[3.5] Fleshing Out a Plot Hook--School of Magic

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I'm looking to make my second plot hook be that my play group got a job from the Academy of Magic in the north, that students have been disappearing. I've got a House Master for each school of magic, and a headmaster. The adventure would begin with a council among the different House Masters, the Headmaster, and the Clan. Something to introduce the conflict between the story, and possibly the House Masters. However, as a new(ish) DM, I'm having a few problems in designing this.

1. I'm trying to designate a villain for this adventure. The obvious thing would be to take one of the House Masters and make them the one organizing everything. I don't like to take the cliche way out of this though. Possibly an instructor or someone who works at the school, or a guest that has been invited for a guest speech or something. I'd like to set up one of the House Masters as a red herring.

2. I'd like to figure out what kinds of monsters I should use. I'd like themed wings of each of the parts of the school. Undead would be a solid addition if they're exploring the Necromancy wing of the Academy (especially since I've got a Dread Necromancer in my party). Animated Objects and Conjured creatures would be useful in the Transmutation and Conjuration wings, and maybe elementals in the Evocation wing. Still, having troubles with what I could do for Abjuration, Divination, Illusion, and Enchantment. I could probably do traps for Illusion and Enchantment, rather than enemies, but I'd still like for something challenging to happen in each wing of the Academy.

If I could get some feedback on the concept, I would greatly appreciate that. 

Thanks!

What about a Mimic posing as a bookshelf in the library as the “bad guy”? They don’t all have to look like chests!

Panartias, ladies-man and Jack of all trades about his professions:

"Once, I was a fighter -

to conquer the heart of a beautiful lady.

Then I became a thief -

- to steal myself a kiss from her lips.

And finally, I became a mage -

- to enchant her face with a smile."

That could be fun. I could do that for the Illusion wing of the Academy. Maybe have some sort of doppleganger who is taking the place of an incapacitated Illusion House Master?
Would it be cliche for a student to be involved in some way?  Either as the villain or as a regular learner that has been possessed?  You could create a very mystery/investigation feel that could work very well, especially when your characters begin interrogating the students and teachers.

Godspeed! 

Since your adventure is about a magic Academy perhaps this older thread of mine could be interesting for you (warning it is quite long)


It discusses cantrips / prestidigitations by School of Magic, what you can do with them, possible applications and competitions.


It might give you an idea how the students / apprentices at the Academy pass their time…

Panartias, ladies-man and Jack of all trades about his professions:

"Once, I was a fighter -

to conquer the heart of a beautiful lady.

Then I became a thief -

- to steal myself a kiss from her lips.

And finally, I became a mage -

- to enchant her face with a smile."

Maybe for the enchantment wing a love sic nymph has got loose, and they need to recapture her, and remember nymphs can blind people by there beauty. as for the illusion wing, maybe they have to figure who and what is real, then help the real person come back to reality

Watch where you walk in the shadows, for they are a dangerous place. Especially sionce I control them!

Start by making a list of who might benefit from the students' disappearance and why.  If one of the headmasters is doing it, they likely have a reason.  Some other possibilities include:

A rival school
Local anti-magic hate group
a former headmaster
a powerful wizard who doesn't like competition
organized crime group (kidnapping is always profitable

maybe the students aren't being kidnapped at all.  Maybe an experiment tore a rift in the fabric of reality and students are falling into it when it appears.  Nobody knows what's causing it because the rift only opens on the night of the new moon.

or maybe the students themselves are behind the disappearances.  They have uncovered a magic item that has driven them to sleepwalk and kill each other.  It's a mystery because they wake with no memory of what they have done. 
Next thing you will tell me Browbeat is bad.
Its a school not a dungeon. If the halls are overflowing with monsters,it would be evacuated until the staff or hired adventures have cleared it out and trapping corridors where you students walk all the time should loose them much more students than this disappearances.Any monster or trap that is at the school for teaching purpose, would be locked away when not in use.
Its a school not a dungeon. If the halls are overflowing with monsters,it would be evacuated until the staff or hired adventures have cleared it out and trapping corridors where you students walk all the time should loose them much more students than this disappearances.Any monster or trap that is at the school for teaching purpose, would be locked away when not in use.



