Tabletop Tuesday: What Makes an Adventure?

For the first time in a long time, it is Tabletop Tuesday, and boy am I excited!

About a month or so ago I started a new tabletop campaign with some friends. Over the years, what was once my original tabletop core group has broken apart quite a bit. Graduating from college meant that a lot of people were moving away. At first, we dealt with this via Skype and the website Roll20, but the time came where adult life made it effectively impossible for EVERYONE to participate at the same time. Because of this, my group dynamic has changed a lot: we went from six players, three playing via computer, to only four, and one of those four is a new addition to our game nights. But different does not inherently mean worse, and I’ve been having a ton of fun playing a campaign with a smaller group of people, all of whom are actually able to attend in person. Plus it’s Dungeon World, and if you’ve been around Adventure Rules for a day or two then you know it’s my favorite.

Our most recent escapades involved the party investigating an old temple beneath the surface of a lake. Their goal was to determine the source of a magical curse on a nearby village and to stop that curse. The reward? Crimes committed by two of the players would be cleared, while the other two would be bribed with money or useful items. When our most recent session began, the players had investigated most of the temple before getting some rest in a large barracks-like area. They awoke to a kobold scout rushing off to report their whereabouts. Chasing down the kobold led to overhearing a conversation between the scout and a group of ten or so kobolds just standing around.

“You all, go start the ritual. You all, go close the vault!”

All I had to say was the word “vault.” Instantly half of the party stopped caring about curses and rituals in favor of the almighty dollar (er, coin). The other half didn’t particularly care to fight a large group of kobolds and what they anticipated to be a large, scary boss with two people missing, so the whole party ended up heading to the vault. Stopping the little critters who were trying to pull it closed was nearly effortless.

Once in the vault, the characters found some magical items: one a helpful legendary relic I had planned since the first session, and the other a cursed snake staff that became a massive tattoo of unknown significance. I made this up on the fly as the result of a failed Discern Realities – the player specified using a stick to poke things to see if they were dangerous or not, giving me a golden opportunity for shenanigans. After grabbing the relic, they gathered up as much gold as they could carry, but there were problems. Every time someone failed a roll trying to figure out if the room was safe or what the heck the snake tattoo meant, the ritual escalated one stage. By the time the party was done with the vault, the whole temple was rumbling with the guttural roars of an unknown creature.

Rather than go towards the ritual, the players decided they were just gonna run off with their spoils. Peace out, cursed villagers, nice knowing you. Since one character has the ability to bend stone to his will, he took advantage of this ability and decided to punch a tunnel through the vault towards the room where they’d entered the temple. This is where things got crazy.

A 7-9 roll on this player’s Sling Stones ability has a choice between two consequences: you move way less or way more stone than intended, or your actions draw unwanted attention to the party. The player decided that the guttural roaring was enough to keep him from drawing attention, so he chose to move less or more. My decision was that in his desperation to escape, he moved MUCH more than intended, blowing out an entire wall and compromising the stability of the structure. The ceiling began collapsing in, players desperately using any abilities they had in a desperate effort to hold the ceiling up and move towards the exit as quickly as possible. An attempt at Sling Stones to make a new exit resulted in another 7-9, and this choice was even harder: if the player chose to move less or more stone with an earthen ceiling descending towards him, he risked the party getting crushed. But that monstrous ritual sure sounded scary…

He decided to draw unwanted attention, and all hell broke loose.

The party smashed their way out of the temple and ended up outside. Now this temple was built into a hill, and on top of the hill was a massive lake. When the building collapsed and the players tore away a section of the hillside, all that water had only one way to go: down. Suddenly the party was standing in the path of a flood, and everyone desperately rolled and applied their powers to try and avoid drowning. Meanwhile, the unwanted attention they wanted was rising into the sky: a dragon god a mile long, riding on a sphere of water and turning through the air to head straight towards the party.

There was a silent agreement that fighting this thing was not an option, and all of the party members worked together to feign worship and convince the god that they weren’t worth its time. Pleased with their worship (the players had great rolls and worked quite hard to be respectful), the dragon god gave them three days to get out of the country before he visited his divine wrath upon the land.

The session was awesome, full of action and excitement – but not one instant of combat.

That really got me thinking. Generally speaking, I as a GM feel like combat is going to be a necessary aspect of every session. It’s the fun part, the part people really come for, right? I mean sure, the want to roleplay and buy swords and have a fun story and yada yada, but the moments we live for are the moments of real ADVENTURE, the ones where players are barely ducking the swinging axe of a minotaur or avoiding the flaming breath of a dragon. Isn’t combat necessary to make an adventure?

Honestly, I think the answer is no.

When I think back to my favorite tabletop memories, many of them didn’t happen when the players were desperately struggling to overcome a powerful boss, or cleverly outwitting an enemy and defeating them with a brilliant plan. They happened because of great roleplaying, or die rolls that forced random and hilarious circumstances. I’m not saying that combat can’t be an absolute blast, because it can. What I’m saying is that it tends to get emphasis as the “fun part,” when really there are so many ways for adventure to be had.

In my mind, adventure has this sort of intangible quality. Any scenario can be an adventure or not. I’ve had fun combat and lame combat, fun interrogations and boring interrogations, fun sessions where everyone got distracted from their mission and agonizing sessions where everyone got distracted. I think what it ultimately boils down to is this: are there stakes, and does anyone care about them?

Stakes to me are the real difference between something fun and something that feels like a grind. Is having a ten minute conversation with NPC 1 necessary because something significant is at stake, or are the players or GM drawing out this discussion out of a lack of focus? Will solving this puzzle give the players something they desperately need or want, or is there a puzzle there just because dungeons are supposed to have puzzles? Are you fighting this monster because the party cares about defeating it and protecting the people it threatens, or because you haven’t had a combat scene yet this session? I’m sure by now you can see a pattern. When there’s purpose, when there’s something to be gained or lost, when the events are important to the characters, then you can have adventure no matter what the circumstances.

What about you, adventurers? Do you think that a certain aspect considered traditional for roleplaying – something like puzzles or combat – is totally necessary to have adventure? Or do you think it’s all about how the situation is presented? You’ve heard my point of view, so feel free to share your own in the comments. Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope hearing my perspective helps you to experience more adventure in your own tabletops!

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Hey, adventurers! If you don’t follow on Tumblr, then you may have missed yesterday’s flash fiction based on a prompt from reddit. If you’re into knights, witches, and fireflies, I highly recommend you head to the Adventure Rules Tumblr¬†here¬†and check it out. I’ll be doing a new short piece on Tumblr every Monday, so be sure to follow there so you won’t miss out on the fun!

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