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I have split this into two more specific questions: How can I represent the use of fire being misrepresented in a campaign? and How to make rituals a part of everyday life.

Below is the broad-strokes outline for a D&D 4E or Next campaign I am working on bit by bit.

What I'm struggling with is:

  • How to make the concept of many daily rituals (when using fire, drawing water, cooking, etc) are all a part of daily life?

  • How do I make it clear that, due to generations of influence by a god masquerading as the God of Fire (see outline, below) fire is regarded as dangerous, and only to be used by priests of the god of fire.

    • I am worried that introducing the rituals would somehow result in the players knowing the overarching plot right from the beginning. Specifically, the part where the rituals for fire (note, not magical rituals) emphasizing that fire is dangerous and extreme care must be taken when using it.
  • Would making spells like fireball extremely hard to get be too heavy-handed??

  • How to avoid making the whole thing a railroad.

I'm considering using D&D 4th Edition or D&D Next

Here's the outline of the backstory and possible gameplay arc:

  1. God of XXXX, aka GoX (Not sure what, perhaps Ice in order for nice symmetry) is jealous of God of Fire, aka GoF.

  2. Many, many generations ago, large battle between GoF and some other god, which ended with a pyrrhic victory by the GoF which put him* in a coma/sleep/out of contact while he recovered. The priests of the GoX, or perhaps an ally of the GoX manage to release him from his coma early.

  3. Priests of GoF held regular prayer sessions, including ritual blessings, to help GoF recover. (Note that this would be a basic blessing that would probably be done by everyone whenever they use fire.)

  4. Over the years, this blessing has been co-opted by GoX to do something else, perhaps to make people be extremely cautious around fire and the blessings are thus no longer working towards helping the GoF recover. High-level priests of the GoF would have been corrupted and would be the only ones, along with high-level GoX priests, to know that the GoX is now responding to the prayers offered up to the GoF.

    Note that the priests of GoX aren't helping the GoF recover. The priests of the GoF are trying to help the GoF recover through prayer. The priests of the GoX have somehow managed to awaken the GoX and he is somehow (insert god-powers here) intercepting and anwswering the prayers that are supposed to be heading to the GoF.

  5. GoX starts opening small rifts to plane of fire, allowing elementals, etc to get out.

  6. As heroes fight that, more evidence that GoF has gone insane, which is actually machinations by GoX to make it look like the GoF has gone insane?

  7. The heroes go after GoF, and manage to seal him up in home plane/castle.

  8. They find out it was actually GoX behind it all, and now have to release GoF and make nice with him to help mortalkind.

  9. They have to then defeat GoX.

* Note that the use of masculine is simply due to laziness on my part.

I think that it sounds interesting as an overall concept, but I would like ideas on how to introduce some of the things in order to avoid making it seem fairly railroading.

I figure to have three overall phases:
Phase 1 would be the introductory phase. They would be sent on random adventures, you know, like adventurers do, but as they progress, they are coming more and more up against fire-based creatures from the elemental plane of fire. At the end of this phase, they would find out that it is the "GoF" (actually GoX) who is doing this. Maybe some piece of prophecy planted ages ago by GoX?

Phase 2 would be the PCs trying to get at the GoF (the real one) and imprisoning him or something like that. Due to the wounds he suffered in the battle, he will be weaker. They won't be able to kill him, but should be able to imprison him, perhaps with the aid of the GoX or another deity.

Phase 3 would be the reveal that it is actually the GoX who was behind all of this, and that he is now, with the GoX out of the way, making a move to dramatically increase his power. The PCs then have to somehow release the GoF (without letting the GoX know), get him up to power and take on the GoX.