In that case, I'm thinking that in the wake of these kidnappings, the school is closed, and with no one to keep the magical creatures in check, they've escaped. Normally, they're kept in check, but they've escaped, or a student's time-sensitive unfinished experiment gets loose in the wake of the school closings.

In addition, the traps could be excused as someone getting in after the school was evactuated and setting them up to keep them from something.

Maybe a former headmaster was fired on ethical grounds (possibly keeping magical creatures too close to the students and incidents occurring), and is working with the organized crime unit to get back at the school for it, kidnapping students and stealing some magical artifacts. And maybe one of the House Masters is working with him, getting a cut of the profits for letting him know where the alarm systems and creatures are?

Let me know if this sounds believable and fun to run.
Just a few thoughts:

Abjuration - Walls of Force that close in on the players if they don't answer riddles fast enough?
Conjuration - Summoned Creatures
Divination - Doors that lead into trap-filled rooms and doors that lead to safe areas
Evocation - Elementals, Fireball Traps
Illusion - Mimics; Weakened Phantasmal Killers?
Necromancy - Undead
Transmutation - Animated Objects; some floor panels that turn to water or other such liquids when stepped on.   
  
 
Be sure to bring your players in on this. They might not mind cliches and they might come up with ideas that wouldn't have occurred to you as fair to use against them. As an added plus, you can be sure not to get displeased or non-plussed reactions from the players when the characters learn what's going on.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Be sure to bring your players in on this. They might not mind cliches and they might come up with ideas that wouldn't have occurred to you as fair to use against them. As an added plus, you can be sure not to get displeased or non-plussed reactions from the players when the characters learn what's going on.



When you say "bring the players in on this," do you mean let them help me design it? Or as they talk, take notes and use something they've postulated, for example"oh, I'd hate it if we found a Mountain Troll in the dungeon here." And then use it.

Can you clarify a little more? 
Be sure to bring your players in on this. They might not mind cliches and they might come up with ideas that wouldn't have occurred to you as fair to use against them. As an added plus, you can be sure not to get displeased or non-plussed reactions from the players when the characters learn what's going on.

When you say "bring the players in on this," do you mean let them help me design it? Or as they talk, take notes and use something they've postulated, for example"oh, I'd hate it if we found a Mountain Troll in the dungeon here." And then use it.

Both. Well, if they really don't want to fight a Mountain Troll, I wouldn't recommend having them do so, but if it's clearly just an in-character fear ironically and deliberately expressing an out-of-character wish, then go for it.

The ultimate goal is, as always, just to provide interesting things that one's players will enjoy. The collaborative approach is just a way to cut out some of the risk and guesswork, and find something the table is sure to enjoy, while getting the creative help of the other minds at the table. The usual arrangement too often results in the players actively (if unintentionally) working against what they DM has created (through hours of work) to entice them, because the DM has a different idea than they do of what's interesting. Fortunately, many players will go along with what the DM has planned, out of respect for the work it takes. This can lead to very fun sessions, obviously, but not, in my experience, as consistently as I'd like.

Your players know what they would enjoy and can help you make it, to whatever degree you're comfortable with. Some believe the approach means and end to surprises, but the real surprise is that it doesn't. When ideas are solicited from the group, players will even surprise themselves with the ideas and connections they make with other ideas, and the combinations of other ideas.

Good luck, with whatever approach you decide to take.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Be sure to bring your players in on this. They might not mind cliches and they might come up with ideas that wouldn't have occurred to you as fair to use against them. As an added plus, you can be sure not to get displeased or non-plussed reactions from the players when the characters learn what's going on.

When you say "bring the players in on this," do you mean let them help me design it? Or as they talk, take notes and use something they've postulated, for example"oh, I'd hate it if we found a Mountain Troll in the dungeon here." And then use it.

