Sunday, October 15, 2017

Charting an Adventure Path

I was asked to help readers chart a path of increasing difficulty for players and to describe a scenario based on party interaction with the environment and the five types of monsters I've recently described.  This post addresses these requests.  The scenario was invented in the last couple of hours and is being fleshed out as I write this post ~ but let me enjoin the reader to realize that any adventure along these lines must be flexible with regards to the players' decisions.

What I usually do is imagine the best possible arrangement of events and then attempt to motivate the players to pursue actions that enable that sequence to play out as I imagine it.  In this, I accept the players have free will; I can't make them take the carrot, but I can make the carrot awfully juicy looking.

Normally, I would describe the adventure here on the blog in the way I would in game, to encourage the reader to feel that mounting tension as the players are meant to experience.  However, as I've done that before, and the message hasn't fully sunk in, this time I'll give the raw details up front and then deconstruct the adventure's intention.

Therefore, let's begin with a cast list:

  • A group of 5-6th level Players as protagonists
  • Three night hags as the eradicators 
  • Three hell hounds as the destructive wanderers
  • A village of hobgoblins as the builders
  • A herd of large deer, with stags, as passive wanderers
  • A bear as a passive wanderer
  • A large scattered collection of giant ticks as the vermin

Then I'll describe the best case scenario in how we would hope for things to unfold, involving all the characters above. The players climb up into a set of close mountains, first encountering a series of giant ticks one at a time, serving as no better than annoyances.  Thereafter they find the herd of deer, which we'd like them to follow for several days at least, getting deeper into the wilderness.  After this, they encounter one hell hound, which does not engage but does make its presence known.  The party moves in the direction of the hell hound's departure until they encounter a roving band of a dozen hobgoblins.  The party discovers the hobgoblin village and judges it too big and dangerous to attack.  They move on to find the one hell hound and stumble across the bear.  They realize the bear isn't an enemy and they keep themselves from losing hit points trying to kill it.  Finally they discover the hell hound and kill it.  This happens to be on the edge of the eradicated part of the forest, overrun by giant ticks, setting up the reveal of the bigger monster.  The players get frightened and retreat.  Then, they are forced to fight two hellhounds and a night hag at the same time, killing them all.  Finally, they fight two night hags and a lot of giant ticks and win.  The adventure ends.

If that end seems very suspicious, it should.  My intent is to emphasize the upwards scale of the encounters' danger.  The ticks, the deer, the brief encounter with the hell hound, the hobgoblins, the bear, the hell hound again, then the hag with hell hounds and then two hags with a whole lot of ticks.

At some point, the players will want to bow out ~ the trick is to keep them moving forward, and to make it possible that those last two encounters include a possibility that the players can win.  How?

An adventure is not just one motivation.  A lot of people think it is, not just in table-top gaming but in making films and books as well.  How often have we seen a film that tries to give the character a single point of purpose, which must then sustain all the character's actions right up to the last scene?  It never works.  At some point, you're stuck watching and thinking, "At this point, I would just stop trying."

Let's run through those motivations.

First, I want the party to head up into the mountains.  I've got to create some reason for that, if the party doesn't just make it convenient by deciding to go up into the mountains for no reason.  That does happen, as parties get bored, but if that doesn't happen I've got to have something.  So let's say the local church has a large quartz rock with seams of gold in it, about the size of a head, sitting on the altar.  "Where did that come from?"  "Those mountains.  There are gold mines up there, but no one's sure where."  "So where did this particular rock come from?"  "It was found on the dead body of a priest about twenty-five years ago."  "Was he killed?"  "No, apparently he starved to death."

There, that ought to be good enough.  The party loads up, heads into the mountains, which we want to be too steep for pack animals, so that they are limited in how much food they can carry.  Why?  Because that is our next motivator.  As the party goes along, they get attacked by one giant tick.  A member of the party has to fight it almost single-handedly but the tick dies and that person has to eat 50% more food that night.  Then the next day, it happens again, two ticks this time, with more food being eaten by the battle-weary players.  The ticks are easy to kill but we're cutting into their food stores.  Another day and another tick, then a respite, then the day after, two ticks.  The forest is loaded with them and the players are starting to wonder about how much food they have.

Then they see the herd of deer.  The deer are gentle, trusting, happy bags of food on legs and the party starts hunting them.  This keeps the game going, as they find themselves drawing the attention of about six stags and backing off.

The party starts searching the valley, going back to the deer herd if they need more food.  They meet a few ticks, find a few holes, but mostly they're not doing well.  They start to talk about going back ... and that's our opportunity to hit them with the hell hound.

