Saturday, February 15, 2020

How to run a Game V: The Shape of a Narrative

If you managed to stay awake in English class, you've seen this diagram:
Or, at least, something like it.  This has to do with the structure of stories, and if you're running game with a strong, narrative thread, you'll need to understand the shape and what it means.  I frankly find a lot of these explanations a little terse, with a great deal of emphasis on the climax and not enough on the other parts of a story, when each part matters, especially for your sessions and campaigns. So, this post is going to dive into it in more depth, and talk about how to make that structure work for your sessions, and talk about what it all means.


These diagrams always talk about tension and I rarely get a good, clear explanation as to what that is.  The diagram to the right actually offers some pretty good insights, but I want to tackle what "tension" is and what it means for an RPG game.

Tension as Difficulty Curve

This is probably the easiest for a GM to understand for his game: as the game progresses, the opponents the PCs face and the challenges they face rise in difficulty.  This is a tool that a GM has that an author doesn't, so make use of it!  D&D, for example, uses "Challenge Ratings," and that makes a pretty convenient measure to increase the tension: the first fight of a campaign is going to be easier and lower in challenge rating than a fight at the end of a campaign.  This on its own isn't enough to create narrative tension, however.

Tension as the Fear of a Bad Ending

I picked this one up from Robin Laws.  If you're like me, you're probably a fan of KARTAS and you started watching to hear Kenneth Hite, but Robin has a real understanding of what makes narratives work, and one point I see him come back to often is that a story needs to generate the fear that the ending you hope for won't happen.  For example, in a classic romance, we have our heroine and she meets the hot hero and they hit it off, and the rest of the story is the author carefully worsening their situation and making it less and less likely that they'll get together, while giving us slender strands of hope that those crazy kids will find a way to make it. This is what keeps us reading, not just watching the tragedy unfold, but the hope against hope that it's all going to turn out okay even while we fear it won't. The greater that desire for a happy ending contrasted with the heightening fear that it won't happen, with enough strands of hope to let the reader believe that, perhaps, the good ending will happen, is what keeps the reader glued to their seat.  They want to know "what happens next."

This is a trick better suited to fixed narratives, like books or movies, than RPGs.  In a sense, you get this with the mounting difficulty curve and some other elements, but many narratives turn on the choices of the protagonist as well as exploring their character.  An RPG certainly explores the character of its PCs, but not in a way that the GM can control.  There is a temptation with these narratives to see the GM as the "author" of the narrative, and he's a strong influence, but a player participates directly, which mixes the role of author and audience, given that the player is invested in acquiring a good ending for his character.  Thus you have less control in contriving that intense tension that an author or director can create.  This is a good concept to keep in mind, but understand the limitations of your medium.

Said differently, fixed narratives, like books, can take away agency from the protagonist as a part of mounting curves, but RPGs tend to avoid taking agency from the PCs and, instead, gives them more and more agency as the campaign carries on.  Imprisoning and torturing PCs is much more likely to be frowned upon in an RPG than in, say, a Saw movie.  There are sufficient genres of RPG that this might not remain true in all examples, but it's a good rule of thumb to remember.

Tension as Complexity

This is something I see discussed more in game design than in book writing, but I think they apply to both.  It pairs well with mounting difficulty.

"Complexity" in this case means the mental load that the audience (and the players) are expected to carry by the narrative.  What you'll often see in game design are early levels that aren't just easier than later levels, but that the number of things you need to know about the game, and the number of elements you need to track to succeed in the game also increase.  The first fights in an RPG might just teach you the basic menu commands; The next set of fights might explain how different magical elements and status effects interact with your character, and then later between one another; later on, the game might add additional game mechanics that let you switch out character, or increase the total number of possible combinations, etc.  The game isn't just harder as it progresses, but more complex.

Stories can do this too.  They tend to begin with a very simple, familiar narrative, and as the story progresses, they introduce more elements of the world.  First, we might see highschool students doing higschool things, then we get introduced to a vampiric murder (an additional layer of complexity), then we get introduced to a monster-hunter society, then we get introduced to the conspiracy that keeps it all secret, then we get introduced to the real truth about vampires (they're totally not what we expected!), then we find out that the main character has been infected, and so on.  As the story progresses, our ability and need to understand the world increases, which is why you can't just toss someone into the fourth season of Game of Thrones and expect them to know what the hell is going on.

