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Why Do They Care? PCs, Settings and the DM

Picking on the Slow Kid

Now, I’m going to beat up on Hoard of the Dragon Queen, a 5E 100 page “super module” by Wizards of the Coast, an early 5E module that I had the unfortunate experience of trying to run creative and expressive players through. I know this is like picking on the slow kid in old-school junior-high PE by beaming his face with a dodge ball, but we’re going somewhere folks.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen is gorgeous. It’s a great book physically: hardcover, color interior, thick paper, nice interior layout. The cover art was Official WotC Sexless(TM), but that’s par for the course, now. And the adventure starts off with a bang. The PCs, as they are walking to a town, see a dragon swoop down and breathe on a bunch a guards.

Keep in mind the PCs are 1st Level. It’s the first thing that happens!

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. There are a multitude of sins in Horde of Dragon Queen; poor editing, plot inconsistencies to the adventure presented on rails when the players go off the rails by doing obvious things, maps that had poor keys (and sometimes were just bad maps), monster descriptions spread all over the place—just a mess. And the BANG! of the opening scene was lost in a series of frantic do this and do that while avoiding the dragon. This early 5E module is not recommended.

However, the sin of the module was the squandering of the rich, detailed setting that is the Forgotten Realms by having the PCs run around doing this, that and the other thing and meeting NPCs for the first time, doing some quest, and then moving to a different location.

And. My. Players. Didn’t. Care. About. Anybody.

And why would they? Remember that town with the dragon? As soon as they save it they are off to an enemy army camp. And while they may go back to that town, they are soon placed on a rail and leave, only to arrive at another location where the PCs hook up with a quest giver and are sent somewhere else.

Enter Some Wenches

Now I have some skills as a DM. I tried to make my NPCs engaging and the setting interesting. But the NPCs were just props in the PCs story without any life or passion. They were, for all intents and purposes, MMO NPCs in a static MMO town. One day I stopped the game mid session, had them roll-up 2E  AD&D characters, and started T1-4, Temple of Elemental Evil by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer.

LO MY PLAYERS ACTUALLY ENGAGED. They were engaged because they arrived in town and had to talk to people. The visited all the obvious places, talked to NPCs, hung out at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. They had to do role-playing to get to the Moat House, where the critters and bad guys were. This is what composed T1, The Village of Hommlet.

They had a blast in the Moat House, took their loot, went back to Hommlet —and bought some land and started to build a house.

That’s when I realized T1 was brilliant. Hommlet was a sandbox that had multiple ways for the DM to get the players to the Moat House. There was a clear map and interior maps of all the important buildings. The NPCs had secrets and motivations that were presented in such a way as to leave an impression they were real people that had lives that continued when the PCs went elsewhere.

I fell in love again with T1-4. Because my players loved it. The loved it so much they moved there!

Enter Some Bone

TSR also produced another great sandbox-style module, L1 The Secret of Bone Hill by Lenard Lakofka. The town of Restenford is Hommlet on steroids, containing mini-dungeons and is a place to adventure, not just kickback and buy a beer and resupply. Like T1, many NPCs in L1 had their own motivations (such as the Baron’s daughter, heh) and the town in the module is so engaging, fun and memorable, there is an entire blog about it.

I played in Restenford a couple of years ago. Like my PCs, me and my party decided to settle there. We had a great time.

Because we cared, in our role-playing way, about the town, and the people within.

The Crossroads Village

Curse of the Lost Memories starts in the Crossroads Village. Like Hommlet and Restenford, we try our best to present a setting where the NPCs have motivations and secrets of their own. Take a look at the map commissioned from Tad Davis:

Isn’t this map gorgeous?

I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to spit some tobacco on the ground and go “Well, back in my day we had T1 and L1, Sonny!” and wax nostalgic about the good old days. Sometimes the good old days were not that good and there are some great, current products on the market for Pathfinder and now 5E.

But I am the kind of guy who wants his cake and eat it too. I want a rich, detailed starting point along with a sandbox. I believe the goal of engaging scenarios a DM pressed-for-time can jump on—while the development DM can have an opened-ended starting point to spur the imagination—is obtainable and doable in one product.

And later, if the PCs find a dragon breathing on The Crossroads, they’ll actually give a crap. They will be righteously pissed and unleash their own fury. Because they’ll care about the place and the people who live there who think all the world of their heroes.



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3 thoughts on “Why Do They Care? PCs, Settings and the DM

  1. Thanks, great article! If you like adventures (or sandbox mini-settings, you might want to have a look at CA1 Calidar — Dreams of Aerie (DTRPG), which is packed with fun, motivated NPCs. Just a thought. =)

    1. I did indeed check it out. I loved the self-contained setting! I haven’t finished reading the PDF, but its a great confluence of setting, NPCs and atmosphere.

  2. I was hoping you’d agree with me. =)

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