Thursday, December 3, 2015

In Search of the Unknown: How the Party Gathers

B1: The party gathers by David Sutherland
B1: The party gathers by David Sutherland
In a classic D&D adventure, characters in search of adventure find themselves meeting by chance in an inn or tavern where, listening for rumors and looking for fellow adventurers to join forces with. They simultaneously learn about a potential adventure, find each other, and agree to work together. Time is pressing, the stakes are high, they at once equip themselves and set off to begin their adventures together.

In many ways, In Search of the Unknown is a classic adventure, but this is not one of those ways.

Dungeons and Dragons evolved from wargames, in which the real reason the two sides fought was that the players wanted to have fun together. In the early years of D&D, the characters' motivation was that their players wanted to play. As we gamed together over the years, the theatrical and role-playing side of the game grew, until it became normal to focus on how the world looks from the characters' perspective rather than the players', and modules began to invest more column inches in explaining why the characters joined together and embarked on this expedition.

In Search of the Unknown was an early TSR module. Author Mike Carr developed a backstory for the dungeon and an entertaining table of rumors the players might randomly know about it, but when it came to why these characters per se wanted to get involved with this place, here's all the module has to say:
If all this is true, their hideaway and treasure lie abandoned somewhere in the wilderness, awaiting discovery and exploration. 
Now comes to you a crude map purporting to show the way to their hideaway, a place apparently called “Q.” If it is accurate, it might lead you to the mystical place that was their home and sanctuary. Who knows what riches of wealth and magic might be there for the taking? Yes, the risk is great, but the challenge cannot be ignored. Gathering a few of your fellows, you share the secret and embark in search of the unknown.
B1: Journey into the wilds in search of adventure by David Sutherland
B1: Journey into the wilds in search of adventure by David Sutherland

In other words, loot and pillage and excitement!

Later, during the scaremongering of the 1980s, when people made up lies about D&D being a Satanic ritual of some kind, TSR worked hard to revise the D&D narrative to one strictly about the forces of good mustering to face off against the forces of evil. But back when Carr was writing this module, there was an amusingly practical Fafhrd-and-the-Grey-Mouser quality to most D&D adventures.

More than a few reviews of B1 cite this threadbare character motivation as a weakness, but some note what I note: this is an introductory module designed to be customized. It's an adventure template, not an adventure. Each time you run the module, you lay out different monsters, treasures, stories - and motivations. All Carr needed to provide was a generic sample motivation; after the first run-through, even novice DMs could come up with suitable motivations based on how they stocked the module.

I began gaming with the Holmes Dungeons & Dragons set and this module, but I was quickly caught up with everyone else in developing increasingly elaborate premises for adventures and motivations for player characters. In revenge, my players came up with increasingly centrifugal character personalities and goals - self-disintegrating parties.

With Englandia, I turned the tables on them. It's now the players' jobs to come up with characters who want to be together and want to pursue the adventure. This fits well with 13th Age's focus on collaborative storytelling, and it has replaced an old chore with a new delight.

For this module specifically, the players came up with characters so highly motivated that I cut Carr's front-loaded exposition - the dungeon backstory, the rumors - and left the premise of the dungeon a mystery onto which each of the three characters at first projected a different concept, based on their goals and personalities. This added a stronger element of mystery and story-discovery to the module and has lent itself to some amusing discussions and differences of opinion between the player characters, as we shall see.

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