June 1, 2010

Embrace the Mundane

Characters protect mighty nations from malevolent threats, have their bodies possessed by evil creatures, are beset by viral plagues and a wide variety of exotic and exciting challenges. Their deeds are legendary and certainly out of the ordinary. However, in order to keep it all in perspective you need to include the mundane, the unexciting.

If all characters do is the impossible then the impossible becomes the norm. By including the normal it serves to highlight the exceptional. At first glance this appears to be counter-intuitive to the general backing philosophy of the RPG genre; to be something we are not during our everyday life. The trick is to not spend a lot of time on the mundane. It is better to use such things as a narrative device.

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As an example, there is the “guard the merchant caravan as it travels from point A to B” adventure. If the players are given this adventure at the beginning of the night they know in advance that there will be various ambushes enroute. Ambushes are now the norm for such an adventure. So when an ambush happens it is expected and by extension not unique or particularly interesting. The actual combat might be interesting, but the ambush (and the story behind it) is not.
To change this up a DM could start the night with the same adventure but not run any ambushes. Simply let the caravan arrive safely at Point B. Pay the characters the agreed upon price for their service and then move onto the real adventure. (Simply reduce the treasure that is taken from the next monster lair they plunder if you are worried about giving too much treasure to your layers.) You could easily cover this sequence in a couple of sentences. Then, when there is a similar adventure later in the campaign, any ambushes enroute will feel unique.

Simple tasks can also serve to highlight the exotic nature of the adventurer. As the fame of the characters and their adventures spread “normal” people will ask them for aid, often of the simple type. Consider the next time they are in a town, a young child could ask the adventurers to find her lost kitten. In the eyes of the young child the heroes can do anything, including finding the one thing she loves dearly. This simple task serves as a counterpoint to the more exotic adventures the characters routinely go on. (Just resist the urge to make the kitten a lycanthrope.)

Mundane illness can also add to a campaign. If a character gets a cold (complete with sniffles and stuffy head) he can suffer a -1 to attack rolls until it clears (a saving throw allowed after an extended rest). Characters are usually supermen compared to the NPCs within the world setting. Allowing them to get sick keeps them grounded; it shows them how the “normal” people in the setting are. This will remind them they are the heroes of the setting. They may get a common illness like a normal person, but there is still so much more they can do that the normal person can not.

Including the mundane keeps a campaign grounded in reality. It is less of a cartoon and easier for the players to grasp. For example, if every time the ship the characters are using is attacked and sinks the concept soon becomes a joke. The “reality” of the world setting starts to slip and it becomes harder for the players to buy into it. Players can easily understand the mundane and normal, after all they live it the rest of the week. By including it, the world becomes more real.

By including the mundane, players are reminded of just how special they are. Their adventures are unique and beyond the scope of the rest of the world. By placing the mundane and the exotic side by side it is easier to see the difference between the two.
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