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Friday, November 22, 2013


I broke through the writer's block. Almost. Went to Florida to see my folks and did some work on Midlands. The actual story is beyond the scope of this blog, since my players read it, BUT, I brainstormed and had an insight. The reason that Dungeon Crawls, those D&D adventures known as "site-based" adventures work so well, is because they combine the story-telling and game structure so well, that they are one and the same - You create a dungeon map with a room key, throw in an wandering monster table, and you have your adventure!

There is a lot of well thought out pages in Gary Gygax's Dungeon Master Guide dedicated to the design of dungeon based adventures. Tom Moldway's red box basic set edition has the best and most concise section of dungeon adventure writing. Once we get into the Wildernes, we are on our own, literally and figuratively. Gygax DMG has a lot of good writing on running a wilderness adventure from the point of travel and encounter, but there is no equivalent writing on DESIGNING a memorable wilderness!  I got everything there was available on wilderness design for D&D, but there was nothing that capture the sight and variety of the terrain I know and love from years of hiking and road trips. There were books that told you how to figure out how long before your player charters staved to death of froze to death, there were books that described the types of terrain and the abstract modifiers for combat - such as modifiers to being hit by enemy missiles and concealment. And still, the forest was a forest and there were fantastic terrain descriptions for the fantasy forest and the haunted forest. Nobody had the magic of the forest though, the old growth forests with room to maneuver for a horseman and no undergrowth to hide in, the thickets, the meadows with the tall cattails to conceal a man, the pine forest and the aspen and the cottonwood tree forests. I saw the incredible variety of the backwoods in the Northeast and the monotony of the terrain in the Mojave Desert. But I saw the Saguaro cacti that looked like running figures as I drove 75 mph. I saw piles of rocks casting shadows and the noon sun made these shadow look like faces you couldn't capture on camera film. I realized that this kind of detail is best transmitted into the game not through game mechanic, but through narrative. and the narrative is not the same as the table top miniatures gaming. I realized that you can describe the wilderness in terms of its terrain features of its sub-terrain, and that each sub-terrain can be populated with encounters, not just combat encounters with monsters or role playing encounters with NPC's, but also EVENT encounters - terrain events (avalanches in the mountains), weather events (sudden summer thunderstorm), exploration encounters - abandoned orchards and hamlets, old hedgerows, Inns and road houses, old camp sites!

Elsewhere, on The Alexandrian blog and others I read about Hex-crawls and Wilderness encounters that consist of lairs and large size encampments. I read Gygax's small section on random wilderness generation. He recommended hexes 40 miles across and to generate the random "Main feature" of the hex. I did not like it. Still, there was nothing to anchor my narrative approach to, the way you can just draw a map and generate a semi-random room key. Then I had my Eureka moment!

I was away from the rainy and cold New York November. I was in the sunny Florida in the quiet of my bedroom bathed in sunshine with the green silk curtains fluttering in the breeze. White marble house, blue swimming pool outside. Temperature just perfect. There was that feeling of the getaway, of leaving my job behind and of having time. A weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was sitting behind my bedroom table and looking at the open notebook I brought for D&D design and the empty pages and the colored pens. I had a new adventure to start writing. It wasn't going to be a dungeon crawl. I have an old game with a beautiful game board and each square with its own evocative name. I loved it. I wanted to set my next adventure there! The board did not have squares, rather irregularly shaped pieces representing territories. Like Risk! but definitely not that game! And my Eureka moment, Use the hex crawl conventions and anchor your wilderness descriptions not on an abstract hex, one of sixty or so, but on each territory on that map on that gameboard!!!!!


  1. Damn, I thought that I had it rough? You started from scratch? No wonder you are having such a difficult time!

    Buy a module, buy 3 or 4 of them. You don't need to play them, but, much like a writer, you are studying the format. Formulas are around for a reason! Look at how the writer organized his thoughts and information. How he writes down NPC and Monster Stats. Try to find a copy of the original Greyhawk Box Set. This Box inspired millions of DMs! I've bought a bunch of Boxes in my time, but this one is the best. Again, you don't need to play it, though you may be tempted too as much of the work is done for you, but look at the format. That is what I did. It makes things much easier.

    Time!!! Well, that is the bane of all of us. Can't help you there. That should be the hard part, getting inspired should not be.

  2. Oh, I have the World of Greyhawk. I also have my own Blacklands Barony set up already, terrain and weather charts and all, political factions, guilds, noble families, schools of magic. I use a spreadsheet to flesh out various factions - The columns are various factions, say thieves' guilds, the rows are specific qualities, say unique skills, types of character classes they have, how they operate etc. Have a mega dungeon too. Fifteen levels ranging from level one to four, ecologically accurate. Mega dungeon was a mistake, much like trench warfare. It took the gaming away from the sandbox and the campaign development. I have modules too. The A, G, D, Q arc, some of the B, Tomb of horrors, etc.

    I am on the fence with the modules - temptation to play them to discover them, desire to write my own. Most players have read through most iconic modules. In 1982 I read through the B2 Keep on the Borderlands. In 2009 I was playing in a game, where DM was using B2 as a site for his own setting. All of a sudden I remember what was in that cave... 17 years later. That recall shocked me!

    The real issue I have are as follows: Everybody talks sand boxes, yet nobody is really interested in exploring the mysterious world.