Lessons Learned: The Design of “A Shock at Evenfeast”
The fourth mini-mission of Defiance in Phlan is the most controversial, the hardest to run for many DMs, and the one that can be the most satisfying to players if everything goes well. As I attempted to highlight each pillars of play within the various mini-missions, this is the one where I decided to let roleplaying interaction have its time in the spotlight.
Roleplaying, as a skill, can come naturally to some and harder to others. The practice seems to come naturally to us as youngster, when we have less of a filter and less of an ego to get in the way. It’s a skill you can learn to develop, but sometimes it’s difficult for even the most practiced folks without someone to play off at the game table. Even defining roleplaying can be challenging, because it is used in different contexts at different times. D&D is called a roleplaying game, but its practitioners can easily play the game with almost no assumption of an alternate personality and little direct interaction with others.
The challenge I was looking at involved introducing new players to a fun interaction with various NPCs, while at the same time making that interaction mean something beyond just the interaction itself. The best roleplaying in the game needs to be part of a larger whole, where the interaction is done for a specific reason and moves toward a particular goal–or at least has consequences to the ongoing story.
Spot the Danger
In this case, the tact that I chose was fairly simple. An Emerald Enclave operative warns the adventurers that something is amiss in Madame Freona’s Teahouse. Someone in the establishment holds a magical item that could cause widespread devastation. The operative knows nothing of the details of the person or the dangerous magic item, but he needs the adventurers to spread out, talk to the patrons, act naturally, and ferret out where the dangerous item is, what it does, and what it could be used for.
This, I hoped, would give the players and DMs some grist for their roleplaying mill. They can strike up conversations with the various NPCs in the building, but in the back of their mind is always the goal of finding the dangerous item. Additionally, the conversations carried a hidden goal that the players were unaware of. When the item’s power is unleashed, it only affects certain people. So while interacting and gather information on the NPCs in the teahouse, the characters would also later have to figure out what all of the victims had in common.
Puzzles, or Just Puzzling
Let’s pause for a moment to talk about puzzles. Puzzles have a long and storied history in the hobby. There is also, among a vocal minority of players, a deep, seething hatred for them. In short, puzzles are problematic. Even the easiest ones can sometimes be too hard or unfathomable for players not on the same wavelength as a puzzle. They can be too metagamey.
Puzzles work best when they are integrated with the ongoing adventure organically: the pieces being a part of the story as much as part of the puzzles. Instead of having a riddle dropped on the adventures, have it be revealed slowly and in the context of the adventure, with inherent clues based on the situation. Instead of a logic puzzle just sitting on a piece of paper, make the elements of the logic puzzle something that the PCs have been dealing with over the course of the adventure or the campaign.
Question the Unusual Suspects
In “A Shock at Evenfeast,” the NPCs (or NPC groups) are presented so that each PC can approach one NPC (or group). This forces the characters to split up, each player getting a turn in the spotlight. The other players can, however, listen to the conversation and pick up on any clues that the acting player might miss.
The NPCs are meant to be portrayed as memorable, or curious, or extraordinary. Careful notes are provided for the DM to emphasize certain information or characteristics. These provide roleplaying cues for the DM, as well as puzzle clues for why, when the magic item goes off, certain NPCs are affected and others aren’t.
Roleplaying is not easy for some, myself included. I flail about, struggle to think on my feet, make mistakes, and lead characters down wrong paths based on my portrayals. When I write NPCs, I do my best to give enough information for great roleplayers to do their own thing, while giving those who struggle enough of a hook to not make a mess of it. And I have great experience in mess-making.
Boom Goes the Plot Device
When the magic item in the adventure is accidentally triggered, its affect bounces from one NPC, to the next, to the next. As it goes, it forces the players to fall back on what they learned during the roleplaying. Why is it just affecting those NPCs? What do they have in common?
I have seen players just as angry at puzzles that are too easy as puzzles that are too hard. So the connection had to be something that wasn’t totally obvious: the same gender, or race, or meal, or location. Yet if the clues where presented correctly during roleplaying, the answer should be obvious after enough input was received.
I ran this mission many, many times. A few tables were able to avert disaster almost immediately. Most got the answer after the expected amount of time. A few didn’t make the connection at all, even after several clues and even a few direct insinuations. The latter players weren’t necessary lacking in cognitive ability. It was either that I failed to provide the framework in a way they understood, or the framework eluded them even after I made it clear.
If you DMed or played this mission, what do you remember about how it ran? What could have been done to make it clearer? Or should puzzles and puzzle encounters just never see the light of day?
[Between the time I wrote this and the date I published, Defiance in Phlan passed 4000 sales on the DMs Guild. Thanks so much to everyone who contributed to its production, DMed it around the world, bought it on the Guild, and played it. I can’t express my appreciation enough.]