(See also A basic solution, the introduction to the series)
I run a D&D campaign for my children and my nephews, using the BECMI rules. Our goal is to go from level one to level epic and to explore, as much as we can, the D&D multiverse- Planescape style.
-Allow me to set the scene. You travel along the edge of the Kingdom of Goldenfields, following the road that will take you to the Keep on the Borderland. To your left, wheat fields are spread out over the land like a deity’s colossal, yellow picnic blanket. To your right is the River Dessarin, the eastern border of the kingdom. Beyond the river, hills and more hills, their grassy tops sprinkled with boulders. These hills are home to a tribe of hill giants who, you have just noticed, are all dead. As you approach this hill giant massacre, you spot a dead drow at the epicentre of the carnage, his head pulverized by a giant’s heel.
-What’s a drow?
-A dark elf.
-Like an evil elf?
-How can we tell it’s an elf?
-You said a giant squished his head. How would we know he’s an elf?
-Oh . . . um . . . ah, oh! You see pointy ears sticking up out of his mashed brains.
-Wait? No way! Did the elf-
-Whatever. Did he kill all those giants, by himself?
-Um . . . yeah. It appears so. The slash marks on each corpse matches the blades of the two scimitars he holds in each hand- even in death.
-Cool. What’s a scimitar?
-It’s a sword with a curved blade. Actually, make an intelligence roll to see if you recognize this dead drow.
Dice roll across the table.
-Mandy. Your elf recognizes this fallen warrior. He is the famous drow ranger: Drizzt Do’urden.
Mandy shakes her head. Before we had started this campaign, none of my players had heard of D&D- let alone Forgotten Realms.
-Drizzt, the legendary hero of the north.
Silence. You can hear the chirping of crickets in the front lawn outside.
-Oh c’mon. How could you not know Drizzt? Books have been published about his heroic deeds. He’s the most famous hero in all of Forgotten Realms.
The players glance around the dining room, scribble on their character sheets. Uh-oh, I’m losing them.
-You notice that the chain mail Drizzt wears is sparkling, like- I dunno -disco ball sparkling. His two scimitars are flashy, like pimped out flashy.
Yeah, that got their attention. All eyes are back on me.
-Magic items! They have to be. How else could he have killed all those giants?
-Mandy, don’t you have detect magic?
-Oh yeah, I do. I’ll cast detect magic.
-All right, cool. The two scimitars, the chain mail and a statue of a panther all respond to your spell by radiating a fluffy yellow glow.
-I’ll have a scimitar.
-I call shot gun on the chain mail.
-I want that. I do more fighting than you.
-No! You can have the panther statue.
-No way! Statues are lame.
And that, boys and girls, is the perfect adventure hook. Killing Drizzt, it was never personal; I never disliked the fellow. I have a good reason for stabbing Drizzt in the head with an adventure hook, so to speak.
Within a half day’s march from the player characters current location is the infamous Mincemeat Dungeon. Every low level adventurer who has explored this dungeon has been killed in this dungeon. Yet still they come, willing to risk being minced up by whatever lurks in the maze of corridors and chambers- and for what? Treasure- so the rumours go- treasures worth dying for. Wondrous magical items buried under a small hill of gold coins. It’s every Munchkin players’ desire and my young players can Munchkin play all day.
Sure this Mincemeat Dungeon is just an obvious plot device, yet still I can’t rely on it to steer my players in the direction I need them to go. Should the players dilly-dally or decide to ignore the dungeon, looking for something else to explore, the players will remove their player characters from my hand-drawn maps and enter a vast emptiness similar to the Nothing in which gobbled up all of Fantasia. I am sure most DMs will agree with me that it is mentally excruciating running a game session with nothing. You need something.
Random encounters and random rambles around a map won’t hold my players’ attention for long. They will grow restless and bored, vote Dungeons & Dragons off the island, and go back to playing Skyrim on their X-box. Conflict is how I will keep them rolling those funny shaped dice. Think of your favourite book or movie and I’ll bet you one platinum piece that what makes the story so memorable is conflict. Only through conflict will the hero, or in my case the player characters, remain front and centre throughout the plot.
I will achieve conflict by having the player characters find and loot Drizzt’s dead body. As once word gets out that a party of level 2 adventurers are carrying Drizzt’s magical awesomeness, every newbie adventurer will be zeroing in on the players, to grab for themselves- by force if necessary –a bit of Drizzt’s power.
In theory, any hero wannabe armed with magical scimitars or protected by Mithril chain mail armour should survive the Mincemeat Dungeon long enough to bag themselves those wondrous magic items- maybe even fill up a sack or two with gold coins. So by giving the players what everyone else wants, creates more conflict than all the battles fought throughout the Star Wars saga.
Being hunted by low level NPC magic-users and fighters and clerics, (oh my) that’s the least of my players’ problems. The Lords’ Alliance is hunting them down as well. In my campaign, Drizzt is an agent who serves the Lords’ Alliance: the coalition of rulers of the kingdoms of the north. The citizens of Metropolis have Superman to save them; the Lords’ Alliance has R. A. Salvatore’s danger ranger drow to keep them safe. So highly valued is their mighty champion that the Lords’ Alliance would pay an army of mercenaries to find and secure Drizzt’s magical items.
What will my players do with Drizzt’s magic items? Will they declare the items as lost and found; return them to the Lords’ Alliance? Will they keep the items for themselves? Or will they fight to the death to uphold their rights to finders keepers?
What would the gamers who you game with do in a situation such as this?
When running my campaign, everything I do, I do it for the players, to keep the focus of the game on their player characters. But how am I supposed to stay focused on the player characters when playing in a campaign setting that is constantly drawing attention to itself? What’s the point of a player character above level 6 when they live in a world abundant with Mary Sue wonder wizards? A plague of wizards saving the entire world with their powerful magic and still be home in time for dinner. So to prevent the player characters from being made redundant, Elminster Aumar, Khelben Blackstaff, Alustriel Silverhand, Lady Gaga, all of them must die.
Just like the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, I will begin the great deforestation of Forgotten Realms, cutting down all the mighty wizards. Once they are all vanquished, darkness will fall across the land, the forces of evil will be close at hand. Devils, Demons and other Outer-Planar things will be closing in. All the Nobility and the Peasants will turn to the player characters and shout: “save us!”
And the players, in true Munchkin style, will reply: “how much gold do you have?”