Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Heroic Journey II: Rising Action

The next stage in the heroic journey is often called Tests, Allies, & Enemies. As it relates to Dungeons and Dragons, it's that time after the hero leaves the ordinary world for the extraordinary. The bulk of a hero’s adventures occur in this stage. On his travels he meets new people, making friends and enemies all the while facing challenges which not only test his skills but his perseverance to achieve his ultimate goal.

"Now finally out of his comfort zone the Hero is confronted with an ever more difficult series of challenges that test him in a variety of ways. Obstacles are thrown across his path; whether they be physical hurdles or people bent on thwarting his progress, the Hero must overcome each challenge he is presented with on the journey towards his ultimate goal.
"The Hero needs to find out who can be trusted and who can't. He may earn allies and meet enemies who will, each in their own way, help prepare him for the greater ordeals yet to come. This is the stage where his skills and/or powers are tested and every obstacle that he faces helps us gain a deeper insight into his character and ultimately identify with him even more."    - www.movieoutline.com 
In terms of a roleplaying game this is not throwing a bunch of encounters and non-player characters at the heroes but creating and maintaining a rising action. The campaign should be structured in a way that wherever the players travel they will find challenges worthy of heroes. The results of their choices and how they meet these challenges will create both friends and enemies. When creating content for your group’s next encounter, allow for more options than simple success or failure. Every NPC you put time into creating should have the possibility of reacting to the heroes’ actions in more than one way.
For instance let’s take two NPCs, Dain and Gowan. They’re rival wizards who both hire the party to find the same magical jewel in a dungeon. Maybe the heroes accept the mission from one wizard and ignore the other, maybe they try to cash in on both opportunities. Whatever happens, during the quest they have a choice in how to accomplish their mission. Either they can kill a demon cursed to guard the jewel, or take an easier path and set the demon free - leaving the jewel unguarded. The first option is repugnant to Dain and agreeable to Gowan, and the second vice versa. Whichever choice is made, if word gets out on how the mission was accomplished one wizard will dislike the heroes and the other will congratulate them. This situation creates choice on many levels. Can the heroes recover the jewel? How do they recover it? Do their choices have consequences, like the freed demon laying waste to a nearby village? How will the wizards feel about that? Will they find out they hired the same people to do the same job? What will the rival wizards do if they find out? Outraged? Forgiving? Vengeful There’s a lot going here.
The situation above allows for many, many outcomes. The goal is to eliminate simple results because that makes for a boring game. There shouldn’t be anything so bland as winning or losing. It doesn’t apply to this game because you can’t win Dungeons and Dragons. It’s like when Charlie Sheen was off the deep end and kept saying, “WINNING!” It just doesn’t make sense.
You can see how one encounter can escalate based on the choices your heroes make. Now how does a Dungeon Master do so with a campaign? Leveling up and high CR encounters is not the correct answer. We’re not talking about escalating the difficulty, but tension. The situations your players will find themselves in needs to feel more intense. It’s a matter of raising the stakes.
Breaking Bad spoilers ahead. Season 1, Walter White gets cancer and is fed up with how his life has amounted to leaving behind his family under a pile of debt, so he starts cooking meth in a basement. He’s a chemical virtuoso and so his product is superior to everything else on the market. This is the setup. Problems ensue when Walter tries to figure out how to turn this high quality meth into money. The ultimate goal is excessive wealth, but he has no idea how to turn drugs into cash. Figuring out distribution and the criminal underworld is his campaign. Walter risks his life by not only encroaching on the territory of other drug lords, but merely having conversations with dangerous criminals (and the criminally insane). Along the way, he makes enemies (Krazy-8) and an ally (Tuco, though he’s always high on crystal meth so his random violence makes him just as dangerous as any enemy).
In Season 2 Walter and Jesse (the heroes) need to rescue their friend Badger (helpless NPC) from going to jail so they hire Saul Goodman, a crooked lawyer to help. Eventually Walter is contacted by a Gus Fring who has a large scale and highly sophisticated drug distribution network. Meanwhile, Walter is getting chemo and trying to fend off the suspicions of his family.
You can see the escalation as Walter goes from cooking meth in an RV in the small time and dealing with Gus in the big leagues, while meeting friends and enemies along the way. And every season makes the last look like small potatoes.The hard part is figuring out how far to push things without the escalation getting ridiculous. Our metric is tension. Do your players look tense, focused, apprehensive? In a nutshell, are they worried about what happens next?
A villain is a good way to escalate tension. Protagonists need an antagonist, but start small. A villain of the week can get stale quickly, as none of them really matter because they’re getting killed by the end of every quest. First introduce the villain. Please avoid cliches, unless that’s the kind of thing your group likes. Mustache twirling while explaining the master plan is the equivalent of hitting your players upside the head just to say hello. All the players need to know is there’s someone who is opposing them, and they might know next to nothing else. Perhaps they don’t even have a name. It’s enough just to know someone is working against them.
Maybe your players have just saved a town from an impending goblin attack. While clearing out the lair, the PCs discover multiple goblins are armed with brand new castle forged weapons and armor but the goblins have no means of producing these weapons. Where did they get such good equipment? It’s in too good a shape to be pulled off of fallen foes. Perhaps there’s a large sack of minted coins with the seal of a neighboring duchy. Ok, so someone has put the goblins up to this, probably in preparation for a larger plan. Now what if in the next quest the heroes found out the towns feudal lord had returned from negotiating with that neighboring duchy, and followed by a heavily laden caravan. What was in the caravan? On closer inspection the same minted coins can be found. There’s a conspiracy afoot. Someone wanted the town destroyed. Will they try again?
Essentially, creating a believable rising action is a matter of subtly having the consequences of the heroes choices interact with the antagonist’s time table. Next time, I’ll put theory into practice.


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