What’s Happening in-Game
This week in my pirates campaign, the party is taking a breather after an assassination attempt, and is approached by friendly NPC Phaedra who leads them to the Philotropon – an underground chamber where moonlight is continually focused into an artificial pool and harnessed as magical energy. This is the most sacred point of connection with the goddess Luna.
They discover that an enchantment has been inscribed around the pool, in the very tongue and school of Hecate. They conclude that the witch must have been here a while to gain access to this room, and search the archives for leads. They learn of a disgraced high priestess who pried into certain secrets of life and unlife and disappeared generations ago.
They bribe the midget jester guy, Pan, into snooping around for them; meanwhile they go to the (newly conceived) chambers of the Elder Sybils to seek for a few more answers.
Campaign Technique: Ad Lib is for Early-game, “Railroading” is for later.
Gonna write a whole article on this later, but basically player ad lib should slump off the closer the campaign gets to the end, because you should be using your GM authority to tie everything up in a meaningful way. Otherwise your campaign will get overloaded with cool ideas, and some of the stuff your players brought in will fall by the wayside.
Group Technique: Open Dialogue about the game
We hadn’t gamed in a while, so I reviewed the story so far, invited them to help review the current situation, and asked if they had a course of action they wanted to start with, or if I should throw something at them. Asking something this straightforward not only helps you gauge where they’re at as players, it also requires them to check where they’re at, and gives a good reminder that – regardless of which option they choose – they are helping you create this experience.
Ad-Lib Technique: Change the Bad Guy’s Origin Story If The Players Start Getting Theories
This is a scary one, but if you do it right you’ll give your players the story that suits them best – and they won’t even know you changed anything! For my story, I planned an impostor witch: she’d arrived recently and stolen the shape and identity of a senior priestess.
Well, the party got the idea they were dealing with a mole instead, so they started looking into temple archives to learn about past events where someone might have “gone heretic.” They were so invested in this idea that I thought I’d better go with it.
I created an entirely new back story for my witch (you can read it here), based on three pertinent elements: #1, the group wanted (e.g., assumed they were dealing with) a mole. #2, the group wanted to (e.g., assumed they could) track her down via a searching-the-archives montage. And #3, I had already told them there were ancient necromatic tomes in the library (For defensive purposes only – like how Elrond might know the the tongue of Mordor).
So my core story didn’t have to change – a witch had “showed up” recently and started causing trouble – but now the players got to follow a trail of clues rather than NPC interactions (clues that wouldn’t have led anywhere if I hadn’t changed her origin story, but still) to learn about her, which is exactly what they were after.
Hard to make instant NPCs? Just give them gimmicks and details!
With the info from the archive, they next asked me if there was an old storyteller who could tell them more. That question demanded that I create a whole new class of NPCs: the Elder Sybils, women who were too old to hold office but whose visions and dreams guided the younger clerics.
Quick tip: when you have to make up NPCs on the spot, describing an interesting backdrop where they meet this person (I actually had three old ladies, archetypally working with with a spinning wheel), putting on an old lady voice, and pinching the elf-PC’s “cute” little pointy ears is WAY more memorable and interesting than saying “yeah, uh, you find a, like, bard woman, and she tells you X.” Just saying.
It’s not weird to pinch another guy’s ears if you’re a GM.