Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Episodic Play - Part 2: Adventure Styles

Continued from here.

As mentioned last time, I've broken down the best, in my opinion, Adventure Styles for Episodic Play into five types: Relics & Ruins, Tiny Dungeons, Monster Hunting, Megadungeons, and Random Generator Travel. Speaking of Random Generators, these are your friend with Episodic Play - they can keep things just as challenging and interesting for you, the referee, as they are for the players, and help ensure you have a source for ideas even when your natural creativity is at its lowest ebb.

With that in mind, and before we get into detailed discussion about the five Adventure Styles, consider the following:

Adventure Styles Random Generation Table (d6)
1. Relics and Ruins
2. Tiny Dungeons
3. Monster Hunting
4. Megadungeon
5. Random Generator Travel
6. Referee's Choice (or roll again twice for combo-style)!

Relics and Ruins:
This first Adventure Style is my favorite and perhaps one I've used the most. While the title refers specifically to the Relics & Ruins table you'll find in three Judges Guild Products (the original Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Ready Ref Sheets, and Necromancer Games' excellent modern version of the Wilderlands), there are any number of random generation tables out there that will do the trick for you.

In the case of the Judges Guild Relics & Ruins table, a few short rolls gives you a type of relic or ruin (naturally), along with where it is (underwater, in a cave, etc), what its in (a old sack, a tomb, etc), what condition its in, and what guards it. Again, there are any number of random tables that will give you this info, the point is that you are getting something simple and to the point! There are no complicated themes (root out the traitors of the kingdom), series of objectives (collect the Seven Keys of Aurack to unlock the Gates of Bing), or great quests. Just a thing, a place, and a good reason to go get it.

Speaking of good reasons to go do something, its a good idea to provide your players with a patron - for instance, I use a few different ones in my Wilderlands games, such as Llangwellen the Blue, the Monks of Thoth, and the Roglaras Archaeological Society.

Regardless of the set of tables you use, the Relics and Ruins Adventure Style goes something like this, step by step:

1. I roll a few dice and get the following results: a totem(human), in a cave, covered in slime, guarded by an animal.
2. I decide the totem(human) is a golden statue of an old king, pick a mountainous spot on my hexmap of the Wilderlands, consult a couple of random monster charts for that animal guardian and come up with an appropriately mountain-themed one - a Yeti!
3. I decide the Roglaras Archaeological Society will be the patron to put the players on the case - following up on a shepherd's feverish claim of finding savage icemen worshipping a golden god at the top of Mount Ironclaw.

There, that should keep the players busy for 3-5 hours. Presenting them with the challenge, their first steps will likely be:

1. Finding out roughly where their goal is located.
2. Shopping! Mount Ironclaw is about a week's ride from the City State, so they'll need provisions, water, climbing equipment, warm clothing, tents, mules, and horses. I'll throw a couple of sidetracking elements into the shopping trip, like old enemies, tax collectors, pregnant ex-girlfriends, and so on, as well as a roll on my favorite urban encounters table (1E DMG).
3. Hiring! PC's will undoubtedly want to hire a guide of some sort, as well as a retainer or two to handle cooking, mule piloting duties, tent set-up, and so on. Maybe one of these guys (10%) is a spy for that despicable Temple of Harmakhis that's always up to no good.

Once properly outfitted, the players can proceed to Mount Ironclaw.

1. I take a look at the map beforehand, see that they'll pass through two villages, past one swamp and one forest, and then climb into the mountains, and try to come up with some interesting stuff to describe to them as they travel ("the edge of the causeway slopes down sharply on your right, disappearing into the murk and fog of the marsh. A wall of midges blankets the marsh's edge and something bellows from deep within the place...")
2. Three wandering encounter checks a day (I typically go with a 1in6 or 1in10 chance) - one in the morning, one in the evening, and one overnight. Don't go overboard; you want the players to reach their objective, not spend the entire session fighting item 32 on your Grassy Plains table over and over again. 1 to 3 encounters total is nice. If the players are lucky and make it almost the whole way with no trouble, throw in one automatic encounter for good measure - these guys are adventurers, not Rick Steves, after all.
3. Carefully track the use and consumption of resources. Players never plan on bringing enough water for some reason, a fact I exploit mercilessly to give players something to do while I plot the meatier parts of the adventure.

