Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mundane Adventures

We use plenty of inadvertent oxymorons in the game - war games, realistic simulations, living dead, giant dwarves, little giants, chaotic organizations, and plenty of random logic.  Here's another one to put in the mix - mundane adventures.

Have you ever run an adventure, where the characters get hired to do something, and no fantastic elements make an appearance?  They rob the rich merchant, and get away with all the loot without triggering any magical countermeasures; they escort the caravan to the next city for mere mercenary wages, and no monsters attack from the hills?

There's a principle of contrast to consider - the weirdness of monster-filled adventures juxtaposed against the banality of everyday life.  But I question if anyone bothers worrying about creating such a contrast when table time is limited.  I recently reviewed Death Love Doom, where the group believes they're going to loot an abandoned mansion, and instead it's all blood, horror, screaming and running.

A setting or gaming milieu can be so removed from the player's everyday experience that nothing seems banal even though it's mundane… Traveller attempted to get away with games lugging trade goods from one star system to another via arbitrage as an 'adventure'.  How'd that work out?  No, seriously - if you were a big fan of classic Traveler - did the rules lead to interesting games because everything else was so extraordinary?

I spent most of last week down in Williamsburg, VA, taking in all the exciting historical sights (and sites) - Jamestown, Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg - it's truly spectacular.  The notebook I'm using to keep my  Colonial Hex Crawl notes has gotten some heavy work!  Adventures in the setting will be in the horror / weird fantasy vein, and less of an ongoing campaign, more like one shots.  But it got me thinking about a game set along the eastern seaboard in the early 17th century and the types of mundane adventures had by the explorers of the time - scouting the frontier, prospecting for resources, trading or negotiating with Indians, dealing with pirates and foreign agents.

The "problem" of introducing mundane adventures primarily shows up in a sandbox game, particularly a game set in a low-fantasy or historical setting where the fantastic is less commonplace and verisimilitude would dictate a percentage of opportunities that having nothing to do with supernatural intrusions and the blood, horror, screaming and running.

I've been equivocating myself - on the one hand, there's the Call of Cthulhu model; it's a historical game, but we don't run mundane scenarios and players rarely have a wide range of choice among plot hooks; regardless of milieu, it's a given that every COC scenario is going to cause some character-sanity damage and result in the screaming and the running.  Like Scooby and the Gang, no matter where the party goes, they happen to be the "lucky ones" that uncover all the eldritch horrors.

Opinions or examples of how you've used or avoided mundane adventures are most welcome, as I work through the pro's and con's myself.  Like most things at the table, the social element favors not making such a decision unilaterally, but consulting with the players around their preferences as well.


  1. I think that Call of Cthulhu begs for a number of mundane 'adventures' where the rumours of the haunting as simply a means for the wicked property tycoon to buy the real estate at knock down prices! Or the reverse Scooby Do, where the kids keep spoiling the locals legends of monsters and curses, ensuring that the property developer/logging company/landfill magnate is able to pursue his ambitions...

    Basically, you need to run a BRP historical detective game before hitting them with the weird.

    I'd love to run mundane adventures in D&D (or another system) but given limited gaming time...

  2. Good topic!

    I think that every adventure you run says something about the nature of the world. If only spooky/weird things happen, then that implies that the world is full of spooky/weird things.


  3. BTW, loved your reviews of Raggi's recent work.

  4. Interesting post. Are you asking how to make the mundane interesting, or are you asking how to disrupt expectations in interesting ways?

    If it's the latter, then the task is more along the lines of identifying the "tropes" / expectations and subverting them. The monster is really the good guy; the skeletons don't turn; the money is fake and trying to spend it gets the party chased by a mob, etc. This strikes me as Raggi's m.o., and something that I admire about his work. The problem with this approach, though, is that it can produce more and more baroque attempts to "titillate."

    On the other hand, if you are asking about how to make the mundane interesting, well, that's a very different question. In real life one strategy is to embed the mundane in a bigger mosaic. It's not just a 9-5 job, it's part of discovering a cure for cancer, or putting food on the table for your kids, or being a reliable person. This would probably work in most RPGs, as well. The mundane activities are part of a larger quest / goal.

    Of course, I think that the *real* issue is one that you barely touched upon: the real-world constraints that players bring to the table. If I've only got 4 hours every month to devote to gaming, I might not want to wade through *anything* mundane, even if it is supposedly part of a larger goal.

  5. I am a player in a D&D 3.5 campaign and our characters are merchants. Recently, we took on a shipment of cabbages from Athkatla to Baldur's Gate. Prior to departure, the City Watch boarded our vessel to look for illicit cargo. They were rough in their search and some of our produce was damaged. When they started to leave, tempers flared.

    My character blocked their way, demanding compensation for damaged cargo. Another PC backed me up and soon the watchmen were worried that they were going to be in a fist fight as a result of their careless treatment of our cargo.

    It's hard to explain, but I guess we as players were so immersed in the simulation of role-playing merchants that we were ready to draw steel over some bruised cabbages.

    I guess this is a long, round about way of saying that mundane can be fun, but like you said, everyone has to be on board and into it. :)

  6. Many years ago, our party was adventuring in Waterdeep and we stumbled across the idea of setting up an insurance company. The concept of getting people to bring their gold to us, rather than have to go into infested sewers and dungeons to get it made for an interesting campaign (fortunately for us, one of the players worked in finance and was able to wholly overwhelm the DM with his complex schemes).

  7. It'll depend on the game, and D&D is maybe not the best vehicle for inter-party drama/conflict, but if you've got some social/political intrigue and drama that can happen during a trip that can be pretty entertaining. If everyone is having fun trying to find out what each other are up to, and prevent the rest of the party from figuring what nefarious schemes they're enacting, you could easily arrive at your destination before realizing that the Players had a good time, and they were never attacked.

  8. The only time I've had success with this was when I ran a Call of Cthulhu game for several sessions before the players ever realized it was a Call of Cthulhu game. They all thought it was a 1920s Noir detective game using the BRP rules, and the novelty of playing a non-fantasy game made it enjoyable. And then some mildly weird stuff started happening, and they had just the right amount of confusion and disbelief. They were looking for mundane explanations, fully expecting to find them, thinking that figuring out the mundane explanation must be the most logical goal. And then a Hound of Tindalos made a very unique appearance and they realized I'd spent a month and a half working up to a masterful suckerpunch. It went very, very well. But I'd never be able to pull the same trick again on the same group, and groups of players who are equally happy in an Agatha Christy mystery or fighting off eldritch horrors from out of time are unfortunately quite rare.

  9. The comments got me thinking that maybe I'm looking at mundane plot hooks and adventures all wrong; the real issue is to make sure every plot hooks leads to something interesting at the table - because time is always so limited. (I mean, it seems like common sense when I say it like that, doesn't it really?) Even an encounter without any fantastic elements can be made interesting, perhaps by subverting expectations (as Mel suggested).

  10. The trick with Traveller, in my experience at least, is that you can almost never reliably make enough money to cover your starship loans from moving just legal cargoes. As a result, PCs always start running drugs, guns, or worse (lord help you if the patron tells you you don't need to know what's in the crate...) to cover the mortgage, and then things get quite exciting, balanced on the razor's edge between getting caught and missing a payment (which usually entails bounty hunters), praying for a big score and doing your best not to make too many enemies in the criminal syndicates who are your primary clients...