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DM Guide

Awarding Magic
The Plot

Awarding Magic

Magic items are special. It's fun to make them up and to work out stories behind them. Whole adventures have been written around them (e.g., The Arrow Quest, Excavations, Cloak and Dagger, and the Axe adventures), and are often subplots in other adventures (the ring in Mark's Axe adventure, Fallhill). It would be good if ALL magic items had a background. 'New', 'exciting' and 'powerful' are all enticing reasons to give them to people, as is 'Well, she deserved one. She's third level, after all.' This approach is, simply, wrong. So is 'Hmm. There is no way the party is going to defeat the creatures I have planned for them just up ahead, so I'll plop down this +2 sword right here in the middle of the giant spider nest.' If a DM is thinking anything remotely like this, then perhaps the deadly encounter should be watered down a bit. To put magic in perspective, it takes a 9th level mage to make a potion or scroll, and an 11th level one to make a magic item. Mages and priests have to be ELEVENTH level before they can create other magic items. There is no magic factory in the Imperium Romanum where 11th-level mages are churning out +2 swords for the party to find. +2 swords, in fact, are weapons that any ruler of a country would be proud to own.

To sum up: DON'T give away magic items freely. Make characters earn them. Make sure there is a story behind that item being there. A good rule of thumb: characters should have ONE magic item per level for the first 3-4 levels. This translates, then, to one magic item per character per three adventures, a rule I think DMs should stick to even more than the 'one magic item per level'.

The Plot

James' approach

Plot is the single most important thing to an adventure. Really, I mean it. Not monsters, not treasure. Plot. As you write your adventure, act as if this threat were hanging over your head: "After this adventure is over, you have to read the short story version." Let me emphasize, however, the first phrase of that ominous threat: After this adventure is over. Because you are not writing the short story. You only have control over half of it—well, maybe more than half. But let your players have a significant role in the story, and some control over their destiny, or they'll get bored and frustrated, and people will complain about your adventure for years.

Anyway, how does one come up with a plot? I write this with total humility, since I know that my adventures are often lacking in plot. That's because the story-line is not the first thing I create: the cast of characters is. Given a group of Player Characters, and one or more people selected from my enormous stack of Non-Player Characters (the jibe in the March 1993 newsletter about me detailing 400-odd NPCs is, alas, not too far from the truth), I put them together and hope that a plot develops. While we will all jab at David Silbey for the novel he ran us through (known in the Adventure Log as "Cragleth"), I will also be the object of fun for some time for my wonderful adventure ("Prophecy") which involved no less than six distinct groups of people, a lot of intrigue among them all—but very little plot. And the PCs were completely clueless about most of what was going on. Let's look at a better example.

My ancient adventure called "The River" was one where I involved several distinct groups of NPCs, each constituting a subplot. One was the major force behind the story: a group of crazed cultists in baboon-skin headdresses, who attacked some members of the PC party because one of them had been involved in defending a caravan against their raiding. So the PCs traveled upriver to try to stop this cult at the source. (OK, so I like crazed religious cults.) But before disembarking, Chala was approached by a woman who asked him to carry a message upriver to her brother. Seemed simple enough, but this woman was a fugitive from the Alexandrian thieves' guild, and some thieves attacked the party a few days into their journey. So there's three groups involved besides the PCs— the cultists, the fugitive and her brother, and the Alexandrian Guild. All three groups are continuing presences in my campaign. The cultists came up again in "Earth and Fire," and again in "Excavations" and its sequel, "Leading the Blind" (albeit with a completely different group of PCs in each case—this is part of my biggest frustration with this campaign). The woman, Kara, and her brother, both now relocated out of Egypt, have been involved in many adventures since then, though often the PCs weren't aware of her involvement at the time (and may still not be, so I won't list the adventures). And, of course, the Guild is an ever-present reality in Egypt and even outside it, and has its collective nose in a lot of places where PCs tend to be poking around.

