Friday, 2 April 2021

Preliminary Delineation of Adventure Types

As I prepare “How I Design” videos for different kinds of adventure, I am naturally brought to consider what types of adventure there are – because plainly different adventures have different formats and styles, and require different design decisions and different ways of running them. I’m going to offer a very tentative list of “adventure types” (and subtypes) here, in hopes it’s of use to, well, me, as well the community as a whole. Add other possibilities in the comments!
Fundamentally – given a basic assumption of D&D rules – I think there are three major categories of adventure. These are formally based on where they are located, though in fact their geography is only one part of their categorization, with the other being the format of their design, and the expectations on player decisions.
The Dungeon Adventure
The “Dungeon Adventure” is the adventure in a closed environment, with fixed and fully mappable geography, where the 10-minute Exploration Turn makes sense. The environment constrains player decision and focuses them on effective and intelligent exploration. This could be a 10-level megadungeon or a 19-room one-session wonder – size is not the determinant. Geography and format are.
The typical benefits of the Dungeon Adventure are the way in which the physical constraints allow the DM to create a textured and dense environment with relatively knowable routes of player action. For the player, it presents the ultimate challenge in environmental player skill – to map accurately, to predict patterns of traps, to solve puzzles, to pit physically close factions against each other, and the rest.
The Dungeon Adventure may occur in caverns or ruined castle dungeons, but it may also happen in any enclosed environment. A spaceship setting will often be a Dungeon Adventure (see S4 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits). A museum can be a Dungeon Adventure (see my How I Design A Dungeon video for my example of developing such a module). Even a “wilderness” setting can be a Dungeon Adventure, if set on a small enough groundscale and set into boxed “rooms” of content – think of the forest sublevel in Caverns of Thracia, or the “Upper Works” sections of something like T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil or Abbey of St Clewd. You’re “outdoors”, yes, and there aren’t strict walls and corridors, but the flow of the area is closely related to the Dungeon Adventure – the ground covered is a few square miles at most, the space is amenable to the use of dungeoneering skills, etc.
D&D’s rules, particularly in older editions, naturally tend towards the Dungeon Adventure. Even our language of “levels” comes from that background – but the assumptions of player choices and of the actual mechanical skills provided in Original, Basic, and First all also assume an enclosed and “networked” environment.
Design-wise, the Rube Goldberg element of D&D comes to the forefront in these adventures – things are placed in very close proximity that can explosively interact and provide the players with opportunity or danger. This requires a serious approach to mapping. These adventures are the hardest to design geographically, because for your players to successfully apprehend the nature of the space, the space must be rational and made from ordinary geometry. Rooms linked by stairs need to actually be next to each other, not warped out by your poor scale on one level.
The close proximity of encounters also means that the best Dungeon Adventures require a more serious reflection upon ecology. When tribes of humanoids are many miles apart, their co-existence is more plausible; when they are in neighbouring caves, as in Keep on the Borderlands, some deeper logic must be sought, or else a frank handwaving offered (which is usually unsatisfying).
The Wilderness Adventure
The Wilderness Adventure operates as an exact opposite to the Dungeon Adventure – it relies on the sense of vast space, of geographic confusion, of “natural” environments now being disturbed by the adventurers. The groundscale of the Dungeon is in the low square miles; the Wilderness Adventure is nearly always in three figures at least.
The Wilderness Adventure is not simply “a wilderness map”. It is a particular set of objectives set on a wilderness map; it is not simply the world itself. Dolmenwood is a campaign setting, with many vignettes and locales on its map – but it is not a Wilderness Adventure, insomuch as it is the setting as a whole. UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave, the aboveland portion of S3 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, or D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth are all good examples of Wilderness Adventures.
The locale of a Wilderness Adventure can be anything appropriate; S3 is overland in the “ordinary” world of Greyhawk, UK1 is functionally on a demiplane, D1 is in the Underdark. To The City of Brass is extraPlanar.
Format of exploration can also vary – hexcrawls, pointcrawls, and “open map” experiences are all legitimate. The better adventures of this type will care about distance and travel, because they will provide measurable costs for the vast distances players traverse. It does not matter how these are measured, as long as they are measured and measured seriously. Slumbering Ursine Dunes is (probably) a Wilderness Adventure, as is Misty Isles of the Eld by the same author, both using pointcrawls; B10 Night’s Dark Terror is a hexcrawl, as is S3.
