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I'm designing a D&D 4E campaign (set in the Forgotten Realms) for my local gaming society, which may or may not spill out into bigger things, rpg.se has given me too many ideas!

I want the party to be hired by a noble house or government agency (in Faerun) to investigate the new continent 'Returned Abeir'. However, I've always struggled setting up this sort of opener, but I like the premise behind it.

I'm trying to gather reasons why the PCs would be hired in the first place, when professional agents might be preferable?

So how have people set this sort of quest up, in the past? Has it worked? What is the best way you've found to explain major organizations hiring adventurers for this kind of work?

In summary, What attributes make a (potentially disparate) group of PCs preferable for hire, over established agents of the employer?

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I'm beginning to worry this will become too chatty. I'm after succinct hooks and plot points with maybe some personal experience to back it up. –  Pureferret Dec 16 '11 at 9:28
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I hope you're not looking for a list of hooks and plot points; lists are off topic. You should be looking for an approach that "teaches you how to fish..." –  mxyzplk Dec 17 '11 at 1:47

12 Answers 12

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Consider having the characters designed so that there is some meaningful reason for them to be the ones selected.

I remember one campaign I played (Planescape) in where some red dragon asked us first-level scrubs to go find her precious stolen dragon egg. My response to that was "You must not want it back very much!"

Contrast another campaign (Eberron), where one of the PCs was of the dragonmarked noble house, and the rest of us were retainers or otherwise friendly/bound to him. He gets sent not because he's "high level" (metagame concern) but because he's an important guy, and we get sent because we're his posse. That's a lot better story.

In other words, if these organizations would hire "professional agents" - why are they not generating characters that are professional agents? Or are in that nation's military? Et cetera? The whole "let people generate anything they want and then it's the GM's job to somehow shoehorn them into the party and the campaign" approach is old and busted; don't do it. See this previous question on forming parties for relevant advice.

Of course suitability doesn't have to be "best for the job," it can mean "disposable," "the only volunteers," "some power bloc wants them to go," etc. In the Pathfinder Society, the organized play society for Pathfinder, all PCs have to pick a faction that is then part of the motivating force (and that works behind the scenes to get its agents included in certain missions...).

At a bare minimum, if this has to be a "hire off the street" kind of thing, have them try to make sure that they are at least objectively hireable. I remember one spacefaring campaign where a player's new character couldn't explain any reason why our space freighter crew should hire him. In fact, he was pretty militant about it - we were looking for reasons to bring him on, since he was a PC... "So, what do you do?" "Things... That need doing." "Uh, do you have any specific skills we'd find useful?" "I have many... Skills." After about 15 minutes of that we took off and left his dumb ass on the planet. (We actually bounced the player from the group too, as being a muffinhead like that was a common character trait of his.)

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One way that helps to open the door for future hooks & a resource for they to tap would be to steal a page from eberron where there are a few "schools" that focus on training adventures for a cut of the profit & matching suitable guards/guides/etc with well to do folks in need of explorers for expeditions and such.

Another way that works great if you are starting out low level is to just have them do some random BS adventures like rescue people from goblin kidnappers/cleanse the forest/whatever just "because" until well to do folks start noticing them as being a positive force ad start offering them some real jobs.. this works even better if the random BS involves doing things like visiting warehouses & similar type things where well to do people would notice them solving problems of their own and have reason to find out who it was that helped clean up their warehouse.

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If it's a brand new continent, and conditions at home aren't great, they could be colonists. Report back, sure, but the whole group isn't expected to return. If interest is great enough, then perhaps there was a lottery to decide who would be allowed to go in the first wave and claim land, etc.

That gives you a poor, unskilled commoner contingent of a funded expedition. From there, it's fairly easily to have the PCs separated or allow them to distinguish themselves in some way that leads to them taking on a larger role.

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Not that the other answers aren't excellent, but I was bemused by the question

I'm trying to gather reasons why the PCs would be hired in the first place, when professional agents might be preferable?

Unless they're a very odd party indeed (eg, all have accepted employment with the army of some local duke), they are all professional agents. What do you think professional agents are, if not a group of freelancers who will perform an investigative task on either a fixed-price, a keep-what-you-catch, or a time-and-materials basis?

