Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 1 - Plague Ships Intro and Hooks

Below is the first of a series of  shorter posts discussing my personal design process and rationales for design decisions through the example of keying a location - the wrecks of high fantasy arcane warships in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting.  I intend to key it for both the 1981 Moldvay Basic edition and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, but that may prove to be impossible.  A lot of decisions and elements of the project may prove to be impossible ... but even in the likely event of failure, I hope readers will find some ideas to discuss and mull over about the nature of classic adventure.

These posts will be structured to include elements of the project - "Plague Ships" and a notes on one or more design element of the content.


Polyandrium of Imperial ambition, Green Flow Morass stinks in the hot Southern sun. Bluish mud flats teem with giant blue shrimp below a shallow green tide. Grey mangroves garlanded in moss echo with the screech of sickle-fanged monkeys and the constant drumming drip as the fecund growth sweats in the humid heat. Above it tower the imperishable remains of the Grande Fleet of the Successor Empire, immured in an inconclusive settlement to an inconclusive war and scuttled to prevent the ancient stone war vessels from being parcelled out by the squabbling victors... the Plague Fleet.

The unwholesome airs of the Morass, untrustworthy currents and offshore reefs of wandering predatory coral have limited recovery and salvage to the schemes of crackpots, dreamers, confidence men. That the wrecks are haunted, trapped, and cursed makes them too dangerous for all but the most desperate and foolish freebooters.

The Morass is at the delta of the Green Flow, one of the many rivers that wind through the swamps of the Umber Havens. While both Morass and Flow are landmarks, they have grim reputation as plagued and dangerous even in a land of endemic mosquito and waterborne illness. The general location is all that’s necessary to find the wrecks, but in lotus dens, pleasure arks and gaming pits along the Alien’s Wharf of old Auram Ferro there are stories of the Morass to chill the soul. Likewise, in the swamp villages of crouch and human outcasts the cockroach people bubble and hiss strange tales of the wrecked Fleet.

If hints of wealth and strange adventure or desperate circumstances fail to intrigue your players the following opportunities may draw them to the Plague Fleet.

d6  The Largesse of Aurum Ferro’s Golden Thrones Smile on the Brave.

  1. The spring ball season has found its fad - the calculating spheres from the bombardment ordinators of stone ships worn on the corsage or as a wig borne fascinator.
  2. A dispute among gentlefolk will end in a duel, and civil unrest if proof of the battle honors and identity of 1st Officer of the quadrireme Risen Empire aren’t recovered soon.
  3. The popular Rag Priest of the 19th “Indigent” Emperor, Maximo the Obliging disappeared months ago, a holy vision demanded he succor the the Plague Fleet’s dead.
  4. The Arsenal will pay handsomely for ancient weaponry, or even parts - the fleet needs lightning casters, falconets, sakers and the sights and motive chambers of basilisks.
  5. The decrepit, wealthy Margrave is fixated on Imperial pride. He’s offering commissions to mount an expedition scourging Crouch and foreigners from the war graves of the Fleet.
  6. The Hemolina Cruelty was a storied raider, and her concealed strongroom hides the mummy of a Maratime Heresiarch Emperor/Admirals - returning it would bring trade.
This is all the introductory backstory one needs for a location based adventure, enough to get the GM involved in the location and provide a frame of reference for what follows. There’s plenty of other options for an introduction: introductory fiction or a timeline perhaps, but Plague Fleet is a largely static location and its past not important enough to adventure there to need details beyond what’s provided in the room keys. A timeline is only really necessary if it impacts the present - defining the players experience - and relates to clocks or other time based transformations of the location. Setting fiction though it may have a place in setting books, is an indulgence and affectation of the designer in an adventure. This lack of background, history and lore isn’t a sign that an adventure is a quotidian exercise dependent on an existing setting; Details of a rich past are best suggested and hinted at though description and other elements that directly impact play or act as detail the players can discover.

What’s provided in the introduction is largely for the GM, but here I seek to use that as a way to set the feel and offer the most basic and general information that the GM will relay to the players about the location. Here we learn it’s a nearby marsh, delta or mangrove where a fleet of magical stone ships were scuttled or abandoned in an ancient war. This is the basic hook - the presentation of a ruin to explore and seek treasure in. In an open world game, one places several locations on a map, gives the players some rumors about them and runs whichever location the players decide appeals to them - that location providing wealth (and through it XP in most classic style games), a story of adventure, factional conflict and potential for future intrigue. However, while being broke and lacking a reputable occupation is an excellent reason to take up tomb robbing, or more politely adventure (and crime - in the real world at least), some players are motivated by heroism and others are smart enough to look for a bit of patronage as a backstop for their treasure hunting activities.

Hooks are short prompts that provide specific reasons to enter a location and specific goals within, they are different from rumors as they don’t offer many clues about the risks and inhabitants of the dungeon, but instead provide specific goals for undertaking an adventure, and when utilized well also better tie the player characters into the setting. In addition to their part in setting up specific adventure Hooks (and rumors) are easy and efficient ways to build setting within the game and without dumping information on the player. From the hooks here we learn a small amount about the larger setting beyond Plague Ships - the fading petty decadence of Aurum Ferro, the existence of its rival the Martime Provence, the name of a sympathetic priest and his religion (the patron god/saint of Aurum Ferro specifically) and the existence of a faction opposed to Aurum Ferro’s elite - “Crouch renegades”. All this detail is left intentionally vague, though as part of an established setting I know far more, but a GM reading Plague Ships doesn’t need to. Vague outlines are easily converted or elaborated on to fit into a setting more appropriate to an individual GM’s table, and as a designer one should not, cannot, extend control to the entire settings or games of readers within an adventure. It’s best to limit extrinsic elements of the adventure (such as hooks) to a few evocative details that are easily adapted or ignored. Location based adventures exist partially to drop into sandbox maps as an adjunct to a GM’s own locations and setting.

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