(This is also why a lot of authors will argue that exposition, the outright explaining elements of a setting, is bad form.  Yes, the reader needs to understand the setting, but in many ways that's the whole point of the narrative.  A good story will show you the world, bit by bit, and let you "experience it for yourself."  A bad narrative will tell you about the world, keeping everything that's interesting about it remote from you.  Similarly, you should be trying to get your players to play with your world, rather than letting them look at it remotely through a narrow porthole of exposition. Rather than explain, for example, that vampires are vulnerable to silver, hit them with a vampire in a room full of silverware and let your players flail about until they figure it out and drive him off.)

Narratives often have themes of wisdom: you know more at the end than you did at the beginning, and the main character has gone through a metaphorical "coming of age."  The rising line of tension is also a rising line of your knowledge of the world.

Tension as Interesting Questions

This is personally my favorite metaphor for rising tension, as it fits best with how RPGers experience a campaign, and it isn't too shabby at explaining more linear narratives either. You can view a story as posing, and then answering, a series of questions.  It asks the question, then explores the implications, then answers the question, and then explores the implications of that, and then possibly poses the next question, especially if it arises naturally from the first. These questions can be cosmic questions, such as what is the purpose of life, but more often these tend to be more practical, down to earth questions, like "How will those crazy kids get back together?" and "Whodunit?"

These make an excellent perspective for an RPG because these questions can represent choices that the PCs can make. Obviously, PCs make choices all the time, but these Choices are big Choices, with a capital C, and represent the Choices that the game turns on.

For example, to go back to romance as an example:
  • Will girl get with boy?
    • Even though boy is actually a vampire?
      • What about the other vampires around Boy? Will they hurt Girl?
    • And her best friend is in love with him?
      • Wait, shouldn't she tell her best friend that boy is a vampire? Doesn't she have a right to know? Or will she think girl is just trying to keep boy to herself?
    • And she's supposed to marry Other Boy, the one that her parents are crazy about, even though he's boring and possibly a little fanatical/abusive?
      • What happens if Other Boy figures out that Boy is a vampire?
If we take a murder mystery as an example?
  • Whodunit?
    • How could it be the rich heir if he was away at the time?
      • But then why did he show up so quickly? And what's with his angry call?
      • And why was his fiance here at the time?
    • How could it be the estranged wife if she lacked the strength to do the deed?
      • But does she have a lover who could make have done it? Who has she been seeing?
      • And given that she was written out of the will, what would she stand to gain?
    • It could have been the butler, but why?
      • The butler had a good relationship with the victim
      • The victim planned to add the butler to his will, but was murdered before he had a chance?
      • But why does so much evidence point to the butler?

    A story would just explore these, but an RPG can allow a player to make these choices. You can almost see how the arc would play out: we set up the relationship between Girl and Other Boy, we introduce Best Friend, we introduce Boy to Best Friend, then we introduce Boy to Girl, then we start to reveal the fact that boy is a vampire, and the other vampires, and then we create a situation where girl's player has to choose.  

    The fun thing about an RPG is that the player gets to pick, not the "author."  The player is the author of her own destiny, in so far as the world (via the GM) doesn't throw unexpected complications at her. If she doesn't choose Boy, who gets with Boy instead? How does she deal with the inevitable souring of her relationship with Other Boy? Does she try to fix it and try to soothe his jealousy? If she does choose Boy, does she also become a vampire? If not, how does she avoid the fury of the vampires in Boy's world? If so, how does she continue to interact with the rest of her mortal friends and balance it with her new obligations to the Night World? We have a natural ability to continue the story, to explore more questions and to create more choice points.

