Quest Givers Pt2

Once upon a time I ran a larp.

Scratch that. Start over.

So for the record I absolutely love, when choosing a game setting to run in, frontier towns. It gives room for expansion, an element of exploration, built in stresses and problems, and the arm of the law is short enough for most players liking.

I mean, imagine being off the boat founding Jamestown. That right there would make an amazing game. You’re in the woods. Your resources are limited. Best of all, help is only a mere six month away.

(Side rant: I freaking hate the “let’s call the cops” or “this looks like a job for the army” player copout. You’re a damn hero. Pull up your big boy pants. A random NPC could do call the cops. The story isn’t about them. End rant)

So I have this setting I’ve used several times, called Cappy’s Rock. Basically it’s a town founded by this guy named Captain James Harlow.

Yes, I actually look like this guy IRL.

Harlow goes by Cappy, very retired ex cavalry, granted the right and funding to found a town outside of the kingdom proper on the frontier of unclaimed lands.

I roleplayed him as old, tired, overworked, more than a little flustered, a little indecisive, and rather inept in battle. I even gave him a limp as an old battle wound as an excuse as to why I couldn’t join the adventurers in the field. When he did, he usually stayed in the back and yelled exposition and encouragement.

As far as I could tell, he was the perfect NPC. He had position, inertia, and the inability to deal with the mounting problems in the area. He also had the financial backing to fund adventurers to clean things up.

I was told afterwards the players immediately began plotting to kill him behind my back. They thought he was incompetent and blamed him for what was happening to the settlement. At least, that’s what the other crew that was interacting with the players as NPCs told me afterward.

The first game focused on the conflict between the settlers, who were trying to settle, and a local druidic circle who was trying to drive them out.

Of course, they sided with the druids and I had to wing a resolution that prevented the game from ending with the town folding.

One thing you need to realize is that larp on one important way is not like a TTRPG. You invest a lot in the setting, both money, time, and money, and you can’t just fold the setting and start over without accruing another pile of expenses for props and costumes.

Normally in a TTRPG I would have simply moved along, but a LARP is as much about where things happen as it is about who it happens to.

The next game pitted the town against marauding orcs, who lied and said they had been there first.

The players, calling on their fierce indoctrination from their school days, embraced their anti-progress bias and sided with the orcs.

And still they hated Cappy, and I don’t entirely know why. He asked them to save the people that were being slaughtered, and exhorted them to be heroes.

At the end of the second game Cappy got kidnapped, and it was supposed to transition from “Guided with training wheels” to a more “Players are empowered to step up and run/save the town on their own”. I never got to run that third game though.

I know it may seem like fishing for comments, but if anybody can figure out what went wrong, jump in with a guess. I can’t share a lesson here, because I couldn’t figure out what the lesson was.

Quest Givers

The basics of a normal quest is, there’s somebody that needs something, and the players are he ones that do or get that something.

The basic problem with quests is, someone powerful enough to hire and adventuring team should be powerful enough to accomplish the goal themselves.

A powerful dragon needs McGuffin, so why doesn’t he get it? The king needs an evil wizard slain, so why doesn’t he send any of his ten thousand soldiers to do it?

On the other hand, a poor farmer needs help with an ankheg, what the hell is he going to pay you? A tiny frontier town needs protection from orcs, what are they going to pay you with? Farmer’s daughters?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Lets start with basic philosophy.

In Knights of the Old Republic 2, the old crone Kreia, in one of her interminably long boring monologues, actually said something useful. Struggle leads to growth, and by taking others struggles onto ourselves (as players taking quests) we become stronger (gain experience points) and they do not grow.

In Vampire the Masquerade the elders, who are usually the ones spawning quests and giving the young spawn stuff to do, do not change. They are often trapped in the same mindsets and behaviors (and sometimes asthetics) that they had when they were young. If they do grow more powerful, it is at a glacially slow pace.

This said, the key to a good quest giver isn’t ability, but inertia.

(source: https://www.deviantart.com/robthedoodler)

Player characters do things because that’s what they do. They do things. They do things. Players have agency, drive, and detanglements. (autocorrect changed that to “derangements” twice) They have mobility and speed.

The king can’t send his soldiers because they are all already stationed right where they are supposed to be right now. The mayor can’t ask the police to investigate the “weird goings on” because without evidence of a crime, that’s not what the police do.

Anyone who thinks it would be easy to mobilize an army without notice has never tried to take two young kids to the pool.

In addition, Quest Givers are restricted by their station and their previous obligations.

Adventurers can act outside established social and political norms. They come in from the outside and are essentially wildcards. Anyone who has seen the movie Yojimbo (or it’s entirely underappreciated remake “Last Man Standing”) can see the main character is essentially a player character in a town full of NPCs. This is why NPCs want adventurers.

A nobleman, or an elder vampire, cannot simply strike directly against his enemies without pulling on the strings of the web of intrigued and obligation he is currently meshed in. Likewise a farmer cannot abandon his fields and family and go off and fight a battle. They need the players.

In my next article I’ll discuss the failure of one of my favorite NPc Quest Givers, and hopefully spawn thought on the ramifications.

Rivals

Ash and Gary Oak

Goku and Vegeta

Wedge Antilles and that weird kid from Tatooine

Rivals are an excellent way of driving the characters in a story to better themselves and push themselves to bech gt theome greater than they already are. The hero often has a riva to lol I’ll okl that he uses to compare himself to, this serves several purposes.

One, it serves as a metric of power. In pokemon, Gary is your metric of power. You clash with Gary several times, and it gives you a feel of whether or not you are progressing along power wise by level in the world.

