So I want to try to set up a "probable story arch" to get the best bang for my storytelling buck for an upcoming campaign. I enjoy the resonance that comes with a satisfying story that not only has a beginning, middle, and end, but also hits on the Jungian archetypes found in the Hero's Journey or Harmon Circles
(#103 and #104
is where it gets into the juicy details, so read a few in the series).
The problem is that I also don't want to railroad players.
One way I think I might be able to solve this is to prep in such a way that creates an optimal path through "my" story, but gives players complete agency to veer off the path as much as they want. And then I have to be strong and not use any illusionist techniques to guide them back onto the path, trusting in my prep and hoping they come back. And, well, if they don't, that has to be okay.
Here are my notes for an introductory adventure for D&D 5e, incorporating Harmon Circles.Troll Troubles
A troll moves into the area, causing trouble, stealing livestock. Turns out that he's not that vicious, and he's not the real problem.
1. Introduce the village of Wraithwalk. Life is good. Establish PCs' gentle foibles. Make the players love the village and its residents.
2. Livestock is going missing. Why? Is it undead? Is the spiritcircle broken? Adon Elkwarden's oldest daughter goes missing.
3. The Elders ask the PCs to walk the spiritcircle around the village (4.4 miles) and check it for missing stones. Discover huge footprints and sheep guts and bones leading out into the wilderness.
4. Track them? It's getting dark. It's heading into the deathcrags, known for being haunted. Feel like you're being watched, followed (unbound ancestor spirits!).
5. Encounter the troll. It's a family of trolls. They're friendly-ish, though scared and volatile. They've killed a lot of the bad undead. Fight or talk, PCs' choice.
6. But the troll didn't take the young woman! Who did? There are screams coming from near the village...
7. On the way back, they run into the young woman, controlled by a scary possession demon. She's kidnapped Beraj Griffonborn (age 8) from the village. The trolls might help?
8. They return to the village. The PCs' gentle foibles are now extra endearing. The minor problems with NPCs are temporarily overcome. Maybe they introduce the troll. Does the village accept it?
Note the 1-8 are octants of the Harmon Circles.
Now, I totally grant that, at any point, the PCs might do something I did not expect, ignore something I did not expect them to ignore, and go do something else. I've tried to frame things as plot hooks that are either interesting
(and potentially full of adventure) or responsibilities
(and there are consequences for ignoring them). Most likely, when the village council asks you to do something, you do it. But maybe you don't.
, I am assuming that the party will try to track the footprints and viscera leading to the sheep murderer. This is what D&D parties always do. However, I cannot force it. Am I "forcing" it by making it the most obvious path forward? Is this railroading? I think I am not too worried about it. If the party comes up with another idea or decides to go home and ignore their task, I guess I'd play my world-characters properly: The trolls continue to steal sheep and maybe eventually scare a farmer. Maybe the village rounds up a posse to go deal with the trolls. Of course, killing the trolls doesn't solve the kidnapping problem, because the trolls didn't kidnap any people; the demon did.#7
is a little Force-y? To me, it's an event that happens that night. If the PCs are in the village that night, then maybe they don't hear it and the demon-possessed woman gets away with kidnapping Beraj. Over time, she kidnaps more people. Maybe the PCs patrol the perimeter of the village circle and encounter her later. This isn't me using Force to guide them back to my plot. This is me playing my world-characters.
I think there's a pretty big likelihood of my story going the way I planned, yet there's room for players to do something different.