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Hi MudBunny, could you be a bit more specific as to where you're coming up short? For example, which things are you having trouble introducing? Also, welcome to the site. Check out the faq when you get a chance. –  AceCalhoon Jul 13 '12 at 18:03
    
This would be my first time DMing (at all), so I am worried that introducing the rituals would somehow result in the players knowing the overarching plot right from the beginning. Specifically, the part where the rituals for fire (note, not magical rituals) emphasizing that fire is dangerous and extreme care must be taken when using it. Would making fire-based spells (fireball, etc) extremely hard to get a hold of be too heavy a hammer to use? (I have added the comments I just made to my original question. Thanks!) –  mudbunny Jul 13 '12 at 18:28
    
It sounds like you've already got a game system in mind (i.e., you mention fireball spells), which will probably influence how you develop the details and incorporate them into the players' experience of the setting; in turn, that changes what advice would be useful for us to give. Could you edit your question to mention what game system you're designing for, if any? –  SevenSidedDie Jul 13 '12 at 19:07
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Concur, this is way too large of a question, as all these rambling comment threads indicate. It may help to clarify in chat what specific questions you want answered (I count at least 5) and then post them specifically. This is basically an essay that people are writing random essays in response to, which isn't the strength of this site. –  mxyzplk Jul 14 '12 at 1:37
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2 Answers 2

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The answer to all your questions starts with don't worry about your players guessing anything. I'll explain why you don't need to, and also why it will solve the rest of your problems.

Really, don't worry about the players figuring it out. There are so many different possible reasons for a culture to have rituals about fire being dangerous, that it's impossible for your players to guess, out of the blue. Really, it's highly unlikely that they're going to guess:

  • the God of Fire is in a coma and
  • the God of Ice has corrupted the God of Fire's high priests over decades and
  • the high priests are now channeling prayers to the God of Fire and
  • the God of Ice is trying to make the God of Fire look insane and
  • this isn't all nice backstory but is actually going to the the core plot of campaign

How likely, based on the mere detail that fire magic is considered dangerous? I'd estimate the chance is exactly zero.

The reality is that more GMs have the problem that the players don't figure out secrets that they want them to figure out, even with the GM dumping many large, obvious clues on them. They aren't going to guess one iota of your plot based on these rituals you've described. Even if they pick up on the rituals as a clue to something bigger going on, the rituals aren't a sufficient clue to give away any of the details you describe. The likelihood of them coming up, independently, with anything remotely like what's in your head, let alone exactly your plot, is so vanishingly infinitesimal that it'd be more likely for your notes to quantum-jump into your players' hands.

In fact, it would be good foreshadowing to be unsubtle about the existence of these rituals – that way, when your players do finally see the plot unfolding, they'll be going "Ah-ha! That's why you were talking about fire rituals way back at the beginning!" and it will feel like a well-developed story to them instead of just coming out of the blue.

With that out of the way, the answer to the rest of your question is:

Make it blatant

Make the existence of the rituals very clear. Put words of respect and fear into them. Make them part of every meal's preparation. Make your PCs say the ritual around the campfire at night—after all, if the rituals are such an ingrained part of the culture, they wouldn't even consider not doing so.* Make bonfires a regular part of village rituals. Have a session that revolves around a feast or festival day that has a lot of fire and fire rituals as part of it. Spread fire rituals all over everything you can think of.

There's no danger that your players will guess what your plot is, but you do want them to sit up and pay attention to fire and the religious business surrounding fire. You want them to see the setup for the campaign, so that the punchline (the gates opening) has any meaning for them at all when you deliver it.

Make fireballs hard to get. Make fire-based Powers count as one grade of Power higher – At-Will becomes Encounter, Encounter becomes Daily, Daily becomes a 4e-style Ritual – so that they're harder to get and harder to cast and a worse choice at level-up. (For Next, just make fire-based spells one or two levels higher without making them more powerful, so they're harder to get, more expensive to memorise, and just a worse choice overall.) If a PC wants to play a mage that uses fire, let them know that they're going to have problems if they don't hide it, and that fire spells are going to be expensive and a bad investment. On top of that, have the Inquisition of the High Priests of the God of Fire hunt down and kill mages who use fire. Make it an established fact, so that there just aren't any known fire-using mages.

