Contrivance in story dynamics

pointofyou

Adventurer
@pointofyou

I'm still not quite sure what sort of list you have in mind, and how you see it being operationalised.

I'm not quite sure I'd use "operationalize" to describe my approaches but I'll try to explain more clearly or at least more verbosely.

By "unbounded list" I mean a list that in principle includes more or less all things possible and allowed in the game being played. There might be some selection for environment or biome or whatever but there need not be and the list is put together without any consideration for who the PCs are or why they are doing PC things.

By "curated list" I mean a list where some or most or all the items on it have been chosen to engage the PCs or at least with consideration for who they are and why they are doing PC things. In principle the items on the list could be pulling on old threads or weaving in new ones.

Seems to me the lists would be pretty similar in use. The system calls for a roll on the table and the GM rolls on the table and what the GM rolls on the table comes into play. Seems pretty obvious to me the latter list would engage the PCs' interests and motivations more or at least it'd be much more likely to.

In my OP I mentioned Event rolls in Torchbearer. These are triggered at definite moments of play - when the PCs make camp, when the PCs arrive at a settlement so as to enter it, when the PCs tell tales in a tavern, etc. Some of the entries on the tables make reference to particular categories of relationship - eg a PC's parents, or a PC's enemy - while others do not; but there is a general instruction given to the GM to treat the written event results as a starting point for tailoring to the characters and situations in the ongoing game.

As an example:

In a recent Torchbearer session I rolled a tavern rumour for Golin, the Dwarven Outcast. The rumour result was to the effect of you learn about a bad thing happening to people who fit the description of your parents. But Golin is an orphan! (Established as part of his PC build - you can either choose to have parents, and get +1 Circles and somewhere to stay for free when you're in your hometown; or you can choose to be an orphan and start with an heirloom worth 1D of cash). Golin does, however have a friend, Vaccin the alchemist, in the town where the tavern rumour was heard (another PC build option) - but that town is not Golin's hometown.

So I thought for a minute or so, and then checked with Golin's player about two things - one, that Vaccin was old (yep, he agreed with that) and two, if he knew how Golin had been orphaned (nope, he didn't know how). I also checked Golin's age on his PC sheet - 43 years old.

And then I narrated that Golin got talking to one of the old-timers in the tavern, and that old-timer commented that Vaccin seems to have a thing for Dwarven friends, because about 40 years ago, he (Vaccin) was friendly with a Dwarven couple who had visited the town with their young bairn. But the old-timer had only ever seen them that one time . . .

So that's an example of how I took a relatively generic event description, and adapted it to fit the situation and the character, and thereby established some new bit of backstory that connects Golin and his friend Vaccin, and opens up the possibility of a new adventure, namely, learning what happened to Golin's parents.

Another couple of examples:

In the session before the one I just wrote about, the PCs haggled with an alchemist/taxidermist (not Vaccin, but one he put them in touch with), over the price he would pay for a couple of captured stirges. That all went fine, and then the PCs left town for a bit, and dickered with some bandits, and then came back to town. And so I rolled for the town event, and the result was:

A funeral celebration. Some old bastard is dead, and folks are celebrating in the streets. Someone offers you a cup of strange wine. Remove hungry and thirsty or if not hungry and thirsty, you wake up hungry and thirsty and hung over the next morning. In the latter case, you may remove angry or afraid if you have them.​

I told the players that while the PCs were journeying, the alchemist/taxidermist had died from an unexpected stirge poisoning. They laughed. And Golin (as played by his player) immediately started plotting: in their dickering with the bandits, the PCs had persuaded the Dwarven bandit Gerda to leave the gang and join them; and now Golin saw a chance to insert her into the alchemical hierarchy in the town, a vacancy having just been created.

And in our most recent session, the PCs irritated a cinder imp who was living happily in an enemy Dreamwalker's home, and then drove the imp off. When they re-entered town I again rolled an event roll, and it indicated a fire at the premises of the Hedge Witch, rendering that town facility no longer available (the event has 6 possible locations/facilities listed, and calls for a die roll, and that's what I rolled). Golin had already interacted with the Hedge Witch in an earlier session, trying to buy explosives, and so this was something that stung a bit. And the cause of the fire was taken to be obvious - ie the angry and recently-set-at-large cinder imp. This sets up the possibility of the hedge witch becoming an enemy of the PCs as a future consequence for a failed check in this town.

I'm not sure if this is anything like the sort of approach to a curated list that you have in mind. But those are examples of how Torchbearer does it; and so far I'm very happy with the dynamic it creates, with the world unfolding around the PCs but ample opportunity to connect it to their escapades, and provide springboards for future escapades, in a way that is closer to a genuine story and less like a police procedural's murder-of-the-week.