The challenge to players in the Wilderness Adventure ought usually to consist of a relatively limited amount of time versus a “mystery” of space. There is much ground to cover, dryads to placate, swamp hags to slay or gain tutelage from, wandering knights to recruit. There are micro-Dungeons to clear (of course, the Nested Adventure is legitimate, so long as it doesn’t collapse needful time constraints). There are ingredients to gather. The hurry around the map, the depletion of resources by the many challenges, the complex variety of terrains – these all contribute to creating a compelling situation.
The players are not worrying as much about precise mapping or procedure (traps must necessarily be less prevalent over such a large area – the statistical chance of characters simply missing them altogether must be large). The DM rolls for Getting Lost and Random Encounters, and will provide set encounters and obstacles in given hexes or paths. The thrust of the adventure is to plan their time well and triangulate their targets.
The DM has to make sure the wilderness seems lively but also wild, and also to ensure that the passage of time and space feels meaningful. “Dungeon dressing” here is, ironically, important – the sense that the characters are travelling across vast vistas, dealing with many challenges, with the weeks slipping away from them, is important.
The City Adventure
Finally, there is the City Adventure, which is perhaps harder to describe than the former two. This is partly because it is a hybrid – a vast space in which many Dungeon Adventures may be located; an enclosed space, too, with set limits and standards. A further complication is that simply being set in a city does not make an adventure a City Adventure! Sea of Blood is largely in a Sahuagin city, but it is only at points resembles the sort of Adventure I have in mind. Its dynamic is usually to frenetic and bloody for our purposes.
But I think there are distinguishable features for a City *Adventure* (rather than a City Setting – CSIO and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko are really both City Settings, though Marlinko blends into an Adventure at points).. It is an adventure that relies on a Fairly Peaceful Peopled Place. There are many places and many people to speak to; much sneaking about; much negotiation; Mini-Dungeons fitted to the setting, with depraved secret cults rather than humanoid-occupied caverns; the business of negotiating with the Thieves’ Guild over cuts and fees; the corrupt City Watch to manipulate.
The party needs to find the cult’s headquarters, and identify its leaders – but it cannot smash every door down, or simply set up factional warfare as it might in the Dungeon. Civilisation’s standards are different to the (ordinary) Wilderness or Dungeon. Roleplaying is emphasize, as are Thiefly skills and utility spells from the Magic-User.
It must be frankly admitted this is an underutilised genre of Adventure. I most quickly leap to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying adventures like “Shadows over Bogenhafen”. But there are some good D&D exemplars. Gabor Lux’s various cities (Gont, Baklin, and the City of Vultures material) have a distinctive flavour combining aboveground intrigue with vast undercities for Dungeon Adventures.  Some of the 2e Lankhmar material is spot on. Any good adventure that leans into fantasy noir tends to have a decent City Adventure component.  Discounting Vornheim as a toolkit rather than an Adventure or Setting, this is an area the OSR could really move into, it seems to me: specific and focussed scenarios set against a larger urban background.
The challenge for the players here comes in adhering to the loose rules of the place, of bypassing the relatively overwhelming force of the state’s forces, of negotiating their way between quite settled factions with skin in the game. There is an objective, and there is not the constant up-front danger of the Dungeon or sheer space to cover as in the Wilderness, but the objective is occluded. Where is it? Who may grant access? What alternative routes may be found? Which factions might help, and which will seek vengeance after?
The DM has to thoroughly people the City; it cannot simply be a concrete Wilderness, with vast unpeopled spaces, or spaces which might as well be unpeopled for all the good the crowd does. There must always be a jostle, the risk of pickpockets, overflowing tavern brawls. The hardest thing for the City is to make it feel alive – the actual dynamics of accessing a hidden space or discovering the secret High Priest really resemble a Dungeon puzzle or Wilderness gather-quest, depending on how the flow-chart works. The real difficulty is emphasizing the human dynamic of these discoveries, of the need to reckon with a whole city of allies and adversaries – and you never know which is which.
Anyway, what do you think? Are there other genres I have missed?

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Magazine Monsters Part 2c: Creature Catalog #1 (Dragon #89) – Shrike, Giant-Wind Steed

 One interesting set of features Dragon published in 1984 and 1985 were the three Creature Catalogs: each a mini-Monster Manual (with 29, 18, and 24 entries, respectively), full of monsters that were largely forgotten thereafter. Many were created by master monster makers Ed Greenwood and Roger Moore, and they present the single largest untapped resource for monster ideas even today. This is the third and final entry in my look at Creature Catalog #1.
