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Often my quest will boil down to Dungeons or Go to X because of Y to do Z (I may over simplify it but let's focus on that). Dungeons, I can make those as awesome as they can be. Awesome rooms with weird features, cool encounters and traps. The goal of the dungeon can be simple or complex (IE get in there to get treasure or simply sandbox exploration). But for carrying missions, I think they can be really bland and I don't know I to deal with it.

A good example of a carrying mission is like: Escort the merchant through the woods because they are full of bandits. Another good example would be the movie Season of the Witch. Yes I can pepper the journey with encounters such as bandits attack or even a skill challenge like some sudden tight road on the side of a cliff. The players will be expecting the attacks so nothing interesting there.

How can I spice up carrying missions?

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The real way to spice up anything in a game is to give it some more flavor. Instead of merely escorting the princess through the forest, she's injured and needs medical attention beyond what the players can provide, and there's a rival kingdom seeking to take her for ransom. Give it more than just a "Do this." feel, give it a "Do this, quickly, or else things might go wrong." Better yet, when you're doing this, don't have plans that are contingent on a certain outcome; the players are traveling with the princess because they have a mutual destination, nobody knows they're doing it and they'll be at worst under a little scrutiny when it turns out that she doesn't arrive.

Alternatively, play counter to their expectations; they see someone lurking in the forests and it turns out that they're refugees (bonus points if the players attack without positive identification). They think they're escorting a merchant, but they're stopped by Imperial guards who ask why they're traveling with a known smuggler and massive amounts of contraband. The merchant wanders off in the night. The merchant turns out to be capturing them for a bounty. The merchant is actually a greater demon who will eat their souls in the night. The merchant has actually been a cat all along, and can't sell anything at all. The merchant decides to turn around and go home, but the players want to go where he's going, forcing them to choose between getting paid or making progress. The bandits turn out to be former allies of the player, and the merchant turns out to be a scumbag. The bandits turn out to be scumbags, but the merchant is worse. There are no bandits, but instead spirits who are upset with the merchant in particular for desecrating a holy site (preferably one sacred to a player character). The merchant catches a disease. The players contract diseases. Disease kills the merchant en-route. The merchant turns out to be bankrupt, and this discovery is made mid-journey. The merchant is transporting slaves/contraband/other things the players morally object to. The merchant is a terrorist. Give the players a moral choice; the merchant or an injured person needing assistance. Don't make escort quests solely dependent on escorting-flexibility and dynamism are key.

Sometimes, however, stuff's just going to start to feel bland. It's the eightieth escort quest, the tenth world-threatening dungeon-dweller, and the seventeenth damsel in distress, and the players need a change of pace. Be on the lookout for alternate story hooks; defense missions, for instance, to steal a reviled video game method, actually make decent tabletop scenarios. Have them look for something out of the ordinary.

It's not really the journey that matters, it's how they get there.

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Be careful, though: If you frequently make the client annoying or untrustworthy, the players will come to expect it! Be sure to make the client cooler or more useful than expected, without overshadowing the PCs, at least some of the time. The players will also trust NPCs and value their input more if you let one of the players run the character. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 27 '13 at 5:59
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True, but the entire point is to remain dynamic-the more you stay on your feet the less you'll repeat yourself. If you're giving every NPC something interesting, they should only have "negative" traits some of the time. And not all negatives are necessarily bad-untrustworthy characters may wind up giving the players more via some heated renegotiation of contracts mid-journey. "You're bringing what to the King's castle again?" –  Kyle Willey Apr 27 '13 at 6:02
    
My players have a bad habit of trying to kill anybody who cheats or otherwise screws them over. And they tend to lump renegotiation in the “cheating” category. It makes Shadowrun interesting, to say the least. ;) –  Bradd Szonye Apr 27 '13 at 6:05
    
I was thinking that the players would be doing the negotiation, but I guess it could go both ways. My Shadowrunners are the same way (and I am too, though I tend to play Chaotic Flexible characters, so anyone's fair game for a backstabbing for most of my characters). That said, the important part of getting an NPC through a session alive is a carrot at the end of a stick. Or, alternatively, complete apathy for the NPC's survival, which doesn't keep him alive but leads to some interesting twists in the campaign. I keep a strict "mortal NPC" rule at my table. –  Kyle Willey Apr 27 '13 at 6:30
    
Yep, carrots good. :) –  Bradd Szonye Apr 27 '13 at 6:33
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Use unique mechanics to reinforce how each mission is different.

