View Full Version : DM Help Looking for help designing a memorable encounter

2016-11-04, 10:25 AM
Hi folks,

I’m designing a campaign for some friends of mine, and I could really use some suggestions to make a particular encounter memorable and fun.

General background:
The campaign is set in a surrealist modern fantasy (think Neverwhere, Un-Lun-Dun, or Underworld RPG), we’re using the Cypher system for our ruleset, and it’s an investigative campaign where the heroes are expected to figure out where they need to go next. I’m employing node-based design and the 3 clue rule to give them plenty of options.

At this point in the plot, the party has been present for a successful/failed assassination (depending on how that node goes for the PCs). Several nodes in the plot lead to a coffee shop that functions as the region’s clearing house for trade and mercenary work. If the PCs are at this node, they’re probably trying to find information on the assassin. Who she is/was, and who hired her.

The assassin was hired by a cult who’s Up to No Good. The cult has a number of wealthy members, and it’s existence is highly secret. At least one of the cultists is based out of this shop, and is buying goods/services the cult needs to achieve their ends.

The scene:
You step through the low doorway and are immediately struck by the smell of coffee. The mere thought of fresh coffee makes some of you thirsty and gives you the slightest pangs of your long withdrawal (because of the nature of the campaign, coffee is an incredible rarity. The fact that this place has it is weird, and the PCs know that). The shop is lively and quite full, the din of conversation fills the air.

The main area is easily a hundred feet on a side, and you can see many alcoves and hallways branching off from the far wall. Squat columns hold up the low, arched brick ceiling at regular intervals. They crowd the space and make it feel cramped. To your right, a long bar of polished concrete serves as the central focus for the staff, who bustle back and forth ferrying trays stacked with steaming tin cups.

Above the bar is a large board, easily 20 feet long, adorned with a grid of small hooks. The board is divided into sections, with headers above each. “Bulk goods”, “Rare goods”, “Underriver”, “Guards”, and one section adorned with a simple white ring. Beneath these headings, small plaques of various materials hang from some of the hooks, each with a distinctive symbol. Shapes, crests, letters, numbers; there doesn’t appear to be any order to them. Looking around, you see matching plaques hung above most of the small mismatched tables.

The situation:
Buyers inform the bartender of what they’re looking to buy. The bartender gives them a plaque for their table and hangs the matching plaque in the right section. Sellers then approach these tables to pitch sales. The overwhelming majority of these sales are completely mundane. Brokers selling farm goods, mercenaries looking for work as guards, or navigators offering transit. The white circle is the section for odd jobs and unscrupulous work.

The bartender is one of the cadre of people who own and run the establishment as a group. He’s friendly and well liked by the customers. He tries to help anyone who comes through. A huge part of the business is connecting buyers with sellers. Generally, the whole staff tries to help. It’s tradition to tip a staff person if they put you in contact with a good business deal.

However, the whole staff is wary of the white circle section of the board. Everyone knows that criminal activities wind up in this section. The PCs aren’t the first group of people to come here looking for answers/revenge on a buyer. While there’s no strict policy about this stuff, the staff doesn’t like ratting on “circles”. Buyers in this section are obviously dangerous, or they wouldn’t BE in that section.

The problem:
I need this scene to point towards at least 3 other nodes: An important location the cult is using, an object they’re planning to steal, and perhaps the cult’s current base of operations.
If the PCs are clever or charming enough, they may get a member of the staff to point them at the assassin’s employer, but they could just as easily get the staff to clam up by saying the wrong thing. Further, even if they find the right guy, they may botch interrogating, following, or tricking the cultist, leading to a dead end. That’s an awful lot of IFs. What if they can’t find the guy? What if they find him but fail to get anything useful out of him?

The cultist knows all the needed information. He can be interogated, mind-read, magically or mundanely tailed, and he’ll have useful evidence on his person if the PCs decide to pickpocket him (or loot his corpse). If they're unusually clever, they could get the cultist to hire them, or even convince him that they're on the same side (but that's a bit of a longshot).

I’m looking for suggestions for alternate clues/leads I can work in to the scene. Ways that screwing up their main objective can be interesting and fun, instead of simply a dead halt. Worst case, I need to come up with some kind of deus-ex-machina clue I can drop on their heads, but I’d really prefer to work in some more organic leads. If the staff stop talking, how do they find their guy? If they get to the cultist, they have tons of options... but let's say they botch them all, what then?

Thanks for reading this far. Now that you’ve survived my wall of text, any thoughts?

2016-11-04, 11:05 AM
I love the premise of this. The "misc jobs" being the sketchy parts of craigslist kind of thing...

