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Setting the Stage

The dryad didn’t have to die.

Of course, I had assumed she would. She was, after all, the adventure’s titular antagonist. Responsible for the deaths of innocent tradesfolk, and holding a noble’s son hostage, she kind of had it coming. Granted, her aggression had been provoked. She wasn’t an entirely unsympathetic character. Maybe the heroes would spare her life, preferring to drive her away rather than dealing a coup de grace. But what if they didn’t want to fight her at all? What if they decided to abandon their quest and help the dryad instead?

It took a halfling named Bracy to help me see that possibility.

Back in the 4th Edition era of D&D, there was a tendency in published modules (particularly in the pages of Dungeon Magazine) for each scene in the adventure to be labeled explicitly as either a “Combat Encounter,” an “Exploration Encounter,” or a “Roleplaying Encounter.” This was an early instantiation of what later became one of the core design philosophies of 5th Edition, the “three pillars” of play: combat, exploration, and social interaction.

The trifurcation of encounters in 4e was in keeping with that edition’s emphasis on formalizing every element of the game. And as with much of that effort, the formalizing of encounter types did some useful work. For DMs, it gave an upfront snapshot of what to expect out of any given area, and what kind of preparation they might need to run it. For designers, it provided an auditing tool for creating a well-rounded adventure. If a quick scan of the module came up with 31 combat encounters, 12 exploration encounters, and 1 roleplaying encounter, it was obvious what needed doing–prune back the combat encounters, and try to come up with a few more roleplaying encounters to balance it out.

But, again as with much of 4e, the formalizing of encounter types was also useful for what it taught us about how not to design an adventure. I learned that one day while working on a product for D&D Next (what would come to be known as 5e). One of the scenes I had just written involved an NPC whom the party might end up either fighting or befriending. Unsure whether it would be better to label this as a combat encounter or a roleplaying encounter, I reached out to the lead designer for his opinion. His response was, “I hope we never label an encounter as either combat or roleplaying ever again.”

He was right, of course. An encounter could be either, or both. But even more importantly, it wasn’t up to me to choose. It was up to the players how they wanted to engage with that NPC. It was their choices, their actions, and maybe even their Charisma checks that would determine whether the scene ended in banter or bloodshed. That scene, just like the adventure as a whole, could play out a dozen different ways at a dozen different tables. I couldn’t predict what would happen when the players encountered that NPC. All I could do was set the stage.

And that’s where Bracy came in.

I was knee-deep into writing my new 5e module–I had the maps drawn up, the cast of characters fleshed out, the backstory written, and the outline of the action blazoned in my mind. I just wanted one more adventure hook, to make sure the DM had multiple ways of getting the party involved. Since forest creatures featured prominently as the party’s foes, I figured a contact from the Emerald Enclave (the Forgotten Realms’ nature-loving faction) made sense. Since in this case it was the forest encroaching onto civilized lands, it seemed reasonable that the contact would be working with the heroes to try to restore balance by seeing the dryad and her forces off, rather than trying to protect them.

But as I thought about who this contact was, it turned out to be a halfling named Bracy Whispers, an expert in “human-animal relations.” Bracy would know that wild creatures normally don’t attack without provocation. And while Bracy would understand that further violence might be unavoidable, she would also firmly believe that it wasn’t warranted. Bracy would want the heroes to find a peaceable way to resolve the situation, if such a thing were possible. And, she whispered to me, the players might want that, too.

That was when I realized that my module needed much more than another hook–it needed a way for the heroes to succeed without having to fight the antagonist at all, and a way for that choice to be every bit as exciting and challenging as the alternative. And, of course, a way for it all to go horribly wrong! I got to work with renewed vigor, determined to make Bracy proud.

And also determined to remember that when the curtain goes up on our adventures, it’s the players who decide what direction the story will go. As designers and as DMs, all we can do is set the stage.

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