Flexible Adventure Design – Ridmarch and the Open Sandbox, Part II

Hades and Kerberos, in Meyers Konversationslex...

Yes, I'd say that something went wrong...

At this point the writeup has established the history and motivations of the adventure, the opponents, several locations to locate and explore, at least five different ways of dealing with the problem, and – most importantly – no particular “level”, power, or magical requirements – although some of the areas are reactive, and will adapt to a given parties power level.

That’s one of the most important items for a genuinely “good” sandbox scenario design.

It shouldn’t rely on characters of a particular power level, or any one vital clue, or a particular tactic, or spell, or magical item. For that matter, it doesn’t really need all that much in the way of game statistics; pretty much every game out there comes with a pile of monster statistics to use. It’s the situations that are interesting – as can be easily seen all around us. The statistics for most soap-opera characters would look an awful lot alike in a game wouldn’t they? Yet soap operas are perennially popular thanks to the situations those characters wind up in.

As a consequence, it will probably be easy to adapt to a wide variety of game systems.

That’s where most published scenarios fall short. There are a few almost universally-useful items out there, like Flying Buffaloes old “Citybook” series – but not very many.

As soon as you say “for this game system” you’ve lost 90 to 95% of the people who might otherwise be interested in a good scenario. When you say something like “for levels ten to fourteen” you’ve just lost 80% of the remainder, as well as a lot of reuse potential.

Dumping 99% of your potential audience before you start is less than ideal. Even if you’re just writing up some notes for your own sandbox game, a scenario that the players could have fun with at any point in the game – novice to expert – greatly increases the chance that you’ll actually get to put that work to use.

Thus, in Ridmarch…

A clever party of novices can pick up clues, sneak around, avoid conflicts, explore the various areas involved as quietly as possible, and still defeat the enemy. Their challenge will be to overcome a vastly superior foe by discovering and exploiting the weaknesses of that foe. They may not be able to compete with raw force or magical power, but cleverness knows no “level”.

A more experienced party may deal directly with the cultists of Olfenac, perhaps by sneaking about in their tunnels and releasing their captives for assistance, discover the nature of the ritual which opened the troublesome gate, and then visit Kareon. There they can recruit some allies to help them reach the Caverns of the Dead and perform a counter-ritual (a solution that will work until or unless more demon cultists manage to get in and open the rift up again). If they consult Rathine Mora along the way, or follow up on old mysteries, they may obtain the Eagle of Ridmarch – which will make their task considerably easier.

A very experienced party may opt to skip looking for assistance, and simply begin to smash their way through the Dark Legion en route to closing the gate. This is dangerous, and demands a fair amount of power, but is straightforward. Still, their mission will be immensely easier if they do enough investigation to discover the Eagle of Ridmarch first. Alternatively, such a group could root out the cultists and then assemble the components for a grandiose ritual of exorcism – a solution that will work just fine until the locals forget to keep an adequate watch on the Cavern of the Dead.

A epic-to-godlike party can probably use their own vast powers to solve all the mysteries, grab the relevant items to dispose of the Dark Legions in short order, and then jaunt down to the infernal regions to challenge “Harkold” directly – in which case you can assume that the Eagle offers some advantages there. Of course, if a party of such power is in the area and becomes involved, they’re likely to attract quite a lot of attention. In fact, they’re likely to have attracted attention long before, and the entire situation will, in fact, be a well-buried trap for them. If they fall into it by jaunting off unprepared they may well wind up permanently dead. The main body of THEIR adventure is likely to be discovering what traps lie in wait, figuring out how to bypass them, and then engaging in an epic battle.

If the party is beyond godlike, and can’t be challenged by an entire infernal dimension full of traps, troops, and a canny archdemon/god, then my advice is to either retire those characters or to go and play Amber or Nobilis, where intra-party politics can keep everyone busy.

If the party is unpleasant, and decides to side with the Dark Legion, they still have much the same set of goals at lower power levels; find the weaknesses of the Dark Legion – and plug them, rather than exploiting them. At higher power levels they’ll probably be trying to eliminate the local refuges and help the cultists withstand goody-two-shoes adventurers. At the highest power levels they’ll be wanting to usurp command of the Dark Legion – or “Harkold” himself.

