Wednesday 27 August 2014

On 5e Bonds

OK, let's talk about the "Bonds" provided in "Hoard of the Dragon Queen". I complained previously that giving each party member a personal reason why they should take an interest in the adventure hook is a light-handed form of railroading. Here's the list provided by the module:

  1. Leosin Erlanthar, a wandering monk once saved your life.  He's sent an urgent summons for you to meet him in a small town called Greenest.  Looks like it's time to pay off that debt.
  2. When an orc raid drove your family from your home, the people of Greenest took you in.  Anyone who threatens Greenest is your sworn enemy.
  3. Every five nights, you have a strange sequence of apocalyptic dreams.  The world is destroyed by cold, choking fumes, lightning storms, waves of acid, and horrible fire.  Each time the dream ends with ten evil eyes glaring at your from the darkness.  You fell a strange compulsion to travel to Greenest.  Perhaps the answer to the riddle of your dreams awaits you there.
  4. Ontharr Frume, a crusading warrior and champion of good, is your friend and mentor.  He has asked you to travel to Greenest in search of rumors of increasing dragon activity.
  5. You have heard rumors that your close childhood friend, a half-elf named Talis, has been kidnapped by a strange group of dragon cultists.  Your investigations into the cult have led you to the town of Greenest.  You must save her!
  6. Being the grandchild of a renowned dragonslayer is usually a good way to impress people, but just last week a gang of ruffians attacked you.  You barely escaped with your life, but as you fled the ruffians told you that the Cult of the Dragon never forgets and always avenges.  You're hoping to lie low in a sleepy little town called Greenest, until this blows over.
  7. On his death bed, your father confessed that he had been involved in a group called the Cult of the Dragon.  They paid him to smuggle goods across the Sword Coast.  Wracked by guilt, he begged you to investigate the cult and undo the evil he may have helped foster.  He urged you to begin your search in a town called Greenest.
  8. The dragons destroyed everything you hold dear.  They killed your family and destroyed your home.  Now, with nothing but what you carry on your back and a horrid scar of the near fatal wounds you sustained in the attack, you seek revenge.
  9. You and your family were members of the Cult of the Dragon until your rivals in the cult arranged to wipe you out.  Though they slaughtered your kin, you survived, but they think you are dead.  Now is your chance for vengeance!  Your hit list consists of three names: a human cultist named Frulam Mondath, a half-orc named Bog Luck, and a half-dragon named Rezmir.  You have arrived in Greenest knowing it's next on the cult's list of targets.
  10. You have a secret.  You were once a gold dragon who served Bahamut.  You were too proud and vain, to the point where Bahamut decided to teach you a lesson.  You have been trapped in a weak, humanoid body, with your memories of your former life but a dim shadow.  You remember only one thing with clarity:  Bahamut's command to go into the world and prove your devotion to the cause of good.  If you prove worthy, on your death, you will return to his side in your true form.

Roleplaying & The Agency Paradox

While I think the point about railroading is true, I'd like to push that complaint to the side for the moment. Some DM's don't know how to or aren't interested in running a sandbox. They buy a module and read it and now they want to run it for their group. But they now have a roleplaying problem:

In a sandbox, the PC's enter a dungeon/scenario for their own reasons: to find treasure, to help someone, to impress a girl, because they are curious... As such, roleplaying in that dungeon emerges naturally. Questions of, when to forge on, when to flee, what to look for all follow naturally from the PC's original in-character intentions.

But when the DM just picks a module to run, the roleplaying can suffer. Without a clear in-character motive for entering the dungeon, the players will likely just treat the scenario as a railroad, following whatever seems like the next place the DM wants them to go to be polite. I felt this quite distinctly in our recent WFRP campaign where I just sort of went along with the clues the DM dropped, even though Seigwart and Sigyn really had no reason to be chasing this warpstone meteor across the empire.

Bonds are one solution to this problem. Let's artificially provide characters with the motivations they are missing by not playing in a sandbox. Now "paying back my debt to Leosin Erlanthar" is my motivation. I'm going to want to look for him first and foremost, and the results of that search are going to greatly effect how I roleplay the adventure.

This yields an interesting result. By railroading the PC's into the dungeon with these artificial motivations, you're actually giving them more agency within the dungeon, since the DM has given validation to their in-character motivations. Now, as a player, I can riff-off of those motivations and our play through the dungeon can be driven by the players rather than by DM railroading, as it should be.

So, while my preference is to play/run in a sandbox setting, I think that Bonds are a good thing when that isn't an option.

A More Natural Solution

That said, these Bonds come-off as being rather artificial.
"The dragons destroyed everything you hold dear.  They killed your family and destroyed your home."
"You have a secret.  You were once a gold dragon who served Bahamut."
Really!? We're just throwing some huge world-changing fact in order to justify the party's presence in the dungeon?  It just feels too forced to me.

I could see using this approach on brand-new PCs, but in an existing campaign the DM should use their own creativity and knowledge of the PC's to draw them in.

  1. Don't make-up an NPC that no-one has ever heard of. Instead use an NPC that the party grew close to in previous adventures.
  2. Leave a clue at the end of the previous adventure that leads to the next module you want to run. Like when "Against the Giants" had clues that the Drow were to blame
  3. Don't tell players that "just last week a gang of ruffians attacked you". Instead, set-up the attack previously, maybe several sessions previously. Telling the players "the attack happened" just seems like lazy DMing.

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