There are things that we all take for granted.
The sun will rise in the morning. Clouds are soft and fluffy. Frogs are small, green and like lily-ponds. Good guys wear white hats, and bad guys, black. The grass, somewhere, is greener than it is here. Money is valuable. Virtue will be rewarded.
Any expectation of this sort can be a great basis for an adventure. By subverting the expectation, it becomes clear that something, somewhere, is terribly wrong with the world.
The Sun Doesn’t Rise In The Morning
Oh dear. This immediately spells trouble. It also immediately tells the players that this game world is not one governed by orbital mechanics and Sir Isaac Newton would be very unreliable in the driver’s seat. This immediately thrusts the characters into the heart of the campaign mythology – what is the sun? Who controls it? Why would they not do what they have been doing, every day, for countless centuries? Could someone have stolen it?
Even worse – what if the sun has risen as usual over the neighboring Kingdoms? What’s so special about here?
Whatever the answer, someone’s definitely in trouble.
Clouds aren’t soft and fluffy
…but most people think they are, so when one falls to the ground and shatters like a lump of granite, you have to ask yourself if the Sky is falling! And, what’s really up there? And, what holds the clouds up? And do clouds make good Swords? Or is it just a coincidence that this lump of rock looks like a cloud and fell from the sky? Where else might it have come from? And will any more follow?
Frogs are big, red, and come from the desert
Well, not naturally, they aren’t. Someone out there is breeding monstrosities – either deliberately or by accident – and they have to be stopped!
Good Guys Wear Black
One of my favorite plotlines to toy with is the one where the PCs (the good guys) do what they think is the right thing (but which isn’t) while the bad guys oppose them, doing what the PCs consider the wrong thing, and think they are going to be able to take advantage of the situation – but are in reality doing the right thing. Inverting the usual roles in this way forces the PCs to reassess their enemies when the truth becomes apparent; they may then have to run interference on behalf of their enemy, at the risk of alienating their more narrow-minded allies, supporting that enemy in the face of public opinion, while at the same time trying to arrange matters so that their enemy’s attempt to profit from the situation fails.
The longer the mistake persists, the more of their own handiwork the PCs will have to undo. The GM should allow them to be really successful at whatever they attempt in the “mistaken” phase of this adventure – alliances fall into line easily, commitments to the cause are sworn in blood, etc.
The big trick is making sure that the situation is one where the PCs won’t immediately spot the hole in their logic, while ensuring that the clues were there the whole time. Though it can often be enough to have a known villain do something that’s overtly villainous, this tends to be a little abbreviated and unsatisfactory when the revelation comes. Instead, it’s better to put some distance between the villain and his activities and the PCs and their response. Give them time to prepare while feeding them enough rope…
The Pillars Of Assumption
I could continue listing inversions of the basic assumptions that I raised in the opening paragraph, but those are probably enough; instead, let’s look at why this works.
The more certain the assumption, the more strongly that assumption drives and invigorates an adventure when it is violated. It doesn’t matter what the campaign genre is, this principle holds water.
Compare the relative certainty of “The sun always rises in the morning” to that of “Frogs are small, green, and like lily-ponds”. Most players will know that some frogs are brown, that frogs come in a variety of sizes (the largest real-world example is the Goliath Frog, which grows up to 13 inches in length), or that some frogs live in trees. So the “Red Desert Frogs” plotline is a bit humdrum and run of the mill; it’s a reasonable basis for an adventure, but not one that will have the players hanging on your every word. “The sun will always rise”, on the other hand, is so certain that it is a metaphor for certainty – for it to fail to be true is dramatic, attention-getting, and immediately exciting. What’s going on? Is the GM basing an adventure on Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud?
Creating The Adventure
Pick something that can usually be assumed to be true in whatever genre you are employing. Turn it on its head, so that it is untrue. Then start asking yourself all the questions that the players are certain to ask, and how you might go about finding the answers to those questions. Since you aren’t required to spend the time actually doing those things, you can skip right to the answers – so this sort of adventure typically takes a lot less time to devise and plot than it will to play.
The ultimate success of the plotline will be determined by the plausibility of your explanation, in terms of the campaign setting. Get that wrong, and the whole adventure will fall apart around your ears; get it right, and your players will remember the adventure for a long time to come. It’s a simple trick – but it’s one that works.
A very short post today, for two reasons: First, I didn’t get enough sleep last night; and second, I wasn’t going to get the post I worked on all morning finished in time, not even close. When exhaustion started getting the better of me, I threw this one together before it was too late. I’ll do better next week :)