Category Archives: Adventure Design
One of the things I think often causes confusions among fans, and consternation among those entering the industry (or trying to maximize the creative resources within it) it that RPG creation as a whole lacks a consistent and well-accepted set of terms to describe the tasks that occur prior to editing, layout, and marketing. Many game companies use terms like author, writer, developer, and designer, but they mean different things at different companies, and sometimes aren’t well-defined even within the companies using such titles.
Further, even when the terms are fairly well-defined within a specific context, I think they are often way too broad. In the same way the ability to diagnose what’s wrong with an existing car and fix it is different from the ability to design a car from scratch is different from the ability to refuel and change the tires on a car as fast as possible, despite those all being technical fields involving car parts and performance, the writing tasks associated with professional RPG production can be very different despite cursory similarities. Without a good way to describe the various word-related tasks professional RPG creators may be called upon to perform, and note how they are different from one another, it’s hard to talk about who is good at what tasks and how they might improve at others.
This essay is not an effort to present a definitive lexicon of game creating positions. This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it. These are my first blush thoughts on the subject, and I presume not only that I would evolve my opinions as the question is debated but that I’ll discover lots of people smarter and more experienced than I will have done a lot of this categorization already. But I want to produce a fixed from of my initial sense of the various roles that word creation can play in a professional RPG setting, and cast about for other versions after that.
I’ll also note that much as the job of writing RPGs is more complex that a single skill set, I am well aware of the differences between various forms of editing, many art and graphic design and layout tasks, financing, shipping, marketing, and so on. I am focusing here on the word creation not out of a claim that it’s the only part that’s important in creating RPGs, but simply because it’s the thing I have done the most over my 20 years or being involved in professional RPGs, so it’s what I know best.
Also, these terms specifically avoid those I run into most often in the industry (such as designer and developer) because different companies that I work for use those terms differently, and no matter how I defined them I could be seen as criticizing the way one or more of my employers use them, which is not my intent. Ultimately we could name these jobs after the planets or all I care, as long as we all knew a Jupiter was the person who wrote background of a campaign setting, and a Saturn could expand on existing rule systems in interesting ways.
Many people I know in the industry fill many of these roles as needed, and some fill all of them with amazing dedication and creativity. These aren’t designed to be in any way excusive, just distinct enough that some people might be good and one and merely serviceable in another.
That said, here’s my first stab at this.
An adventure architect focuses on the overall plot and narrative arc of published adventures. The architect must be familiar enough with the game rules and themes to be able to know what kind of plots and events work well with the RPG and will be generally entertaining for it’s audience, but this is about big picture story arcs, pacing, and climaxes, no the details of how individual encounters work. The person who outlines an adventures (and even more so, a set of linked adventures) is an adventure architect.
An adventure builder can write a complete draft of an adventure from a rough outline. This requires a detailed understanding of the existing rules—how they work, what they do well, and how much of them a GM can be assumed to know vs what you need to explain (or at least give references in rulebooks for)—and be capable of producing text that is concise and interesting to read. But they also need to know how the fictional world the adventure is set in works, so the events and encounters they describe seem consistent with the continuity that has already been established. When an adventure builder is done, it should be possible for a GM and group of players to play the adventure without major problems or confusion.
A game contractor knows how all the moving parts of the rules of a game work—the themes it supports, the math behind it, the tone of its text, the play experience it’s designed to provide and how the rules support that experience—and can use those systems to create new iterations of those rules, and subsystems that work with them. A game contractor should be able to write examples for how any rules is used in play, answer rules questions, check material for game balance, and create new rules options for players or GMs that support the existing play experience of the game or (if it is the intent of a product) show ways to get different play experiences using variants of current rules.
A game inventor can create a new roleplaying game core engine, and the basic systems and subsystems needed to turn the core mechanics into a playable game. A game inventor has to create from scratch (or from a list of design goals) the things the game contractor later builds upon.
