Saturday, April 11, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 6 - Small Point Crawl & Exploration Die


Approaching from the shore is no less dangerous than from the sea, and the area within a half day from the wrecks is an arcane sink, polluted with rotten magic. Wilderness Encounter checks in the morass occur once every two hours, including during the night, unless the party has camped with the Lost Lambs. However, beyond constant threats and strange happenings, the very land revolts against mortal life, making camping within the Green Flow Morass near impossible due to the mangrove's Vampire Ecology.

Despite the constant attention of biting insects and the sucking mud’s reek of vegetal decay, travel through the morass is beautiful in its fecundity - the profusion and variety of life arresting. A narrow reed choked channel opens into a dappled pond where gold and scarlet pitcher plants blanket the sluggish water. A siege of herons with bright banded legs, beaks and cascading tail feathers hunts along the shore of a white beach. The alchemical ceramic columns of a sunken Hemiolia’s pilot house rise from a marsh, jarring white against the Morass’s greys - a shaded portico that promises cool respite from the desiccating heat.

The Morass isn’t huge, but it’s a dense and unruly maze of shifting channels, mud islands, red sand beaches and overgrown wrecks. Traveling through it takes time and rarely follows the same route, but as a matter of game mechanics the Morass is abstracted, its map is a simple point crawl, with dots noting each segment of travel. Assuming the adventurers are equipped with skiffs, coracles or canoes, items available and recommended at any Crouch Village, each segment of travel requires roughly two hours (approximated as six each day and six each night) and an exploration die roll. Without water transport explorers will take 4 hours and two checks per segment of travel as well as quickly becoming drenched in foul mud and briny marsh water.

An exploration roll, like a random encounter roll, is a D6 check that determines what the party discovers of encounters in the next period of travel. Used in wilderness travel it has the advantage of providing context for travel beyond encounters for wandering monsters: encounters, signs, weather, events, landmarks, and becoming lost.

Encounters (1): The path of the explorers and one of the Morass’s more dangerous denizen have crossed. Roll a D6 for surprise - if the monster succeeds it will likely attack the party from its preferred range without warning. If the party succeeds they will spot the creature from 1D6x40’ (or rounds of movement) away and have the opportunity to retreat, sneak up, attack with surprise or hail the monster. In all other cases the encounter begins at a distance of 1D6x20’ with a reaction roll.

Sign (2): Some indication of a nearby creature. When this is rolled the next encounter or sign results in encountering the previously indicated creature.

Weather(3): Wilderness regions have a regular native weather, and this result changes it, each result representing an anomalous condition that will eventually change with another weather result or revert to the base condition depending on the effect. Weather is most often only a cosmetic and narrative change, but serious conditions can also have mechanical effects.

Events (4): The wilderness is full of obstacles and dangers that can delay or injure explorers as well as strange, notable occurrences. Events can be everything from the spoilage of supplies from fungus spores, to a divine vision or prophetic daydream.

Landmarks (5): Even in as overgrown, odd and confusing a wilderness as the Green Morass there are sights memorable enough to help even the most foolish traveler retain their bearings. Landmarks are notable locations to be marked on the map and the more that are discovered the easier it will be for lost travelers to regain their bearings.

Lost (6): It’s easy to become lost in the Morass and expeditions, especially those who travel at night, will find themselves at risk for dying sleepless from exhaustion and drained of blood within the mangrove’s hungry thickets and clutching vines. Lost parties wander aimlessly, until they find their way back to the nearest landmark or the edge of the map. Once lost each future exploration has a chance of bringing the party back to the nearest landmark or the start of their prior segment of travel on a 5 or 6 during the day and 6 at night. For each landmark previously discovered on the current segment the party gains a reroll of any roll that doesn’t return them to safety.

All life in the Green Flow Morass is vampiric, parasitic, drinking curses from the water and life form the world around it. Even the plants in the Morass stretch towards death and blood the way most flora reaches for the sun. This complicates travel, making it miserable: swarms of biting midges, waters filled with nipping colorless minnows and any stop interrupted by clutching reaching vines. Rest for more than five or ten minutes, let alone camping, in the Morass is a near impossibility and exhaustion can be as serious a threat as the ravenous wildlife and spirits that haunt the mangroves.

Camping and Exhaustion in the Green Morass: Wandering for long periods in the Morass without rest is draining, mentally, physically and literally as tiny insects bite drink their fill. For each two hour period spent in the Morass after the first twelve, characters need to make a 4D6 v. CON (or CON based DC 15) check modified by applicable survival skill. Success means trudging on without serious effects, but failure means a -1 to all future rolls (including future checks) up to collapse at a -5 and death at -6. In 5th edition a failed check means a level of exhaustion. Camping doesn’t alleviate the debilitating effects of the Morass, as larger and larger swarms of biting insects gather, vines and tree roots intrude into any camp and small rodents, birds and lizards dart in to nip at anyone who is still for a couple of moments.

