The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Last time we analyzed how adventures tend to have heroes leave their starting location behind. This can impact the emotional ties and undermine the motivations for heroes to adventure. What happens if heroes don’t leave it all behind, and how can we change our design approach?
We could choose to write adventures differently. Some have. In the D&D Next adventurers Murder in Baldur’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard, the heroes stay in their location (Baldur’s Gate, Ten Towns) and see it change due to their actions. In these adventures, the players and their characters can only confront two of three threats at a time. Their city/towns are impacted by this. Their successes improve the location, while the issues they can’t resolve worsen life visibly for the inhabitants. The result is a stronger connection between players and setting. Your actions have tangible consequences.
When I ran Tomb of Annihilation, I used an early draft of the Acquisitions Incorporated franchise rules. This allowed the players to have hirelings back in Port Nyanzaru. While the PCs were exploring the jungle, the lost city of Omu, or the huge Tomb, their hirelings continued to resolve important issues back home. The hirelings acted as the PCs’ agents, carrying out their will. This allowed players to keep in touch with their home base and it reinforced how important their quest was. They could be deep in a tomb and still see the balance of power shift in Nyanzaru, as their actions forced colonial foes to depart Chult.
Imagine if Descent Into Avernus had a way for NPCs in Baldur’s Gate to provide updates to the players. And if the actions the players took in Avernus, such as dealing with devils or defeating a powerful fiend, had a mirror effect in Baldur’s Gate? The heroes would be constantly reminded of why they are adventuring and of the huge stakes. The city’s future is in the balance! Similarly, in Rime, the PCs’ quests could directly impact the Ten Towns, with the players returning from their expeditions in the first chapters to see tangible results. In later chapters, they could have a means to receive reports, continuing to see consequences. The emotional weight and feeling of impacting the setting would be far stronger.
Imagine if Dragon Heist kept going back to Trollskull Manor. The actions of the characters could gain allies who raise the tavern’s stature, and improve its business, but foes could react by threatening and undermining their business. Trollskull could be an awesome parallel to Waterdeep itself. If the heroes prevail, their tavern could become a place of influence within Waterdeep. And in this model, the recovery of the dragons would have greater purpose, allowing to catapult their goals forward!
Not every adventure needs to do this to have resonance. Witchlight is a strong adventure despite the lack of a home base, in part because you are not of this world. Your being of another world is a key to the experience. To work around this, wherever the heroes go they meet NPCs impacted by the villains. The motivation and emotional significance is handled at the local level very strongly.
When designing, we can ask ourselves what the role of a home would be, and whether to lean into that. If we are leaving home behind, or if we don’t use a home base at all, how do we maintain emotional ties and a sense of the effects heroic actions (and failures or setbacks) have on the setting?
To underscore the above, we can consider the following options.
Stay Home: You don’t have to leave home behind. The adventure can revolve around a home (as it could have with Trollskull Manor) or you can come back to it after each phase of the adventure (as we do in Legacy of Icewind Dale).
The Small World Principle: As DM David writes here, we can keep our world small and continue to revolve around the same NPCs and setting elements. This keeps the world intimate and relevant.
Home is Impacted: When the heroes adventure, we can consider the impacts their actions (or lack of success) will have on their home. If the characters defeat some but not all of the bandits, there could be retribution against the villagers who hired them.
This can also include elements the characters can’t control. If the characters adventuring around Ten Towns return from exploring and find the Rime is worsening, or if duergar attacks have escalated, it underscores the need to find a solution. Once they take action, those threats lessen. By seeing that progress even infrequently, the stakes are clear and the importance resonates.
Enable Notifications: The heroes might adventure far from home, but have some way to periodically learn of what is taking place at home. This could be visions, a crystal ball, or something similar. By seeing what is taking place back home, we can reinforce why they must prevail against evil and underscore the importance of their choices.
In the adventure The Regent of Bedegar in MCDM’s Kingdoms & Warfare, we provided a method for the players to stay in touch. This allows the results of their missions (both diplomatic and warfare) to resonate. It also provides a voice for the DM, allowing the DM to speak through the NPCs and provide guidance as needed.
Remote Control: The heroes have some way to remain in contact with their home and continue to interact with and influence their home. This can be magic items such as sending stones or a crystal ball of telepathy, spells such as scry, or special means devised for the adventure.
Three rules found in D&D can help us remain in touch with home.
Patrons (found in Eberron and Tasha’s) provide a meta-organization to which the heroes belong. A patron can be an organization like a faction, such as the Harpers or an explorer’s society. Or, it can be an institution such as a university or government. Patrons have the power to remain in touch with heroes, providing updates.
Franchises (found in Acquisitions Incorporated) provide characters with a business or organization they manage, which can be part of a larger organization. Franchises come with rules for retaining a majordomo and hirelings, as well as roles which provide a means to contact the main organization. Hirelings in your employ can take downtime actions, meaning they can carry out the will of the party, and continue to impact your starting location, even as the party explores a large dungeon. The franchise can also evolve to travel with the party, allowing home to accompany the characters!
Downtime (found in several sources, see my series here) provides a great way to strengthen ties between heroes and their home base. Downtime can take place in between quests or location visits, providing means by which you impact your home base. When combined with a franchise, you can execute downtime tasks through your followers.
You can employ multiple techniques, and modify them to meet your needs. For example, a patron (university) can provide the equivalent of a franchise (an archeological program the PCs administer, including staff and a mobile base), all keeping in touch when the patron periodically reaches out with a sending spell. On a far simpler level, we can write adventures that stay home longer or return more often, so home remains relevant.
What are your favorite adventures that keep the characters connected to their home? What techniques have you employed?