Ideally a game inventor needs to be able to outline the creation of a game, assign it to multiple writers, and collaborate with a team to see the final product is complete and comprehensive. Theoretically this might be a different job, but I really envision it as a natural extension of the core game inventor role, and thus include it here.
While I know a lot of people who are both game contractors and game inventors, I have also met a few people capable of one of these roles, but not the other.
A game polisher can take text written by someone else, and make it fit with existing text in terms of tone, balance, continuity, and play experience. This involves having a strong grasp on all of those elements, interacting with rules, continuity, and theme. While most game polishers I know are also (at minimum) good adventure builders, game contractors, or worldbuilders (and some are all three and much more), the core ability of the game polisher job itself is to be able to take the work of numerous different writers who may not have spoken to each other or coordinated their efforts at all, and adjust them as needed so the end product is indistinguishable from one written by a single author who was also well-versed in all other game products in the same RPG line.
A worldbuilder can conceive of and describe imaginary places and their residents, from single buildings to entire galaxies depending on the RPG and it’s scale, in clear and compelling prose. A worldbuilder needs to understand the rules of an RPG well enough to know what it does and doesn’t support well, but even more importantly they need to know the continuity, themes, and scope of the campaign setting supporting the RPG. If an RPG has multiple campaign settings (or none), this may require a broad understanding of each of them as well as the tropes common to the fiction that inspired the RPG (and which of them are stereotypes or motifs that have become clichés). A worldbuilder should be able to create new settings whole cloth, or expand existing ones. (While in theory this might be two different tasks, I’ve never actually met someone who is good at one and not the other, and the roles in companies generally requires both in the same person.)
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Worldbuilding can often get bogged down in big-picture questions and large-scale issues. Yes, there’s use to knowing how rivers flow from mountains to sea level, what kinds of natural barriers are likely to become borders, and how socio-economic statuses can form political lines. But those questions still just outline nations and factions. At the scale that most players are interacting with your world, it doesn’t really matter in play if the border between Heroton and Badlandia is a river, a mountain range, or a big blue dotted line that runs through a flat plain. What DOES matter to players is how those places feel and act differently while you are within them.
And for that, it’s often useful to throw in just a few little details.
If the common drink for a culturally-interlinked area is a tea just known as Steeps, maybe the people in Heroton like it strong and bitter, while the peasants of Badlandia make it weak and sweetened with honeysuckle. Elves prefer red Steeps, while human throw away the red stems as tasteless. The dwarves of Ironbeard make Steeps with weak beer to ensure no diseases remain in the local water, while the gnomes of Rillridge ferment it until foam forms on the surface which is then skimmed off.
None of that *matters*, but those kinds of tiny details, when used in sparing moderation, can help bring regions and cultures alive. Players who don’t care can wave it off, but those who enjoy engaging in fictional cultures have the option of paying attention, and offering the Big Bad of Badlandia honeysuckle-sweetened Steeps at the peace conference. And maybe he smiles, and notes he actually always preferred it strong and bitter, like his parents made it… suddenly given a new context into his background, based on how he takes his tea.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of cultural detail and, as long as you don’t load ever city with 27 things you expect players to keep track of. Adding just one or two tiny differences can help immerse players, and make regions distinctive.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of detail, but it helps if it’s something publicly noticeable (how the Halfling war bakers of Gnabysko bless their battle muffins in secret ceremonies isn’t going to impact player perception much, unless someone is playing a Halfling war baker), minor (so players don’t feel they must remember the detail or get into cultural trouble, which can feel like homework), and relatable (details that tie into activities players understand are more easily understood and remembered—the fact there are 17 “proper” foot stances for fighting with an orroc gutting axe is interesting… but for players with no melee combat training experience it doesn’t connect to anything they’ve done).
You can also build off a detail, creating slang and cultural notes that play off the detail. This can help the detail be memorable, but it also invites the players to dream up such phrases and ideas as well.
For example, let’s say you have decided that in the Free City of Campaign, street performers put out a boot for people to toss coins into, rather than a hat or other collection device. That’s easy to work into a campaign as an observed behavior, unlikely to make any player feel they have to memorize it, and replaces a common occurrence in a way players are likely to understand.
