An "Ordinary" Fantasy World: There's No Place Like Home

This is the first of a couple of posts about applying screenwriting techniques to your rpg game Adventure happens when the heroes leave their normal, comfortable life and strike out on a dangerous mission. When even your heroes' normal, ordinary lives are in a fantasy world, it can be challenging to establish a separation between the everyday and the extraordinary.

Alexandra Sokoloff's recent article on Ordinary World vs Special World at her blog Screenwriting Tips for Authors contains a key insight about the beginnings of heroic stories:

Drama loves CONTRAST, and [detailing the Ordinary World] is one of the easiest ways I know to provide it, as well as revealing character, developing character arc, and working the themes of your story.

Here are a couple of ways to establish ordinary vs special world in your fantasy game.

Don't skip it!: It's okay to have some R&R in your D&D. Let the party take a breather in between mighty deeds and replenish their stores, resist the urge to handwave them to the next quest. If they don't have a home base, maybe there's an inn at the crossroads. If they are in the wilderness, an amusing old hermit or hardy homesteaders. For parties that travel back and forth between key locations, these inns and waypoints and camp spots can even become places your party looks forward to - a little bit of home in a dangerous world.

Give the players every opportunity to invest in the ordinary: When they return to a hero's welcome, let them regale the mayor, hit on the wenches, pray at the temple to Pelor. Let the characters do what they would normally do by allowing room for role-play. These quirks, relationships, occupations and worries help flesh out the characters and will fill your DM toolkit with great hooks for future adventures. What's more interesting: Yet Another Thieves Guild Quest or showing up one day at your favorite inn to find it's been burned down mysteriously?

Use mechanics as a signifier for the Special World: When the players are safe from harm in their home base or a friendly city, that's the ordinary world: when the players are rolling dice, they're in special world. In the ordinary world there might be the occasional bluff or streetwise check, but a skill challenge is special world, where chance comes into play! The focus on the ordinary will make social skill challenges that much more exciting, because the contrast will bring out the adventure. Likewise, when the party starts rolling perception checks upon opening a door, the mechanical element will signal that danger is approaching.

When the players finally head off on their next adventure, you want them to know that they're "not in Kansas anymore". It only works if you let them explore what "Kansas" is - and give them reasons to go back.

Links: Alexandra Sokoloff's blog The Writer's Journey - A great resource on writing heroic, satisfying stories Sarah Darkmagic's Blog - her articles and mention of the above book really got me thinking critically about Adventure (with a capital A) and how, as a DM, to evoke that epic feeling at my home game

Choosing Your Paragon Path is an Adventure!

The journey of all epic tales truly begins when the hero is taken out of his comfort zone and must go into the underworld or some place of terrible danger to face his destiny. When he returns, he has been reborn into his new life, with the sword, or the princess, or the secret knowledge. In the case of 4e D&D, characters entering Paragon tier are literally transformed, as they gain new powers and traits which heavily theme their characters. The characters will never be the same.

My home campaign, Days of High Adventure (Obsidian Portal Link), has just hit party level 8, and the players' attention is starting to move towards Paragon Tier. I've decided to do levels 8, 9 and 10 as a series of larger, epic fantasy adventures, each featuring a specific member of the party, that will explore how each character comes to choose their paragon path. My players have obliged me by telling me their chosen path, and we're going to have fun getting there!

I'll be sharing my plot breakdowns, including encounters, sessions and pacing, after the adventures run so as not to spoil it for my players. However, there are a couple of design goals I have for Paragon Path adventures that could be useful for any discerning DM.

A fantastic setting: The Paragon Quest should take place in a fantasy setting which is like a big, glorious, burning neon sign in the sky that says ADVENTURE. There should be setpieces that tell your players that something IMPORTANT is happening.

The characters beliefs are challenged: Why did player choose the Paragon Path they did? What benefits do they gain? What liabilities do they incur? The adventure should explore exactly what the change means to the character and dramatize every element. The decision should feel momentous. The character needs to make a real decision to press forward with their path - once the adventure is over, they own it!

The quester should shine: This adventure ends with one character choosing their path, it should also be a showcase for their abilities. Giants for your defenders to lock down, minions for your controller to blow up, skirmishers and artillery for your strikers to stab, undead and rival leaders for your leaders to deal with. Out of combat, your quester's decisions are front and center.

The other heroes have key roles: Everyone in the party should be invested. By the end of the adventure, there should be a feeling of great purpose, and relief. The quester never would have been able to reach their goal without the help of their friends. This can be a mechanical point or a story point.

The stakes for Paragon tier are laid out: Paragon adventures deal with the work of whole tribes or nations. Paragons are sought out for their strength, wisdom and leadership. What sort of work will the quester be "signed up" for when they accept this path? Layout some hooks for future developments and opportunities to foreshadow conflicts and even possible epic destinies.