they were very fast. Then I came to this ditch -"
"I saw Marta jump it so then I did too."
"I heard Eliska hit the ground and then fall down, so I turned around."
"I hurt myself a bit, scraped my leg, but that's all. I was terrified, though, and when I looked up I was sure they would get me!"
"Then we saw they were gone. They weren't anywhere!"
"We've been walking ever since. We're so glad we found you!"
What does the party do then? How does that change the dynamic of who wanted to go into the forest and who wanted to continue on to the next village? What does the party decide to do when there's no one to rescue?
Will they even find the damn goblins?