I’ve come to the conclusion that I generally suck at designing adventures. Certainly campaigns, I’ve run 2 major ones and never came up with anything resembling a narrative. At least, not intentionally. You see I am a great designer. I can say that with confidence nowadays, and have a small legion of happy fans and customers to back it up. Narratives, though. Not the best at them. I’ve designed multiple subsystems for 5E! Have only worked on 1 book, though. Like a story, I know I have a physical 5E product coming out.
So how do I shamble through campaigns? Well, I know I need to hook my players in somehow. Rarely do I pillage someone’s backstory for plot points. I did it a bit more in my second campaign. I’m hoping to do it more in my Sky Pirates campaign, when that comes up again. Not why we’re here, though. The most typical hook I use for the players is “go get the thing”. This other takes the form of “go find the thing, it’ll be useful for us if it’s in your hands” and “go repossess the thing, for similar reasons along with the general discomfort of bad guys”. This is a convenient way to present new mechanics, rewards, items, etc. to the players. Coincidentally, if I were to approach this backwards, I could develop new mechanics, discover the natural consequence of their presence in the game world, and insert them as a player hook from there.
This does not make for quality storytelling, at least not on purpose. There were certainly interesting moments that came out of these mechanics, but that’s because narrative is evoked from mechanics. The mechanics we use change the stories we tell. Even if you’re simply narrating an occurrence, you’re still subconsciously referencing (and perhaps modifying, personalizing) a mechanical structure at your table. You’ve read it, now you’re infected. No going back. You’re stuck with it. I tell you that to tell you this; those new mechanics I invent? They tell new stories.
Airships are not new in tabletop games by any stretch of the imagination, mine just happen to be better than just about anything on the market. The fact I beat WOTC to Spelljammer-adjacent mechanics aside (no, their 1-ton cargo weight airship in the DMG doesn’t count), having a ship greatly expands player freedom. As I discovered in my first campaign, too much freedom, or at least too much when I suck at designing adventures to give them a sense of direction. Which I still do, largely. So too much freedom. Ah, but what if I made yet another subsystem? I created Runes, powerful spells the players could access but only cast under certain conditions (which were essentially vancian magic).
Well I had a goal in mind for the players, now I just need a place to put these runes, and a reason for the players to go down there so they can discover them. Someone approaches the players and asks them to make an expedition down south, to unexplored territory. Great! Now, essentially no matter where they go, they’re in the “right” area. Not because I’m keeping them there, just because the main goal is fulfilled by virtue of exploring.
This might all sound like I’m creating cool narratives by excuse of the mechanics, but that’s a separate, upcoming article. You see, to keep the draw of the exploration aspect, players need things to discover, or be rewarded by their benefactor for discovering things that maybe didn’t have a reward in of themselves. Or beating other explorers to important locations, or just beating them in general. Point being, I need to keep up the act, because my players want me to, and get the illusion of things moving along by virtue of me coming up with this shit.
So, I did! I developed probably around a dozen runes across the course of the campaign. Then, I developed a bunch of psionic abilities. I developed mechanical events for travelling in the Nightmare, my version of the Far Realms. I never touched on the personal bestiary I’ve developed to challenge players with absurd items and abilities. I gained all of these mechanical options that open the floodgates of possibilities (on both sides of the screen) because expanding possibilities was the hook of the game I pitched to begin with. It was my excuse to push myself, sometimes in a somewhat tardy fashion, to expand upon what I and the players had access to that session. Again, my excuse.