Refining the Keys of Heraka-at

A-Z 2014 ROn Saturday I posted an overview of The Keys of Heraka-at, breaking out the various areas of the adventure. Now it’s time to start working toward more detailed development.

I’m not ready yet, but considering that each of the areas of the adventure site could be small maps and are at a bunch of different elevations it is tempting to try my hand at isometric mapping when I get that far.

Intermediate Development

At this point I’m going to expand on the ideas I had yesterday and start exploring how they fit together. I won’t have all the mechanical information yet, but I can expand on what I do have so I know what mechanical information I need.

I’m making some changes to the original map (shown below) that increase some of the interconnectivity. Not all will be obvious (especially since I’m adding extra), but they will be there.

Keys of Heraka-at Locations

Keys of Heraka-at Locations

Note on Encounters

There are some potential residents identified, and several of them could be reasonable random encounters. There are also likely to be safeguards against vandalism, the entire place was set up to protect knowledge until it can be used (and the Last Donnerkonig may be able to do something to trigger defenses as well).

For the most part I think I’ll roll with random encounters. Many areas are exposed to the outside, after all.

A Quick Overview of The Keys of Heraka-at

A-Z 2014 QThe Keys of Heraka-at is an adventure that allows the PCs to learn the truth of the fall of the Donnerkonig, and to potentially become the new Donnerkonig.

This adventure takes place in and around a large stone outcrop near Heraka-at, the capital of Sturmhame. The adventure site as a whole is intended to guide the Donnerkonig heirs to their immediate tasks

Locations on the Map

Here I describe the major areas in this adventure location. Each is to be a significant area of interest and might be a ‘single room’ or ‘group of rooms’. I won’t fully flesh these out yet, I aim only to get a feel for the key elements and their relative location. Specific threats and non-critical rewards are similarly not done yet.

Any windows mentioned are expected to be primarily for light and fresh air, but are probably hard to see, being generally deep-set between ledges providing shelter from vision from below and some slight shelter from rain from above. As might be expected, rain and wind are not major problems here, though.

The Last Donnerkonig, or rather his ghost, is obviously very interested in the Donnerkonig returning, because this will lay him to rest. He will observe but not interfere with or assist explorers overtly. If he does so the new Donnerkonig may not have the strength or ability to hold their position, ultimately leading to their failure.

Preparation and Player Agency in the Sandbox

A-Z 2014 PPlayer agency is a critical element of role playing games to me. One of the things that great dissatisfies me about most series of modules is how much they tend to need the story to progress in a certain direction. The label ‘Adventure Path’ itself rings player agency warning bells in my head — ‘path’ implies a linear relationship between the adventures.

The GDQ (Giants-Drow-Queen of Demonweb Pits) series of modules is often held up as an example of how a series of modules can be done well… but I have to admit that as much as they could be a wonderful example of sandbox adventures, they honestly don’t work for me that way. Individually they mostly aren’t bad, in that they presented as a situation, a problem to be solved. The approach to each one has some options, so there is some player agency involved in the situation… but from my perspective, there is little player agency about getting involved. The entire series is driven by “go here or else” and really no way to not find the next module.


Overkill? Somewhat, But For Reasons

A-Z 2014 OI’ve been asked on Google+ if it is really necessary to do all of this work making graphs and thinking about things far away from the adventure I’m actually working on.

My answer is, I suppose, a mix of “not really” and “it can help”.

Not Really

If I want to create a standalone adventure, I don’t have to think of what is outside it. I might make some vague references to fairly generic entities to help make it easier to fit into an existing campaign (“a local temple”, “a powerful noble”, etc.), but that’s about as far as I might go. The very nature of standalone adventures is that they don’t connect to anything.

On the other side, I know people who can design adventures of some complexity and interconnectedness without the graphs and multiple layers of relationships and so on. I think either internally they are still doing much as I am in this series of posts, but simply aren’t capturing the thoughts to paper, or they are introducing elements that may or may not be followed up on.

