DM of the Rings LVI:
He’s Going to Tell

By Shamus
on Jan 26, 2007
Filed under:
DM of the Rings

Gandalf not dead. Long boring tale about the fight with the Balrog.

Players usually get their quests from very powerful NPCs. If the NPCs weren’t powerful, then players might just be tempted to save themselves some trouble by killing the NPC and taking the reward. Besides, who wants to work for some weakling nobody?

But since quest-dispensing NPCs are powerful, it naturally leads the players to ask them, “If you’re such a badass, why don’t you go do it yourself?

Good question, really.

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  1. Kris says:

    Hahaha. I only get to play occassionally, so when I sit in on sessions I usually just control NPC’s to help the DM out and give the players a different battle strategy to defend against. Often times though, I’ll also get to control the party NPC’s, which invariable leads to me looking through their character sheets going, “Woh. I can do what now?!!”

    The DM usually doesn’t let me use half of their capabilities. Sad. Really.

  2. ChristianTheDane says:

    Perfect! :D

    That kind of question is a real pain. If anybody knows a good answer, please tell.

  3. Carl the Bold says:

    See, this is why the DM didn’t give them the XPs they were bugging about in episode XXXV–the dude didn’t die.

  4. Robin Z says:

    I thought the usual reason was that they needed to do something else. The guards are powerful enough to kill you if you try to take out the king, but they’re busy guarding the king.

  5. DMDonPablo says:

    The answer? There’s three ways to look at it. One, the all powerful NPC quest givers are playing their Pontius Pilot card. Two, like our security training manuals say “I can neither confirm nor deny”. Three, the 5th amendment.

    In my group’s games, we never sign contracts. My belief is that in this way the NPC quest givers can disavow any knowledge of us, our quest or any relationship back to themselves. We fail, another group gets hired. We’re successul, the NPC is more than happy to tell everyone how he hired us and had faith in us all along.

  6. Rufus Polson says:

    Of course, in Gandalf’s case the simple fact is that he wasn’t really all that powerful, per se. Theoretically, if the rest of the fellowship had suddenly ganged up on him, he would have been toast–at least unless and until a higher power decided to send him back. His gig is being wise, knowing what needs doing, and being good at giving politicians backbone enough to get it done. This isn’t a problem in the books because nobody except bad roleplayers goes around slaughtering the wise good wizard. If you have players that suck bad enough to do that kind of stuff, I suppose you need to inject some notes of unreality to keep the game going, but they hardly have a complaint coming–if you didn’t inject notes of unreality, the reality is that psychopaths like them would quickly become notorious outlaws and be hunted down and killed. Which might actually make for an interesting bit of gaming, and possibly even smarten them up a tiny bit . . .

    Really, when I see some of the stuff that people around here seem to take as normal rather than satire, I thank the gods deeply and repeatedly for my gaming group.

  7. Telas says:

    NPC quest giver as uber-character is a horrible idea for a roleplaying game, and always has been. The assumption that someone in a position of authority must be a badass is metagaming silliness. The King doesn’t need to be a 12th level Paladin; he’s got a dozen under his command. There’s nothing wrong with the quest giver being (in d20 terms) a 5th level Expert librarian-type, who merely suspects what’s happening and sends a team to stop it.

    As a literary device, the uber quest giver is something else entirely. But then again, very few people (if any) in Middle Earth really knew who Olorin, er Mithrandir, umm I mean Gandaf was.

  8. Flambeaux says:

    Proposed solution: don’t give quests.

    I’ve never really grasped why, aside from its prevalence as a literary device, so many GMs feel compelled to structure their pen-and-paper RPGs around the quest. It only works if you want to railroad players down a set story line.

    Dispense with the quest. Find other reasons for them to adventure. And if they can’t figure things out with the clues you so freely sow throughout all your NPC dialogue (rumors overheard, “random” attacks on the PCs, etc.) then they shouldn’t be playing RPGs.

    Myself, I neither play nor run games for the “interactive storytelling” or the “plot”. If I want interactive storytelling, I play a CRPG. If I want plot, I read or write another novel. Gaming is about, for me and most of the players I know, working to collectively solve the puzzles (traps, monster encounters, etc.) that the GM sets before us.

    That’s part of why I don’t permit “skill checks”, so essential to most d20-based game systems. I prefer game systems that don’t have them, but even ones that do I simply make clear that rolling against a character’s skills is not an option. For some players, this is the first time they’ve been expected to think in a game, rather than play Diable 2 in a very clumsy way.

    YMMV, but if it isn’t about working together with a group of people I like to solve puzzles & overcome obstacles, I don’t really care.

    I stopped using the NPC-assigned quest about 5 years ago, when I got back into playing RPGs. I’ve never missed either the characters or the players’ reactions to those characters.

    FWIW, I recognize that some games require that type of interaction or hook. And you can’t write a CRPG without it — since CRPGs are more interactive books than they are genuine RPGS.

    • Tyler says:

      i run games for fun with my friends and something they all enjoy about my games is that its open world i play the world around the players rather then the players playing in my world. im just now starting up a game where i told all my usuals that this game was going to have a main quest in it. however they can react to the quest how they wish and there are many side things to do within the quest, they all enjoy this and i feel bad becuse i pulled several of them out of games and groups they where previously in lol. but apon the bad ass quest givers…i did use the simple tavern rumors from the barkeep to get them started

      (please excuse lack of good lenguage and punctuation)

  9. Flambeaux says:

    In support of Telas’ comment, with which I agree (if you’re going to make the NPC a quest-giver don’t make them a b@d@$$):

    Look at the civilian-military structure of many nations throughout history. While we could look at (political opinion aside) the contemporary US: A deputy undersecretary of National Security could give a quest based on an Executive Order, neither the POTUS issuing the order, nor the D-US contacting the party would be SpecFor, PsyOps, etc. (whatever fits your milieu).

    Historically, look to the elected dictators in Ancient Greece and Rome, the Oriental monarchs (usually termed despots in decent historical works). Look at the necessary bureaucracy of any decently functioning government (Republican or Imperial Rome, Medieval and Renaissance Italy, France, or England). Look at dysfunctional historical regimes (Ptolemeic Egypt, the Arab satrapys, etc.)

    In all of these you will find that the apparatus of government is RARELY stuffed with competent soldiers.