Two, it serves as a behavioral comparison. Vegeta is an asshole, and while they are rivals in power, we know that whatever the choice they are facing, Vegeta’s plans will always be the asshole plans, and thus the not-heroic plan.

Third, it emphasizes the feeling of a living world. The players are not the only adventurers/space marines/investigators that exist in the world, and yet in the typical game, we never see anyone else doing what the players are doing. Sure, we may see “the wreckage of a doomed expedition”, but never actual adventurers.

“fellow adventurer”

All of that said, actually implementing rivals is a tricky business. See, rpg gamers are programmed like sharks often times, and each encounter/object/npc is weighed with the basic metric.

“Is it food” IE, is this something that I can get a reward from? Will this thing make me stronger?

And “Is it a threat”. Threats are either destroyed or fled from.

Dungeons and Dragons adds one complication to the metric. By granting experience points, all threats that are strong enough to be destroyed are automatically considered food, because they make the player stronger. This everything becomes either food or flee, exactly like a shark.

Rivals, on the other hand, are intended to be neither food nor a threat. This may confuse players used to the traditional game patterns. Like a shark, something that is not not food and not a threat is ignored.

Amusingly enough, this is what happened in my last game. In the classic tavern setting, I put a band of fellow adventurers. They were obviously fellows because they had explicitly fixed a problem the players had created earlier (namely, siccing a flumph on a high class eatery) and the barkeep had given this information to the player. The conversation went like this.

“You move flumph?”

“Why yes, we found it in…”

“You kill it?”

“No, that poor…”

“Where flumph?”

(clears throat) “Well, we got it a room here at the…”

(player walks off to find the room)

Very frustrating for me, the Storyteller, who had put a little effort into fleshing out actual characters to make for interesting conversation. They never even got the man’s name (His name was Sir Chaz Chadwick), just the briefest of descriptions I insisted on putting in before they started talking.

The challenge becomes adding characters that are neither food, nor threat, because the players will kill anyone they think might keep them from “winning.” The best way to win a race isnt to run faster, it’s to destroy the other racers, right?

More tragic video game logic.

You have to break that conditioning.

One thing I do is always set the rivals about two levels ahead of the party. That makes them enough of a threat not to be food, but also not enough of a threat to be fled from.

The other thing I do, and will emphasize more in the future, is having them talked about by other NPCs. I’ve done this in the past, the NPC they are working for said outright he strongly considered hiring the other party over them. They might have made the connection if they had talked long enough to get a name.

One thing I don’t recommend is having them compete for the same goal. At that point they will kill your rival party, because murder hobos will murder.

How do you know if your players are murder hobos? Offer them a house. Hobos don’t have houses. If they sell the house and buy more stabbing equipment, then you’ve got murder hobos (because stabbing), and treat them accordingly.

All of that said, if you end up, by some miracle, with roleplayers in your group, rival parties can make for interesting, deep, and rewarding gameplay mechanic.

Mercenary Players

We’ve all had this problem at least once. The damsel in distress cries out for mercy, the village needs saving from marauding orcs, and the players have a quick response.

“What are you going to pay me?”

This stymies me a bit, because on the off chance I do get to play, I like to play heroes. Heroes are the exact opposite type of characters from mercenaries.

Heroes don’t expect payment. They rush to aid the needy because the needy need them. They don’t weight the cost to benefit. They don’t expect a reward from the peasants who clearly can’t afford to hire soldiers of their caliber.

Nobody pays Superman. He just saves people.

In my current game the players are mixed up in a game of Xorvitaal, the great dragon game. Xorvitaal is a fun way of clearly marking who’s the enemy, and gives the players both a powerful patron and a reason to act in the world.

But they were working for a beginner silver dragon named Inshallah, and that took them toe to toe with the minions of an experience dragon player, Thannadruk the elder black dragon.

Thannadruk’s minions had cool toys, and good gear, and they were supported by a full mercenary company called the Ebon Spear.

When the enemy minion asked them to switch sides, they paused to consider the offer. This boggled me.

I was raised on Luke Skywalker screaming in rage “I’ll never join you!” even as he was clinging for life to a broken steel beam. This is what I expected to play out.

But no, they set up a meeting with Thaneyya, the teifling working for Thannadruk for several in-game days later, and spent a lot of real world time arguing whether they should switch sides and ally themselves with an evil dragon.

Because that side had the kewl lootz.

The only reason they didn’t is because the cleric was concerned that his deity might not approve, so they stuck with the silver dragon and spent the next several sessions intentionally avoiding Thaneyya and the bar they said they would meet her at.

I heard someone else suggest that this was video game experience. After all, in a video game your objective is to squeeze every last ounce of “reward” out of the game. The real reward comes in the form of cash and prizes, like a gameshow, and whatever story rewards is nothing more than an easily skipped cutscene. The cash allows you to upgrade your avatar and win the game, and thats the goal.

So what’s the fix? There really isn’t one. Mercenary Players are going to do their thing, and the key is less correcting the behavior as identifying it and crafting the story accordingly.

The villains will always pay better, because purchased loyalty is a villain’s go-to method. If the players want to be the bad guys, let them, and craft the story accordingly.

What you don’t want to do, is change the rewards to match their greed. If the village doesn’t have enough gold to pay them to be saved, either allow the village to be destroyed, or even better, have a brave band of NPC heroes (actual heroes) save the town and get the glory. (The “rival party” is a technique I’ll discuss in another post)

If the players want to play villains, let them, after all, it’s their game.