I used to do a mix of the two. I’d give some thought to possible links, identify them in the (rudimentary) prep that I did, and present them in play. If the players followed up on them, great, if not, that was okay too. It worked well enough, but it always felt a bit slipshod to me. I knew I was overlooking relationships and forgetting themes that could have been reinforced and strengthened the campaign.

Standalone or ongoing, many people can get by without going to the degree of effort shown here. Given more time to invest in campaign and scenario development I can get by without it, but don’t know that I do as good a job.

Next Steps in the Sandbox: Developing Donnerkonig Heirs

A-Z 2014 NYesterday I started moving from macro scale to micro scale, outlining a set of possibly-related campaigns. Now I’m digging for some more detail in Donnerkonig Heirs.

I’ll start by working on the graph for the campaign. I know I’ve got Keys of Heraka-at and four adventures to acquire the treasures needed later. I’ll be looking for at least four more adventures to associate with these. I’d like to have about ten adventures available to me, but I’m going to start with a graph of fifteen to give me the option of culling, removing adventures rather than looking for an exact fit.

Donnerkonig Heirs adventure map 1

Donnerkonig Heirs adventure map 1

This graph clearly has a central adventure (K) that I will take to be Keys of Heraka-at, and five branches out. The PCs should be able to find something to do. The Keys of Heraka-at may actually reveal the locations of the treasures and the PCs can go get them, or may provide some direction toward the treasures and the first step there. I’d like to see an average of two adventures possible related to getting each treasure, but allow shorter routes in some cases.


Macro to Micro in the Sandbox: Mapping the Donnerkonig Chronicle

A-Z 2014 MIn Layers Upon Layers in the Sandbox I described how things can be linked together. Now it’s time to put it into practice.

First, I’ll map out some potential campaigns. I know of two already, The Donnerkonig Heirs and Return of the Donnerkonig, and can imagine several others. Some are possible follow-ons from Return of the Donnerkonig, which could come out of the decisions made and the consequences of that campaign, and others could be diversions from the Donnerkronig Chronicle altogether. I don’t know a lot about them because at this point I mostly posit their existence, I can flesh them out later. For now, though, the campaign graph might look something like is shown below.

Donnerkonig Chronicle campaign map

Donnerkonig Chronicle campaign map

This is very high-level and somewhat tentative, showing potential campaigns around this area of the setting. At this point I don’t know much about each of these possibilities, and I don’t really need to.

The white-background campaigns are anticipated parts of the Donnerkonig Chronicle. The greyed-background campaigns are not directly part of the Donnerkonig Chronicle, but may be routes into or out of it.


Layers Upon Layers in the Sandbox

A-Z 2014 LThe campaign and scenario design methods I use encourage nonlinear design and play. They are fractal in nature, applying to many levels and degrees of scope. This can lead to a rich and complex campaign setting.

At the adventure level, it is pretty easy to devise encounters that hold nonlinear relationships to each other. Multiple encounter areas and creatures, each having information (or even just passageways, in the case of constrained spaces such as dungeons). I like to have the encounters that interact with each other, such as by changing the scenario dynamics by aiding, hindering, or even removing certain entities from the scenario. Given an adventure prepared in this fashion, PC involvement and decisions can have significant effect on the outcome.

The same reasoning applies at the campaign level. It is possible to devise adventures such that they hold nonlinear relationships with each other. Each adventure can provide direction to other adventures, and have consequences that affect the scenario dynamics in other adventures. For example, you might learn that a particular major NPC (one with campaign scope, who is probably a recurring character in several of the adventures) has a base and where it is (you have a direction to a new adventure, if you want to track him down). If you manage to befriend (or antagonize, or even kill) the NPC you will likely find different results when you get there.

Even beyond that, though, it is possible to do the same thing with campaigns. I consider a campaign to be a series of related adventures ultimately leading to the achievement of a goal… or more precisely, answering a question. In fiction terms, a campaign might be similar to a trilogy or other small collection of books that tells a story longer than fits in a single book. It is possible to have multiple such series that each tell a similarly-scoped story. To use a common example, David Eddings has two such, The Belgariad and The Mallorean (five books each, plus some ‘side books’); and The Elenium and The Tamuli (three books each). Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia setting has a rather large number of campaigns, and of course the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings do as well… though I do not pretend to know any longer how they all relate.