    Now, the observant of you might have noted that we're discussing narrative in the context of a linear game, and I observed that strictly linear games don't allow choices, and yet, here we are, offering up choices in literally the next post.  Understand that the models I've offered of railroads and sandboxes are deliberately exaggerated. Nobody runs a strictly linear game. There are ways to bound the choices the PCs can make (a dungeon, for example, offers choices in the form of branching hallways, but not in the sense of "I want to leave this dungeon and go start a rock band"), but some of the most satisfying games, even the linear ones, dive pretty deeply into these choices.  For your first few games, focus on a handful of Big Choices, and center your game around just those, like which faction your PCs will ultimately join, or whether the girl will accept becoming a vampire, etc. You can turn a lot of our narrative on setting up that choice, and then allow the choice in a pretty controlled way.  After you have more experience, you'll broaden and broaden the available choices until you graduate to a fully "open" model (which is why I argued "sandboxes are better, but start with rails").

    The Structure of a Story

    So now that we understand what tension is, let's talk about how it's structured in a story.

    The Introduction or "the Ordinary World."

    My favorite story structure I've ever come across was the one in Changeling: the Dreaming, which was a variant of the Monomyth used in Star Wars.  It's not a perfect structure, but I think it illustrates some things well, especially for a typical "adventure!" style RPG, which is most of them.  

    The first thing you want to do is introduce your players to the world. The point of the first moments of a story is to lay out the basics of the world: who are the major players, what does the character typically do, what is the world like?  This doesn't have to be boring.  The "ordinary world" of a monster hunter is, of course, hunting monsters, so a monster hunter game might start with the PCs in the midst of a fight against a (typical) monster. What matters is not that it is THE ordinary world, but their ordinary world.

    What I tend to do here is introduce the players to the basics of the rules.  For example, if its a game that involves fighting, run a simple fight: basic orcs and goblins for a D&D game, for example, or a simple zombie fight for monster hunters; super-heroes might stop a bank robbery, etc.  I also tend to introduce the basic NPCs that the players will often deal with, as well as the basics of the setting.  If it's a setting where magic is normal, they should see some magic during this part of the adventure. If there's a sci-fi technology that everyone uses, they should be using it in this scene.

    The point of this part is to lay down the basis for understanding everything that comes next!  This is a part that often gets ignored as "boring," but make sure to give it some attention. It's the foundation of your entire adventure, and the basis for the player expectations.

    The Inciting Incident, or "the Call to Adventure"

    The next part of the story is the "break" with the ordinary world.  Something happens, and it disrupts the ordinary world, and the player need to respond to it.  In so doing, they will leave the "ordinary world" and enter the next phase of the story, the "World of Adventure."

    Changeling's structure has some nice nuance: it introduces the "Rejection of the Call" and "Meeting the Mentor" and then "Crossing the Treshold." They explain it thus: the hero in the ordinary world encounters something unusual and otherworldly, something that doesn't fit their ordinary world: an unusual killing, a strange message from a scavenged robot, the discovery of a journal from an adventuring ancestor and their sword.  The Ordinary World quickly reasserts itself, reminding the hero of his obligations: the police chief takes the character off the case, or the character's boss calls and reminds him how important he is for work, etc.  Then someone or something shows up to convince the hero of the vital importance of the Call, how "the whole world" is at stake, not just the world of adventure, but the ordinary world which is likely unconscious of the peril it faces.  Then the hero agrees and faces the Guardian of the Threshold: after defeating it, he exits the Ordinary World (leaving behind the police force or his day job and other mundane concerns) and enters fully into the World of Adventure.

    Where the Ordinary World establishes the baseline to the expectations of the world, the Call to Adventure sets the baseline for their adventurous expectations.  It explains how this adventure is going to be different, and sets up the basic stakes.  It's tempting to see the Ordinary World as a fake-out (if we're doing a Monster Hunter Game, the first session might be about fighting zombies, but the real adventure is about fighting werewolves!), but it's better to see the Ordinary World as setting up the baseline of the world, while the call sets up the baseline of the adventure.  The seeds to the real adventure might already be there in the ordinary world (they often are, but ordinary people either ignore them or don't understand their significance, like perhaps your boss called up to come in "because everyone keeps calling in sick!"), and the Call to Adventure makes their importance crystal clear to the protagonists. This clarification is the intent behind the nuance of the refusal of the call, the mentor and crossing the threshold.