It seems as though those mechanics are working well for you and your group. This comes as no surprise to me as the Burning Wheel Family of Games are noted for their tightly-structured mechanics. I don't think I have denied that my idea of a "curated list" in this context puts more work or responsibility or something on the GM's plate and there are certainly good reasons to prefer this to be more baked-into the mechanics of the game. When I run games where the GM has the responsibility and authority to create or curate encounter lists I do so with the PCs I'm running for in mind. I have had no problem connecting encounters to past escapades or generating new ones and the stories have felt more than genuine enough around the tables.
 

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In my opinion, the point of the confluence of Torchbearer thematic PC build components (Belief, Creed, Goal, Nature, Mentor, Family, Friend, Enemy, Hometown) + Twists (advice for them and how they work) + Calamity/Event tables is kindred with a lot of similar games, just operationalized differently on a per game basis.

Apocalypse World's GM moves (generally) + specific Threat moves works within the framework of the thematic PC build components and advancement in the game not terribly far afield from how Torchbearer works; Relationships (hx), playbook triggers and highlighted stats. Same goes for the other games in this line (like Dungeon World et al).

D&D 4e complications/change-the-situation +Encounter Goals are related to Player Quests/objectives (which are in turn related to PC build choices like Race/Background/Class/Theme/Paragon Path/Epic Destiny and how those things + player decisions create the challenges before the players which creates the unfolding fiction and trajectory of play). The game twists and turns based on the confluence of all of these things.

Dogs in the Vineyard is similar where premise + PC build lead to "Adventure Design" (just like in TB) - Towns. Conflicts in Town lead to "Twists" (follow-on-conflict and Fallout in Dogs parlance) which ultimately leads to post-Town Reflection (which is like all of the advancement and end-of-session stuff in the games listed above).




The Event/Calamity Tables of Torchbearer are the outlier of all of these games and game attributes listed above, but that is only when looked at in isolation. When looked at through the lens of holistic/integrated system, GM's best practices handling of the results of Event/Calamity Tables is basically just a more deeply constrained menu of Twist-handling. You should be working to either (a) present PCs an opportunity or (b) create a threat/complication that (c) intersects with player-flagged interests (by way of PC thematic build aspects and decisions > outputs that have led to fiction-to-date) but (d) honors the result of the Event/Calamity Table.

Contrast this with a thematically neutral approach to Event/Calamity tables or Twist handling with a lot of other game approaches to Random Encounters handling or "Side Quests" which are informed mostly/wholly by GM naturalistic extrapolation of pre-generated, high resolution setting rather than the "game layer" + "theme/premise layer" approach listed above. The cognitive space the GM is managing and executing is very different when you're generating and mapping the results of NPC Reaction Rolls onto play in B/X than when handling Circles/Persuader Tests and Convince Conflict compromises and Parley/Diplomacy moves and putting forth Raises/Sees in a Just Talkin' conflict!
 

pointofyou

Adventurer
In my opinion, the point of the confluence of Torchbearer thematic PC build components (Belief, Creed, Goal, Nature, Mentor, Family, Friend, Enemy, Hometown) + Twists (advice for them and how they work) + Calamity/Event tables is kindred with a lot of similar games, just operationalized differently on a per game basis.

Apocalypse World's GM moves (generally) + specific Threat moves works within the framework of the thematic PC build components and advancement in the game not terribly far afield from how Torchbearer works; Relationships (hx), playbook triggers and highlighted stats. Same goes for the other games in this line (like Dungeon World et al).

D&D 4e complications/change-the-situation +Encounter Goals are related to Player Quests/objectives (which are in turn related to PC build choices like Race/Background/Class/Theme/Paragon Path/Epic Destiny and how those things + player decisions create the challenges before the players which creates the unfolding fiction and trajectory of play). The game twists and turns based on the confluence of all of these things.

Dogs in the Vineyard is similar where premise + PC build lead to "Adventure Design" (just like in TB) - Towns. Conflicts in Town lead to "Twists" (follow-on-conflict and Fallout in Dogs parlance) which ultimately leads to post-Town Reflection (which is like all of the advancement and end-of-session stuff in the games listed above).




The Event/Calamity Tables of Torchbearer are the outlier of all of these games and game attributes listed above, but that is only when looked at in isolation. When looked at through the lens of holistic/integrated system, GM's best practices handling of the results of Event/Calamity Tables is basically just a more deeply constrained menu of Twist-handling. You should be working to either (a) present PCs an opportunity or (b) create a threat/complication that (c) intersects with player-flagged interests (by way of PC thematic build aspects and decisions > outputs that have led to fiction-to-date) but (d) honors the result of the Event/Calamity Table.

