The Gassy Gnoll: The Circle of Trust (or The Power of Odd Jobs and Beginnings)

Have you ever noticed how adventurers always seem to get the glamorous jobs and only rarely get the dirty jobs nobody really wants to do?

Let’s take a simple example. A new group of PCs gets hired to kill some rats or bugs in a cellar somewhere. Usually the NPC hiring them fails to mention that the rats or bugs are giant-sized and either terrorized or killed a townie, a staff member, or the last group “hired” to take care of the problem. But why would they hire a group of untested heroes to do this job? Do they want more bodies? Is it out of their generous spirit? Or are they just trying to throw cheap labor at the problem until it goes away?

Would you hire a young unknown neighborhood kid to take care of a pest problem in your house? Probably not. You might hire one to mow your lawn under supervision the first time, but that’s about it.

So why do we typically kick off campaigns by giving 1st level characters jobs that are actually important? There’s no trust or track record to offer enough reasons to hire anybody. You need to offer something small, easy to do that gives the team some confidence and their employer a reason to trust them with more important tasks.

Why not have the team do guard duty? Or deliver a message or package from point A to point B? Sure, these good old “FedEx” quests that we all love to hate. But these are the kinds of tasks that build confidence in an employer and offer a chain of evidence for something more.

Now I know there are naysayers out there saying things like “But FedEx quests suck!”, but even though that may be true, I think establishing a record of trustworthy behavior and successful job completion from the get-go can offer some interesting ways to not only get the PCs worked into the fabric of the story, but set them up with NPCs in the area they are working in.

Here are a few examples:

  • Fighter Bob, who worked as a bodyguard for a time prior to becoming an adventurer, gets asked to help train someone in basic self-defense.
  • Wizard William gets hired as a party clown or magician for a local bigwig’s son or daughter.
  • Priestly Pauline is asked by her local temple to help out a family down on their luck through a bit of counseling.

None of these storylines is particularly exciting, but can establish a rapport with locals and offer opportunities for tidbits of information to fall into the PC‘s laps. Perhaps Fighter Bob is asked to help in a local manhunt for the criminals who ransacked and murdered the family he used to work for. Or perhaps the priestess learns about a local employer who’s really a front for a criminal organization.

Am I alone in wondering about this particular weirdness with campaign beginnings? There are few resources out there for developing campaigns. Plenty for developing good adventures, and at some level a campaign is merely a series of connected adventures. But the beginning of a campaign can be extremely important.

Just like with a good novel or short story, the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the tale. It may not reveal all the intricacies of the plot, but it should hint at what the players can expect for their characters as things progress. So be sure to give your characters an organic connection to the world they inhabit and don’t just throw them into the deep end of the pool (unless of course, you mean to).

Gassy out.

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5 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: The Circle of Trust (or The Power of Odd Jobs and Beginnings)

  • Sewicked

    Those are excellent points. And there are a few ways to justify hiring inexperienced ‘heroes’; hopefully they’ll keep the problem from getting worse until the guys we really want show up, hey if they die we won’t have to pay them, we really didn’t think it was that much of a problem when we hired them, they’re only supposed to identify what the real problem is for the professionals we’re expecting, they are here, or we can’t afford anyone better.

    And there are some decent courier quests, too. The PCs could be hired to be a visible escort for someone; there’s no real danger, the employer just wants someone on par with house guards to provide the show of defense. Throw some complications into the mix and it becomes a fun adventure, as well as getting some good NPC contacts if they do a good job (the sender and the receiver).

    There are some truly horrible FedEx quests out there, we know, we’ve all played them (or if you haven’t, you have my congratulations & envy). They don’t have to suck, though. Those are great adventures for a little man vs nature plots; time to haul out those animals, those natural hazards, and maybe even mischievous fey or other ‘human’ agency to interfere with the delivery.

    • Fitz

      @Sewicked – There are definitely horrible FedEx quests. And @Forged’s comment about establishing an immediate hook is quite valid as well. The trick is to introduce the characters to the world in a way that leads to something more substantial quickly. Right place, right time – or even wrong place, wrong time situations can be great ways to start a party in one direction and then suddenly zag on them to something else.

      There’s a great example of this in the Reddit stream I started for this article. @Darrian mentions a milk run delivery in Star Wars that suddenly shifts to something much more exciting…

      So there has to be a balance between boring quests and setting the hook, but I think it can lead to a better campaign beginning if done correctly.
      Fitz recently posted…The Gassy Gnoll: The Circle of Trust (or The Power of Odd Jobs and Beginnings)My Profile

  • forged

    You have a very valid point. IMHO, the tricky point is that a GM wants to start off a campaign with something that is going to provide an immediate hook for the players both long-term and short-term for them to get excited about the on-going campaign.

    That can be tricky to do with a FedEx quest.

  • “Just like with a good novel or short story, the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the tale.”

    I think that might be the problem with starting the PCs off with “FedEx” quests.

    You’d hire an untested stranger to clear out your infested cellar if they’re the first person to come by who looks like they might actually be able to, and it’s been six weeks, and you really need to get your cellar cleared.

    And they don’t even need to be hired to do anything before they do something to prove they are trust worthy. “You have spent two days in this quiet village, with no work to be OH GOD THERE ARE GOBLINS EVERYWHERE!” Our Mighty Heroes (as even beginning characters tend to be Mighty compared to ordinary folk) save the day (or at least parts of it), and lo, trustworthiness!

    Actually playing those “FedEx” quests is dull and boring, unless something “conveniently” goes wrong, but that could just as easily happen whatever the characters are doing.

    You could easily handwave that initial “getting to know
    you” phase – “After a couple of weeks fetching and carrying messages for Baron Plothook (of the New Hampshire Plothooks, a fine family), he says you have earned his trust, and would like to talk to you about his cellar…”

    I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think that’s a good way to start the campaign.
    Mike @ Nearly Enough Dice recently posted…Secret Santicore 2011!My Profile

    • Fitz

      @Mike @ Nearly Enough Dice – Your point of view is perfectly valid. I get that heroes are just that – heroic – and sometimes just the right folks in the right place at the right time to address a problem.

      My problem with the “all heroes are heroic” perspective is that they’re not. In the beginning, players and characters need time to knock off all the rust and dust. I feel that an introduction, however brief it is, is necessary to get the group together and allow players to find an appropriate voice for their characters. And though I agree that FedEx Quests can be amazingly boring, they can be used in unique ways to introduce plot threads gently at times and hard at others. Handwaving over these introductory moments often ignores the need to get players comfortable with their characters and characters of the other players.

      That said – this is why I love gaming. No two GMs are going to have exactly the same approach and each will see something different to embrace or avoid in the hints and suggestions from others.

      Thanks for throwing in your $0.02!

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