Saturday, May 26, 2018

Wait, What? – Perplexities as RPG Hooks

Talking with Thomas about the Day of Al’Akbar, a module he’s running for our ongoing AD&D 2nd Edition al-Qadim Church game. He was asking if it felt like there was too much going on in the city for the party to keep track of and that led to us discussing how NPC’s give clues and just what hooks and focused are needed for the PCs in an adventure. I haven’t read the Day of Al’Akbar yet, as we’re still playing through it, but our party headed to the city of Khaibar, thinking it was an abandoned ruin with perhaps a small bandit camp. Our goal was to find the cup and talisman of Al’Akbar, in order to cure a disease in a city we’d like to be able to visit without fear of catching a plague and to charge the rulers a massive amount of gold to do so. Instead of the ruined and empty (or nearly empty) city, we arrived to find a re-established city with at least 500 inhabitants, multiple inns, mercenary soldiers, a bandit king and his followers and a terrorist waging a magical bombing campaign. Needless to say, this threw us for a loop and we spent two sessions exploring the town, speaking to dozens of NPCs, exploring a dozen or so labeled shops and such and trying to figure out if the tensions in the town were going to interfere with our mission of obtaining the two artifacts we had come in search of. The third session was largely us stumbling onto the aftermath of some NPC theater and using it, as well as several overpowered spells, to loot the palace of the town and locate the first part of the artifact, but we still don’t quite know what happened between the bandit king al-Farzikh and his enemy, Mad Dog, and if the mercenary take-over after al-Farzikh’s death was planned or just opportunistic. But, since none of those NPCs seem to be searching for the artifacts, it’s likely that we play next we will continue to ignore them as we move our hunt for the second artifact elsewhere in the city.

This got me thinking of two modules that I’ve run recently where I feel like the PCs were drawn into the plot despite a relative paucity of hooks, the excellent Dancing in the Ruins module for Godless, and the first published Planescape adventure, The Eternal Boundary. At 6 pages, Dancing in the Ruins, is wonderfully economical, it offers a few NPCs who can serve as quest givers, but mostly relies on the mystery to be compelling. For The Eternal Boundary, it starts with a quest giver, either faction or non-faction, but both those starts give the PCs basically the same information and send them on a quest that is largely a red-herring and then the PCs discover the real plot of the module in the course of tracking down their MacGuffin. Instead of detailed hooks what both modules rely on are Perplexities, tangles of clues that convince the PCs and their players that there has to be something more (and oh boy, there is plenty more lurking beneath the surface in each module.)


What Makes a Perplexity a good hook?

I think the reason perplexities make great hooks is that they engage player curiosity; a good perplexity makes the player go “wait, what?” and gives that momentary pause where they want to get to the bottom of the issue. So in Dancing in the Ruins, the Party King gives out free food to everyone, and that’s a little weird, especially in the scarcity of the post-apocalypse of Godless…But then it gets weirder… the Party Fleet moves from place to place and people are only allow to stay with it a year…and all this food, it’s almost irresistibly delicious, like nothing you’ve ever tasted and causes you to..well, as the module puts it “experience an overpowering need to defecate”. The more the PCs learn, the more questions it raises and I have to imagine that it would take a decidedly banal and incurious group of players to resist trying to get to the bottom of it all.

For the Eternal Boundary, the PCs are sent to find an NPC who has information about the Isle of Black Trees. The barmy (madman, as they say in the chant of Planescape), is lost in the slums of the Hive. The PCs quickly discover that he’s dead, but not before they have a chance to realize that lots of barmies have been going into the dead-book in the Hive lately and that several other groups are looking into the matter. It’s a slower burn and the PCs could, if they were uninterested in doing anything more than the mission given to them, avoid getting drawn into the true plot of the module for the first chapter, but the second chapter begins with a revelation that will put them on the perplexing path. Both times that I’ve run the adventure though, the players begin to figure out that there is a perplexity behind all the deaths of barmies well before the module would force them to, as they are told by some NPCs that the deaths are to be expected and then run into other NPCs who seem to believe they are part of a strange epidemic.

Comparing this to the Day of Al’Akbar, and it seems like the only perplexities are a strange bakery where the scent compels you to purchase and devour the baked goods and tales of a monster in the sewers. Now, I haven’t read the module yet, but these are the only things that stick out to me as a player as something not fully explained or explainable. The other clues, the corrupt, incompetent ruler more concerned with enjoying the pleasures of flesh that ruling, the fanatical terrorist opposing him, various minor NPC shopkeeps and sundry others, they all seemed pretty straight-forward. So, why didn’t the bakery or sewer monster work as perplexities? I think the bakery didn’t, because it seems so much like a red-herring unrelated to the plot. It had the feel of something strange dropped into the city that had nothing to do with either the question of who ruled the city or where to find the artifacts. As far as the sewer monster, I think where this one failed was that it did not feel like there was urgency or anything more to it than the D&D trope of dangerous sewers. As far as I recall we heard that the sewers were dangerous and a monster or monsters were said to inhabit them, but we didn’t hear that there were a strangely high number of people going down into the sewers despite the monster(s), so it felt more like a location in a video game, where we as a party didn’t have to go and face the danger until we were ready because we didn’t have to fear rivals beating us to our prize.