We can leave a few clues to find, places where a part of the forest has burned, perhaps the smoking carcass of a burned, mostly-eaten stag.  Then the hell hound itself, big and bold and coming onto the camp at night, blazing in glory and then disappearing into the darkness as the party desperately tries to organize an assault.  This gets them thinking.  That hell hound must be coming from somewhere!  Where?

So they keep looking.  Now come the hobgoblins.  There are a dozen but the party only sees four at first, all unarmed.  The party is given an opportunity to decide what to do.  Kill them?  Grab them?  Now two scenarios can play out.  The players rush the hobgoblins and fail surprise or initiative and the four hobgoblins scatter.  See, they're not soldiers, they're just hobgoblin kids, out for a jaunt, not threatening anyone.  If the party chances to slaughter them all before finding this out, that's bad for them but good for us.

Hopefully, however, the kids will live; before they're all killed, the remaining eight of the dozen I first described will arrive and try to parley with the party.  These hobgoblins are NOT evil; they're not aggressive, they're potential friends to the party.  If the party has killed a teenager or two, the adult hobgoblins will be sad but they will understand the party's error.  Hopefully, this understanding will touch the party and cause them to feel ... unsure.  Do they trust these hobgoblins?

We want the party and the hobgoblins to be friends, for what happens later, because we need the hobgoblins to help kill the hell hounds and the night hags (aha!).  So the hobgoblins invite the party back to the village, which is how the party "discovers" the village, as I said in the scenario above.  They get to see there are about a hundred hobgoblins, so the players definitely decide not to start a fight.  They're met by the leaders, they sit down to dinner and the players ask about the hell hound.

Now we can feed the players a motivation.  We say nothing about the night hags; the hobgoblins are unaware of them!  But they do know that there is a hell hound out there that occasionally harrasses the outskirts of the village.  They have not seen the hell hound for a year, however, so they thought they were safe.  The party's tale upsets them.  They ask if the party is afraid of it.  The party figures, its just one hell hound, no big deal, there are four or five of us, we can handle a hell hound.  So they say, no.  The villagers promise a reward and offer a guide if the players will go kill it.  Hopefully, we can sell this and the players will say yes.

So now they tromp off to kill the hell hound.  The guide says the hound usually dwells far away.  But the ranger in the party, or the guide, can track the beast and eventually there's a week of travel through woods to get to where the hell hound will be killed.  Meanwhile, the guide demonstrates food that can be found all around them, without killing deer ~ and we have the scene with the bear.

Now, that scene has to be played out carefully.  The bear should be heard first, serving as a terrific red herring for a moment like this.  The players are stoked and ready for a fight.  The bear is behind trees.  No, there's no fire or even the smell of fire, but the guide explains that hell hounds have a stealth mode which enables them to be quite sneaky.  The players set up, perhaps rush the bear ... and then find out its a bear.

A fight would probably end in killing the bear, but it will also cost the players hit points; if they're smart, they'll back off, but chances are they'll just go ahead and fight.

Soon after, the hell hound attacks.  The battle should be a good one, with the hound charging through the party in passing strikes that lets just one player take a swing while the hell hound charges.  We want to make the battle as hard as possible.  For me, hell hounds in the original books are pretty weak, just 30 hit points and one attack, so increase the hit points, the number of attacks (have you seen a dog snap its teeth in a fight?), the weight of the animal (about 750 lbs, 50% bigger than a lion) and make it fast.  Have it attack at night where it can melt into the darkness at will, before flaring up red just before striking a lone party member.  The players will be well and freaked when they finally kill the beast.

Space the attacks out so that they come every ten to thirty minutes.  The players fight the beast all night long. That way, by the next morning, you can argue they've moved a long way from their original camp; they're lost.  That helps the reveal of the eradicated, burned out forest and the ticks moving over the landscape.  As well, we should add that the hell hound's corpse is wearing a thick silver collar.  That should get the players thinking.  Meanwhile, torn up, they'll be ready to beat a retreat.

They head back to the village, hopefully, to get their reward.  They rest up, heal a little, eat, show the collar and talk about the burned out area and the hobgoblins go pale.  Now they remember legends of terrible witches that used to control hell hounds.  No one has seen hide nor hair of anything like that for three generations.  The hobgoblins then reveal their gold mine to the players and give them a tour, where they show a natural cave in the mountain depicting witches mounted on blazing horses (nightmares).

If the party were higher level, we could add the nightmares to the mix, but I said 5th and 6th so they're out.  But as the party emerges from the cave, now frightened, the village is attacked by the two hellhounds and the one night hag.  There's no time to explain or anything - but the whole village jumps in and if the players don't run, there will be one hell of a massive fight.  The players should be able to realize that, helped by 100 hobgoblins, they should win the fight; and that nice gold mine is right there, reminding them of what they're fighting for.  That should motivate them sufficiently to join in.