    For the sake of believability, your NPCs, if you use them as quest-givers, should not be uber-PCs. Make them mid-level bureaucrats with no discernable skills. If your PCs are played by players so depraved and anti-social as to kill such an individual, than no power in Heaven or Earth can stop that NPC’s patron from hunting them down and crucifying them along a major roadway as an example. Treason has consequences.

    • WJS says:

      I would point out that skilled generals would often rise to the top in eras where affairs were more likely to be resolved with war than diplomacy, and that the distinction is often one of strategic skill vs. personal prowess rather than the king having no military skill whatsoever.

      Indeed, if he is king by inheritance or political maneuvering rather than right of conquest, odds are decent that he shouldn’t be in direct contact with the PCs, who should rather meet with the guard captain or something.

      Regardless of whether he has personal power or not, the answer to the question “Why don’t you do it yourself?” should simply be “Because I’m paying you to do it.”

  10. Rufus Polson says:

    Quite agreed, Flambeaux. Well, except for the skill checks, depending just what you mean. Using skill checks as a substitute for social interaction sucks, but there are plenty of things that social skills are nonetheless useful for. For instance, in GURPS we have the Streetwise skill, which is useful for getting along in rough company, figuring out which ragged person is actually a pickpocket and which is just someone poor, identifying the bar that’s a den of thieves versus the bar that’s just full of down-and-outers, and so forth. Now, I’m a pretty good roleplayer if I do say so myself. But I’ve never mixed with that kind of crowd; my street talk is unconvincing. If my character is an underworld kind of person, first I’ll fake it, then I’ll make the roll; if it’s successful it means that my character really *did* do what I *tried* to do in an overly affected manner. The skill lets me play someone I don’t have the personal knowhow to imitate well, just like if I play an awesome swordsman he can fight things that would cream me. But I do think it would be a cop-out to just say “I use Streetwise to get in good with these thugs”.

    Another thing I’ve found is helpful is trying to make sure that people’s characters have some kind of attachment to the world, some motivations (beyond “chaotic good” or whatever). If they know what they want, they’ll try to get it. Then as a GM, you can just sit back and “be the world” and watch them hatch plots. If they don’t know what they want, they’ll vegetate and be hard to motivate. It does require a fair amount of seat-of-the-pants flying.
    F’rinstance . . . Right now my PCs have decided it’s important for them to back one side in a large civil war. I give them impressions of the news they gather about the strategic, tactical and political situation, and then they go stick their oar in. There’s no telling what they’ll come up with next–just now they went to an important naval base to do a bit of spying. So while they’re there, they suddenly decided to help a local thieves’ gang start an operation where they sneak naval supplies out of warehouses and replace them with cheaper, shoddy goods likely to fall apart before battle. They built them a couple of underground tunnels and trapdoors right into the warehouses . . . I had no idea what they were up to until they were in the middle of it. I don’t know what they’ll do next. But I’m pretty sure the opposition in the civil war won’t enjoy it.

  11. Nazgul says:

    Oh dear lord, now I’m going to have that inane song going through my head all day at least!

    He’s going to tell!
    – – He’s going to tell!
    He’s going to tell!
    – – He’s going to tell!

    *GROAN*

    ps – Shamus, have you considered making some linkback graphics available?

  12. Mattingly says:

    Sorry, I thought your son was a lady.

  13. Steve says:

    I agree with Nazgul. Wasn’t it you Shamus that mooted a penalty for uttering MPFC stuff in-game? Tsk!

    This game rilly sux. I mean, Tom Bombadil handles the ring like it came out of a Crakerjack box and for some unspecified reason isn’t even asked to lob it in the fire. In fact, TB gets edited out of the scenario in the first rewrite. Gandalf the monochromatic is a hideously powerful sorcerer but can’t go toe-to-toe with Saruman. Not only that, the three-foot high buggers who are somehow the best candidates to take on the quest despite not being able to wear decent boots of speed have gone to play either Star Wars or Mechwar. The XPs are flowing like sponge cake and the gold is as plentiful as the bones in an ice-cream cone.

    The only question in my mind now is why the others turn up each game night.

    :o)

    Steve.

  14. Cestus says:

    I disagree that quest givers should have no disernable skills. They should have many skills, just none applicable to the situation. I would think an undersecretary would have a great amount of skill, but still not go on a mission himself.

    But the D&D problem with leaders is this: If they aren’t high level, someone would easily kill them. If not the characters, someone else. Leaders have to have some level of survivability. Also, with skill ranks the way they are, you need to be high level to have a high level of skill. That is what the NPC classes are for: a patch for the game.

  15. Towanda says:

    Delegation and outsourcing are quite common in the real world so it makes perfect sense to me in the fantasy world too. ;)

  16. I don’t have anything to say about gaming, but it did always bug me how Galdalf was touted as this all-powerful guy, and he never really did much of anything.

    Considering he could have conjured those giant eagles at the start, and saved everyone the trip…

  17. Roy says:

    But the D&D problem with leaders is this: If they aren’t high level, someone would easily kill them. If not the characters, someone else. Leaders have to have some level of survivability. Also, with skill ranks the way they are, you need to be high level to have a high level of skill. That is what the NPC classes are for: a patch for the game.

    I don’t really see that as a problem. A king doesn’t have to be high-level, he needs to either be high level, or have people who are protecting him. It depends on the world you’re creating. If you’re creating a world where, for example, bloodlines are seen as important, it won’t matter to most people that the king isn’t the strongest or fastest, or best with magic- he’ll maintain his thrown if he’s a good king because the majority of people will believe that he deserves the kingdom by virtue of his blood. Might someone attempt to overthrow his rule? Sure. But, if the majority of the soldiers are loyal to the king, and he’s a decent wizard on-hand, he’s probably find.

    The fact that it’d be possible for something to happen in a given world doesn’t mean that it’s likely. Even if someone manages to take out the king, that doesn’t mean that the people are going to stand for it. In the above example: Generic Badguy murders our frail king and tries to take over. The problem is that said king was loved by the people, and commanded respect from his forces because he was royalty- his blood was king’s blood, and the throne was his by all rights. Generic Badguy may have taken the king out, but there’s no way in hell that the majority of the kingdom are going to follow his rule. He can attempt to force them to do so with an army, but it’s going to cost him.
    Ultimately, what’s the incentive for him to murder the king just because he has the power to do so? What gains can he make? Is it worth the dangers of upsetting the king’s army and whatever wizards he has at his beck and call?