Only the careful precautions at the campsite of the Lost Lambs, with its sealed and raised sleeping chambers, allows normal rest within the Morass, though certain areas of some wrecks can also be sealed by knowledgeable and enterprising scavengers. Likewise once a Mortal makes a deal with or fully succumbs to the Morass’s guiding will, its Malign Intelligence, the individual will be immune to the effects of the Vampire Ecology.

Thus time is important in the Morass, but the GM shouldn’t feel shackled by it, and trying to track the elapsed time spent exploring the individual wrecks (dungeon time) as well as outdoor time can be daunting. Better to assume that a session of exploration takes 4 - 8 hours, roughly 24 - 48 turns, with any discrepancies accounted for by the imperfect nature of character timekeeping and the time dilating oddities common to arcane sinks.

Whispers of The Malign Intelligence: At the heart of the Green Morass is a guiding intelligence, a spirit shackled to the necromantic engine of the Red Queen, hateful and plotting. It sees with the marsh lifes’ million eyes, and masters the human and bestial thralls that have fallen to its lies and entreaties. New adventurers within its domain interest it, and offer potential pawns to sacrifice to the Intelligence’s undying hatred of the Successor Empire.

Attempting to rest (even in a safe camp or after collapse from exhaustion) results in bright jarring nightmares of vine, water and bone where a face of leaves and flowers whispers questions and promises. Questions around the character’s intent, goals, supplies, abilities, companions and promises of treasure, safety and power if the sleeper does favors for the green face. Answering these questions truthfully will allow the dreamer to sleep safely long enough to remove any exhaustion, but secretly make the sleeper susceptible to the Malign Intelligence (-2 to saves from it and its thralls efforts to charm, dominate, frighten or otherwise affect the character). Nor will it allow such easy sleep a second time, requiring an active pledge to assist it and let it “inside” the dreamer (with a corresponding loss of 1D6 WIS). After this each attempt to rest in the Morass results in more dreams, with promises of reward: power, survival, wealth - whatever the character wants (the Intelligence knows their minds rather intimately) and additional 1D6 Wisdom damage. If Wisdom drops below 3 the character becomes a Thrall in service of the Malign Intelligence and is effectively dead.

The effects of the Malign Intelligence's intrusion do not fade over time, but can be cured by Remove Curse (except for victims who have become Thralls - who require Remove Curse and Raise Dead).

A Note on Time, Rest and Adventure Sessions:
Exploration dice both in and outside the dungeon will be a recurring theme in this project. They are an extraordinary useful mechanic that alleviates both recordkeeping for issues like time and supplies (though here timekeeping remains necessary due to exhaustion), ensures that play remains fairly fast paced because almost every turn results in an event, and helps add variety and interest to wilderness while offering the designer and GM additional chances to include setting information and clues.

The Green Morass is a “point crawl”, meaning that wilderness movement isn’t tracked by location so much as by relation. Parties who wander into the Morass along the shore will come across the Cruelty after a two hour hike and exploration die roll. Parties entering along the river will discover the Risen Empire in two hours. The goal of these mechanics is to add a sense of travel and place the ‘dungeons’ of the Plague Fleet within a shared context. It should be scenic and offer some minor challenges to supply, but except for the rare random encounter gone very wrong, travel in the Morass is intended as a minor misery and risk to supplies, not a mortal challenge to the adventurers.

That’s not to say that the Morass’s mechanics, especially its Vampire Ecology, don’t serve another purpose, both mechanical and narrative. The idea of a swamp where every bit of life is parasitic and shackled to the Malign Intelligence is an important adventure element, providing the identity to one of the major factions (the others being the Drowned Dead and the Lost Lambs) and a introduction to the risks of magical sinks which are emblematic of this setting.

Mechanically the Vampire Ecology serves to set expectations and limits to exploration. It’s common in modern adventures that the party will camp in the dungeon, or simply continue in media res after each session. This system is disfavored in classic games, both to support the “open table” where characters and players change between sessions and because of the increased importance of resupply, recovery and down time. Plague Ships follows the classic approach, but the idea that the party should end each session by retreating from the dungeon and back to safety (likely the Crouch village at the top of the map) may seem jarring to many more modern players. Vampire Ecology provides an in-fiction justification for leaving the Morass between sessions.

In the context of 5th Edition’s combat and rest economy, where undisturbed rest seems to be expected after almost every combat encounter, the Morass’s environmental peculiarities offer an early warning that rest is hard to come by -- hopefully making combat a less popular solution to encounters. The addition of specific havens and boltholes in the Morass and its dungeons is also intended as a way of creating lesser goals (find a safe campsite) that can mitigate the amount of game and play time it takes to reach the dungeon. The goal being to make ‘rest’ another resource to be discovered through the exploration of the dungeon (an orienteering puzzle) and negotiation with its denizens (faction play).

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