That, then, is my approach to plot, in a nutshell. But let me give a counterexample, too: one of the most successful adventures I've run, "Pixie-Led." This had appeal not for its twisted plot, which was only mildly contorted, but for the elements of fantasy involved in it. The adventure revolved around an accidental tourist from a parallel earth, and the PCs' quest to help her return to her home. Pixies led the PCs into the quest (hence the title), which took them through the desert in search of an interplanar gate, which they only found through the assistance of some hatt’. The other-planar visitor, Issmayah, helped infuse the whole adventure with a sense of magic, since she could fly naturally, and looked very different from humans on this world.

None of this changes what I've said about plot, except to add a thought—this is, after all, a fantasy game, not a historical simulation. It seems like everyone has a lot more fun when everyone is frequently reminded of that fact. But don't go off the deep end—people also need some feeling that everything makes sense, somehow. I mean, my extra-planar visitor can be perfectly logically explained within the structure of the rules and the "laws" of this magical multiverse. Even fantasy can and should have reasons to it. Also, the PCs themselves can and should contribute to that sense of fantasy—as in my recent adventure, "More Ogre Trouble," where the PC party consisted of Paul's ka'an ascetic psionicist, Koeunyi's dwarven beastrider mounted on a rust monster, and Amy's pixie thief! Players should also remember that this is not a historical simulation, and design their characters appropriately, especially with nonhumans.

A final note: It's gotten to the point where DMs are forced to write adventures with a specific group of PCs in mind. Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing, I think. I always mentally compare it to writing a sermon: I'm much happier writing a sermon when I know the people I'm going to preach it to. That way I can shape it so that it will be relevant to them. This is a good idea in adventure writing, too. Don't write a hack-and-slash, kill-all-the-monsters-and-take-all-their-treasure sort of adventure for a group of mages, unless they're powerful mages! And try to take the motivations and backgrounds of the PCs into consideration when writing the plot. It's usually a good idea, I think, to keep this in the background —make them subplots. But if an adventure has nothing to do with the motivations of the PCs (which can change from day to day, which is frustrating), then the PCs get bored and the DM gets annoyed and bad things happen. My recent adventure, "Masks," is an example of this which is not too egregious—Chala and Kunte were trying to figure out how to get money, and I drew them into an adventure through a completely different avenue—romance and/or friendship. So while the adventure is in process, I'm trying to figure out how I can get them some monetary reward for this whole thing!

I say PC motivations should be only subplots, but let me go into that more. I say that mainly because if one character's motivation is the center of the adventure, the adventure gets very fragile: What if the character dies? What if the player has some kind of emergency and can't make it that day, or is just in a pissy mood all day and the character ends up unmotivated? Now, it's fine to structure adventures around one character's motivations, so long as only that character is going on the adventure! Paul and I do that for each other all the time, which is part of the reason we have the three highest-level characters in the campaign (Chala, Merrik, Jannes)—all of whom have been on solo adventures. Otherwise, keep individual motivations in the background, maybe just between you and that one player. The classic example of this sort of thing is an adventure that is yet to be played—just wait until I get to run my epic!

Paul's Approach

First, a list of things not to do, and why. Don't plan out exactly what the characters are going to do, because you will get frustrated when they don't do it. And they won't. They will instead do exactly what you don't want them to—they will take a dislike to (and kill) that great NPC who is supposed to befriend them and lend them the items necessary to complete their quest; they will hike over to the next town to look for that evil spirit when it (obviously!!!) is in the town that they are in, and is going to eat up the entire village that night if they don't stop it; they will completely misinterpret the hook you set up, and spend a week wandering the hillsides of Germania when they are supposed to go ask the powerful druid in Gallia for help and information. They will, in fact, completely ruin your well-laid-out adventure.

Okay, so that's a little extreme. Most of the time that won't happen. But it might, and if you've written an adventure around a specific event, you'd better make sure that it's clear what you want them to do. So, rather than set up a whole story line and force the characters into it, write the adventure for the characters.

