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Sample Module Design - Critical Path (Part Three)


This series of tutorials is an example for new DMs who want to create a setting for their modules. In Part I: The Setting, we described the creation of the kingdom of Heirokanth as the setting for our campaign. In Part II: The Synopsis, we put forth the basics of our story. Now we must take the next step by integrating our setting and story synopsis into a critical path map.

This step is not only useful to organize the scenes from our synopsis, but it will help us when it comes time to build the module, as it will give us a framework for how scripting should be structured. By defining the critical events and organizing them as a path the story (and PCs) follow, a DM can keep the adventure on-track and react better to the players if they take a wrong turn or wander from the main story for their own purposes.

Our module begins with 1st to 3rd level player characters arriving in the town of Murkfield, called there by Baron Melchior to perform a service. Some of them may have pledged fealty to the Baron, so are compelled to perform their duty. Other PCs may have been called as mercenaries, or may have special talents for which the Baron is willing to pay a fee. In any case, the first scene of interest will be as the party gains audience with Baron Melchior and a quest is born. They are asked to slay some wolves rumored to prey on members of a logging camp in the forest outside of town.

Our module ends after it is discovered that the attacks are by werewolves, and they are controlled by Abbot Velyn. Once the Abbot is defeated or cured (or the PCs die or become werewolves themselves), then the module ends, our story complete.

There are many scenes that must occur between the beginning and end, as our critical path diagram will show.

You should view the diagram in another window; the diagram scales automatically to the window's size. Follow along as our critical path grows to connect the first scene with the last scenes.



This shows the first scene with the Baron, in a grey box. On the opposite side of the page, we have our final scene — three possible outcomes. Two are in green boxes: the Abbot is defeated, or he is cured. The third outcome is in a red box: The PCs become werewolves. Green indicates success, red means failure. Obviously it's not necessary to color your own critical path diagrams; we're doing it for clarity. Now we have set up our starting and ending conditions, leaving plenty of room in the middle of our diagram to fill in everything in between.


DIAGRAM version 1

After clicking on the yellow "NEXT" button, we see our diagram after adding a few more scenes. All of these events must occur in sequence.

The party must visit the logging camp and find out about the werewolves (probably through Jon Hardy, the camp's leader). The PCs may even encounter a werewolf at this time, but since they probably do not have magic or silver weapons, we will avoid ending things too soon by making sure there the werewolf has reason to flee. If there are PCs above first level, then it is possible that they have a +1 magic weapon. In this case, we might let the werewolf stay and fight.

After this, the party returns to the Baron, who changes the quest to escort duty. The party needs to guard a wagon returning from the Silver Mine north of town; once the silver arrives in Murkfield, silver weapons can be used against the werewolves.

On their way to the mine, the party is ambushed by goblins. Ostensibly the reason for the PC's to escort the silver wagon is to protect the wagon from these same goblins, but we've allowed the goblins to attack now for two reasons. One is to demonstrate the dangers that the silver wagon may face. The other is to liven things up, and present a combat obstacle that the players can win without silver or magic weapons. It should be a short skirmish, and the goblins retreat once a few are defeated.

After this, the party should rest at the Crossroads Inn. Here they encounter Miri, the Abbot's daughter. She fears for Jon's life, and implies that her father is responsible for the terror at the logging camp. She warns the party that another attack will occur at the next full moon, which will likely occur before they return. The party should realize the best they can do is to continue and return with the silver. If they do not realize this, Miri will insist.

We may decide later that more goblins attack the party as they exit the mine. In fact there may be many additional, optional encounters which we can add to the diagram or make note of. But for now we will stick to the encounters that are most essential to the story.


DIAGRAM version 2

On their return from the mine, the party acts as escort guard to the silver wagon. The merchant-miner in charge of the wagon is named Maxwell, and he owns a silver hammer, as well as a few silver weapons which he allows the PCs to borrow for the trip, if they need them. Although we had not introduced Maxwell in the Synopsis, it is at this time we discover the need for his part in the adventure, so we should make a note and add him to our synopsis.

When the party reaches the crossroads inn, there is a full moon, and Miri involuntarily becomes a werewolf while they are sleeping. She bursts into their room, attacking wildly. Since the party owns some silver (and possibly magic) weapons, and Miri is outnumbered, they should survive that battle. The story now has the possibility of going in two directions, depending on whether (and how) Miri survives (as denoted by the blue diamond in the diagram). If she survives because she somehow manages to kill the PCs, the story ends. We do not show this on the diagram, since it is not something that is likely. However, it should always be kept in mind that the worst can happen. If Miri survives because the party uses subdual damage to knock her out, then they probably deserve some extra experience points.

If Miri survives, she will inform the party that she knows how to cure the Abbot and end the werewolf raids. If Miri does not survive, the party will merely continue on and will eventually have to defeat the Abbot.

So far we have followed our Synopsis fairly closely, but now we realize there are some other scenes that need to be added to take the PCs from the fight with Miri to the conclusion of our story. If she survives, how do they find a cure? If she dies, how is the Abbot found out as the villain in all this? As you can see, making a critical path diagram can help us spot the missing pieces we may have missed when we started our synopsis.


