Tag Archives: Justin Alexander

How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded

Everyone giving Dungeons & Dragons advice tells dungeon masters how to start an adventure with a hook. This includes me, last week. That advice usually stops after the first hook, and it shouldn’t. Sure, adventures that lure characters into the unknown seeking treasure only need one hook. But just about every adventure with a more complicated premise serves hooks from start to finish. Those hooks offer choices and lure characters along a course that shapes into a story.

The hooks that come after an adventure’s start often go by names like clues, secrets, or leads. In earlier posts, I favored the term “leads” because the word matches one essential purpose: Leads reveal ways for the characters to reach a goal. (If the idea of leads seems unclear, see instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.) The word “hook” emphasizes a second essential: Hooks entice players to chase a particular goal.

By either name, hooks and leads must accomplish two things: They entice characters to pursue a goal and they reveal ways to reach that goal. Skipping one of those parts causes adventures to stumble.

Leads point a direction, but sometimes they still need to sell a new goal.

When an adventure needs to point characters toward a new goal, the leads need to sell that new goal. Many adventures fail to close the sale. Most often, an adventure starts with a promise of gold, and then presumes that a band that may only include murderous treasure hunters will happily switch to, say, battling princes of elemental evil—for free.

My last post describes how Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus attempts this sort of flip. The opening hook appeals both to the treasure hunters and the do-gooders. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to Hell for the slimmest chance of rescuing a damned city. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.” Still, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along.

In an adventure like this, either the dungeon master or the players can rethink the party’s motivations, smoothing the rough patch. Often, no one does. Many longtime players face such situations often enough to feel numb to the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t do just to keep playing. The rest feel railroaded.

Hooks sell a goal, but they need to offer a sensible direction too.

When an adventure runs short of hooks or leads, everyone notices. The party gets stuck and the DM finds a way to drop new clues. The adventure may stall, but the obvious trouble invites a solution.

Imagine trying to start an adventure by only revealing that long ago a mighty warrior hid a magic sword in a long-forgotten location. That tidbit would only leave players waiting for more, because without any clues, the incomplete hook rates as backstory. Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal. Number 2 rarely gets discussed because DMs seldom botch it. At the start of a scenario, no DM dangles a hook that lacks any clues the characters can follow to the goal.

The more insidious problem appears when an adventure offers clues that don’t seem to lead closer to the goal. The players see a lead, but no reason to follow it. Few players want to derail an adventure that plainly offers a direction, so the players dutifully follow the lead while ignoring that dissonance that comes from doing things just because the DM pointed the way. Following an apparently useless lead makes players feel confused at best, railroaded at worst. To the DM, the adventure seems to run smoothly, so the problem goes unnoticed by the person who could have corrected it.

Descent Into Avernus suffers from this trouble. (This discussion includes spoilers, but hardly more than the adventure’s title.) D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “The trip to Hell offers no reason for the characters to believe they can improve things. You stopped a threat to Baldur’s Gate. Why now to Avernus?

“‘If the characters think they have any chance to rescue Elturel, Liara strongly urges them to pursue that quest.’ That’s why the PCs descend into Avernus. Not great, huh? Why do the PCs think they have a chance?”

Game designer Justin Alexander is more blunt. He explains how Descent Into Avernus keeps asking players to follow directions just because they lead to more D&D. “The entire campaign is just this one structure repeated infinitely: A non-player character tells you where to go, you go there, and then find another NPC who tells you where to go.” This pattern works when the NPC’s directions show a way closer to the goal. The leads in Avernus fail that standard. “The problem is that the designers aren’t designing a situation. They aren’t thinking of the game world as a real place.

“Why does the adventure assume the characters will simply plane shift to Hell without having any reason for doing so? Because an NPC told them to! Why not also have the NPC give them a coherent reason? Because it doesn’t matter!”

The design only aims to route players from scene to scene. In play, the party sees a lead that they know the adventure expects them to follow, so they do. To the DM, the adventure appears to work, but unless players feel numb to dutifully playing DM Simon says, they feel railroaded.

Alternately, when hooks clearly point characters toward their goals, even linear adventures, even railroads, can work magic.

“A good railroad, at a certain level, is like a good magic trick: The players won’t really believe that magic is real, but a good magic trick will let them suspend disbelief just long enough to be amazed. The most important technique for the railroaded scenario is to frame the meaningful choices in such a way that the players legitimately want to make the predetermined choice.” writes Justin Alexander.