Contrast this with a thematically neutral approach to Event/Calamity tables or Twist handling with a lot of other game approaches to Random Encounters handling or "Side Quests" which are informed mostly/wholly by GM naturalistic extrapolation of pre-generated, high resolution setting rather than the "game layer" + "theme/premise layer" approach listed above. The cognitive space the GM is managing and executing is very different when you're generating and mapping the results of NPC Reaction Rolls onto play in B/X than when handling Circles/Persuader Tests and Convince Conflict compromises and Parley/Diplomacy moves and putting forth Raises/Sees in a Just Talkin' conflict!
It sounds like you're saying different rules written to work differently will engage people's brains differently. I agree with that.
 

Right, I contrast @Manbearcat's 4e description with the EARLY play in my first 4e campaign in 2008. There was a big forest full of dangerous stuff where the PCs spent a bunch of time, and when I constructed it (and here we see one point, the layout of this place was entirely constructed by me, and I decided what was in it, mostly based on things that existed there in a previous campaign back in the 1990s). There was a 'twist' mechanic that I created, which was basically a wandering monster table, though each element on it was unique and would only appear once. Still, it was pretty old-school at that point. Player quests weren't really factored in, the 'stuff' that was present wasn't too tightly coupled to PC build/backstory/player input, etc. It worked OK, but I would definitely approach that rather differently today. The players, back then, attached themselves to things they found interesting, and eventually built on that pretty heavily, so one PC found an artifact that was tied to her family heritage, another found a different artifact that lead to a story arc the player had clearly signaled during character creation, etc.

I guess that might also hint at the existence of a continuum here. SOME of the play process drew from older and more 'trad' (or if you prefer maybe neo-trad) conceptions of D&D play, and some of it drew more heavily from a bit less traditional and closer to player-centered story play.
 

pemerton

Legend
@AbdulAlhazred

Early in my 4e play, I ran a "find the Goblin cave" skill challenge in which the framing events and consequences were adapted from the forest random encounter table in the B/X module Night's Dark Terror. A little like what you describe, I would regard it as intermediate between full player-driven and full GM-driven.
 

@AbdulAlhazred

Early in my 4e play, I ran a "find the Goblin cave" skill challenge in which the framing events and consequences were adapted from the forest random encounter table in the B/X module Night's Dark Terror. A little like what you describe, I would regard it as intermediate between full player-driven and full GM-driven.
Right. I would say that even 'back in the day' a lot of what I did was pretty heavily aimed at engaging what the players wanted to do, but there was also this heavy element of "the GM's story" in there. Like, the ORIGINAL campaign when I constructed all the locations and a lot of the NPCs and whatnot that my first 4e game used was back in the early 90's and used 2e. It was a 'grand meta-plot' setup. Honestly, it reminds me a bit painfully of Dragon Lance in a sense, except I was SLIGHTLY smarter, there were not some other group of super hero NPCs driving the 'real' plot and relegating the PCs to bit parts. Still, it featured a 'course of events' that was somewhat outside the PC's control and which I envisaged long before the players decided what they wanted to do.

In the end that 90's campaign got bent into a shape that suited what everyone wanted, and a lot of the meta-plot kind of just faded into irrelevance or was made obsolete by the stuff the PCs actually did. I certainly learned to stop wasting time on that level of prep! lol. But in any case, the 4e game just sort of picked up background and now and then I'd add in a plot thread that the original campaign had left dangling or something. At some point though, interestingly, the 4e Cleric character evolved and basically reinterpreted the whole backstory completely! That was, however, more surprising for me than those players, as only one of them had been involved in the older games. Her character was Eldar (Eledrin) though and was highly confused because she had of course been alive during the previous events, and kept saying "but that isn't the way it happened!" lol.

I guess, relating it to 'contrivance', I mean, all the PCs were contrivances! The '90s ones turned into big heroes, and the 4e '10s ones actually turned out to be legendary heroes and cultural icons reborn into a new age. That's pretty contrived! Lol.
 

Put another way, were I a player in such a game where things just kept "conicidentally" happening to occur just at the right and most convenient moments to keep a story going, I'd feel that setting logic and believability was being sacrificed on the altar of story, i.e. a different but still noticeable (and annoying) form of railroad. It's jarring, and often considerably more noticeable than the GM thinks it is.
That's the player's interpretation. The characters' interpretation can plausibly be that someone within the setting is manipulating events. That's the view I prefer as a player; the emergence of conspiracy theories in conversation between the characters is a way of signalling to the GM that the "story" is becoming a bit too obvious.