    Rising Action or "Tests, Allies and Enemies"

    From here, the characters explore the world.  This is the long, rising line of the tension, and makes up the bulk of the story or the adventure.  The point here is to introduce the primary complexities that the ultimate climax will explore.  If the players need to gather allies, they should be meeting those allies here.  If they need to fight an enemy, they need to get an introduction to those enemies here. If they need to collect items to defeat the big bad, they need to do that collecting here.  This is the arc where they learn all the things they need to learn to resolve the final crisis.

    In addition to just increasing the difficulty of encounters, consider also using these encounters as "tutorials," or "learning moments" for what the final fight will be like.  For example, if the end-boss can only be defeated by careful application of varying forms of elemental damage during a time-limited fight where no healing magic can be used, then you should use this time to have fights that feature elemental damage, time-limited fights, and switching up elemental damage types as well as recognizing when this needs to happen, and then put them in fights where they can't heal.  When they face the final opponent, they're not blindsided by all of these particular requirements, but instead have been learning how to handle those various challenges throughout your whole campaign.

    This is also a great opportunity to introduce the rest of the world to the PCs.  Try to avoid going hog-wild here and keep focused on the goals of your narrative.  For example, if you're running a game about vampire hunting and there are werewolves in the world, you might choose to introduce them here, but you need to think about why? If it's "because werewolves are neat!" you risk derailing your own campaign if the PCs find the werewolves more interesting than the vampire plotline. If, on the other hand, werewolves fight vampires, then introducing them as potential allies lets you route this little detour back into your main narrative after you overcome that obstacle and earn your werewolf ally (or gain werewolf powers you can use to defeat the vampires, etc).

    This is also a great moment for "side quests." If you want your PCs to get to know the NPCs better, or have romantic sub-plots, or gain some cool new weapon or great new spell, this is also where to do it. Just keep in mind the need to remain focused on your core plot (lest the players go wandering off and you lose your story... unless your prepped for that, of course!).

    The Climax or "The Descent into the Underworld" and "the Hero Triumphant"

    This is the point where people discuss the most, because this is often the most exciting part of the story. This is where the hero faces the final confrontation and, in victory, resolves the central crisis of the plot.

    Changeling dives deeper into this part as well.  They break it up into "Approach the Inmost Cave," "The Supreme Ordeal", "The Reward," "the Road Back" and "the Final Threshold." Changeling follows the Monomyth here, which has relations to the "Cult of the Bear." The Hero approaches the final crisis after passing the tests of the previous stage confident in their ability to defeat the final crisis.  They are wrong. In fact, they are a sacrifice and are metaphorically slain (typically defeated) and cast into the metaphorical abyss (often literally brought to a lower part of the world).  There, they learn the key secret, the twist, that pulls together all they have learned before and hones it into a tool they can use to actually resolve the crisis.  They are metaphorically resurrected, and then return, using their newfound knowledge to fight their way out of the metaphorical underworld and to return to their confrontation with the Big Bad and, finally, with their true understanding of the world given to them by their sojourn in the metaphorical underworld, they are triumphant and resolve the crisis.

    If you have a twist, this is the moment to spring it.  This is where you unveil the villain's true plot, where you spring traps on the player.  It's frustrating for your players, but this is actually a good moment to let them lose, or at least appear to lose.  Then, introduce the final piece that they need to bring together all the various things you've been teaching/showing them over the course of the adventure (say, a magical weapon that integrates all the elements, or the talisman that lets them manifest both their werewolf and vampire powers at the same time, etc), as well as some means to escape their defeat.

    This should represent the culmination of the adventure.  This might be the hardest fight of the game, though I personally prefer to let it be more of a test of wisdom rather than strategy.  By this point, they should have learned enough that if they put two and two together, the crisis practically resolves itself.  The adventure was to acquire two and two and then crisis incites them to realize that they must put both together.  Often, the final resolution is just an understanding of what's really going on (for example, realizing that all the vampires you've fought are really controlled by one vampire who was posing as your ally the whole time. You may or may not have a big fight with that erstwhile ally, but the realization of the treachery is ultimately what mattered, and stealing yourself to defeat your friend).