“The GM never forces a card on them. In the end, they do the magic trick to themselves. When a railroaded scenario pulls this off, the suspension of disbelief is perfect: Players never feel as if they were forced to do something. They’re able to remain completely immersed in their characters, feeling as if the world is unfolding in direct response to their actions.”

In a successful narrative adventure, the DM keeps laying track by dropping hooks. Each one shows a course that brings the characters closer to their goal, so the players willingly choose to follow. 

Good hooks power meaningful choices even better than linear scenarios. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

As for Descent Into Avernus, the adventure brings evocative locations and vivid characters to an unforgettable journey through Hell. Your heroes get to adventure in Hell! Fixing the weak connections merits a bit of creative work. For ideas, see Merric Blackman’s account of running the campaign, Justin Alexander’s Remixing Avernus, and my own post Improve the Start of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus With These 2 Add-On Adventures.

Related: Why Dungeons & Dragons (and roleplaying) took years to leave the dungeon.

5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

If you played the Dungeons & Dragons adventures Tomb of Annihilation or Storm King’s Thunder, you adventured through dungeon maps created by Will Doyle.

In an episode of the Official D&D Podcast, D&D’s principle story designer, Chris Perkins, explained why he called on Will. “I realized I would not be able to justice to the maps unless I brought in someone to help. There’s this wonderful collaborator, a freelancer named Will Doyle. He had done some work for me back when I was editing Dungeon magazine and I was always impressed with the style of his maps and the amount of effort and devotion that he put into them. I’m very, very meticulous when it comes to map creation, and he has those same qualities.”

In Tomb of Annihilation, Will mapped and designed the adventure’s centerpiece, the Tomb of the Nine Gods. He made Acererak proud.

Will’s maps attracted notice when his adventure Tears of the Crocodile God appeared in Dungeon issue 209. Chris Perkins called the adventure one of the best to appear in the magazine. You don’t have to take his opinion alone, because I agree. Chris has only worked professionally on D&D for decades; I have a blog.

When I gained a chance to talk with Will, I asked him for a secret to making a great dungeon map. He gave me five:

1. Cross the map with a river, rift, or similar connecting feature.

Will recommends splitting your dungeon map with some kind of central feature that characters can travel. Tomb of the Nine Gods includes three connecting elements:

  • An underground river links sites on the first and fifth levels.
  • A grand staircase and vertical shaft connect the dungeon’s first five levels.
  • An underground lake spans the fifth level.

During players first hour exploring the tomb, they could easily find all these features.

These features connect many rooms and passages, giving players choices. Instead of forcing players along a linear path, the dungeon teases explorers with perils and routes to discover. In a study of designer Jennell Jaquays’ dungeon maps, Justin Alexander explains how a well-connected dungeon gives groups agency and flexibility. “They can retreat, circle around, rush ahead, go back over old ground, poke around, sneak through, interrogate the locals for secret routes. The environment never forces a pre-designed path.”

Of course, a corridor could also serve as a connecting feature, but such features feel dull. Rivers and the like add variety to dungeon travel. “You row down the river, rope across the rift, fly down the magic wind tunnel, which makes it fun and memorable,” Will explains. “In play, it’s also easier to say, ‘let’s go back to the river and try another route, rather than ‘let’s go back to that long corridor and try another route.’”

2. Show the final room first.

Will suggests revealing the player’s final destination early in the adventure. Perhaps this location shows the locks to open or a task to complete. Such designs set the characters toward their goal and gives the adventure focus.

While more video games use this technique, a few table-top adventures follow the pattern. In Tomb of Annihilation, both the Lost City of Omu and the Tomb of Nine Gods make finding the players’ goal easy, but both send characters searching for keys.

In Storm King’s Thunder, the forge of the fire giants has massive, adamantine doors that lead from the mountainside directly to the hall of Duke Zalto, the players’ target. But to reach the Duke, the characters probably need to climb 1500 feet and battle down through the mountain’s interior.

If the final room is a metaphor for a visible goal, many more adventures start to follow Will’s advice. For example, in Curse of Strahd, Castle Ravenloft looms visible through the adventure, but the players learn they must gather certain artifacts to stand against Strahd. Teos Abadia drew inspiration for his adventure DDEX2-13 The Howling Void from Will’s Tears of the Crocodile God. The characters enter an elemental node where Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players can see the node the must reach to stop a ritual, but they will visit others to weaken their foes before a final confrontation.

