Sunday, April 19, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Parctice 7 - Wilderness Exploration Tables & Procedural Generation

Shadowed channels and dense thickets mean that encounters with the resident horrors of the Green Morass tend to occur at close range, 2d6X10’, unless the party is surprised in which case the encounter occurs at the monsters’ preferred distance (melee range except for the Scavengers who will engage with missiles at 80’). Monsters with surprise will attack, capitalizing on their advantage, unless otherwise noted.

Denizens of the Unwholesome Sea
Vampire Apes (1d6/3): Mountains of aggression, stinking white fur, and pale pink flesh.
Four-armed alpha predators of the Green Morass, always hungry for fresh blood and
dominance. Vampire Apes have no fear and arrive booming and ululating.
Malign Thrall (1): Cheerful, with a shanty on its withered lips this mad hermit still wears
the rotting garb of a sailor or explorer, rags hanging from a withered frame.    
Dead Men (2D6): Shambling confused corpses: bones wrapped with the shreds of a
naval uniform, sun blackened gristle wearing explorer’s boots or naked and sea
changed.  The dead have no needs, but furious anger. They may ignore you however.
Scavengers (1D6+2): Crouch and men in travellers leathers, blackened mail. Each
with a sheepskin pelisse. Hard-eyed and wary of the mangroves, they creep and watch.
Owlbears (1D6/2): Fat balls of grey fur and pink feathers with curved beaks. Smaller
then many subspecies, the Owlbears of the Green Morass are well fed and numerous. 
Plague Monkeys (2D6): Screaming from the trees, grey green with mouths of  ivory
sickles, the monkeys are the eyes of the Malign Intelligence, tormented by hunger. 
Sea Hulda (1D6/2): Languid singers of enchanting melody who nest along muddy
channels, the Hulda are not predators but filled with mischief, curiosity and wild
Droning Birds (1 swarm):  Hummingbirds, bloated to the size of a sparrow - each a
carbuncle reflecting angry red and cool grey green.  They fill the air with droning song
and seek to drown their jagged beaks in warm blood with singular purpose. 
Warnings and Signs
A 10’ clearing carved from the mangrove with brute force. Trunks crushed, snapped,
trampled, torn up and tossed high into canopy or shredded by bestial strength.

Rhythmic booming
-- the chest beating of Vampire Apes echoes in the muggy air.
Floating in a muddy silt pool or lashed to a bundle of mangrove trunks is a display of
bones, trinkets and carved sticks.  A
shrine, exalting a face of leaves and a volcano.
A cracked voice sings a
sea shanty badly, words repeated, verses broken.
Smeared through mangrove bent by passing, as a slick on the rivulets and channels is
a skein of foul grease, an easy to follow
trail of rancid slime with the sweetness of
putrefaction.  The mangrove is
silent: birds’ cries stilled, animals’ rustles absent.
Sigils carved new into tree trunks or deadwood appear more frequently, smugglers and
pirates of the Pyre Sea recognize these as
Buccaneer’s Sign -- a system of simple
directions and information known to the Pyre Coast and Umber Haven’s outcasts. 
Massive claw marks have carved out deep muddy wallows in the stream banks and lily
beds. Nearby trees have their bark torn as if used to sharpen an enormous sickle.

strange hooting echoes from everywhere underneath avain cawing a deep growl.  
The body lies crumpled, pallid and drained of blood, marked by hundreds of punctures.
The dead’s possessions are torn and scattered the entire scene splattered in droppings
of sticky melena. Rhythmic
screaming, mocking, desperate and repeated.  Chorus
answers chorus from the fastness of the foliage.
Along the bank a cluster of low bundles, small crude huts of tied, living reeds with an
entrance facing the muddy water. Eye wateringly high and sweet a
nonsense song
floats ethereally along the waterway - doleful, knowing, its meaning just beyond ken. 
A stand of the mangrove has been stripped bare, the naked tree stark and pale
denuded of leaf, bark and flower.  A thrumming, teeth rattling drone disquiets the ear.