    The Denouement or "the Return to the Ordinary World"

    This often gets ignored too.  Once the crisis is done, then your English teacher probably waved her hands and said "and then everyone lived happily ever after, etc, blah blah blah."  But just as the Ordinary World served as a foundation for the story, we need to return to that foundation.  The downward trajectory matters as much as the upward trajectory.

    During the Return, the heroes need to see the results of their actions.  Whatever happened to the various characters they met on their journey?  Whatever happened to that one bad guy that got away?  Did these event adversely affect the people in the Ordinary World?  You can use this moment to tie up loose ends, or to leave a few open, for the next adventure.

    This should be a nostalgic moment.  Having crossed the threshold into the world of adventure, acquired allies, passed tests and collected treasures, and then descended into the Underworld itself and returned, they're no longer the person they were when they left.  The boss of your previous day job beholds you in your glorious armor and with your glittering sword with the gorgeous elf-wife on your arm and says "Ah, not going to make your Friday shift, eh?"  The characters should see that they no longer fit in the ordinary world and that they need to remain in the world of adventure or, barring that, that they'll be forever changed.  This moment has passed and they have matured into a new person.

    Some stories will include a second, lesser crisis during the Denouement, like Saruman in the Shire in the Lord of the Rings.  Be careful with this. Nothing you do will be as exciting as the climax of your story (and if it is, then it should be the climax!) but that doesn't mean it doesn't have value.  At the end of the Forbidden Kingdom, the bullied kid rises up and defeats his bullies pretty casually. Compared to the magical duels between godly characters he just participated in, this is nothing, but the point isn't to be an exciting moment, but to show how far he's grown.  Consider a story with D&D characters returning from their adventure to slay the Dragon King and finding that there's an orc assault on their home town, just like there was in the first days of their adventure. Where this had been a major crisis before, the PCs are able to absolutely mop up the fight and see for themselves how much greater they've become.

    I often also use this moment in RPGs to allow players to engage in a retrospective, discussing their favorite moments of the game, or bringing back old favorites.  The point of all this is to give the players their rewards, and to let them reflect on the memories they crafted together over the course of the campaign.  There's a few ways to do it (just ask them and give them a reward for each story; bring back old characters and let them interact; let them ask you questions about things in previous parts of the game, etc), but I feel it's critical.  It's the little bit of sauce that can turn a perfectly fine adventure into a great and truly memorable one, just by asking your players to remember.

    It's Fractal!

    Okay, so you understand the structure of a story.  But here's a critical thing you need to understand: stories have these structures within them. The final structure of a story is not one long rising line, but a jagged line full of smaller calls to adventure, crises and returns.  A campaign might have the above structure, but be built of series of adventures that, themselves, have these structures, and they might have little scenes and moments within the adventure that have these structures. The point here is to understand that this is a repeating pattern.  It is the shape of stories, and stories are often built out of smaller stories

    You can see this pretty well in the Mandalorian, if you watch it (if you can).  Our hero starts off doing a normal bounty hunting job (the Ordinary World).  After returning his prize, he gets a new, stranger assignment (the inciting incident).  He goes to the target world, makes a couple of friends, learns to ride a Blurg, and discovers just how difficult it will be to break in (rising action).  Then he fights, seems to lose, his ally suggests suicide, they face an impossible obstacle and his ally is defeated but he uses that moment to defeat them (the Climax).  Then he recovers the target (the Reward).  But we also see it in filler episodes: the Mandalorian is on the run, like he always is (the Ordinary World).  He comes to some planet and someone asks him for help (inciting incident). He gains an ally, goes forth, comes up with a plan to resolve the crisis (rising action), attempts to resolve it, fails, then manages to overcome everything with his quick wits (the climax) and then he returns to his ship and flies off to his next adventure (the Return).  But the whole season has his structure, with the Mandalorian leaving his "Ordinary World" of bounty hunting to protect his new friend, and then the various allies he makes on his journey all return to help him face his final foe, who isn't who he thinks it is, and then people make sacrifices, and the Mandalorian literally descends into a hell-like world, and then literally ascends to heaven to defeat his opponent, and then rejects the Ordinary World to perform his next new quest.