However, "too obvious" is definitely dependent on game assumptions. In the 20-year Pendragon campaign I played in, the knights were vaguely that they were part of great events that would become legends. A few strange "coincidences" weren't a problem.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
That's the player's interpretation. The characters' interpretation can plausibly be that someone within the setting is manipulating events. That's the view I prefer as a player; the emergence of conspiracy theories in conversation between the characters is a way of signalling to the GM that the "story" is becoming a bit too obvious.
Fair enough.
However, "too obvious" is definitely dependent on game assumptions. In the 20-year Pendragon campaign I played in, the knights were vaguely that they were part of great events that would become legends. A few strange "coincidences" weren't a problem.
With the sort of games I play in and run, I've learned the hard way not to tie prophecies or great events or suchlike to any one particular character for two reasons.

One - less common - is that other players might feel resentful that the one character/player is being singled out for special treatment.
Two - much more common - is that the key character will inevitably find a way to permanently die at the first available opportunity.

And now I'm learning not to even tie them to entire parties! See spoiler for details.
Just recently I've been running what's supposed to be a mini-AP baked into my larger campaign, involving the finding and reuniting of four Prophecy Crystals and then maybe having that party use them for something really big down the road.

When another DM ran a similar series many years ago, the second crystal they found got shattered by a lightning bolt; this almost destroyed the whole story arc. Lesson learned - I made these ones pretty much indestructible. The Bag of Holding my lot put their first Crystal into, however, didn't have such protection...and sure enough a few sessions later up it went* with all contents lost. I maintained my stoic DM face at the table but inside - as you might imagine - there was a pretty big facepalm.

This was just a couple of sessions ago. They don't even realize quite what they've lost yet, as they don't know anything about the significance of these Crystals or even what they are; all they know so far is that some adventurers were investigating them several decades ago. As DM I've no idea how they're ever going to get the lost one back or even if they can; but at least they've now found the second one.

* - as fate would have it, again by lightning.
 

With the sort of games I play in and run, I've learned the hard way not to tie prophecies or great events or suchlike to any one particular character for two reasons.

One - less common - is that other players might feel resentful that the one character/player is being singled out for special treatment.

Two - much more common - is that the key character will inevitably find a way to permanently die at the first available opportunity.

And now I'm learning not to even tie them to entire parties!
I find it easier to just have things happen that indicate trouble, or that something else is going to happen. This means every game has investigative elements, but that's fine.

In the source material I deal with most - actual history, ancient mythologies - prophecy is either absent, or indicates inescapable fate for someone. I'm not sure how "you are the chosen one" prophecy became a major source of stories; can anyone explain?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm not sure how "you are the chosen one" prophecy became a major source of stories; can anyone explain?

Well, it goes back farther (probably the most clear are religous references, which I'll avoid), but how about...

"Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. " - Thomas Mallory, King Arthur and his Knights.

 

Fair enough.

With the sort of games I play in and run, I've learned the hard way not to tie prophecies or great events or suchlike to any one particular character for two reasons.

One - less common - is that other players might feel resentful that the one character/player is being singled out for special treatment.
Two - much more common - is that the key character will inevitably find a way to permanently die at the first available opportunity.

And now I'm learning not to even tie them to entire parties! See spoiler for details.
Just recently I've been running what's supposed to be a mini-AP baked into my larger campaign, involving the finding and reuniting of four Prophecy Crystals and then maybe having that party use them for something really big down the road.

When another DM ran a similar series many years ago, the second crystal they found got shattered by a lightning bolt; this almost destroyed the whole story arc. Lesson learned - I made these ones pretty much indestructible. The Bag of Holding my lot put their first Crystal into, however, didn't have such protection...and sure enough a few sessions later up it went* with all contents lost. I maintained my stoic DM face at the table but inside - as you might imagine - there was a pretty big facepalm.

This was just a couple of sessions ago. They don't even realize quite what they've lost yet, as they don't know anything about the significance of these Crystals or even what they are; all they know so far is that some adventurers were investigating them several decades ago. As DM I've no idea how they're ever going to get the lost one back or even if they can; but at least they've now found the second one.

* - as fate would have it, again by lightning.
Seems odd to me, like you've authored a story and the players are just going to supply some color almost. I mean, you seem to have an agenda for this story of the 4 crystals to happen. It doesn't even involve the players at all (the PCs are part of your plot, but since the players don't even know the story exists they're not even along for the ride at this point!). In terms of contrivance though, which is more to the OP's point, how does this not qualify as a tremendous contrivance? Of all the possible characters who could dig these things up, its the PCs!