SHRIKE, GIANT – 3HD Giant Animal
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. A 9’ wide bird with a friendly chuckling cry, but which tricks prey by making baby noises and joyfully kills creatures it doesn’t want to kill, just for fun? Yes, please. Much better than a Giant Eagle of whatever else – profoundly unpleasant and disconcerting, especially for those scarred by Hitchcock. Good combat notes, too. Number Appearing is only 1, but seems reasonable to increase that in some circumstances to get a nasty swarm effect (or you can give them 1d4 1HD-1 young with two attacks at 1-4/1-2).
Marks: 5/5
SIND – 4+4HD Demihuman
Print Status: Only in Dragon. There’s a weird pseudo-adaptation in a Spelljammer Monstrous Compendium Appendix, under “wiggle”.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. A Narnian import, because the Sind is also known as a “marshwiggle”, and they “tend to be dour, cynical pessimists but they also stubborn, pragmatic, good-natured, and sensitive”. You get the picture. Even before seeing this, I had once inserted a Marsh Wiggle into my big 5e D&D game, so I’m predisposed to like this. These are definitely a distinct spin on Puddlegum, though – with 30% of mature Sind gaining imprisonment once a day, and all being immune to a variety of mind spells (like charm, sleep, etc). They have a demigod who has a 10% (!) chance of turning up to help any threatened Sind colony. They make friends with Lizardmen. I find this a really rich concept, though grant “rich” can be a pejorative when it comes to food.
Marks: 4/5
STAR LEVIATHAN – 24HD Astral Beast
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Roger Moore. Slightly odd, though fun. A very intelligent blue whale-type creature who projects itself to the Astral from whichever Prime Material it dwells upon. They’re super-telekinetic, and have a fairly nasty defensive mechanism (with one round Psionic prep, they have a molecular shock field for four rounds, which has a chance of disintegrating any non-living object touching it, or causing 4d4 damage to any living creature and potentially destroying all that they carry). But honestly, this doesn’t much fit as a normal combat encounter – you could get players hunting it, of course, but they’re much better fitted as an ally to seek out. Perhaps they could help the players travel safely through a dangerous part of the Astral, or join them in an attack on some lich’s lair. Literally and metaphorically both unwieldy and awesome.
Marks: 3.5/5
UTUKKU – 10+5HD Fiend
Print Status: Also in 2e Monstrous Compendium Red Steel Edition. A different monster of the same name appears in the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary.
Comments: By Roger Moore. An odd treasure-seeking Tarteran fiend, with a lion-like head and a scaly body. There are two ways to conceive of this guy in 1e terms – either as a hefty, dangerous combat for fairly competent high-mid-level adventurers, or as a negotiation. In the former case, you’re looking at something with 3/day of each of teleport without error, fear, create darkness, and 12d6 lightning bolt; 1/day symbol of discord and control weather; and 1/week cause disease and polymorph self. That’s not accounting for 3 attacks at 4d4/4d4/3d4, and -2AC. If a party does some of its homework, or is just extra-cautious with bringing magic to the battle, that’s a fun battle. On the other hand, the Utukku’s at-will suite of utility abilities mean that a party could wrangle a deal (everything from survival up to lots of magical assistance), if they can somehow source treasure whilst it is visiting the Prime Material. However, the implied behaviour and the likely dynamics do point to the combat route. A fun design, if specific.
Marks: 3.5/5
VENUS FLY-TRAP, GIANT – 6HD (body)/2HD (each of 3-8 jaws) Giant Plant
Print Status: Possibly some kind of official Pathfinder version; certainly several 5e Homebrews.
Comments: By Roger Moore. I like Giant Plants, as you may have picked up. This has an interesting ecology/combat description – lots of 80%-likely-to-be-hidden jaws trying to swallow Small-sized targets or latch on to larger ones. It’s really a passive ambush predator, then, but much less dangerous than your typical slimes. This feels like it could be a memorable encounter or a fairly quotidian random roll. Decent, not as strong as the other Giant Plants in CC1
Marks: 2.5/5
VURGEN – 7+7 to 9+9HD Marine Beast
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. Another weird Greenwood marine predator, and all to the good in my view. This one is a weird one with a giant set of jaws and a fairly slim body – so fairly distinctive-looking (it’s nicknamed the “giant gulper”). There’s obviously an issue with getting the party to deal with it – it is said to sometimes threaten shallows and harbours, so that’s easy, or you could use the hint of Locathah informants to send a high-mid-level party underwater with to help the friendly fishfolk. Solid if unexciting entry.
