Thursday, April 9, 2015

Heroic Journey: The Call to Adventure

Maybe because I just finished binge watching a string of RedLetterMedia vids that today’s post takes a look at character development for the PCs. What’s that you say? Railroading? Heresy! Burn him at the stake! No worries, the goal is to see if we as dungeon masters can engender player-character development without railroading by incorporating aspects of the heroic journey in our games.

For those unfamiliar, wikipedia ( has a nice crash course. Also: Star Wars. There’s a reason the original trilogy was loved by millions and still is today. Well, there’s many reasons, but the foremost is the existence of a narrative formula hardwired into the human psyche. The evidence consists of the overwhelming similarities in human storytelling through the millennia (seriously, it’s awesome).

This series of articles is going to focus on exploring each stage of the Heroic Journey in relation to the players. The first stage is the Ordinary World, but since that makes for a boring game we can skip right to stage two.

The Call to Adventure

The first quest should answer the following question by the time its finished: Why is your hero here? In my campaigns, both myself and the player need to work together to answer this. The player’s part is to have a backstory. Now I don’t need each player to write a novel, or write at all (even though I do appreciate those efforts), but I do need the player to establish a motivation. The players are all given the campaign’s premise, and where the opening scene of the quest takes place. I had them each email me the reason why they are there. If they’re struggling I’m certainly glad to help provide ideas for inspiration. Remember though, it is the player’s final decision. Come to think of it, this is the first meaningful choice of a campaign. We’re establishing player agency before play even begins. It might even be the most meaningful, since a PCs motivation will directly affect their decisions for many, many hours of play.

For those who would like an example, I provided the dialogue between myself and one of my players before the campaign started.

Player: I had this idea that my character was a member of a small group of knights that worship their Draconic lineage. Rather than draw power from a deity, they invoke the power of the mighty dragons that commanded the skies and those beneath them in ancient times. I got the idea when rolling on the "trinket" table and scored a vial of dragon blood. As far as nation, because the order is secret, the location of their temple is secret as well. He has no connection to any nation really, and might have minor knowledge of several of them having known knights from all over. He is a young, low ranked knight, but he is the only survivor of an attack on his temple by a war band led by a traitor. He is now travelling the land gaining strength and information on the identity of the traitor so he can gain retribution and possibly begin to rebuild his order.

This was awesome. Even though the player was essentially creating an NPC faction that didn’t exist in my Special Snowflake Setting I adapted it. There are no dragonborn in FfH, nor is there a secret order of paladins that get their power from dragons, but as DM you don’t want to railroad your players before the first quest even starts. Also notice that my player didn’t fill in all of the blanks. How could he? I’m the DM, and the only one who knows everything about the world (for once a good reason the players have no previous knowledge of FfH). Pay special attention to the first sentence of my reply.

Me: Sounds good with a few minor adjustments if you agree. Since you have no affiliation to a nation, we can say you were born to a tribe of Lizardmen in unsettled wilderness. The closest civilization, which is not close, is the Lanun city of Aylesbury. There is a cult in Erebus (the world's name) that worships dragons similar to your description:

The Cult of the Dragon is not one organized religion, but large groups of very loosely affiliated cells that have rejected the gods and turned to worshiping the dragons. Different cults worship different dragons, whether beasts that are alive in Erebus or which they wish to summon back from the realm of myths where they are currently. Eurabatres the Gold Dragon has actual plans for the betterment of the world, but most of the dragons think nothing of men and want merely a chance to destroy.

Lizardmen are tribal and savage. Dragonborn are rare births to Lizardmen, and a superior species. So choose whether you left your family at a young age or when you were older, what your connection to your tribe was if any. How did they treat you since you were different? Were you raised as a blessing or a curse? How did you become a paladin? How did you find the order you're currently a part of?

