Crowdsourcing adventure starts
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 November 2012, 3:29 am
I must admit that crowdsourcing ideas for the adventure Stubborn and me want to write together didn't work out quite as intended. We had asked for a fantastic location, item, or event, but most commenters replied with a complete plot for an adventure. We'll probably end up cherry-picking ideas from the various plots proposed.

What was very visible during that exercise is that the ideas you get by crowdsourcing reflect the background of the crowd. On a gaming blog unsurprisingly you get a lot of adventure ideas that read a lot like computer roleplaying game story hooks. Two commenters proposed variations of Diablo III. And a great many story hooks were about railroading players into the adventure: Enslave them, have them possessed, have them suffer memory loss, throw them into jail, introduce previously unknown family members. If you played a bunch of computer RPGs, you probably experienced all that as start of one adventure or another.

Unfortunately such adventure starts don't make for good pen & paper roleplaying games. The very strength of a pen & paper system over a computer game is the much bigger freedom of choice that players have. You *can* force players into an adventure by events, as opposed to just sending them an NPC asking them to do the adventure; but you need to be very careful how you go about it. Making them lose control of their characters or making them lose previously acquired treasures is sure to be resented.

That can get problematic if you end up with your players actively working against your plot of the story. If you send the city watch to the tavern where the group stays to arrest them for a trumped-up charge, there is a significant chance that the players will start a fight. And before you know it half the city is burning, and your plot of how the players escape from jail and prove themselves innocent is down the drain.

One reason why computer game story hooks work badly in pen & paper games is that computer games tend to be just one adventure, while the pen & paper adventure is part of a campaign. A typical D&D adventure stretches over 1 or 2 levels in a campaign of maybe 30 levels. I used the old "enslaved and freed by a shipwreck" story start as starting point of my campaign, but once a campaign has started you can't use such story devices any more. Computer games use them to "reset" the story to zero, to a common starting point with no equipment regardless of what race, class, and background you chose in the character creation screen. But having a campaign with a dozen or so resets is going to feel very forced and piecemeal.

That is not to say that in a pen & paper campaign you can only use the mysterious stranger in a tavern story start. You can apply a lot of force against the players, as long as that force appears to be a logical consequence of previous actions. Few groups will refuse to go after a villain that escaped them in a previous adventure. And it is surprisingly easier to trick the players into committing a crime for which they end up in jail than to throw them into jail for a crime they never committed. Just avoid deus ex machina story devices coming out of nowhere.
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