Wednesday, May 12, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool - Part 6: Road of Trials

The Road of Trials is when the strange new world that exists beyond the Threshold really comes alive for the adventurer. Enemies and obstacles are encountered and the hero must make use of the training, advice and talismans provided by the Supernatural Helper(s).  This is also the stage in which hero begins to see the results of the transformation that began in the Belly of the Whale.

It is important to point out that the trials on the road tend to come in sets of three. There is a significance to the number three that is easy to overlook, by both the hero actively faced with the challenges and by us in our roles as spectators.  The number three represents completeness:
  • The simplest meaningful geometric shape requires three lines
  • Three dimensions are required to form a solid shape; 2 being the symbol of the flat square vs 3 as the symbol of the cube (x2 vs. x3)
  • There are three great divisions to a temporal existence - past, present, and future
  • Thought, word, and deed, complete the sum of human capability
  • God is defined as having three attributes: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (all-present), omnipotence (all-powerful)
  • The Godhead - also known as the Trinity - is formed of three entities: The Father (God), The Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit
  • Three persons, in grammar, express and include all the relationships of mankind
Many other examples can be found here.

Campbell writes: "Having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage. The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed – again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land."

Examples of the Road of Trials

It can be difficult to identify precisely when the Road of Trials begins and ends in a journey.  Indeed, the entire adventure can often be seen as a continuous series of trials that overlaps and bleeds into the other stages of the journey.  For these examples, we shall focus on those instances where a trial or obstacles occurs in a set of three; Fairy Tales and fables are particularly rich in this regard.

During the course of his adventure to destroy the One Ring, Frodo was constantly in danger, but found himself very nearly killed on three occasions: After being stabbed by the Witch-king of Angmar at Weathertop, getting skewered by the cave troll in Balin's Tomb (Moria), and being stung by the vile Shelob in the pass of Cirith Ungol.  Each time, he was saved by the works and gifts of those around him: Aragon's medicinal knowledge and Elrond's magic; Bilbo's Mithril shirt; Sting (another gift from Bilbo) and the Light of Earendil, both which were wielded by Sam.

In the original telling of Jack and the Beanstalk (not to be confused with Jack the Giant Killer), the protagonist climbs the beanstalk three times, eludes capture with help from the giant's wife and comes away first with a bag of gold, then with a hen that laid golden eggs, and finally with a magical harp - killing the giant owner of the house during his final visit to keep the source of his new-found wealth a secret. Jack's distinction as the 'hero' of the tale was questionable at best, and the tale was retold by Bejamin Tabart in 1807 with a moralistic bent by turning the giant into a thief and murder, thus justifying his slaying.

Red Riding Hood notices three features about her grandmother (eyes, ears, teeth) that are not quite right.

The evil dwarf Rumpelstiltskin gives the queen three days to discover his name, lest he steal away her first born.

In Monty Python's classic skewering of the Arthurian legend, the king and his knights must answer three questions to cross a bridge.

During his time fasting in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted three times by Satan.

The Road of Trials as a DM Tool

In the context of gaming, especially video gaming, the vast majority of an adventure will be spent on the Road of Trials.  The obstacles encountered along the road, usually in the form of battles and/or puzzles, are often the only time the player is actually given full control of his character and made responsible for overcoming them.  In video games the other stages of the journey, which are more concerned with character development - such as The Call or the Belly of the Whale - are often glossed over in the form of cut-scenes or annoying run-on dialog that drive impatient players to continually mash a button until they can get back to the excitement of battles and party/inventory management.

But what does the Road of Trials look like for a traditional pen-and-paper RPG player?  At it's worst, it is merely a grind - a series of combat and skill encounters whose sole purpose is to gain XP and has little, if anything, to do with story. The canny DM will, however, use every encounter as an opportunity for a PC to discover something about themselves.  Perhaps that discovery is simply a new power or ability - or perhaps a new way to use an existing power/ability.

Terrain and dialog can and should be implemented to drive players towards a new level of understanding and competence and drive the story forward.  Even a seemingly random encounter might have some small clue embedded in it that speaks to one player - or perhaps even the party as a whole. Examples might include a bookshelf that gets knocked over, conveniently scattering some important maps or manuscripts on the floor; a foe who whispers the name of his master as he dies; an oddly colored fire that does not burn when someone is shoved into it, but freezes instead; a ghost that constantly repeats a question or phrase over and over as it harasses the PC's - or perhaps only a particular member of the party.

In a larger sense, each of the trial-encounters along the Road could represent a different aspect of the party's journey.  For example, battling a group of undead clad in the livery of a PC's homeland might represent a break from a past life that was going nowhere. The following encounter might involve a rival group of adventurers, vying for the same prize/glory as the PC's as a reflection of themselves.  Finally, this particular road concludes with a battle against a meglomaniacal demi-god - a former adventurer who gained great power and lost his mind - as a warning of things to come should the PC's fail to stay grounded and humble.

Pondering the Road of Trials
  • Can a groups' Road of Trials ever be as engaging and meaningful as that of an individual? Why or why not?
  • Do you think a PC/group can experience more than one Road of Trials at a time? Consider the pros and cons.
  • Does the Road of Trials gain or lose effectiveness if the number of encounters deviates from three? Why or why not?
  • Consider this statement: Any encounter that does not advance the story in some way is a waste of time.  Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • Consider this statement: Combat, while exciting, is generally not meaningful; Vice versa for skill challenges. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • How does your stance on the previous two statements affect how you build an encounter or set of encounters?
Earlier Entries in This Series

Stage I: Departure
Part 1: The Call
Part 2: Refusing the Call
Part 3: Supernatural Aid
Part 4: Crossing the Threshold
Part 5: Belly of the Whale

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