Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 3 - Scope and Regional Map


Several days South East of Aurum Ferro, at a confused delta of the sluggish Green Flow, a serpentine twin of the Black Flow, Turpid Wake, and innumerable other streams draining into the Umber Havens from the snowy peaks of the Maiden Tombs to the West. Land and Water meet messily here: fresh, brackish and salt mingling in uneasy union spread over miles of marsh, mangrove, mudflat and cane forest.



The Pyre Coast - A desolate and rocky hinterland notable mainly for its internecine range warfare, deplorable poverty and lack of decent anchorages. Goats, heather and dry grass interrupted by the occasional ruin or scenic cliff.

The Pyre Sea - Once the Inner or World Sea, the conflagration of the Old Empire gave the Pyre Sea its new name. Patrolled by Maritime Provence naval pirates, the Aurum Ferro privateer squadron and sea wyrms its islands and trade lanes are the scene of both robust trade and countless naval battles.

Green Hive - Breadbasket of the Successor Empire, and neighboring province of the Umber Havens. Neither the constant people stealing crusades from the Solar Papacy or the mismanagement of Syndicators: tax farming, debt peonage, land speculation, and proxy wars can drive enough refugees from the vineyards, fields and apiaries to reduce the Hives fecundity - though its greatest crop is now human misery.

Aurum Ferro - The Successor Empire’s great port on the Pyre Sea, an ancient metropolis of drowned towers, jaded, worldly and decadent even by the standards of a sybaritic nation. Home to the Imperial Naval Arsenal and a bustling focal point of international trade where exotic frivolities are traded for the Empire’s eons of stored wealth. It’s merchant magnets, privateer admirals and anesthetized nobility whine, demand and pay lavishly to have their whims catered to.

Crouch Villages - A race of arcane sports, spontaneously evolved in the magical sinks of the Umber Havens, the crouch are reviled for their waist high cockroach forms, acrid odor, chittering speech and diet of decaying matter. Mistreated in towns like Aurum Ferro, many Crouch live contentedly enough in the swamps and marsh. Oddly the Crouch welcome strangers into their mud and reed stilt villages, and many human outcast finds a new life of relative contentment among them - fishing, gathering and hunting.

The Maw of Snails - A magical sink and ancient mining catacomb know for the bright shelled snails that erupt from its shafts nightly, only to die in the sunlight leaving fields of slowly bleaching shell.

Drowned Mansions - In the high ancient days the marsh of the Umber Havens was reclaimed with levee and canal, a rich cropland home to elaborate manor houses, agricultural factors, and summer retreats for nobility and trade magnets. Neglect, saltwater intrusion, collapsed dams and magical corruption have left only decaying shells, looted parlous, and flooded cellars.

Angel Reef - The Southern twin of Aurum Ferro, a drowned Imperial metropolis -- levees and dams smashed by war. Inundated, and sunk beneath the hot doldrums of the Pyre Sea, home to sea wyrm kin of the dragon Zubrab the
Insatiable Wind and haunted by the dead.  Angel Reefl is a magnet to salvors and treasure hunters with an even grimmer reputation then the Plague Fleet.

The map here is largely a placeholder and visual aid, encouragement to the reader to place Plague Ships within a larger setting and the barest hints at what that context might include. While the map and notes contain information about potential nearby havens and a few possible adventuring sites, it’s not properly classified as a point crawl. It could be the skeleton of one, and perhaps if the players take a liking to the area GMs may build it out into a regional setting, but even the paragraphs of location detail are vague gesture in the direction of setting, a personal pretension, rather than anything for use at the table. This is all intentional - the scope of Plague Ships simply isn’t big enough to take in the Umber Havens: the city of Aurum Ferro, a ruined city or megadungeon, multiple lairs and small dungeons like the drowned mansions or Maw of Snails. As much as I have ideas about what the entire Umber Havens includes, Plague Ships would be unmanageable both as an adventure to read or run and as a writing project if I tried to include them. Nor is it necessary to create an entirely self-contained location, as with location based adventures most GMs will drop the location alone onto their map, likely with changes to better fit their setting or campaign, which means that too much setting detail and context for the location are often unused.

In the same way truthful rumors are partially a concession to a lack of a developed town that might allow for the investigation of false ones, this cursory map is also a concession to scope - Plague Ships will be big and complex enough without including extensive wilderness travel. Individual GMs can easily add a wilderness element to the adventure, but as a designer there’s simply not enough space to control or include that aspect of play. Scope, brevity and giving up designer control will be a reoccurring theme in this design process, because as tempting and easy to pile on details, histories, story arcs and compelling NPCs, at some point the designer needs to step back and offer tools that let individual GMs run their adventure. Too much information is as bad as too little, and while minimalism can be just as bad, offering insufficient details to run an adventure or make it distinct, maximalism can be worse, drowning important details in unusable lore or convoluted organization to the point where an adventure is unplayable. Both require the individual GM to practically rewrite the adventure, either to flesh out and make sense of the details, or to sift through and order them in a way they can be relayed during play.  I've tried to balance these concerns by offering a larger regional map and some notes that hopefully inspire GMs for additional content of the same sort as the Plague Fleet and I've included some vague distances on the map in case the adventure ends up leading to a regional campaign and the GM hasn't inserted it in her own setting. This might be too much, these two pages may not make it to any final draft of Plague Ships, replaced with a simple note --
usability means a designer should beware of excess, and the larger region of the Umber Havens maybe excess.
A location as a point crawl however isn’t excess, and in some ways Plague Ships is designed as one - its scale is small, simply the Green Morass, a day across, not the entire region of the Umber Havens. Scale tends to grow with an adventure, as a good adventure links to the rest of the setting as part of a larger whole: factions, treasures, and history all are best when they relate to something beyond the specific site that the designer is offering. For example, as the designer I know a lot more about the social and political situation between Green Hive, Aurum Ferro and the larger Successor Empire they are part of - the regions casually mentioned in Plague Ship have backstories and geography full of ideas, but there’s simply no space to include them. The scope of Plague Ships has to be constrained, and constraining an adventure is something that creative designers struggle with because they always have more ideas, more details and all of these are both important and exciting - what they aren’t is useful, not at least to running the adventure at hand. At some point, both to finish an adventure and to run one, usability has to move to the fore.

