Saturday, April 2, 2011

B is for Burnt Offering

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

B is for Burnt Offering. By which I mean sacrifice...and voluntary sacrifice at that.

Sacrifice, or rather the need for sacrifice, is a common occurrence in old school adventures. Not just the expenditure of consumable resources (spells, hit points, arrows, torches) but the REAL AND PERMANENT sacrifice of those things that are “harder to come by.” Treasure. Magic items. High ability scores. Trusted retainers.

The idea behind a burnt offering is a little quid pro quo…the person making the sacrifice gets something out of the deal. No lightning bolts cast by a vengeful God. Wind to fill the sails in exchange for the blood of Iphigenia. That kind of thing.

Many of the old TSR adventure modules required a sacrifice or two. Crush a magic ring to open a secret door. Sling your expensive gemstones at the demilich’s skull. Stick your hand in the statue’s mouth (images of the Fenris Wolf) to pull the lever in the things throat, knowing its beak would probably snap on your hand. Give up a couple points of Charisma in exchange for some benny or other.

Or spend a ton of gold to have the local temple cure energy drain or resurrect a boon companion.

Adventures should require characters to make tough choices, and NOT just those of the “should we take the left hand path or the right hand path” kind. I mean tough choices of “what are you willing to give up.” Few parties would give a rip about sacrificing the odd meat shield or two…but what about sacrificing a trusted retainer that’s leveled up several times over the course of many adventures? Would you ask him to jump into the pit first?

Of course, giving up a piece of valuable treasure or magic item often has a compensatory reward…that’s part of the quid pro quo of the “burnt offering.” But often, characters will not know just what that compensatory reward is. There should always be the hint of doubt, to make the sacrifice a real leap of faith…to have it instill some feeling. To make it matter.

And, you know what? The reward MIGHT NOT be worth the sacrifice. If you give up a precious item in exchange for a clue that leads to a new item not worth as much (or not worth as much to YOU), then it feels like you got gypped by the whole affair. Similarly if your sacrificial reward is a clue that your character is unable to utilize because he gets killed in the following encounter (perhaps dying because she sacrificed a valuable retainer or bit of equipment) a player may be feeling, “hey, I was robbed!”

But you know what? STUFF in Dungeons & Dragons is “easy come, easy go.” You lost a +5 Holy Avenger sword? Who says you won’t find one in the next adventure (or a map to one anyway)…or a +6 Holy Avenger of Vorpal Mayhem? Heck, lost ability scores are easily replaced by wishes...or “divine intervention”...or "weird magic." It IS D&D after all!

However, the SACRIFICE itself is the important part; even though all this “stuff” PCs acquire is imaginary (and just as easily found the next game session as it was previously), one never knows FOR SURE that it will ever be replaced. Maybe the DM will become "all stingy” on the players…even a DM that’s played “Monty Haul” in the past can shut off the flow of goodies should the whim take him (or her). The ACT of “burning the offering” thus carries a stronger emotional attachment (at least for players who give even the smallest shit for the character they’re playing)…and opportunities that bring up emotional attachment ENGAGE us at a deeper level…making the role-playing experience that much richer.

Don’t believe me? Try it. Throw an obstacle at the PCs that requires a sacrifice of some sort: say a door with a sword-shaped hole in it that will only fit the fighter’s magic weapon. Or even better: a fist-sized hole with accompanying pictogram indicating the PCs have to stick their hand in the hole. Watch the players hem and haw and debate over making such a sacrifice. Watch them fight each other and/or draw straws over the matter. There’s a great encounter like this in Raggi’s Death Frost Doom that I’d love to play with certain players of mine, as I know they will end up knocking each other’s teeth out to get through it.

Burnt offerings. As with abominations, I heartily recommend them in your campaign.
: )


  1. Love this post. And I have had adventures stall for an hour because of someone having top put their hand into a cubbyhole to press a switch.

  2. Spot fucking on! In some ways, the whole game could be described as: "What are you willing to risk for adventure/reward?" The only other thing that enagges players on this level is crippling injury that doesn't kill them.

  3. @ Dan: You and me both: sometimes you need to put the carrot more "in their face" to facilitate the decision making process.

    @ Matthew: Oh, we're getting to that other thing...don'tcha' worry!
    ; )