Both. Well, if they really don't want to fight a Mountain Troll, I wouldn't recommend having them do so, but if it's clearly just an in-character fear ironically and deliberately expressing an out-of-character wish, then go for it.

The ultimate goal is, as always, just to provide interesting things that one's players will enjoy. The collaborative approach is just a way to cut out some of the risk and guesswork, and find something the table is sure to enjoy, while getting the creative help of the other minds at the table. The usual arrangement too often results in the players actively (if unintentionally) working against what they DM has created (through hours of work) to entice them, because the DM has a different idea than they do of what's interesting. Fortunately, many players will go along with what the DM has planned, out of respect for the work it takes. This can lead to very fun sessions, obviously, but not, in my experience, as consistently as I'd like.

Your players know what they would enjoy and can help you make it, to whatever degree you're comfortable with. Some believe the approach means and end to surprises, but the real surprise is that it doesn't. When ideas are solicited from the group, players will even surprise themselves with the ideas and connections they make with other ideas, and the combinations of other ideas.

Good luck, with whatever approach you decide to take.



I like that idea, and some of my players have expressed interest in helping write the story, and I also tend to work better in the group. But, I'm concerned about spoiling surprises and the ability to see what's coming way in advance. I don't want something fun and unique I design to be meta-gamed into knowing how to defeat the challenge, whether it be monsters/traps/skill checks. I want to keep my players on their toes. Is there a way to balance the two? Collaborating with players, but still surprising them?

Thanks for the help! 
I like that idea, and some of my players have expressed interest in helping write the story, and I also tend to work better in the group. But, I'm concerned about spoiling surprises and the ability to see what's coming way in advance. I don't want something fun and unique I design to be meta-gamed into knowing how to defeat the challenge, whether it be monsters/traps/skill checks. I want to keep my players on their toes. Is there a way to balance the two? Collaborating with players, but still surprising them?

Sure. There are degrees of collaboration. Just ease into it. Set up surprises, if you want, and collaborate to fill in the rest.

But think carefully about surprises. I rarely see them come off as expected. Either they fall flat for some reason, or the players really dislike them. Most of the time, when surprises DO work, it's because the players realized something was up and went along with it anyway, in which case they might as well have been in on it from the beginning, because they could have helped make it even better.

I recommend not building things that it's possible to metagame. What if the players figure out the secret too easily and the thing is not a challenge. What if they can't figure it out at all, and it's too difficult?

Metagaming often arises from a desire not to be trapped or tricked. Collaboration counters this, because it's no longer the DM trying to "trick" the players, but the DM working with them to bring out the scenes and challenges they're actually interested in playing out. The players still get into trouble and are challenged (due in part to the leading questions of the DM), but it's on their terms. Failure is not boring or deprotagonizing if it does happen, and the players are engaged in the kinds of scenes they want and expect.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I get what you're trying to say. Can I get an example of what you mean? Like what you would collaborate with and what you would want to simply do yourself? For example, let's say the players want to go to a Kobold Lair with a bunch of traps. How would you still surprise them, even though they're expecting the normal Kobold traps and tricks?
I get what you're trying to say. Can I get an example of what you mean? Like what you would collaborate with and what you would want to simply do yourself? For example, let's say the players want to go to a Kobold Lair with a bunch of traps. How would you still surprise them, even though they're expecting the normal Kobold traps and tricks?

If they're expecting them, they're not going to be surprised anyway. More likely they'd be rolling their eyes, or calling the traps unfair or unrealistic.

I would ask questions.

What kinds of traps are these kobolds known for?
What rumors have your characters heard about these caves? What's the real story?
Why are the kobolds holed up here? Killing you won't get them what they want, which is what?
There are too many kobolds, and the caves are too vast for you to kill everything inside, so what are you hoping to accomplish in the caves?
How will you know when you've done it?
How will you know when you've failed?
These kobolds have allied themselves with some other creatures. What are they?
One particular tactic the kobolds might use is something your characters would never see coming. What is it?

