In the last guide to DMing article I covered my six-step process to building a story, and covered Setting A Goal, Deciding the Ending & Igniting the Spark. For this article I will be going over The Barriers and Consequences.
Guide to Dming: The Barriers for your PC
The Barriers are the obstacles that the players face when trying to accomplish the goal of the adventure. A barrier can be anything that gets in the way or slows the players down. Every barrier should be a choice that the players have to make.
That last sentence is important to any roleplaying game. Choice is where the game lives and breathes. Do the characters trust the street vendor? Will the characters take the right hand, well lit path, or the left hand, dark and dank passageway? Do the players bribe the guards or use their influence to order them to back down?
Every Barrier that you make should be an opportunity for the players to make a choice on how they will progress the story. The Barrier, though, does not have to be overly complex, especially for a beginning story. That is what we are going to focus on for this story, a handful of Barriers that offer choice, but lead the characters to the goal, so that they can choose the ending to the story.
I like to think in threes when writing a simple story, something like three acts in a play. Since I had the players start in a tavern and the spark was a guardsman shouting for help, I think the first Barrier will be to find the location of the Princess.
I also have a number of woodsy people in the party, so giving them something to do right out of the gate should be helpful in introducing the characters to the world. So, for my first barrier I will have them try and locate the princess. Maybe the bad guys took her from the road and are dragging her to a cave to hide out. They would leave signs from where they captured the princess on the road and tracks that would lead back to their hideout.
Okay, here’s my first Barrier.
Barrier One: Track the Princess.
Alright, we have the first barrier ready for the players. Except, if you look at it, if they fail to track the princess then the story is dead right there. First challenge down and nowhere to go and nothing to do. The Princess dies (Ending number 3) and the heroes have no idea what
happened to her or why she was taken prisoner in the first place. Well, stories over folks, everyone pack up and go home!
So that won’t do for an actual Barrier. Instead I want something that offers choice to the players, that can affect the players but still moves them towards the goal of the adventure.
I could keep the first Barrier intact by having them roll a check of some sort to track the Princess. If they roll poorly this would give them a consequence of some kind, but they would still be able to find the hideout that the bad guys took the Princess too.
But, even that isn’t really a good Barrier. Sure, it gets in the way and provides a consequence, but there really isn’t any choice here. So, instead, I am going to give them some sort of challenge while tracking the Princess. Something like, two sets of tracks.
Like, maybe the villains were travelling back to the cave and then some of them split off and went a different direction.
At the split, I could offer a challenge check. If they roll well enough they realize that one set of tracks is chasing someone, while the second set of tracks has a pair of smaller footprints that are probably the tracks of the Princess. If they don’t roll well I will probably still elude to one set of tracks chasing someone.
This gives a choice to the players. Follow the Princess tracks, or follow the other set to see what the bad guys are chasing. I would put a consequence at the end of each decision, but both decisions will lead the players to discover where the Princess is captured.
Okay, so here is my revised Barrier.
Barrier One: While tracking the Princess, the heroes discover two sets of tracks. Which one will they follow?
Okay, that sounds better. Now onto the second Barrier. While writing about the tracks, I started thinking that a good place for some near do wells to hide out would be a cave. So that will be my second Barrier.
Barrier Two: Infiltrate the Cave
Even though this seems like a very straightforward thing for the players to do, it does offer a number of different choices for the players. Do they go in loud, screaming like savages and attacking all the evil guys hiding inside the cave? Do they attempt to sneak quietly inside, moving silently from one section of the cave to the next, subduing the enemies within quietly, or even sneaking past all the guards so that they never have to engage in combat? Should they parlay talking to the guards or the evil doers and maybe attempt to come to some sort of agreement?
When writing the barrier, it’s important to think of the end result as the players attempting to break through the barrier, but not too much about it, because you want the players to make a choice and then see what happens. As a GM, I want to be just as surprised at the outcome to
the Barrier as the bad guys and the players are.
So the last Barrier should be the easiest one to write.
Barrier Three: The Final Conflict
I already know that I have three endings that could possibly happen when the heroes finally attempt to rescue the Princess. Now is the final conflict. I know that I want the possibility of the Princess’ death and I also know that I want the possibility of her getting cursed when saved.
To do that, I will set up the final conflict around some sort of fantasy ritual. Maybe the evil guys need to sacrifice her to a demon or a god. Okay, I like that. So, they are sacrificing the Princess to an evil god. If the heroes do nothing, then she will be sacrificed and maybe the evil god appears, or provides a boon to the person who sacrificed her. That would give impetus to the heroes to engage the bad guys.
Maybe if the heroes stop the bad guys but don’t stop them fast enough then the Princess gets cursed in some way. So I will need a countdown timer to indicate how close the princess is to getting cursed. What if I have some of her guardsmen still alive. Then the heroes could see evil energies swirling around the guardsman if he gets put on the sacrificial table and that could be a visual cue to the players that something evil is going on.
Now I have the Final Conflict set up, but where is the choice? Well, the players could just sit back and let it happen, although that probably won’t happen knowing this group of heroes. They can still attempt a parlay and maybe make a deal. If they did that they would have to offer something as important as the Princess. Maybe a self sacrifice? Or they can just interrupt the ritual by attacking the bad guys, but even then they have multiple approaches to getting the bad guys attention. This sounds like a decent Final Conflict that can round out the story.
Every action the characters take should have a consequence. Something has to happen because of the choices that they made during the story. These consequences can be both good or bad, so if these characters make good decisions they should get good consequences. Conversely, if they make bad decisions then something bad should go ahead and bite them in the ass.