  18. Roy says:

    Holy crap on a cracker! “Thrown”? What was I thinking.
    Throne.

    Color me stupid.

  19. Jurrubin says:

    The best uber-NPC quest giver is one that gives the quest, goes along on the quest, then dies when they find themselves in deep kimchi and expect the uber-NPC to handle the problem. Nothing like blind-siding PCs in a nasty situation to get them focused on a campaign.

  20. Flambeaux says:

    Roy,

    I suspect the problem that most Americans run into with the scenario you outline is that we have all grown up in a nation-state forged in usurpation of sovereignty. Those of us who are Americans, unless we’re also IRL monarchists, neither know or understand (generally speaking) about bloodlines, loyalty, etc. It’s an…oversight…of our particular cultural heritage.

    Thanks for raising the issue with such an excellent illustration. particularly since the converse (wretched king, hero of the people committing regicide) might still result in the “hero of the people” finding himself an outlaw to whom no one will give shelter. See Ancient Greek myth and history for examples.

    Note also that the Ancient Greeks had two different words for king: one which denoted the rightful blood heir to a throne, the other which denoted a usurper even if the throne was vacant and the usurper acceded to the throne at popular acclaim (q.v. Oedipus). The Greek word for a rightful king was basileus, and the word for usurper (even if he was a wise, loved, benevolent ruler) was tyrannos.

    • WJS says:

      I do fund it funny how many monarchists there seem to be in the US, considering the country was founded in a bloody revolution against our monarch of the day.

      I don’t really agree that living in a republic should make that much of a difference however; would anyone think that they could become president by killing the incumbent, for example? The handful of presidential assassins you’ve had over the years have been pretty crazy, but I don’t think even they thought that after the fact they, personally, would take over. They may have believed their movement would gain power in the aftermath, of course.

  21. Steve says:

    But you are both evading the key issue: If the king is king, and has remained king for any length of time (say, overnight), he must have forces at his command to deal with the problem of itinerant bandits, inconvenient dragon infestations, vampires in the cellars et cetera. By the same token, if he needs a stealthy resolution to some problem, he would be better off using trusted confidants rather than a bunch of guys that rolled into the kingdom two days ago bragging of their latest episode of grand larceny.

    Quests rarely make any kind of sense. Better to geas everyone into running around killing the fauna and robbing ye tombs. It makes no more sense but it is magic which doesn’t need to.

    :o)

    Steve.

    • johanna says:

      Hey the last guy that helped the King out died, and everyone else in town KNOWS this and therefore is too smart to try it themselves and get killed. Therefore, the arrogant hotshots who were bragging about how awesome they are at killing things last night at the local tavern, will get hired. :)

  22. Steve says:

    “it’s magic, which”… brain misfired again. Sorry.

  23. damien walder says:

    Gimme the back story anyday – there’s clues there, ya Har!

  24. Rich says:

    “The only question in my mind now is why the others turn up each game night.”

    Great snacks? Imported beer?

  25. Flambeaux says:

    Steve,

    I’m not sure if you’re assertion “both evading the key issue” was directed at my comments, but let me be clear. In two posts above Roy’s discussion of kingship, I made clear that I think the quest is a bad hook for any RPG.

    I don’t see how that evades the issue of whether or not any VIP NPC has the resources, besides hiring random adventurers, to perform certain actions.

    What I do think is that the quest-hook became popular because most gamers who discovered RPGs after the publication of Dragonlance (circa 1984) came into gaming through fantasy novels — and the quest hook is an excellent literary device. In attempting to replicate at the table the experience of reading a cool fantasy novel (insert cool steampunk, cool post-apocalyptic, cool vampire, etc.), they relied on literary devices that are only poorly supported within the rules sets available.

    The metagaming question that many seem to grapple with, and I’m not sure why this is of concern to anyone, is “why are the pc’s doing anything?”

    But the quest inevitably results in the sorts of problems people here commonly gripe about: DM’s plot on rails, lack of fun, lack of XP, etc. I’ve been arguing in this thread (to the extent that I’m arguing at all) that the solution is to just walk away from quest-hooks (as a GM) and put some effort into EITHER a coherent world where action is demanded of the pc’s OR a basic, no-rationale-necessary dungeon crawl.

    If everyone at the table just HAS to have “motivation”, you need a new group. The motivation should be provided by character creation. Since I play 1e AD&D as my preferred system, character creation takes me or my players 10 minutes — 2 minutes for stats (3d6 in order of ability, that determines your class), 3 minutes to equip (they usually don’t have much starting gold), 4 minutes to write this down on looseleaf while thinking up a name, and 1 minute to spare in case anything comes up (my wife, my kids, my dice break, etc.). I can’t remember the last time I concocted elaborate back story for either a character of mine in an RPG OR for an adventure I was DMing.

    Obviously, YMMV, but I think we might be on the same page regarding the use of the quest as a plot hook in a pen-and-paper RPG.

  26. Jenna says:

    Quests make perfect sense. They don’t have to be THE central theme to a game (I’ve run a game where quests were more of a distraction, since there was a story arc, but the PCs only interacted when they recognized and followed clues – no RR tracks in my gams)…

    Even in a real life example, you go on ‘quests’ of some kind or another on a daily basis. Anything outside of your normal routine, a situation in which you are asked to do or obtain something out of the ordinary… Guess what? That is the most basic structure of a quest.

    Save the world quests? Eh, nice if well executed. I don’t touch em.

    “Get me this really obscure item fromt his icky place with which I would really rather not deal?” Perfect. Why wouldn’t a wealthy and otherwise busy wizard hire ‘lackey’ types to go and fetch XYZ? It may just be in the local postings for odd jobs. In a world where adventurers are common, I can imagine most people are eager to keep them busy and away from taverns (where they inevitably booze it up and look for women, it would seem…).

    So. Quests? Not pointless, but not necessarily needed either. As with ANY plot/literary device, it is all in how the device is implemented and executed…

    By the by, Shamus – Absolutely great comic. You almost killed me more than once, with this wheezy cough and trying to laugh…

    • WJS says:

      I do like the idea that the men hiring adventurers are sending them on these apparent suicide missions not because of any specific grudge, but just because they think adventurers are a nuisance and make the place look untidy.