That would give us all a good general sense of what we want to see and what the characters are in for. Then we'd probably collaborate on the individual encounters. For just travelling through the caves, I'd probably run skill challenges, which gives a lot more leeway on the kinds of traps that can come up. That probably has the most potential for surprising situations, because it's more free form, and at the same time it's easier for the PCs to get out of those situations if they find them uninteresting. Traps by themselves are uninteresting; there needs to be a larger goal and some sort of external pressure other than just survival.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

If they're expecting them, they're not going to be surprised anyway. More likely they'd be rolling their eyes, or calling the traps unfair or unrealistic.

I would ask questions.

What kinds of traps are these kobolds known for?
What rumors have your characters heard about these caves? What's the real story?
Why are the kobolds holed up here? Killing you won't get them what they want, which is what?
There are too many kobolds, and the caves are too vast for you to kill everything inside, so what are you hoping to accomplish in the caves?
How will you know when you've done it?
How will you know when you've failed?
These kobolds have allied themselves with some other creatures. What are they?
One particular tactic the kobolds might use is something your characters would never see coming. What is it?

That would give us all a good general sense of what we want to see and what the characters are in for. Then we'd probably collaborate on the individual encounters. For just travelling through the caves, I'd probably run skill challenges, which gives a lot more leeway on the kinds of traps that can come up. That probably has the most potential for surprising situations, because it's more free form, and at the same time it's easier for the PCs to get out of those situations if they find them uninteresting. Traps by themselves are uninteresting; there needs to be a larger goal and some sort of external pressure other than just survival.



So, to be clear, the players and I are all writing this adventure together?

The roles would be like this:

Players: Play through the adventure.
DM: Design the adventure numerically and aesthetically, breaking down the specifics. Designing the plot arc.
Collaboration: Designing the overall feel of the adventure and mechanics included, including the type of creatures wanted/not wanted to fight.

Can you tell me the mindset you're using? It's obviously very different than what I've been using, and I'm curious to know the philosophy behind it. or where I could read more about it.

Does it depend on your playgroup how well this will work? I just worry about my players dominating the table, deciding the adventure, and putting me out of my role as DM.
So, to be clear, the players and I are all writing this adventure together?

Only as much as you need and as much as everyone at the table is comfortable with. You came here looking for ideas, and hoping to avoid cliches and other uninteresting creation. I'm really just saying that the best people to help you make a game your players will enjoy are your players.

And most DMs already collaborate to at least some degree with the players. By making the characters they want, they're already telling the DM a little bit about the kind of game they're hoping for.

The roles would be like this:

Players: Play through the adventure.

In the simplest form, sure. But they're not just passive absorbers of input. They interact with the game, obviously, but they also make assumptions and have expectations about what is coming next, and have reactions to the material they encounter. These can be left as what they are, or used to help sculpt the adventure. Or the DM can engage them directly, rather than guessing.

DM: Design the adventure numerically and aesthetically, breaking down the specifics. Designing the plot arc.

Some DMs don't even do this, preferring to run completely pre-made adventures. Some DMs can't do this, for instance if they run convention games.

And there's more to it than this. An adventure isn't something that runs on its own after it's designed. It takes active input and often on the fly modification by the DM. It also takes buy in from the players. If players aren't bought in, they can easily dismantle what the DM designed, even unintentionally.

So, I disagree with your estimation of the DM's "role," That's not always what it is, there's usually more to it than that, and it requires player buy in to work at all.

Collaboration: Designing the overall feel of the adventure and mechanics included, including the type of creatures wanted/not wanted to fight.

And the types of fights wanted/not wanted to have.

Can you tell me the mindset you're using? It's obviously very different than what I've been using, and I'm curious to know the philosophy behind it. or where I could read more about it.

I'm coming of a position of players not being interested or engaged in the plots and challenges I presented to them. The easy response to this is that I'm just don't know how to provide my players what they want, and I guess I'd have to agree that such is the case.