Once you’ve done that, it’s easy to see how some local slang might develop around the tradition. “Giving you the boot” could mean firing someone, so they now have to earn money on the street, while “Earning your boot” might indicate you are good enough at some performance to make a living as a busker. Having a “hole in your boot” could indicate someone is stealing from you, and “looking in the toe” could mean you’re scrounging for every last coin (like checking the cushions of your sofa).
If players show interest in a detail, and explore it, you can build on it. Maybe the boot tradition dates back to when soldier came back from a war, and without enough work used their hard military boots to gather coins as beggars, and the tradition grew from there. Maybe there was a tax on all labor performed ‘without boots” that was designed to exclude hard workers, but street performers used this to get around it. You don’t HAVE to do that kind of background work, but if players dig around it shows they have an interest in that element of your world.
Tiny details like this should be sparing, to ensure a world remains familiar enough for players to be comfortable with it. These are seasoning for the main course of your world, rather than the entrée itself. But used properly, that kind of seasoning can elevate the flavor of your creations, and make them much more memorable.
Putting My Boot Out
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This grew from the causal thought “What two ideas have I not seen jammed together before?” with the answer being “Minotaur mafia.”
The Bulls of Mingul
When the enslaved people of Mingul prayed for salvation from the scorpionfolk masters, or at least escape from the vast labyrinthine cave complexes the scorpionfolk build as their temple cities, at first no gods answered. The envenomed deity of the scorpionfolk was too dangerous to other gods, her poison able to slay even deities.
But in time the field mother and the sly trickster decided to risk their existence to help the enslaved peoples. They took cattle, who were under the aegis of the field mother, and turned them into something else using the tricksters bag of secrets. Tall now, and powerful, and unable to be confused to lost by the most complex maze, the “Bulls of Mingul” waged war on the scorpionfolk. The minotaurs, as they came to be known, worked with the enslaved people to free Mingul, drive the scorpionfolk into hiding, and build new cities above the vast cavern-cities the scorpionfolk one ruled.
But when the war ended, and the enslaved people were freed, the minotaurs had no further purpose. They had no history of agriculture as a people, no legends of their own, no traditions to call upon. They knew only pathfinding and war. And so they demanded the people give them food and goods, in return for protections. The people were willing to pay an army, but not to trade one set of masters for another. The minotaurs fragmented into great herds of criminals, one controlling each of the mazes beneath the cities of Mingul.
All crime in Mingul is controlled, one way or another, by a Herd Lord. Law and Order have grown in power, but none but a minotaur can move safely through the ancient scorpionfolk tunnels beneath ever city. Thus the minotaur criminals have a secure stronghold, and ways to move unseen through every city. Some become guards of course, and can lead peacekeepers through the dark depths, but their number are few, and those who track down their own kind too often are often found slain, their bull head severed and replaced with that of a pig. Meanwhile criminals of other races often take the “sign of the bull,” a horn-shaped brand, declaring their loyalty to one or another Herd Lord.
The Herd Lords still protect Mingul from outside threats, and see the good and money they demand as their just due. Most Mingul cities and citizens see it as easier to allow the Herds to control and monitor crime, and accept the occasional theft or beating as the cost of freedom and having a vast force securing the underground zones of their land from attacks by drow or other subterranean threats.
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Adventure idea: A community of unusually short-tailed, round-headed ratfolk (an ethnicity called ‘voles’ by other local races) who live in borrows (boroughs?) outside a major city have begun to be assaulted and driven out of local markets by rougher citizens of the city. The settlers accuse the ratfolk of theft, and desecration of several shrines within the city, saying the ratfolk move through the city’s sewers and drains, and have even been seen trying to get at children asleep in their homes.
The ratfolk proclaim their innocence, and point out they warned the city’s leaders weeks ago that wererats had been spotted in the thick brush of a nearby woods. The ratfolk believe the wererats have infected some city dwellers. The city government thinks the ratfolk are making false claims about wererats to protect some ratfolk hooligans, and thus aren’t taking it seriously.