  27. Darkenna says:

    Nazgul: Now now, stop that, none of that… there’ll be NO SINGING here!!!

    : )

    I’ve always felt character and plot were both important to a Game. PCs need to have some sort of motivation beyond XP or loot (like… why do they want the XP and loot? To retire rich and live like a king in Patagonia? To gain enough power to be able to create and maintain one’s own fiefdom? To buy his parents out of hock? To gain the skill needed hunt down and kill the man who killed his sword-maker father?), and I’ve always made it very clear to my PCs that every NPC they deal with has wants and needs and goals, so if they don’t keep their own wants and needs and goals in mind, the NPCs are going to have them running about like errand-boys.

    Railroad Quests are just not productive. I’ve always figured that if you construct your quest or plot correctly, and give the PCs the challenges (both mental, magical, and “physical”) they need to overcome to accomplish it, they’ll pretty much roll in whatever direction you point them, and will keep rolling on without realizing they’re going exactly where you want them to. (On a side note, always remember that if you paint giant arrows pointing to the right illuminated by flashing neons signs that say “Go Right Ye Bastards!!!”… occassionally the characters will go left. Never underestimate the stupidity of PCs. Of course, if you plan for them to do that, because you really want them to go left… they’ll go right.) In case they deviate, simply have some backup mini-quests or mini-plots that will circle them about to where they’re supposed to be anyway. Or construct your world so that it will keep spinning without them. (Continual “We’re off to Save the Multiverse!!! ‘Cuz if we don’t, everyone dies!!!” campaigns get old fast. How many times can you save the world before you get bored of it?)

    On the note of the PCs simply killing the NPCs instead of paying attention… well, all actions in a world have a rippling effect, either by reputation or remediation. My PCs are learning this the hard way. Just because it’s an orc doesn’t mean you’re supposed to kill it… especially after you’ve been warned that the orcs you are about to see are not typical mountain orcs, but that they are smarter, bigger, stronger… and lawful neutral or good.

    I’ve always been a huge fan of the axiom: Stupidity should be punished. Painfully. Repeatedly.

  28. Adam says:

    In our games, we don’t take quests so much as jobs for larger organizations. For example, the local thieves guild needs someone to go inquire about agents it lost in the underdark.

    or just check the bounty boards, and discover that ogres are profitable this time of year, along with Paladins.

    Course our party very rarely consists of heroes.

    While I as a DM create a ridiculous situation, often world shattering, and say “figure it out”. Leads to many fun places.

  29. Attorney At Chaos says:

    Over a couple of decades of RPGs I’ve been DM for lots of good roleplayers – but for some reason, whenever I’ve tried a certain experiment it has always been a failure. The experiment? I’ve asked the players to decide why they are adventuring together (and as a corallary, why they trust each other with their lives). Usually the experiment involves brand new 1st level characters, but I’ve also tried it a couple times at higher levels.

    I don’t particularly WHY they are together. I give them suggestions such as “Perhaps you all come from the same town and grew up together as friends. Perhaps you are all of the same religion and were assigned missions by your superiors. Perhaps you all mustered out of the army at the same time after the last war. Perhaps…”

    Each and every time this has been a dismal failure. Dozens of good roleplayers over the years, but they have all seemed to have a total aversion to deciding why their characters might be together as a group. They seem absolutely locked into concept of being thrown “randomly” together by fate. Once together they may well stick together for a long time, but they want no part of deciding WHY they were together in the first place.

    I would love to have the players decide on the group motivation so I could then offer them adventures that would play to that motivation, but I’ve never been able to make it work.

    • johanna says:

      My DM always has us make up a backstory of how we are together and why. I thought that was part of the RPG. It has certainly made for interesting situations because of the different races.

      In one game a longtooth and goliath consider themselves twins because their mothers were enslaved in the same kitchen, and the longtooth’s mom died. The goliath mother raised them both when her hubby sprung her and the babes.

      It can certainly be done, but I think it takes some brainstorming and time to put everything together.

  30. Attorney At Chaos says:

    That was supposed to be “I don’t particularly =care= WHY they are together….”

    That’s a pretty obvious one – maybe that typo has Hide In Plain Sight.

  31. Yunt says:

    This is part and parcel to the magic problem.

    If any sufficiently skilled individual could teleport, disintegrate, etc. then what runs the economy? What’s the purpose of a shipping lane when any two wizards could move the whole load across continents overnight? Why build physical defenses when it’s always possible to passwall or teleport past them?

    The Game is a dramatic work. Even a shallow, kick in the door game demands a certain suspension of disbelief for the players to really “get into it”. With this in mind, the best catchall is “faith”. Manifested as loyalty to the king or as a wizard conforming to the cultural norm of being above worldly concerns this rounds out some of those intellectual edges.

    For my current game “quests” aren’t so much a concern. There are errands and there might be a bounty or two but the archetypal “You gotta go get me my wizarding stick so I can save the world!” games of fetch would be really out of place. Items that important don’t get lost, people that powerful don’t lose things that way.

    By D20 rules, the average person doesn’t have much adventuring capacity anyway. Try running a character with 10s for their stats. They can’t cast spells above cantrips or orisons (10 + level of spell). They couldn’t kick in a decently made door. They couldn’t reliably hit a housecat with a newspaper with their lack of attack modifiers.

    • WJS says:

      Why do you think high level wizards would render shipping infeasible? You may as well ask why we still ship things today despite being able to fly around the world in hours rather than weeks.

      Teleport can only carry up to the wizards maximum load, plus a handful of other people. This is clearly not enough to move an entire shipping lane of cargo overnight, it would in fact take months to empty a single ships cargo hold at a rate of 4 man-loads per day, and the book price for 2 5th level spells is 1000gp.

      The same goes for your other examples, if one can call them examples considering how little they are elaborated upon.