If the party is willing to take the small bag of gems or the letter of marque, and to do the work in return, they've just qualified as professional agents. They might not be very good ones - that's half the fun of the campaign - but as someone who works daily with soi-disant professionals in real-life, that's true for a good proportion of those touting for contract business in any field (though many others are truly excellent).

The hiring principle is, as ever, caveat emptor. If the noble house or government agency is no good at telling whether the potential agents are competent, well, that's a plot unfolding there. If they are good at vetting, then you have a whole different set of plot hooks. Perhaps the party will only get the big-bucks contract if they can provide bona fides - but which powerful figure will want to stand up and admit they hired the party last time? Perhaps they will need to do a small job first on a pro bono basis to prove their worth - and it turns out to be important, and unexpectedly complex.

To my mind, any open campaign question is a possible plot source, and you've just identified an excellent one. Mine it!

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I am after plot sources, and this is a good answer to that end. To answer your top question, the first games I played (CRPGs) always had the player be some sort of normal person, thrust into adventure, which has always stuck with me. Rather than the Ebberonesque idea of Professional Adventurers. –  Pureferret Dec 15 '11 at 10:37
    
I'm glad you thought the answer useful. I take your point about characters being humans-got-lucky vs. pro. adventurers, which others were kind enough to explore in more depth in comments to my answer at rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/5966/… , if you're interested. I agree with about them being humans-got-lucky, I just don't think that stops them being completely valid professional adventurers. Maybe I'm just a "nurture" person in the nature-vs-nurture debate! –  MadHatter Dec 15 '11 at 11:21
    
I guess it depends on what level they come in at too. 1st level is less likly to be professional at anything (unless they had a pre-adventure profession) but past about 5th, I can see the title fitting. –  Pureferret Dec 15 '11 at 11:29
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No one tells the dwarf to put down their axe! –  Pureferret Dec 15 '11 at 12:07
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I'm not sure what the 4e handbook says, but the 3.5e handbook clearly states that even 1st level characters are a cut above normal people. –  Yandros Mar 10 '12 at 15:46

This is a great chance to advance anything you want to have happen in the campaign. For example, if you want to develop the character background further, have them belong to some organization (city guard, magical college) you want to establish. You could have characters make something up if you want them involved in the narrative. They might claim to be professional explorers themselves- how will anyone check?

For your specific example, expendable does seem to make sense, if you just want a justification. They might send anyone who will go, especially if they only pay upon return. They might want to clear the area of rowdy adventuring riffraff as well. This can get the party together, if you need to, because they are one of the randomly thrown together teams. If it's too expensive to make sending everyone make sense, there could be one giant expedition that will inevitably be separated.

If the characters are all 1st level, there might be a tradition of a coming-of-age journey and the characters all come of age at the same time. This year the journey is sent to the new continent because whoever decides where it goes wants the continent explored.

If your group has played a lot, the getting hired thing is so cliched that you can even do it comically - the nobleman walks past dozens of eager, heroic subjects, approaches the party, peers at them intently for a while, then declares "I like the cut of your jib!". After a lively whispered debate with part of his retinue, he makes the players an offer, to their obvious disgust. (Better if he is offering resources that basically make no sense - this lets the players know that the campaign is more light hearted and they don't need to spend hours checking out their employer's motive.) If this is how the party comes together, they can be the noble's hand picked crew (maybe throw in a competent NPC or two who discover other obligations when they realize the rest of the crew is the PCs).

If the characters are going to frequently be singled out for no good reason you can do some variant of the "chosen one" trope. That can consolidate lots of contrived plot devices into one major contrived plot device, at the expense of being really lame unless who they are chosen by makes up for it.

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A) I haven't tried this, but why not start them off as kind of peons in a larger expedition that suffers a series of calamities until the PC are (or almost are) the only ones left.

Something like, three ships set sail -- one gets eaten by a kracken, one sets up camp somewhere, and the last one (the one with the PCs) gets trapped in ice/runs into shallows/smashes into rocks. The campaign starts with the group trying to make it back to base camp, but along the way they find something ... distracting. Maybe there is a NPC with them that outranks them, but isn't an adventuring class -- so they need to protect him/her at the same time he/she is insisting that they head to obvious danger (maybe their employers know something the PCs don't).