Most Dragon Cultists emulate the savagery and destruction of dragons, though there are some cults among the Kuriotates that are peaceful and have taken to worshipping the gold dragon, Eurabatres, who is currently in the realm of myths. In Erebus, Dragons are extremely rare and powerful. It is said that the boy-king Cardith Lorda of the Kuriotates has a spiritual connection with Eurabatres, and peaceful versions of the cult are popular in that land. I'd suggest that your order have some affiliation with the gold dragon if not the Kuriotates, and if you worship a good dragon, then why is your order secret? Maybe you're temple is located in a land where all dragons are despised? Do you have any mentors in your order?

I'm looking forward to seeing how you flesh it out, and if you'd like help to fill in any blanks let me know. also, does this mean you're choosing the knight background, or maybe acolyte?

Player: I went with acolyte. Quimby was indeed raised by lizardfolk.  He doesn't know if he was born from a lizardfolk egg or was found by them, but as he grew up, the differences between him and his family were readily apparent.  Knowing he was meant for more than the simple life in his clan's off the beaten path grotto home, he jumped at the chance to join up with the Knights of the Dragon.  He took to his training well, and longed for his first assignment.  When that day finally came, the joy of spreading the glory of his ancestors was tarnished by the betrayal and destruction of his order. 

Too ashamed to return to his old family, for fear of their disappointment, he has dedicated his life to doing good deeds, becoming the greatest knight to walk the realms, and avenge his slain brothers.  When they can rest easily in the afterlife, he will rebuild his order and continue their great work.  He is determined to learn the identity of the betrayer who helped their enemies destroy the only place Quimby has ever felt he belonged.

One thing I loved about this player’s background was when he said, “He doesn’t know…” If you’re a player, take note. This is a wonderful gift to your DM in addition to a fleshed out backstory. Leaving an opening left me a hook as dungeonmaster. It’s usually the other way around with DMs dropping hooks for players, but I love it when a player leaves a little space to hook me into his character. I now have room to connect him to the wider world. With that I immediately took this mystery and created a world secret regarding the origin of dragonborn. Over the campaign this player will chase down clues and discover major revelations about himself. When you can bring self-discovery into an rpg, it’s pure magic.

Other great hooks this player left me: Quimby doesn’t know that dragons aren’t gods, but the weapons of the gods. He doesn’t know who the traitor to his order was or why. This player not only gave me the opportunity to create a nemesis for him, but a lot of freedom in doing so since the player doesn’t know the traitor’s identity. Further, he doesn’t even know all the members of his order, now scattered to the wind with the destruction of their secret temple. I can drop dragonborn NPCs anywhere in the world for this player to engage with his own personal mystery.

We’ve established this player’s motivation, to learn the identity of the traitor and rebuild his order. Let’s come back to the question, “Why is your hero here?” The here part is the opening scene of the first quest. I’ve disclosed to the players that they are all on a ship. I need the heroes to answer why they are on the ship. In the example above, the easiest explanation is that the PC is chasing down a lead on the whereabouts of a member in his order. What the PCs won’t know until play is that a mutiny is about to occur. After a little information they’ll get to choose which side to join. Obviously, make the choice matter and create consequences for choosing either side, but that is a matter of quest design. Whichever they choose, the Call to Adventure takes place: you’re in the middle of two warring factions, what do you do?

There’s one last thing I’d like to mention. The Call to Adventure is closely tied to the third stage of the Heroic Journey, where the hero can Reject the Call and suffers for doing so. In A New Hope, Luke does this when he rejects Ben Kenobi’s offer to train as a Jedi. Later in the conversation, Luke realizes that the inciting incident for his adventure - his uncle bought two droids with information the Empire is willing to kill for - has left a bread crumb trail leading straight home, meaning his family has bright red targets on their backs. When he finds his aunt and uncle murdered, he then answers the call.

What I take away in this example is that Luke, a character in a narrative, has agency. He chooses to reject the call, and only answers it when given a reason (read: motivation) to change his mind, which was his adoptive family’s murder. I didn’t provide that choice in my campaign, instead giving the players a different kind of choice. Let’s open the floor with this: How would you provide yours players the choice to reject the call without railroading?


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