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Brainstorming a Quest: The Plotpoint Paradigm


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OK, a quest. Or quests. Or something that Aran brings to the table in terms of gently adding to the story or fleshing it out, without hijacking the plot.


Does he need one? No, not really. There are lots of NPCs out there that are useful additions that carry no real plot beyond a copy of traditional themes, shadowing in-game ideas of betrayal, love, conquest, good versus evil, rescuing Boo, cooking Boo over an open fire, Slaying The Evil Ones And Gaining The Gratitude Of The Gods™ (all rights reserved, MGM Studios, 1929). We have NPCs that add no quest content at all. We have intricate plotlines like Beyond The Law that seek both entertainment and some social tweaking/thinking, controlling single-viewpoint storytelling quests like Saerileth, open character-building plotlines/encounters like Keto's quest, and a whole ton of romantic plots that can entertain a player.


So, what could we possibly add to this mix that does not already exist in some form or fashion, and fits Aran? He is not Chloe or other god-children, or Sheena the half-dragon, Kivan of dark and sad twisted fate, or even Nalia who is at least a Noble and should darned well expect some quest-like content cropping up. I mean, really - running a darned fiefdom is no picnic in the Realms - and she has to deal with <CHARNAME>> to boot. So what is it that Aran brings to the party? He is supposed to be, well, normal. Or as normal as Faerun really gets, anyways. Kind of that gruff travelling trader/fighter/scribe type, a Have Gun Will Travel, only not so much into the Lone Gunman role... the guys that are one step behind John Wayne (OK, so perhaps Ms. Jonie Wayne, since the protagonist can be male or female) in the 5th Cavalry Charge. You know. The one who takes the bullet for our hero, or hands our hero the extra ammo, or holds his horse - bit actor parts at best. No secret angsty famly to save - his sister is a mage off in Waterdeep, and his family has all retired from trading oster work. No roots put down, so no former girlfriend to rescue - a hint of slaver work that he detested and decided against doing ever again, lots of mercenary battles, some study with itenerant scholars - a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.


Hmmm. Perhaps what Aran needs is not a Quest, but an Anti-Quest. Or a series of them.


Traditionally, Quests are fun diversions. After all, we know the main plotline, and unlike Morrowind, you really can't ignore it successfully forever without simply abandoning your game and starting over (a nasty habit, that. I am opening my own chapter of "BG2 Plot-Restarters Anonymous", if anyone else wants to join. Anonymously, of course. To join, simply do not send me an email and never admit you joined to anyone, and voila - you are in). Some folks want tons of 'em. Some want specific ones. Most NPC quests require the NPC to actually be there, or involve her being kidnapped and having to be rescued, etc. But the predominant characteristic of BG2 NPC quests is that they seem to be attempts to play up the character in a situatiion that fleshes out thier backstory and provides a glimpse of what the mod maker though would be really cool for the NPC to do (or the PC to do to/for the NPC). This is to be expected - basically, it is the CRPG equivalent of literary sub-plots, which can enlighten and entertain while forwarding or obscuring the story, however the story works. C-3PO and R2D2 were just oddities in the first Star Wars movies - it wasn't until we saw the whole sequence unfold or read the books that we began to find out how deeply enmeshed in the action two little plot-device/comic-relief 'droids actually complete a nice little subplot and tie stories together, providing a thread to follow that enriches the whole. The best example of this device in TV Sci-Fi that I can think of is Babylon 5, which was a masterful use of entire story-arcs built entirely out of "sub-plots" - until the series writers twisted them into a rope that really became one big story. It is so important to us players/readers, that entire genres of fiction are based not on primary or secondary characters in the Forgotten Realms / Star Trek Universe / Honorverse / BuffyVerse / whatever - we create entirely new characters to live and breath in those worlds, interacting with those worlds. the paperback sci-fi/fantasy section of our local bookstore shows us that there is a large market for stories that expand or reinforce the playground universe of WarHammer, or Star Wars, or Dragonlance, or Forgotton Realms.