  32. Stormcaller says:

    My current game started with *Player 1* has a dream, in it is *Player 2*, *Player 3* and *Player 4*. So 1 spoke to her church leaders who said “we dont know what that all means but it sounds like a prophecy… you probably want to do it”. After that P1 gathered up P2, P3 and P4 and went to talk to some NPC (who according to her dream had a issue that needed to be resolved). On arrival the NPC seemed to have no idea about any issue and hunted around till he thought of something that seemed to get rid of the new party… quest and party organisation bundled together :-)

  33. Vegedus says:

    I wish I had a group like the one Flambeaux is describing. Sadly, I don’t have much choice in who I play with. Usually, the more I try to open up a campaign, the more the PC’s stand around saying, “So, um… What should we do now?”.

  34. Flambeaux says:

    I had that problem, too, Vegedus. I decided to look farther afield than most of the in-person groups I’d been trying to put together.

    I realized, upon serious reflection, that part of the problem was how I presented the clues. My gamers, many of whom were CRPG and novel trained, couldn’t find the clues unless I dressed them in neon. So I started dressing the clues in neon. The flip-side was that, with all those hours logged in novels & CRPGs, no one wanted to “step on my toes” — they all feared I had some master plot, some story I wanted to act out with their characters as pawns (just as in a CRPG). I disabused them of this notion. Two quit the group, saying they just couldn’t play “under such conditions”. Oh well. I don’t want to compel anyone to play a game, or in a fashion, they don’t enjoy. It’s a game — if it isn’t fun, don’t waste your time on it.

    I’ve had some success with asking gamers I know to recruit other good gamers they know. And I’ve found places like Role-Play Online to be a treasure trove. I’ve found some games through there where most of the guys (and a few girls) play 1e with the same assumptions and sentiments.

    Look around, ask around, like everything else in life, don’t settle for the hand you’re dealt. This isn’t stud poker.

    And good luck.

  35. 3eff_Jeff says:

    In high school, I played with a group that was all about killing the authority figures in the game. It was bad. Eventually, we found a great formula.

    The first problem was finding the right person to GM, and which game to run. That turned out to be Andy and Blue Planet, http://www.biohazardgames.com/bp.html

    Andy would have us get hired on as mercenaries doing black ops missions (it’s a Sci-fi game). We would then approach each mission the same way:

    1) Estimate How Many Guns They Had.
    2) Figure Out How Much Firepower We Needed to Soundly Crush Them.
    3) Double That.
    4) Bring Extra Ammo and Explosives On Top of That (for Step 8. below)
    5) Try to Sneak In.
    6) When that Fails, Open Fire.
    7) Complete the Primary Objective (kill some dude, retrieve XYZ)
    8) Run Like a Bat Out of Hell.

    This was the plan. Always. It worked pretty well. However, step 4 was needed because step 6 would complicate step 8. Why? Step 6 causes everyone within a 3 block radius to call the cops. So step 8 involves mowing down cops, national guardsmen, tanks &c. as we scream down the street in our APC. The next section of the adventure involved us trying to hide from the law (see step 6 above) and Andy throwing more and more military, special ops, secret agents and secret police against us until we’re captured (Thog, from OOTS, says “Resisting Arrest is Fun!”). Once captured, Andy would skip over the trial and send us to prison.

    And that’s where we’d be. No new characters unless you died.

    So, we played a round of the “Prison Break Game.” Also fun, much like resisting arrest. Each time this came around, the prison would get more interesting and difficult to escape from. This is a great opportunity for concocting difficult puzzles.

    Well, once we were out, we’d need more money. So we’d sell our services as mercenaries and get a black ops job.

    You can see where this goes. So remember, if the players are doing what you want them to, try to kill them, but just barely. If they aren’t, and they piss off something big, have it throw resources at taking down the characters. Be as heavy handed as you want, and then round up. They want to kill the king? Let ’em try. They’d probably be happier with the Prison Break Game cycle. Just make your kings be in their 40s with competent, loyal, intelligent and vengeful sons. And lots of firepower to call on.

    5 bullets is good. 500 is better. It’s the Cyberpunk Way.

  36. Will says:

    Steps 2 through 4 sound like the old (demolitions, I think) equation P+M=E.

    Plenty + More = Enough

  37. If you want to understand how magic in Tolkein’s world works, you really need to read the first section of the Silmarillion, which details how his world was created. In short, first the Creator God and some of his first creations sang a song together, where Morgoth (the power behind Sauron) tried to “take over” the tune, and ultimately failed. Then, Middle Earth is created and the Creator God (Iluvatar, spelling may be off) announces to all and sundry that the song they have sung will be played out in this new world.

    I can’t put it into words per se, but I think this perfectly explains the way “magic” works in Tolkein’s world. It has no resemblance to D&D magic or any video game magic. It’s not really about tossing fireballs about; even Gandalf, who is technically a fire wizard, is far less powerful with fire than my level 10 Black Mage in any Final Fantasy game. It’s more about influencing the minds of those around you, and then incidentally influencing the world sometimes.

    What truly impressed me about the movies is that Peter Jackson really got that; the special effects, spectacular as they are, don’t look anything like the special effects of a D&D movie. Gandalf’s greatest “spell”, such as it is, is what Rufus Polson was saying: The power to inspire/empower men to fight, even as the forces of darkness are trying to force them into despair and surrender. And I tend to agree with Tolkein in the sense that when someone has that power, be it in fiction or in the real world, all other power is mere parlor tricks.

  38. Flambeaux says:

    Jeremy,

    The underpinning of magic in Middle Earth was the essentially Catholic theology with which Tolkein was working. Not to open a potentially problematic thread of discussion here, but any analysis of Middle Earth, and particularly the character of Gandalf, where this fact is not brought into the discussion will inevitably miss the point.

    For all their failings in the second and third films, Jackson/Walsh/Boyens got the one essential element of Gandalf’s relationship to Middle Earth correct during the Bridge at Khazad-Dum: when Gandalf says, “I am the servant of the Secret Fire.” That was the essence of his role in the world, the heart of his “power”.

    Tolkein was explicit in his letters when asked that this was, in fact, a reference to the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit in the contemporary mode of expression).

    Just FYI. I’m not looking to pick fights on the matter, nor abuse Shamus’ hospitality. But I do think this is why Gandalf seem so un-wizardlike to many of us when he’s compared to other archetypal wizards of fantasy: Circe, Merlin, Morgan Le Fey, Ged, Albus Dumbledore, etc.

  39. Tola says:

    Answer to Gimli’s question: Because that won’t save Rohan from destruction.