Thus the ratfolk need help, because the wererats (who do indeed walk among them, including a few wererat ratfolk who only have a modest appearance change in hybrid form) are a demon cult who wish to summon agents of their demonic patron, a scavenger lord who spreads disease and uses vrocks as his agents. The wererats have summoned one vrock already, and want two more so they can do a dance of ruin beneath the city streets! So, the rastfolk want to hire some outsiders (the PCs) to fairly investigate.
The players must separate fact from fiction, deal with hunting down were rats both in the city sewers and hiding in plain site among the ratfllk, and ultimately deal with the apocalyptic whereat demon cult’s plans.
The name of the adventure?
“Vrock and Vole”
Sometimes a campaign really needs a mastermind criminal with a vast organization at his disposal. Preferably someone with extensive resources, but who also prefer to keep a low profile. Such crime bosses may serve as foils, contacts, patrons, nemesis, or just background elements the GM and players can work off of as stories develop.
Of course, it helps if such master criminals and crime groups are cool and enigmatic.
So this is an idea of one option to fill that element. It focuses on the master criminal, the Wolf’s Head, and touches lightly on the organization, the Crime Guild. These descriptions are kept intentionally broad. A GM should be able to easily adapt the Wolf’s Head and Crime Guild to any genre, any game system, and any world or time frame. They can be pastiches for Lex Luthor and LexCrop, Moriarty and his Network, the Godfather and the Five Families, or Jabba the Hutt and his scum and villainy. Alternatively, a GM can use this as a starting point to build a whole new kind of organized crime group.
The Wolf’s Head
The Wolf’s Head is a mastermind villain and organizer of all forms of outlawry. He or she holds the highest position in the Crime Guild, a combination of organized crime cartel and training-ground for talented individuals. Each Wolf’s Head carries the position’s official scepter of office, a long cane with a silver wolf’s head and the words caput gerat lupinum (“may his be a wolf’s head” in Latin) engraved around the base of the head of the cane.
The Wolf’s Head traces its origin back to writ’s of outlawry in early English common law (or any older nation in worlds lacking England). An outlaw was literally being “cast out of the law,” no longer subject to the protections a person received from the law and thus able to be treated as a wolf. The write included the words caput gerat lupinum, and in many cases was considered the most serious possible sentence.
According to Crime Guild history, one of the earliest people declared an outlaw under this system build a vast network of outlaws, and took the first Wolf’s Head title. Over the centuries that organization has come in contact with, and absorbed, the thousands of organized crime groups from every continent, nation, and ethnicity, forming the massive, worldwide Crime Guild. While the goals of the Crime Guild vary somewhat, they tend to remain institutional – focused on earning and protecting money, influence, and power and building a large cadre of loyal agents. Many guilders are important members of other groups, ranging from crime families to law enforcement agencies, but some few work directly for the Crime Guild. These generally answer directly to the Wolf’s Head, and through them the Wolf’s Head is free to pursue any goals he or she desires, as long as the Crime Guild on the whole continues to grow and prosper.
The holder of the Wolf’s Head title changes periodically, and apparently at random to outside observers. Each Wolf’s Head must nominate one Alder of Crime every 3 years (though killed alders need not be replaced). Each Alder is able to secretly vote to “retire” the current Wolf’s Head (though they can change this vote at any time). Such votes are kept with several ArchNumbers (Numbers being living cogitators who keep all the Crime Guild’s records, and ArchNumbers being senior examples). The Wolf’s Head also ranks the alders, from best to worst, and gives that information only to the ArchNumbers (and can change the rankings at any time).
If at any point 2/3 or more of the current Alders have voted to retire the current leader, the Numbers inform the entire Crime Guild. At that point all Alders try to kill the Wolf’s Head. If they succeed within 30 days (also known as the Hunter’s Moon, as the alders hunt the ultimate wolf), then whichever alder still alive that was highest ranked by the previous Wolf’s Head becomes the new Wolf’s Head. If not, the current Wolf’s Head retains the position, and the ArchNumbers ensure every alder that voted to retire him is killed (to cull those who mistakenly thought it was time to change leaders).