Marks: 2.5/5
WHALE, KILLER – 9 to 12HD Marine Beast
Print Status: Also 5e Monster Manual.
Comments: By Roger Moore. Suitably savage and cunning, including the insane danger implied by Number Appearing 5d8, excluding juveniles who can also attack. They sneak under ice, drag people into freezing waters, etc. Oh, some of them are psionic too. These guys seems overmighty, but there’s something incredibly appealing about using them nonetheless. If a party (foolishly?) heads into the arctic zones of your world, this is a great random encounter risk. Random encounters are part of the risk calculation for parties, both in terms of material risk and resource drain; a pod of hungry orcas are very much on one end of that risk range, but it’s something the human whalers or penguinfolk could reasonably warn a party about. If you want to tread out over the ice sheet to reach the Spire of Blue Ice, to rescue to Frost Elf Princess and loot the hoard of the interdimensional raiders, go prepped for the nastiest beast in the cold seas. This works very well for that.
Marks: 4.5/5
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: This is a “quest creature”, but undoubtedly a cool one. Levitating horses with Manoeuvrability Class A – so casters can perform spells of any kind except those requiring glyphs! This is top-drawer player-bait. They’re also hilariously intense in an anime manner. Their gaze is so intense they are immune to gaze attacks! They can break the grip of Aerial Servants at a 40% likelihood! They are immune to wind-type damage! They cohabitate with pegasi! They are sometimes led by varicoloured, seashell-patterned specimens who can cast suggestion! Those who hate the Haughty Fantasy aspect of D&D will hate these guys; of course, the haters are wrong. THIS IS AWESOME. It’s specific, with only a few viable contexts (you’re out to tame them, there are loads of local griffons and you need allies), but it’s a great monster.
Marks: 4.5/5
The most reliable set I’ve reviewed so far. Of the whole of Creature Catalog I, there are two undoubted duds – the Corkie and the Fachan – but there are real classics, too: the Glasspane Horror, the Killer Whale, the Wind Steed, and above all the frankly disturbing Giant Shrike. There are a few good Demihumans/Humanoids too, in the Amitok and Sind. Finally, notable that a big theme of CC1 is marine and plant monsters – the former a neglected area, the latter an obvious source of environmental/wilderness colour. There is a lot here for the creative DM. Recommended.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Magazine Monsters Part 2b: Creature Catalog #1 (Dragon #89) – Ghuuna-Scallion

One interesting set of features Dragon published in 1984 and 1985 were the three Creature Catalogs: each a mini-Monster Manual (with 29, 18, and 24 entries, respectively), full of monsters that were largely forgotten thereafter. Many were created by master monster makers Ed Greenwood and Roger Moore, and they present the single largest untapped resource for monster ideas even today. This is the second entry in my look at Creature Catalog #1.
GHUUNA – 6+6HD Gnoll Lycanthrope
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Tomas Willis. Gnoll lycanthropes. There’s a great spin on their nature here: They need a spin like that (where they become one of three tribes of Gnollkind, taught shapeshifting by a predecessor to Yeenoghu), because otherwise they’re just a fun reskinning. That said, reskinning is no bad thing, and having another gribbly to put in your Gnoll lairs and encounters is only good.
Marks: 2/5
GLASSPANE HORROR – 8HD...something? Aberration or Construct or even Elemental
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Rosemary and Don Webb. A polymorphing creature which can be iron-strength glass, a glass-man with magic powers, or a storm of glass like an air elemental. Pretty atmospheric. The assumption is that it will be a “protective” creature in a dungeon or lair, looking after valuables. There are good behavioural notes – e.g. it’s loyal but not willing to die for its master, so will eventually flee to warn them. Genuinely very good, even if limited in application as it stands.
Marks: 4.5/5
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. This seems a fairly ordinary giant animal, until you get to the end of the entry: they’re immune to mind-control, reflect back psionic powers on the use, and can cast shocking grasp and lightning bolt! I am confused about their assumed behaviour: they’re both predatory and placid, apparently. But that can be reconciled. There’s a good hook – an undamaged giant horseshoe crab brain can be used in the inks used to write the spells it can cast. It also has a fun nickname, from the noise it makes when eating: “chont”. Dudda chuk?
