Tackling RPG Cliches: The Caravan

Last week I began to tackle a very sensitive subject to some. Gaming clichés. Maybe I should have stated I was addressing this line of posts to the new or novice Game Master. it’s the little things like starting locations or introduction of a game session that potentially hang your game up or derail it all together for inexperienced GM’s. These are subtle little things that many GM’s find as a difficulty stepping stone in the journey to becoming a good GM. But I chose not make this distinction with my last blog because it’s a good reminder that we all sometimes forget and can let the quality of our game’s slip.

Some Readers felt I was being negative or was suggesting not to use clichéd locations for introductions of a game. To the contrary I encourage new game masters that might be hesitant to use a cliché location to do just that. Take a few moments pay attention to the details of that location. Don’t let the encounter become a “briefing room” style introduction. Adding a few notes of flavor differentiating the location from a standard cookie cutter location will make your players take notice and assist in drawing them into the story.

Moving on another clichéd starting location. We will look at the caravan. This cliché is often more used than the Tavern. The problem with the caravan is often a new GM will go to a caravan because he knows or has thought about the cliché of the tavern. When in fact what often happens, is now the GM has not only chosen a cliché location. He has potentially locked his party into that location for extended encounters. Now if you’ve still given more players 8 “briefing room” style flavor to your initial setting everything comes across as a bland. We’ve all been there, you sit down the game ready to play. New character in hand and excited.
The GM begins,

You all are on caravan guard duty…

Or

you have been hired to take the supplies to town X

And lastly

due to recent caravan attacks you’ve taken on a job as caravan guards

Again I want to emphasize that I’m not saying these are bad clichéd encounter settings to begin a game . Rather I am encouraging GM that would use this cliché for their game to take a few extra moments to make the setting stand out. Slightest bit of extra work for you take in the beginnings of that game can make all of the difference between having an excellent session, or losing your players interest for your first game. All GM and players alike don’t want a have to hear their GM say at the end of the night ” I’m sorry for the slow game but that’s what happens when you start a new game often”

But really like every GM’s when I have my first game I want to set the hook, I want my players to be excited from the beginning to the end of that first session and look forward to what is coming what is it they have just gotten themselves into.
So how do we address this  How do we solve this? Some would say just don’t start adventure from a caravan. I disagree, caravans great vehicles for story much like taverns. Why is that? Because because caravans are part of the fantasy world highways and byways. Any well-traveled road in your fantasy world is going to have at least one merchant or family of farmers traveling up and down its roads daily. Fantasy economies from city to city rely on caravans.
The idea here is not to just drop your players into caravan guard duty cold. As much as it is to use to get your players to take the job in join the caravan of their own volition. Much like with the Inn where colorful description and unique elements can make that encounter more palatable and enjoyable. The caravan has to be treated in a similar manner.

Take into account what each of the party members are playing, And what they would bring to a caravan.  Obviously if your group has a bard in it he more than likely wasn’t hired to be the guard maybe he’s the hired  entertainment for the guards in the evenings. A ranger might be the advanced scout for the group. A barbarian might fit in this role as well.
I would encourage as a GM not to have your party be standard guards on a caravan. Most merchants would understand the skills set that an adventuring group brings to the table. Why hire these warriors as common guards , or a little extra muscle? Does the merchant know something more?

So here are a few ideas that I might use when running a caravan adventure starting point or beginning location.

Each of the party members find themselves in a town with no available work. It’s time to move on to greener pastures and there’s a caravan leaving town today. Might as well get paid while on the road. If you hurry you might catch the Road boss before they leave, after all there is safety in numbers.

Or

you set out on the road to be in your travels, an hour or so has passed when you come upon a caravan heading in the direction of your travels. The head driver waves to you and motions you to come talk with him. He recognizes you from the town you just left and offers you position in the caravan if you’re heading the same direction. And interested in the coin.

One thing I like about the second description is it gives the party more of a feeling that they have options and they’re not being railroaded into joining the caravan. Given the second option the players might turn down my job offer to be a part of the caravan but I’ve had a flavorful encounter and now I can have the caravan master possibly divulge information that could be useful to the party in directing my adventure the way I was hoping to take it.
Another opportunity to use a caravan in a different creative way if the party has the ability to travel faster than a caravan might be for a caravan master to hire the party as advance scouts. Hiring them to travel ahead of the wagon train looking for danger or fording river passes, Checking bridges for safe crossing. Visiting towns ahead on the trail to inquire what towns are in need of what supplies, Giving the wagon master time to decide which fork in the road will make him the most profit. Checking passes for danger and scouting known monstrous tribes that may work close to the road sides and clearing them out so that the caravan can move forward unaccounted.
Many of these things are more exciting than waiting on the back of a caravan wagon or walking along side of it wondering when your GM is going to spring the ambush and the combat begin.
These suggestions might not only make a clichéd cavern starting point more enjoyable. But if well received could even springboard into an entire mini campaign as your adventures travel from locale to locale looking for the riches and adventure. Just turning your caravan into a mobile based town of sorts.

2 thoughts

  1. The mobile base town version of the Caravan starting point is basically the entire premise of the Battlestar Galactica universe. If you do construct a caravan you have a number of locations from the nightly camp fire to each covered wagon in the caravan. You have a whole pot of NPCs from other guards who could be professional guards, other hired adventurers or employees of the state loaned to caravans to either guide them a bit like a pilot on a ship or survey to the roads and assess threats. Some of the wagons would contain merchants and their wares but others could contain families also trying to seek protection in numbers and others tagging on to the caravan for protection who have more interesting professions and private agendas.

    That first encounter when the players are expecting a clichéd orc or goblin attack could be a mutiny by half the caravan against the wagon master when he does decide that the greatest profit lay down the west fork but the rest of the caravan signed on to go east. Which side do the players take? Defend the wagon master? Does that pit them against the other caravan guards?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love your Battlestar Galactica comparison. It is easy to say your adventures are part of a caravan for the last three days.

      That’s just boring.

      But to say that you have all recently taken work as caravan guards and for the last three days have been harassed by goblin wolf riders who have killed nearly a third of your caravan.

      That makes your players sit up and take notice of the situation setting the hook for the start of your game early.

      Like

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