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The proposed (and definitely never happening) Analemma Tower would make an awesome set up for any number of campaigns using Anachronistic Adventures or Starfinder. Here are some campaign ideas for a mobile city-sized building hanging down from an asteroid.
All Along the Watchtower: The U.N of 2075 can’t operate out of any one nation or building anymore. Diplomacy, military intervention, and trade all work better from mobile city-towers hanging from asteroids.
Ark V: After the Quantum Genegineering Wars, the ground level of the world became uninhabitable. At the small scale, mutant Morlocks and hunter-killer drones are contant random threats. At the large scale, the doomsday weapon biotank Kaiju are drawn to any major stationary power source.
There are still survivors scrabbling to survive in a ruined world, and super-science and relics to be dug out of cities overrun by horrors. but the only way to get to them is to wait for a period of low threat, then jump down from the roaming bastion of science and civilization that is Ark V, our last, best hope for survival.
High Ground: The evil supergenius Tex Tanner could have engaged in countless battles to overthrow nations, establish shadow governments, and defeat heroes like Anthem Lass and the Gargoyle. Instead he created one overwhelming show of his scientific brilliance and endless resources, the mobile space-anchored archaeology known as High Ground. From there he runs TannerCorp, literally above the laws of other nations.
Is he done now that he’s made his point, or is High Ground just step one/ As as an archaeology under his exclusive control, why is he hiring street-level heroes to police his private fiefdom?
The Sword of D.A.M.O.C.L.E.S: Aliens have conquered Earth for Earth’s own good. Mostly humanity is left to its own devices, but certain activities and experiments are forbidden. The Department of Alien-Mandated Oversight, Committee of Law Enforcement Systems are mostly humans, though a few alien races also work within it, and makes sure forbidden actions are not attempted. DAMOCLES operates out of the Sword, a hanging alien watchtower that orbits the Earth in a variable pattern to allow maximum command support of hot spots.
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Boss villains in adventure fiction sometimes have multiple forms in their final fight. Perhaps the apparently frail mastermind of the heroes ills becomes a towering mass of rage and muscle after being stabbed a few times. Maybe the disgusting mass of dead flesh is more cocoon than fat ghoul and attacking it just helps birth the true undead within. Maybe the psycho killer is a werewolf, who is about to become a werewinterwolf. Or maybe the villain just hasn’t let you see his Final Form yet.
The point is, sometimes you want a way for a villain to change their game stats after taking a certain amount of damage, so the fight keeps going but the paradigm changes, giving the PCs a more complex experience.
The simple way to do this is to pick a series of pre-existing creatures and reskin them as the various stages of your main villain. In most cases I recommend keeping them of the same type and subtype, though you can just change all the monsters you select to act as the same type and subtype. There can be exceptions to this for story reasons—perhaps the Fourfold Guardian specifically goes from air to earth to fire to water—but for the most part it makes the most sense if a monstrous humanoid remains a monstrous humanoid, even if you use the stat blocks for a hobgoblin, ape, and winter wolf to represent three evolving forms.
I recommend keeping all the forms picked with the easy-to-challenging CR spread of the PCs, and honestly within 2 CR of one another.
Once you have picked your forms and made any needed adjustments, just have the PCs face them in turn. When one “form” is knocked unconscious, killed, or destroyed, the boss villain moves to a new form. You can have it appear to fall dead and then stand again on its next turn, which is good for villains with just two forms, especially if the first is a typical mortal and the second is undead or outsider. Or you can not tell the PCs they’ve “killed” the first form, and just have the villain assume the second form as a free action at the beginning of its next turn. Or, you can have the villain enter a “transformation sequence” when it is killed, and take a full round action to assume the new form on its next turn, being immune to all effects and attacks until that time since it’s in metamorphosis. Which makes the most sense depends on your monster’s background and reason for being multi-formed.