Marks: 3/5
IHAGNIM – 8-16HD Astral Amoeba
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Roger E. Moore. Uh. So it’s an amoeba which lives on the Astral Plane and planeshifts its stomach bag into the Prime Material where suckers think it’s a Bag of Holding, but it’s actually a Bag of Devouring. That’s where they come from. Weird and a bit screwed up and undoubtedly cool, though very, very specific. This is really a one-use-per-campaign monster.
Marks: 2.5/5
MILLIKAN – 5+1HD Invertebrate
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Mark Nuiver. A carnivore that looks like a tree stump with gnaled roots. It has an oil projector and a flamethrowers (!). There’re some decent behavioural notes, and it likes both flesh and certain metals, which influences treasure finds. Its “battery” organ is a useful magical find, thereby adding a potential hook. This is odd – it’s really a bit overblown, and its suite of attacks can do a *lot* of damage, covering opposition with oil which blinds and is then set on fire by the flamethrower. Nonetheless, it’s likely to be memorable.
Marks: 3/5
NAGA, DARK – 7-9HD Naga
Print Status: Also Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting 2nd Edition, Monster Manual 3.5 Edition, Monster Manual 4th Edition.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. One of the most durable Dragon Magazine monsters. Here they are Lawful Evil “fey creatures”. The entry isn’t actually very detailed, though it includes a rare definition of a creature able to cast a spell and attack in the same round (this seems implicit elsewhere, but I can’t think of many entries which actually say so!). They’re 6th-Level Magic-Users for purposes of spell slots and casting, as well as having ESP and a poison stinger. Their lore develops over time; here, they’re just an intelligent monster with a cool picture and powerful action economy.
Marks: 3/5
PELTAST – 1+6HD Amorphous
Print Status: Also FA1 Halls of the High King, Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Two, Menzoberranzan Boxed Set, Ruins of Undermountain Boxed Set.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. A staple in Greenwood’s adventures. Symbiotic with parasitic tendencies, this creature morphs into leather equipment or clothing and latches on to a host, feeding very slightly on its nutriment (1hp a day, which heals automatically at night). It lends Magic Resistance (7%) to its host. I don’t know quite what to make of this fellow – it does seem like a fun “prank” monster (and any good DM likes those), and you can see further uses. For instance, what if a valuable item is hidden in one, and its “latch” seems locked? What if their MR actually registers as magical, and so they end up being worn as a magical piece of equipment? And so forth. It’s interesting, but in this entry seems almost incomplete – what’s the hook? What environments might be best? Nonetheless, not bad.
Marks: 2.5/5
PITCHER PLANT, GIANT – 100hp Carnivorous Plant
Print Status: Only in Dragon (I think).
Comments: By Roger E. Moore. More carnivorous plants! Actually there is one of these on our Prime Material, with a genus named after Sir David Attenborough. But this one...kills! I think one thing that makes me like plant monsters is that they can bridge environmental hazard and monster threat. They aid in building naturalistic environments, they’re repeatable, and their effects are often interesting (here, grabbing people with a long tentacle and then trapping them in the plant’s “vase”). In a fantastic Lost World environment, this is a great hazard – just another normal crazy big plant, until it grabs your Halfling!
Marks: 4/5
SEASTAR – 1HD Aquatic Beast
Print Status: Also 5e Homebrew.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. Aquatic creatures are underrated because aquatic adventures usually suck. Aquatic creatures, in reality, rock – because the sea is terrifying. It is a much more dangerous environment than the average dungeon. Utterly inhospitable to landdwellers. And in D&D, you can make it even more dangerous! Seastars hitch rides on the bottom of ships and feed on carrion, sometimes even helping the process along by dragging people off ships. There are some useful notes on how they end up making food alliances with telepathic creatures (so a bunch of Aberrant intelligent monsters, basically). Given the HD involved, and the likely behaviour, the Seastar is perhaps more of an aquatic hazard than an existential menace, but it’s worth getting on the encounter table.
