Friday, October 28, 2011

Slacker DM Adventure Checklist

I put out a "topic request line is open" thingy and got some responses. People asked me to talk about some stuff.

Thus the recent rigorous, and diamond-clear analysis of the bard class at the request of Kiel Chenier.

Another request from someone else was "...a post similar to your analysis of trap types would be cool, but on other campaign-creation/running topics." So this is that...

Particularly: different kinds of location and what you need, at minimum, to run adventures based in the kinds of places you get in D&D.

So let's assume the following things are a given:

-You are swift enough to think up stats on the fly or have a book with stats in them for any relevant monsters.

-You have a list of what monsters can go in which environment in some kind of form.

-This'll start as a location-based adventure. That is: first day the PCs are just going to a place for some reason and have a single thing to do and the adventure consists of obstacles and consequences resulting from meeting them. Obviously if you have more plot and interference from NPCs and acts of god and what-all you will need more stuff. But this is just what you need to get through that first day.


I also want to define a term I'll wanna use later:

Social obstacle: This is one or more NPCs that want things the players might be able to provide (the NPCs must believe or be able to be convinced the PCs can provide it) and are able to possibly inflict consequences on the PCs if they don't get it.


Dungeons are easy, structurally, that's one of the reasons they caught on. You'll need:

-Entrance points and ways to indicate them to the PCs. (Is there one and hey, here's the entrance! Or more than one? Are they hidden? Do they wake up in the dungeon?)

-Things that make movement through the space dangerous. You could also, theoretically, make a dungeon where nothing is actually stopping you from getting to the treasure, but will activate if the PCs assume it's hostile and attack.

Like: to the PCs, it's a dungeon, but to the orcs it's just an underground orc city and they've got all these stupid piles of yellow metal lying around at the bottom of it. PCs want yellow metal? No problem! But of course the PCs will assume the orcs are hostile and kill Benny while he's testing his crossbow and...oh dear. Now the underground city is a dungeon. Note that any city or building instantly becomes a dungeon if the population becomes hostile. Thus: zombie movies. This is one of the problems of "civilized" adventures--if your players are like most players and just sometimes kill people for no reason, you may suddenly need a map at any time of a space that didn't need a map a second ago.

-A reason to go in there. The default is that there's gold down there.

-Meaningful decision points. No decisions, no dungeon, really. And for a decent dungeon I highly suggest:

either clues in the beginning (that are accurate) about what kind of thing's down each corridor (so the choice has meaning the PCs can track--'cause that's fun)

a way to go back after a decision has been made
or both.

Without one or both of those things, the dungeony nature of the dungeon is not exploited--i.e. if it's a fork with 2 identical doors with nothing to chose between them: go left and you meet an ogre and if you kill it the game ends and you find treasure and are teleported home or go right and you fight an octopus and the game ends and you are teleported home then it's not really a dungeon--it's a random encounter table with only 2 things on it. A big part of the point of a dungeon is it's an adventure that exploits the fact that architecture creates decision points.

-Technically, you don't need a map, though without a map it may be hard to keep track of which portals/decision points/doors lead to which thingy.

Cities Cities are tough to run. You could write a book... It's not just that they are extremely complex environments in terms of both layout and available resources--it's that, as noted in "Dungeons", players have an odd habit of turning cities into dungeons. So cities can be both abstract (like wilderness adventures) and concrete and the DM doesn't entirely control which they are when. Even assuming you are using a map with every building in the city on it, you still don't have the interiors of every building (or what's in the basement)(or the sub-basement). So you'll need improvisational skill and:

-Either an objective and players sure to want to accept that objective
an ability to describe the city in enough detail that players will see interesting objectives they want in it just from your description and players proactive enough to be like "Oh, the mayor's beautiful wife, eh? I want to seduce her"
players proactive enough that they want something that could be in any city. Like: "I wanna take over a smuggling ring". Uh, ok.

-Obstacles. You could get through a city adventure with no described or improvised NPCs, buildings, security measures, magic problems, natural disasters, or monsters, but you'll need at least one of those things or something likewise obstacular.

-An idea about how the guards/constables/cops/whatever will respond to disturbances and how tough they are.

Castle/Fortress You'll need:

-An objective in the castle or PCs willing to, with no input from you, decide they want a castle or to get to someone who has one.