Still, for most parties, a big part of the problem – and their most likely introduction to it – is going to be having the Dark Legion running all over the place. Ergo, here are some likely encounters for the area:

Ridmarch Encounters:

  1. A party of Dark Legion scouts: This group of militaristic “undead”will be mounted (whether on undead horses, undead giant wolves, or undead whatever depends on the setting), will employ skirmisher tactics, and will try to call in assistance to handle any party that either escapes them or proves to be too powerful to handle. A single ordinary scout group probably won’t be a major threat to the party – but letting them sound the alarm will be trouble. Worse, even wiping them out won’t keep them from reporting back to their masters; it simply delays it until they rise again the next nightfall.
  2. A Champion of the Darkness: This Dark Legion scouting party happens to be led by a moderately powerful captain, who will either back up or lead his or her “men” as appropriate to the Captain’s abilities. There aren’t that many captains however – probably less than a dozen – so extended adventures in the area may wind up in a cat-and-mouse game as the captains become ever-more familiar with the parties abilities and tactics. There’s a modest chance that a Champion and “his men” will be taking a few captured civilians back to the Cavern of the Dead to be sacrificed to help keep the rift open. Following them would be tricky, but would be a good way to locate the Caverns.
  3. A Knight of Hades: These Dark Legion solo outriders possess considerable power – but are out on their own, looking for vengeance on the world, personal power, and battle glory. While they cannot leave “Harkold’s” service – at least not without truly powerful spells or rituals to recall their souls from the underworld – they can certainly try to overthrow their commanders, get rid of those annoying cultists who are bossing their friends around, and acquire servants of their own. A party which can offer any of those things may well have a good chance at persuading two of the three Knights of Hades (the third is depressingly loyal to his/her commanders) to help them out.
  4. The Dark Legion: This is a major contingent of the Dark Legion, usually en route to somewhere. It’s probably led by one of two or three major commanders and includes hundreds of lesser horrors. Confronting them is unlikely to be a good idea, although sending a warning on ahead or trying to slow them up is far more practical.
  5. Stray Civilians: Whether it’s a child pursuing a favored pet beyond the bounds of safety, a youngster hunting for a lost herdbeast, a parent out looking for a stray child, a messenger who failed to reach safety before sundown, a new arrival in the area who did not know what was going on, or merely someone caught out, stray bystanders (whether or not they’re actually “innocent” in any sense) can be a burden to any “good” party. They can inform you of other strays that you have to go and find, lead their pursuers to you, bring you out of secure positions to rescue them, get taken hostage – and provide all kinds of clues and information, point you to places where your intervention is needed, serve as useful contacts, and even bring the characters useful rewards and offers of employment. As far as the game goes, a stray civilian is a novelty surprise package; you never know what you’ll get.
  6. Demon Cultists: Cultists are the only people who can travel safely at night at the moment – but they usually prefer to pretend to be stray civilians when they do. Like the old Thuggee, they will infiltrate a group – and then call in their undead minions. If the group deals with the minions too easily, they’re too strong to attack at the moment and so they can be spied on or be lured into other traps. If the minions just need a little help, well, they’ll be in a good position to start stabbing their “defenders” in the back.
  7. A Small Siege: This is a village temple or sacred circle or some such – currently being defended by the constant ringing of bells (a noise which serves to guide in strays and attract parties of adventurers all by itself). While the Dark Legion cannot attack such a stronghold, or anyone within it, directly, they may expose themselves to draw missile fire and expend the defenders resources, keep the people there awake until they start making mistakes, try to smoke the defenders out, start fires upwind of them, start avalanches if the terrain is appropriate, build shelters against the sun so as to hold the siege during the day, stampede herds across the area, and so on.
  8. Animals or Tainted Animals: What with all the disruptions, and the Dark Legion roaming about, the local herbivores are panicked and the local carnivores are starving – and not a few have been tainted with infernal energies, and have turned into minor monsters. While a small stampede, or a few infernally-tainted wolves, are little menace to a defended position, they can be quite bothersome out in the wilds – and will soon reduce the Ridmarches to a howling wilderness.
  9. The Aftermath: In this case the characters have come across the remains of a merchant caravan, a ruined farmhouse, or another scene of slaughter. You can expect desperate and confused haunts, tainted predators feeding on the remains, disease, swarms of foul insects, terrible odors, and – possibly – some of the victims rising as minor undead. There may be some “treasure” (or perhaps a survivor) around, but there’s unlikely to be a lot.
  10. Brave Defenders: In this case the characters have found some resistance fighters – ranging from “barely above civilians” (such as local militias) on up through the local nobles, priests, and minor adventurer-types. Sadly, such groups are always too distracted by immediate local concerns – families, relatives, crops, the prospect of famine, and so on – to undertake the dispassionate and ruthless investigations that would let them solve the problem on their own. They’ll also lack the raw power to do it directly; if that much power was loose in the area, there would be major parties of evil adventurers present in support of the infernal invasion. Still, they can provide useful support, small rewards, and plenty of local information – making contacts with the resistance useful to most parties.

3 Responses

  1. Good advice and a good example of applying it

  2. […] first appeared in Part III of the Flexible Adventure Design series (Part I, Part II, Part III), but I’ll put them here for conveniences […]

  3. […] design, I’d suggest The Basic Adventure article, as well as the Ridmarch articles (Part I, Part II, and Part III) – in part because Ridmarch is a good demonstration of the way that […]

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