* Be careful with this, though. Unless you know your players will play along with it, don't force them to actually speak the ritual at the table. Just mention it in passing as you describe them making camp—that sort of thing. If you know they'll enjoy it though, ask them to read out the ritual. It could make the later reveal that it gives power to the Enemy some more narrative *oomph* if they're the sort of players who enjoy that.

Don't hide anything

Don't try to be subtle about any of this. Make it blatant, make it loud, make it obvious. When you want them to notice a plot point, make it obvious and unmistakeable. Your players won't guess your plans, but they'll pick up on the theme of your campaign. You want them to know that fire is a thing that matters, so that they'll want to find out what's up with it. Too many GMs make the mistake of trying to be subtle, and then wondering why their players aren't noticing the "obvious" clues. Don't hide information from them that you want them to have! Specifically, do everything you can to make it obvious that fire is considered dangerous and untrustworthy, and that people think it's because there's something wrong with the God of Fire.

That way, later, when you want them to notice the shenanigans with the high priests and rifts and elementals, they'll actually notice instead of completely missing the connections.

Accept some railroading will happen, but don't force it

You have two choices, really: railroad and keep your plot, or not railroad and accept that your players may completely abandon your plot in order to go do something else. You can't really have it both ways – even keeping the railroading "hidden" is still railroading, is likely to be noticed by your players, and is even more work than obvious railroading.

Ask your players how much railroading they're OK with. If they want to go do something on their own initiative, then creating a big plot might be a bad idea, though it can still be useful as background flavour that gives context to the things your players do want to do.

However, some players (and I know a few) really enjoy taking part in a big, overarching plot, and if you've got players like that then you don't need to worry about too much railroading.

Be aware though, regardless of how much railroading you intend to do, that the old adage about plots and players holds: no plot survives contact with the players. Your plans will go off the rails, and your best course of action is to embrace it. The secret is that most players don't actually mind the existence of a railroad – what they actually object to is the heavy hand forcing them back onto the rails. A player that can leave the rails, and then get back on them of their own motive, is often a happy player.

So develop your plot points, but don't base them on specific actions of your players. If they don't kill the fake High Priest that was a double-agent and secretly sabotaging the other fake High Priests' attempts to open the rifts, thereby causing the rifts to open? Don't do that. Make sure there are multiple ways that a plot point can happen, or make it so that it doesn't have to happen. Even when there are multiple paths to a plot point, make the different paths matter: make foiling a plot point give the PCs more breathing room, put the enemy at a disadvantage, slow down a timeline, force the enemy to take a different drastic action to fulfill the next goal, something. Make what the PCs do and the way they disrupt the enemy's plans matter to the way the story unfolds. The best railroad, if a railroad must happen, is one that has lots of possible rails that run to slightly different destinations.

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OK, I'll take a stab at this.

I have reservations on the "create a game plot and hope the players create characters that fit it." What if everyone creates adventurers that don't really care about gods and such? It may be difficult to get those adventurers into this particular plot.

I would create a small document, basically saying, "here's a typical day in the village." Outline some sample rituals people use. I'm assuming that the adventurers are familiar with the village, so this would be common knowledge.

Emphasize the sanctity of all the elements, instead of fire specifically "regarded as dangerous." Each element could have traits. And, you can create a mythos that paints the God of Fire (and possibly his followers) as explosive and combative.

I like restricting the spells. I would say something like, "All elemental spells are restricted -- you need to be a cleric of one of the elemental gods to use these spells." And see if someone wants to be a cleric of Fire. If no one does, then you are set. If someone does, then you have a hook into your plot.

Not sure if any of this helps. Good luck with the idea.

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Actually, an overarching script does work well with games like D&D 4e, because it's designed to. An overarching script gives a framework to hang set-piece combats from, which is where 4e shines. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 13 '12 at 22:09
    
Didn't say it didn't work well :-). –  bryanjonker Jul 17 '12 at 12:38
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