-Obstacles. A fortress or castle will commonly have any of 3 kinds of obstacles (one outside, two inside):

1. Breaking-and-entering type obstacles. Like this stuff (or, more specifically this stuff). Using premade B&E obstacles makes the adventure really easy to run--one of the reasons I wrote those tables is the bang-for-your buck factor is so high. A building with a decently described exterior security profile (walls and ceilings and people shooting at you) and a reason to bypass it can keep the PCs busy for a gratifyingly long time.

2. Social obstacles.

3. Dungeon-type obstacles. Note that you if you want to include these there's generally a "dungeonizing trigger"--that is, a thing that can happen that'll turn the place into a dungeon or a part of the fortress where movement starts being contested by traps/monsters/etc. You don't have to describe the fortress concretely outside this area--i.e. no map is that necessary until the dungeonizing takes place.

A fortress in crisis (earhquake, etc.) can have any kind of obstacle in the world.

Note also that if the PCs get in easily and the inhabitants are friendly it could suddenly turn into a dungeon if the PCs make the inhabitants mad (or if the inhabitants betray them).

The Wilderness
You'll need:

-An objective. Unlike many other locations for adventures, the objective doesn't need to be in the wilderness--the PCs can just be crossing it to get to the objective. In fact, the adventure will be way easier to run if the objective isn't in the wilderness. If the macguffin or whatever is in there then you suddenly need some way to mark out whether the PCs have found it or gotten to it either by searching for a given number of time intervals (and maybe rolling a random encounter per interval) or by having a map or at least some landmark ideas (i.e. "if they search near the hollow tree they'll find it, if they search near the pond they'll fight Nixies").

One simple compromise, if you already have a wilderness encounter table, is to just put the objective on it, possibly with a mechanic ("add +1 per day of searching") that makes it increasingly likely they'll find it. You could have a d20 table and have the goal be result 21.

-Obstacles and a philosophy about how to inflict them. The easiest but least interesting and most railroady is just to say "there will be these encounters before the PCs get where they're going". If, on the other hand, the PCs start to notice that they definitely have legitimate reasons for doing one thing over another ("resting here will get you your spells back but will probably result in more encounters since you're here longer", "going along the ridgeline means vultures, going through the valley means wolves") then you start to move into "fun and interesting choices" territory.

However, this can require more thinking and maybe prep. If you don't have yur map all hexed-out, a simple compromise is to definitely start with an encounter that offers a choice--you see an intriguing thingy, (its a trap set by an intelligent creature) what do you do? and base what happens next on that. That way you don't have to plan out a decision tree or encounter table but the PCs aren't getting totally railroaded by your lack of concrete world detail--the shape of the adventure immediately reflects their decisions.

-Contingency planning: you'll want an idea about how the PCs having or not having horses (or local equivalent) will affect the encounter scheme. Like does that mean fewer encounters? Different encounters? etc. Or you need to just know for sure that they won't have them.

-Not necessarily a map but an idea in distance or time or both about how big this place is. Or at least the distance between PCs and objective. 3 days away, 30 miles, whatever.

The Sea You'll need:

-An objective. These pretty much operate the same way as in the wilderness--it's easier if the goal's on the other side of the sea than somewhere in it. If you're using the wavecrawl kit or another random encounter table you could just replace one of the results on one of the tables with the objective, though.

-Obstacles--again, this is a lot like the wilderness, you'll need a philosophy about how to inflict them.

One difference is--in many cases (thought not all)(this is one of those things I type because I see the reader comment forming in my head already) it's pretty hard for another ship to surprise the PCs' ship--so you need to consider how it'll go down. So if the main obstacle you got is pirates, you need to know how trying to outdistance pirates is going to work, mechanically, in the game.

For completeness sake I guess I should also note that weather can more easily and frequently be an obstacle at sea than elsewhere.

-An idea about how the ship works. You don't need a layout of the ship that much--but knowing who is sailing it, how it can be damaged, what happens at night, whether and how the other PCs help sail it--all these things you'll probably want to know.

-An idea about armor in the water. How many rounds before you drown?

-Like the wilderness--not necessarily a map but an idea of the time or space distance between PCs and objective. If the possibility of being blown off course is in the cards in your game you'll want, if not a map, at least an idea of where that would lead.