I've been reading a book about Magellan's voyage "Over the Edge of the World" which has a lot of ideas for exploratory campaigns (disputes over who should be in charge, trying to find the best way to approach people from other civilizations, getting screwed over by merchants selling supplies, what kind of people get hired). Very interesting, although it might not fit with your world's tone.

B) Expediency -- your PCs are close at hand and the hiring NPCs have a reason to move quickly. Maybe a kingdom has set up a little trading post, but has run into something it couldn't handle. Maybe someone is trying to cover their ass and not make an official call for help?

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  • Reconnaissance. The king hires the PCs to gather data about the continent (map, major strongholds, public dissent) to be used for an [insert evil plot]. The clueless PCs can't tip off the plan.
  • Backstory. One (or more) of the PCs has a connection from there. Ask the players to work themselves into the reason. Works best at character creation.
  • Reputation. The PCs have proven themselves reliable before, and they get the chance to do so again (not as viable if you start at lvl 1).
  • Mercenary work. The king is sending his own investigators and needs the PCs to protect them.
  • Volunteer. The PCs volunteer to go for their own reasons (ties into backstory).
  • Betrayal. The king wants to kill the PCs in a foreign land.
  • Religion. The PCs must spread the word of [insert deity].
  • Trading/Exploration. The king finally allows travel to the continent, and the PCs are the first in line.


All of these ideas rely on the PCs having some unique element that makes them the perfect fit for the job (or betrayal).

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Frog God Games recently released The Tome of Adventure Design (which says it's for Pathfinder and/or Swords & Wizardry, but is really system-agnostic so long as you're talking about the fantasy genre), which I've been reading over the last week. It's mainly a book of tables to help get the creative juices flowing and help you come up with adventure ideas, but just last night when I was reading it I saw a group of tables that answer exactly these questions... who is hiring the party and what's their motivation.

That said, for your particular opener, does the party have to be the only group sent? It's a lot more believable that 1st level scrubs get sent if the noble house in question is actually sending a bunch of teams out there, rightly assuming some will end up getting killed. One nice side of this approach is that they can run into friendly (or competing!) agents whenever you'd like, but also since you're talking about exploring an entire continent, the other groups need never actually encounter them if you'd prefer.

You can also farm this for a lot of extra adventure ideas and NPC interactions when needed. If the party ends up in a tight spot, you can have another team show up to help them out. Or maybe another team gets in trouble and they party needs to help them out. Maybe another team is quietly killing the others out there so they can look better in their employer's eyes so they can come back and take all the glory for themselves. Maybe the party will eventually find out the employer they're working for has sinister motivations and turn against them, and now the other teams out there have effectively become strike teams that should take the party out on contact.

Again, the nice part of the "a bunch of teams" go out idea is that it makes it more plausible your party of scrubs was sent, without requiring you to actually have the party encounter any of those other teams until you decide you have a reason for it. Just dropping some flavor text now and then that indicates other teams are in the area keeps that idea alive for when you need it.

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I'm not entirely familiar with the 4e Forgotten Realms, but a few ideas:

How important is it for the noble house/government agency to investigate this new continent? If the answer is "not hugely", then the answer could be that your party is cheaper than professional agents.

You might also run an intro session where your party comes across this noble house/government agency and helps them out in some way, perhaps leading to a "we were thinking about sending an expedition anyway, would you like to do it?" If the new continent is important, this may be a secondary expedition (at lesser cost) and the house/agency might be sending professional agents AS WELL (and therefore setting up a potential rivalry in a somewhat cliche way).

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+1 for the idea of rivalry –  Pureferret Dec 14 '11 at 16:16
    
Maybe they send everyone they can, and rig it so they only have to pay one group or don't have to pay anyone (you compete with other groups and only the one that does the best gets paid; you only get paid a share of resources you secure; etc) –  Random832 Dec 15 '11 at 14:48
    
@Random832 ah, the King Steve approach. "See, I figure we'll get a lot of applicants for this gig. Now, it would be a lot of work on our end to shuffle through them all to find the true light warriors, right? So why don't we skip the middleman and just send them all? The weak will perish and the chosen ones will rise from the leftovers to save us all." –  Yandros Mar 10 '12 at 15:57

I'd say avoid the "we're too busy" cliche - even if the employer was too busy, they would still need reasons to hire the players over some other group.

