The Cardinal Rule of Adventure Design

The Cardinal Rule of Adventure Design
A good adventure should maximize meaningful player decisions.

Matthew J. Finch

Yesterday I was obviously not that enamoured with the idea of “caravan guard” as an adventure backdrop. I admit that it can be done well. The best example I have ever seen of the caravan guard was the entire Battlestar Galactica franchise, created in 1978 and still going now. It encompassed a line of book adaptations, original novels, comic books, a board game, and video games (according to Wikipedia). At the heart of it Starbuck and allies are just caravan guards. Replace Vipers for horses and Cylons for Orcs and we are back in fantasy land.

The caravan guard vehicle does have a lot of things going for it. To start the characters are unlikely to be commanding the entire security of the caravan so you have a superior officer who can simply tell them to go there, do that, hold them off while we get the wagons away. You also have a stock of disposable NPCs in the form of other guards and the wagon drivers and their families. One can create a body of guards and let the PCs decide who they like and who they don’t. Each NPC can impart a nugget of setting information so you avoid the info dump where you tell the players all about the world and they forget 90% of it even before you finish telling them. They can learn bits and bobs as they go by talking to NPCs.

A big enough caravan is basically a town on wheels.

If the cardinal rules at the top of the page is true then we need ways of separating our PCs who are subordinate to the caravan commander and to some extent the caravan’s owners.

One such adventure could have the characters given some money and told to ride ahead to the next town. They are told to secure food and fodder that the caravan requires and get it all organised before they arrive the following day. A simple enough task. The money the characters have is enough to serve as a deposit on the goods they are securing but not enough to make it worth while absconding with.

The characters ride over the hill and late in the day arrive at the town. Now we can force a meaning for decisions on the players.

Let us look at the town. This is not intended to be a roll a d4 table, I just had four ideas off the top of my head.

  1. The town is a burned out ruin and there is nothing to buy.
  2. The town is already host to a second caravan and there is no spare food to buy.
  3. The town is in the grip of an epidemic or plague and to enter is to risk death or at least infection.
  4. An illegal toll is in place blocking a bridge between the characters and the town. The town folk do not support this as it is killing their trade.

My first thought on looking back at them is that they are a bit static. The first, the characters have to return and tell everyone about the town. It is more likely that the characters will then be sent to a further away town or one on a more dangerous route. It is still not the characters making any meaningful decisions.

The second option could be a source of conflict, you could present the characters with decisions to make, maybe they get offered work with the new caravan, abandoning the original caravan. They could try and trick the other caravan out of their supplies. They could learn of some rivalry between caravan drivers. There is potential for many role played challenges here but it does still feel like a jumping off point for a ‘real’ adventure.

The third option is actually beyond the abilities of most first level characters to help. Elves would be OK as they are immune to normal diseases, anyone else is likely to fail a RR and die. Maybe a mini quest to find some herb or ingredient to formulate a cure?

The last option is, at first thought, more of an encounter than an adventure.

So let’s try a different tack.

The characters are with the caravan, the light is fading, rain lashing down, the river to the side is swollen and threatening to burst its banks. Far off the howl of wolves hangs in the air. Up ahead there is a bridge over the rushing river. The caravan makes to the bridge as fast as it can manage, lightning flashes and horses rear and shy. The wolves howl, closer this time. Everyone is on the ground trying to get the carts and wagons over the bridge and calm the horses, the weight of the water pressing against it is making the bridge shift and creak. The last few wagons are make it across when with a lurch the bridge gives way and crashes into the water. A flash of lightning reveals two wagons on the far bank.

And the characters are ordered to get back across the river and protect those wagons, find another crossing and bring them back. That is the start of their real adventure. We could throw a mix of challenges at them with the wolves for a combat encounter, some skill based ones, driving the wagons over rough terrain, survival skills, maybe someone is injured, which was why one of the wagons was too slow to get over the bridge, so the NPCs are dependent on the characters for aid. Region Lore would be needed to know where to find a different crossing. Maybe this was the safer of the two crossings? Maybe the other lies in goblin territory?

Now that sounds like more of a starting adventure. If the characters survive then they will have earned their first little bit of hero kudos.

Here is another idea…

The caravan, unknown to the characters, is transporting a stolen religious artifact. So during its journey all of the above things happen but in addition the caravan is being pursued by a force of 1st level monks, replete with martial arts, shuriken, halberds, staves and all that sort of stuff. A couple of nights after they leave town the characters are on guard duty when they are forced to fight of a group of these monks. A couple of days later on a long descent down a hill side road a driver is killed by a thrown shuriken, or maybe a poison dart from a blow pipe. The cart builds up speed and then crashes over. In the ensuing chaos the monks attack again.

It turns out that the caravan is carrying a holy item that belongs to these monks and they want it back.

This would now give us an over arching story. It could turn out that the artifact is stolen and the caravan captain is the villain on the piece, the caravan is a cover for a smuggling operation and the characters hired to protect him from the monks. The climax becomes a showdown between the other caravan guards and the caravan captain against the characters and the monks. The victorious characters end up winning the friendship of the monks and learn that the caravan captain is rumoured to be the brother to a notorious pirate than is often seen in and around the town the caravan was originally heading to. Maybe the smuggling operation involved the pirates?

As an introduction we have lots of encounters here.

We can stage a couple of monk attacks. We can separate the characters for a couple of days with the swollen river and bridge incident with wolves and goblin attacks. We can have the second caravan competing for food and supplies from the original list. That would give the characters a chance to try and learn more about the monks. Has the other caravan been attacked? Do they know who they are? Where do they come from? You could give a chance for the characters to see a wanted poster for a notorious pirate and they could mistakenly think that their own caravan captain is the pirate but then have the facts contradict them. The poster is new and says that two days ago the pirate burned and sank a convoy of ships. So the captain cannot be the pirate but the likeness is uncanny. You then get the wagon crash and monk attack. Finally the climax with the big reveal that the characters are working for the villains, maybe provoked by the characters overhearing a conversation about how they are going to be disposed of once they have arrived at the port. If the characters try to escape the caravan they run into the monks and get to talk to them and learn their side of the story. If the characters try and fight their way out of the caravan it could provoke a monk attack and the characters and monks are now on the same side. If the characters suspect nothing (damn that failed perception check) then when the other caravan guards try to do them in that coincides with a monk attack and again the monks and characters are now on the same side.

Actually, I don’t now see this as the climax. This is the penultimate scene. In the confusion the caravan captain has made a break for it on horseback with the artifact. The characters can steal horses and give chase. There is then the final showdown between the characters and the caravan captain. This could take place in the final town and the previous scene in a warehouse when the characters were expecting to get paid. The chase is through the town’s cobbled streets and ends at the dock. There is the final showdown and as a backdrop you keep referring to a tall ship making its way into the harbour. If the fight is over quickly then the ship hoves too, turns are heads back out to sea. If the fight is drawn out then the ship gets close enough to the harbour side for pirates to leap from the rigging and try and rescue the caravan captain and the artifact. They then try to fight a withdrawal and get away.

Now that sounds like a proper first module. It has heroic rescues, kung foo battles, monsters, pirates and dastardly villains.

It also has no magic, which is good because 1st level characters are notoriously bad at magic. All you need is a town about a weeks drive away from a port and a river. That must exist in every home brew world everywhere!