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.



Like their architectural counterparts, jewelbox adventures tend to be small, especially compared to the classic adventures they resemble. Jewelbox adventures are dense with detail and interactivity, which tends to make their individual keys considerably longer then that of traditional adventures. This makes it impossible to include as many keys in the same number of pages, but at the same times means the jewelbox dungeon tends towards greater density.

The change in size doesn’t change the underlaying nature of the adventure, and the jewelbox adventure is still a modular addition to a larger setting, an episode rather than a complete setting or narrative itself. While it can be played as a “one-shot” fairly well, especially with the addition of a compelling hook, it’s designed to drop into a larger campaign either as a location of interest or tied to larger player concerns by the Game Master (as a faction base, the location of some valuable or important artifact, or NPC helpful to the players’ campaign goals). As presented though these concerns are outside the designer’s concern and adventure’s scope.


The individual ‘rooms’ or keys of the jewelbox are themselves large and denser then most classic rooms. Jewelbox rooms still generally contain only one or two meaningfully interactive elements (any more risk confusion during play - the key is discrete for a reason), but there are few or no empty rooms and each key may include several “junk” elements that are simply dressing with limited interactivity. Keys all include dense description, and even where their contents don’t represent obstacles such as puzzles or monsters, the keys are full with ‘dungeon dressing’ - things that may potentially conceal or be treasure, traps or hints to puzzles and obstacles in other rooms. This dressing also offers a rich loam to seed with mysteries and history, creating a space that hopefully feels more ‘real’* and is easier for players and GMs to visualize.

From a mechanical and design perspective, the density of a jewelbox is a tool that helps make up for small size. In classic adventures empty rooms and long corridors act to create and increase risk. The time it takes to move from location to location triggers random encounter rolls and depletes resources. In the jewelbox, player decisions to investigate the denser keys will likewise increase the amount time and encounter rolls. This makes ending sessions somewhat easier, as escaping the location requires fewer Turns, to cover the shorter distance to the entrance, but in practice, time limits rarely allow for finishing a session of play with careful escape.

Small size also helps play jewelbox locations in the shorter session lengths that tend to dominate online play. Two to three hours seems the standard for online play, and this usually allows exploration of 5 - 15 keyed locations. For classic play these short sessions add the difficulty to the tradition of always ending a session at a safe haven, requiring multiple excursions and repeated passage through locations that both encourage navigation as an element of play and risk boredom or repetition. Smaller adventures (or modular adventures, collecting smaller locations into a larger nodal dungeon) can alleviate this risk, though obviously the small size of does limit the availability of this particular challenge or at least requires the designer to intentionally add it as a special obstacle/attribute of the dungeon.


Jewelbox design tends to avoid tropes and push against genre expectation, though It’s unclear if this is the result of greater detail or simply necessitates it. Standard classic adventure design can use minimal keys at least partially because the audience, both Players and Game Masters, can fill in much of the detail or description themselves with genre standards. Everyone playing a fantasy roleplaying game will have some mental image of a “dungeon door” or “goblin” for example. However, when one is designing a different, unfamiliar sort of space greater detail and description is necessary to bring it into focus.

Genre expectations and the ability of the audience to fill in details is a useful tool in adventure design, one simply cannot catalogue every detail of a fantasy location: construction techniques, materials, contents, harmless fauna and flora. Even if one were successful the length of the descriptions would be so excessive that the keys become unusable. Brevity and limiting description to the important aspects of the space, while giving the Game Master and Players using the adventure to fill in other details is a difficult balance and one of the keys to good adventure writing. Jewelbox design tends towards greater detail, or allows it because of the smaller scope of its locations, but conversely this means that the designer (or their editors - having a good substantive editor is a real boon to a designer) needs to watch usability more carefully and structure the keys to maximize comprehension.

When creating dense fantasy environments, a dense collection of tropes, description of mundane objects, or standard fantasy elements is also less likely to appeal to Players interest. The wondrous and unexpected requires examination and interaction, while quotidian objects won’t hold the players attention, defeating one of jewelbox design’s purposes. This encourages non-standard, or unique fantasy environments and jewelbox design works best for settings or locations that include elements from beyond the typical Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy roleplaying genre. In Broken Bastion and the Crystal Frontier these are Western, Golden Era Pulp Sci Fi/Sword & Planet elements that may have been a significant part of 1970’s settings like Greyhawk, but are largely absent from more modern mainstream fantasy Roleplaying settings.


Yes it still has a map

It’s often considered a sin of adventure design to include detailed backstory, especially in room keys. “This empty room was once a barracks” or similar are at best trivia with little applicability to play and at worst, in the case of longer digressions, but the jewelbox tends to include layered history and secrets. It certainly works best when it provides a strong “dungeon ecology” -- reasons for the various inhabitants, traps, and treasures within.

