Making the players care

Far too often, games based on old-school styles and tropes end up focusing on dungeons and collecting gold and treasure to some end. Usually the idea is exploring some hard-scrabble wilderness that the players are either going to be the so-called "murder hobos" or trying to amass wealth to build a castle to beat back said wilderness.

When I started my campaign back in '09 - Jesus fucking christ, I sound like a cross between the Golden Girls and a Greybeard...


Anyway... when I started my campaign, it was much the same - go out, find stuff, survive in the world, figure it out. And we've already talked about how my initial approach worked.

So for my tabletop game, there's been a lot of movement in correcting that. As of right now, my players in the Duchy of Irecia have closed a major portal of Chaos nearest them, although they found out that others are open. But... they know how it can be done, and now they're busy getting ready to do some old fashioned orc bashing.

But what about the players in my online game? The PCs near the little town of Skalfier, who have clues to bigger things? Well, I did something pretty uncharacteristic, at least for me and many old-school games that I know. I got them involved in a love-story-tragedy.

Step back a minute... why was this necessary? Well, it was a cross between a wilderness encounter roll and I remember something from long ago - when the players (or dice) make a decision, make it mean something. Even if in the grand scheme of things, there's no impact, make it mean something. Especially if we're getting together only once a month or every six weeks. No mustard farming, unless they really want to...

Only if the players REALLY want to grind...
So the online players wanted to travel to an old place that might be a mage's library. There's a giant blackbird living there that they made friends with (the result of a previous wilderness random encounter, fuck you Kellri, for some of the crazy, fun, WEIRD results I get from your CDD#4.) There's a small hamlet nearby. So I rolled up the village and there's an old 8th level fighter living there. Possible thing near the village - "haunted" - well what the fuck am I gonna do with that?

I have a link to this old article - "The 36 Plots" In-town or plot adventures don't come easy for me, especially with a blank page. I can tinker the shit out an idea or something that is already there, so I use as many idea generators as possible. That article lays out 36 common tropes/plots in story telling converted to RPG use. So... I rolled on that puppy and got a "21" - "Self Sacrifice for Kindred - Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed"

Old 8th level fighter; something haunted nearby; self sacrifice for loved one; old ruined mage's library nearby.

Seed planted and here's what I came up with:

Over 200 years ago, when the Mage's Guild was still around, a mage probably aligned with Chaos established a library and tower in the area near Skalfier. It was fought over during the Shriving of the Mage's Guild, and destroyed in the process. (this had been established prior)

There's a nearby hamlet called "Appleton". Two guesses what grows there. It's "protected" by a ex-soldier/leader from the Duchy of Occidens - Sir Flinigan. He's in his late 70s now and at the end of his life. He harbors a secret though. 

The love of his life, his "angel" Christine, had been a hedge mage but curious about her powers. They'd been married when he was in his 50s. She had learned about the Athenum somehow and found a way to get in. She was captured by the library's guardians. Three shadow guardians, twisted by Chaos, imprisoned her with sorcery, keeping her alive, but constantly feeding on her. 

Sir Flinigan found her missing, went to find her and tried to free her, but in a last act of love and desperation, she forced him magically out of the Athenum, just before he was killed by the guardians. For fifteen years, he mourned for Christine and tried to find a way to rescue her. He knows that he might die without having rescued her.

That's the setup. The PCs could have easily walked on by, or not joined him on this quest, because it was not going to be easy. Without the power and magic weapons of Sir Flinigan, they would be hard pressed to defeat these three guardians. Without the PCs to help divide and conquer, Sir Flinigan couldn't defeat the guardians. He needed them.

They took the hook. From that point on, I poured a lot of emotion into what I was writing. And they jumped at the chance to do the thing that so many of us love to do in D&D - be The Hero. It was awesome.

The dungeon itself was straight out of the theme of "The Underworld and Chaos play by their own rules." The players did not like the things they found, or the effects of Chaos on the mages in the party. When they faced the guardians, they found that these were not simple shadows, but something far darker and twisted and in tune with the dungeon around it.

Sir Flinigan died. His age caught up with him and although he defeated one of the guardians, the shadows trapped him and in doing so drained him of almost all his life force. The players defeated the last of the shadows and Christine was freed. As she walked across the floor to Flingan, she aged before their eyes, the arcane prison was like a type of stasis field. Between the years and the constant drain on her, she wasn't going to live either. So, they both died in each others' arms, together at the end. They did speak to the PCs as spirits, giving them bequeaths (one of the PCs inherited his sword, another his shield, another his house. A couple of final warnings and the two walked hand-in-hand into the Light.

I pulled out all the stops on this - I found the emotions of picturing how I'd feel if I was Sir Flinigan and @thePrincessWife was Christine. I pulled all the tropes for a tragic rescue - Greeks had been doing this shit successfully way before I was writing my little adventure, so why not use what they did so well? I had a lot of emotional things to tap into...

ALL the tropes and examples!
I don't know that I can always do this kind of thing this well, but this was good for me to do, to be able to figure out how to make this whole "in-town" thing work.

What's next for the PCs near Skalfier? Well, they never got that information they were hoping to find... the Athenum beckons them to come back...


  1. Those Shadows were a pain in the derriere! The vision of Sir Flinigan's and Christine's spirits walking off hand in hand was tangible. I have to say the whole thing to worked really well. And yes, the adventurers did not achieve their primary goal. What is really cool is that we started off looking for the library, we have now become the protectors of the hamlet. Our Priest is building a Church, the Warrior is training a local maiden and the adopted boy is working out how to manage the estate and pay the house keeper (Mrs. bridges in my mind) a better wage. Domesticity, an adventurers curse!

  2. @chris - glad you liked it! I'm glad it was a good adventure - there is more to come because you're right... you haven't achieved your primary goal. Yet? :)

  3. Hey, thanks for the shoutout. CDD4 has been completely rewritten with a lot of new content, some cleaned up mechanics and even more high weirdness. It will be appearing as Dangerous Dungeons for OSRIC in the near future. Look for it. If you're interested you can find the chapter drafts in the Dangerous Dungeons forum on Knights and Knaves Alehouse.

  4. @Kellri - You're welcome! Your damn CDD4 has haunted my campaign since I started it. I'm happy to hear you're coming back to it, I'll definitely look for those drafts. You've got a willing beta tester.

    PS. My players would probably want me to say "double fuck you" to you for that damn weather chart. A tornado *and* earthquake at the same time. And a blizzard with avalanche in autumn. Yea, they fucking hate you. :D


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