Embracing the Artifice

One of the primary goals of the second level of Keystone, bombastically titled The Blasted Battlements of Tour Toriel, is to teach the players about the Hinder SFX.  If you’re not familiar with Hinder, the short form is that it’s a thing that players can do on any roll where they recognize that one of their distinctions is not helping them but hindering them; they swap out the distinction’s usual d8 for a d4 and they earn a plot point.  It is a wonderful mechanic and one of the cornerstones of the plot point economy.  It’s also a little counter-intuitive for some players, hence the goal of teaching new players how to use it.

To teach Hinder, I wanted to give the players lots of opportunities to practice hindering their rolls.  Or to put a finer point on it, I wanted that to be most of the adventure.  And, since the game’s archetypes come with predefined sets of distinctions, I also knew what distinctions are going to be in play.  This gave me the opportunity to build the entire adventure out of Hinders.

You can see in the spread at the top of this post what an encounter looks like, with the Potential Hinders box there in the middle doing most of the work.  That was the end goal; all I had to do was scaffold my way there.

The Process

Six players with three distinctions each means eighteen distinctions.  If each of the adventure’s encounters provided opportunities to hinder three or four distinctions, that’s five or six encounters.  If I rig things so that each distinction appears twice, that’s nine to twelve encounters.  That sounds about like an adventure’s worth of encounters.

So I sat down to plan out the Battlements (at the time titled the Ghastly Garrison).  I listed off the six archetypes’ eighteen distinctions and did a quick brainstorm of ways those distinctions might be hindered.  Then I started sorting those distinctions into twelve buckets.

When a distinction got added to a bucket, it got a slash; when it got added to a second bucket, the slash got turned into an X.  I made sure I didn’t put two distinctions from the same character into any one box.

For some of these encounter-buckets I knew from the start what that encounter would be.  The Gatehouse could have undead orks shooting magebane ammunition and cramped quarters.  That hit Outland Ork, Initiate of the Arcane Mysterium, and Over Hill and Dale right off the bat.  Later I’d add in World Traveller as a challenge to future-me to figure out how that applied.

Others I didn’t know what the encounter would be, but I knew what sort of themes and logistics would be involved.  The very first bucket I just labelled “Tall Thing” and listed off Goblin, Dwarf, and Halfling, since half the archetypes have heritage distinctions that could be hindered for short height.  Then I added in Veteran of the Ogrewar and made the “tall thing” into ogres.

There was a little pigeon-hole puzzle sort of rejiggering involved, but over the course of a couple hours I was able to cram eighteen distinctions into ten encounters two times over.  I had an outline, and from there, writing the adventure was clear sailing.

Completely Backwards

The reason why I thought this would make for an interesting post is that I think for a lot of players, this seems like preparing an adventure completely backwards.  What I did not do was sit down and say, “Okay, the PCs are going through the battlements of a fortress; what would they presumably find there?”

Now to be clear, that’s a perfectly fine way of building an adventure, and one that I’ve used many many times over.  My goal here is not to say this method is superior, but that this method has benefits to be enjoyed.  The fact that this method is far from obvious also makes it worth highlighting.

At first blush, it may seem nearly impossible to jam together four random distinctions being hindered in one situation.  Surely you’ll only get nonsensical garbage out of this process.  I cannot stress enough that, while understandable, this obstacle absolutely evaporates once the adventure hits the table.  After all, the players around the table are already sitting down to take literally random die rolls and stitch them together into a comprehensible narrative.

Most of the time, players will not even blink when they hit “there’s a path through the rubble here, but the elven frost mages are on your tail.”  It will never occur to them that the entire encounter was born out of “there’s a tight squeeze and a freezing aura and also elves.”

On a broader scale, there is a sort of kneejerk response to this method that says, “but all you’ll get is a bunch of weird encounters that don’t work together; your end result will look like some sort of Crazy Quilt!”

Caption: Batman is a weird comic.

The key here is maintaining tone and aesthetic across these encounters and trust that the players will fill in the rest.  That tight squeeze with the frosty elves connects the Gatehouse encounter to the Cursed Treasury encounter.  What would normally connect a fortress gate with a treasury?  Well, that’s the path that a returning victorious army would take to drop off their hard-won spoils.  The tight squeeze becomes the ruined Promenade of Glory, strewn with rubble.  It’s still patrolled by the ghosts of the Summitwarders, elite elven frost mages, because why not have frosty elf ghosts, right?

Players are going to be focused on their objective—in this case, getting through the Battlements to the Keep—and will work whatever obstacles they encounter into the story in their heads.  All the GM has to do is provide colorful details, and the players will do the rest.

Embrace the Artifice

This is a very particular instance of a much broader pattern that underpins tons and tons of narratives.  When we only see the finished product and especially as we co-create the narrative as we consume it (which we do while gaming, while reading, while watching movies), we tend to think of stories as coherent, unified things that must have been created with a top-down master plan.

The reality, though, is that all stories are made up of atomic pieces.  You can just as easy build a narrative by starting with the pieces you want to include and build up from there.  By embracing the artifice, we can make stories out of nearly any pile of fictional stuff.

In The Blasted Battlements of Tour Toriel, that’s a long string of Potential Hinders.

In Smallville, it’s a short list of beliefs about values and relationships that can be strained, threatened, and challenged.

The first adventure of a new campaign might simply be a list of characters, one from each major faction in the game, and a way to get into trouble with each of them.

It can also be the reveals list of what the characters need to discover before they can make an informed choice about how to deal with the current situation.

Renegade Jennys and Boilerplate Jacks uses a very specific list of player-seeded setting elements, character introductions, reveals of their motivations, and looming consequences.

In the next Keystone level, the Keep, it’s going to be the thirty-six other SFX on the six archetypes.  Wish me luck!

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