Turn left at the fragile gibbon

“I doodled this,” they said, casually.

I’ve never been in an adventure with a maze. A dungeon crawl, where the plays have dozens of rooms to clear without a map, are sort of like mazes. Those are rarely designed to get the players lost, or feel trapped, though. It could be because, like Dyson says, that sense of confusion does manifest, but not in a fun way. You’re more like to have your players blindly stumbling from room to room, with the DM grinning with a sense of false achievement.

We could take our pointers from classic text based adventure games, or even point and click adventure games, where you’re given the list of exits from the current scene. The fog of war here is the DM saying, “you’ve not been north, so you don’t quite make out anything in the darkness.” Remembering that, “you have already been south, and you remember that that’s where the gnoll hides.”

An intelligence check might help the players understand the geography of the area, without a map. “With a 13 on your Int check, you are pretty sure that the room to the south is the one you bypassed earlier, when you were travelling past the waterfall.”

Of course, if anyone chooses to be a cartographer, give them an unlabelled version of the map or quickly sketch one out. This kind of play style should be rewarded.

Another feature from a video game that I believe is important is in these situations is travelling from nethack. If a player says “I want to go back to the room with the Naga statue”, I would not make them struggle to remember the way back. I’d definitely list off the rooms they pass through to get there (giving them the opportunity to change their mind and upping the tension), but ten minutes of “okay, I’ll go left. Oh, back then. Right?” isn’t fun.

(An adventure I reviewed a while ago used a maze-as-a-challenge, which was always visible, and the players could figure out how to manipulate it.)

Page layout and single page encounters

I want to write an interesting encounter – an antithesis of “roll on this table for a random encounter”. My problem with those kinds of encounters is that they often have very little imagination to them, and by their nature the DM can’t prep for them to add more colour. I know they gap they’re trying to fill: sometimes players dawdle and if they hang around the forest or make too much noise in a dungeon, something should turn up to teach them a lesson and get them moving.

I don’t think that problem needs to be solved by having a table to roll on which says “3 bears, 2 liches.” Why can’t there just be half a dozen generic, but well thought out, encounters at the back of the adventure?

I’ve been working on writing one of those. Laying it out on an A5 page is tricky though.

I’ve got one page of text which the DM should read at their leisure, explaining the environment. And then the cast list for the combat. The idea is that this is all they need open for the encounter, and can doodle on the page as needed.

I’ve only managed to fit 4 of the bad guys on this, so it doesn’t really scale. As I’m writing this, it occures to me that I’ll actually have two pages of A5 content I can fill for the DM to see at once.

Here’s the aims:

  • Give the bad guys descriptions. If you’re playing theatre of the mind this is super important, but hard to think up something unique on the spot. I promise your players will refer to them by their descriptions rather than “the one I just hit” or “which one is closer again?”.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: fleshless mobs. The goblin has a locket around his neck and suddenly you’ve got the players thinking of his loved ones back home.
  • Give the bad guys tactics. Read their actions from top to bottom on their turn. Do the top most possible one, skipping if it sounds boring right now. This gives them a personality which the players can come to expect during the fight.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: The bad guy has a d4 dagger and a d6 shortsword. Why would you ever chose the dagger? Many creatures in the MM have redundant weapons, leaving them as one-trick ponies.
  • Initiative has already been rolled. It was random, trust me. Just pencil in the characters around.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: Why bother rolling for this at the table? It takes ages to do this, meanwhile your players are already yelling their initiative at you.
  • Fleeing should be at the front of the DM’s mind.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: Why does ever bad guy fight to the death? How often to bar fights end up with body bags? At some point, even in a war people give up. The bad guys here must have a limit of some kind. The flee condition turns the end of the battle from a slog to a race, before they get away.
  • Loot is relevant, more interesting than just money, and already written down.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: “Can I loot the corpses?” “Uh, sure. They’re got shitty clothes and weapons that aren’t worth taking… They’ve got six gold though, I guess.”

Introducing, Hodekin

Hodekin are a kind of kobold with more feline features. They share a good many traits though; they want their own hoard and they’re quite happy to find a Big Bad to serve. (This might not actually be what they were back in the days of legendary hodekin, but in this adventure, they are.)

Here’s an adventure I’ve placed them in, where you’ll find them locked away from the world and enslaved by a young, green dragon. He’s spent years splitting them into tribes to hate each other, giving them little time to realise who the real villain is. Will your players make it their aim to just steal a little treasure, or be the liberators of the Hodekin?

There’s only a couple of intended combats in this adventure – one of them being the Big Bad. I was hoping to make more of a social challenge adventure. There’s a number of factions to unite, who have no intent of doing so. And shouldn’t even really be talking to your players.

Hit the image to get the adventure!

This is an adventure that I started writing before I’d done my literature review. So, if I were going to write it again I’d do quite a lot different.

It’s very wordy. Where I’ve offered descriptions of environments they should be short and left to the DM, but I’ve filled in quite a lot of that for them. I was reading Dragon+ magazine, and they were talking about the first adventures written by the British arm of TSR; they came with a “warning” from the publisher that the adventures are more “flowery” than you’d expect to find in American adventures. It’s good to know, at least, that I’m not bucking a trend here.

This is a play test version of the adventure because I’ve not run it myself yet. I don’t have a group I can test things on, at the moment. (To my huge heartbreak!) The layout could be standardised more, with monster boxes just being text, and only using a single column. Plus, the map giving of the water caverns is straight up a Dyson Logos map that I’ve not yet tweaked to be underwater.

The other map in the adventure is handdrawn and photographed by me – on my phone! Not even scanned. So, this is very much an early stages production.

Nevertheless, do let me know what you think.

I read some adventures and looked at what techniques they use

I’d like to write adventures. I’d quite like to write good adventures. So I decided to take a look through six low level, mostly short adventures and see what they do differently from each other. What techniques are used, and what information is expected from an adventure.

I feel like I’ve learnt a few things; that dungeon crawls are par for the course, that read aloud boxes aren’t for describing an area, and that art in the book isn’t the highest priority.

I’ll likely be following up with some blog posts adding in less dispassionate points of view on a lot of what I discovered during the review. Until then, feel free to have a read and let me know your thoughts.

The years after Phandalin

(I’m moving house right now and came across some notes for the start of an adventure. Maybe this will spark an idea or two for you.)

Your group has saved Phandalin. The mine has reopened and the town becomes prosperous again.

Though, doesn’t that mean there’s a new centre of cheap, magical items? What kinds of people would that draw to a relatively quiet part of Faerun?