Island An island adventure is basically about whatever you put on that island to explore (a city, a wilderness, etc.) however there are a few additional considerations:

-What (if anything) is going to happen to the PCs' boat while it's tied up and waiting for them to get done killing giant ants or whatever?

-Parking: most PCs will be able to find a way to make landfall wherever the hell they want on an island's perimeter. Even if the boat has no lifeboats or boarding craft and is too big to land anywhere but the one port you drew because you say there are big rocks under the water everywhere else and the PCs can't swim, they will find a way to come onto that island from some direction you didn't intend if they see any percentage in it at all. So you'll either need a map or to abstractly describe the area, mechanically, in such a way that this doesn't ruin your game.

Isolated Building
Haunted house, abandoned temple, etc.

One important difference from a fortress/castle--and this is only if you are using dungeon obstacles (as opposed to social ones)--figure out whether there's any way in or out besides the ground floor entrance(s).

Obviously you can make it so every window is locked and magically impenetrable and the walls are 9 feet thick and there's no chimney but if you do that too many times the smarter players will start to hate you. A small dungeon (like a one-shot haunted house) with an entrance where every window is that still works no matter which way the PCs enter is just a click or two harder to put together than a regular dungeon with one entrance. Seems obvious but people do forget this a lot.

Village or Inn or Isolated Building With Social People In It This is basically just like a city except easier for three reasons:

-Less cops. If the PCs cause trouble, you can always say the militia's too scared to come down on them if it suits you.

-Limited resources. A tough thing about running a city is: if PCs want it, they got it. With a little groundwork, you can make plausibly make anything scarce (oil, arrows, new armor, henchindividuals) in a village or lonely place.

-It doesn't have to be interesting other than the adventure the PCs are having. Sure: it can be, but there are good aesthetic reasons for having typical, innocent villages and inns once in a while, in most settings.

(Abulafia's random location generator tosses out the possibility of an adventure in an "enemy's encampment"--I assume the PCs are disguised or diplomats, or else it would be an "enemy's weenie roast"--which would be kinda like a town except the first and third of these "easyfiers" would disappear.)

River/Canal Why on earth am I bothering to list this as a separate thing from Wilderness? Because rivers make things surprisingly complicated...

-Like the wilderness on foot/on horse thing, you need to plan for encounter intervals that work on foot or at the boat speed. Unless you're railroading them off the boat--in which case why have a river as the location anyway?

-Also, if the river is wide enough, and if the land encounters are with a discrete, landbound foe (a specific group) then they will need crossings if they're gonna ever go to the other side of the river. And which side they're on should be a thing or else--again, why use a wide river as a location?

-You can also get a little fancier and put the river in a gorge during at least part of the adventure and then you have a sort of complicated when-can-we-get-in-or-out-of-the-river-and-when-can't-we situation.

All in all, a nice way to double your brainload for what at first seemed to be a nice innocent wilderness adventure spent rolling on encounter tables. Makes me glad most of the rivers on my map are frozen over.

Another plane Adventuring on another plane basically requires deciding which of these other locations that other plane is most like and running it like that. Plus having some ideas that make it weird and fun, like the children are made of angora or whatever.


  1. One difference is--in many cases (thought not all)(this is one of those things I type because I see the reader comment forming in my head already) it's pretty hard for another ship to surprise the PCs' ship

    I'm envisioning 'Invisibility' being cast on an entire ship. "You see an oblong depression in the water surface slowly making its way toward you."

  2. I'm not sure about the book series, but the movie "Master and Commander" has a few situations where a ship is surprised and plenty of other sailing-related shenanigans happen. One of the two ships is also called "Surprise" :D

    Regarding rivers, they have a bunch of interesting properties:
    1: they are a convenient mean of travel, require a boat-shaped macguffin (as in "entity that propels the plot") or building a raft, and bring the party (or anything else) downstream faster than the alternatives. This might lead the players to prefer then to walking. Also, boats are cool.
    2: they are inherently a railroad. Straying means leaving and losing control of the boat, or securing it with minions. This might be a more interesting (or simply an alternative) way to connect locations than riding or walking.
    3: rivers have their own problems: not only waterfalls, but also offer the challenge (like seas) of encounters out of the pc's favourite environment.
    4: human aspects: nets, dams and cities are built on rivers. rivers provide food and water.

  3. As far as "another plane" goes, having Our Heroes on the wrong side of a Summon Monster X spell is always fun.