3. Give players goals that compel them to explore.

Linear dungeon adventures come from designers who only plant one goal in the dungeon, usually its villain and its hoard. Players have nothing to find but the end, so authors feel tempted to put all their ideas along the path to the end.

Instead, Will designs his dungeons with elements that draw characters to explore.

For example, the dungeon in Tears of the Crocodile God draws players with several goals. First, the characters aim to save four human sacrifices wandering the dungeon. Second, the dungeon’s four areas include clues that enable the characters to confront the crocodile god. As a bonus, this premise leads the characters to hurry to rescue the sacrifices before the dungeon’s monsters and traps claim them.

In another example, Tomb of Annihilation sends players chasing five wandering skeleton keys.

4. Make the dungeon a puzzle.

In the D&D Adventurers League scenario DDAL07-14 Fathomless Pits of Ill Intent by Eric Menge, the dungeon becomes a puzzle. Early in, players find a puzzle that unlocks a portal to the main villain. Players must explore the dungeon to find the keys to the puzzle. This design combines two of Will’s other suggestions: It shows the final room first and and draws players to explore. Plus, the adventure turns the dungeon into a puzzle. Tears of the Crocodile God mixes a similar brew with its scattered clues.

Most dungeons will follow this suggestion less rigidly. Perhaps the dungeon merely works as something to unravel, location by location. As an inspiration, Will cites the levels of the Doom video game. To progress, players must find a series of keys. Each key brings the heroes deeper into hell.

5. Give each level a distinctive theme.

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

In larger dungeons, flavor the levels or areas with themes that add variety and make regions seem distinct. This practice dates back to D&D’s second dungeon, which sprawled under Castle Greyhawk. Gary Gygax included levels themed around types of monsters.

Large, contemporary dungeons such as the Doomvault in Tales From the Yawning Portal or Undermountain in Dungeon of the Mad Mage feature stronger themes. For instance, Doomvault includes areas bubbling with slime and oozes, overrun by underground gardens, and corrupted by the far realm.

Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains

The plot of every vintage James Bond movie resembles a role-playing scenario based on an investigation and events. A hook like the theft of an atomic bomb sets Bond into motion. In an investigation, he chases leads from one situation to the next. The events come when the villains’ agents attempt murder, usually while Bond pilots a gimmicky vehicle or skis downhill.

Lloth and Drow at Gencon

Event-driven adventures aren’t really about events; they’re about villains. Unlike dungeons or the classic situations, I described in an earlier post, event-driven adventures stem from dynamic villains working to achieve some goal that the players feel compelled to foil. “Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic,” the Angry GM writes. “The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the game master isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing.”

To prepare and event-driven adventure, plan villains instead of events.

Villains require three elements:

  • a goal
  • a plan to reach their evil ends
  • assets that can help bring their goal

Every villain must have a goal. For bad guys, the usual aims include power, vengeance, and, in Dungeons & Dragons, to harvest souls for ultimate power. Any of these goals make the foundation of a sound villain, but more evocative goals can make more compelling foes. Strahd Von Zarovich aims for power and vengeance, but he also wants to win a woman who would rather die than return his love. She does, more than once. Such depth helps make Strahd a classic.

Every villain needs a plan to gain their desires. In D&D, they make plans to conquer kingdoms, bring worshipers to dark gods, and so on. Those plans shape adventures.

In a typical D&D game, most players will act to oppose signs of evil, especially if thwarting evil would also bring treasure. The game builds on such calls to action. But plots that affect the characters directly make more compelling conflicts. Look to the player characters’ bonds for inspiration. If a wizard in your game seeks arcane knowledge above all else, then a plot that threatens to burn an ancient library would provoke the character.

When some DMs develop evil plans, they imagine a timeline of how the plan advances if the players fail to intervene. Such plots can continue all the way to the moment when Dendar the Night Serpent devours the world. But the game depends on the players meddling, so steps 13 and up rarely show at the table.

A better plan starts loose and develops through play. At first, the players may only see signs of evil.

