Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Raising the Stakes When You Know the Ending

He's going to get his butt kicked.
These days, failure is hard to come by.

The published adventures coming out of Wizards of the Coast seem to focus on heroes that must succeed - otherwise demons/cultists/dragons/giants/archliches will simply destroy the entire world. A few give some obvious failure states (Tomb of Annihilation in particular), but for the most part you save the world or die.

This leads to some bad expectations at the table. DMs are afraid to kill the players because then the story will be over. Players are eager to rush headlong towards dangerous situations because they are the "heroes" and they expect the story to be tailored for their level and experience.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The fantasy genre was built on the back of Lord of the Rings, a saga devoted to saving the world and focused on the heroic destinies of its main characters. Today, even in a "gritty" series such as Game of Thrones, there are a handful of characters that seem impervious to death and destined to save the world.

But there's a difference here. The characters in these stories don't know they are in that kind of story. The battles matter, because every fight might be their last. And the whole "saving the world" thing seems to happen all at once, instead of the characters knowing they were destined for greatness all along.

This is one of the challenges of running an RPG. The players (if you have communicated the intention of a campaign effectively) already know they are going to be the big heroes. They can figure out that if they put a dastardly villain in their backstory, the DM will probably address it. They can write their own story.

So then, how do we add drama and tension if the outcome is known?

Let's talk about this on two levels: the more common character plot level, and the once-in-a-campaign world-ending plot level.

The Hero's Errands

When a player makes a character, they usually have one or two things that particularly draw them to that character concept. It could be mechanical, like a class/race combination they haven't tried, or it could be due to party roles, like making a fighter so the party has a frontline combatant. But it could also be based on story or character imitation.

When a player makes a four elements monk so they can be Aang or Korra from the Avatar series, or when they pick a warlock because they want to play out the story of Faustus and Mephistopheles, the player is giving you hooks to a storyline. And that's great!

However, since the story/character they are imitating already exists, the player will already have an idea of where they want their character arc to go. If they make a Conan-esque barbarian, they are going to want to crush their enemies and have them driven before them. The media they are pulling from doesn't just provide a list of personality quirks and character traits, it provides an arc - beginning, middle, and end.

So if the players know where they want to go, how can we make the journey dramatic?

He's going to make it back... to the future!
The best way is to take dramatic detours that connect the character arc to the setting. Doctor Faustus never had to fight goblins on his journey to gain eldritch powers, but he did have a woman he was courting. If she were to be kidnapped or threatened by goblins, then the feeling of the character's story comes through even despite the setting difference.

The most important part of adding side trips like this is to make sure the character cares about them. A monk based on The Last Airbender would certainly love to meet teachers of each element and learn new techniques from them. Weaving that idea into the existing narrative will keep the player engaged with the overall story.

When these detours take place, it's important to give them a sense of challenge. Combat is an easy way to create challenge, but adding political or exploration difficulties can also create mounting tension. Long-term consequences, such as curses and injuries, can make the side-story dangerous and memorable.

By adding these "detours", you can keep the player engaged as they travel along the path towards the end of their arc. But don't make everything a detour! Alternating between side plots and character-driven arcs will make the player feel like they are making progress on their story and playing the character they wish to play.

However, try to avoid "character rivals" that fight one particular character. Since combat is a group effort, it becomes easy for another character to swoop in and take the glory from the PC the rival is meant for. For player-related NPCs, it's better to stick to allies than enemies. However, if you are willing to pit the rivals in an epic duel happening away from the rest of the group, then you might be able to use the rival effectively.

Side characters and allies are a great way to let the players buy into the world as well. After all, Harry Potter collected plenty of friends on his journey to slay Voldemort. An ally doesn't have to fight alongside the heroes, but could provide services such as merchant offerings, smithing, magic assistance, or training. If you are using an NPC ally to further a character's story, make sure to avoid two common mistakes that DMs make: making the NPC too focused, and killing the NPC.

A character-related NPC can help you further the plot of one of your PCs. But if that NPC has nothing to do with the rest of the party, you'll find yourself in situations where the other players are bored and sitting through one-on-one role play, or when the NPC provides a quest for the party they might question why they should listen to this character. It's best if the NPC provides some sort of service or mentorship for the entire party, with a focus on one PC in particular. For example, a blacksmith could provide weapons and armor for the whole group while training one PC in the metallurgical arts.

Once you have these NPCs, it becomes extremely tempting to kill them to give the PC the proper motivation to carry on with their quest. But you want to be very careful about doing this. Remember, the NPC is a constant source of engagement and quests while they are alive, and the boost in motivation that comes from their death only happens once. There are a lot of things that can happen to an NPC that aren't death, too: their shop could get closed down, they could be kidnapped or cursed, they could be attacked, etc. In all these scenarios, the PC can grow closer to the NPC.