Marks: 3/5
SCALLION – 5+5 to 6+6HD Fish
Print Status: As "ascallion" in 2e Monstrous Compendium 3 - Forgotten Realms Appendix 1.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. Giant aquatic predators (up to 12’+ long), impervious to pain, paralysis, and mental attack, which spawn by the young eating their way out. Nasty big fish. The male gets their own creepy behaviour note, too: “a silent, solitary ghost who glides through uncrowded waters. Black and sharklike, the male is nicknamed ‘the shadow’ by the aquatic races, for this is all they normally see of him if they survive an encounter.” Okay so that gets to go in any adventure where your potential allies are Tritons or Locathah or whatever. There’s something impressive about Greenwood being able to take a giant predator fish, and without even fully spinning its abilities (only Special Defences), make it rich with atmosphere. This guy hunting your Water-Breathing wreck searchers...that’s memorable terror.
Marks: 4/5
Nothing bad, though plenty of middling. We do come closest to a cast-iron all-time classic, though, with the Glasspane Horror (the Scallion comes close, partly because it seems so humdrum but is in fact terrifying). I’d say the hitrate so far on CC1 is as good as any of the official 1e monster books.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Barebones of a Spelljammer Campaign, Part 1: Low Levels and the Rock of Bral

Barebones of a Spelljammer Campaign
Part 1: Low Levels and the Rock of Bral
Part 2: The 3-D Island Crawl
more TBC

The most successful post on my blog is from years ago, and it’s on Spelljammer. I cheated because I included an awesome Brom painting. Basically, my concern was how to salvage Spelljammer from its various encumbrances: a limited core boxed set, no strong full-length modules, a lot of rules from the transitional 1.5/2e era which sometime occlude understanding.
As I’ve not had a table in a position to play Spelljammer, I haven’t developed much in that direction since. I’ve read a bit. But I decided it’d be fun to put together the framework for a campaign.
The first problem to deal with when developing a Spelljammer campaign is the basic “level expectation”. Though nominally even a 1st Level spellcaster can pilot a spacefaring ship in the setting, every other measurement points to Spelljammer being a mid-to-high level game: buying a Minor Helm (the cheapest piloting device for a spaceship) costs 100,000gp; create minor helm is a 5th-level Spell; core box demihumans/monsters/etc which are important in the setting include Dracons (6HD), Beholders (45-75hp, and everything else they entail), and the Arcane (11HD); proposed adventures for getting groundling adventurers into space include 5 Beholders crashing a ship and seeking slaves to repair it, and politically successful PCs being called upon to meet an Arcane visitor.
There are a few solutions offered. You could just start a campaign at, say, 4th or 5th or even 8th level, whether with Groundling PCs or spacefarers. You could somehow bodge together the ideas in the (fascinating) Astromundi Cluster campaign boxset, where it is assumed low-level characters will be viable even with the mid-level infrastructure of the Spelljammer world.
But I think I’ll go with about the only normal route for low-level play actually suggested in the books: in SJR5 Rock of Bral, the idea of simply starting a low-level campaign (perhaps at 2nd Level) is mooted, with PCs being groundling adventurers, but with a difference. They are on the spacefaring Rock of Bral, living beside a major spaceport. They can adventure around the Rock itself, and even find some (low-level) work in space as deckhands and marines on established ships.
What is lost via this approach is the specific shock of an established groundling campaign being thrown into space: “wait, we can fly this thing?!” But given the alternatives – other than running a mid-length campaign just to get to space – are starting at mid-level, or severely kitbashing the setting to make it work mechanically, starting on the Rock makes sense. And it has the advantage that the Rock is actually a good setting. SJR5 is about the best city book in D&D history, discounting the particular style of City-State of the Invincible Overlord. Only FR1 Waterdeep and the North is really comparable in quality for a book of the same type; in recent times, Baklin: Jewel of the Sea by Gabor Lux is less expansive but much more focussed as a product to run at the table.
The Rock has all sorts of option for city adventure: Thieves Guild shenanigans, ethnic tensions between the different barrios, the intrigues surrounding the reigning Prince’s nephew, secret slavers. There is also an expansive Underdark within the rock, with the remains of past civilisations that no-one can remember or adequately explain (even the Illithids and Beholders seem quite honest when they say they don’t know why there are ancient ruins of their people inside). Indeed, mentioning such Aberrants reminds me: this is a setting where there are plenty of low-level schmucks like you, but where the power players who operate in the open can include Illithids, Beholders, Arcane, and the rest. It’s a bit gonzo and overblown, but that’s part of the appeal. (A potentially useful resource to use is the fanmade Bralspace, giving a system for the Rock to be in - otherwise you'll need to create your own:
So what does our Low-Level City Sandbox In Space look like for the players?