We are either incredibly creative, or incredibly out of touch with day to day survival. Not that I care - I have a Morrowind game, BG2 game, Tutu game, and a good CoH RTS going, so don't talk to me about day to day survival unless you can tell me how to find more Ash Yams so I can punch up my Alchemy Skill and enhance my intelligence so that I can create better potions using Ash Yams. Or perhaps explain why I just can't seem to make my Rangers take Hill 101 by the timed deadline for the combat medal... so far, 9 tries, 9 failures. Bleh!


Plotting Quests

DM-ing by the anti-numbers


In my book, good DMs provide four things every single time:


a goal, a conflict or consequence of failing to attain the goal, an adversary or obstacle to overcome, and finally - plot points.


For DM'ing, plot points are pretty similar to the screenplay/writer/author/novelist idea, in that they are a point at which the plot can pivot or change direction unexpectedly, or even cease to be important as a new direction is revealed. There are lots of folks who actually study this kind of thing, so if you are one, awesome - good luck on your next book, and I honestly hope you have success. Luckily, I have a paying gig and have no aspirations of being a real author (I starved and scraped and did enough things that I am ashamed of being a musician, thank you very much - I don't relish repeating it in yet another career that chews creative people up and spits them out without much regard for things like, say, a reasonable income. Or sleep. Or even food.) I am stealing the phrase 'plot point' and applying it in a personal way, so if you have already read the latest greatest "How To Write The Next Great Original American Novel In Twenty Days™" or just came back from a writer's seminar at Harvard (better yet Bennington or Oxford or Cambridge, because they have real writers there) way cool - go write that damned novel and let a musician misuse terminology. For my purpose, I am going to say that a plot point is the point where the players can completely and utterly screw up their DM.


In a novel or screenplay, the author has a story (or stories) and the reader follows the story (or dumps the book at the next train station to inflict in on some poor unsuspecting soul who just needed to pass the time). The difference in really awesome DM'ing is that each one of the critical points of the story, the part where the author drives the story forward or teases the reader by tossing new light on the matter or whatever - the element of choice creeps in. A group of players doesn't "know" the story, so they can't make the "right choice". And that is really, really fun. It can lead literally anywhere, for any reason, and usually in the manner least expected.


For example, the classic plotpoint, meeting the Lich who will give the quest to our party of intrepid adventurers.


DM: So, you see before you a bony spectral hand reaching up from the grave, and...

THIEF: I run like hell!

DM: What? You do what...

FIGHTER: I'm right behind him. And I grab the big lever and pull like mad, too, as I go.

MAGE: Oh, come on - it is a skeleton. DM's bluffing. There is no way he would kill the whole party off in one big splashy... oh, heck. Ok. I run too.

CLERIC: I stand fast, shouting my spell of Dispell Evil at the top of my lungs...

DM: But he... OK, hold on -

FIGHTER: Oh, and I throw that flask I picked up last night and throw it at the hand. Yeah. Hard, so it breaks.

DM: OK, err...

MAGE: I help out Celissa.

DM: (scratches head, rolls dice, hunts desparately for way out) TIMESTOP! You all find yourself suddenly whisked into a pile, bound up by a big rope. there is a lich standing over you, and he says "Hello. I am the guy you were supposed to get a quest from. But now you threw a nasty jar of smelly Charisma Enhancing Lotion at me, so I will have to make you do two sub-plot quests and a Mission of Atonement as well. Shut up and listen, or I will make that atonement involve a Kobold Queen and her need for an heir to the kingdom..."