Now, I have an explanation for this, in say DW terms, the PCs are the big damned heroes! They are THE Wizard, THE Fighter, THE Cleric, and THE Thief. Maybe they will or won't dig up the fabled 4 crystals, but their players probably decided that was a thing to begin with! (I mean, the GM in DW could generate this story element as a part of a Front, or maybe even as a soft move/doom but IMHO that would generally only be a good move if something the players had decided at some point thematically signaled that as a story direction that would be in keeping with the course of play).

So, for instance, I might invent something like that if maybe the thief was gunning for a big treasure and bit when offered a fantastic gemstone. Later this gemstone leads things into a whole complex plot surrounding the necessity to get 3 more and avert the final evolution of a campaign front (the exact nature of which will certainly riff off of the choices of PC background, answers to questions asked of players, etc.). Note that DW Fronts "just are" once they are established, if the players send their characters off in some other direction, well the front does its thing and so be it. If some of them die, or even if the party gets wiped and there's a restart, things can go on, no one PC need be cast as THE FATED ONE, although it may turn out to be so when the time comes!

In my first 4e campaign, after it matured a bit past the early set piece stuff, one of the PCs became a sort of 'fated champion' character. The player had given her a background that included having a prophesy, and an unusual upbringing where her family origins were unknown. The monks who raised her CALLED her the 'Chosen One' (or something like that, I forget exactly) but it was only when the PCs got to Paragon that this really started to play out seriously. It was never a given that it would, although clearly since the player created those background elements it would have been kind of a let down not to go forward with it.

IIRC a few times at lower levels the players remarked that some bad guys seemed to want to take out the cleric (this character) pretty badly, but it could be attributed to smart tactics. Finally around 8th level the party got themselves wrapped up in some weird Eladrin (Eldar) politics due to one of the PCs being a runaway Eldar Princess. So they ended up looting an ancient Eldar fortress and found an artifact that triggered off the rest of that story arc (being the savior of the land, basically). Now, if said PC had died, or the player had just ignored the plot hooks that would be fine too. The players could have invented a bunch of different paths to go down, I'm sure. I only invented the Shield of Kinnis plot arc/artifact because it matched up with some lore and fit the character conception really well.
 

pemerton

Legend
Seems odd to me, like you've authored a story and the players are just going to supply some color almost. I mean, you seem to have an agenda for this story of the 4 crystals to happen. It doesn't even involve the players at all (the PCs are part of your plot, but since the players don't even know the story exists they're not even along for the ride at this point!). In terms of contrivance though, which is more to the OP's point, how does this not qualify as a tremendous contrivance? Of all the possible characters who could dig these things up, its the PCs!
I very strongly agree with these remarks.
 

I very strongly agree with these remarks.
Yeah, this has been my central thesis for years on this point, ALL RPG play is fundamentally pretty contrived. I mean, its possible to imagine some that is a bit less so than other instances, I guess. However I don't think anything resembling the classic model of a group of players who play individual PCs who form a cohesive group really can ever get much away from that. Either the group exists sort of purely for meta-game reasons (typical of most classic D&D play) or else there is a plot device to explain it (IE the 'squad of soldiers' kind of model). In the latter case, why is this particular 'squad' so specifically going to engage in some highly unusual activities? Or if their activities are more typical, then they aught mostly to be pretty mundane, right?

I CAN imagine an RPG that was something like "Play the High School Football Team" or something where the things that happen are highly typical and not exceptionally unusual. The drama would then be purely local and pretty down-to-earth (one PC gets his girlfriend stolen by another, etc.). I don't see anything WRONG with that, but it seems weirdly unfit for something like a fantasy game.
 