If escorting a merchant feels the same as escorting a wounded old woman feels the same as escorting a prince, then eventually it won't be interesting, no matter how much story you build up around it. Instead, give each situation its own special twist.

Maybe the merchant's horses are skittish, and if the party allows any bandit/monster to get too close to them they'll bolt, dragging the merchant & wagon off into the wilderness, forcing the party to attempt to disengage from their current foes to stay with the merchant. Maybe the old woman can't move very fast, so someone from the party has to give up some of their own actions to help her along and defend her in combat. Maybe the prince is headstrong and gets into trouble easily, so the party periodically has to use social skills to convince him not to wander off and explore random ruins/caves (think of him as an 8-year-old with ADD playing Skyrim).

For McGuffin quests, whenever possible, make it about getting the McGuffin to some specific place rather than going and acquiring the McGuffin (look at Lord of the Rings: it's about Frodo taking the ring to Mt Doom; how did Frodo get the ring? backstory). This allows you to give the McGuffin unique mechanics. Maybe the skull of a necromancer empowers all of its bearer's attacks, but also makes them much more vulnerable to damage; this forces the party to decide between A) giving it to the person who already attacks well so they turn into a real powerhouse and then desperately trying to keep that person alive, or B) giving it to someone who's good at avoiding foes, reducing the risk to the bearer but also reducing the benefit of the skull's power boost. A staff of the winds might shove the bearer 10-15 feet in a random direction at the end of the each of their turns; not an issue on a featureless plain or in a bland square room (places your party should never be), but a definite challenge anywhere that has dangerous edges.

Every mission should complicate the party's preferred tactics in some way. This is easy to do with some kind of penalty, but can also be done with a bonus, as long as the bonus requires certain achievable but not automatic requirements to be met.

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Players like NPCs who act like PCs:

  • Friendly: Players don't like working with jerks. You can add some personality quirks to make the NPC interesting, but if they're more obnoxious than friendly, the players will start looking for excuses to dump them (or worse).

  • Human: Players are impulsive. They do stuff like beat up bullies, tell off jerks, crack jokes, or say “Oh, crap!” and pull out their big guns when things go bad. They like NPCs who think and act the same way. When you're playing an NPC, think of what you would do as a PC in the same situation, and do it.

  • Useful: Your NPC needs help with something, or the PCs wouldn't be escorting them. But other than that, make the NPC generally self-sufficient and helpful. You don't want to outshine the players – just be helpful enough that they don't regret having the NPC around.

  • Cool: Give the NPC a few tricks. Again, you don't want to out-cool the players, but there are lots of little tricks you can use to make the NPC a neat companion instead of dead weight. Even better if you use cool stuff that a PC could learn or buy, making it a little demo for what they could get the next time they level up.

Keep this in mind when creating NPCs for an escort mission. You can mix things up occasionally by turning the NPC into a rival, villain, or other complication, but it'll go over a lot better if you make them likable first. Then it'll be a cool and memorable complication, instead of a reason to stop trusting NPCs.

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My one caution to add to this is that NPC's still need to feel like they live in the world-often players treat their characters as expendable, or at the very least don't have them value their lives very much. NPC's, by merit of not being an avatar for something on the other side of the fourth wall, should at least maintain the semblance of awareness of their mortality (otherwise they come across as slightly crazy). –  Kyle Willey Apr 27 '13 at 6:54
    
@KyleWilley Agreed! Although I have had good success with NPCs who act a little crazy in ways that a player can respect. For example, if the players are stuck in a dilemma where they want to beat up some creeps but aren't sure it's a good plan, the NPC can say, “Screw it! We're doing the right thing,” and spur them to action. My players naturally distrusted the GMPC of Shadowrun's Dawn of the Artifacts, but after she did this, they started accepting her as part of the team. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 27 '13 at 7:25
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Totally true. I try to make my NPC's have a moral code; albeit sometimes a warped one. This gives them a lot of impulsive actions. I count it a success when my players try to hold back my NPC's. Especially in high-lethality campaigns where the hired gun (i.e. tank and high-damage output) NPC gets one-shot by the bad guys. That was a fun game of Dark Heresy. –  Kyle Willey Apr 27 '13 at 17:48
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It sounds like that the problem is that your attacks are not interesting enough. They expected the attacks; if you do not attack them, then it's more than just merely uninteresting, it becomes downright disappointing instead.

Did you try to challenge them with something amusing and unexpected?

