Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Hook

Thunderspire Labyrinth starts off with a question that's faced published modules since the dawn of time: how do you get players to travel to the location of their next adventure?

In a way, it's a false dilemma. The correct answer is to not ask them to. In a perfect world, your second adventure would grow organically out of your first. Players of Keep on the Shadowfell would be drawn into the next story by a direct threat to Winterhaven, or by a desire to continue their crusade against the cult of Orcus, or through pursuit of the specific priorities their character has developed over the preceding sessions of play.

Thunderspire isn't having any of that. It wants players to get to its Labyrinth as quickly and efficiently as possible and it's not really concerned how that happens. A charitable view sees the module as wisely focusing on its core content, but there's no real dispute that in skimping on its hooks it's doing itself a disservice.

Thunderspire offers four key hooks to get player characters involved in its story. The first is entitled "Investigate the Bloodreavers". The Bloodreavers, if we remember back to Keep, are an organisation of hobgoblin slavers based out of the distant Thunderspire Mountain. The hook involves the players taking on the role of self-appointed slave police in order to look into the unfocused and fairly nebulous threat presented by this organisation. Those investigations will lead them quite quickly to Thunderspire, which is where our story begins.

If the players aren't quite the zealous vigilantes contemplated by the hook, the module provides for Winterhaven's Lord Padraig to offer up a 1,000 gp reward for the head of the Bloodreavers' chief. There's an unfortunate escalation here; in Keep, Padraig could summon a mere 100 gp to pay for the extermination of kobolds who were directly threatening the village; now he's got access to ten times that to spend on hunting down a group who are, on any fair view of it, Someone Else's Problem.

A more pressing problem with the Bloodreaver hook is that while it gives players a reason to tackle the first of Thunderspire's four mini-dungeons (the Chamber of Eyes), there's no through-line to keep them progressing on to the rest of Thunderspire's content. If your group is characterised by a mercenary nature or merely keen practicality, it's open to declare the adventure over after defeating the Bloodreavers in the story's opening act.

The second of the hooks is worse still. It's called "Trade Mission" and it's what computer gamers refer to as a "fetch quest". Winterhaven shopowner Bairwin asks players to make a delivery for him to the Seven-Pillared Hall, the small bastion of civilisation hidden beneath Thunderspire. Once again, this will occupy players long enough to get them to the adventure location, but then give them no reason to tackle any of the mountain's challenges. Also, the Forgotten Realms conversion for Keep re-cast Bairwin as a secret cultist of Orcus, so for groups that have used that article Bairwin may well be long dead.

A third hook, "Call to Adventure", is so brazen as to be almost deserving of respect. It amounts to little more than Winterhaven sage Valthrun telling players that Thunderspire is kind of an awesome place, in which they will probably find adventures. I quote:
Valthrun doesn't have any additional information, but he longs to convince a party of adventurers to explore the place and bring him back firsthand news. "Such wonders you will see," he keeps on repeating. "Such wonders, I am sure!"
As hooks go, this is on a par with the DM declaring that the next adventure is going to be in Thunderspire and asking if anyone has a reason not to go there.

The last hook is the real meat of Thunderspire Labyrinth and is ultimately so critical to making sense of the module that it should have been highlighted as compulsory. It's called "Slave Rescue".

As we know, Thunderspire plays host to the Bloodreaver Slavers. In "Slave Rescue" the Bloodreavers have recently captured a dozen slaves from a nearby village and absconded with them to the mountain. The players are engaged by a local do-gooder (the module suggests Winterhaven's Sister Linora) to pursue the slavers and rescue their victims.

The reason this works is that the slaves provide the module's much needed through-line. When the players confront the slavers, they find the slaves have already been sold to a nearby duergar faction. Attacking the duergar (located in a second mini-dungeon) results in the liberation of most of the slaves, but also reveals the depressing news that the last two of the captives were on-sold to a gnoll band for use as human sacrifices. A desperate pursuit of the gnolls leads to the third of the module's mini-dungeons, and eventually reveals the identity of Thunderspire's master villain.

There's an opportunity here so obvious that it's amazing the module misses it. What none of these hooks provide is a personal connection between the players and the adventure. As-written, the best-case scenario sees players motivated by a combination of greed and do-good-itude. To make Thunderspire a genuinely compelling game, you need to provide a reason why these problems are the players' problems.

It's as simple as personalising the captured slaves. The faceless villagers abducted by the Bloodreavers can just as easily be the PCs' family, friends, or even the entire named population of Winterhaven. Such a simple change instantly transforms a quest into their quest and gives them a unique and dynamic stake in the outcome of what follows.

In a worst-case scenario, if all you manage to do is coax players into visiting Thunderspire, you can at least be confident that once they get there, they'll find plenty to do.


Maelora said...

Nice synopsis that pretty much proves that this isn't a 'series' at all, but a bunch of wholly unconnected dungeon crawls.

This kind of anti-role-playing is why I hate the default 'points of light' setting - it tries to provide a deliberately vague campaign world with no nations, no cultures, no flavour at all... Just on to the next dungeon, well, because.