For your deus ex, have an "all roads lead to Rome/Schrodinger's railroad" approach; the party will eventually trip on some activity of the cult, regardless of what path they choose. The cultist is part of a larger cult, so the cult has operations outside this one cultist killing people.

Even if the players end up wanting to buy an old mule and a plow from farmer Dan, farmer Dan is needing a short sale because he is in debt to this Cultist/cult in some way. Maybe the cultists are just using this as a way to launder money, and unlikely farmer Dan knows he is in debt to the cult. Maybe he does not even deal with the cultist, just one of his rep's. You can make it sound like the cult gave him a good harvest in bad times, helped his wife through a difficult medical problem, cured a disease running through his chickens, or maybe he just needed some cash and is currently behind. Where the lender is, or what services they provided will point the players towards the base of operations.

Perhaps the players want to buy some swag, so they hit up the rare goods- Jane's rare goods and curios is often stocked with some pretty zany stuff, and if you know the password, she might show you the really good stuff in the back. Stuff she gets from the cult, or maybe an item the cult is looking for that she just got in. Or perhaps the cult is using a legitimate adventure to get a rare good-they want something found and sold through legal channels, so they end up getting it but have no connection to its discovery or whatnot.

Hopefully, they are good adventurers and want the crazy sounding adventures under the "misc work" white circle. There could be factions or individuals opposing the cult(knowing it is a cult or not). Maybe farmer Dan wants to have the lender axed instead of giving up his prized mule. Maybe Jane's rare goods is getting less rare stuff than usual-somebody is skimming the imports and siphoning the best stuff off her channels. If the cult is brave enough, they might be openly recruiting in this section, and that will get the party directly in-Use something like a "wellness seminar", "life coaching class" , "improv class" or "learn to flip real estate multi level marketing" that will stand out because of the seemingly innocuous nature of the posting juxtaposed in the "misc jobs" circle.

2016-11-04, 11:48 AM
Really good point about an incongruous (or multiple incongruous) jobs on the board. I'm definitely using that.

As for "All roads lead to horrible rituals", the node-based design already addresses this. I'm shiny and new in this forum, so I can't link to the related design articles. Look up "The Alexandrian, node based RPG Design" for the link, it's brilliant stuff. The basic idea is to construct a deeply non-linear plot for the players to navigate. Each scene is a node, and each node needs to point towards at least 3 other nodes. If the players do great, they uncover all three leads and decide where to go, if they do poorly, they miss an important clue, but not ALL important clues. Plus, they have the clues from their previous nodes.

Thus, you wind up with mounting evidence. Say they don't catch on that the old farmhouse is really a cultist's meeting place during a scene? That's fine, other scenes point to the same farmhouse, making them re-examine their assumptions. By simply exploring, they develop mounting evidence towards any location they've missed.

The genius of this is in the interconnectivity.

Say you have Node A, your introduction. You plant clues for nodes B, C, and D. The party uncovers the clues for nodes B and D. They go to D.
Now at Node D, you have clues pointing to nodes B, C, and E. They uncover all three, but since they already had a lead pointing towards B, they go to B.
Now they're at Node B, and they've been getting a ton of clues. Node B has clues for nodes C, D, and E...
If they find the clue to D - "well that makes sense and confirms what we know about D"
If they find the clue to C or E - "Hey, we've heard about this when we were at D! We've got to check them out!"
E is the final destination, but even if they go back to node C, they'll uncover clues that link to the other locations, filling out their knowledge and reinforcing the trip to E.

This scene is like Node B. It's going to point at C, D, and E. They don't have to find everything here, but I need them to find at least 1 thing here, so it's not a dead end. If they go to one of the other nodes, it'll have clues pointing back here and pointing at other nodes. Everything eventually points at where they NEED to go, but nothing is lost if they wander around the other scenes first.

This is the first time I've tried designing this way, and I'm really liking it, but I'm looking for places where the plan can fail. A lot of the other nodes are easy to design for "Oh hey look, the cultists left a crazy wall with red string in this abandoned building!", but it's important to have flexibility in your clue-discovery. Right now, this is a "weak" node, because there's only one path through it (Mr. Cultist). It's an interesting challenge.

2016-11-04, 12:03 PM
Following up on your suggestion, I've already got a second path through this node! Thank you!

One of the "Rare goods" buyers will be buying up plot maguffins known to the PCs (the importance and purchase of these items is known from earlier nodes). Depending on how those nodes went, they may or may not have met the buyer before, but they'll know to be suspicious of his motives. I can easily work in a connection through him to other nodes.

I'd still like to get in one more for this scene. Thank you for helping me talk this through.