Once it is in the new form it is no longer affected by any old conditions, effects, or penalties, and the fight continues.
When determining treasure for the encounter, add the treasure values of all the things the PCs killed and use that for your loot pool. When determining the XP reward, add the XP gained from the highest CR form you used, plus 50% of the XP of each form after the highest CR, to get the total XP gained by the encounter. Don’t just add all the XP together like you would if the PCs had to face all these monsters at once, because the monsters can’t team up, all act at the same time, flank, spread out, and so on. Treat the encounter as having a CR equal to a CR closest to this XP total.
For example, Scraggle is an unpleasant fey creature that lives at the edge of town and terrorizes local children. When attacked, Scraggle fights using the stat block of a derro, When killed, Scraggle lies dead until its next round… and then stand again having become Scragifulous as a result of his weird fey magic. Scragifulous uses the stat block for a drow noble, it’s “Intermediate Form.” When THAT form is killed, you describe the screams of rage and constantly growing bulk, and make it clear not new attacks seem to have any effect until the fey’s next turn, when it becomes Scragulon, filled with rage and Strength and now using the stat block of an ogre. The scraggle encounter is 800 XP for the ogre, +400 XP for half the drow noble, +400 XP for the derro, or 1600 XP, or CR 5.
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For people who haven’t run into the term, the “15 minute adventuring day” is a phenomenon where players in RPGs with strong resource-management element (such as spell casters in Pathfinder and similar games) that reset daily, often use some of their most powerful options, then decide not to go forward with any more encounters until they have regained everything.
How often a group of adventurers gets to rest is hugely variable to play style, and a huge part of the question of balance between casting classes and nowcasting or limited-casting classes.
But… there’s no reason restoration of what are after all MAGIC abilities needs to be tied to sleep., Maybe you get spells back once per week. maybe you recharge your mystic powers only when the right conjunctions occur. Maybe you need to see your holy powers thwart evil before you have the righteousness built up to restore those abilities.
In short we make these things “per day” because that is how games do it, and because it’s easy, not because there is any internal logic to it.
So if it’s an issue… change it.
Some players want to have an in-world justification for any rule, especially any rule that restricts their existing power curve and tactics. So, give them one.
Magic does not follow a set schedule. Holy power isn’t tracked on a punch clock. Even your amazing extraordinary powers require the circumstances for them be JUST right, and that doesn’t happen just because the sun went down and came up again.
These things are tied to fate, destiny, and the ebb and flow of eldritch powers that are unseen and barely understood.
You only recover your daily abilities and spells if you have properly slept, as per the normal rules, because you need to be rested and ready when the Right Moment comes. And if you prepare spells, you still need to take an hour to do so once the Cosmic Well of Mystic Might refills.
But instead of happening every day? That happens when Cosmic Conjunctions and the Destiny of Living things has come to a Juncture.
Cosmic Conjunctions? Also known as every 3d3 encounters. On average between 3 and 9 major things happen to characters between recharges, and they don’t know exactly when the Big Recharge is coming.
Encounters 2 more more above your APL count as two. Encounters 1 under your APL count as 1/2, and those 2 or more under your APL don’t count at all. The GM determines how many encounters it’ll take in secret once you hit a reset, and tracks how many encounters you have had since then.
Groups with strong ties track this as a group, but the GM may choose to track individuals separately as the GM prefers.
No wizard knows the hour of the Grand Conjunction that refills HER spells. No cleric can say exactly when the will of the gods renews them. It happens when it happens.
Until then, you just need to husband your resources, and no there’s no point in going home and resting up. If you don’t seek your destiny? Then destiny won’t reward you with power.
So you might as well keep seeking well past 15 minutes into your day.
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So here is the idea:
Dungeon speed runs as a team sport, on roller skates. “Roller Dungeon Team T-Shirts” optional, but the Absalom Abyssals Woman’s Speed Destruction Team is my favorite.
EVERYONE is on roller skates. Heroes, monsters, gelatinous cubes… everyone.