At this point, we want to be sure the night hag and the two hell hounds die.  If at all possible, the night hag should not seem anywhere near as dangerous as she actually is.  Perhaps she makes a bad mistake; maybe we get lucky and the players or hobgoblins luck out and kill her early.  Either way, the harder the night hag is to kill, the less willing the players will be for the next part.

See, we've got to get those players to go to the night hag's lair and kill the other two.  The hobgoblins are there to tell the party that hags always travel in threes, so there are two more and they must be at that burned out area.  More than that, we've got to put some real nice toy on the dead night hag as an encouragement.

As a DM, we've got to play this one part brilliantly.  Right off, don't offer help, don't explain the toy, don't do anything to dissuade the party into thinking they don't have to go fight those other two nighthags by themselves.  This is always a huge mistake made by a DM, to give too much too quickly.  Don't.  Let the party twist in the wind, at least for a few minutes ... and then have the remaining villagers come forward and dump enough reward on the party to boost them all a level.

That will help tremendously.  Then let the party re-evaluate their chances at winning a fight by themselves against two night hags, for a little while, before having someone reveal what the found toy is.  Hm, that's really interesting!

Now, let the party evaluate again.  Do they think they can?  Is it possible?  Let them sweat.  Let them doubt.  Let it HURT.  Let them consider the three silver collars they've found on the dogs, the silver jewelry they've found on the night hags, the possibility that there's a silver mine out there, too.  Let them make up their minds.

This is the best part of D&D.  Deciding if you're brave enough to go for it.  Deciding if you're willing and able to deal with the consequences.  Realizing that it all lies on you, that if you die, it is absolutely going to be your fault.

And if they waver about going, having the villagers come forward and offer to come along.  Oh, not all of them ... but half of those that have survived the village fight.

This is it.  The last evaluation.  The party will stew and stew and stew, probably the rest of the session ... because even if they know they're going, they'll still hesitate.

Now, do you see how we've built the tension?  How we've charted a path of increasing difficulty?  How we haven't had to rely on dice to create apparently "random" encounters?  After all, we're not going to tell the players we planned any of this.  As they play, we'll introduce each thing as though we've just thought of it.  We don't need a map, do we?  We don't need notes that have to be read verbatim to get them moving to the next monster type.  We just need to sell the motivation.  And let the players go straight for each step like a moth to a flame.

This works.  I've been doing it this way for almost 40 years.  I wasn't able to describe it as well most of that time.  I couldn't have deconstructed it like this.  But the pattern is the same.  Each step needs a new hook, a new motivation, a new reason for the players to just keep going forward.


  1. Wow, this is fantastic. Lots of moments for the players to feel tense and afraid, and a great reasoning behind the distribution of monsters too (I just connected the starved priest to the giant ticks now).

    I think your means of coaxing the players is what's significant in this post. Your restraint leaves the players room to make their own decision and you've got enough breadcrumbs to draw them down the path.

    It also doesn't feel like they're ever completely trapped. At every step it's possible for the players to turn back, which adds to the tension because we've given them just enough courage to keep on forward.

    Designing around the example best-case scenario also seems like a good choice, because you can then infer how other situations might play out if things go wrong. An overzealous player is gored by stags and needs help; the village is hostile or threatening to the players after they try to attack it; the hell hound attacks and escapes, to return with others.

    If you're tempted to concoct more examples, perhaps for different party levels or addressing what might happen if the players choose another path, I'd love to read them too.

  2. Wow, just wow. Same as Tim, this is a great post, among your top 5. Now I see clearly how a lot of your tips and advices assemble together. It's very clearly explained, that was insightful of you to detail it for us !

    My companion's son, 12, is starting along the road of DMing. I'm giving him advices and insights gained here, and I'll definitely pass this one onto him as soon as possible !

    Hmm, I'll post it to some Facebook groups too, I hope French gamers will endure some English ^^.

    Thank you

  3. Amazing! I'm totally in awe of this!

  4. I've seen detractors of this method referring to it as "Illusionism" in the past, due perhaps to the predetermined fashion of encounter escalation, geographically unbound insomuch as the in-world rationale will support it (the party doesn't wander hopelessly far from the places to where logic binds the encounter). Could be that this detraction only applies to sandboxing, which your game doesn't really subscribe to.

    Not that this indictment gets any thrift from me, a well versed DM can make this sing with no-one the wiser, like you fairly stress: the DM should absolutely abstain from commenting what might have come to pass or what the players narrowly avoided.

