GM Advice: Using Problems to Create Encounters
(This article was originally written in two parts, for Tuesday and Wednesday publication. It can been combined into a two-fer article for today.)
So, a member of the party died, and the characters aren’t in a position to raise them. Or they foolishly ignored all the warnings about the cursed artifact, and now have a lich hand slowly taking over their soul. Or they played tag with a vampire, and lost so many levels they can’t recover that the rest of the adventure you have planned is way over their head. As a GM, it looks like you have a problem.
But what you have is also an opportunity for a solution — new encounters!
Rather than handwave the negative consequences (which can remove the sense of risk and stakes many players need to enjoy rpg games), or enforce them mercilessly regardless of the reduction in fun, you can offer the players a change to earn the solution to their problems, with more encounters.
Often, this takes the form of an imperfect patron.
The Perfect Imperfect Patron
A patron is a great way to add new options to a campaign. Players know there are other powerful movers and shakers in a campaign setting, so someone with access to things they lack, and thus the solutions to their problems, are a reasonable part of the setting. And, obviously, if you want to be able to use a Patron to introduce ways for PCs to undergo encounters to buy the answers they need, you want your patron to be a fairly powerful entity. This is where your archwizards, angels of allied deities, cosmic heralds of fundamental forces of the universe, and tech billionaires can be handy.
At the same time, you need the patron to be someone that both can’t just solve all their problems with the snap of a finger, and someone that can’t be relied upon to solve all the problems of the campaign (leaving the PCs with nothing to do). You need an imperfect patron.
You don’t want the PCs to be personal friends with Elmage the ArchEverything, because Elmage can likely just fix things without blinking. But if Elmage exists, and is nearly always in astral meditation protecting reality from cosmic horrors, it can be super-useful to know Elmage’s secretary. The secretary can’t just fix things, but DOES have access to the ArchEverything’s contacts and correspondence. Elmage himself can’t be awoken for something like this, but he has a lesser colleague who asked if Elmage knew any hearty heroes willing to undertake a weird journey, and that colleague An fix their problem… if they get their own help first.
Rather than an Angel, perhaps the PCs know an oracle, or medium, who can commune with powerful spirits but can’t guarantee the results. The tech billionaire is under investigation and can’t access most of her holdings, but she does have a friend in the right field she can put them in touch with. The Cosmic Herald has vast and ill-defined powers… but has also only had this job for 3 months and lost the manual. He’s sure he CAN just snap his fingers and fix the issue… but doesn’t know how. What he CAN do, though…
These kinds of imperfect patrons work best if you introduce them before you need them. Absent-minded demigods, long-retired and dottering high priests who just want to raise orchids. Lone bronze juggernauts of the God of Deals, who is left standing in the middle of a ruin where there was once a city, bound to wait there for ever for someone to need a deal badly enough to come talk to them. Folks who, when you first introduce them, clearly are not the end-all be all of the getting-things-done department, but have let slip to PCs that if things are ever REALLY bad, they might have… options.
So, what does an encounter to solve a problem look like? Some are obvious. The Cave of Wonders has this lamp, but is warded against Jafar, but if you go grab it, you can also have the Rod of Restoration you need.
Of course if a player is dead or unplayable, you may need to get more creative.
Planar Works Program
The Patron is more than happy to help the PCs with their problem… but in order to have the resources needed to do so, the PCs need to help out the Patron first.
Whatever Patron is working with the PCs has allies who often summon creatures for help. But there are cosmic threats afoot (as GM you can allude to whatever you have planned as a big plot point in 5 levels if you want, or you can hand-wave this by saying it’s all happening in adjacent realities, its just causing a shortage of resources) which leave the Patron short of souls/spirits/celestial badgers to send in answer to those summons.
So the Patron needs the PCs to fill in.
You can have the PCs (living and dead) be sent in lieu of whatever angels, demons, fey things or elementals would normally respond to a summons, or you can give the PCs NPC stat blocks for a few encounters. Regardless, you have them take the role of creatures summoned by heroes in other planes, planets, countries, or whatever. Once they cover 2-3 such events, they have bought their patron enough slack that the Probelem can be solved.
As GM you can have a lot of fun with this. First, since the PCs are being summoned, you can give them hints of plot elements normally off-screen. Planning for the Queen of Graves to be awakening in the Barrowmire, beyond the Shallow Sea? Well that may be 5,000 miles from the PCs bodies, but if a flumph cleric in the Barrowmire summons them to help fight the undead Regicidals who serve the Queen, the PCs can see part of the scene of things going badly, but without the time to do a whole lot about it.
You can also give PCs much different goals and challenges that usual. For example, a TPK isn’t a big deal if the PCs are summoned spirits who will return to their Patron rather than truly die. They may not speak the languages of their summoner, and have to quess what task they must perform. They might only be present for the duration of a single summoning spell–of if they can give the creature that summoned them enough aid, perhaps they can be re-summoned (with full health and daily abilities) multiple times during one fight. If any PC is looking for someone (a long-lost sister, the man who burned their town down), they could spot that individual at the summoned spot, but not know its exact location in the world.
Speaking of Patrons
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