by Mike Shea on 9 December 2014
There's a theme in recently published D&D adventures, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and Rise of Tiamat. It's a theme we've often seen in adventures before. Bad guys are working on a big nasty project and they need a number of items to complete the project. The PCs are sent to figure this out and, if they can, stop the bad guys from recovering the items.
"Wait, this is fake? What a bunch of bullshit."
Maybe you've already seen the problem in this type of story. If you haven't, let's clarify.
What happens if the PCs recover one or two of six items and the bad guys recover four? Is the plot completely foiled? Do the PCs only have to recover one, throw it in an ocean, and the story is over?
Or do we game masters have to ensure that, no matter what, the PCs can't actually recover the items?
This is what happens in Dragonspear Castle and Hoard of the Dragon Queen.
Spoiler Warning for Dragonspear Castle, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and Rise of Tiamat
In Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, the Cult of the Red Wizards is attempting to collect four elemental keys so they can open up a huge gateway to Thay and send undead legions against Waterdeep. As written, the PCs aren't supposed to be able to recover or keep the keys. After all, the Red Wizards need them to open their gate. If the PCs have one, the Red Wizards need to get it back or they can't open their portal at all. Here's a quote:
The Red Wizards of Thay are after four elemental keys scattered in various locations around Daggerford. The adventures in this book are structured in a way that makes it difficult for the characters to obtain the four elemental keys. Even if the players do everything right, most or all of the keys are likely to end up in the Red Wizards' hands, and that's fine.
Even if they fail to do so, they will have accomplished many other things of great importance such as earning Isteval's trust and defeating the evil Rakshasa Nadir.
Earning the trust of an NPC doesn't sound like a massive success for a big four-part adventure.
In Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat the head of the Cult of the Dragon, Severin, uses five Dragon Masks to perform his ritual and summon Tiamat. Five Wyrmspeakers each hold one of the masks and, while the PCs can hunt them down, the adventure is very clear that the PCs are never really supposed to recover any masks. Here's a quote from Hoard of the Dragon Queen:
In addition, the chest here is locked and magically attuned to Rezmir so that if she dies, its contents are teleported to the Well of Dragons and out of her slayers hands.
Here's one in Rise of Tiamat.
If he is asked about the White Dragon Mask, Varram grudgingly admits that he saw it in the pool—and that it has already been found and reclaimed by the cult, and is presently at the Well of Dragons.
How many times will your party hunt down dragon masks if they know they can never really recover them?
This comes down to a poorly implemented type of quest: the all-or-nothing collection quest. Severin needs all five dragon masks to summon Tiamat. The Red Wizards need all four elemental keys to open their portal. There are no variables. It's all or nothing.
When you run these quests at the table, it leads to problems. PCs either break the story the first time they recover an item or the DM railroads the adventure so the PCs can't keep the required items. Both of these are bad choices.
Instead, add variable successes to collection quests. What can the Red Wizards do if the only have two of the four elemental keys? Will the portal be weaker? Will they have to find an alternative to the key? Will the portal be unstable and lead to a greater danger for both the Red Wizards and the adventurers?
Recovering some, or even all, of the artifacts should set the villains back but it shouldn't stop their plot completely.
In a recent Tome Show review of the Rise of Tiamat adventure, James Introcasto offered a solution for the Dragon Mask issue in Rise of Tiamat: let the PCs recover the masks. Severin doesn't need the masks to summon Tiamat, but for each mask he doesn't have, Tiamat comes into the world a bit weaker.
There are rules for weakening Tiamt in Rise of Tiamat. Instead of using the requirements listed for weakening Tiamat, the PCs can weaken her for each Dragon Mask they destroy. The Cult of the Dragon still wants to hang on to as many masks as they can but if the PCs get one or two, it won't wreck the entire plot.
Let's look at another example.
Sarus the Ashbringer is a fromer Templar of Kalak and engages a villainous quest to resurrect the dead Sorcerer King. To do so he must recover seven of Kalak's artifacts such as his sacrificial bowl, his skull, his spear, and other such things. The PCs learn of this plot and a chase to recover the artifacts begins. Halfway through the campaign the Ashbringer leads an attack against the PC's headquarters to try to recover the artifacts they have. He can succeed or fail to do so based on how things go.
In the end, the Ashbringer only has three of the artifacts while the PCs have four. Instead of being able to fully resurrect Kalak, the Ashbringer must make a pact with a demon of chaos to gather the power he doesn't have. Further, the form Kalak takes on his return is not fully settled.
Had the PCs recovered all of the artifacts, Ashbringer would have to come up with an entirely new plot to resurrect the Sorcerer King.
If you look carefully you'd see that not only does this quest have options for both partial successes and failures but it also drives from the actions of the PCs and the reactions of Ashbringer. It sees through the eyes of the villain. There isn't a plot, there's a fluid story that changes depending on what happens.