Friday 6 January 2012

S is for Sandbox Part IV: A Sample Minor Adventure Site (1)

I hope everyone had good holidays!

Picking up from the last “S is for Sandbox” column, we are looking at the creation of a sample minor adventure site.  As previously discussed, setting up such a site has several goals, including both speedy play (the average minor site should be explorable in a session or so), reusability, and usefulness in pointing toward other adventuring sites.

I did some initial brainstorming on Christmas Eve, and decided that the site would be the ruin of a temple, mostly lost to time, beneath which remain a smallish dungeon area.  In order to meet my goals, I considered the following:

(1)   The temple was once that of a good deity, but the high priestess turned to evil.  She is still imprisoned in the dungeon as a powerful undead spirit.  This spirit can communicate with the living through her preserved skull, and her knowledge of the area is extensive (if out of date).  Part of her reasons for communicating with the living is to trick them into freeing her, which requires three objects.  She knows where they were kept in her lifetime, but one of these objects has been moved beyond the initial starting area in the intervening years.

The purpose of this character is threefold:  First, she supplies a link to three other sites in the starting area, encouraging characters to seek out three specific treasures for her own fell purposes.  Second, she supplies a reason (information) for returning to the ruined temple.  By occasionally restocking the area with new inhabitants, both malevolent and benign, I can make additional use of my original design work.  (You may recall the importance of this goal – every hour of prep should result in a minimum of two hours of play!)  Finally, she supplies a potential Epic Endgame (or Midgame) if released.

(2)  A major treasure will be hidden in the temple dungeon, in an area unknown to the high priestess.  This area will be hard to discover without additional information, and a map in another adventure site will indicate where to look.  This gives the players another motive to return here if they have already “cleared” the site, and will give the players a motive to come here if they have not already been here, thus potentially bringing the skull into play.

(3)  The upper ruin is inhabited by a hermit who has dealings with the inhabitants of two other adventure sites…let’s say, a group of goblins inhabiting a nearby cave system, and a group of pirates in a major adventuring site consisting of a fort, the dungeons beneath, and a series of sea caves.  The hermit helps both groups fence stolen loot, and members of either group may be present at any given time.  Obviously, for the most fun, both of these groups dislike each other.

The hermit needs a contact in the closest thieves’ guild, and can certainly help PCs deal with their own stolen goods, if he believes them trustworthy.  If not, he can pass information about the PCs on to the pirates and the goblins.  Likewise, if the PCs take on either the goblins or (especially) the pirates, clues/documentation may lead them to the hermit.  (Goblins do not keep good records, but they may treat the hermit as a religious figure, and wear the same holy symbol, for example.)

It should also be noteworthy that the hermit may have a fair amount of treasure available to him at various times.  Whenever either the goblins or the pirates are particularly active, the hermit will have booty to fence.  PCs looting the hermit at this time will acquire this booty – stolen goods that may serve to connect them with either group if sold/displayed indiscriminately! 

The hermit has no interest in exploring the dungeon area, and calls himself the “caretaker” of the ruin.  He will ask for donations for its upkeep (although there is no sign of actual upkeep), and may be able to give the PCs some support in terms of minor healing, simple food, rough accommodations, etc., after any foray.  Of course, he has better food and accommodations for himself, but he is loathe to let anyone learn of them.


From the above outline, born of simple brainstorming over the holidays, a clear idea of what is needed to make the site useful is clear:

(1)  Maps of the upper ruins, the dungeon area, and the surrounding terrain.  The upper ruin must include an area for rough accommodations, a semi-hidden better area for the hermit, and a place for stolen goods to be hidden.  The dungeon area must include a space for the skull, and a place for the hidden treasure.

(2)  Statistics for the hermit, the skull, goblin visitors, and pirate visitors.  The fence probably sends a cart to the hermit to pick up goods, and so there should be statistics for these folk as well.  I can get away without statistics for the undead high priestess immediately, but I need to know roughly what she knows about the area, what the three items are she needs to be released, and where she believes them to be.

(3)  Potential hoards for treasures ready for fencing, both from goblins and pirates.  The hermit’s personal hoard of luxury goods, and his hidden cache of better food.

(4)  A signalling system whereby the hermit can let the fence know to send the cart.  This signal system might eventually be penetrated by the PCs, allowing them (potentially) to uncover the fence, recover stolen goods, etc.  It is therefore sensible that the signal is only sent after “guests” (including adventurers, goblins, and pirates) have gone away.

(5)  Odds of pirates, goblins, cart, and maybe other adventurers or travellers being present at any given time.  Who those other travellers will be.  Possibly a very simple random encounter chart for the dungeon area.

Once these basic needs have been dealt with, I can key the actual maps.  Preferably, each adventuring site in the starting area is outlined in this fashion, the basics are done for each site, and then actual keying begins for each site.  What this ensures is that, if the Game Master is forced to “wing it”, it is at least possible to do so with consistency.


The format for this series of posts, detailing a minor adventure site, came about because simply presenting such a site doesn’t actually demonstrate the steps (or thinking) leading to the end result.  At first I was thinking that I could just present a finished product, but that doesn’t actually accomplish the same thing.  Nor does a “now you finish stocking it” ala B1:  In Search of Adventure.  Ideally, you want to supply not only a completed (and usable) adventure site, but also the process that went into creating it.

Note also the focus on not determining what will happen at the site, but rather with making a site rich in possible happenings.  That way, the interests of the players at the table, rather than the interests of a single designer (even if the GM) more strongly shape the course of play.

Finally, although as I admire Mr. Gygax’s hermit encounter in B2:  Keep on the Borderlands, the inspiration for the hermit here is Peter Butterworth’s excellent portrayal of the Monk (aka the Meddling Monk) in the Doctor Who story, The Time Meddler.  The Monk later appeared in The Daleks’ Masterplan, but only a portion of the footage of that story still survives.  In TTM, the Monk has stationed himself in a ruined abbey, pretending to be seeking quiet contemplation, while pursuing a very different agenda.  The Monk is also the first Time Lord seen in Doctor Who apart from the title character (and, possibly, his granddaughter, Susan).

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