Need an adventure hook? Try class-based conflicts

The princess has been kidnapped. The undead are rising in the graveyard. Strange lights and eerie sounds are coming from the nearby forest or swamp. Goblins and kobolds are raiding merchant traffic.

*yawn*

Although there is nothing inherently wrong about the adventure hooks presented above, apart from their being overused – and the fact that they are overused proves that they work very well in a Dungeons & Dragons game – many seasoned Dungeon Masters (DMs) and experienced players wouldn’t mind a bit more variety in their adventure leads.

One little-used option for conflict in a D&D game and, by extension, for adventures stemming from that conflict, is distrust between character classes. About the only class-based conflict commonly seen in published D&D adventures involves divine classes, in the form of cults and evil religions attempting to do unpleasant things to the world around them. But what about fighter’s academies, cadres of wizards, thieves’ guilds, knightly orders, or rangers and wardens committed to protecting wilderness areas from encroaching “civilization?”

The only official D&D product this writer is aware of that makes mention of this sort of conflict was the Thunder Rift adventure setting, published in 1992 for the classic D&D system. The product contained a detailed history of the rift, which included a brief chronicle of a war fought between an academy of fighters and a school of wizards for regional supremacy called Sword vs. Wand, which ultimately ended in stalemate with leaders missing or in hiding. While Sword vs. Wand was only a historical footnote in Thunder Rift, it illustrates how this sort of inter-class conflict can generate adventure.This posting is not a suggestion that fighters in the campaign go forth on rogue-bashing excursions, simply because fighters don’t like rogues. Rather, it suggests that DMs consider how like-minded individuals (characters of a smiliar class) gathered into communites (class-based organizations) may find themselves at odds with other individuals from other communities.

The key here is the presence of organizations composed of characters from similar classes. Let us condiser a group of fighters or warlords, organized into a knightly order, for an example.

Members of the knightly order are likely to value physical toughness, direct confrontation and prowess in battle, by virtue of their talents. Those values are in direct opposition to the values typically held by rogues, who succeed via subversion, trickery, speed, mobility and concealment. The knights’ values also oppose the way wizards and sorcerors apply their disciplined minds to scheming and outsmarting opponents, without feeling compelled to smash and kill everything they see. Obviously, our knights don’t respect the “dishonorable” way rogues strike from the shadows or the way wizards “unfarily” employ magic to compensate for their physical fraility, and it is that sort of disdain, applied on an organizational level, that can provide conflict that leads to adventure.

The lack of trust or respect between class-based organizations leads to severely limited communication, which in turn breeds suspicion. Thus, even between organizations that ostensibly fight on the side of good, there is likely to be extensive surveillance, political jockeying, infiltration and plotting to prevent one group or the other from advancing its interests.

This type of conflict can be used as the basis for adventure, or to add another layer of complexity to an existing adventure.

For example, imagine a player-character (PC) fighter, who trains at the local fencing academy/mercenary guild of a major seaport. The PC may be called upon by the guild’s leader to escort a shipment of new armor and weapons arriving in port from the docks to the academy, since the waterfront is the territory of a powerful thieves’ guild that resents the way the fighters have helped the City Guard hamper the thieves’ activities. Of course, the thieves do attempt to intercept the shipment, and the PC and his party are subjected to the hit-and-run, from-the-shadows attacks the PC fighter loathes so much.

This sort of conflict can also be used to add depth to a story unrelated to class-based tensions. Consider a prominent campaign religion (a group of clerics and paladins) that learn of a powerful, ancient artifact hidden deep in an inland forest. The clerics decide to send a search party, including one or more PCs, to quest for the item. Unfortunately for the priests, the theives’ guild has a spy in the clerics’ organization, and the rogues have no interest in seeing the clerics obtain and use the item for vaious anti-rogue activities in the city; the theives’ guild therefore sends its own search party, ordered to find and retrieve the item before the clerics can. Unfortunately for both the clerics and rogues, the ancient forest containing the artifact is guarded by a group of druids and wardens, who are sworn to prevent anyone or anything from obtaining the artifact.

Thus, when the PCs set out on behalf of the clerics, they are faced with being stalked or ambushed by the rogues’ expeditionary force and being attacked or repelled by the druids, in addition to suffering attacks from the natural predators and other hostiles from the region.

It is in this way that, by creating numerous class-based campaign organizations and defining the respective goals of each, a DM may find a seldom-used, but highly effective, source of conflict to drive adventure in a D&D campaign.

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6 comments on “Need an adventure hook? Try class-based conflicts

  1. misterecho says:

    mmm… There’s some really good ideas here. I will use this to spice things up when needed.
    thanks very much

  2. And here I was expecting a discussion of social-class based conflict . . .

    Still a good read though. But I would focus on the sort of organization and then figure out what sort of classes would likely to be involved. Knightly orders would naturally attract fighters but could as have a place for politicians and priests. A school of magic might have an associated group of dedicated bodyguards or be a school of religion as well as magic. And so on.

    • Alric says:

      Note to self: write clearer headlines.

      That was an astute observation about the “organization-first” approach – I wasn’t sure exactly how to wrap my brain around that part when I was writing before.

  3. satyre says:

    There are other classic D&D sourcebooks which use this motif – The Principalities of Glantri Gazetteer has a magocracy with hidden religions and warrior societies.

    B3: The Lost City has another example of class-based conflict based around it’s secret societies which the PCs can join.

    Cool article – hits many salient points on conflict.

    • Alric says:

      My “classic D&D illiteracy” has been revealed. :-0

      All embarrassment aside, the fact that this sort of conflict appears in multiple classic D&D products seems to point toward an adventure design philosophy held by TSR’s creative team at the time, one that I like very much. Pity that the philosophy seems to have left with the team. It’s enough to make people want to create a netbook of all the good stuff from legacy editions that has largely disappeared…

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