"After a week trekking through the Kingdom of Somewhere, ruled by King Whoever, you come to the city of Handwave, where - Oh to hell with it, none of you are interested in any of that, are you? Let's just get you to the dungeon and the first combat - I mean, 'encounter'. Right, you're facing two unicorns, a wereplatypus and four LolthFondled goblins. Roll inititive, suckers!"

Jake said...

Personally, I can't wait for you to take on Pyramid of Shadows (I hate that place!), but one step at a time. Thunderspire had some great encounters and some frustrating poorly-designed ones to.

Greg Tannahill said...

Maelora - I'm not sure it's a failing of the Points of Light concept so much as a failing of the individual modules. The Scales of War adventure path is nominally a Points of Light product and it's reasonably competent (though not perfect) at tying its stories together into something you can work with.

My suspicion, given when these products were released, is that the H series were being developed in silos without a lot of access to each other or to the finished form of the 4th Edition rules. If there's blame to be laid, it probably lies with Mike Mearls, who seems to have been overseeing the H1-3 line in toto.

Anders Hällzon said...

SPOILERS FOR A WHOLE BUNCH OF 4E AND 3.0 MODULES:The obvious difference between the "Scales of War" adventure path and the H1-E3 series is that H1-E3 isn't an adventure path. The adventures have light hooks between them, and there seems to be a common villain (Orcus) between at least H1, P2 and the Epic adventures, but they're ultimately freestanding. If you want to toss a Scales of War module into your regular campaign, some assembly (more like disassembly - of the prewritten plot) is required.

It's interesting to compare it with the official adventures for 3.0. (The ones starting with Sunless Citadel.) They're kind of disjointed too, but Ashardalon gets cameos throughout the adventures before you fight him in - IIRC - the last one. (And Gulthias gets a cameo in the Sunless Citadel before being the BBEG of a later module.)

Also, I have to point out that WOTC is giving away KOTS just after you finished it. Nice coincidence.

Greg Tannahill said...

Anders - you make a reasonable point, but throughout the modules and their marketing the H series suggest they can be played "alone or as part of a series". I don't think it's unreasonable to take them to task for not delivering on their advertised ambition.

And thank you for pointing me to the free KoTS. That's a very smart move on Wizards' part, and I think I'll highlight it in a post.

Anonymous said...

Having a strong hook to the adventure is very important. In one game I was playing back in v3.0 the DM bought an adventure module that flopped because us players didn't take the plot hook.

The plot hook was we met an old man in a bar who was willing to give us a map to an elephant graveyard. Full of great treasures we could loot, provided we did something while we were there (I can't remember what).

At the time my character wasn't very materalistic so greed wasn't a big motivator for me. I would of gone along with it, because I guess at the time we had nothing better to do.

However our druid didn't like the idea of raiding an elephant graveyard and talked us all out of it, and then quietly cast contagion on the plot NPC (permanently giving him huge social penalties unless an absurdly high level spell was used to remove the contagion).

That was kind of the end of that adventure.


Greg Tannahill said...

The rule of threes is a good idea to follow with plot hooks. If you wants players to get into a hook, you need three separate reasons for them to get involved, each with a personal connection to at least one party member.

For my Thunderspire game, I had a party member afflicted with a curse during the last battle of Keep that only Thunderspire's Mages of Saruun could lift; I had a party member's family captured as slaves by the Bloodreavers; and I had a party member who had a personal vendetta with slavers generally as part of his background.

Modern said...

It's really been fun to read these as you go through them, because we're about half a dozen sessions ahead of you, it looks like. I enjoy seeing where the changes I made match up with yours.

The 'personalize the slaves' angle seemed pretty obvious to me, and was very easy to work into the backgrounds of SEVERAL different characters. I didn't even bother with any of the others, this provided all the hook we needed, with the additional help of adding some time pressure to complete each subsequent mission as the stakes are progressively raised for the final captives.

SPOILER, of sorts:

The presence of an empty 'holding cell' in the final mini-dungeon also made it easy to add another captive to the roster and complete the through-line for the entire thing...

Todd said...

" or even the entire named population of Winterhaven."

This idea set into my mind so firmly upon my first read of the module that I was shocked to discover it wasn't actually written this way. When the slaves eventually get named, it took a re-read of the beginning of the module, to discover why I didn't recognize any of the names.

I eventually explained Winterhaven's lax attitude toward the kobold brigands and rumors of a death cult by revealing they were sheep. Kalarel (through his minions) was actually protecting Winterhaven to use as the first meal for the Thing Inside the Portal once it was No Longer Inside the Portal. Had I run Thunderspire afterwards, the hook would have been that without Kalarel's machinations to keep the population fat, dumb, happy, and most importantly safe, Winterhaven became a prime target for slavers. Thus the slaving attacks would have effectively been a direct consequence of the PC's actions.

I actually really like the "follow the slaves" plot engine, and think it's a clever way to keep the party moving from one location to another. Thunderspire looks a bit more like a series of mini-modules than just one. Unfortunatley, the pace set by the slave rescue is completely at odds with some other elements of the adventure.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Todd - Not sure I follow what you're saying with "the slaves eventually get named". They don't - you may be thinking of the A, B and C kitchenhands in the Horned Hold. They have names but they're not part of the slave group the players are looking for.