Deus Ex Machina is nice, but a little goes a long way. And having a quest forced on you just plain stinks, in my book - though I understand that for some NPCs, the modder feels that the characterization makes it an all or nothing proposition. Although she is not alone in the modding world in this regard, she is one of the absolutely classic examples of "directional"storytelling, Saerileth again springs to mind - one story, strong character, definite "yes" and "no" answers, and that means less player choice. You go through the story, but in order to fit Saerileth in the party, you go through *her* story. I actually am ok with that story, but Aran is the antithesis of "thou shalt do this or thy evilness shalt rip my teenage heart in two and I shall die of the pain thou hast caus-ed mine own". He would be more like


ARAN "Aye, then, you want to go kick some orc arse? There's a nice bit o' gold..."

PC "No, Aran."

ARAN "Right. How about a short contract, runnin' some goods up to Nashkel?"

PC "No, Aran."

ARAN " Well, I got some copy work - you want me to teach you some scribin'?"

PC "No, Aran."

ARAN "Well, all right. You want me, I'm off after that there redhead what's sparklin' right pretty right now. Unless, o' course, you would want to go upstairs wi' me an'...

PC "No, Aran."

ARAN "Well, you can't blame a lad for tryin', eh?"


Now, how much choice can we accomplish in the i.e. engine? lots. Tons. WAY TOO MUCH. Because although the concept of a freeform awesome DM'ing of player choice, you need to create your own game. We have Limitations™. There are Canonical Rules™. There is also the little teeeeeny consideration that the darned quest would never be finished if every single major point had a measly 5 choices, and their points had 5 choices, and so on, and so on (I hope Prell doesn't sue me for stealing their commercial). For that, you need real people, so you need a PbP or a gaming group, or an online group of some kind. For BG2, you have to draw some limits. Let's see what we might need to do to limit Aran.

  • Has to be Faerunian, even if it isn't completely Old Skool Canonical Treatment.
  • Should fit 2E rules and expectations, probably should reference correct timeline (even though they kind of screwed that up a bit in the game - fans are notoriously more picky about that than the original authors in almost every setting, except perhaps Tolkein Himself.)
  • Has to take place in chapter 2 or 6, because we didn't make Aran a Drow or a pirate, or set him up with a backstory that puts him in Saradush somehow. And that is a pretty crowded set of chapters, let me tell you.
  • Has to try to not spoil the main plot with info too early, and yet have some attraction to being done/accomplished that makes sense to the PC (no pulling a sword from a stone to become the next King Of Amn, and no suddenly discovering that Aran is actually Elminster's First Cousin and Future Ruler of a Moonshea Isle... it really needs to follow the goals of the PC, not Aran. Bit part, remember? Must be Equity, but not command a star billing and salary...)

OK, some minimal stuff - what does that leave us with?


How about a quick brainstorm. What would a JOAT (Stainless Steel Rat, a great story, go read it) do when hired by a Bhaalspawn bent on Saving/Dominating The World? After all, he is Pinky to <CHARNAME> The Brain....


GOALS: Help The BhaalSpawn Succeed.

Potential plots that might fit that goal:

  • gather information on OBE's (Other Bhaalspawn Enemies) (if you are British, you get it...)
  • find scrolls of power or a secret cache of gold/items that could help the PC (Pirate Gold, ARrrrrrr....)
  • arrange mercenary work for money using contacts (Conquerers For rent. Reasonable Rates. No Dragons. Apply within.)
  • build a man from scrap parts labled "Abbey... abby something - abby-normal" and bring him back to life (Hey, how did Young Frankenstien get in here? Commonplace occurrence in FR, so scrap this one!)
  • discover plot against PC by local authorities scared of the Prophecy and resulting business losses (Leave the guns. Take the canolis.)

CONSEQUENCE/CONFLICT: Tasks Distracting From Main Goal.