A Modicum of Character Prep
I usually oppose any real work on backstories, beyond a sentence or two, but a tiny bit more effort here will help. City games require a certain amount of social immersion, unless adventurers are “just off the boat”. That in turn requires a bit more thought – it’s the equivalent of writing up a rumour table, but focussed on the actual characters players bring. (Incidentally, this does suggest city adventures are better suited for slightly more robust versions of D&D – Original/1e/2e – rather than Basic. We’re not going as much for the rogue-like feel.)
What our character prep can do: give Thieves a link with a relevant Underbaron and a Thieves’ Guild; give a Dwarven Fighter an “in” with some Dwarven mercenaries who contract out as marines; give a Magic-User/Wizard a connection with academic/research types. Giving each PC a “City Hook” that immerses them in the context is the replacement for rumours (though Rumour Tables in Taverns are still a good idea, and I’d develop them, too).
You seed the first options or challenges in a way that engenders investment in the Rock: the Thief’s cohorts are facing a lot of pressure from a bruising group of unlicensed rogues with powerful backers; the Dwarf is offered jobs guarding food shipments, or providing security for a Low City merchant whose life has been threatened; the M-U hears tells of an archaeological find on a nearby Earth-type worldlet (providing context for a dungeon-style adventure). Other factional conflicts can be brought in too – an anti-slavery character could be tasked by the Order of Pragmatic Thought with investigating a certain merchant house who seem to a cover for slaving, which is otherwise banned on the Rock.
Contrasting Normal and Weird
More than usual, the setting requires putting the “weird” in Spelljammer in front of your players. I think there’s something to be said for framing half the “adventure seeds” in terms of a mini-Lankhmar city game, and the other in terms of “weird things in fantasy space”. Partly, indeed, this mix always points players to the stars – towards earning their own ship, gaining the magic to use it, etc. They always look out beyond the docks and see squidships in faerie fire off the shoulder of the Rock...wait. That’s been done, hasn’t it?
Anyway, you get the idea. The dungeon environments on random asteroids should be Distinctive (see my original post). The threats when providing security on shipping just feel like Space Threats – not simply a list of encounters with common humanoids in ships (though Orc Pirates are legit!). I’m making Spelljammer encounter lists and will throw them up here in time, for those who are interested.
And the normal and weird can and should cross over – you know that shadowy patron who hired you at 1st level to loot a warehouse’s surprisingly extensive cellars? It was an Illithid! Or an Arcane! You’re 2nd level and you found out your boss is a creepy brain-eater. But the gold is good!
Faction Timelines
Because for the first few levels this Bral campaign is going to be heavily city-focussed (and of course it may still be once the PCs have their own ship), factions need taking seriously. They can’t just be dressing. Outlining the first few months of “faction moves” – what Prince Andru wants to do, what the hidden slave ring is up to, what major Nobles and Captains want to accomplish, how the Thieves’ Guild rivalries will progress – gives you some context for what the players get caught up into as they get stuck into Space Lankhmar. (Of course you may start your “timers” at Day 45 or 60, at a point wherePCs have probably gained a level or even two. For reference, my big Exploring Chult game has people beginning to hit 6th and 7th level after 200 days of continuous adventuring with breaks for training.)
This only needs to be one fairly sparse page in Word or Excel. We’re talking about one or two “faction plots” or fixed-day events per faction, or for the city as a whole. But because you want your players to be invested in one place – always whilst longing to reach the stars – you need a sense of organic life that doesn’t depend on you just coming up with stuff on the hoof, or the players kicking the door in.
(In lots of contexts, the idea that a setting is a powderbox waiting for the players to mess it up is sufficient; in a city game, I think it is “necessary but not sufficient”. There needs to be a Rube Goldberg thing where players reshape the place around them, kicking off absurd chains of events, but you need a base state, and for a game focussed initially on one place, you need that place to feel real and like it has its own life.)
The key struts for developing this Low-Level City Sandbox In Space are: (1) giving the characters roots in the city of the Rock of Bral, in lieu of ordinary starting Rumours – some leading to action on the Rock, some leading to action in level-appropriate space environments (no-one is hiring a 1st-level schmuck for the big stuff, after all); (2) always keeping both the Normal and the Weird (in this case, Fantasy Space) in view, and mixing the two, in ways to both excite your players and given them stellar aspirations; and (3) giving major factions objectives, plans, and timelines, which your players then get to mess with.
Next time – whenever that is – I’ll expand on the idea of the 3-D Island Crawl, which I talked about in the original.