Ideas:

  1. The prince has lost his gold bag which he had planned to reward the players with.
  2. For some reason, the goal destination changes.
  3. The princess wants something special in the middle of the journey and refuses to cooperate unless she gets it.
  4. They encounter a circus, and they are amused and stick around for a few days, but when they leave they find they have used up their rations.
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My caution for the last one is that it feels very much like a "Screw you, players!" rather than a legitimate challenge-characters in setting would probably pay at least some attention to the events going on, and wouldn't just walk off for a journey without food. It also relies on nobody having enough survival skills to comfortably feed the entire party while in the wilderness (which is not entirely uncommon with barbarians or rangers in D&D/Pathfinder, and with several other characters in other systems/settings). –  Kyle Willey Apr 27 '13 at 17:55
    
Agreed, that would need an experience DM to adjust to a scale which makes things difficult enough, but not frustrating. I would say those are "off the book", which pretty much old-style DND like, and that's why many players love the ADnD more than the 3E, 4E. All I need to say is that the DM shall always bear in mind that "How can i make players feels fulfillment?" but I myself will forget it sometime also. –  Antony Lee Apr 28 '13 at 16:31
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Well, the basic advice here is you watch movies and read books for inspiration, and take notes. The Robinson novels are full of good escort mission complications (not the island parts, of course). Lord of the Rings is full of good escort mission complications. Several centuries of adventure literature and decades of adventure movies are at your service.

A second very basic advice is you use pre-written adventure modules - either for inspiration only or as a basis for your adventures. Some of them are really good or at least have very good elements you can borrow.

I myself prefer moral complications in adventures. Say, the party has to escort the princess somewhere in a hurry but they stumble upon a village that needs to be saved from a monster. Will they stay and help the poor village people, or will they continue with their mission? Or they are intercepted by the long-time rival of the prince, the evil Sir Lord Baron Von Vaderham and his retinue of clearly greater numbers. The Baron tells the party that if they hand him the prince, they can go freely and will also get a huge amount of treasure for their troubles. If they don't, they are surely to perish. They have to decide by next dawn. What do they do? This sort of complication is also a good step towards role-playing instead of roll-playing.

Also, a trick I use, when I want to spice up things a bit, is to pretend something is up the players don't know about. You ask them their Perception scores and roll some dice behind the screen (or have them roll, doesn't count). Then you hmm a lot and pretend that you pretend that nothing is going on. And if they ask, you tell them it's nothing, they don't see or hear a thing. Or you give them some little general detail, like "you hear a crack from among the trees, but that's nothing really". They sure are going to start to investigate and speculate, if not immediately, then after the second or third roll. Now the trick is this: you don't have to have anything up your sleeve, what is important is to listen closely to the players' discussion and their ideas of what this situation may be. Soon, they will have a very elaborated conspiracy theory of what is going on. Now this is an adventure hook the players give you, you can act upon it: go with it or directly against it, whatever best suits the situation.

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+1 for winging it based on the players' own expectations. Just as a warning, if you do this too often, the players will catch on, and their conspiracies turn into "I bet there's a lost kitten in the woods!" –  Dakeyras Apr 27 '13 at 16:13
    
@Dakeyras You are right, its use needs consideration, but it can have tremendous effects. –  Xabei Apr 27 '13 at 19:06
    
@Dakeyras: Maybe but you can still use it! It is a cuddly cute lost tiger kitten and its mom is looking for it. And they're intelligent tigers. :-) –  Zan Lynx May 1 '13 at 19:00
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A "Carry X to Y" journey isn't exciting unless there are interesting things to interact with at points B through W... But once you have added those points, it's another form of Dungeon in most ways. The thing is, unlike the average dungeon, there are non-combat encounters.

If we have a 50 mile journey, make that 50 miles require 2-4 encounters along the way. Each is done just like a dungeon encounter.

Say, the journey is to rescue Lady Beth from the Bandits. They have a hideout 30 miles away, in the valley, amonst the shadewood.

Right there, we can have several meaningful encounters and one "puzzle point".

  • Crockigators or Rodents of Unusual Size. This is a "Fight or Flight" encounter - either works.
  • how to sneak into the camp unseen.
  • The bandits in their swamp hideout.
  • Another swamp-nasty encounter. Not the same one, unless they simply ran through. A nice touch is to have wichever you didn't use present and feasting on the remains left by the party on the way in...

Along the way, they might need to have a bandit encounter. Let's add that to the front of the list. Several kinds of bandit encounters are possible - bandits in disguise, bandits hidden in a cart, bandits hiding in terrain. I'd suggest on a road - they're hiding in a cart.