    Saruman’s army has already been sent. Rohan MUST get sorted out NOW. But even he needs a little back-up.

  40. “Tom Bombadil handles the ring like it came out of a Crakerjack box and for some unspecified reason” … actually because he couldn’t be counted on to pay more attention to the job of getting rid of it than if it were a Crackerjack box ring …

    As to Gandalf, it hit me, reading through this that Gandalf is actually a specialty fighter class, not a magic-user. Sword, paladin’s horse, talks with all kinds of animals, area of effect leadership magic, etc.

  41. Joshua says:

    Actually, thinking about it(Gandalf being a somewhat proficient fighter, and his “magic” being mostly within the ability influence people and recant long-forgotten lore), wouldn’t that actually make him a BARD?

  42. Shamus says:

    Good point. I think everyone in Tolkien’s world has taken a level or two of Bard. Nearly everyone does a little poetry or song now and again.

  43. Telas says:

    Er, Galdalf’s also “nerfed” because he was forbidden to take direct action against the enemy; the wizards were sent to counsel and assist. I suspect this also ties into Catholic/Christian theology, wherein a man’s salvation lies (to a degree) with his actions. See William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” and the doorknob discussion.

    If Gandalf were to show up and smite Sauron, then Humanity would not have earned their liberation.

  44. Silussa says:

    Having actually PLAYED a character in 2nd edition AD&D which rose to the point of hiring a later PC team. (ruler of small state, well-trained army, etc…..) resulted in this exchange.

    Lead PC: “So, why don’t you do this, if it’s so important?”

    My Character: “First, I didn’t say it was THAT important; I have more important things to tend to. Second, you’re deniable. Third, you’re expendable.”

    The players didn’t take it too well, but they still took the contract. Of course, once some of the opposing forces started trying to bribe them, it got QUITE interesting….*evil grin*

  45. Sureshot05 says:

    It depends on your campaign background as well. Man power can be a critical point and if the NPC’s are tied up negotiating several problems then it becomes more reasonable for them to sub contract work.

    Also combined with plausible deniability, Player Vendetta’s (You have to let us kill this guy…), and as always, having the NPC being forced to deal with buracracy can provide some reasons why they can’t help.

    Of course, some times its wise to have the poorer NPC’s ask for help as well, but then it becomes a question of how selfless and heroic your party can be (and its worth winding them up about it later if they don’t accept!)

  46. fair_n_hite_451 says:

    At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, regarding the discussion of quest givers needing to be uber, Hitler was a Corporal.

  47. Darkenna says:

    Aaaargh!!! Now I’ve gone from, “He’s going to tell…” to “Springtime for Hitler”!!! Damn you!!!

    NO SINGING!!!

  48. Steve says:

    Flambeaux, if you think the quest in D&D came about as late as 1984 I’m afraid I’m going to upset you: It has been a D&D staple since the game was first sold, in 1974 (ish. I first saw it in ’75). But we are on much the same page, for the most part.

    In a recent game I played in, I calculated that a local merchant was doing better, gold wise, than I was as a 20th level sorcerer. Not only that, he didn’t face “instant kill” attacks every day to get it. I would do better to take my skills and open Ye Olde Majik Shoppe than continue with my questing. The DM wasn’t particularly stingy with the rewards either.

    In that framework, I don’t think that requiring from the DM some extra motivation to be out in the cold and dark instead of wenching in a warm inn is unreasonable. I may or may not be able to come up with a good reason for my prefering to be a bandit in all but name, but I darn sure want some sort of compelling reason for going on some of the half-baked adventures I’ve seen of late. I don’t think it’s off-base to ask the baron, king or whatever “why can’t your crack army deal with this?” when the situation gets too screwy. “Adrenalin Junky” can’t be the basic description of all PCs in every situation.

    Steve.

  49. Flambeaux says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for the response. No, I’m not under the impression that the quest as a plot hook started in 1984. Simply that 1984 is when quest-driven novels began to be used as a marketing hook to drive module sales, thus necessitating modules that were primarily quest-driven.

    The quest is a great story element, and it can beget some great gaming. But it can also be a crutch. That was the gist of my point — that it became a crutch starting in the mid-1980s because of the marketing possibilities.

    And I agree, we do seem to be on the same page.

    As to banditry in all but name…just remember you’re not a pirate if you have a Letter of Marque — you’re a privateer. :)

  50. Phil says:

    Noooo! Next gaming session I am *so* going to have to desperately resist using the “I don’t suppose we can make some sort of saving roll against this” line on my DM.

    Then again, it’s not like I ever make any other sorts of saving rolls… :-/

  51. Tom says:

    “A king doesn’t have to be high-level, he needs to either be high level, or have people who are protecting him.”

    There’s another issue here. In D&D, at least, a king who is not high-level does not have the skill points necessary to be competent at kinging.

  52. Andi says:

    RE: Shamus’s comment:
    “Good point. I think everyone in Tolkien’s world has taken a level or two of Bard. Nearly everyone does a little poetry or song now and again.”

    My husband once said that if the LOTR movies really kept to everything in the books, they’d be musicals. :-)

  53. Andi says:

    This whole discussion about how high in levels/power/skills quest-granting NPCs have to be is why I like Call of Cthulhu. The person who sets you on your soon-to-be regretted path is usually either missing, dead, insane, or evil — or well on his way to one of those four. And your whole motivation is just to get out alive, preferrably sane. :-)

    Seriously, though, gaming requires some suspension of disbelief. If you’re going to start nitpicking “why doesn’t this guy just do this thing himself”, then you might as well just order a pizza and watch a movie instead.

    The simple answer to “Why is quest-granting NPC having us do this when he could much more easily do it himself?” is “Because you guys wanted to game tonight.”

  54. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    Shamus, I have been up FAR too late the last two nights reading up to this one. You have finally taught me to stop keeping liquids near my computer, for which the IT dept at my office will likely thank you. (On that note, anyone know of a good LCD cleaner? ‘Specially for Dr Pepper?) Excellent work, my good man!