An offstage villain can develop into a compelling foe. “One of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn,” Courtney Kraft of Geek and Sundry writes. “Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. The mystery is fun, so take your time. Give your players small tastes of what’s to come. Leave them warnings. Send minions. Maybe even let them experience a fraction of the villain’s power.”

As a tool for introducing villains to a campaign, I like the concept of fronts. The idea comes from the games Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, but the concept’s best lessons apply to games like D&D.

Fronts abstract villains. “Each is a collection of linked dangers—threats to the characters specifically and to the people, places, and things the characters care about. It also includes one or more impending dooms, the horrible things that will happen without the characters’ intervention.”

Game masters planning fronts imagine grim portents that expose a villain’s progress toward a sinister goal. You reveal these portents to raise tension, or when players need a call to action. I liken fronts to weather fronts, because with both, you spot a coming storm in a distance. The early portents start a slow burn without necessarily calling players to action.

The game rules describe another sense of the term. “‘Fronts’ comes, of course, from ‘fighting on two fronts’ which is just where you want the characters to be—surrounded by threats, danger and adventure.”

In a campaign with multiple potential villains, grim portents help introduce the group. Such warnings suggest villains without much preparation. See what captures the players’ interest, and then develop the foes behind the portents. The players’ response to multiple portents can help shape a campaign’s direction.

Too many fronts advancing too quickly can make players feel overwhelmed and under-powered. Much of the fun of D&D comes from a sense of potency, so second fronts work best on a slow burn. They suggest an active world full of peril and opportunity.

The players’ actions to thwart the villain will eventually force a reaction. Perhaps the enemy slays someone the heroes recruited as an ally or captures some magic artifact the heroes need. Suddenly, the adventure comes alive as the players face a dynamic foe.

Villains need assets that help advance their plans. Most D&D villains start with monsters ready to fight. These assets range from faceless mooks to lieutenants colorful enough to overshadow their boss. Think Odd Job or Darth Vader. In more nuanced scenarios, the villain may bring allies with their own goals. Such friends of convenience can bring depth to an adventure by making adversaries that the heroes can turn to their side, or at least against the villain.

To build an event-driven campaign, dungeon masters need to imagine a villain’s assets, plan, and goal. But you don’t need a final, personified villain. That creation can wait. Waiting to develop a lead villain can even bring some advantages.

When DMs invest time in villains, they start to dream of recurring enemies who appear though the course of a campaign and escape alive.

In D&D, villains don’t recur like they might in a book or movie. The game strips away plot armor. As soon as recurring villains appear onstage, the players will attempt murder. Sometimes DMs can engineer an escape without railroading, but usually villains just survive a round or two.

In D&D, recurring villains work behind the scenes. Players learn of their hand through their reputation, their servants, and the accounts of would-be heroes who fled for their lives. The characters may thwart a plan, but the recurring villain’s goal remains to inspire another, more diabolical ploy. Each scheme needs to escalate the stakes. At level 1, a villain’s first plot might act to corrupt the kindly, village cleric. At 3rd level, the entire village becomes the target. In a campaign, some of the plans may succeed, raising the conflict further.

In an episodic campaign, keeping the lead villain undefined can help set a recurring villain who resonates with the player and even develops a record of beating the heroes.

Whenever players confront a bad guy, think about making the scene an audition for the role of ultimate villain. In most episodes, some agent of villainy will work a plan, fail, attempt escape, and perish. But sometimes, the players suffer a setback, and the villain escapes or even succeeds and complicates the characters’ lives. Consider promoting that enemy to the big bad. Justin Alexander advises, “The real key here is to simply refrain from pre-investing one of these guys as the ‘big villain.’ Basically, don’t get attached to any of your antagonists: Assume that the first time they’re in a position where the PCs might kill them that the PCs will definitely kill them.” If someone survives or prevails, you have a villain the players can hate. That enemy may need more power for a lead role, but the game is D&D. Just back a winner with a dark pact, evil artifact, or battle-ready servants.

By preparing active villains with goals, plans, and assets, you can prepare adventures that follow an arc that resembles a pre-planned plot. But you prepare without assuming what the players will do or how the game will advance.

 

Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

Planning a Dungeons & Dragons game around encounters and plots leads to trouble. In my last post, I explained how preparing encounters proves less flexible than preparing situations.

