Thursday, April 12, 2012

Laying the Foundation for a Tower

[Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8]

When I was taking suggestions for the column that would eventually become Sunday Spotlight, my blogging compadre Alex suggested a weekly behind-the-scenes look at crafting adventures for Dungeons & Dragons. Up until recently, I haven't had much new material to discuss--my D&D heyday was back in college, and the regular sessions and one-shot campaigns I'd been playing since then got more and more infrequent over the last year or two. Well, after mulling over the options and putting myself in the right mindset, I have successfully launched a new D&D campaign setting, with a trio of college friends as the guinea pigs for the first adventure.

There's two major parts to this story: This first part covers the thoughtful planning and preparation of the adventure. The second part covers the total deconstruction of my planning and preparation at the hands of three adventurers who killed my shopkeeper, literally redrew my dungeon map, and harbored an irrepressible fascination with some random mutant slug monster. The full story is really too long to tell in just two parts, however, so I'll split this all up into an indeterminate number of smaller parts for easier digestion.

The decision to create a brand-new campaign world for this quest was the right one, I think. The setting I used in college holds many fond memories for me, but its continuity is complicated (and undocumented) enough in a few places that I'd eventually run into some issues reconciling what already exists with where I want to go from here. The setting I'd been using post-college quickly began to show signs that it had been too hastily constructed to achieve the lofty aspirations I had for it--I'd hoped for each adventure to play a major role in establishing the history of the world, but I was so focused on how things would come together in the long term that I lost sight of what the heroes would need to face in the short term, and how even the little details would play such an important role in the world's history. I've learned lessons from my successes and shortcomings with both campaign settings, and when I finally sat down to write the quest the day before we were to play it, I knew exactly how I wanted to structure it.

The very first campaign I ever played in had the adventurers exploring an old "abandoned" castle at one point. There were, of course, monsters and traps and an evil wizard to fight, but it was a completely self-contained portion of the adventure that didn't have us mucking about in town or exploring Generic RPG Cave #8472. I liked that. I wanted to emulate that. Town adventures can be fun, but it can be incredibly easy for the players to get sidetracked with colorful townsfolk who are entertaining but in no way useful toward stopping the cabal of dissident shamans in the woods where 90% of the adventure is supposed to take place. Roleplaying staples such as caves, forests, and the basic monsters that inhabit them can absolutely be a hoot, but you can really only get away with that sort of thing once, with a group of first-timers. Only one of my players was effectively a neophyte; the other two had played in a number of my campaigns previously, and were quite familiar with the "kobolds jump out of the bushes" routine.

In my head, there were vast snowfields and a huge city and a number of other notable features on the part of the world map where the heroes would find themselves. On paper, there was merely a tower. Two levels below ground, three stories above, and enough space for a dramatic showdown on top of the tower. Looking out the window, the heroes would see only a frozen expanse, but there would be enough clues inside the tower to hint at what lay beyond.

My new rule of world design: Always plan for more than the players will see. Even if you yourself don't know exactly what's out there, offer glimpses of future plotlines and yet-to-be-revealed secrets. Nothing has to be concrete until it's immediately relevant to the players, as long as you're willing to improvise or deflect if something becomes relevant sooner than expected.

The basement of the tower was the easiest part of the quest to write. And by "write," I mostly mean "draw." Though there was once a time when I hammered out several pages of florid descriptions and contingency plans for when the adventurers did one thing or another, nowadays I tend to simply draw maps, scribble notes in the margins, and rely on my imagination and improvisational skills to convey the rest.

I knew I wanted a jail. The original premise of the quest was going to be a straightforward jailbreak involving the heroes fighting their way out of this tower, with a confrontation with their wizard captor at the end, but there were some lingering questions with that scenario: Why were they captured? How were they captured? What purpose does this tower serve when there aren't heroes in need of an adventure? What kind of self-respecting jail would possibly allow this trio of no-name Level 1 characters to escape from it? One of my favorite supplemental rulebooks, Dungeonscape, prompts the DM to ask and answer such questions in order to craft a dungeon that works as a functional location in the campaign world, and not just as a series of challenges slapped together because the DM felt like it.

Eh, I could figure out the details later. Right now the most important part was to start drawing. I grabbed a mug from the kitchen cupboard and used it to trace several circles across a regular piece of paper, and began filling them in one at a time with each level of the tower.

As I said, I knew I wanted a jail. I sketched out a row of simple holding cells and a hallway wide enough for an ogre or something to comfortably patrol, and then drew in two key racks--one right in front of the cells, and the other at the end of the hallway. I put numbers in circles next to them on the map to correspond to numbers in a separate document that I never ended up writing, which would have given a short blurb about what each numbered thing was. If I have a little extra time, I do try to get at least a few things written out in longhand, you see.

I'd decided the quest would open with each of the characters in a different jail cell, and that they'd have all of their equipment from the get-go. That opened up another question of why they'd be in jail fully armed, but I was starting to formulate that part of it. The obvious key rack in front of the cells was close enough that anyone toting around a 10-foot pole in their pants would be able to snag the dangling key with the proper Dexterity check. This would be funny, because the key would be enchanted to explode in the lock. I'm sure there's a lesson about careful adventuring in there somewhere, but really, I just wanted the key to blow up. The real key would be on the other rack, also reachable by a Mage Hand spell or other clever solution. Failing all else, there would be a cat. Meow, Handle Animal, go kitty get key. That sort of thing.

Once out of the--oh, wait a second. I'm getting ahead of myself. There'd also be a sea slug. Specifically, a seryulin (page 148 of the Monster Manual III for those of you at home), which is a sea cucumber of doom used by a particular water-dwelling monster race as war mounts that are alarmingly fast on land. I thought one would make a fun addition to the jail.

Now, the seryulin was mostly added as a gag, the random sea monster randomly in jail alongside the adventurers. However, I've played too much Space Quest, and fully intended for the heroes to get eaten/trampled/dissolved by the beastie should they be stupid enough to open the cell of this unidentified and slimy CR 7 monster simply because they had the key.

That's another thing worth noting: I am unusual. I mean, cruel and unusual. The challenge ratings of the monsters and traps I had in store were fit for a higher-level party, or at least a party of more than just three Level 1 characters. To balance this out, every potentially life-threatening situation would have at least one alternate solution that would lessen the chances of bodily harm and permanent dismemberment. A clever party might be able to avoid direct combat and do-or-die skill checks by paying attention to their surroundings and using the objects they find to their advantage.

The first real test of the collective cleverness and general disposition of the heroes would take place in the storage room just outside the jail. Amidst crates and barrels filled with who-knows-what would be a scavenging trio of rats.

Big, fluffy, bouncing rats.

That sneer when approached.

Pretty sure I didn't consult Dungeonscape on this one.

[To be continued in Part 2.]

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