That the reader of this adventure will not learn these details from Plague Ships and instead if they choose to include the vague references such as this regional map will have to leave them unexplored or invent their own versions of my setting ideas isn’t my failure as a designer and similarly it’s no failure as a GM. Leaving open, undefined spaces in your setting without knowing what a specific phrase means or a specific distant location looks like is valuable, it saves effort that can be spent elsewhere unless the players are interested and it creates something to build out as needed. Limiting scope is hard, and because location based adventure tends to focus on offering players freedom to explore, travel and pick the rumors, hooks and locations they find compelling scope can expand quickly to become unmanageable.

There’s always the fear as a GM that one doesn’t have the right material, or as a designer that one isn’t offering enough information to run an enjoyable adventure. These are sometimes valid concerns, and there are tools (the next entry should start covering the idea of random tables and travel to generate content) to resolve them, but in opposition of to this fear is the risk of providing too much, creating an overly complex, unusable jumble or a story that’s so constrained there’s no room for the players to freely make choices. The one invalid, or perhaps just unsolvable, concern in location based adventure is that a GM or group of players won’t proceed through the adventure the way the GM or designer wants them to. Trusting players and creating the freedom of an open world or sandbox means actually offering players freedom and once you’ve denied that there’s no reason to design a TTRPG adventure over writing a story.

Hooks, rumors and past adventures provide players with the information players need to decide the nature and location of the adventures they want, and offering such information, as well as a variety of hooks and location is necessary, otherwise there’s no actual choice just an unrealizable promise of it. This of course returns to the use of published adventures in location based exploration play - published adventures a reservoir of options that a GM can use to quickly fill in the blank spaces of their map and slide into play when the players make a decision to follow up something beyond the scope of a GM’s prepared setting materials. Obviously if one’s adventure is being used as a backstop or optional content, a designer one can’t expect to control its use, and as a GM such published material is useful largely to the extent that it can be slotted into one’s existing campaign or setting.

For Plague Ships that means this map and the notations attached to it will at best serve as inspiration for a GM to build a regional sandbox, and each GM’s sandbox will be very different from the one I’ve built for the Umber Havens, but are most likely superfluous. As a designer this can be hard to accept - the monsters and locations one offers are part of a larger whole, contextualized within a fantasy world that is unique and excitingly different, and they must be to be interesting - but most likely none of that external uniqueness and context is useful to the reader.

This might be a more philosophical problem, and one I can’t answer with some kind of lesson or best practice, but limitations on scope are something each designer and GM has to reach a comfort level with and accept, because even with a location based adventure (as opposed to a narrative one), there’s a limit to the story the designer can exercise control over, and it’s shockingly tight if one wants to finish writing the adventure and keep it to a manageable length. Because of this my personal approach is to provide vague intimations and hints at a larger world, without worrying overmuch if the reader will pick up on them or use them. Context and “lore” are great, but they’ aren’t the core of the adventure and minimizing them leaves room for more important things like additional keyed locations.

The scope of Plague Ships, beyond this first couple of pages, which set it into a loosely sketched region and world, is narrowly focused on the tiny point crawl (several miles or a day across perhaps) of the Green Morass and three of the most accessible wrecks within.


  1. Considering the scope of the adventuring site, I'm a little surprised your map covers as much territory as it does. The map you've drawn is rife with adventuring alternatives. I feel myself drawn to the Drowned Mansions, and I know at least one player who'd insist on checking out the Maw of Snails.

    I understand why you won't be developing these sites further (because you want to focus on Aurum Ferro and the shipwrecks just off its coast) but it's an interesting design choice to include them as hints of a larger setting that you don't intend to flesh out.

    I wonder if you considered drawing a more "close up" map of the region where the actual adventuring is going to take place? Or if there's a reason you think it's important to have a more "zoomed out" map of the larger setting?

    1. Absolutely! You've hit on one of my major weaknesses in adventure design - scope. There is a more close up map mostly drawn to attach to the morass's local environmental rules (In a couple of posts) that's limited the three major (keyed) wrecks with minor stuff on it as unexplored details. I think the "Scope" explanation below the map explains the rationale for including the map as well as the counter argument for not including it (much the same as yours) - honestly were I to publish this, including the regional map is pretty debatable - there's something to be said for including space to roam, and setting building - but yeah it's a deviation from a tight scope ... how many pages is it worth in a publication? It's a question I struggle with.


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