Things that are,
things that were,
and some things that may never be.
We’ve been making Tinderbox releases for a while now, and we’ve never quite taken the time to explain it. What is it? Why is it? What’s up with these questions?
The short of it: Tinderbox releases start with questions that will tie the PCs to the story at hand. Using our Tinderbox Adventures for an example, you’d start the adventure by reading the short intro. Afterwards, there is a series of questions to ask the players. These questions link the characters to the story and often affect the outcome of the adventure. More importantly than that, they also get the players interested from the get go.
This is the start of our Tinderbox Adventure, Honoring the Old Ways, which can be inserted into most any ongoing game. It can be a nice diversion while traveling. It starts out simple: the PCs find a shrine that has been forgotten for a long time. That in and of itself doesn’t really grab them or spur them to action. To do that, we use the Tinderbox questions to buy investment, giving the players a reason to follow the path ahead of them.
This particular adventure centers around one of the characters. The questions give their character a sense of importance, allowing them to showcase the knowledge that they very well may have just made up. They get to decide which god the shrine is for, what they look like, and what the offering is. After fleshing all that out, they’re left with one actionable piece of info: the type of offering left at these shrines. Obviously, they’ll likely want to make an offering now.
If they leave an offering on the shrine, they notice a path they hadn’t seen before. Obviously not a coincidence, they’ll likely go down the path. The tinderbox is struck and the fire has started; you have buy-in. Once they start down that path, chances are they’re not going to turn around. They’ll want to see it through because that’s how human brains tend to work. Congratulations. You started running an adventure that the players had no reason to care about and gave them a big one. You have investment.
Making It Personal
The Tinderbox questions make the situation personal. It basically takes the route of least resistance. When trying to figure out what ties a character to an adventure, why not just ask the player? Make them do the work. While not for every player, many will jump at the chance to take on this “pseudo DM” roll. Characters love backstory and you just gave them a reason to flesh out more of it on the spot. Not only that, whatever backstory they make is instantly important to the game. It’s almost like it’s an adventure crafted around their character and, in a sense, it is.
Let’s consider the Tinderbox NPC, Bajorn Stonewarden
These questions do something else, however. It’s something hidden just below the surface. The questions are leading, and by answering them, they assign certain experiences to the character. For instance, by answering the above questions, it tells us that the character in question knows about the gods and knows what to leave for them. Since they know what the common offering is, that means they’ll likely want to leave it. Sure, the player just told the DM something about the adventure, but the adventure also just told the player something about their character. Since the player got to make some decisions about it, it doesn’t feel intrusive or like it takes power away from the player. Instead, it gives their creativity tools to use.
Take a moment to read his intro speech and the questions. There is a lot going on here. The first obvious question is, “what if this doesn’t work with a PCs backstory?”
Well, that’s possible. The very first thing you do, however, is ask which player he is talking to. This gives them a chance to opt in because they think this is exciting. Chances are, someone is going to take that bait to become the center of attention. If not, that is unfortunate, but don’t force it. Bajorn may just have a case of mistaken identity. This is the threat with prepping anything as a DM: if there is no buy in, you might just have to scrap it.
If one of the players does bite, the next three questions both tie them to Bajorn and write a major piece of the backstory, almost without them noticing it. Sure, they get to fill in the blanks, but now the DM knows the player is being pursued because someone feels slighted by them. Bajorn is just a symptom of that overall disease. He’s a cool vehicle to deliver a potential plotline that could be ongoing through the entire campaign.
Making your own.
If you’re feeling frisky, there is nothing stopping you from making your own Tinderbox supplement. Start with a short opening description. This doesn’t necessarily have to be read to the PCs, but it does give you a sense of where this adventure is starting. After that, think about what your questions could be. This is the trickiest part. If you’re doing it well, the questions aren’t questions for their own sake. They should fulfill some sort of role in the story. Ask yourself the following questions about your… questions.
Does the answer affect the adventure?
If you’re asking the player who the big bad is, then it’s affecting the adventure. If it’s a question that’s made to influence the scenario in this way, you should have an idea where it concretely affects it. To take the earlier example of the big bad, that one is easy. The answer to that question decides the ultimate adversary. The question shouldn’t be so large that it can completely derail the adventure you’re working on. Try answering it yourself in a few different ways and see if you can break it. Don’t hesitate to add qualifiers and limitations to the question.
Does the question tie the character to the story?
If so, how? Are you asking them who they know that was kidnapped? What item was stolen from them by the villain? What member of their family was the victim of an unsolved murder as they themselves encounter someone recently dead without any suspects?
Does the question open up a storyline for the character?
This is a big one. If it does, are you ready to follow that storyline through the course of the campaign? Will it detract from the current focus of your campaign in ways that are acceptable? You have to be ready to eat the can of worms if you open it. That’s a saying, right?
Does it do none of these things?
Well, what’s it for then? It’s possible you’ve discovered a use for them that I haven’t, and that’s rad. On the other hand, if the question isn’t getting buy-in from the player or creating a new storyline, maybe you need a different question. Make sure the point of the question isn’t just to stroke your ego. At their heart, a tinderbox question is about the PCs. Rethink what you wrote and decide if it’s necessary and helpful.
After you have the questions written, you can proceed with the rest of the adventure. This can be a collection of notes about different people and locations or something as streamlined as a dungeon crawl. Make notes about times and places where the tinderbox questions could influence the adventure. Make sure your end payoff is inline with the questions and what came before. Think of any loose ends that might extend past the end of this scenario and whether that’s a good thing or bad thing.
Congrats. You have a Tinderbox adventure.
For the Gm, Tinderbox Adventures are a way to make you think on your feet. You can never script enough information before running a game to account for all possibilities and Tinderbox doesn’t even try. Don’t worry about it, you got this. Trust in your ability to improvise. If you don’t feel like you’re good at it, that’s all the more reason to practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get; I promise.
If you want to look at Tinderbox releases to inspire you or give you some practice running one, check them out here. Our Patreon members get access to all of them, plus a whole heap of other content. Try it out, and make your players do some of the work. You can’t do it all, right? Oh, and if you post your Tinderbox content somewhere, do us a favor and throw up a link to CrumblingKeep.com, huh? It’d also be cool if you wanted to drop us a line so we could check it out. We look forward to seeing what you create!