In the first act of a story, you meet the hero and the adversary, and discover the quest. In a cooperative storytelling game like D&D, however, the players provide a significant part of the story. Player motivations are hard to anticipate even for a discerning DM. I try to structure the beginnings of my home game's adventures specifically to gather information about player motivations.
Here is a plot breakdown of the beginning of a recent adventure in my home game:
Siege of Fallcrest - Session 1 (6 hours) ACT ONE Hook: Fallcrest besieged by Orcs Hook: Fallcrest contains party's rival/enemy Hook: Patron requests party to get her troops out of the doomed city Call to Adventure: Patron wants heroes to run the blockade, and lead out the patron's mercenaries before the city falls Obstacle: The city is surrounded by an undefeatable army of Orcs!
Act One of Siege of Fallcrest isn't trying to do anything fancy. There are three hooks delivered by a Herald, in this case a letter from a patron who has just given the party a gift and expects them to do a favor for her. In starting any adventure, I try to test the players as much as possible by giving them a lot of reasons to do something, and see what they respond to. With the above setup, I learn 3 pieces of information for free about the players' expectations and motivations, by sussing out answers to the following 3 questions:
1. Is the party motivated by the plight of innocents? They have never been to Fallcrest, this is the first they have heard of the city outside of a few casual mentions. 2. How much do they hate their rival? Will they go out of the way to get him? 3. How do the players see their relationship with their new Patron?
It's amazing how much players will tell you if you just listen to them discuss their options. Because the threat of orcs is insurmountable, the party incurs serious risk by undertaking this quest, and the discussion ranges from the tactical to the philosophical. To capture the players' thoughts, I write in my notepad the pieces of information I provided, and then write in later what I learn from the players:
1. Fallcrest will fall soon to an Orcish siege The party is seriously concerned about a whole town dying of starvation and Orcs taking over 2. The party's rival was recently sent there for punishment The party is curious about their rival but only want to see justice done 3. The party's new patron wants them to do a mission there The party feels strongly that they are obliged to their patron and should undertake this quest for her
That's a full exposition! We can move right on to the action now, the point of no return where the heroes are fully committed! But look what storytelling ammunition we learned from them.
External Motivation: To fulfill an obligation to a patron Internal Motivation: To see that justice is done and that good triumphs Not that interested in: Revenge
These are core beliefs that you can challenge later on in act 2; Items that you would have prepared but now don't have to; Elements to maximize in the next session. For example, when the party got into the city, I emphasized the human misery of people in squalid conditions starving in the streets. The players were so moved that they gave up healing surges voluntarily to help the sick. And the rival? I didn't mention him again and the party didn't ask.
The absolute best thing about this technique is that every step of the way, the players make meaningful choices and don't feel railroaded. They get a menu of options which includes "do something else". (Of course, a discerning DM would stack the deck to include at least one irresistible option) I've found time and time again that players are more concerned with choosing the "why", rather than the "what". They expect adventure and danger, but if they can choose the terms, they own the outcome.
To read the writeup of this session, click here to go to the Adventure Log post on Obsidian Portal.