  • mercenary network of information can work for or against the merc - what happens when you are in the posse of the Notorious BiG (Bhallspawn Interest Group) and someone has hired your former friends and acquaintences to "detain and question" said BiG, for, say, perhaps...
    - the rulers of Waterdeep, who might want to see what is going on and see if this is a Good witch, or a Bad witch? (ok, or warlock, but you get the idea)
    - the followers of Ilmater/Cyric/Corelon/etc. who want to help/hurt a being who is rumored (correctly or incorrectly) to have chosen sides in the religious conflict rebrewing? There are other forces interested in the outcome, after all.
    - payment of taxes or service requirements by the local lords? The Cowled ones aren't the only game in Amn, and the Roenalls are not the only nobles by any means. Court intrigue might help here.
  • Written communication is cool, but can spread information the wrong way, too. What happens if Aran's journal falls into the wrong hands, and Irenicus finds additional chinks in PC's armour - sending a bribery attempt against the party, with a loyalty check on participants (Korgan takes the cash no problem, Minsc squishes the messenger...)
  • A mercenary's life is a hard one. What happens when PC finds himself accused of warcrimes against "innocent, law abiding" patrols that ambushed the party, like every time I try to go from point to point in the darned city? Especially when Aran is found to be wanted by the Crimson Tower for 'spying' during the Iron Throne conflict?
  • negotiation is not Aran's strong point. There is a great Padme quote about this - something about negotiations - ah, Google is my friend; Anakin: You call this a diplomatic Solution? Padme: No, I call it an aggressive negotiation. So what happens when a guy can get you a job, but gets in over his head, and PC has to choose between breaking the contract or fulfilling it - better yet, what happens when you take the contract and find out there is*no* good guy present, and Aran's answer is "To hell wi' th' contract, anyways. I never did like that murderin' son o' a bitch, beggin' pardon to dogs everywhere. I says we kill em' all, an' let Kelemvor sort out what bastard gets sent to what hell."


well, on this one, it really depends on what form of goal and consequence/conflict we lay down. One sample scenario:


> Aran gets job offer for group to negotiate peace between some nobles for some traders.

> group finds out "traders" are really agents sent to test PC and gather info for other bhallspawn, or for Irenicus, or for some other political entity

> peace must be negotiated or resolved through any number of means, from a game of chess through to personal challenges/champions, to perhaps the regular way (bug group battle, save, reload, try again).


Well, that is the brainstorm - no answers yet, just floating out ideas. The "non-required-yet-fun-to-accomplish-subplot-for-normal-mercenary-faerunian-sellswords-that-builds-up-PC-and-fills-in-backstory" quest or mini-quests. An interesting uzzle. Help yourself to a brainstorm, if you like. When something moves along into focus, we can come back to actual plot points, and see how we can make the quest be one of those 'replayable because I actually have real choices' quests.

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Mercenary Companies, gleaned from FR novels (NiGHTMARE compiled this list, confirmed via Candlekeep Forums references)

  • Company of Hunnar (from FR15- Gold & Glory) MC
  • Order of the Blue Boar (Dragon 179, FR15- Gold & Glory) MC
  • Order of the Silver Lance (from FR15- Gold & Glory) MC
  • Captain Bee lars Orhotek (LE hm F15): commander of the Athkatlan garrison.
  • Amnian Revenue and Taxation Board
  • Amnian army handles spying and treason


Hot Topics(most have been done already multiple ways):

  • The Bhaalspawn armies torching the world
  • Cowled Wizards and Control of magic
  • Guild Rivalries
  • Fallout from Iron Crisis (all that bad iron, still floating about)


In Aran's materials,


Primary Quest: none. Unless the "Alternate Route to Spellhold" could be created in a Merc setting... Hmmm. I wonder how that would work... but why would anyone give up all the experience skipping all that material? Have to look at that. The setup is easy - for the right combination of fees and tasks, one of the mercenary companies will get you to Spellhold using reliable (or unreliable) transport. Airships, or regular ships - would need an alternate to the Githyanki/etc. area and quests. Saerileth does this, IIRC. More RP, anyways. Always weird having a Paladin working for the Shadow Theives, when the instinct would be to start wiping them all out.


SubQuests: several small ones? A panel of them that you look to via PID? The equivalent of the X-series "Mission Boards", DA:O "Chantry Boards", etc.