    If I may toss in a comment or two:
    The Quest – While I agree that it is crutch-like, if your legs are broken you need…crutches. With some players, making things obvious at first helps. However, this doesn’t mean that you should ignore certain nods toward realism. Consider points made by other posters that most likely the NPC in question needs sub-contractors because his employees are busy elsewhere. Consider also the possibility that the NPC in question has some other nefarious purpose in mind and adventure #1 is just a lead-up. In adventure #2 (or #3, #4, whatever) the players find out that the king/mayor/guildmaster/general/etc they are working for is actually just using them to distract others from his real goal. Play together long enough and your players will learn that they do not need crutches. Who knows, you might even help them excercise the most unused parts of their brains – their imaginations.
    The Uber-NPC – There have been some excellent points made here about the validity of having a king (or other member of high authority) handing out quests to take on some local brigands or such. One way to address the question of “Why?” is by creating a valid backstory, but I must admit that my favourite way of dealing with this comes from a combination of sources: ShadowRun, the Perdido Street Station novels of China Miéville (covered in the current edition of Dragon mag), and Terry Pratchet’s DiscWorld being a few. Simply put, don’t use a generic feudal society to base your campaign in. LoTR, GreyHawk, DragonLance, The Grand Duchy of Karamaikos – all of these take place in feudal societies: the locals are ruled by a knight/Earl/Baron who owes fealty to a Duke/Count who is the representative of the king. Instead, put the characters in a society using a different organizational system: capitalism, for example, perhaps with a dash of democracy (but not too much). “Why?” is easier to explain as a matter of resources – and low-level PCs are expendable, at least according to Expert NPCs. Also, it makes for an interesting difference to what players expect when they meet a scheming power-hungry political representative who is more interested in keeping votes than in gathering gold. The best example of this juxtaposition of “typical” fantasy feudal system with “real-world” politics and economics has to be Lord Vetinari, leader of Ankh-Morpork, from Pratchett’s long-lived DiskWorld novels. Check it out (as if most of you haven’t already read them all…)

    Keep in mind with a character like Vetinari that while he may not be the most PHYSICALLY intimidating specimen, he packs a plenty mean punch when it comes to political back-biting and skullduggery. Players who like to challenge authority may find that Vetinari was already expecting their attack.

    All the best all!
    Richard

  55. Dune says:

    What no comments about being without gear while they’re staring at the gear hog?

  56. One of the best campaigns I played in had a very simple plot hook. There was no XP in this game. If you wanted to raise your stats or gain skills beyond human, to work magic or craft items of power, you needed this elfish substance called “Water of Life.” There was no other way to gain power or increase skills in this game.

    There were three ways to gain water of life. One was to be a vampire, praying on elves and magicians. One was to be an elf, a loyal retainer of Oberon, king of the Fairies, and be paid for your loyal service because your family has served him since the Dawn of Time. One of was to go to the mysterious Tavern of Lost Loves that rested in the Wood Between the Worlds, where elfs or vampires who wanted tasks done, but did not want the tasks to be traced back to them, would post on a magic sign board a description of the quest that needed doing–it was basically a want ad section.

    So our human characters, who otherwise would have been chow for these elves and vampires, started taking on the odd jobs posted to the sign board. Every session the moderator would add or subtract some: most of them were based on stories straight out of Grim’s fairytales or Hans Christian Anderson, so we were off rescuing Rapunzel or trying to get the Unsmiling Princess to laugh, or trying to find the egg that contains the soul of Koschey the Deathless.

    In other words, every session started with us looking through the want ads. We picked the threat level by picking the reward amount posted in the want ad–the quests promising princely rewards were near impossible.

    And, of course, the business was more than somewhat shady, since all was done on the sly. Some clients were pure evil; and we rarely knew who the client was. People we pissed off stayed pissed, and so we had to keep getting more Water-of-life to defend ourselves from increasingly hostile magical enemies. There was also a rival group of adventurers who were chasing us to the juicier quests that we had to out-perform, out-wit, or bump off.

    The moderator used all this as a hook to get us involved in the court intriges seething at the court of the fairies, because one of the PC’s was the missing heir to the throne, and so on, and so forth.

    Moderator never had any problem keeping us on track: if we did not follow the quest, we got no Water of Life, and powerful enemies hunting us would be able to overpower us.

    No, this moderator had the opposite problem: we were so focused on the missions, that we never stopped to talk to the NPC’s to look at the cool background or pick up rumors and clues meant to help us out in the second half of the campaign. Railroad? We rushed down the railroad so fast we did not stop long enough along the way to pick up the clues we needed.

  57. Steve The Not-to-be-Trifled-With says:

    Easy explination for why super buff NPCs assign PCs with tasks. The tasks are far below the NPCs party level and would therefore not earn them any XP!

  58. Wulfric says:

    There will never be a good answer for this question because if there were, it would ruin the quest system as we know it. No longer would we have reason to embark on quests for loot because all the powerful NPCs would have already done the task and taken the loot for themselves and we’d get nothing. I play MMORPGs like Everquest, WoW, even the new Lord Of the Rings Online and all of the quests are basically just playing errand boy for the NPC.

  59. Sewicked says:

    Yeah, uber-PCs (12th level & up) sending low-level schlubs to take care of an issue is a problem that I’ve often seen in Living Greyhawk. One of the few times it was handled well; ‘my boss doesn’t really think this threat is real & he’s handing this other major problem. I can’t leave my duties to investigate it myself, but he’s allocating a bare minimum to look into it, just in case I’m right.’

    My D&D gm got tired of the ‘why are you people together’ so we’re all Military Scouts. Our first mission: deliver these supplies to edge of empire. Yeah. We found an evil druid. And then an orc army. And then…well, let’s just say that we’ve been reported dead/AWOL so many times our commanders just say ‘where’ve you been this time’ when we show up.

  60. Telcontar says:

    “Myself, I neither play nor run games for the “interactive storytelling” or the “plot”. If I want interactive storytelling, I play a CRPG. If I want plot, I read or write another novel. Gaming is about, for me and most of the players I know, working to collectively solve the puzzles (traps, monster encounters, etc.) that the GM sets before us.”

    Poor argument. The “interactive storytelling” in a CRPG is interactive for one person only, and the interactivity is limited by however much content the game designers put in. You’ll never have the range of action that’s possible in any tabletop game.

    As for plot, well, you must never watch any movies, then, because no movie has a plot as good as the best novels. But seriously, roleplaying/having a hand in the plot is a hell of a lot different from a novel. The things that make an RPG plot good are quite different from the things that make a novel plot good. Apples and oranges.