At last the party arrives at Mount Ironclaw, finds the mysterious cave, and must vanquish the guardians:

1. Try to make sure these guardians are a level or three higher than what you would normally throw at the party. There aren't going to be thirty rooms filled with orcs on this adventure - the players are free to use spells and consumable resources at a pace they'd never consider in longer adventures. You also won't have as many chances to try and kill them, and they need to feel this is appropriately dangerous. It may take two or three attempts (and hasty retreats), along with some hefty planning and strategizing to overcome the guardians.
2. There's always a catch - in this case, remember that slime covering the gold statue? I decide that's going to be Green Slime. Or maybe Chief Yeti wasn't really dead, and comes back for more.
3. If the party does succeed in winning the prize, there may be some new logistics to consider - that statue is heavy!

At this stage, consider how far along you are with the session, and how much time is remaining. If you've only got 10-15 minutes left, now is a good time to handwave any further details, give the players a congratulatory summary of what transpires next ("the Archaeological Society is overjoyed at the sight of the statue, and rewards you with a sum twice of what it is worth if melted down to raw coinage!") and hand out xp's. If substantial real time is still remaining, then its time to play out the return to the City State, which can be complicated with:

1. More random encounters! Back to those 3 checks a day, and make sure there is at least one!
2. Remember that possible Harmakhan spy? Now would be a good time for him to strike, while the party is low on hit points and resources.
3. The return to the City State may be fraught with greedy tax collectors, opportunistic thieves, cultists who worship the long-dead king the statue depicts, and so on.

At some point, the session must come to a conclusion. I like to have the PCs back in their tavern, that tankard of ale back in their hand and that wench back on their knee, their debts paid, and armor repaired, and them present them with a mystery to ponder. In this case, why were the scholars of the Archaeological Society so excited about that old king anyway? They may decide to pursue further research, and steer the campaign in a new direction, in anticipation of next week's (or next month's) episode.

More to come...


  1. Sort of a formula for winging it. I really like the flexibility - starting out with a random seed, injecting some custom ideas, and throwing curves at the PCs as appropriate. Looking forward to the next instalment!

  2. The modus operandi is very similar to mine (and in my opinion is emergent, for my perspective of the "red box" generation, of throwing the wilderness adventuring rules in normal D&D).
    As main difference i can tell that hooks here are presented to the players by a patron, while I usually plant numerous "seeds" (a dynamic adventure hook mentioned in RPT#199, point 7, having a life of their own) and players are free choose what to pursue (we have a handful of "live", majors ones and maybe a couple of dozens of minor, semi-dormant ones).
    To be honest, I forgot most, but it's not important. Players will remember about the interesting ones and pursue them, and leave out the least interesting. Evolutionary RPGs for the win ;)

  3. As a Wilderlands fan, for starters, I love this post. This to me is EXACTLY the approach to take with the Relics & Ruins table, and one which will encourage me to rethink the way I run adventures in that setting. Thanks very much! Your approach, a neatly balanced mix of off the cuff randomisation and lucid forethought, is inspirational. Haven't felt this excited since I saw the Adventure Funnel.. . (As seen here):

    Thanks again....

  4. Thanks for that link, Ragnardbard!

  5. This fits in very well with a lot of Pulp S&S fiction - your hero starts off the "story" fleeing from some bad guys / stumbling exhausted and lost through the jungle / part of a band of treasure-hunters who've banded together for fun and profit / whathaveyou. More than a few Conan stories (and many other characters' stories) have involved the unexpected discovery of a set of mysterious ruins...

  6. Great article. Are you generating these things during the session or before?



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