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!

14 Replies to “The Cardinal Rule of Adventure Design”

  1. See? There’s much more to the standard caravan guard thing than meets the eye. I also tended to work in things like other guards being jealous of someone stealing their standard gig and maybe a few other touches here and there. I always liked the idea of treachery within the caravan itself, and not always at the highest level. It’s amazing how much trouble a lead packer or driver can cause, and how easy it can be for them to shift the blame to someone higher in the food chain… Plus you always have rival merchants, someone who wants to make a trade route appear too dangerous to shift traffic to a new route she happened to survey, and so on.

    I admit some of this comes from running an Old West game for a few years. Reusing tropes and putting new spins on them is common there, and you can use the familiar to introduce people to the new and unexpected. It also allows you to plant clues to keep adventurers moving forward, and give them glimpses of people who may become allies or enemies in the future.

    1. I think I may be reticent about the guard entry point as I have been playing with the same players for so long. They have seen and done it all, possibly twice.

      1. Which is, of course, totally valid. I didn’t use it with my more experienced groups. But when the balance shifted to new people, I always tried to pull out the adventures like that which were mechanically simple (combat, some limited magic) but stressed the active role-playing side (skill use, them getting into their characters and the setting). I also firmly believe this works with GMs, too. Keep it mechanically simple at the beginning, let them bring in rules as needed and learn the less-deadly ones first. That makes RM seem far less intimidating (and I contend it really isn’t that intimidating at all once you figure out what the tables are really for) and actually simple in many ways.

        Plus, if there are a number of intro adventures groups can pick and choose.

  2. As long as there is a little something meaningful for every type of character, it would work. Is there something that a thief or magent might be able to do (involved in the theft or stealth)? Or maybe a scholar (something about lore)? That laborer or dabbler (something to repair)? What about an alchemist (most of the lists have level 1 analysis type spells)? Can the ranger or druid influence animals or do something with movement or plants?

    Looking at magic, it seems like most level 1 spells just give detect X, X lore, analyse, +5 RR to X, +10DB, simple mind influence, or for healing do a 1hp blood flow stop or minor wound relief. MERP and RMX do have a 1-10 hp heal in open channeling surface/concussion’s ways but they change it to level 2 in RMU. I don’t see any obvious magic damage spells beyond mentalist stun and sorcerer minor pain (magicians and sorcerers can only influence substance in subtle ways). Is there some items in the scene for magicians and sorcerers to alter? There are also a couple of subtle movement spells available (rough terrain or cliff’s/river divide to leap over). Making a list of all level 1 spells (then level 2) for past RMs and RMU might be helpful to help guess what a level 1 magic user may have.

    Lost Mine of Phandelver, the starter adventure for 5e begins with an escort a provision wagon adventure to a distant town when they come across two dead horses with a goblin ambush happening immediately. As long as you stay away from that storyline the adventure should be differentiated.

    1. The outline above needs one more addition. The goblins at the second crossing need to be holding up in an old guard tower, originally build to protect the rover crossing.
      With that in place we have:

      • encounters in the road
      • encounters in the wilderness
      • encounters in a building (the tower)
      • encounters in a town
      • encounters at the docks/harbour int eh destination
      • conflicts with unarmoured monks/ninjas
      • conflicts with armoured foes (the other guards at the end of the journey)
      • conflicts with the wolves, although I do not imagine the wolves would attack the armed and armoured characters, they are more of an impending threat
      • conflicts with skilled foes, the caravan captain villain
      • conflict with pirates, although this can be avoided.

      Of these conflicts and encounters the wolves can be roleplayed around, the monks are intended to be roleplayed to facilitate the change of sides. The meeting with the other caravan at the mid-way town is purely roleplay. We have urban, wilderness and castle locations. The only people with magic will be the PCs. Everyone should be able to shine in an extended adventure like this except maybe alchemists who would lack the time and facilities to make use of their primary function. If a character cannot then the issue is more likely to be play style.