pemerton

Legend
I CAN imagine an RPG that was something like "Play the High School Football Team" or something where the things that happen are highly typical and not exceptionally unusual. The drama would then be purely local and pretty down-to-earth (one PC gets his girlfriend stolen by another, etc.). I don't see anything WRONG with that, but it seems weirdly unfit for something like a fantasy game.
Even then, I'd expect it to have the sorts of tropes and events typical of a John Hughes film or an Archie comic. Which still involve contrivance, revelation etc as opposed to the mundanity of an actual high school!
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Seems odd to me, like you've authored a story and the players are just going to supply some color almost. I mean, you seem to have an agenda for this story of the 4 crystals to happen. It doesn't even involve the players at all (the PCs are part of your plot, but since the players don't even know the story exists they're not even along for the ride at this point!). In terms of contrivance though, which is more to the OP's point, how does this not qualify as a tremendous contrivance? Of all the possible characters who could dig these things up, its the PCs!
Indeed, there's certainly some contrivance involved in their stumbling onto the first one, which has with it a rather cryptic poem pointing to the other three (there is, however, a detailed back-story as to how and why this crystal got to where it was found and why the poem is with it, a story which the PCs are slowly picking up on as they go along and which - depending how things go - may becme more relevant later). That said, they just as easily could have missed the first crystal entirely (it was in a secret treasure room) and-or could have ignored the poem and gone off to do something else. But they found the treasure room and bit hard on the poem's hook, so away we go.
Now, I have an explanation for this, in say DW terms, the PCs are the big damned heroes! They are THE Wizard, THE Fighter, THE Cleric, and THE Thief. Maybe they will or won't dig up the fabled 4 crystals, but their players probably decided that was a thing to begin with! (I mean, the GM in DW could generate this story element as a part of a Front, or maybe even as a soft move/doom but IMHO that would generally only be a good move if something the players had decided at some point thematically signaled that as a story direction that would be in keeping with the course of play).

So, for instance, I might invent something like that if maybe the thief was gunning for a big treasure and bit when offered a fantastic gemstone. Later this gemstone leads things into a whole complex plot surrounding the necessity to get 3 more and avert the final evolution of a campaign front (the exact nature of which will certainly riff off of the choices of PC background, answers to questions asked of players, etc.). Note that DW Fronts "just are" once they are established, if the players send their characters off in some other direction, well the front does its thing and so be it. If some of them die, or even if the party gets wiped and there's a restart, things can go on, no one PC need be cast as THE FATED ONE, although it may turn out to be so when the time comes!
Sounds good!

Got any ideas how they can get the first one back, now that it's lost in Bag Hell? :)
My guess is, knowing these characters and how they are usually played, they're probably going to try to recover the first crystal at some point; and unless they use something like a wish (highly unlikely at their level!) I'm at a real loss for ideas as to any avenues by which they could even hope to succeed. It's already well-established in the setting that a living being going into a Bag of Holding comes out dead if it comes out at all; so just shrinking themselves, diving into a different BoH, and cutting a hole in it isn't a very appealing option. It's also already established through play that the PC Clerics' deities don't want anything to do with these crystals (backstory: they've got inert essences of other deities bound up in them, and deities don't like to mess with other deities on principle) so divine intervention is probably off the table.

And the poem makes it fairly clear through its cryptic-ness that all four are needed, so I can't really go back on that now.

I've painted myself into a corner on this one. Maybe the whole adventure series will end up a failure...but that's kind of the nuclear option, to be avoided if anything else presents itself.
In my first 4e campaign, after it matured a bit past the early set piece stuff, one of the PCs became a sort of 'fated champion' character. The player had given her a background that included having a prophesy, and an unusual upbringing where her family origins were unknown. The monks who raised her CALLED her the 'Chosen One' (or something like that, I forget exactly) but it was only when the PCs got to Paragon that this really started to play out seriously. It was never a given that it would, although clearly since the player created those background elements it would have been kind of a let down not to go forward with it.

IIRC a few times at lower levels the players remarked that some bad guys seemed to want to take out the cleric (this character) pretty badly, but it could be attributed to smart tactics. Finally around 8th level the party got themselves wrapped up in some weird Eladrin (Eldar) politics due to one of the PCs being a runaway Eldar Princess. So they ended up looting an ancient Eldar fortress and found an artifact that triggered off the rest of that story arc (being the savior of the land, basically). Now, if said PC had died, or the player had just ignored the plot hooks that would be fine too. The players could have invented a bunch of different paths to go down, I'm sure. I only invented the Shield of Kinnis plot arc/artifact because it matched up with some lore and fit the character conception really well.
In my case and with my luck, the character would probably die shortly after the bolded bit happened, i.e. only after both she-as-PC and you-as-GM had committed to the story. :)
 

Even then, I'd expect it to have the sorts of tropes and events typical of a John Hughes film or an Archie comic. Which still involve contrivance, revelation etc as opposed to the mundanity of an actual high school!
Right, I think inevitably you would want to go that way simply for sheer lack of entertainment value in just revisiting your teen years, lol. It seems to me that there's already this fundamental 'contrivance', the focus on the PCs as being role played by the players.

Now, maybe that points to a different path? What if you envisage an RPG in which the players do NOT play one given specific character? I'm not suggesting how that would work, but it might at least mean the 'contrivances' would be DIFFERENT, if not absent.
 

