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Tabletop Takeaways: The Plot Thickens

Xin-Shalast from

The party emerges from an underground excursion as they traverse through the ancient city of Xin-Shalast. This is the first time that they’re really in the city proper; up to this point they have only explored the ruins on the outskirts of the city.

Now, at this point of the adventure, the party has an incredibly powerful artifact known as the Revelation Quill. Essentially, it allows them to consult the Great Peacock Spirit and ask ten questions once per week. These can be worded in whatever way they wish, but the divine entity (read: ME) answers the questions with simple one-word responses. Think of it sort of like stepping into the watery shoes of a Magic 8-Ball.

As powerful as this item is, the party has only taken advantage of its power one other time since acquiring it. It actually gave them some really good insight into the Runeforge, which is a massive dungeon-crawl experience with too many secrets and lore to truly ever understand its inner workings.

Since they’re now at the doorstep of Karzoug’s abode, this is the perfect time to get some much-needed divine intel. They prepare their questions and start firing away.

One of the beauties of the Revelation Quill is that it functions similarly to Contact Other Plane in the sense that the answers aren’t always going to be accurate. Sometimes the extra-planar lines get crossed and the party is left to interpret the pieces on their own.

But this usage couldn’t have come at a better time. The city of Xin-Shalast is gigantic, and without someone on the inside, gathering information on their enemy is much like finding a Thassilonian needle in a haystack. And their results from the questioning are quite favorable.

The party learns a lot of information, including direction towards the massive amphitheater in front of them. In order to weather the dangers of the mountain, they need to acquire a few more Sihedron artifacts, and the Quill informs them that this amphitheater might have exactly what they’re looking for.

The adventure continues!

The Takeaway

As a GM running a published adventure, it can be frustrating when the players stall out and can’t arrange the narrative pieces in the appropriate way to continue the adventure. If the adventure is written well, this really shouldn’t happen, but even sandbox-style adventures can leave players paralyzed with choice.

This wasn’t a situation where the players didn’t know how to continue, but they simply were presented with nearly-infinite options. They can ascend the mountain and attempt to survive the magical field, which is where they have to go eventually, or they can stay at their current elevation to see what other artifacts and information might aid them in their quest. Obviously, they want to do the latter, but this is a completely new area. Where do they even begin?

My point is that, especially with published adventures, players are never going to uncover every single secret written between the pages. Sometimes spells like Contact Other Plane or items like the Revelation Quill can uncover the things that they’d never learn. And somebody took the time to write all that cool stuff into the adventure, so you want those juicy bits of lore to make it to the table!

The classic trope for information-dispersal is the journal, right? The players fight a boss and find a letter, diary, etc that details all of their major plans and fills in the holes in the exposition. Honestly, that tends to overstay its welcome when it’s the sole way to get some of that information out in the open. As a GM, we want those details to come out organically as a part of the story, not tacked on at the end like a credit card ‘convenience fee.’

Unfortunately, its not always in the cards. So, when I knew that the party was FINALLY going to use the Revelation Quill again, I was thrilled! Granted the amount of information they get depends on the quality of the questions they ask, but something is better than nothing.

Normally with Contact Other Plane the answers require a secret dice roll to determine what kind of response the party gets – a truth, a lie, or something in between. As much as I enjoy rolling dice, I just really want the party to get some good information. Plus, this is a powerful artifact that can’t be used 24/7, so they deserve some good responses from it.

Add in the fact that the item description doesn’t really indicate what the percentages for the answer should be (truth or lie), so I gave myself the freedom to use my personal judgment on the wording of the answers. Is that rules-as-written? Not really. But by getting ‘good’ answers, the party is more apt to use similar items and spells in the future. Which allows me to get some of the backstory information out more easily without relying on a convenient journal.

You might say that this method is no better than finding a stack of personal letters to detail the missing threads of the story, and you’re right. It’s practically the same thing, just disguised as something else. The main difference, however, is that the agency is in the hands of the players to craft questions that help them fill in the gaps instead of me serving them the information on a silver platter.

Promote the things that increase the fun and enjoyment at the table. I used to be more withholding about some story information, and intentionally more vague. The more I GM though, the more I want players to have those ‘Aha!’ moments that keep them coming back for more.

Thanks for joining me at the table for Tabletop Takeaways! You can always read more campaign journal entries at Origami Goblin, or check out all of the other great GM tips on Nerds on Earth!

Here are all of the installments I’ve written thus far:

  1. Shadow of a Doubt – How to deal with rules mistakes
  2. On the Fly – How to stall and improve your improv
  3. Take the Shot – How to reconcile with tough GM choices
  4. Points of Interest – How to make overland travel interesting
  5. Ruling from the Throne – How to make rules interpretations
  6. Be a Thief – How to steal your players’ ideas