Every PC must have half their levels in barbarian, brawler, cavalier, fighter, investigator, kineticist, monk, ninja, rogue, or slayer.
For these mandatory class levels, you get +4 skill points per level, and the Skating skill. Also, any class that has Ride replaces it with Skating.
Skating works like Ride, but your “mount” is a pair of skates that take your space. Anything you could do on a mount, you can instead do on skates. All skates have a 30 foot move rate and, like a mount, if you control your skates without taking an action, you get a full action.
Skates are never battle-trained mounts, unless you would get a mount as a class feature like cavaliers).
All dungeons should be 2 CR lower than the APL *your spellcaster assistance has been limited after all, and you are making speed runs).
You only get full XP and treasure for a combat or trap encounter if you finish it in 5 rounds or less. For every round more than that, you lose 25% of your XP and treasure. An encounter begins when you become aware of it, so scouting eats into your time. If you complete an encounter in less than 4 rounds, you get a 10% treasure bonus for each round less time you take.
It’s assumed you have an audience, so Performance combat is an option.
Combine with DungeonBall! or X-Crawl as desired.
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This week I saved all my creative energies for one big post, and TGIF!
(Seriously, I’ve sold pdfs shorter than this… )
The Gravity Chamber
The Gravity Chamber is an encounter environment idea. It’s a room in which gravity swaps one a round, every round, randomly and often with little warning. Down becomes up, and then the next round becomes down again. PCs must deal with being constantly slammed up and down, hopefully while you also add another encounter (like driders with boxes of caltrops and a cyclops alchemist) to keep thigns fresh and terrifying.
The Set Up
Have this be a big room, with a ceiling that’s 20 feet high, plus 10 feet per 5 full levels of the PCs. Also, describe the weird bloodstains, scattered gear, and broken crockery everywhere…
Once the PCs are all inside, something triggers the room. Maybe it’s an ancient eldritch trap that goesn;t go off until everyone is inside. Maybe it’s a malfunctioning antigrav drive with an AI that waits for all passengers to be aboard. Maybe it’s just bad timing. Maybe a super-powerful psychic child is sitting in the middle of the room waiting for her powers to kill her, and she throws a tantrum. Maybe there’s a big shiny button, and the fun starts when someone presses it. Your game, your call. This is just a tool in your toolbox.
Once it’s going, the Big Swap rolls initiative every round. Keep this secret. When it’s number comes up, down and up switch places.
If there’s an off switch, the PCs can try to reach it. If not, the effect likely lasts 10 rounds.
The Difficulty of Reverse Gravity
The difficulty of anything you attempt in the Gravity Chamber is modified by how much warning there is before gravity takes hold, and how suddenly it happens once the switch occurs. Those aren’t things that exist in real-world terms, so there can be as much or as little warning as you, the GM, want.
To keep things interesting, I recommend you make the Difficulty Value 1.5x the Average party Level of your group. When a calculation of a DC calls for a value of X + DV, this should keep things interesting for characters of any level. For example, if a wizard who is part of a 5th level group is flying in the gravity chamber, his Fly check have a DC of 22 (15 + a DV of 7.5, rounded down to 7).
You could of course decide that the gravity chamber is the most dangerous, most sudden, most unpredictable version possible, and make all the DV’s 30. But that’s not going to be much fun for 8th level characters.
If you want to use the gravity chamber more than once, you can actually vary the DV and give the players careful explanations. If they run into a gravity chamber at 5th level with a DV of 7, explain that there is some warning, a sense of tilting or a brief moment of weightlessness, before each gravity switch. If they run into another one at 8th level, rather than a DV of 12 (as the formula would suggest), perhaps it has a DV of only 5. Explain that there is a groan and a series of clicks before the gravity switch, and that gravity fades in and out, quickly but not with no warning. It’s actually easier than the first one they encountered (which also allows you to put a more dangerous complementary encounter in the chamber).
This, of course, sets them up for the extremely violent, no-warning gravity chamber they encounter at 10th level, with a DV of 20. One hopes by then the players have made some preparations for these types of encounters.