  3. I’ve used caravan guard variations (usually guard a single person or a couple people) many times as an early adventure for low-level characters. I found it works well if they start in a town, looking for work. The plum jobs, like exploring a ruin for pay, or clearing out a nest of vermin, tend to get taken by higher-level parties (more experienced). After one or two attempts at those jobs, they feel like they’ve really accomplished something when they get hired to guard an individual. What happens on the road varies widely, but it gets them some experience and they usually hear some leads on other adventures they can pursue.

  4. The clearing out vermin is one of the things I want to avoid. There was a forum thread in the Beta test forums. It was suggested that animals made suitable encounters for 1st level characters as monsters were too dangerous.

    That is not a view I subscribe to.

    I am not a fan of the vermin mission but only because it is one of the missions in Morrowind when you join the fighters guild. It also feels a little un-heroic.

    1. My vermin probably aren’t your vermin. I was thinking things like, the orcs that have expanded territory and been killing villagers, or a group of bandits that are holed up near town. That’s why I don’t consider those the jobs for 1st level characters. I agree, going in to kill a bunch of animals is pretty un-heroic.

    2. I usually used human bandits as the adversaries in my intro caravan stuff. That keeps it easy for both players and GMs, and also allowed me to add in things like players hearing the bandits shout commands and realizing they know where the valuables are in the caravan. Now how would they know that…? You can also use accents to indicate origin and things of that nature.

      I also usually tacked in a couple of things like ruins the players could find if they scouted around one of the caravan camps and found an old trail. That was setting-specific (my world had relics of a prior civilization and things like that), but I also feel it’s a good way to get players into the setting in a non-combat way. It could also give them a couple of silver or something similar if they search correctly and extensively (rewards for skill use). Given the new XP model you need to consider those things when planning adventures. It’s not just about combat for XPs anymore.

      1. Bandits was my first thought but what I was trying to do in this post was create the outline for an adventure that could last two or three sessions. Too many bandit attacks and it can really become cliched. Anyway, who doesn’t love killing ninja monks? I don’t know if you saw but I did add in a ruin in the form of a tower guarding the second river crossing.

        That whole save the two cut off wagons and bring them home is an entire goal for experience point purposes under RMU. Once the monks get on the same side as the characters and they know about the relic then the recovery becomes another goal. So this was set up with the new experience rules in place. It is never intended that the players fight the wolves, the goal is to protect the carts from the threat of the wolves.

        1. I had noticed the ruin. I put mine out in the woods to show it’s distinct from what’s going on now…something strange and out of place.

          I use the accents and such because I get into setting a great deal. My world doesn’t have Common, so languages matter more than some players are used to. In the version of this I ran, one astute player noticed that the bandits had an accent very similar to that of the caravan’s head packer. They started watching him and noticed him leaving a sign of some kind as the caravan broke camp one morning. One player decided to hang back and watch, and saw a bandit come and check the sign.

          My caravan adventure also ran from town to town in a dangerous border region that was also disputed by two middle-grade powers in the region. There were plenty of hazards for them to deal with in addition to said bandits (a river crossing when they found the normal bridge destroyed was especially challenging for them). I tried to stack in options so I could shift depending on the skills of the PCs. All in all, my caravan guard adventure usually lasted at least three sessions…sometimes more.

          I didn’t use a relic. Instead the cargo was often a mix of standard stuff (easily resold by bandits) and valuable healing herbs (which some in the party were tempted to steal on more than one occasion).

          I also from time to time tossed in an encounter with Orc raiders or a patrol from one of the realms disputing the region. It gave the players a sense of the world around them, and also put them in situations where they realized they couldn’t always fight their way out.

          1. That is a good point and a potential flaw in RMU. One of the best things about random encounters is that they can be used to colour in the world. Not all encounters are creatures, a local essence storm, squall is a very Shadow World thing. At some points in the Forgotten Realms there were areas of wild magic and dead magic. As RMU has, as yet, no setting any random encounter tables would have to be the standard ones from C&T, C&M or CrL.

            When I write this up I will point people to Brian’s Shadow World Random Encounter tables.

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