The Alphastream Game Design Blog
An adventure defines the town’s NPCs, establishing their personalities and providing roleplaying hooks to help players and their characters care about them and their village. When evil threatens the village, the heroes defend it, shedding blood to prevent its demise. After the battle, the heroes learn a clue regarding where the attackers came from. And off the heroes go, never returning to the village they were supposed to care so much about.
Why is this such a design trope? Should it be? Let’s take a look.
Adventure design typically works hard to start the characters in a place to which they should feel a connection, only to leave it behind. We can see this in official 5E adventures.
Lost Mine of Phandelver: We spend a lot of time at low levels in the town, and it’s your home base. You can join factions and work for NPCs. Shortly after you clear out the immediate problem, however, the quests dry up and your job is to leave town and chase after the villain. As we’ve discussed recently on the Mastering Dungeons podcast, later WotC adventures invite these PCs to leave the area entirely for new threats.
Tyranny of Dragons: The heroes arrive at Greenest, a town under siege. As soon as victory is achieved, the characters are charged with heading after the main threat and they leave Greenest to rebuild on its own. Chapter 3 gives lip service to the premise the characters might return to Greenest (for example, to briefly return treasure stolen from them), but it is entirely optional.
Princes of the Apocalypse: The town of Red Larch is fantastic design, full of interesting locations and great NPCs with whom you can bond. Once you latch onto the main quests to go after elemental cults, the quests dry up and Red Larch fades into the background.
Storm King’s Thunder: Nightstone is a town in dire need, but once you rescue it, you leave it behind to rebuild. You don’t come back. You then travel to one of three towns, save that town, and again leave it behind. No attachment is assumed or provided by the adventure.
Tomb of Annihilation: Port Nyanzaru is an awesome home… except you leave it halfway through the adventure, or perhaps even earlier. While you may uncover secrets that forever change the balance of power in Nyanzaru, the book doesn’t greatly support resolving that as part of the adventure.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist: Finally, you actually stay in your starting city! However, you are given an actual home and business to develop in Waterdeep… and other than a few ideas in that chapter, the adventure proceeds to forget about your home/tavern.
Descent Into Avernus: Baldur’s Gate is perhaps the emphasis for longer than many expected, but once you leave it behind you don’t spend time there again. On the positive side, you are still working to save it… though you may not have developed bonds such that you care to save it.
Rime of the Frostmaiden: We have amazing NPCs and many potential ways the Ten Towns could develop… but the heroes are lead into the wilds and to a glacier, and despite in theory being motivated by helping the Ten Towns, they may never return.
Other adventures, such as Witchlight or Abyss never establish a home. You move from location to location and then, presumably, to your next adventure.
The idea of characters leaving their starting location is baked into heroic fantasy, where the heroes head off into the ever more dangerous unknown. Part of this is the idea of the hero’s journey – you shed your past and your youth. We see it in Lord of the Rings, with hobbits leaving the Shire to reach Mount Doom (but, more on this later).
Another reason for this trope is the nature of RPGs, where characters gain levels and must face bigger threats. We take them from the town and its outskirts to the villain’s lands and lair, to end the threat once and for all. Each zone can have tougher threats than the previous one and we buy into that concept.
It may to some extent also be due to a lack of examples. Designers emulate previous design, and very few adventures give us a model for an adventure where we make the most of returning to our home base.
Because heroes leave their starting location, they lose most emotional ties to it. In Tomb of Annihilation, going through level after level of trap-filled rooms makes it easy for players to forget about the politics of Port Nyanzaru (a place fighting for survival against colonialism). I bet most players have forgotten the names of many of the Merchant Princes by the time they reach the end of the adventure. More importantly, they forget the reason they were adventuring. The effects of the death curse are ravaging the land. If you don’t see those increasing effects, it’s hard to feel motivated by that.
In Rime of the Frostmaiden, it’s really easy for players to soon forget about the plight of Ten Towns. In one of the strangest twists, half or more of the towns may have been destroyed just before you decide to go to the next place! It’s a strange thing for heroes to do, but it’s the right call because the adventure has no consequences for leaving. Time typically freezes for any location the heroes leave. Did the Ten Towns rebuild? Do some towns need help, such as from the quests you never resolved? You won’t know, and it doesn’t matter. The real consequence is that players have a harder time being motivated by the story and have fewer ties to the setting. While novels like LotR may have heroes leave town, they don’t forget the importance of home. LotR gives great emotional weight to coming back home, emphasizing both what they worked to save and what it cost them to do so. During the voyage, members of the Fellowship constantly reflect on home. That’s not something RPG adventures work to replicate, and it impacts play to remove that motivation and emotional resonance.
Next time… we will look at the alternative approaches we can use to resolve these issues!