Monday, November 9, 2009

Adventure Writing As Problem -Solving

Problem 1

So it all started when I ran Mandy through Death Frost Doom (spoilers) and she caused thousands of corpses to rise from their graves, as most PCs who know anything about having a good time pretty much will, when playing that adventure.

So then I face an interesting DMing problem: How to run a game where the living dead are rampaging through my game world.

Of course there are a lot of ways to sort of handwave them away before the next session, but that didn't seem like The Path of Maximum Fun. On the other hand, while I like my zombie movies as much as the next guy, zombies and ghouls don't feel particularly "medieval" to me (whatever that means). Plus, zombies are so everywhere right now that when our kids start writing Cheesy-Retro-Zeroes-Movie-Style RPGs in 20 years, they'll all have zombies in them. If there's a few thousand of something in my game, I want it to be something I'm in love with.

So I decided that, actually, most of the dead had risen as skeletons. In mechanical terms, this is a minor change, but aesthetically, it somehow made the whole thing a million times more up-my-alley.

Skeletons are mega-medieval, and in the late Renaissance/early Middle Ages, they were a metaphor for the Black Plague* and so the idea of them spreading grotesquely across the land works just lovely for me.

Yes, a rotting corpse come back to life is psychologically disturbing, but seeing a skeleton walking around is God trying to tell you something.

So anyway, the point is we got skeletons. That problem's solved.

Problem 2

So then it was time to write the next adventure--and bring in two new players and their PCs. I figured I'd never played with these people before, so I wanted to give them a lot of room to sort of play the game in whatever style they wanted to play. This way I figured I could kinda feel them out as far as what they were into.

I also figured it'd be nice if the first post-Death Frost Doom adventure didn't feel like "Ok, what we're doing from now on forever is fighting skeletons".

So I said ok, there's a city run by a decadent Duke. He's an elf named Malekith (inspired by the Thor villain of the same name)--and he's like a pitiless Northern Viking-mythology type elf. And this Duke throws a party in his castle. The idea is all the nobles and important people (and elves) get invited and they lock the doors and stock up on food and hire entertainment and drink wine on the balcony and watch the skeletons come and slaughter the commoners in the streets and laugh and wait this whole undead-army thing out.

The PCs have invites--the Cleric because she's 3rd level and therefore relatively important, the fighter is hired as a guard, and the thief got a hold of one while picking a pocket.

The way it's set up is: there's stuff to do at the party (not all of the guests being necessarily what they seem), and below the party there's a dungeon full of who-knows-what-riches lower down in the castle. So, all good--if they want to schmooze NPCs or pickpocket party guests, there they are, and if you want to go down to the dungeon, rock on.

Another nice thing about having a multiday party going on above the dungeon is you have an unending source of (possibly drunk) NPCs that can wander down into the dungeon and make the game weirder if necessary. So, problem 2 is solved.

Problems 3 & 4

The PCs have fun with that and eventually make their way down into the dungeon, fun is had, all is well, the session ends with a cliffhanger right before a fight.

For the next session, we have two whole new players showing up and they've never played D&D before.

So, how do you:

A) Get the PCs into the dungeon, and

B) Show them how to play the game in a way that makes the game seem fun.

So then I came up with the box and put my two new PCs in it.

All went well with that. We play again tomorrow.

Problem 5

So now everybody's down in the dungeon and committed to finding the Duke. Excellent.

But next session we've apparently got two more players coming, both newbies. Girl A has always wanted to play--which is good, she'll be fine--but Girl B had never heard of the game until last week and may just be joining in because her friends are doing it. Also, I don't really know Girl B. So Problem 5 is making sure she is introduced to the game in a way that makes it seem maximally awesome.

It's not so much that Girl B has to come back--that'd be nice, but, like I said, I barely know her--it's more that I don't want the chemistry at the table to go bad during tomorrow's session, especially since Girl A is definitely D&D material and I want her first game to not be all about feeling self-conscious about having brought Girl B to do this thing that Girl B thinks is lame.

I have not yet come up with a comprehensive solution--I am certain part of the solution involves delicious and well-presented snacks. Another part will involve spending all my DM-chi this session--breaking out the visual aids, maybe have a few audio cues, stuff like that. Then probably the dungeon will need a fresh coat of kickass gimmicks--I write as I go, so the PCs have chewed through a decent section of what I've mapped already. And, probably, liquor will help.

I'll let you know how it goes.

*Zombies, on the other hand are usually metaphors for large groups of stupid people who are themselves weak and slow on the uptake, but who, in a group, are world-transformingly dangerous. Why they became so popular during the Bush/myspace era is probably not too terribly hard to figure out.

image credits: paintings--Pieter Breughel, drawing--Harry Clarke


  1. Zak, I'm the publisher of The Escapist (, the Webby-Award winning game lifestyle website. We do the video show Zero Punctuation (5 million downloads/month), among other things. Interested in chatting with you but I couldn't find your email address. Could you email me? alex at Cheers!

  2. Hi, brilliant post as always :)
    Anyway, who's the illustrator of the party small drawing?

  3. I'd like to read about whatever you think are the best tricks/NPCs from the party area.

  4. Alexander--

    Harry Clarke.

    I'll post about them after the players are done with that part of the adventure. I don't want to spoil anything.

  5. Zak, this is an awesome adventure scenario idea (sit out the undead apocalypse with the evil duke while raiding his dungeon). I think I must steal it! :)

  6. Zak --
    I've had a situation like the one you're in with Newbie A (who wants to play like crazy) and Newbie B (who's curious but wary), and when it has happened before, I've tended to let the Newbie B kick some righteous ass by fudging a few of the situations. The other players can't feel left out of the action, but they already have a level of enthousiasm built up. It's hard enough getting into something without feeling like you're the only one at the table who's wondering why they're there at all.

    Once Newbie B's interest is peaked by having some wicked stuff happen, then you can amp things back down in the next session, or by the end of the first one Newbies A & B are playing in so that everything is back on an even keel.

    For me it's like making sure the guests at the party are feeling especially welcome -- everybody else already knows the "lay of the land" so to speak, so there's already interest there.

    Also - there's a lovely Prince Prospero/Vincent Price in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH quality to your idea with Malekith. Hopefully you can bring Malekith back in a future adventure as teh head of the Wild Hunt (something he was also used for in the Simonson THOR run).

    Hope the sessions go well, man.