Indeed, there's certainly some contrivance involved in their stumbling onto the first one, which has with it a rather cryptic poem pointing to the other three (there is, however, a detailed back-story as to how and why this crystal got to where it was found and why the poem is with it, a story which the PCs are slowly picking up on as they go along and which - depending how things go - may becme more relevant later). That said, they just as easily could have missed the first crystal entirely (it was in a secret treasure room) and-or could have ignored the poem and gone off to do something else. But they found the treasure room and bit hard on the poem's hook, so away we go.

Sounds good!

Got any ideas how they can get the first one back, now that it's lost in Bag Hell? :)
My guess is, knowing these characters and how they are usually played, they're probably going to try to recover the first crystal at some point; and unless they use something like a wish (highly unlikely at their level!) I'm at a real loss for ideas as to any avenues by which they could even hope to succeed. It's already well-established in the setting that a living being going into a Bag of Holding comes out dead if it comes out at all; so just shrinking themselves, diving into a different BoH, and cutting a hole in it isn't a very appealing option. It's also already established through play that the PC Clerics' deities don't want anything to do with these crystals (backstory: they've got inert essences of other deities bound up in them, and deities don't like to mess with other deities on principle) so divine intervention is probably off the table.

And the poem makes it fairly clear through its cryptic-ness that all four are needed, so I can't really go back on that now.

I've painted myself into a corner on this one. Maybe the whole adventure series will end up a failure...but that's kind of the nuclear option, to be avoided if anything else presents itself.
Yeah, I wouldn't go back on it. I'd just see where it leads. The players may have some ideas in terms of 'fixing' any plot holes.
In my case and with my luck, the character would probably die shortly after the bolded bit happened, i.e. only after both she-as-PC and you-as-GM had committed to the story. :)
Yeah, that was certainly on the table, though being 4e typically it generates these "and you barely pulled through" outcomes vs outright death (and in this case perhaps a return from the dead would have been pretty thematic! 4e has the Revenent race for that!). I did have one TPK in another 4e campaign, but it was pretty low level and there were some NPCs around that made pretty good fallbacks. Otherwise individual characters have bought them farm many times in those games. If the PC was a focus of an ongoing story arc, then maybe things took a twist, or the other PCs continued, or even just did something completely new.
 

Seems odd to me, like you've authored a story and the players are just going to supply some color almost. I mean, you seem to have an agenda for this story of the 4 crystals to happen. It doesn't even involve the players at all (the PCs are part of your plot, but since the players don't even know the story exists they're not even along for the ride at this point!). In terms of contrivance though, which is more to the OP's point, how does this not qualify as a tremendous contrivance? Of all the possible characters who could dig these things up, its the PCs!

Now, I have an explanation for this, in say DW terms, the PCs are the big damned heroes! They are THE Wizard, THE Fighter, THE Cleric, and THE Thief. Maybe they will or won't dig up the fabled 4 crystals, but their players probably decided that was a thing to begin with! (I mean, the GM in DW could generate this story element as a part of a Front, or maybe even as a soft move/doom but IMHO that would generally only be a good move if something the players had decided at some point thematically signaled that as a story direction that would be in keeping with the course of play).

So, for instance, I might invent something like that if maybe the thief was gunning for a big treasure and bit when offered a fantastic gemstone. Later this gemstone leads things into a whole complex plot surrounding the necessity to get 3 more and avert the final evolution of a campaign front (the exact nature of which will certainly riff off of the choices of PC background, answers to questions asked of players, etc.). Note that DW Fronts "just are" once they are established, if the players send their characters off in some other direction, well the front does its thing and so be it. If some of them die, or even if the party gets wiped and there's a restart, things can go on, no one PC need be cast as THE FATED ONE, although it may turn out to be so when the time comes!
I think part of the reason the crystal example feels like it works (as a contrivance or otherwise) is that it presents a problem (these crystals need to be gathered) rather than a solution, and I'm reminded of Sanderson's laws of magic:
An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
"Mysterious magic" (or "soft magic"), which has no clearly defined rules, should, in genre fantasy, not solve problems, although it may create them.
But rather than discussing a magic system, we're discussing cause and effect in story structure-- a lot of players will happily accept that the four crystals need to be gathered as a contrivance because it presents them with a problem to go and solve, but they'd be less happy having solutions contrived for them, for the same reason a reader is unhappy with mysterious magic solving problems.

Literally, they don't feel like problems have to be earned (because they're part of the premise) but would want to earn the solution (because that's the substance of the narrative, is their trials to gather the crystals) the more the crystals fall into their lap (represented by solution contrivances) the less they feel that the crystals are the fruit of their own labors, so the plan to make them gather the crystals is a fun game, but dropping the crystals on them isn't.
 

