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The Deeper Well

This Boy Is Our Last Hope

by James Bierly
May 19,2005


This Boy Is Our Last Hope

The epic quest is a plot archetype familiar to any one who has roleplayed for any length of time. Most of us have long ago lost track of all the times we have been dispatched to retrieve a magical whatsit, overthrow a dark lord, or rescue a princess.

Yet compared with the epic quest tales we all know and love such as Star Wars, The Lord Of The Rings, The Odyssey, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Wizard of Oz, etc., these roleplayed quests often feel superficial and empty. The quest is fun because it gives structure to the campaign, and provides plenty of good reasons to kill things. But the magic and power that makes the aforementioned tales so popular seems to be missing from many roleplayed quests.

What is lacking is the underlying symbolism of the heroic journey. The heroic quest is not just about overcoming physical obstacles and accomplishing a goal. It is not merely about the transformation of a farm boy into a +12 battle-axe wielding hero. It is about the spiritual journey that the farmboy undertakes, which resonates with the journey we all must take. The mono-myth has lost its power to amaze roleplayers. Quest plots feel mundane.

The way to recapture the magic of the quest plot in a roleplaying game is to find a way to reintegrate the spiritual quest with the physical quest. There are many ways to do this. What follows is one plan for doing so.

1. Keep character journals. Character journals often take the form of reflections upon the past game session written from a player character's point of view. A group seeking a more meaningful quest-based game should view character journals as a powerful tool in this cause.

Rather than simply recounting the session in a character's voice, however, three questions should be asked and answered in each character journal entry.

a. What questions about my character's inward identity, morality and goals were raised in the last session? How did my character respond to these questions? For example, perhaps she has slain a monster for the first time. Did she do so out of anger or necessity? Will she be prejudiced against other monsters of the same race from now on, or does she feel guilty and will therefore give others of the race more slack?

b. How were my characters beliefs reinforced or altered based on this session?

c. What patterns of thoughts or behavior are emerging or changing in my character's life? For instance, is she developing a tendency toward greed? Has she begun to be more pro-active in battle? Are her general inclinations to see to her own needs or the needs of others?

2. Make challenges met on the quest be more than mere physical obstacles. A useful exercise for GM's is to flip through a resource such as the DnD monster manual, or any similar book of challenges. For each threat, think about what could be represented or symbolized with this threat. For instance, a beholder could be a metaphor for vanity.

Next, look for ways to communicate this symbolic idea within the game. Perhaps a beholder's lair is filled with mirrors so it can look at itself. When the PCs encounter it, it may give a short speech about how ugly they are compared with the beauty of a beholder.

Now, look for ways to allow the players to connect with the idea. The beholder may talk about itself using some of the same vain words that a PC used earlier that day. Perhaps the mirrors in its lair are enchanted so that PCs are enticed to sit and stare at their own reflections, becoming so enamored that they forget about everything else.

Here, we see a mere monster encounter that has become a fantastic opportunity for the players to be confronted with the embodiment of a spiritual threat. Triumphing over the beholder will have more of an effect on their inward heroic journey.

3. Build upon patterns and themes. Joe writes in his character journal: "Bob the wanderer spent the early part of the day showing off for the locals. Later that day, the quest for the Shards of the Emerald Sky led him deep into the bowels of a beholder's lair. There, he saw the hideous creature espousing many of the same phrases Bob had spoken to the locals earlier. Bob may have realized how absurd such bragging looks if he were any other man, but as it was, his thoughts were more along the lines of 'at least I have something to brag about.' Bob killed the beholder, and showed off the loot from the kill to everyone in the village." A few sessions later, Bob gets in a fight with a passing adventurer over a perceived slight. He spends significant portions of his loot on a fancy garment.

There is a theme running through the encounters in Bob's quest of vanity. A wise GM would incorporate a challenge involving vanity into the final adventure of the quest. The things that Bob learned (or failed to learn) along the way would then matter to the success of the quest.

A quest plot provides a fantastic opportunity to make character development matter. It shouldn't be simply the physical prowess of a character which determines the success of their quest, but how they developed as a heroic (or villainous) character. Luke Skywalker doesn't defeat the Emperor with his lightsaber skills. He defeats him with his unswerving devotion to the idea that his father can be redeemed. It is not Frodo's stealth skills that destroy the one ring, but Sam's unswerving faithfulness to his friend, and the themes of providence and mercy embodied in Gollum's continuing existence.

It takes more effort to make a quest campaign with resonance, meaning and magic. But it is work that is well worth it.

Hope you all have a great game this week,

James Bierly

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