Before I tried this approach, my players mostly played along with what I served them, whether I'd designed it or whether it came out of a module. But I very often encountered players who didn't understand why their characters were engaged in this particular adventure, either because I hadn't described it well, or it wasn't interesting enough to them. Or, I had players who understood the adventure, but not the approach. I'd certainly let them take a different approach, but doing so would have been easier if I'd known the approach they'd prefer, instead of just assuming.

This applied to combat, too. I'd run them in a fight, and they'd get bored or frustrated with it. The fight would go too long, they wouldn't understand the reason for it, the enemies would act in ways that the players didn't like or think made sense. It was disheartening and disengaging.

The same applied to treasure I'd give them. I'd make what I thought was an interesting item and present it to them, and they'd forget about it. When I gave them items they specifically requested, they used them all the time. This implied to me that players are more engaged with things they create themselves.

I also realized that when the game was working, it was usually when my players knew exactly what was going on, and went along with it anyway. They saw that there was no percentage in metagaming themselves out of their own fun, so they metagamed themselves into the fun.

Finally, I began myself to be dissatisfied with what I was putting effort into creating. It never seemed quite right, and I never had any assurance the players would enjoy it or use any of it. We all planned to use a particular module taking place in a city and I kept putting off the game so I could figure out how to make the interactions in the city interesting. At last I just decided to run the game and at the last minute instead of telling the players what the city looked like (it had a really stupid layout) I asked them what it looked like, based on a few parameters I gave them, like "underground" and "populated by drow."

It worked amazingly and they're more engaged than I've ever seen any of my players.

I'm not saying you're having any of these issues, though I don't think I'm even close to being the only DM who encounters them. But you came here looking for ideas, and while you'll get a lot of good ideas here, your players are your best source for the ideas they will engage with.

Does it depend on your playgroup how well this will work?

Probably, but I think there are some constants:

People like to be right: accept and add on to assumptions they make.
People remember and are more interested in their own ideas than the ideas others tell them.
People will try to get out of or avoid situations that are uninteresting or unfun to them.
People like to be trusted.
People like to have at least a little control.
People dislike boring failure, but can appreciate interesting failure.

People also run wild if allowed too much control, and one issue with the approach I'm suggesting is that players might try to completely mitigate any current or future failure in the game. Everything goes their way. I generally see this as a reaction to having the longstanding tradition of DM-vs.-Player (which is always has been, even when it's friendly) being lifted. In my experience, though, players tire of this quickly and with some leading questions, the DM can help them arrange situations for their characters that offer failure that engages the players, rather than making them feel foolish.

This is more than I'd usually write about this, and I'm sure not all of it applies to you, but you asked for my mindset, and there it is.

I just worry about my players dominating the table, deciding the adventure, and putting me out of my role as DM.

Broaden your idea of your role.

First of all, you're one of the people at the table, and you still get to contribute. You're the one asking all those questions, and you get to decide how to frame them so that they include your own preferences. I told my players that the town they were about to enter was chiefly populated by drow, because that's what I wanted to run. I was prepared to drop this idea, or modify it, if necessary, but they went with it.

Second of all, you're still the one who controls monsters, and makes decisions for them. You'd still actually design things, as I designed the half-drow that my players suddenly decided they'd be fighting.

Thirdly, trust your players. They probably want to have fun, and involve you. They'll probably listen to things you offer, and things you'd like to do, especially if you're in the role of listening to them.

You're giving up control, it's true. If that's an issue for you, I urge you to carefully consider how much control you really have, and whether giving up some of what you're trying to control might not help you bring the creativity of your players online to run in parallel with your own and figure out brilliant answers to questions such as the ones you posted here, while simultaneously engaging your players and building their trust in you. And yours in them.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Thank you for your feedback! I think this is exactly what I needed. I ran a campaign in the spring of last year, and I think the reason the first few encounters went well is because I was communicating well with my players, and not trying to surprise them all the time. I've find that my DM in a campaign that I'm a player in is relatively adept at designing things that we'd want to experience, despite keeping a few key important points he keeps secret. He routinely asks "where do you plan on going?" And we answer, and we don't feel slighted, because we had input on where we were supposed to go.