But even worse than losing a source of motivation is losing the player's trust. If you keep killing the NPCs they come across and enjoy, you risk the player thinking you have something against them personally - not just against their character. Killing a beloved NPC is a major turning point in a normal character arc, so if it becomes commonplace, you're going against the player's expectations, and potentially losing their trust.

They're going to get their buts kicked... but then come back stronger
So, what happens when a character dies before reaching the end of their arc?

Well, if the group is high enough in levels, death might not be much hinderance to the arc. Resurrection magic is fairly common, and even at low levels the players might be able to gather enough gold to purchase such a spell from a local priest. But I'm talking about arcs that are ended permanently. When a character really dies, there's usually two paths a player will want to take.

The first is making a character to follow in their original character's footsteps. It could be a twin, a child, a parent, a friend, etc. This is a bit cheesy, but what the player is telling you is that they weren't done playing that character. In these cases, you can try to build a character that will "take up the reins" of their previous character without falling into the "my family will avenge me!" trope.

Some great examples: If Harry Potter died, the only other boy to fulfill the prophecy could have taken his place. When Aang died, his powers were passed on to Korra. If Faustus were to fall, perhaps some unwitting fool would pick up his research and attempt to gain the same power. You don't have to go with the vengeance trope to make a character that can follow the same storyline.

The other way a player will deal with character death is by taking it in stride and making a brand new character. If that's the case, you will want to cut short the old character's arc as best you can. If an NPC has ties to the rest of the group, they can stick around, but otherwise they should head off on their own path. Some other NPC might choose to take up the quest while the party goes elsewhere.

Of course, the new character needs a reason to join the group. And the best reason is to take up the main quest line alongside the other PCs. And speaking of which...

Everybody Wants to Save the World

The party is on an epic quest. Or even a not-so epic one. The DM has written it thusly. So, it makes sense that the players will probably finish the quest, right? On a smaller scale, the DM has set up an encounter and directed the players to it. The enemies seem appropriately leveled to the party. So, it makes sense that the players will win, right? The goal is in sight, and the players know they will succeed. So what makes the situation dramatic?

The answer is: the more the players have to give up to win, the more dramatic the story will be.

Uncle Ben has to die, you know?
The heroes' lives are not the only thing that matters in the game world. Over the course of the campaign, a DM will get hundreds of clues hinting at what the players find important other than their characters. It could be NPCs, pets, a town they are helping out, their gear and weapons, or even their companions. These are the stakes.

I'm not saying that you need to put their horses in danger every single combat. I'm saying that if they don't save the world, there's nowhere for their horses to live. It's a simple motivation, but it's got a strong dramatic component. The world needs to be a better place for that horse to live in!

Much like the NPCs you can give an individual character, you can use parts of your world to raise the stakes of a campaign, even if the heroes know saving the day is inevitable. Use their interests and goals as characters to guide them to the right motivations. If the players like sitting in a tavern and drinking, put the city the tavern is in under attack. Poison the booze. Kill the bartender. Find their goals and make them care.

And if the character dies on the journey? Well, the party isn't the only one who care about saving the day/world/universe. Make sure new characters care about the main quest, and then start building up a new set of interests and goals for them.

On an encounter level, you can use these interests to give meaning to an encounter. Even if a character seems attached only to their own strength/growth, an opponent that curses or injures them can provide excellent motivation. NPCs can be taken hostage, pets can be threatened, gear can be stolen. As Arnold K would say, attack the entire character sheet!

For my last point, I want to point out a story that raises the stakes very well, despite the audience already knowing the ending.

They're going to save the world!
One Punch Man was originally released as a webcomic with extremely simple art but a compelling story. It ran for three years before a new artist was brought on to redraw the panels in much higher quality.

This means that people who read the version with updated art had a lot of knowledge of where the story was going. Even as the plot re-unfolded, they knew what was going to happen. So how did the author keep people's attention when the story was already revealed?

The answer is: he added in dramatic detours and built in new story arcs based on the characters' goals. The titular One Punch Man attended a martial arts tournament. More monsters and side characters appeared. The arcs got longer, with more detail. They even added in a new boss monster that will need to be defeated.

The author, ONE, said: "The more the characters deviate from my expectations, the more fun I have." I think this is a great philosophy for D&D, where the players can take the game in the direction they want to take it. As long as they are following their interests, the story can find them.

And along the way, their sacrifices will make the inevitable win that much sweeter.

Thanks for reading!

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