    So keep this structure in mind not just for your campaign, but also for your adventures and your sessions. Learn to think in terms of rising tension, questions, complexity and interesting choices, as well as baselines of expectation and showing how far the player characters have come since their beginning.  Naturally, don't make your stories repetitive: the structure is what returns again and again, not the content that hangs on it, but properly mastered, your players will love it and likely not even notice the underlying structures.

    A Worked Example

    Let us return to our Ranathim Witcher-Mandalorian story suggested at the beginning.  We know the basis of the story: monster hunters get hired by a death cult to rescue some sacred child that they intend to sacrifice to their dark god.  We're also doing this in a linear way, so we know we want our heroes to eventually betray their clients and rescue the child and set-up a campaign long run-and-gun campaign of them vs the death cult.  Thus, we need to set up a few things:
    • The Monster Hunter group
    • The Death Cult
    • The importance of the child
    • A reason to betray their clients
    Most of this we can set up with the Ordinary World.  We start out monster hunters in media res.  They're fighting some monsters, probably some from the Dead Art patreon post like the Styxian Dragon, or perhaps a nest of Death Wurms.  Once they clear it out, the local community pays them their fee, and our heroes fly back to Moros, the homeworld of their Bounty Hunter guild.

    The point of this adventure would be to give them a sense of what they do.  If we expect them to do a lot of investigation, then we start them in the investigative phase of their adventure.  What I wouldn't do is start them in a bar, awaiting an assignment.  We'lll just start them with their assignment, because what matters isn't how they got this assignment, but that this acts as a tutorial for what it is they do: a basic investigation, kill the monster, get paid, go home.

    Then we need the Call to Adventure.  We'll go with full deal here, including a rejection.  We can set it up like this: As they return, when they're moving through their space port, they see the sicknesses and misery that pervades Moros. They also see a Keleni woman being accosted by ruffians and assassins.  She races up to them, but she doesn't beg them for help.  She begs them to "save my child."  She, however, can promise no payment.

    This creates a choice point, and a useful one for illustrating how to route railroads to give the players a sense of choice without actually derailing the whole plot.  They can choose to accept her request, in which case she explains what happens to her child and they go despite not getting paid.  This doesn't actually change much about the adventure, except we don't need to worry about why they would betray the Death Cult, because they're not working for the Death Cult.  However, this would violate their "get paid" clause, so they might reject her, in which case the story progresses as normal.

    We might also reject it more thoroughly and begin to set up the desired betrayal in that the ruffians who have accosted her might work for the Death Cult, who are trying to prevent her from getting aid.  They may seek to kill her unless someone (such as heroes) take her under their protection.  If she joins up with the heroes, we might have those assassins strike at the heroes right away, and they act as the Guardians of the Threshold, or at least one Guardian.  Alternatively, we can hint ominously that someone will try to kill her, and the PCs can decide if they care or not.  This is a great "choice point" for a railroad adventure in that it allows the players to make a moral choice ("Do we look after the Keleni woman or not?"), one that especially rewards attentiveness ("You know, she seems afraid, maybe we should check up on her"), but doesn't derail the plot at all.

    If the players reject her request, they return to their headquarters to receive the normal accolades and feasting or whatever it is we decide the Monster Hunter Guild does.  We should also introduce them to a few other hunters. This isn't important now, but when they betray the Death Cult, these will turn into their enemies, so it's useful to set them up now.

    Then we introduce the Death Cult and their main representative, who announces that a "sacred sacrifice" has been stolen from them.  He'll refer to "the sacrifice" in neutral terms, suggesting that "it" is more of an item than a person, thus obscuring what's going on (though players who recognize the set-up will likely figure out what's going on and may well connect the child of the Keleni woman to the sacrifice. This is fine.  It doesn't need to be a big reveal, and the players might at this point turn around and rejoin the Keleni woman, likely rescuing her from assassins in the process).  The Death Cultists announce that they're hiring the guild to rescue the child, and the Guildmaster offers up the PCs as his best hunters.  The Death Cultist seems uncertain, but then accepts them.  He should be disdainful, though, and slightly insulting.  Nothing sets the foundation for an eventual betrayal quite like the eventually betrayed character being a total a-hole, just be careful with how much of a jerk you make him: the point is to set the seeds to encourage a betrayal later on, not to make them ditch the mission right away.