Classic Tasks:

  • FedEx. Pickup something, deliver something.
  • Crafting. Pick up materials, join them together to get better stuff.
  • Collecting. Pick up a series of objects (scalps)/do a series of tasks (say a prayer in each of several locations), get rewarded.
  • Kill Bill. (minor tasks). Travel the world, meet new people, and kill them.
  • Kill Bill II. (major boss character). Big Baddie is in the way. Kill it/them.
  • Ocean's 11. Steal something.
  • Ocean's 12. Steal something or else we wipe out your party.
  • Die Hard. Protect innocents by killing/removing badguys.


Military Tasks that might not fit into above quests:

  • Intelligence gathering
    - spot and report position of target
    - determine level of activity at certain site
    - infiltrate lines and call in strikes
    - collect and analyze written communication and report analysis
    - develop and recruit contacts that will give information later on
    - recheck outdated maps vs current maps
    - disinformation: pass on incorrect information to known enemy assets.
    - information collaboration: pass on correct information and retrieve correct information from known friendly asset
  • Tactical/Strategic
    - build battle plans and contingency plans
    - logistics, supply lines, and planning for problems
    - joint training missions with other organizations
    - develop new weapons or magic
  • Supply and Support
    - Reserve troops on line not called for battle until needed
    - Bring (or escort) munitions/food/observers etc. to front lines
    - Train and/or recruit new assets
    - Heal, repair, and/or comfort personnel or supplies
    - Counsel and support retired military personnel


Police (FF) tasks that might not fit into above, all of which can be a For<>Against pairing:

  • Fraud/Forgery
  • Vice
  • Murder
  • Non-Sanctioned Theft
  • Bribery
  • Loan-sharking
  • Dirty Cops
  • Political/Religious Dissent
  • Guild Rivalries
  • New Guilds/Revolutionaries (probably Army territory)


List of potential Plot Points to draw from:

  • Past service involved weapon stashes or robbery - find map to spot, collect it.
  • Mission Gone Wrong - revenge sought for collateral damage or killing innocents
  • Warning From Sources - Tarnesh's cousin is a Red Wizard, and is insulted by the method of his demise in BG1. I mean, really - the idiot deserves his death, but to be clobbered by a wet behind the ears poor excuse for a bookworm? We have to have some standards, you know.
  • Inactive Reserve - Moonshea or FF comes calling, and reactivates Aran - to bring payroll to retired personell.
  • Healing mission - bring party cleric to a battle area, protect that party member until a certain NPC is healed.
  • Training mission - train in one of skillset areas
  • Recruiting mission - get x number recruits (coersion vs payment vs trickery vs charisma)
  • Undercover Forgery - hired to go check shopkeepers for forged iron trade bars built from Nashkell iron


List of potential conflict/spicing up

  • Former comrade happy with Aran helps him out
  • Former comrade unhappy with Aran interferes
  • Former lover happy with Aran helps him out but wants him back
  • Former lover unhappy with Aran interferes and wants him hurt
  • Commoners on scene misconstrue main action and protect target
  • Commoners on scene try to help with main action
  • Politics: another MC has the same contract/goal
  • Politics: another MC has the opposite contract/goal
  • Politics: Nobles have the same contract/goal and do not want interference
  • Politics: Nobles have the opposite contract/goal and do not want interference
  • Politics: Army has the same contract/goal and do not want interference
  • Politics: Army has the opposite contract/goal and do not want interference
  • Religion: job not in PC's interests/beliefs
  • Religion: job not in Aran's interests/beliefs


Exposition | Complication | Climax | Resolution



Still in progress, just tucking some notes here for ideas.

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The joys of having to sit through training sessions on programs I already know and use with students. Bleh. But, something fun came out of it, I guess. Two potential quest diagrams, one for a linear quest and the other for a treasure hunt/collector quest.





Treasure Hunt/Collector


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