I write adventures in only two ways: either I detail an area (like a dungeon or town) with all sorts of locations and fun things to find, and I write ten pages describing what might happen (covering as many angles I can think of), or I am very lazy and set up something which requires very little detail, where the characters themselves provide the adventure. One of my most enjoyable adventures, Trio of Troubles, involved giving each player a different (sometimes conflicting) objective and throwing them to the wolves. I hadn't planned any real events, I just put them all in the same town (the same inn, even), some to investigate various missing items, some to protect a caravan carrying those items, and some to actually rob (!!!) the caravan. It was great fun, and we spent an entire evening full of investigation and intrigue. And I wrote less than a page describing the adventure. On the other end, I once wrote an adventure for Ricardo and Homer. I had them join up with a caravan (I use them the way James uses evil cults) to guard it; when they reached the other end of the trip, they were captured, stripped of equipment, and thrown in a locked barn with some other prisoners, and told that they were now slaves and were going to become gladiators. I had the whole complex mapped out (a large villa complete with an arena, and the surrounding countryside), and spent the rest of the adventure simply reacting to what the two characters did. That's basically the way I work, I guess: react to what characters do. They WILL find a way to make things interesting.

The basis for both types of preparation, almost completely opposite from James, is to think of an event and build the adventure around it. Each time I add something, I ask myself whether the characters will find it interesting, or even find it at all. If the answer is no, then I try to find something that is more interesting. This, to me, is the most important part of an adventure—the players are there to have a good time. Luckily, our group is mature enough to have a good time with almost any adventure (there are exceptions: see the writeup for Evarinius the Orator).

I try to keep the number of outside interests (subplots) below four. Any more than three and I find it hard to keep track of what is happening. More importantly, it is perfectly all right to have just one plot per adventure, and for your first few adventures this is what I recommend. Koeunyi ran a delightful adventure for her brother and me (see Owl Island); we found a treasure map of a deserted island where an owl-worshiping cult used to be, spent the whole time exploring it, and ultimately fought the "evil element" which also had heard of the treasure and had come after it. There weren't any huge mysteries, and there don't need to be. The role-playing is almost always more than enough.

Ah. Another important point: the Final Encounter. I try to have a big event at the end of my adventures when the subplots are tied together and the characters face their big foe, so that they can have a sense of having accomplished something (this seems to happen no matter what I plan, actually). Most of the time this involves fighting the Big Bad Beastie guarding the treasure (see the Arrow Quest adventures), or a final encounter with the enemy (see Face Value).


If plot is the essential element, the base of an adventure, Non-Player Characters are the spice. [Definition: A Non-Player Character (NPC) is any person or monster who is run by the DM, rather than by a player. This includes everyone from innkeepers to assassins to allies to orcs and dragons.]

OK, I confess. I do indeed have a Hypercard stack detailing stats for 89 NPCs, not to mention the 539 thieves of the Alexandrian Guild (relax, I only have bare-minimum, randomly-generated stats for most of them). But that is basically because of my approach to plot, as I described it above. Frankly, I don't have a lot of fun DMing if I don't have an NPC or seven to role-play. This is a role-playing game, after all, and I don't see any reason why the DM should be excluded from that. Heck, Amy even says she's seen me do my best role-playing while DMing, and she should know. She's my wife.

Now, mind you, it's not all selfish pleasure. I think the players get more out of an adventure if they have NPCs to interact with. In a large enough party, they can certainly role-play with each other enough so that their characters' true personalities really come out, but generally NPCs add to the fun. I guess that's why I've tended to move away from standard dungeon adventures—though I'm going back into them, trying to role-play even dungeon-dwelling monsters better, as real characters.