When I am writing a story I want to attach the consequences from their actions to the story in a way that makes sense for the characters and the game world. To do that I attach each consequence to one of the Barriers that my party faces during the story.
For the first Barrier, we have already decided that there will be two tracks that split off in two different directions. One track will have a set of smaller feet that we have decided is the Princess, and the other will be someone that is being chased by some of the bad guys.
Why would the bad guys give chase? Maybe one of the Prisoners got away. We already decided that for Barrier 3 we will need some Royal Guardsmen to sacrifice, so maybe one of them makes a break for it and the bad guys chase him down.
What would be a good consequence for the character’s choices here? If they ignore guardsman’s tracks, they will head directly to the cave. If they follow the guardsman’s tracks, they will take longer to get to the cave, possibly having to backtrack to where the guardsman escaped and
follow the second set of tracks. So a simple consequence is time.
If the party takes the right choice, they will get to the cave with more time. If they follow the guardsman, they will get to the cave with no time left, or a time deficit. I’m not sure exactly what the timing thing will do yet, probably something with the ritual, we will see.
I also want to have something happen if the party follows the guardsman’s tracks. Something positive to come out of using their time to go and rescue him from his pursuers. The guardsman might have overheard the evil guys dastardly plan, or maybe have information about why the Princess was taken in the first place. I think I like the idea that if they rescue the guardsman then he heard them talk about the ritual. Since time is a factor, maybe he heard that it takes place at midnight on a full moon and requires royal blood. Wouldn’t you know it, but the moon just peaks out of the tops of the trees and it sure does look full.
- If they follow the Princess’s feet, they arrive with more time at the evil cave.
- If they follow the guardsman’s tracks, they arrive right before the ritual, but now they know about the ritual and that the other guardsmen and the Princess will be sacrificed.
This one is both a little easier and a little harder. Because of all the other work we’ve put into the story, we know that it’s a cave with some evil guys inside it and we know that there will be a ritual that will sacrifice the Princess too.
For this Barrier, the consequences will be extended. I think I’ll draw a small map of a cave (or find one from online that I like) and then populate it with a few bad guys. If the party tries to sneak through, they can possibly make it past the bad guys, but it will cost them more time.
Also, if they do sneak past the bad guys, then make a big ruckus later on, there should be the possibility of the bad guys that are still in the cave coming to find out what all the noise is about.
So, this is what consequences for Barrier number two will look like:
- Party sneaks in: Skill checks to see if they make it past the bad guys. Mark off two time units for every enemy encounter they sneak past. Make a note of which bad guys they sneak past, in case they make noise later on, they might show up to reinforce.
- Party attacks: Run combat encounter. Mark off one time unit for each combat encounter. Mark off every defeated enemy. Make a skill check for nearby enemies to see if they hear the encounter and move to reinforce their allies.
- When 4 time units are marked off, start the ritual. For every 6 time units marked off after the ritual has begun, kill one guardsman. Maybe have two guardsmen, and the Princess left?
So I have finished with the second Consequence and while writing it I thought about how I wanted the time units to play a part. I already know that if the party takes time to look for the Royal Guardsmen in the first Barrier that when they arrive at the cave they will have less time. The ritual will start if they go that route.
The last Barrier is the Final Confrontation. This Barrier will start off based on how much time the party has left. If they made good time they will arrive before the ritual has even started. If they make bad time, the ritual will already be complete. This Barrier will probably be the most complex that the characters have to overcome.
It would look something like this:
Consequence to Barrier three:
- Party arrives before the ritual starts. Describe the setup and where the three prisoners are located.
- Party sneaks closer. Mark off two time units. If this hits or goes over 4, start the ritual, describing how an evil guy ties down a guardsman to the table.
- Party attacks. A Priest of evil on his turn will call out to start the ritual. Another evil guy will grab the closest guardsman on his turn and hold him down on the sacrificial table. On the Priests next turn, he will kill the guardsman and repeat until the ritual is complete.
- Party parlays. Maybe the evil guys will listen to the party? Maybe they will trade one party member for the Princess? Skill check.
- Party arrives after the ritual has started. Describe one prisoner (guardsman) tied to the sacrificial table, with an evil priest standing over him with a knife.
- Party sneaks closer. Mark off two time units. If you reach 6, kill the guardsman II. Party attacks. Priest begins to rush the ritual. When the Priest acts, he kills the guardsman. He will continue like Party attacks on section A.
- Party calls out to stop. Maybe the Priest will Parlay?
- Party arrives after the first guardsman is killed. Rest of events are like part B.
- Party arrives after the second guardsman is killed. Rest of events are like part B, with one addendum. If the Princess is put on the sacrificial table and lives, she becomes cursed.
- Party arrives after the Princess is killed. Describe the room full of eldritch power. Maybe an evil spirit is summoned, or the evil priest’s eyes are glowing with magical power. At this point you should make it apparent that the party failed to save the princess. They could potentially engage the now triumphant Priest in combat or parlay, but make it clear that the party has failed in their goal.
- Party arrives really late to the event. Maybe 6 time units after the Princess is killed. The room is empty save for the bodies of the dead guardsman.
Consequences for the goal
Now that we finished with the consequences for the Barriers we need to have some for the story goal as well. These Consequences for the story goal should spring forth from the actions of the Heroes during the story and should be tied into how they achieved their goal for the story.
Remember the Endings portion that we wrote earlier? Even though I wrote it early on (and I always write the ending right after I write the goal) I’m actually going to put it here on the finished product.
Check out our next installment of this guide to DMing in 2 weeks!