So, in a nutshell, I should really include the players on the decision-making process more. To let them come up with what THEY think is fun. Maybe go with what they say, or maybe put it in my file of ideas for later. But the point is that they make the decisions on where to go. And instead of being so rigid, I should be willing to improvise, which comes with practice.

I think this was the real answer I was looking for. I need to include my players (who have already expressed interest in contributing somehow), though leave details to them. For example, in the world I've created so far, halflings and gnomes work together: Gnomes create illusions and distract anyone who might get too close to the halfling lands, and in return, the gnomes get good food and solid pay. However, little details about the place should be left to my halfling player, because then he'll have a vested interest in what happens to them, because they are HIS creation. However, I also need to know when too much is too much, or something breaks the versimillitude of the game world, and let them know that it kind of clashes. And sometimes I can pleasantly surprise a player by using an idea not right away, but at a later date, subverting their expectations but later fulfilling them. Looking back on it, my more successful plot pieces worked best when they included player input.

Is my comparitively brief summation correct? 
Thank you for your feedback! I think this is exactly what I needed. I ran a campaign in the spring of last year, and I think the reason the first few encounters went well is because I was communicating well with my players, and not trying to surprise them all the time.

Yeah, I haven't seen much good come from "surprises" in D&D. They can work well, but they can also fall flat with tremendous ease.

I've find that my DM in a campaign that I'm a player in is relatively adept at designing things that we'd want to experience, despite keeping a few key important points he keeps secret. He routinely asks "where do you plan on going?" And we answer, and we don't feel slighted, because we had input on where we were supposed to go.

Being able to give players choice is important, but it's only part of what I'm talking about.

So, in a nutshell, I should really include the players on the decision-making process more. To let them come up with what THEY think is fun. Maybe go with what they say, or maybe put it in my file of ideas for later. But the point is that they make the decisions on where to go. And instead of being so rigid, I should be willing to improvise, which comes with practice.

Close. They don't just make the desicions on where to go, but they have some say over where they can go, and what's there that might be of interest to them. Anything is fair play, if there's trust around the table.

I think this was the real answer I was looking for. I need to include my players (who have already expressed interest in contributing somehow), though leave details to them. For example, in the world I've created so far, halflings and gnomes work together: Gnomes create illusions and distract anyone who might get too close to the halfling lands, and in return, the gnomes get good food and solid pay. However, little details about the place should be left to my halfling player, because then he'll have a vested interest in what happens to them, because they are HIS creation.

Yes, this is a good example of when a player should really be brought in to help create the details. Maybe the player really hates gnomes and decides that the gnome-halfling alliance is an uneasy one. That's great fodder for future NPC reactions, and perhaps even entire adventures.

However, I also need to know when too much is too much, or something breaks the versimillitude of the game world, and let them know that it kind of clashes.

Keeping a consistent tone can be hard with lots of disparate input. This is where leading questions and DM guidance can come in. But if the players are suggesting it, then they probably feel it fits. Be prepared to stretch your own sense of verisimilitude, if it means you can accommodate player ideas.

And sometimes I can pleasantly surprise a player by using an idea not right away, but at a later date, subverting their expectations but later fulfilling them. Looking back on it, my more successful plot pieces worked best when they included player input.

Yes, I think that's probably true for a lot of people.

It comes down to trust. If you have trust at the table, amazing things can happen, that the rules themselves can only do so much to bring about. Players are exhorted to trust the DM, and many do, but that trust can also be built, and accepting player input and ideas, and using them, really helps.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Thank you for your advice! I'm already taking it into account, and I've found some answers for this very problem already. One of my players suggested a Zone of Truth trap, and I'm going to integrate it to where there's a student hiding out in a chest near the trap, for example. Thanks for the advice, this is EXACTLY what I needed to make my games run smoother.

Kudos.