    As one who has been on the receiving end of this methodology via Campaign Juvenis, I can attest that it works beautifully, cautious clerics notwithstanding.

  5. Drain, please: with all due respect, that's bullshit.

    The argument you make is sound ~ EXCEPT that it makes a very BIG assumption, that once I've conceived of this scenario, I'm locked into it and I will MAKE the party accept it.

    No. I don't have to.

    Let me remind you. I invented this whole scenario in exactly three hours, including the time it took to write it down and explain it to the reader. I can, any time I want, invent ANOTHER scenario, the moment the party does something that, quote, "wanders hopelessly far from the places to where logic binds."

    I can invent hundreds of scenarios, one a day, if I have to, because I have practiced this. The players may NEVER see the mine, they may NEVER see the night hags, they may never see the mountains at all, if the bartender's story doesn't win them over. And so what! If they do something unexpected, I'll invent something else.

    Don't tell me that my game doesn't subscribe to sandboxing. You're talking through your hat.

    Too often, people in gaming look at the above and think, "Wow, that is so intricate, if I came up with something like that, how would I make a party swallow it?"

    This is not at all the point of the adventure or the point of this post. The point of this post is not, "Hey, this is a great adventure," the point of this post is, Adventures need multiple hooks, multiple motivations, multiple reasons for people to do stuff. It does not matter WHAT they do, only that they do SOMETHING, and that they have a reason for it.

  6. Hm. As I think of it, this is probably why the Senex party crashed and burned. They were so sure I was maneuvering them, illusioning them, no matter what they did, that they began to resist everything. They'd get as far as the ticks, run out of food, then quit and go back to town. Over and over.

    But that's not a fault of my design. That's pure resistance to taking any sort of risk where there's a chance you'll get in too deep to swim out. Resisting that chance is the opposite of adventure! Adventure is diving in and feeling certain that whatever comes up, We'll handle it! We'll figure it out, we'll jury rig something, we'll make it work.

    You can't adventure with an abacus in your hand.

  7. This last series of posts on encounter structure has been outstanding, Alexis. Thank you for sharing this deconstruction of the encounter with all of us.

    Could you tell us a bit more about how far you ordinarily go in setting out these encounters in advance? I am reminded of a moment in your online campaign, many years ago, where you had the party find some sort of container with ancient coins (was it a helmet? I can't recall...) hidden in the wilderness. Finding it, at this point, seemed purely accidental. It was one lead the party could have followed, on their way from point A to point B. It clearly had nothing to do with the overall plot that they had been following. When introducing this object did you already have a structure as fleshed out as the one above in mind?

    And speaking in the context of an offline, bimonthly campaign, how many of these would you think of preparing in advance, prior to any given game session, as a 'reserve' of adventuring possibilities?

  8. Sorry I'm only just commenting on post I requested. Starting new job this week, hectic.

    Key takeaway for me after first read is: yes DM is neutral when adjudicating, but DM cannot be neutral regarding the distribution of encounters. Else you end up with boring endless fights against vermin and passives since those are statistically most numerous. This makes me wonder about other areas where the DM must sacrifice "neutrality" (WRT running a simulation) łn order to run a good GAME. immediately, the concept of giving PCs 4d6 drop one for stats comes to mind. Same idea: you could do it on 3d6 cause that's what human(oid)s get, but these are PCs, the game is about them, got to remember they are better than average. That which they encounter will be also be more interesting than average. The typical hobgoblin villager in this scenario, venturing into the woods, would find naught but deer.

    Thank you for writing this.

  9. Not to claim you ignore the second part of my reply, where I validate the approach, note that I merely underline the undeniable degree of finesse that it requires.

    I know it comes off as bullshit. I knew it as I wrote it. Yet, you came to the very point I wanted to contrast: sometimes bullshit is in the arse-end of the beholder.

    I don’t presume. I know for a fact you’re not wedded to results and that you can spin more and more scenarios as needs must; you’re a proven cornucopia at doing it.
    The rub: if a party gets wind of an underlying methodology or in any way convinces themselves that they’re being strung along, they may (may) manifest resistance. The kind of resistance that brings games down crashing.

    When I said your game doesn’t quite subscribe to sandboxing I meant in the sense of having frozen content laying fallow, keyed on locations or hexes waiting to be activated by the protagonists. Should have gone with ‘Hexcrawl’ as a term.

    Full agreeance with the rest, including the part of the design not being at fault, it’s one that I myself have used to excellent result, so nothing to pick at.

  10. Drain.

    Every time you tell me what my world is, you're going to get right under my skin. Even if you mean well. The declaration itself, "Your world is such-and-such," is bound to be taken in the least positive way imaginable.