It is evident to me that the relationships between campaigns can have a structure similar to those between adventures in a campaign, and to those between encounters in an adventure. It is possible for a campaign to have more than one ‘potential sequel’ that explores different aspects of the result of the campaign. It is also possible for a campaign to have more than one ‘potential prequel’, paths that lead to asking the same question.

The Keys of Heraka-at: Adventure Background

A-Z 2014 KJust as well I slept on it. The Keys of Heraka-at looks like it went from “single adventure” to “opening of a two-campaign bundle”. I don’t have all the details yet, I’m feeling for the shape of it, but here’s what I’ve got so far.

It will be building on and making some minor changes to GreyKnight’s suggestion from a few days ago.

“The island is named Stormhame. The ancient line of the Thunder Kings once harnessed the potent magical energies of the skies in this place, and kept the surrounding areas under their rule. Although Stormhame’s influence has waned since the end of the Thunder Kings’ line, they are still a big player: they are active in the political arena, and the island also remains the home of the Shrine of Ferocity and its priests.”

I’m going to make a small change to an assumption most people might make from that description: the Donnerkonig (‘Thunder Kings’ in German is evidently ‘Donner Könige’, so this is a reasonable anglicization) not necessarily of the same family. They found it a useful fiction, and they were in the best position to see that their offspring were able to inherit their power, but ultimately it was truly a meritocracy, based on ability and worthiness.

And at the end, the Donnerkonig were not worthy.


Kobold Kommandos

A-Z 2014 KIt’s been a long week of short nights, and frankly I’m exhausted right now. I’m going to finish this raspberry tea and crash for the night. I’ll come back in the morning to write about the Keys of Heraka-at.

For now, enjoy one from the archives, Kobold Kommandos: Princessesssss. This is a session report from a friend of mine, telling of a particularly seat-of-the-pants session.

I have since had confirmation from another friend who played in this sesssion and says that even as well-presented as this is, it still doesn’t quite capture how epic the session actually was.

I think the DM and the players should be commended for how they did here. This is the sort of thing memories — legends — are made of.



This particular anecdote is called “Princessesssss” locally (spoken in a particularly squeaky reptilian voice), because role playing Princess-obsessed kobolds for what became eight hours straight really gets to a guy after a while.

We ended up with a party of Kobolds when the group was exploring the concept of Level Adjustment, a D&D thing that fills the same niche as paying points to play a kewl race (only you pay character levels). One player was flipping idly through the Monster Manual hoping for inspiration when he stopped and asked if Kobolds get bonus levels. The DM quickly ruled “no”, but everyone was so tickled by the idea of Kobolds with class levels that suddenly we had a party of four kobolds.

Kobolds with class levels are dangerous things.


Jumbled Adventure Structure

A-Z 2014 JI have talked in the past of how I dislike linear scenarios and adventure paths. A friend has described strongly-linear games as “walking in a painted tube” because you can see what you are presented, and your only real choices are to go forward or maybe to go back.

As a general rule, for such scenarios to ‘work’ the PCs have to stick somewhat close to the plot. Deviating from this plot can disrupt the adventure and potentially invalidate prepared material. ‘Derailed’ is the term often used for this circumstance, for good reason, and many consider it a bad thing. I have seen advice in many places about how to prevent this from happening and (sometimes ‘gently’) guide the PCs back on-course, and I have seen advice to mitigate the impact of the PCs’ actions on the plot, and…

Wait. Mitigate the PCs’ actions on the plot? Let’s call that what it is, “stripping player agency”.

Okay, let’s don’t do that. Instead, let’s use a structure that doesn’t depend on players following a particular path. Better yet, let’s use a structure that gives players choices that can change how the scenario plays out.

In other words, don’t plan for a particular story to be told, write the ‘story’ after that tells what happened during.