Friday, October 18, 2013

Encounter Design: Party Planning

Two weeks ago, I ran the first real session of my second campaign. Because the session picked up just a few months after the climax of the first campaign, my players decided that the wanted to kick things off with a celebratory feast. Makes sense, given that they saved the world, and all.

Celebrations aren't new to this particular group of players. Their characters have thrown several shindigs over the course of their careers. In the past, however, its usually been just a matter of blowing some well-earned loot, bolstering their reputation, and the in-session commitment has involved a bit of flowery description and maybe ten minutes of our time.

This time was different. This time, they wanted something... several somethings, actually.

During a couple pre-campaign get togethers while the players were leveling, upgrading their base of operations and blowing their well earned loots on new shiny things, they hatched a plan for this party. They wanted to use it to advance a couple plot threads left over after the last campaign, and to hopefully kick off a couple more.

Specifically, they hoped to accomplish the following:
  1. Reveal the secret royal identity of the party's rogue
  2. Legitimize their ownership of their base of operations (gained while the land was in conflict)
  3. See if they could find some insight into an ongoing demon-possession problem the party monk is dealing with
  4. Look into purchasing an airship from the gnomes so they could go recover the remains of a dragon hoard they were forced to leave in a far off ruin during an earlier adventure
  5. Look into opening a trade route via an abandoned pass in their territory to a neighboring country
  6. Oh, and of course, endear themselves to the people
That's it, no bigs, right?

Well, of course there was no way I would let them reap the potential rewards to be gained from these various desires with just a bit of description and a few minutes time. There are big ticket items in there, and they would need to work for them! So, I decided to turn the celebration into a session-long encounter, complete with the very real possibility of horrible, embarrassing failure.

Here's how I did it:

Step 1: Establish the Key Guests

I decided to divide the players' list of desires among several NPC guests with the ability to advance one or more of these things. There was a gnomish ambassador, who could give access to the airship yards, some neighboring nobles who could help cement the party as legitimate landholders in the kingdom, an elven ambassador from the country on the other side of the pass, etc.

Once I had my rough guest list, I gave each NPC a motivation (what is something they want that the PCs might be able to offer?) What do they like in general? Flattery? Martial prowess? If the PCs hit on these things while dealing with the guests, it might improve their chances of advancing their cause.

Next, I gave each guest a couple things they didn't like. Were they racist? Did they dislike some of the PCs? Were they averse to low behavior? Hyper-competitive? If the PCs pushed the wrong buttons, it might start closing doors in their faces. One key to establishing likes, dislikes and motivations was to tangle them up. Buttering up one guest might make another jealous. Advancing one cause, might make it more difficult to advance another.

One of the tricks for me was to keep all these guests from getting overwhelming. After all, this was a huge party and I had to represent anyone who wasn't a player character! I made sure to limit the key guests to about 6 NPCs and kept the descriptions simple. For plot threads that might otherwise involve unwieldy numbers (e.g. establishing the legitimacy of the party, or earning the good graces of the people) I established one of the guests as a key to unlocking a larger group of NPCs. If the players won over a particularly influential noble, the other nobles would fall in line... that sort of thing.

To summarize the strategy for the guest list: make concrete connections between each guest and his/her relevant plot threads, keep the number of guests manageable, and play their motivations to the hilt.

Step 2: Include Facilitators

Once I had my key guests in place, I set up a couple of the PC's known contacts as facilitators, folks who could help them identify the key guests and maybe provide hints as to the best approaches to take. This was pretty easy and straightforward, as I had already been running these NPCs for some time. It was just a matter of figuring out how helpful I wanted them to be.

Step 3: Build a List of Stumbling Blocks

Of course, I didn't want things to be too easy for the players. I set up a list of potential things that could go wrong independent of how well the players were running everything else. This gave me the means to add excitement where needed to keep the players on their toes.

The stumbling blocks were represented by a mix of NPCs and events. Again, when including NPCs in this role, I stuck with characters I was already familiar with so I didn't need to come up with a fresh description. Besides, it's a much bigger challenge if one of the PCs' friends starts misbehaving and getting in the way of their desires than if it is just two complete strangers getting in a shouting match. They now must tread more carefully and make a tougher choice between upsetting a friend, and losing an objective.

The events were a little simpler. I just dreamed up a couple of problems that might spring up in the middle of the party that the players couldn't ignore. They want to figure out more about the monk's possession? You can bet his inner demon is going to try to seize control at an inopportune moment!

Though I had a list of half a dozen stumbling blocks in my pocket, I did not end up using them all, and I think that is an important consideration for an encounter like a party. When it came down to the session, I was really running things by feel. If things were exciting and bobbing along, I let them go. If stuff started to bog down, or the players looked bored, you can bet I'd chuck a curve ball in there.

Step 4: Let the Players Drive

I left the specific order of events for the celebration up to the players, and I made them aware of this through the facilitator NPCs. Their castellan (butler) asked for an order of events at the start of the night, which put the players firmly at the helm of the party ship. As the evening progressed, I made sure to let the players keep driving, unless they needed a nudge, and most of the time they did not.

The end result was an incredibly fun session that involved zero combat, but plenty of roleplaying and dicerolling. Players stepped out of their comfort zones, other players pushed their characters out of their comfort zones, and EVERYONE got a little bit of spotlight time.

The movie, Clue (from which the above photo and video were taken), actually provides a really good representation of this structure with the guests in the movie being both key guests and PCs of sorts, Wadsworth, the butler is the facilitator and the other characters are NPC stumbling blocks. Just as in the movie, the session I ran took on a slamming-doors farcical tone at times... in the best possible way, of course.


  1. That sounds excellent! Well done! How successful were they with their goals?

    1. They managed to advance several, but didn't attempt to address a couple others, and failed in quite an amusing way on at least one.

  2. You should do a follow-up post to go into a little more detail about the party & give some examples of the above. It was most enjoyable! :)

  3. I agree with Erin. You should have another session in which they can take another shot at goals that weren't accomplished the first time. And of course a few more problems ensue :) I wanna know more about the airship to the dragon hoard and the possessed monk!


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