This is the first of a couple of posts about applying screenwriting techniques to your rpg game
Adventure happens when the heroes leave their normal, comfortable life and strike out on a dangerous mission. When even your heroes’ normal, ordinary lives are in a fantasy world, it can be challenging to establish a separation between the everyday and the extraordinary.
Alexandra Sokoloff’s recent article on Ordinary World vs Special World at her blog Screenwriting Tips for Authors contains a key insight about the beginnings of heroic stories:
Drama loves CONTRAST, and [detailing the Ordinary World] is one of the easiest ways I know to provide it, as well as revealing character, developing character arc, and working the themes of your story.
Here are a couple of ways to establish ordinary vs special world in your fantasy game.
Don’t skip it!: It’s okay to have some R&R in your D&D. Let the party take a breather in between mighty deeds and replenish their stores, resist the urge to handwave them to the next quest. If they don’t have a home base, maybe there’s an inn at the crossroads. If they are in the wilderness, an amusing old hermit or hardy homesteaders. For parties that travel back and forth between key locations, these inns and waypoints and camp spots can even become places your party looks forward to – a little bit of home in a dangerous world.
Give the players every opportunity to invest in the ordinary: When they return to a hero’s welcome, let them regale the mayor, hit on the wenches, pray at the temple to Pelor. Let the characters do what they would normally do by allowing room for role-play. These quirks, relationships, occupations and worries help flesh out the characters and will fill your DM toolkit with great hooks for future adventures. What’s more interesting: Yet Another Thieves Guild Quest or showing up one day at your favorite inn to find it’s been burned down mysteriously?
Use mechanics as a signifier for the Special World: When the players are safe from harm in their home base or a friendly city, that’s the ordinary world: when the players are rolling dice, they’re in special world. In the ordinary world there might be the occasional bluff or streetwise check, but a skill challenge is special world, where chance comes into play! The focus on the ordinary will make social skill challenges that much more exciting, because the contrast will bring out the adventure. Likewise, when the party starts rolling perception checks upon opening a door, the mechanical element will signal that danger is approaching.
When the players finally head off on their next adventure, you want them to know that they’re “not in Kansas anymore”. It only works if you let them explore what “Kansas” is – and give them reasons to go back.
Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog
The Writer’s Journey – A great resource on writing heroic, satisfying stories
Sarah Darkmagic’s Blog – her articles and mention of the above book really got me thinking critically about Adventure (with a capital A) and how, as a DM, to evoke that epic feeling at my home game