Basic weather in the Green Morass is hot, muggy and enervating. Stink rises from the sluggish shadowed waters of thousands of channels. The Green Flow splits and splits again, pushing through its overgrown estuary with a cloudy load of the Plague Fleet’s pestilent magic and rich marsh dirt despite the mangrove’s filtering. Weather changes suddenly, blowing in from the Pyre Sea with lashing rain or soothing salt breezes - only rarely dangerous, but often inconvenient. Some results require seeking cover. Weather effects last either a specific duration before returning to the basic weather, or until a new weather result supersedes them. This can mean finding a sheltering ruin, or constructing a quick lean-to - anything that keeps off the weather or allows a small fire. Even an overturned canoe or dense thicket and heavy cloak will provide sufficient protection.
The Elements
A Balmy Breeze. For the next 2D6 hours a refreshing salt breeze cools and pampers.
All exhaustion effects are reduced by two pips or levels.  
Fat black clouds scud in from the sea dropping Gentle Showers for the next 2 hours.
Sea Fog. For 4 hours a heavy fog hangs in the Mangroves, muffling sound and
concealing everything.  If the party moves on the next exploration rolls result in
event on a 1,3, or 6.
Violent Storm. Lasts 2d6 hours. Wind lashed rain drives sideways ripping away
branches and leaves, lighting crashes, thunder drums.  Seek cover or suffer a pip/level
of exhaustion for each segment of movement.
Killing Heat. Until the next weather result the heat takes an oppressive turn, still air
stifles and even the shade is unbearable. Anyone wearing heavy armor suffers one pip
or level of exhaustion every 2 hours.
Overcast Skies 3D6 Hours of dark gray sky.  Ominous and promising rain. Any
weather roll during this time will be rain (2,4,7 or 8) instead - use the nearest rain result
to the roll. 
Dreary Sheets of Rain. Lasts until the next weather result.  Ground quickly turns to
chilly mud and overflowing channels clog with water and uprooted vegetation.  

Each movement segment requires twice as long to travel (4 or 6 hours).
Poison Rain Lasts 2 hours.  Dredged up from the vileness of the Morass or another
toxic sink, fat drops sizzle on the canopy, discolor the waters and melt flesh.  Find cover
or suffer 1D6 HP damage and Save vs. Wands/DC 15 WIS check to avoid
losing/damaging wooden and leather equipment (armor, bows, arrows).

The Strange and the Inconvenient 
A mist rising from the earth, eerie and smelling of rot coalesces into Ghostly Visions:
sailors, swimming and drowning in mid-air, explorers lost and despairing, crouch
hunters - the entire history of the Morass played out by mindless echoes of the past. 
Cracking and boiling in the distance, an offshore Coral Eruption surfaces explosively
as a new spire. An impressive sight from the shoreline, but only the noise of distance
violence further inland. 
The mangrove groves still, birds suddenly silent and around the leaves shift and sway
unnaturally, duckweed eddies and swirls, flowers bend and tendrils unfurl.  All around
nature briefly coalesces into starring
Green Faces with leafy lips that smile and sneer. 
The paths and channels wind and twist lead to a tantalizing Dead End, where the only
way onward is to backtrack -- 2 extra hours of travel added to the segment.
Spoiled Rations. A stink comes from the packs, some awful vermin or mold rampages
through your supplies.  Half of your rations are rotten, useless and inedible.
The foul waters melt open a seam, or a canoe rips its bottom on a Hidden
.  A pack animal snaps a limb, bad footed in the mud.  Lose a pack animal
or small vessel to disaster, otherwise someone slips and falls: muddy but unharmed.
A honeyed heaviness rises from the depths of the morass, bubbling to the surface and
temporarily spreading a
Balm of magical lassitude.  The thoughts of all creatures
involuntarily turn to mortality and solitude and the next encounter will not attack
regardless of reaction roll (retreating or warning off the party instead). 
Cache: hanging in a bag among the branches, tied in the reeds or revealed by a falling
stream bank:  1D6 - 2 flasks of oil, 1D6 - 2 preserved rations, 60’ of rope, or other
useful supplies. 