The best way to include these details, perhaps the only way to make them player facing rather then minutia for the game master, is to incorporate them into the location as details: repeated aesthetics, themes, specific treasures, and creatures that follow internal logic. More then in a large sprawling dungeon with more minimal keying players tend to investigate this detail in a jewelbox. Perhaps investigation increases only because there’s more to investigate, but because the designer wishes to encourage investigation, if only to increase turns spent in the location and with them risk, making the detail matter is important. Player learn quickly to ignore useless dungeon dressing, so it should sometimes contain incidental or hidden treasure and frequently offer interesting information that can help the players understand the setting or location.

Such information and mysteries need not be direct clues to overcoming a dungeon’s obstacles (but it’s useful if they are), but they can be evocative hints about the nature of the location - murals and carvings that indicate former purposes or tell histories. In Broken Bastion an example of the first are hatched cocoons on the ceiling - a grave warning to look up and watch for things hatching from cocoons, even if the players don’t immediately know that these will be poisonous glass spiders. An example of the second is the repeated motif of a haloed triangle - symbol of the Bastion’s former inhabitants, Keystone Alignment empyreans. Murals showing the Bastion as an orbital fortress in battle, indicating that it likely contains arcane siege weapons of immense destructive power is a mixed example. The murals give hints about the location’s purpose and past, but they are also veiled warnings that there are immensely destructive magical energies at play in the Bastion, which given its damaged state may be unwise to tamper with.

Obviously the immediate detail of the cocoons - a big flashing sign indicating a repeated trap/ambush in the location is a useful clue that the players may interact with. The murals also provide benefit about the location, tangentially perhaps, but still offer a key piece to the location’s main puzzle. The information about the former allegiance of the Bastion and its now deceased inhabitants has no immediately useful application. Its interest is entirely narrative for the players, a chance to discover who’s stuff they are poking through and potentially useful at understanding the politics and factions of Empyreans if they come up elsewhere in the campaign.

Yet even the useless detail is valuable in a jewelbox, it not only uses up player time (not every search should have a positive result) but it builds an understand of the location and offers a chance for the players to absorb detail at their own pace and in the context of the story. The problem with history and similar ‘lore’ in fantasy adventure games isn’t the detail itself - many players very much enjoy detail as it allows better visualization of the imagined environment - but the ‘lore dump’ where the GM offers up large amounts of bland, information without context. Background information is more accessible and interesting to most players if its provided as a reward for curiosity during play, and it’s more memorable when it’s placed in the context of a location within the game world. For example, players will often ask about and remember the details of murals and mosaics in dungeons, even when there’s no evident use, to the point where I never fail to include a description when writing a key. This sort of decor becomes a wonderful way to include myths, legends, faction identity and religious iconography in one’s setting. Some players even take it further then observation and memory, attempting to unravel the details of what they find in later adventures or during their character’s downtime.

It is still difficult to balance detail, one needs to carefully blend of evocative and informative description and terse utility. That’s the trick of writing adventures, a largely functional document that also requires a touch of the imaginative. While there’s no specific formula to writing useful but poetic keys, its a good rule to avoid unnecessary detail and emphasize details that will appear in play. History and description should be blended and discoverable in play. In Broken Bastion, while I have included the name and symbols of the Empyrean faction that built the ruin, but none of their history or goals, because these don’t matter, they aren’t discoverable by search and there are no living members of the faction to interact with. Only the player facing details of the history is provided. It may also be useful to provide any details that are necessary for the GM to run NPCs or locations - for example it’s worth mentioning an NPCs fears and desires, but rarely helpful to provide an elaborate backstory that describes how they developed them. Jewelbox design may offer the designer a little more space to elaborate and describe, but for it to work the Game Master still needs to be able to quickly separate the details that matter in play, and the best way to do this is to relegate Game Master facing information to a short introduction or appendix. Better still is to avoid it entirely.


Because jewelbox design depends on denser detail it’s possible to depart from system guidelines and built in setting far more than in a minimally keyed adventure. Additional space available for each key allows new things in longer descriptions, so the tropes of vernacular fantasy or implied setting aren’t necessary to fill in detail. Additionally, new and unique setting elements help encourage greater investigation and player effort to understand the location - either out of interest or simply to aid in their character’s survival. Unique monsters require caution and efforts to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, more complex descriptions of traps and puzzles mean more possible solutions and more attention is required to unravel them.