    One thing we should add here, to further help along our inevitable betrayal, is a special request that "none gaze upon the sacred offering." They're instructed to kill anyone who sees the offering. They're also given a tracker that will help them identify the sacrifice.

    Let us say that the problem is that some Slavers have stolen "the sacrifice."  The Death Cult High Priest (or the Keleni woman) can give them the coordinates of the planet and send them on their way.  So off the players go, and then we're onto the true adventure. We can do a few things in this part:
    • A space battle against a defensive, pirate patrol to get to the planet (should be minor, more explaining that the slavers have basic defenses and to allow space-based characters to have some fun)
    • Fight some giant monster shortly after arriving on the world, to show how hostile and dangerous the world is, plus to reward the players for being cool in combat.  This should also be a relatively easy fight.
    • Find someone who can direct them to the slaver stronghold.  This person might be endangered by the monster above, or help them defeat it.
    • Meet rival hunters who have a different agenda (perhaps attempting to spite the Death Cultists, making them enemies right now, but possible allies in the future).  These might be the pirates of the Blood Moon of Charybdis.
    • Someone contracts an illness or a problem that can be endured, but will come to threaten the character eventually, but something the Child can heal (and thus earn some bennies).
    We can play around with these pieces and create several encounters. For example, after defeating the pirates, the players might land and find some village where everyone is frightened of the nearby slavers, and may well be discarded slaves themselves.  They ask for a guide, and are told that the only guide they have has been taken by some monster.  So they go to kill the monster and one of the PCs is poisoned or sickened by the beast. The guide takes them to the slaver's fortress and a long the way, they're ambushed by the pirates of the Blood Moon of Charybdis, who seek to steal the "prize" from the Slavers, mostly just to spite them.  We introduce one named character who is sufficiently cool and respectful of the PCs that the fight feels less like a grudge match and more like a duel between respectful parties.  The hunters defeat  the pirates.  They might agree to team up (as a matter of honor; especially if our hunters serve the Keleni), or they may part ways.

    Finally, they get to the fortress, which is our centerpiece.  This is our climax and it should play out like a heist or a typical action scenario.  The players can approach the fortress in a variety of ways: a full-frontal assault, or sneaking through the back door, or posing as slavers come to offer up their guide and/or the beautiful keleni mother to the slaver in trade for something else.  The slaver boss should have some monsters or minions that pose a real challenge.  Once they defeat everyone, they witness the Keleni Child, who is clearly the offering, as indicated by the tracker.  The child cures the sickened PC (and you might consider giving that PC a special trait, such as a bond with the child or a unique power, to reward them for enduring such a long running penalty).

    The ideal "end" of our story has the players returning to Moros with their offering, but if they go with the Keleni woman, or if they cotton on to what will inevitably happen if they bring the child back, they might just run immediately.  Either way, we might see if there's some way the Death Cultists could have tracked them to this world and found their ship and be waiting for them there.  We can then handle this a few ways.  The cultists can just await the child to be turned over to them, and we'll see if the PCs are willing to do so.  If so, the Death Cultists spring upon them "for having witnesses the child," and the PCs must fight them off and end up with the child in tow.  The only way they could ruin the story at this point is to kill or abandon the child as "not worth it." Alternatively, they refuse, and the Death Cultists spring upon them for their refusal.  Especially both cases, the Death Cultists brand them traitors (in the latter case, for their treachery; in the former case, for refusing to just accept death).  If they joined the Keleni woman, this should be an ambush, revealing the intent of the Death Cultists to take the child and sacrifice it to their dark god.  All of this sets up the coming adventure of avoiding the death cult, explaining their "treachery" to their old guild and trying to figure out the actual intentions of the Death Cult and what's so unique about the Child.

    This is a basic structure, and could use some additional depth and detail, but it's runnable.  It's also a good example of what a "railroad" game looks like, what sorts of choices you can offer without deviating too far off those rails.

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