Memorable Sites 
The trackless mangrove opens into a low dome of solid ground, hazy with swarming
insects. Millions of pitcher plants perfume the
Low Hill with a sweet musky incense and
cover it in red, gold and vibrant green.
Above the treetops the leaning masts of a Towering Wreck, festooned vines and
overgrown with flowers offer a convenient point of reference.  Below a stone ship,
tangled, sunken, mud filled and lost to the mangrove.
Stark, bleached white and pale pink dappling its jagged exterior, a Dead Spire of
wandering coral juts into the canopy, testimony of the Morass’ slow accretion.
Streams and runnels converge, flowing faster and churning in a roaring Whirlpool.
Opening into a wide pool free of trees, lit by the full sun and carpeted with waterlilies.
Pink, white, pale blue and yellow
Flowers erupt from the pool along with the rattling
croak of fat toads whose skin is the color of dried blood.
Overgrown with vines, infested with lizards and returning to the swamp, rotting wicker
and tumbling clay huts raised on stilts mark an abandoned
Crouch VIllage.  
Dead Forest spans a channel poisoned by drowned magic. Bone white roots and
branches of the dead mangrove create a fragile web bright against the dark swamp.
A Beach offers a rare break in the mangrove, sunlight sparkles on the water and blue
and orange crabs cavort on the hot sand.

Setting Through Random Generation:
Plague Ships is a dungeon crawl, but these first several pages of content relate to the region around the dungeons - what might be described by someone obsessed with codification of TTRPG adventure design as the procedurally generated point crawl matrix surrounding a nodal dungeon. Because the adventure is a dungeon crawl, I want to get to the dungeon keys quickly and spend as few posts/pages as possible on the hooks, rumors, local region, random wilderness encounters and such. Plague Ships takes shortcuts to do this - intentionally. The Green Morass Point Crawl is largely procedural, its adventures generated by rolling on the tables above. Certainly most of the encounters, events, and certainly landmarks here could be placed on the map as keyed encounters, but doing so would require a greater amount of work and space then providing a procedural table system and more content would be necessary to fill the same space.

Procedural design though is less exacting, less detailed, and places a greater creative burden on the individual. Each description above is more general then a keyed location description, not just because it is terse, but because the content needs to be adaptable to more situations then a dungeon key, and the designer has fewer tools to situate it within the map, to show its relationship with other content or structure how and when it will be used. However, the ability to create complex situations, for the random tables to generate story and to do so in a way that remains true to the setting is undeniable. The party can surprise a pact of Vampire Apes as the creatures bellow their defiance at the thundering sky beneath a dead coral pillar. The peaceful menace of poisoned forest can spoil the parties rations. Evocative events evolve out of an interaction between the tables, and the GM’s ability to piece them together in novel ways, or the players’ to see connections between randomly generated scenes.

Still this sort of content is more time consuming at the table (the GM needs not only to understand the key and its place in the level, but to generate and interpret the content), and beyond emphasis of setting elements isn’t well situated to tell longer more complex stories. Simple procedural table content can introduce factions and their goals, but unlike a fully keyed location the smaller scenes it creates don’t elaborate on faction personalities, interactions and plans in the same way. More in depth procedural content is possible, but at a certain point it becomes very complex for the GM to structure well, ruinously time consuming, and doesn’t save space compared to keying. At that point procedural content is a preference, GM tool, or a stunt rather than functional adventure design. There may eventually be more procedural tools of this later type added to Plague Ships as an appendix for creating additional wrecks, but procedurally generating an entire adventure isn’t Plague ship’s particular gimmick.

Tables to fill in a loosely sketched, relatively low interactivity wilderness however are a traditional and useful application of procedural content, producing setting appropriate scenes/encounters with enough variety be reused and re-framed for the multiple times. The tables here provide more than random combat encounters, because the exploration of the Green Morass, and traveling through it isn’t simply a combat challenge - in all likelihood encounters with dangerous monsters aren’t especially likely, maybe occurring once every couple of sessions. Rather than present a preliminary combat challenge, the tables seek to offer setting detail and a transition to the “mythic underworld” of the actual keyed locations. Weather, events, and signs offer warnings about the need for caution, wariness of environmental danger, understanding of time-limitations and clues about what sorts of creatures and challenges await. The goal here is to produce a flexible set of possible events and scenes that give a sense of danger and place. They are tools the GM can use minimally, or elaborate on, depending on the player’s interest and the pace of the game.

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