DIAGRAM version 3

It is often just as logical to create the critical path flow from the end of the story and work backwards. This can help to bridge the gaps that sometimes emerge in the middle of the story we are creating.

So if we know the story can end with the Abbot being cured, how can the party accomplish this? According to the Monster Manual, lycanthropes can be cured by a Remove Curse spell. Since this adventure is for PCs up to level three, then we know there will be no one in the party who are able to cast this spell. But it can be cast from a magic scroll written by an ancient cleric, which Miri knows about. All the party needs to do is have a cleric with a Wisdom of 13 or more to cast the spell. Even if there is not one in the party, they can get help from one of the clerics in Murkfield who is still loyal to the Baron (which means another NPC may join the story). The cleric & scroll requirement is shown in our diagram as a yellow box.

The possibility of Miri's tragic death should lead to the Abbot's defeat, if the party wins the conflict (shown in our diagram as another blue diamond). Here we connect the party's losing the battle with the less satisfying ending in which they become werewolves after being bitten by the Abbot, and thus come under his control. Before the showdown with the Abbot, the party must encounter him and prove that he is a werewolf.


DIAGRAM version 4

Now that we have a better handle on how the ending events in our module may come about, we can connect the dangling events we left earlier in our story, and reconnect some events to allow for a more logical flow of scenes.

If Miri has informed the party of the cure, she gives the party the quest to find the Scroll of Remove Curse. This scroll might be recovered by the PCs from a crypt beneath the church of Beolyn in Murkfield, having been buried along with the remains of the scroll's author. This side adventure location could also be taken advantage of as a pointless tomb raid by ignorant PCs, who stumble upon the scroll by sheer luck. But if they are clever, they may discover that the scroll could help them against the Abbot.

When the party returns to Baron Melchior with the silver, they are invited to stay at the Baron's keep for the night, and attend a banquet the next day. The silver is delivered to the weapon smiths and the Barons' remaining knights have their swords coated in silver. PCs may request the silver treatment, but since this is a quick patch job and not the creation of fine silver weaponry, they may find that the silver wears off sometime immediately following the end of this module.

While our diagram merely shows "Audience with Baron Melchior, Quest: Fight Velyn" as a critical scene, the following "Encounter: Abbot Velyn" could occur at the same time, depending on you and your players style of play. If our players enjoy combat and don't have the patience for tracking down the evidence to prove that the Abbot is a lycanthrope AND that he is the mastermind of the werewolf attacks, it might be a good idea to just have the Abbot burst into the banquet and give spill the beans. He could give a short speech about "purifying the world" and suddenly change to a werewolf and attack, just as his werewolf accomplices transform from among the guests.

If our players enjoy hunting for clues and solving a puzzle, we could use the time before the banquet scene and let them find the evidence by talking to guests and sharing the clues (which we must remember to write down beforehand). If they are successful, they could inform the Baron and confront Abbot Velyn in the church, before he makes his assault at the banquet.


DIAGRAM version 5

The next step in this diagram is not shown. This is the step where we go back and refine each scene, adding necessary associated scenes, as well as optional "flavor" scenes not critical to the module's story. So far our critical path diagram is enough for a very basic module. But there are many details not yet addressed, and some scenes that we could add to give the story more depth. For example, though not essential, it is a good idea to introduce the Abbot early in the module, perhaps posing as an NPC added merely for flavor. He is an important leader in the town, so he should at least be seen. A more intricate module might also introduce Miri briefly at the logging camp. She might be the only survivor of the first werewolf attack - and a source of speculation as to why she was at the camp. We know it's because she's rebelling against her father, and because she loves Jon. For some players, these details won't matter; to others it will. Make sure you know your players! Don't add scenes they won't enjoy playing, or details they won't pick up on. If you're creating a module for players you don't know, or for public consumption, then it's a matter of style.

Keep in mind to add alternate paths that highlight the different classes' abilities. For example, the night before the banquet would be a perfect time for a rogue to sneak into the church and find a document that incriminates the Abbot. If there is a barbarian in the party, his experience might warn him that the ambush by the goblins was going to occur, giving the party time to prepare. Perhaps the Scroll can be more easily reached by a wizard's magic or a monk's wisdom. For more inspiration and great ideas for your module's critical path, see: "Neverwinter Nights adventure creation and the Critical Path" by Abbot Fenthick Moss.

Diagramming Suggestions

If you have never created a flowchart diagram before, there are several methods you can use. As you know, I used Flash to create the diagram we used for our module above. Some paint programs are also useful, depending on your familiarity with their operation. Of course, pencil and paper is the easiest, but sometimes frustrating if your connecting lines begin to go all over the page. Diagramming software is especially helpful, since you can move your blocks of text around on the page. On the internet you can go to a good search engine and use the terms "diagram" or "flowchart" and "software" to find some good programs to help out, and most of them allow you to try before you buy.

While there are conventions for the shapes (such as using a diamond for conditionals), using those standards isn't really as important as getting your ideas into the diagram. You will find it very helpful to do so, which ever method you choose. You could even try using index cards to re-arrange as you plot out the next epic story for your module!

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