  • Bandits by the cartload on the road.
  • Crockigators or Rodents of Unusual Size.
  • how to sneak into the camp unseen.
  • The bandits in their swamp hideout.
  • Another swamp-nasty encounter.

A kindly village healer is a good encounter, too. If the party is polite, he helps them for cost; if not, he charges high prices. Also has a healing potion per PC available. Let's put him AFTER the bandits.

Also, let's put an inn near the swamp. It's walled, fortified. Good chance to drop some rumors, and add a decision point. Longer but safer path to a village near the bandits, or shorter, direct route through the swamp.

We'll also add two encounters on the long route, but only one on the short.

  • Bandits by the cartload on the road.
  • Kindly Healer (and his hamlet)
  • Swampshore Inn.
    • Long Route
      • A
      • B
      • Village
    • Short Route
      • C
  • Crockigators or Rodents of Unusual Size.
  • how to sneak into the camp unseen.
  • The bandits in their swamp hideout.
  • Another swamp-nasty encounter.

The short route is straight into swamp. So, let's make that some other swamp nasty - Say, some poisonous snakes. Don't even have to be big - just fast and threatening. Rattlers are excellent here. Give them a choice of loosing an hour backtracking and/or going around, or fight past, or sneak past, or some method of driving them off.

The long route is safe, but not empty. An encounter with a merchant going down can be a chance to build some RP time. Make certain his goods have value, but high bulk. Rice comes to mind. Or swamp heather (aka pipe-weed; it was smoked in britain before Tobacco). He's got nothing of actual value, and is headed the wrong way... if they get nasty to him, they now have a good that was expected to be from him, and a reputation.

Villagers out working is another good encounter. If they mention the bandits, have everyone get tight-lipped and know-nothing. If they ask about the swamp, give them warnings and hints about the ROUS and Crockigators. Also, if they need lodgings, they can probably con someone into letting them crash for a night, but at full in prices, PLUS doing some chores...

Also, let's note that the route back to the Swampshore Inn can be another decision point.

  • Bandits by the cartload on the road.
  • Kindly Healer (and his hamlet)
  • Swampshore Inn.
    • Long Route
      • Poor Merchant
      • Villagers working
      • Village
    • Short Route
      • Rattlesnakes
  • Crockigators or Rodents of Unusual Size.
  • how to sneak into the camp unseen.
  • The bandits in their swamp hideout.
  • Another swamp-nasty encounter.
  • Back to the inn... 1 or two encounters
  • Back to town...1 or 2 encounters.

Very qucikly, the journey is much more interesting. Also note: only a few of these are specific to a given route.

By taking and looking at the probable routes, you can set up 2-3 encounters per terrain type, and drop them in as need be. This approach works for almost any game without explicit travel mechanics, and can be used with many of them that do have explicit travel mechanics. For example, the timing of the bandits could be the first random encounter in an AD&D 1E/2E game, or in place of a fatigue result for The One Ring. Same for the animal encounters. You can also mix and match planned encounters with random encounters on the journey.

One other trick I found for travel in sandbox games: a token that signifies "I'm ready to skip to the next encounter check." Once everyone has turned theirs up to "ready" go ahead and move on, move on to the next time unit, describing any significant scenery. I've also used the opposite: "I'll move the party on the map, say something when you want to pause," making encounter checks and telling them to mark time and resources.

Often, they will decide to hunt... let them. Hunting is an interesting encounter of low risk. but should they succeed, keep in mind that additional encounters will follow from that - scavengers and/or predators want that meat, too.

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I find it intriguing that you are happy with your dungeon adventure building skills, but frustrated with carry missions. To paraphrase an old quote, "Stone walls do not a dungeon make..."

There's no reason many of the cool elements that make your dungeons interesting can't be woven into other scenarios. Escort missions add elements of time constraints and key people/objects to protect, but not every escort mission is a ride through the forest. Washed out bridges, border skirmishes between opposing armies, and other obstacles can make the common roads unaccessible and push the party through all kinds of interesting terrain (canyons, snow-choked mountain passes, swamps, etc.) where you can orchestrate cool encounters. This can get especially interesting if the urgency of the trip requires them to take routes that haven't seen any traffic in a few decades, and all manner of clever and treacherous beasty has had years to set up trouble for the unwary passerby. Throw in a few alternate routes to choose between and some unexpected disasters that result in backtracking and taking the road less traveled, and you're on your way!

Focus on what works well, and what your players enjoy. I'll bet it's not the stone ceiling overhead, nor the 10' wide corridors that make your dungeons fun. Look for ways to leverage the truly engaging elements in a less traditional setting.

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