Monday, 3 July 2017

Plot Point Episodes should Impact the Story

A couple of months ago I gave an overview of the Plot Point Campaign in Saga of the Goblin Horde, and described the War Clock mechanism I use to track the escalation of the war, triggering Plot Point Episodes in response to the players' actions during Savage Tales; the more murderous and destructive the goblins are, the faster the human retaliate.

This time I'd like to talk about a technique I use within the Plot Point Episodes themselves, inspired by the final chapter in the Heroes of Drakonheim adventure, where the players have to build up their Mass Battle tokens by recruiting allies.

Adventuring is not a Spectator Sport

I once read a fantasy novel in which the inept hero blundered from one failure to the next, outsmarted by the villain at every turn. At the end of the story, the villain completed his magical ritual - and died, because he made a mistake that he couldn't possibly have known about in advance. In effect the hero was just a spectator in the story. He "won" through a technicality, but he might as well have stayed at home, because his "quest" had absolutely no impact on the outcome. The villain was going to lose regardless.

Campaigns can sometimes feel the same way. One of my personal pet peeves with some Plot Point Episodes is that the players' actions seem to have no tangible impact on the overall story. If the players fail to rescue the informant, they get the information from someone else. If they fail to save the hostages, it doesn't really matter, life goes on as before. If they fail to steal the MacGuffin, they can just find an alternative way to continue to the next adventure. It can sometimes start to feel as if the players actions don't really matter, win or lose the result will be the same; they might as well just go to the pub and wait for the final episode.

Now obviously you don't want an adventure to be a roadblock that kills the campaign, because failure is certainly a possibility. But I do think the players actions should have a significant and tangible effect on the overall story, the adventure shouldn't just be something that "happens" to the characters, followed by a Reset Button Ending. The players should be driving the plot, not just sitting in the passenger seat.

Degrees of Victory

The approach I'm using in Saga of the Goblin Horde is to provide three possible outcomes for each of the triggered Plot Point Episodes, and these will have a direct effect on the final episode.

In Short Straw the players have to prevent an invading army of "mountain humans" (i.e., dwarves) from leaving their tunnels. If they fail, the Stonefist tribe will eventually fight off the army and prevent the invasion, but they'll suffer heavy casualties in the process, leaving them unable to provide any significant aid in the final battle. On the other hand, if the players manage to block the entire army, the Stonefist tribe will owe them a favor (a bit like an Adventure Card that the party can redeem at any point later in the campaign for a special benefit) and commit themselves fully to the final battle. A partial mission success falls somewhere between the two, with the Stonefist tribe providing limited aid in the final battle.

The other adventures follow a similar trend, with the characters aiding and recruiting the other tribes, forging alliances and recruiting allies as the war escalates. If the players don't bother fighting off the human attacks, the story will still carry on, but one by one the other goblin tribes will fall, and in the final battle the Redfang tribe will find itself standing alone against insurmountable odds (and almost certainly lose as a result).

The players can afford a few failures, but each victory will give them a much-needed edge. They will need to win some battles before they can win the war.