Monday, August 5, 2013

Adventure in Your Own Backyard

I took an atypical approach when designing the outskirts of Elf Water. In the past, especially when I anticipated a megadungeon-centric campaign, I’d locate potential adventuring sites a bit of a distance away from the PCs’ home base. This was a nod to realism, seeing as how an ancient ruin rife with fell monsters situated too close to a settlement would mean constant raids and the eventual deaths or departure of any sentient residents living nearby. That’s not the course I undertook with the Realms campaign, and there were several reasons for this design choice.

The first was that the Realms have such a rich and long history. I didn’t quite grasp this in my younger days, but now I have a better idea of what Ed was going for when he built the world. With a history stretching back millennia, the Realms have seen innumerable civilizations and cultures rise and fall, with each potentially leaving their mark behind. There are a lot of similarities between the Realms and Middle Earth, and Peter Jackson’s movies have influenced my mental picture of what the Realms “looks like.” Just as in Jackson’s films, a moss-covered ruin or broken statue of an ancient potentate isn’t out of place in the wilds of the Realms, lingering evidence of those who tread Faerûn long ago. I could conceivably place such enticing lures close to the village and thereby hint at the Realms’ history and to serve as adventure hooks.

Secondly, since I was running a by the book AD&D game with a small number of players, I wanted them to have ready access to help for the first level or two. They could flee to the safety of civilization if they ran out of important materials or got in over their heads. Borrowing from the MMORPG school of design, the outskirts of Elf Water is the “yard trash” newbie zone where one can familiarize themselves with the world before pursuing grander and more dangerous goals. In the future, I could see myself using Elf Water and the environs as an introductory campaign for players experiencing RPGs for the first time, but I hope it’s also challenging and interesting enough that veteran players will enjoy their own explorations.

Thirdly, I wanted to ground the PCs in their home town, making it seem like a real place, one they have familiarity with by virtue of living there their entire young lives. I have many pleasant memories of rambling through the wooded glens of my own neighborhood in my youth, dreaming dreams of what adventures might be found there and making my own discoveries of places and things forgotten in the scrap woods of suburbia. It stands to reason the PCs would have similar experiences, albeit of a slightly more dangerous variety.

Lastly, and I make no bones about this, I was influenced by Ed’s map of Shadowdale that appeared in the Gray Box. In addition to detailing the village of Shadowdale, there are a number of geographical features depicted on the map, many of which have legends and adventure potential assigned to them. If it’s good enough for the Realms’ creator, it’s good enough for me.

With these design decisions in mind, I set out filling in the rest of blank space on my big piece of poster paper that already held my Elf Water map. This is the result:

Blank poster paper and colored pencils: Life's less celebrated wonders.

There are few special landmarks and places the PCs know about—and more they don’t. I have a master map with each interesting place or thing detailed, but these are unmarked on the big map. During the game sessions, I lay the large map down on the table and let the players consult it, replicating their familiarity with the area. Of course, growing up here doesn’t mean they know everything about their own backyard. They know the major landmarks and legends, so I’m not spoiling the fun by pointing out a couple of them. Maybe it’ll get your own creative juices flowing.

In the lower left-hand corner is a gorge running through the woods. This is the somewhat infamous “Orc Trough.” The elven/human alliance broke the Black Slashers’ drive toward Loudwater in this gulley back in 1235 DR with a cunning ambush. The rocky walls of the Trough contain a number of elven catacombs known as Sinomrin. An Espruar word that’s closest Common translation is both “tomb” and “remembrance place,” the Sinomrin were formed from the surrounding rock to memorialize some of the great lights of Eaerlann who fled south when Hellgate Keep rose in power. When the Black Slashers marched through the Southwood, guerilla engagements drew the horde to this location. Human and elven troops concealed themselves in the Sinomrin, springing out to ambush the horde and cutting the orcish flanks to bloody ribbons before routing the Slashers and sending them back to the Graypeaks. When the elves conceded the verge of the Southwood to human settlement, they emptied the Sinomrin, leaving the catacombs bare. Since that time, the Sinomrin have served to host teenage parties away from parental eyes and more than a few adulterous rendezvous. But they are not all completely abandoned as the party has recently learned.

Just north of the Orc Trough on the far side of the brook is the farm of Amrig and Sobashy, a woodsman and healer, respectively. The couple prefers the solitude of the woods over the hustle and bustle of the village proper, and they are largely believed to be “elf friends,” individuals who deal with the isolationist Lanymthilhar elves.

At the eastern edge of the banana-shaped clearing bisected by the western road stands a single tree. This is the Hangman’s Tree, a relic of the rough frontier justice enacted regularly in the early days of Elf Water’s settling. Although no longer used, rumors say a ghostly figure is sometimes sighted beneath the tree and is undoubtedly the spectre of an unknown criminal who met his (or her) death on the tree decades ago.

North of the large clearing where the Hangman’s Tree grows is a rocky hill known as “The Prow.” The southern edge of the hill is steep and narrows to a point, giving it the appearance of a ship’s bow breaking through the surrounding trees. A stone bearing Thorass runes is located atop the Prow and some of the PCs have seen it in their youth, but the lack of fluency in the dwarven tongue means the stone’s writing remains a mystery.

Immediately east of The Prow and in the vaguely star-shaped clearing located east of the Orc Trough are two large clearings. The presence of a pond and creek in each meadow makes for damp earth, making both places possible sites to gather leathertop mushrooms, should one be in the mood for such fare.

All my initial prep work was now finished and I was ready to begin the campaign. There was just one small chore I needed to do: seed the campaign with rumors and see which ones would spark the players’ interest, thus deciding the course of the campaign for the first few sessions. I’ll share those rumors, or to put it in Realms terms, “the clack,” tomorrow.

No comments: