So I’m about to launch another D&D Next playtest game… this time with my whole group at once. We did a little playtesting back in June, after the first packet was released, and we broke it down into two smaller groups… it was fun – full of eye-popping WTF moments and at least one TPK – but everyone seemed to lose interest pretty quickly. For the players, it was the pre-gens… my gamers just don’t have much commitment for characters they didn’t design from the ground up. For me, it was the adventure material… WotC provided a conversion of the classic basic D&D dungeon-crawl The Caves of Chaos from the Keep on the Borderlands adventure, which provided me dozens of hours of graphpaper-laden joy in the days of yore. Unlike during the halcyon days of my youth, I just don’t find a great deal of appeal in old-fashioned dungeon-crawling. Adventure is a fine pursuit, but I want mine rife with interesting NPCs, convoluted plots, and about 80 percent fewer 10-foot-wide corridors.
But now, they have character creation rules. And more adventures. And more monsters. And advancement up to level 10! Yep… it’s time to play….
Their newest adventure is another classic conversion, The Isle of Dread. As the name suggests, it’s a lost island adventure with dinosaurs, pirates, natives, pirates, monsters, pirates, and a smattering of old dungeons… in short, everything I need to put my erstwhile heroes through their proverbial paces. Even pirates!
But when I sat down to start working out a cool metaplot to get the adventurers to the island – in this case, the ol’ princess-runs-away-with-her-forbidden-paramour-in-search-of-a-lost-artifact-that-could-save-her-father’s-dying-kingdom-but-dear-old-dad-just-wants-her-returned-unharmed gimmick – I realized that I kinda needed something more to add a little spice to the game. Since I wanted to skip ahead straight to the party’s arrival on the island, I wanted to find a way to breathe life into the setup and give the character’s something to chew on right from the start… so I took one page from Fiasco and another from an unusual little indie game called God-King.
I have instructed each of the players to determine a distinct role their character plays in the scenario. For example, one PC is the king’s man, determined to bring back the princess at all costs. Another is a priestess secretly determined to keep the artifact the princess seeks safely hidden. Another is a scholar who has studied the legends of the isle and wants to see more, while another is a treasure-hunter just out to make a fortune. One of the remaining PCs may be the one who has seen the island before and dealt with the natives, but is afraid of the secrets hidden in the island’s interior. Another might be a close friend and confidante of the princess. The roles will allow them to embark on essentially the same mission, but they could find themselves at odds when important decisions are being made. And they may need each other all the more for their function in the party and role in the scenario.
Additionally, I have instructed them each to establish at least one relationship with another PCs, and one secret relationship (one-sided or mutual) with a different PC. Relationships can be about love, trust, fear, loathing, guilt, suspicion, or any other emotional entanglement, based largely on common events in their past. With my group, it is likely that players whose characters are unaware of a secret relationship will also be in the dark, so that they can respond to the other PC’s behaviors organically, but I’m leaving it up to them. They’ve already started building and scheming, and by the time we start the game next week, I have no doubt that we’ll begin with a strong web of interwoven complexities designed to complicate the party’s goals and make the adventuring fun and convoluted.
Consider adding predesigned relationships into a party’s past to give a game character. It can offer even the most introverted roleplayer something to latch onto, and if it’s done right, the interwoven relationships will provide just as many reasons for the party to stay together and focus on their goals as it does for them to try complicate each other’s lives. Ideally, roleplaying will focus less on making things difficult and more on bringing a character to life. And if you try something like this, or have had similar experiences, let us know! We love to talk immersive roleplaying experiences on our forums over at Prismatic Tsunami.
Oh… and did I mention pirates!? Yarrr….
Orryn Emrys, the Prismatic Dragon, is the director of the Prismatic Tsunami web community and the host of the popular Metagamers Anonymous RPG podcast. Learn more at http://www.prismatictsunami.com.