Yesterday I posted a little mini dungeon with map and key. The text is kind of bland, and it's only an entrance area, but it actually reveals a lot about my referee style and how I approach campaigns. Here's a peek at the thought process!
Game Balance Doesn't Matter
Game balance for encounters is an interesting tool. You can be very transparent about risk vs reward, and relative danger - or you can mostly disregard game balance (as long as combat isn't the only solution to the encounter). For Taenarum, there's a broad rule that the deeper you go into the dungeon, the more dangerous it becomes, but I have no issues throwing difficult challenges at players with a range of outcomes. Yesterday's dungeon only had the first 8 rooms of an entrance area, but still had some significant dangers:
Bandit Captain: The bandit captain is CR 2 (meaning 1 captain is a challenge for a level 2 party). Oops. Ghost: A ghost is CR 4, meaning a single ghost is a balanced encounter for a 4th level party. Oops again. Medusa: the players can't actually fight the Medusa in the first dungeon, so it's more like a trap \ hazard.
In the actual game, the party fought the bandit captain, though he kept asking for them to surrender. Still, the fight was close to a TPK, but they successfully defeated him; in actuality, if he defeated the whole party, he would have kept them alive to confront the Fates one at a time as prisoners - and then gone on to be a great recurring villain after screwing them over. Instead, they carried his head back to town as proof of victory.
The ghost was in the room of the Fates. They didn't get a chance to fight the ghost because it won initiative, and succeeded in possessing a party member. Otherwise, it could have been rough. The party hasn't figured out how their empty soul gem works (yet), but I did seed an alternate solution to the ghost right in the mini dungeon. Taenarum is the Road to the Underworld - meaning all the dead souls walk the road to Hades. They're all around you in the dungeon, you just can't see them - that prickling on the neck, the goose bumps on the forearm, whispers of the dead. So there are also lots of ghosts in Taenarum - victims of violent and unfair deaths that malinger in the dungeon, plaguing the living instead of continuing on to the Underworld.
Old school referees love their random effects. The whole 'Triad of the Fates' statue, with its random blessings and curses, is an example here. There are strange things all over Taenarum. Remember, the dungeon was built by the "mad god", Hades. It's part West World, part Murderworld. In fact, I'm sure I'll find a reason to put a Yul Brenner gunslinger in there, somewhere. (If you're part of the younger generation that has never seen 1970's Westworld, you must correct this at once).
The perfect alignment between randomness and lack of game balance is embodied in my wandering monster table - it's got 100 entries on it, with encounters that would challenge everything from 1st level through 5th level parties. Anything that can be encountered wandering between the entrance and the underground lake featuring the island of the Hagagora, is on the table.
Sandbox games have lots of story elements. The difference between a sandbox and adventure path is that the story the players experience at the table follows their choices, and not a scripted plot the referee has made in advance. But you can jam your sandbox full of story elements.
For instance, why is there a Big Stone Head in the first area of the dungeon? It's a relic of the god's war at the beginning of time, when the gods overthrew the titans. Many of the primordial monsters in Greek Myth are incarcerated in Tartarus, guarded by the minions of Hades. The dungeon is full of factions; there are at least two powerful, villainous factions seeking to open Tartarus and release the monsters. This is going to be more apparent over time as the players interact more with the environment and meet more people - it’s chock full of plot and story. It's just that my story is not nearly as important as the story the players create with their antics through game play. Who knows, maybe they'll join the iconoclasts that want to overthrow Mt Olympus and invert the natural order. I'm not going to make that decision for the players.
I like big highways in and out of the dungeon to make it easy to get into the depths. Not only is Taenarum literally a big highway, but the first dungeon even includes a teleporter for high level parties to skip miles of passageways and quickly get into the depths. I also believe that lots of characters and factions create interesting encounters - as you follow the campaign, you'll meet Amazons, Fanatics of Ares, Iconoclastic Satyrs, Skull Punks and Black Brothers (two factions within the Hades Cult), and the varied and dangerous cults of Hecate. I'm up to about 15 factions so far.
At the end of the day, D&D is just a game and I always like to keep some humor front and center. You've already encountered the Scoreboard, a literal 'highest score' rating like an old arcade video game, back in the Adventurer's Guild Hall. This particular mini dungeon was littered with silly graffiti, including pop culture references. You have to know the players are going to be cracking in-jokes and making out-of-game references the whole time. The GM's world is 'straight man', but I'm glad to break the 4th wall for laughs, too, and reinforce that at the end of the day, it's only a game.
Does anyone remember the GM Merit Badges that used to be over at Strange Magic blog? I couldn't find them - they'd be perfect to slap on here!
Chris in the comments pointed out where the GM badges were being hosted, so I went ahead and added some to reflect how I view my games:
- Tactics Are Important
- I Use Maps and Content
- My Games Feature Gonzo Stuff
- I Don't Fudge Dice
- Character Death Happens
- Be Prepared to Run