    If gaming is really about solving puzzles, why don’t you just play adventure or puzzle games instead?

  61. FlameKiller says:

    “Hanging about in these woods instead of chucking a fireball at Saruman”

    Just great lines at the best of times

  62. Ed the Higg says:

    Apologies for the long-winded post in advance.

    For years I’ve been coming up with solutions to this enduring little paradox. Some have been discussed here. Others haven’t. B-)

    1) The quest giver isn’t super-powerful, but his guardians are.

    2) The quest giver IS super-powerful, but circumstances prevent him from doing the quest himself (duties of office or position, magically bound to a place (aka. the “dryad clause”), afraid of being seen out and about by an enemy/friend/family member/whatever and will suffer consequences if seen somewhere where he shouldn’t be, political need for a hands-off approach, etc.).

    3) The quest giver isn’t powerful, but killing him will cause more harm than good (his lifeforce is the only thing keeping a demon lord bound, he’s the only one who knows how to stop something big and nasty (a dragon, a coming volcanic eruption, a god, a big missile [Modern or Sci-Fi], a killer satellite or orbital weapons platform [Sci-Fi]) from destroying some place which the PC’s hold dear, a curse will befall whoever spills his blood, his end of the deal is that he will reveal/show/introduce something or someone the PC’s desire when their quest is finished, etc.).

    4) The quest giver is powerful but has a good reason or ulterior motive for not undertaking the quest himself (the quest giver is a god or other important person who couldn’t care less about the quest objective and is only using the quest to gauge the character and/or mettle of the PC’s, the quest giver is crippled by a phobia (ie. the quest is on a mountain and the quest giver is an acrophobe), the quest giver is a secret enemy and the quest is actually a trap (and the quest giver won’t kill the PC’s himself because he’s afraid he might actually lose, or it’s a convenient way to feed his pet hydra, or he’s fulfilling a prophecy, or he’s too prissy to get his hands dirty, or the PC’s might actually do something beneficial to him by wandering into his trap, or he has a nemesis and he doesn’t want to waste his spells on the PC’s for fear that the nemesis will show up and find him low on magic, etc.), etc.).

    5) Killing the quest giver would be counterproductive because the quest reward is a less tangible or more complicated form of treasure which must be bestowed by the quest giver personally (information (if the PC’s try torturing the quest giver, the quest giver gives them dangerous misinformation instead…), titles of office or nobility, allies or henchmen, land deeds, ownership of a large or prestigious or otherwise desirable vehicle (sailing ship, exotic mount, juggernaut, rare sports car, armored land vehicle, aircraft, spaceship…), marques of passage to some forbidden place, formulae for rare spells, special privileges, pardons for past crimes, the release of a certain prisoner, an end to an unpleasant spell or curse which the quest giver cast (and only he can break the spell…again, torture won’t work), stat increases, cybernetic implants [Sci-Fi], wetware weapons or armor [Sci-Fi], a cure for a disease or other malady which plagues the PC’s or someone they care about, etc.).

    6) The quest giver is powerless and cannot offer any reward, but it may be in the PC’s best interest to let the quest giver live and do the quest (appealing to a Good PC’s alignment to help those in need, appealing to an Evil PC’s alignment to take the opportunity to serve the PC’s selfish driving goal(s) and/or inflict misfortune on others, the existence of great treasure along the quest is foretold or implied, the quest giver knows the name of someone important or well-known to the PC’s (implying that there may be something at work behind the scenes and the PC’s would serve themselves well to look into it), etc.).

    (Alternately, don’t give the PC’s any reason to undertake the quest but give a great, unheralded reward to the ones who do finish the quest, thus encouraging the PC’s to take quests from all of your beggars, harlots and fishermen in the future.)

    7) The PC’s are actually on the quest giver’s payroll. If they want to keep their jobs, they must keep the quest giver alive AND do as he says. Happily, the pay, benefits and/or prestige are good. (This is more common in Modern and Sci-Fi campaigns, of course.)

    8) The PC’s are somehow enslaved to the quest giver, temporarily or permanently (they’re geased, they’re psionically dominated, they’re acting on post-hypnotic suggestion, they’re Blood-bound [Vampire], the quest giver has implanted (bombs/poison capsules/malicious nanobots) in their bodies which will (detonate/release their poison/cause fatal aneurysms) if the quest giver either dies or somehow commands the devices to kill the PC’s [Sci-Fi], etc.)

    See? There are oddles of ways to get around this paradox. I’m sure I’ve missed some reasons or devices, too. Feel free to rattle off more ideas.

    And remember: reward is subjective. PC’s can be rewarded by giving them something good, but you can also reward them by taking away something bad. ;-)

  63. Samuel Skinner says:

    My guess? They are lazy. Incredibly lazy. PCs on the other hand are willing to cross whole continents for the possibility of loot. Plus, the NPCs probably view the PCs as dispossible- I mean, it isn’t like they show remorse for their loses. Or killing for that matter.

  64. Robin says:

    “I want you to go to the black swamps of Telgar to investigate why people are disappearing there.”

    “Don’t you have a squad of extremely powerful ninjas rumored to be the best in the world at that sort of spying?”

    “Yes. I’m sending you in to investigate what happened to them.”

    —————————–

    In a Flashing Blades campaign, I had Richelieu invent a series of missions that took the party all over Europe because, while their success rate was excellent, the collateral damage was too high (chateaus set on fire to erase clues, riots begun to distract the authorities, etc.). Richelieu finally concluded that he wanted that level of chaos and destruction to take place elsewhere than France.

    ————————–

    I have had good success with the following:

    The characters are hired by a Great White Wizard to sneak into the Black Mage’s castle to steal the Ruby of Power in his throne that is the source of his power. After they go through the traps, monsters and other dangers outside, they have to make their way through the guards and castle traps, finally arriving at the throne room, to find the Great White Wizard calmly sitting and holding the ruby.

    PC: “If you were coming here, why did you hire us?”

    GWW: “To take all the risks, of course. Once the Black Mage’s full attention was bent on killing you, I had no trouble slipping in.”

    PC: “Why didn’t you at least tell us?”

    GWW: “Because the Black Mage can read lower-level minds. Why do you think you wound up facing every minion he had?”

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