This provides another reinforcing loop - grater player interaction with the adventure leads to greater setting knowledge and greater setting knowledge provides better outcomes to the players. At its core jewelbox design is an effort to encourage this loop, to arouse player interest in the setting and visualizing it rather than focusing on the system mechanics or knowledge and the ways to manipulate them for the best results. Obviously the mechanics will never entirely vanish, many players may not be interested in understanding or visualizing a fantasy world (or less interested then the designer at least), so as with its other elements described here jewelbox design as a whole is both aspirational and usually partial.

*realism is a dangerous concept in RPGs and I hesitated to use it descriptively here, obsessions with realism lead to strange games, useless Greenwoodian maximalism, mechanical overindulgence in subsystems that see very little use and fights about the density of bronze, the quality of steel in katana blades or real world minutiae that not only will ruin your game, but will attract people who want to bully nerds like ants to honey.


February has been a busy month! In addition to my publication of a new dungeon and this a bit of design theory, Zinequest 3 has exploded -- it’s such a big event that even I’ve been drawn into it! I’ve been helping a couple friends with their projects and I’ve backed several more that I liked.

1. Ultan’s Door - Ben Laurence. I’ve long done cartography for Ultan’s Door, and this new DOUBLE issue of the zine is no exception. This is some of the finest classic adventure design out there, combined with a wonderful setting, terse but incredibly flavorful and sometimes poetic writing and imagination. The public seems to agree with me, and has shown a lot of love for Through Ultan’s Door throughout it’s Kickstarter, ultimately funding it at 2,000% for a total of $50,000 -- a huge number for zinequest, though at least partially driven by a love of the very high quality physical product represented by the zine and the chance to obtain reprints of the back issues.

In addition to the two official Through Ultan’s Door zines, the Kickstarter is also the first Ultan’s project to include written content by someone other than Ben L. He’s graciously let me write a companion adventure for Through Ultan’s Door - a 40 page sewer pirate base in the wreck of a perfume barge, and the offices of a corrupt lawyer above who depends on the pirates’ proclivity for kidnapping to help his practice. I’ve done writing, art and maps for this zine “Beneath the Moss Courts” and am gratified that Ben has trusted me enough to touch Wishery.

As part of the Kickstarter rewards Ben and I will also be preparing a mini-adventure for Ultan’s Door. The abandoned Sweet Factory, a place of sugary delight equal parts 19th century Ghazipur opium factory, honey ghul trap house, and sticky rotten candyland.

2. Errant.
Ava Islam has written a lush and thoughtful ruleset that evolves classic play mechanics and procedures to produce a more baroque and textured game. There’s a lot of theory in Errant, and it shares a goal of mine -- making exploration an equal, mechanically supported pillar of play as combat and role play. I’m providing a few illustrations and will produce another mini-adventure written for Errant and involving Ava’s fairytale Avian Kings.

Curse of the Ganshoggr will be a free PDF to Errant backers, that asks the questions: What does a tyrannical King of Geese (and Swans he insists!) do exactly to anger the gods? What does a divine curse of the Gods of Geese look like anyway? What do you get when you cross a dragon and a goose? What choices will you characters make between fame, fortune, and imminent destruction?

Errant also funded, getting 500 backers and $10,000.00 which should mean it will have top notch art and production better then the high level originally intended.

While these two projects are the only ones I’ve promised work to, I’ve also backed three more because I know and like the authors and am a fan of their past work.

A. Where the Wheat Grows Tall - Evlyn Moreau who is one of my favorite illustrators working in the RPG space and excels at precisely the sort of regional maps and character art that seem at the heart of this zine. There aren’t enough adventures about farmlands and rural spaces -- it’s always the high wilderness peaks, sewers and borderlands. Evelyn and her co-author Camilla Greer promise an exploration of abandoned farmlands and slavic myth, which sounds worthwhile even if it wasn’t wrapped in some of the most enjoyable, distinctive art the indie RPG scene has to offer. I backed this one within 5 minutes of it going up, and am glad that the community has followed suit.

B. The Haunted Hamlet - Lazy Lich - The author of Woodfall and Willow, Lazy Lich has already shown the ability to produce an interesting point crawl filled with regional intrigue and potent black and white art. Another fairytale adventure, I’m looking forward to whatever these four drop in locations hold.

C. Space Weirdos - Casey G. - Casey is one of those quietly productive folks that keep the RPG scene interesting. His “Unholy Land” is an amazingly arch and fanciful hexcrawl set in ancient Judea at a time of prophetic births. Also dinosaurs. Likewise Casey illustrated and wrote Stay Frosty a simple system for running adventures about disposable space soldiers unprepared for alien life. Space Weirdos is a simple miniature skirmish game which is designed to let people use their expensive 1.5” tall plastic space weirdos in a game that takes less then five hours.

So these projects are all finished funding - but you should also check out Litch, Casey, Ben and Evelyn’s previous work on Drivethru or their blogs.





Lazy Lich

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