I think part of the reason the crystal example feels like it works (as a contrivance or otherwise) is that it presents a problem (these crystals need to be gathered) rather than a solution, and I'm reminded of Sanderson's laws of magic:


But rather than discussing a magic system, we're discussing cause and effect in story structure-- a lot of players will happily accept that the four crystals need to be gathered as a contrivance because it presents them with a problem to go and solve, but they'd be less happy having solutions contrived for them, for the same reason a reader is unhappy with mysterious magic solving problems.

Literally, they don't feel like problems have to be earned (because they're part of the premise) but would want to earn the solution (because that's the substance of the narrative, is their trials to gather the crystals) the more the crystals fall into their lap (represented by solution contrivances) the less they feel that the crystals are the fruit of their own labors, so the plan to make them gather the crystals is a fun game, but dropping the crystals on them isn't.
Umm, sure, but one of the, perhaps THE, most consistent objection to games with a structure like Dungeon World, or some interpretations of 4e (variously termed Story Game, narrative agenda, etc.) is PURELY the idea of contrivance itself regardless of any consideration of what purpose it serves plot-wise. While we could see the crystals as either problem or solution, they are certainly a contrivance, a 'plot driver' of some sort!

And honestly, I would not even see something like these crystals as either problem or solution at all. The problem is whatever using them for prevents or fixes. The solution is the actions that the PCs take in order to arrive at that solution. This is very different from the 'soft magic solves a problem' thing, because the soft magic is just something arbitrary which in-and-of-itself produces the solution to the problem. To be even more detailed in that analysis, even 'soft magic' isn't problematic if the protagonists must go to great lengths to carry it out. Its only problematic if it is so 'soft' that it can just be implemented anywhere without cost or effort.

I would say that there is more a rule of PROPORTIONALITY. That is minor problems can be solved cheaply and easily. If they are minor enough and the solution is 'soft' enough, they become nothing but color. Bigger problems, ones where more is at stake, generally require the protagonists to pay a greater cost to solve them. I mean, this rule can be subverted, which will produce some type of absurdity in most cases, but that might be useful once in a while (IE it is humorous if the giant bad-assed fire dragon is offed with a pin prick, but only once of course). A similar proportionality rule exists in terms of payout, the rewards and the risks generally need to scale together, otherwise things don't seem to be interesting.

However, OWNERSHIP creates even a different dynamic, to a degree. In our BitD game it would be fine if some relatively easy score gave us a big boost, though it would become silly if that was a common thing. OTOH if it happened that way, we'd probably devise some fiction where the ultimate outcome was more in keeping, like some kind of long-term consequence becomes apparent over time. Or maybe the new situation simply leads the crew to becoming overly confident or foolish and later that leads to a bad consequence. This sort of thing can be really well used at times, and is a fun activity for players (because, really, all players enjoy adversity in good measure).
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Indeed, there's certainly some contrivance involved in their stumbling onto the first one, which has with it a rather cryptic poem pointing to the other three (there is, however, a detailed back-story as to how and why this crystal got to where it was found and why the poem is with it, a story which the PCs are slowly picking up on as they go along and which - depending how things go - may becme more relevant later). That said, they just as easily could have missed the first crystal entirely (it was in a secret treasure room) and-or could have ignored the poem and gone off to do something else. But they found the treasure room and bit hard on the poem's hook, so away we go.

Sounds good!

Got any ideas how they can get the first one back, now that it's lost in Bag Hell? :)
My guess is, knowing these characters and how they are usually played, they're probably going to try to recover the first crystal at some point; and unless they use something like a wish (highly unlikely at their level!) I'm at a real loss for ideas as to any avenues by which they could even hope to succeed. It's already well-established in the setting that a living being going into a Bag of Holding comes out dead if it comes out at all; so just shrinking themselves, diving into a different BoH, and cutting a hole in it isn't a very appealing option. It's also already established through play that the PC Clerics' deities don't want anything to do with these crystals (backstory: they've got inert essences of other deities bound up in them, and deities don't like to mess with other deities on principle) so divine intervention is probably off the table.

And the poem makes it fairly clear through its cryptic-ness that all four are needed, so I can't really go back on that now.

I've painted myself into a corner on this one. Maybe the whole adventure series will end up a failure...but that's kind of the nuclear option, to be avoided if anything else presents itself.

In my case and with my luck, the character would probably die shortly after the bolded bit happened, i.e. only after both she-as-PC and you-as-GM had committed to the story. :)
Could they create humunculi and send them in to retrieve the items? Though I guess you’d have to trust them once they entered wherever the bag’s contents got dumped (assuming it’s a different plane). 🤔
 

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