Thursday 26 January 2012

Blogs I Should Follow

I just updated Blogger to include a Blog List.  Are there some other blogs I should be following?



S is for Sandbox Part IV: A Sample Minor Adventure Site (2): The Great Outdoors

Picking up from the last “S is for Sandbox” column, we are looking at the creation of a sample minor adventure site.  In this column, we are looking at the first of three maps, the outdoor map.  I drew a quick map, using a scale of 1 hex = 1 mile.

You will notice that I used hex paper with numbered hexes.  This is because I want to be able to create additional encounters by using the hex numbers, and I know that over the course of a sandbox campaign, the encounters in an area may well change.

I have located the hermitage on a rocky hill along the road leading from a large village (campaign starting area, to the north) and somewhere more coastal (to the southeast), with the thought that carts sent by the Thieves’ Guild to receive stolen goods could come along this road.  The pirates could use this road to bring treasure up from the coast, and closeness to the road would make visitors seem less suspicious.  It would also allow the players to easily locate this site.

The temple is on a bit of a hill so that the hermit can use smoke signals to alert the Guild when there are sufficient materials to warrant sending a cart.  The outbuildings are where the hermitage is located, the temple is ruined, and the goblin cave is where goblins who bring materials to fence stay.  Belmar’s Seat is the name of another rocky upcrop, named for a hero of old (and which can tie into the area history, and other adventure sites).

In addition to the noted road and trails, there will be numerous, non-permanent game trails.  In addition to the two small lakes shown on the map, there will be numerous small rills and streams which appear after a rain or seasonally.

Because the area is close to the village, I know that there are unlikely to be any truly dangerous monsters in the area, but also that I will want to include some other minor lairs.  Why?  Because it makes things interesting for the players, and rewards exploration of the area.  And I want to reward exploration, because exploration may eventually lead them to the goblin cave, wherein clues to unravel what is actually happening at the hermitage are most likely to come to light. 

(I am not in a rush for this to happen, mind you.  It will happen in its own time, or not, as game play dictates.)

I also know that the PCs are most likely to follow roads and trails, at least initially, in their exploration of any area, so I will want to set most encounters along these roadways and paths.  I therefore come up with a provisional list of hexes to flesh out:

0203:  Verminous Caverns:  This area is the least likely for the players to locate, so I am going to put something interesting, deadly, and rewarding here.  I am then going to sprinkle links to it in other areas of the sandbox (or I would be doing so if actually developing this area for play). 

This area contains a hidden cave system, more vertical than horizontal, which was once the lair of a green dragon.  Much of the dragon’s treasure is still hidden below, although moved now by flowing water from a single location to a plethora of areas throughout the caves.  In addition, the caves are now home to many giant spiders, flies, ants, and scorpions.  There is a rich haul here, for those capable of retrieving it…and sudden death for everyone else.

For fun, I’m going to say that the dragon’s bones are still in the caverns, where they may be found by adventurers.  They might be sold to a sage or collector, or they might be used for some form of magical ritual. 

Finally, within this hex, there is a 50% chance that any encounter will be with giant vermin of some sort.  Within a 1-hex radius around this hex, there is a 1 in 6 chance that any encounter will be with giant vermin.  I will have to develop a separate encounter table to determine what is encountered.

0207:  Spider!:  A giant black widow spider has stretched its web across the trail in this hex.  Some of the husks from its victims, if found, have treasure.

0211:  Foundations:  Alongside the trail here, the group may discover the foundations of a ruined farmhouse, which can help to offers some shelter from the elements.  There is nothing of value here.

0509: Belmar’s Cup:  This lake is known as Belmar’s Cup, after the folkhero-king who once ruled in this region.  It is relatively shallow and weedy, but offers some fishing.  Recently, a forester drowned in the lake, and now haunts this region each night as a ghoul.

0602:  Broken Cart:  An overturned cart with a broken wheel lies along side the roadway here, quietly going back to the earth.  If investigated during the summer months, there is a 1 in 6 chance that a snake takes advantage of the shade it offers…but the snake is non-venomous, and quickly slithers away.

0607: Lake Lugres:  This lake is extremely deep, being formed in a narrow fissure not unlike those in Hex 0203.  It is fed by rainwater, snow melt, and an underground spring.  There is good fishing here the year round, although would-be fishermen must cut a hole in the ice during the winter.  Legend and rumour claim that a hungry spirit dwells within the lake’s depths, but this is not so.

0911 Belmar’s Seat:  An outcrop of rock named for the hero-king Belmar.  A flat-topped boulder at the apex of the hill is known as Belmar’s Chair.  It is said that those who sit at Midsummer’s Even on Belmar’s Chair are driven mad, or become poets – if there is any difference between the two.

1005: Outbuildings:  This is the site of the Hermitage.  The outbuildings include the hermit’s quarters, a common area for guests (including a stable as part of the common area).  The cellar beneath the hermit’s quarters includes a secret area wherein treasure from bandits, goblins, and pirates may be hidden.

The hermit is a 6th level thief.  This level was chosen so as to allow interaction with starting PCs, where the hermit will not be instantly overwhelmed, while at the same time making it possible for the PCs to defeat him later.  Besides which, living alone in the (near) wilds as he does, the hermit will need some class level “oomph”!

1204: Temple:  This is the ruined temple, beneath which the dungeon lies.  We might as well start calling this the Dungeon of the Skull, because that will be its most important feature.  Within the temple, there is an area that allows our hermit to mimic a cleric, effectively giving him access to a limited amount of curative magic each day.

In fact, let us make this a temple of Hermes (as the patron of thieves, healers, and magic, it seems appropriate).

1309:  Farmstead:  There is a small farmstead located in this hex.

1404: Goblin Cave:  When goblins visit the hermitage, they stay here.  As a result, there is goblin graffiti on the walls, carvings on the table, etc., that hints at what the hermit really is.  Unknown to the hermit, the goblins have begun mining here, trying to break into the Dungeon of the Skull.

1406:  Tailings Pile:  The tailings pile from the goblin mining – as well as some broken mining equipment of obvious goblin manufacture – is hidden just off the trail here.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Computer Woes & D&D Makes the News

Sorry I haven't posted in a bit.  My old laptop has been consigned to whatever the electronic equivalent of Davy Jones' Locker might be, and it has taken me a little bit of time to get the new one up to speed.  It suffered from Heat Death, and even though I cracked it open and cleaned it, the problem wasn't solved.  Luckily, I was able to move my files to an external hard drive, and am now back in business.  Still, I had to cancel two game sessions because I couldn't access my notes.

In addition to this, as most of you have now heard, (1) Wizards of the Coast finally got around to admitting that they were working on 5e, and (2) WotC also announced that they were going to reprint a limited run of the 1e Player's Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual.  As a result, even after I was up and running again, I spent far more time reading others' news online than working on my own writing!

As for the 5e announcement, I think it has been clear for some time now that 4e didn't perform as expected.  Well, clear to all except a few die-hard 4e fans, to whom no amount of evidence was evident enough!  So, those of us who predicted a relatively short shelf life for 4e are vindicated, those who thought there would never need be another edition are demonstrably wrong, and WotC is apparently moving back to a more "retro" (read, pre-3e) model.  This last point is important, IMHO, because it is some indication that WotC might be interested in producing something I might be interested in purchasing.

One thing that I've learned from the D&D game cycle, though, is that I never want to invest in a game that is going to go out of print in such a way as legally producing third-party support materials for it becomes impossible.  Those who opt to stay with 4e may be able to create a "retro-clone" of it, although the GSL and many changes seem to be designed to negate exactly that possibility.  I hope they have all the 4e support materials they will ever need!

A role-playing game that is tied to the fortunes and decisions of a single corporation no longer interests me.  If 5e is not an OGL game, I will give it a pass.  It could be perfect for my tastes in so many ways, yet fail to meet WotC's expectations, and disappear faster than 4e.  And then where would I be?  Hoping that I had all the 5e support materials I will ever need!  No, thank you.

I am looking forward to the 1e reprints, though, as my original Monster Manual needs replacement, having disappeared into the fog of time.  Also, I think it is a wise decision on the part of WotC to recognize that the community determines the course of the hobby, not a single company, no matter what trademarks they may hold.  That a portion of the proceeds will fund the Gygax memorial seems fitting, to me.

So, kudos to WotC for making themselves relevant to me again, at least for a single print run!

And, if 5e turns out to be an OGL game, which users are encouraged to fold, spindle, and mutilate to their tastes -- and then share that folding, spindling, and mutilation with others -- WotC may even succeed in making their trademark relevant to me again.


The need to be able to post your house rules online, for others to access, is a requirement for online games.  To be able to do so only on the sufferance of WotC means that your online game is only viable so long as WotC says it is.  And, draconian limitations like the GSL's unwillingness to allow you to change what terms mean, prevent potential GMs from crafting an online game that will satisfy their own particular itch.

It may be good business for some products; it sucks beans for RPGs.



See you next time with more sandboxing goodness.


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).