Saturday, February 27, 2021

Jewelbox Design and Broken Bastion


Broken Bastion is the third “mini-adventure” I’ve written up for Tombrobbers of the Crystal Frontier. (Link to Drivethru Page) It’s a longer location, designed for 3rd level adventurers, with several small levels and 14 keyed locations. It’s also an experimental effort, a trap maze of sorts and includes a significant number of GM notes. Broken Bastion is experimental in that it does several things that I’d normally consider ‘bad’ location design: begins with an obstacle, includes a powerful “hunting” monster that’s potentially difficult to run, offers very limited opportunity for roleplaying/faction intrigue, includes numerous weapon immune creatures and has multiple traps that can annihilate the entire party without a chance of a saving throw.

However, I’ve done my best to make these various bad ideas work together to create a risky location that’s deadly, but not unfair and with sufficient rewards to tempt players into unwise decisions rather than death by happenstance. Broken Bastion may not include the reviled “Rocks fall, you all die” sort of trap, but it does include “Magic machine explodes, you all die” -- and that’s pretty close. The question I tried to answer in designing it was if one can use these kinds of high risk obstacles in a way that feels fair and offers an enjoyable adventure. I’d like to think I succeeded, and I’ve included a number of discussions and notes about how to run these sorts of scenarios and obstacles, but I won’t repeat them here.

Something that I keep coming back to in these “mini-adventures” is how they are different from classic modules in terms of scope and density, while also serving the same purpose as discrete adventure locations for exploration and plunder that can be placed independently on a map, outside of any larger story (hence the term “module”). Ben L. of Mazarin’s Garden and Ultan’s Door reviewed Prison of the Hated Pretender a few weeks ago and described it as a “Jewelbox” dungeon, a compliment that I think captures the design style these adventures aspire to.


The term “Jewelbox” is borrowed from architecture to describe a smaller building, usually a home, that uses high quality materials and an attention to detail and habitability rather than size and opulence to create high end homes. Of late it’s become a term used to sell luxury condominiums and is often contrasted with the “McMansion”. It’s also popular in interior design as a way to describe spaces that are densely packed but seek to be ergonomic and have a high degree of utility. Built-in bookshelves and cabinets are often described as features of jewelbox interiors for example.

In terms of RPG adventures what does “Jewelbox” mean exactly?

  • A classic LOCATION BASED rather than scene based adventure,
    but usually SMALLER then standard classic adventures with fewer keyed areas. 

  • Increased level of detail produces keys with greater DENSITY over standard
    adventures, acting to streamline play without too much of a reduction in risk.

  • Requires greater detail and novelty to encourage Player interaction
    with keys and so tends towards NON-STANDARD fantasy settings/elements.

  • Can include greater focus on HISTORY and ECOLOGY of location
    because of greater interactivity.

  • The detail and scope of a jewelbox adventure ideally creates a play loop where

    INVESTIGATION and INTEREST are self-reinforcing.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...