What happens when gravity reverses itself depends on what you were doing at the time.
Standing: If you are standing when gravity reverses itself, you are going to fall. The only question is, can you reduce the damage by “jumping” toward the new ground, flip midair, and land on your feet? That’s a DC 10 + DV check, rather than a flat DC 15. Also, since otherwise people are standing from prone every round, you may wish to give people a choice of reducing the damage by 10 feet 9and falling prone if they take any damage), or landing in a heroic 3-point stance, which means they take full damage but *aren’t* considered prone.
Deadpool would approve.
Flying: Flying characters don’t get a pass just because they aren’t touching the ground. Flying means you are pushing against “down” with some force to counteract gravity. Since you don’t know when gravity will reverse itself, there’s a definite risk that the force used to push against “down” will slam you into the new down when gravity flips. After all if it’s just 40 feet from one side to the other, at 1g it only takes about 1.5 seconds to fall that distance (ignoring things like wind drag), and if you are flying at the midpoint it’s less than 1 second.
When gravity reverses, anyone flying must make a Fly check with a DC of 15 + DV. The exception to this is flight with perfect maneuverability, which only needs to make a DC of 0 + DV. On a failed check you move a number of feet toward the new “down” equal to double the amount you missed the check by. If you move so far you hit the current “down,” you take following damage and are prone.
Climbing: Climbing the walls or trying to use the Climb skill to stick to the floor when it becomes the ceiling is tricky… but not impossible. Usually an “overhand with handholds and footholds only” is DC 30, which is pretty epic. But you could, of course, add actual rungs, loops, gnarly roots, or even netting strung across every surface. To make a Climb effort a viable option you may want to go with a DC of 20+ DV, and be liberal with bonuses for doing things like hammering in pitons or getting clever with an immovable rod.
If a character has a climb speed and can stick to a surface gecko-like, it’s MUCH easier to stay stuck to a surface when gravity reverses itself… but like flight it’s not automatic. DC 5 + DV.
If you fail a check by 1-4, you may choose to be staggered and immobile, but stay in your space (representing a death-grip to stay put), If you fail by 5 or more, or aren’t willing to be staggered, you fall and hit the new floor.
Landing: Things like wind drag, randomly pushing off other objects by accident, and gravity eddies mean you don’t land exactly above or below your starting point. If you succeed at an Acrobatics check as described above, pick a square either directly under you or adjacent to the one directly under you, and you land there. For any other result, roll 1d8 and 1d20. The 1d8 determines your direction of scatter, if any. If it and the d20 result in the same number, you land directly under your starting space. If the d8 result is smaller than the d20 result, you drift 5 feet in the direction indicated by the d8. If the d8 result is bigger than the d20 result, you drift ten feet in the direction indicated by the d8.
If two or more creatures end up in the same space, they all make grapple checks. The creature with the highest result is standing (and may shift one space if necessary). All others are prone. No one is actually grappling, that just represents the mad scrabble to end up on top as they are flung together.
Remember I mentioned the driders you could add might have boxes of caltrops? This thing is a giant washing machine, and everything is being banged about. Each round, everyone must make a Reflex save with a DC of 5 + DV. On a success, you dodged all the debris. On a failure, you take damage equal to falling half the distance to the ground, as pebbles, old gear, and even small rodents slam into you.
You can also have small fields of caltrops, alchemists bombs, and angry hornet’s nests bouncing around, with people trying to avoid landing on them. Move these the same way you move creatures, but if they end up sharing a space, the creatures automatically slam into them.
If you follow the guidelines given here, the Gravity Chamber is an encounter roughly the same CR as the party’s average level. If you add another encounter to it, boost that encounter’s CR by +2.
Of course being a higher CR encounter means more treasure… but what if everyone gains some special ability as a result to exposure to the strange gravatoinic radiation of the chamber? Perhaps everyone can feather fall once per day as a spell-like ability? And if they encounter a second chamber, maybe double exposure means they can each levitate once per day… and so on…
Or maybe they just get to gather up adamantine caltrops!
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