Recently I ran a new mission for my playtest campaign Black Griffin. In this particular mission, the party have been commanded to patrol their camp for a few nights (as a sort of punishment).
On reflection, not the most exciting adventure. So, to spice things up I decided there would multiple factions at play:
- A group of bailiff’s searching for wanted spies (whose description suspiciously matches the party),
- A cell of spies operating within the camp, and
- An advance party of orcish saboteurs looking to weaken the camp defences.
Writing an adventure around these various threads seemed tricky, but it got me thinking about the agenda design I've been doing with NPC stat blocks. Taking that I came up with an agenda-based adventure designed. Basically it's like an event-based adventure (from the Dungeon Master’s Guide) but for multiple threats.
In agenda-based adventures I give a bunch of enemy factions (which I will now call
threats) their own agendas organised into an
agenda ladder and start throwing them at the party one at a time.
For example, the agenda ladder I used for the orcs was as follows:
- Sabotage Camp. Goblins sabotage the towers and barricades on the North-West side of camp.
- Kill Patrols. Goblin assassins starts killing members of patrols.
- Clan Attacks. Orcs attack the camp en-masse.
Then you just start the ball rolling! For each in-game day or night I do the following:
- Randomly select a threat and check off one event. This is the foreground event and it directly involves the party.
- Randomly select another threat and check off one event. This is the background event and it occurs while the party are elsewhere.
I repeat the above until all the threats are thwarted or one reaches its final goal. All final agenda items are foreground events. This is normally some direct attack the party must thwart. The stuff of climactic, final scenes.
To make randomly choosing threat events easier I used index cards to make some improvised “threat cards”:
Additionally, every time the party move to a new location I rolled a d20. On an 18 or higher, a random clue is waiting for them in the area.
I think it's fairly obvious to mention this design is heavily influenced by fronts from Dungeon World. The design here is a bit less
narrative to fit with the Dungeons & Dragons style of play, but many of the principles are the same.
I used a pyramid structure for pacing. The first tier has three checkboxes (slow as the threat starts to feel its feet) then two, and the final tier (when the true stakes are finally revealed) has only one.
Running some of the agenda events in the background makes the world seem more alive. Things happen even if the party aren’t about to witness them. They aren’t the sole protagonists!
Lastly, the idea of checking off encounters is based on
bullet campaigns from Redmark Adventures Volume I (an excellent campaign book that unfortunately never got a sequel).
Where Things Need Work
Overall, it worked well. What could’ve been a routine traipse across the camp map actually turned into rich sessions which the players (seemed to) enjoy. But some areas of improvement include:
I messed up with the clues. Firstly, rolling for clues every time the party “reached a new area” doesn’t make much sense unless you’re on a dungeon crawl. If you’re just mooching about an open map (as the party were) I’d skip over frequently visited locations and often struggled to figure out when to roll.
An alternative might’ve been to place clues in specific locations rather than randomly scatter them around. I think this has problems too: players could all to easily sweep the camp and collect all the clues in one go. And it makes things too static: clues dynamically appearing makes the world seem more alive. Perhaps a more detailed map might’ve helped here, making it more noodly to stumble upon a clue?
Also, the probability of encountering a clue (the same as for random encounters) needed to be higher. Perhaps it could even increase as the threat agenda burns down. Maybe using some kind of usage die mechanic? There is a clue in any scene on a roll of 1 of the clue die. The clue die starts at something like d10 and counts down to d8 → d6 → d4 per day.
I really like the idea of threats: it worked well in play and it's easy to devise new threats. The interaction with multiple agendas kept the flow of the game going without requiring massive prep and unduly railroading the players.
It also has a lot of potential: you could easily bundle up a bunch of encounters, locations and agendas into one
threat block. I’ve already started thinking about campaign threats where each checkbox could be an entire adventure.
I was worried the pyramid structure of the agenda ladder would risk throwing samey encounters at the party. This didn’t happen in play, and if you keep the agendas general enough there is plenty of leeway to change things up.
The main problem is that, with three threats, the agenda ladder had too many events (18 in total). I had to cut things short, even when the party took one threat out of action early on. So I think a smaller ladder perhaps with two just minor events, one medium and one final event might move things along faster.
Lastly, making cards to shuffle and deal when drawing background and foreground events didn’t work that well. There were just too few cards to shuffle effectively so I’m not sure how random my choices were. Again, some kind of usage die mechanic might be more effective here.