Monday, September 19, 2011

Published Adventures, Backstories and the Player Characters

***Warning, this post will contain spoilers about the Scales of War Adventure Path***

So for the last 2+ years I've been running a campaign through the Scales of War adventure path. I mainly chose to use this published material because of my insecurities as a dungeon master/writer/story teller and wanted some material to get some ideas from and some generally balanced encounters to try to throw at my party. I've written about some of my experiences doing that for the last while and I've talked a bit about the changes I've made to the adventure path to try and flesh out the world and draw the experience together. The main problem I've been having as of late has been the sheer amount of plot information that is part of the adventure path (while cool) is not tied into the story of my players. They are more a part of the story of the plot. When the plot comes first, players become servants of the plot. While my party is intrigued by the story of the plot and seeing how it further unfurls, my long term goal has been to give them realistic motivations for caring about the plot and wishing to push it further. This is hard in a published adventure because all that material has to be integrated after the fact and for me has been one of the hardest (if not the most rewarding) parts of my session planning.

My party is made of up 6 characters; a dragonborn fighter/cleric who served Bahamut many ages past and was locked inside a stasis crystal for a thousand years, a half-elf paladin whose elven mother abandoned her and her human father for fear of watching them grow old and die and now the paladin serves the Raven Queen and is becoming a servant of death itself, a human wizard who studied under another great wizard named Gandalf (ha,ha I know), a gnome artificer who lost her brother into shadow long ago and whose only clue is a black crystal left behind when he disappeared, a drow rogue who is essentially the good in a drow warrior that was removed and cut out with ritual magic leaving the evil half behind to actual serve her father a drowish king, and a dwarf barbarian who was raised by giants and thinks he's a miniature giant. So with this diverse set of character backgrounds you can see how it would be hard to weave the story together, especially since alot of this great characterization is stuff that evolved over 20 levels of game play. Lots of this stuff only just came out at the table recently. 

Weaving these components into the story of the Scales of War was tricky and it took alot to connect specific details from their backstories into the epic level adventures. Currently the players are working their way to find a ritualist of great power who was wooed to the service of Tiamat and was working on some really powerful ritual to aid her in the war against Bahamut. At first, my big idea was to just sub out names from the adventures with people from the characters’ backstories, but that was just too unfulfilling. I decided to take it a step further and *gasp* change the stories of the published adventure.

image from Grasp of the Mantled Citadel
So the dragonborn exarch of Tiamat became one of the clutch brothers of the dragonborn fighter/cleric who was also put in stasis many centuries ago, only he was awakened early and chose to betray Bahamut. Totally different story concept, but a really fun thing to include and made for an EPIC battle with this dragonborn as opposed to a guy they’d never met before. I even tweaked his hitpoints in the battle (just adding a bunch more) so that the fighter/cleric could actually get the killing blow. Much more satisfying than if I had let the hits fall as they really did.  I also modified the the undead lich ritualist who is working for Tiamat. Now he’s secretly Gandalf, the archmage who taught the party’s wizard (and on top of that also a necromancer named Rufus who they met in heroic tier and had loads of interactions with in the early stages of our game). Early on I had the necromancer take a sample of each of their flesh so that he could “potentially” raise them from the dead. This was their insurance policy in the early game and it was something I chuckled about because I always told myself if they were to go to him for the resurrection, I could have the party member return as a Revenant or other kind of undead with a penalty that would fit the way a necromancer would raise a character. I had no intention of making him who he ended up, but that’s half the fun. As I was sitting down plotting it all out, it just worked too well and I had to go for it. I broke the Lich Ritualist into 2 stages, one where he just looks like a normal wizard and had some allies to back him up, but now that the party defeated him, his ugly undead side is showing. I even got two different minis for the two stages. It worked awesome. We ended last session with the now obviously undead ritualist rising up and sloughing off his skin and meat to fight them with his full necromantic power. It made for an epic night and I’m excited to see what is still to come! 

By freeing myself to fiddle with things, not only behind the scenes but while the game was running, I was able to create a much more narrative experience that told the story in a much more exciting way. It’s the kind of creativity that I would not have felt comfortable with as a newer DM, but all the lessons I’ve learned up to now have equipped me to feel much better about where I can take the players from here on out. I can’t wait to get to the point when this campaign is over and done and I can look back at how much I’ve changed as a DM and as a storyteller. That will be an epic post indeed, until then I really can’t wait for next session (which I’m editing on the fly as we speak)!

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