Here's a couple of ideas, followed by broad guidelines for hooks that involve 'hiring':

  • The players are supposed to be professional adventurers. That means they know how to plan survival, and they also know how to survive even if they haven't planned on what they'll face. They (ideally) have a good combination of combat skills, survivability, and diplomacy to face any situation. This also means that they know the risks of the job, and take the claim for any injury (fatal or not) that might happen.

  • The players are not tied to the company. Your 'the group is expendable' thought hits the spot. The company doesn't have to worry about the players doing anything that will get them in trouble, as they can simply deny involvement (unless evidence that states otherwise exists, though I don't expect that level of bureaucracy in a medieval fantasy setting - it is up to you though) if they haven't already agreed with the players that they will. It also means they don't have to pay the players extra for 'endangering their lives' as that is included in their final pay as part of their profession (again, professional adventurers)

    A good idea to tie to this bullet point is that other, rival companies also want to explore the continent, and the company interested in hiring the adventurers wants someone whose face 'the market doesn't know', someone who will not represent the company purely by appearance.

What I tend to do is to assume there is no such thing as professional agents to explore new lands, and that, by default, companies, houses, governments etc. hire adventuring groups for that reason. If you still want to have a more solid reason of why they hire the players, think situationally.

What that means, is that you should think of certain special facts, or situations of why the company hires the players. Examples:

  • Someone who knows the players really well works for the company and recommends them
  • The competition has been slowly declining (someone is killing off competition for some reason? maybe only a few adventuring groups including the players remain? Why would someone do something like that? Another adventure hook, I feel :) but I digress).

The point is to think of facts and events that don't normally happen that would push the company to hire the players.

Hope the wall of text helped :)

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Some of the ways I've done it before, or plan to do it this time:

  • The Party are expendable; the mission success rate is expected to be low (that's why you need heros), and it's not worth sending our men for that reason

    The worry I have with this is that the party might not like the idea of dying!

  • No tracebacks; We don't think you'll die, but if you do fail we don't want the blame.

    This seems pretty fool-proof for the moment, but I'd appreciate comments to the contrary

  • We're too busy; whoever is sending you out has got too much on their plate right now.

    With this method I've got to make a pretty robust reason for the employers to be busy, without raising questions of 'Then why don't we help out here instead?'

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To address these issues in order: (1) People who hire expendable dummies don't tell them that they're not expected to survive. Let this be a nasty surprise about three adventures in. (2) Foolproof, but you need to establish why they don't want the blame - who is the opponent who would benefit if the employer looked bad? (3) A good variant is "we don't have enough troops with the right skillset; all our people with the right qualifications are busy". Then you only need to explain why one party of explorers are too busy, instead of an entire army. –  Tynam Dec 14 '11 at 12:24
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@Tynam Elrond's council chose precisely strategy #3: send a small group of louts to do the job, not an army. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 14 '11 at 12:41

If you've always struggled with this kind of opener, why not choose a different one?

For example, instead of heroes-for-hire recruited at Ye Olde Walmart, the party could be people of the realm that are involved in the talks about Returned Abeir and take the initiative to go on their own to investigate.

The plot could also be a trap to get rid of the heroes, by either having them succumb far away or preparing the ground for an ambush while they're gone. Perhaps one of them is the lost scion (TM) of another noble house.

Perhaps the order comes because the heroes have offended someone high up, and they want to either get rid of them or have them "do penance" with a dangerous job. (This was Hercules' case).

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I like your ideas :D –  Pureferret Dec 14 '11 at 12:37
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I also favour other openers, finding the heroes-for-hire approach a little too cliche, but that said, cliches are often cliches for a reason. The framework provided by such a set-up does provide a very strong structure for what the group's goals and purpose are, and going another route often means you need to come up for a replacement for that. It's not always the case, but I think you need very strong, driven players to get away without it. –  Braiba Dec 15 '11 at 21:47
    
Yes, I also use cliches in my stories because, if well used, they are immediately evocative, their meaning is clear, and they're easier to pull off. Of course, if done badly, they're trite. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 16 '11 at 10:14
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"The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication." - Terry Pratchett –  Yandros Mar 10 '12 at 15:40

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