Adventurers are the Measure

φησὶ γάρ που ‘πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον’ ἄνθρωπον εἶναι, ‘τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστι, τῶν δὲ μὴ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.’ —Plato, Theaetetus

When designing a scenario or adventure, writers and referees often create allies and antagonists, by which I mean entities that the designer intends to have some degree of predetermined disposition toward player characters.

When I created my initial materials for Vaults of Pahvelorn, I explicitly attempted to avoid this tendency. I tried to create factions, monsters, and personages with particular motivations, rather than antagonists, and let players decide which would became enemies during play.

This was a game of D&D, so I was expecting adventurers to engage in conflict with at least some of these imagined creatures, but I wanted to avoid predetermining sympathies. Superficially, this may seem like some form of moral relativism. However, I also tried to retain my judgment of particular motivations. Some groups of non-player characters were wicked, or greedy, or ruthless, or principled.

I was curious about the way in which players would choose to interact with various factions rather than intending to subvert tropes, such as, for example, presenting orcs as having a sympathetic subaltern perspective. For example, given two wicked factions in tension controlling different aspects of a dungeon, how would players react? What about two seemingly sympathetic factions locked in internecine conflict?

I wanted to play to find out who would become the antagonists.

This approach led to, from my perspective, particularly engaging play outcomes. Due to a potential flood of undead released from the module Deathfrost Doom, one of several modules I inserted into Pahvelorn’s wilderness, a tyrannical, inscrutable necromancer king became a particularly valuable ally, and also key for the strategy players chose to thwart an invasion of borg-like demons. Earlier in the campaign, players ended up taking the side of a resurgent snake cult operating clandestinely beneath the scenes of the starting town against a number of hermit magicians engaged in variously curious and unwholesome activities.

In retrospect, maintaining a certain degree of discipline regarding avoiding moralization at the time of populating the setting enabled greater player freedom and, probably, more interesting and complex moral outcomes, without transforming the game into a simplistic morality play, or pandering to the idiosyncratic political ideals of myself or my group of players at the time.

Σωκράτης: οὐκοῦν οὕτω πως λέγει, ὡς οἷα μὲν ἕκαστα ἐμοὶ φαίνεται τοιαῦτα μὲν ἔστιν ἐμοί, οἷα δὲ σοί, τοιαῦτα δὲ αὖ σοί: ἄνθρωπος δὲ σύ τε κἀγώ

More generally, I think this stance toward refereeing exposes a general affordance of roleplaying games which can be easy to overlook: Any potent inimical force can become a tool. It is this realization which makes balancing scenario threats limiting; balancing threats deprives players of potentially the most potent implements. Adventurers can lure enemies into a devious trap as well as falling into the trap themselves.

7 thoughts on “Adventurers are the Measure

  1. Scott Anderson

    Is this uncommon? To set up a premise (or a set of premises) separate from the players, and then inject them into it somehow?

    It seems obvious that in some kinds of play, the world ought to turn with or without the presence of the PCs and that the PCs hold no special place in the universe.

    I don’t think you’ve exercised any undue moral relativism by giving each faction or monster its own motivation and potential disposition pending reaction rolls.

    The other half of the equation is that your table must accept the premise that this isn’t a video game and there is no adventure path. It takes a while for people to get used to that and some of them never do. The more I play, the less hope I have of continuing the OS play tradition.

    1. Necropraxis Post author


      I can only speak from my own experience and second hand knowledge, but it seems relatively common to explicitly introduce antagonists, in traditional or old school D&D. In OSR (or what have you) games, I think it is slightly more common to introduce ambivalent factions or non-player characters, but still on average to have lots of monsters or allies predetermined in terms of disposition toward player characters.

      Relying heavily on the reaction roll system can mitigate this tendency, making it more likely for players to have initially negative reactions with “good” NPCs or initially positive reactions with “bad” NPCs. What I think is potentially a departure from common modes of play is to have stricter hygiene (for lack of a better term) regarding playing to find out who ends up being an ally and who ends up being an enemy.

      And, XP for fighting probably pushes in the other direction, since the incentive marks out a substantial class of antagonists at the system level.

      1. Scott Anderson

        Yep. Same here. But I get many more people who want to be on rails than who want to make their own way.

  2. Benni Profane

    I did love Pahvelorn’s moral play – and still think that placing moral quandaries in front of players represent a real strength in TTRPGs. As to faction design, the way I always phrase it is that “everyone has reasons”. Good or bad there’s reasons for what the NPC/factions wants and is doing and that doesn’t only help build a world where moral complexity exists and enters into player decision making, but it creates a richer setting because there’s implied background.

    Something about think “Why are the goblins only now raiding the village” or “Where did the desperate bandits come from and why are they hiding in an ancient tomb?” generally creates not only more interesting antagonists/allies but is almost always an implicit hook. Goblins chased from ancestral lands by bigger meaner goblins, bandits trying to find lost crowns to reclaim their kingdom etc. It’s something that Pahvelorn did exceptionally well. The necromancer’s agents appeared (hiring soldiers) in the first session and I thought for sure that Trollmund would be the campaign antagonist. Actually meeting the necromancer and driving off the demon army by leading a legion of dead to them was pretty much the highpoint of the campaign for me and it required not only a lot of dungeon crawling, but plenty of moral conflicts and required unraveling a great many campaign secrets.

  3. HDA

    So many folks play D&D in a sort of predetermined moral universe that I think it’s worth discussing how you did things differently. I hear the shorthand ‘BBEG’ so often from some quarters… I blame those nine alignments for it all.

  4. squeen

    Hi Brendan S!

    Is there any chance you have a brother named Sherrod? If so, we may have played D&D together in Wilmette, IL many, many years ago. (1981?)

    Just curious.

  5. Paul T.

    I like this approach a great deal; it’s basically moving your prep from a standard dungeon stocking or porte-monstre-tresor model into more of a “story game” mode (e.g. a relationship map). I’m not at all surprised that it created a far more in-depth roleplaying experience over time in your campaign! I do the same thing when I run old-school games.

    I think this would work really well in any old-school play, so long as the players are willing to invent their own goals as they go along (as opposed to expecting a railroad/adventure path, as commenters above note), and the game is open to the idea of the PCs effectively becoming amoral antagonists (which is, and must remain, a possible outcome in this format).

    The problem comes if one uses a “XP for combat” system, which tends to demand a greater clarity in terms of “encounters” and “enemies”, although I suppose there are ways to get around that if the players can be convinced to choose their goals *first* and then the GM could prep in response to that.

    I think the combination of “cosmic alignment”, “XP for combat”, and “storyteller GM” forced D&D away from this kind of open-ended play (which I by far prefer) and into a very different kind of play. I like to think of “modern D&D” as being fundamentally “superhero fiction” – with Big Bad Evil Guys, brave larger-than-life heroes distinguised largely by visual flair and unique abilities, and a battle of Team Good against some sort of Evil Mastermind or Enormous Badass Monster. That’s the only way I can make sense of “modern D&D” in practice – but maybe that’s just me.


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