Situations can take dungeon masters far. Every D&D adventure published before 1982 presented a situation ripe for adventure. These early adventures might include broad goals, like destroy the evil behind raiding giants, but these modules mapped out situations and then set characters loose. Nothing broke this mold until N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 1982. Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or adjacent hexes. N1 paired an investigation with a scenario where events happened even if the characters did nothing. Since then, both features have appeared in countless adventures. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good.)


Such features make adventures resemble plotted stories, so dungeon masters preparing for events and investigations often imagine plots for their scenarios. Then they contrive ways to make players follow the plot. When the players’ choices upset the plan, the DM feels tempted to invalidate the diversion. Sometimes, to avoid railroading, DMs work to build player-proof plots by including contingency plans for every choice and outcome. The preparation effort can swamp a DM.

As an alternative to plotting adventures, DMs can turn to situations. Adventures designed around situations allow both investigations and events, but other techniques make preparing and running such scenarios easier.

Instead of preparing plots, prepare leads.

Leads go by other names. Some writers call them clues, secrets, or hooks. When they discuss clues and secrets, their terms cover scraps of information that may lead or may serve another purpose. I favor “leads” because the word matches my main purpose, but I’ll use the other terms too.

Suppose the characters investigate a string of bloody murders in a village, they might discover the following leads:

  • All the murders center on well, recently dug to replace one that went dry.
  • A farmer found blood on the clothes of family members, but believed their innocent explanations and hid the evidence.
  • Children have spotted parents wandering the woods at night and returning at dawn.
  • A forester who cared for the woods now spends days in a drunken stupor.

Clues like these leave many angles that invite investigation. Each could lead to more clues.

Leads serve as one way DMs direct players through a plot, so in a sense, planning leads instead of plots just represents a change of mindset. But leads encourage choices. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

If situations form the obstacles in an adventure, then leads become the scraps of information that direct players through situations and from one situation to the next.

Most adventures begin with a lead that everybody calls a hook. The best adventures supply characters more hooks as they go.

Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. Leads can guide characters to the locations that match their power. As clues, they help reveal a situation in an order that keeps players asking questions and craving answers.

Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving clues:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

“Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.”

By Justin’s three-clue rule, every step in the scenario needs three clues that lead to another step. The surplus clues make the scenario robust. In game, players never wind up so clueless that they lack direction. In life, they’re on their own.

The clues can lead in different directions. Such diversity gives options, breaks linear adventures, and sometimes creates tough choices for players. Justin builds on his three-clue rule to create a node-based system of scenario design.

Typically, I plan clues, planting them along the course of the adventure ahead of players. But Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea takes a looser approach. He calls his clues secrets. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets that the session could reveal. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games. They’re a simple way to build out an adventure, create meaning and story for the players, and connect people, places, and things. Secrets and clues are the connective tissue of an adventure—and, more often than not, a whole campaign”

Mike’s lazy technique skips planning where the clues lead or how players will find clues. “You know the characters will learn something interesting—but you don’t know how they will learn it. You get to figure that out as it happens at the table.” He prepares a list of evocative secrets, and then as he runs a game, he improvises ways to reveal the secrets. Mike’s secrets don’t even become real until the players discover them. After a session, he discards some unrevealed secrets, but revisits others for the next session. For example, in my game based on the murders, if I choose to reveal the secret of the well, then the well becomes important; otherwise, it’s nothing.

“Abstracting secrets and clues works particularly well with mysteries. You’ll have no idea how the characters might go about investigating a mystery. But as they do, you can drop in the right clues at the right time to help them solve it.” For more on secrets, consult The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures designed campaigns around situations that offered all the advantages of the situation mindset. The designs gave players maximum freedom and DMs the flexibility to cope. But these adventures tended to lack ready-made leads that helped players find direction and helped DMs anticipate and prepare for the players’ next destination. (For more, see Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?)

Alone, situations can overwhelm DMs with information to remember. Campaign-sized situations make preparing for sessions hard on DMs because the scope of what players might do becomes vast. DMs who run published adventures suffer the worst of this problem. Chances for improvisation are more limited. And I can’t be the only DM who finds remembering lore from a fat adventure book harder than the product of my own imagination. Few DMs can master hundreds of pages of content that spans a region like the Underdark well enough to prepare for aimless wandering.

In my games, leads provided the secret ingredient that the campaign-sized situations lacked. They gave players clear options and narrowed their likely choices enough for me to focus my preparation.

Next: Instead of preparing events, prepare villains.