So, what makes a good Perplexity? A few things I think:

  • It’s tied to the plot, or a plot of the module, game or session. Even if it’s not the plot the players are expecting, following the rabbit trail of the perplexity should give them the satisfaction of uncovering a mystery that is significant.
    • All the strange things the PCs encounter in the Hive in the Eternal Boundary lead back to the mystery of the plot, and for Dancing in the Ruins this is true as well, where each new thing the PCs find ties back to the plot of the module, whether the PCs realize it or not.
  • It has a time limit or continues to build as time goes on. 
    • For Dancing in the Ruins, the Party Fleet is only in town a few days. For the Eternal Boundary, the PCs should be running into more mysteriously dead barmies in the Hive ward or more berks looking into the mysterious deaths of barmies.
  • It is genuinely perplexing at first glance and the solution cannot be simply deduced.
    • In the Day of Al’Akbar, the Mad Dog of the Desert attacks the city because he has a fanatical hatred for al-Farzikh. Every NPC we encountered relayed this information and while we didn’t know the exact identity of the Mad Dog, it wasn’t a particularly compelling mystery to unravel. We knew his broad motivation and his methods and we weren’t given any information that suggested he was after the artifacts we were searching for and so until we were caught in one of his attacks we had no reason to pursue him or his identity. Even after we were caught in his attack, finding him was secondary to our main goal of finding the artifacts we had come for (or perhaps even tertiary, since we also continued with our long running goal of obtaining as much treasure as possible as well In the interim). 
    • Compare this to the central question of Dancing in the Ruins which can be obliquely summarized as “Why does the Party King, and his party fleet, provide not only free food in a time and place of starvation, but also, why do they also bring a fleet of outhouses as well as they travel from place to place?”
    • Or to the central mystery of the Eternal Boundary, which is “Who does it serve for all these barmies to die mysterious and apparently peaceful deaths?”

Playing up Perplexities in an Adventure

Ok, you say, I see that perplexities might get players invested in the plot of this module I’m running, but how do you actually use them? Well, let’s take N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God as an example, since I’m running it for two different groups at the moment, my podcast Beyond the Wall actual play group and an online 5th Edition D&D group. The by the book hook is that the players hear a few rumors about Orlane, like “A huge, many-headed creature has been stealing children at night” or “People in Orlane are being altered and the “changeling” can be recognized by fang marks in their throats”. A DM could go further and have the PCs be sent specifically to investigate why someone has gone missing in Orlane, which I’ve done when I’ve run the adventure previously, as well. But regardless, the players arrive to the village and might not have any direction or ideas on how to proceed, aside from going from keyed location to keyed location and knocking on doors.
That is unless you play up a perplexity, and there is a great one built into the module in the form of the two inns in town, the Golden Grain Inn and its rival, the Slumbering Serpent Inn. Because of the plot of the module, the PCs should encounter NPCs who have reasons to tell them to avoid one inn in favor of the other. Playing this confusion up, of which inn in town is the better inn for the party to stay at, has worked fantastically to draw in player engagement for both the sessions of N1 I’m running now. Here’s why.

  • It’s tied to the plot; the reasons that NPCs would suggest one inn or the other directly correlates to the side of the conflict in the village they are on and the inn they choose to stay at directly affects how the plot proceeds.
  • It has a time limit. The PCs have until nightfall to decide which inn the party should stay at, or they could decide to stay at neither but then have to figure out a safe place to make camp and leaving the town without spending a night would draw a lot of attention to them.
  • It’s genuinely perplexing at first glance. It’s very easy to portray the two inns so that the PCs can see why it would be so strange that some NPCs would insist that such and such inn is the better inn when the atmosphere doesn’t feel as welcoming but on the other-hand, the other inn has its own slightly suspicious reputation and quirks that could make a PC feel like it too was potentially a trap.

If you want to hear just how confused you can make players feel about which inn is truly safe, you can listen to episodes 31 and 32 of the Antagonist Relations podcast.

One final note on Perplexities, remember the Apocalypse World adage to be a fan of the PCs and put in perplexities for the PCs to solve. Be generous with the clues and cheer the players on as they unravel the messy tangle of fact and fiction to discover the secret behind each perplexity instead of feeling like you need to beat them by having a mystery they cannot uncover. It is eminently more enjoyable to talk with your players after the session or module about what a surprise the real mystery was after they discover it instead of finishing a game and not being able to spill all the beans.

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