Now that I've convinced you of the importance of NPCs, let me move on to some practical considerations. Do you have to have complete stats and detailed backgrounds for every NPC you use in an adventure? By no means. Often, race, sex, and general appearance and personality notes are all you need—enough to tell the PCs what they see, and tell yourself how to role-play the person. Now, for an innkeeper—well, for most NPCs the players will meet in, say, a town—you can do that on the spur of the moment. The PCs walk in to an inn, and you decide (avoiding classic stereotypes, which is always a good idea) that the innkeeper is a young, attractive halfelf woman with a fiery temper and no patience with obnoxious men. You play her accordingly, the PCs get kicked out of her establishment (assisted by the burly half-ogre they didn't notice when they first entered) when they get too fresh, and the adventure has had an interesting twist. Especially if that was the only inn in this god-forsaken town in the middle of nowhere.

I generally like to keep records of NPCs like that. Ask Paul—Chala has a long list of minor (and major) NPCs from my adventures, so he can tell you something about the innkeeper at, say, the Temple Street Grill and Hostel in Tanis. You should meet Thorvald sometime—he's a nice guy. And he doesn't even rate a card in my NPC stack. But I think players appreciate that kind of consistency and acquired familiarity, especially in places where the PCs spend a lot of time.

But there are more important NPCs. Allies and patrons—like the mage who taught Chala his spells, or the native "guide" who got him lost in the desert. I do have a card for Nestor, Chala's mentor, and Chala has turned to him in adventures—not just for new spells, but for other sorts of help as well. [A plug here: look over the card in the Imperium Romanum stack on the patron-client system. It's an important part of the social world of the Roman Empire, and one that can create interesting situations in adventures.] And the big ones—enemies. These can be one-shot enemies, who die at the end of an adventure. (I can't bring myself to delete them from my stack, however—I just put a note about who killed them and when. Could be useful, actually—maybe someday a relative will come to track down the PCs for revenge . . . !) Better, they can be long-term enemies. Maybe they're the people behind all the action in an adventure, the criminal geniuses who send lackies to do their dirty work, and become life-long enemies of the PCs who screw everything up. Or maybe they do actually meet the PCs face-to-face in combat, but escape to get revenge at a later date. Maybe the PCs send them up the river . . . whatever.

But then there's NPCs who are neither particularly allies nor enemies. They may be people the PCs encounter on the road or in a town—or that they keep bumping into wherever they go (this is another good kind). Adventures may center around them without them being enemies. Something could happen at the estate of an NPC which the NPC hires the PCs to investigate—without really being an ally, a patron, or an enemy. The possibilities are endless. That's why I have 83 (+539) NPCs in my stack.

You may have noticed a running theme, here: continuity is good. It can be hard to achieve in this campaign, where you may never run the same group of PCs twice. (As I said earlier, that is my biggest gripe about this campaign.) But if PCs keep meeting the same people, both important ones and minor ones, they will feel much more at home in your part of the world, whatever it may be, and will feel like they are part of something bigger than just their own adventures. It's exciting. Really. You can't imagine how cool it was for me to have Raz (played by Amy) and Charnal (played by Mark) talking to one of those baboon-headdressed priests, and to have the priest talk about how one of their most important temples was sacked by a bunch of riff-raff over a year previously—because those "riff-raff" were other player characters! And the adventure took place two and a half years previously in real time! Now that, if I do say so myself, is good continuity.

What I'm getting at has to do with the word "campaign" (as opposed to "adventure") and really has to do with plot, too. A campaign is a connected series of adventures. We are all part of the Imperium Romanum campaign—connected mainly by a relatively constant group of PCs. But I am also running an ®gyptus campaign—which means that there are certain themes which keep cropping up in my adventures. Not necessarily in all of them, but in more than the players even know. And the reason I'm discussing this in this section is that these themes have everything to do with people—in other words, with NPCs. I mentioned them in the first section—the Alexandrian Thieves' Guild, Kara and her friends, the baboon-wearing cultists. There are others I won't point out. But they're more than just themes, they're characters, and that's what keeps my adventures interesting for me—and I hope for my players as well.