    But I'm glad we agree.

  11. I understand. Don't want to come across badly; not out for that and you know it.

  12. Hah hah. Obviously I don't. I'm an ornery, mean-spirited thin-skinned son-of-a-bitch and I draw my pistols far too quickly. In an old western, I'm Lee van Cleef.

  13. Excellent post, Alexis. Really gets my gears turning and my imagination fired up, as I consider restarting a latent campaign. Thanks for this one.

  14. Matthais,

    I hope you get the answer for this. I meant to answer you last week and I plain forgot.

    Yes, I remember the helmet. I had intended that to be a sidequest that would award the players more experience and get them up a level, but the players just didn't bite. It was easier to create because it was for the online campaign; in that format, any time I came up with an idea at random, because of something I read or heard, or just a random thought popping up in the bathroom on during a commute, I could add it to the campaign almost at once.

    I don't usually "think up" these ideas before a session, or have a bunch of them on tap. If the session seems to need something like this, I can look up the local area on wikipedia or tap up google earth, since I run the real world, and usually get an idea within a minute or two, while the players stock up on food or debate a plan they have. Then, as the players react to the teaser, I am usually inspired about where it goes in the bigger picture, adding depth to it as I go.

    Once the session ends, I have until the next session to think about it further. Usually, long before the players actually get involved, I've got the structure worked out in my head. But if the players do what they did in that campaign with the roman helmet, and don't follow it, then I just stop thinking about the teaser and move onto something else.

    As a result, right now I can say I have no idea where following that Roman helmet would have led. But it doesn't matter.

  15. I was only one small part of the Senex campaign, and only before the final end of that campaign, but I have a different perspective on why the campaign ultimately failed. I can't speak for the others, but I saw aspects of my own experience in the others who were about to keep playing after the reboot. I spent a far greater time charting our own adventure path than actually playing, and as a result, I began to see the adventure hooks as akin to the ticks: obstacles that stood between us and the gold mines we hoped to build at the end.

    I'm moved to post because your comment is surprisingly close to accepting the campaign as an argument for (at a minimum) the difficulty of the approach you outline here. Our continued presence here (especially James) seems to be testament to that.

  16. Forgot to mention that I'm pretty sure we all kept notes on the hooks we didn't take (including that helmet) that we hoped to get back to. I still remember several of them without digging up my notes. No idea if that continued after the reboot.

  17. I want to be sure I understand what you're saying, Maximillian, because I think it is worth considering. I'm guessing here: you're saying that more adventure hooks were themselves an obstacle; that the party never committed to a single adventure because it always seemed a different one was in the offing.

    Is that it?

  18. I think you have me backwards; at some point we had so much invested in a single adventure, that we became unwilling to consider any other hook.

  19. I'm curious about one aspect. When doing adventures like this you are pretty clear that the players are welcome to simply turn around and go somewhere else. Does the adventure still stay in that location? What I mean is that if another group of players get to that same point on the map are the hobgoblins/hellhounds/ticks arrangement still there? Your map is so big that the chances of someone else stumbling across the same few hexes are vanishingly small but I'm still curious if you write down the contents of those hexes as part of the overall world when you make the adventure.

  20. Oh no, the adventure does not relocate. If the players abandon the adventure, it's gone unless they return to the site and pick it up again.

    I don't write down the contents, but I do keep much information in my head. Until the players actually invest in an adventure or location, I don't take the time to write details or sketch out a map, or any permanent work. I can do this between sessions, or even as the session is ongoing, when I know for a fact such details will be needed. Otherwise, it isn't worth intrinsically shaping an adventure that no one may pursue.

    After years and years of doing this, I've gotten quite good at it.

  21. I believe I wasn't clear with my question. What I meant is that they are in, say, hex 3521 of the world map when they encounter the giant ticks and hellhounds. Let's say they go "No way" and go somewhere else to have another adventure elsewhere. Does the next party that comes to Hex 3521 of the world map encounter the same basic setup?

  22. No. I don't design my world that precisely. They'd run into the same general features and potentially a few NPCs that I remembered were there, possibly, but chances are that no, the ticks would have moved on, and the new party wouldn't meet the same people.

    But my world is HUGE. I could run forty years and never have the same party enter the same place intending to adventure there. I have had two different parties travel along the same road in Anatolia, but they had completely different adventures on it.

  23. Thanks. Just curious how "nailed down" details for the world on a individual level, how much of the in the moment adventure planning gets added to the world. And yes, I have a pretty good idea of how unlikely it is for one party to get to the same place as a previous one, especially away from well traveled roads.


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