Last time, we walked through the process of creating a starting area for my . . . er, your first 4th Edition campaign. We created the troubled village of Greenbrier and came up with ideas for a few adventure spots nearby: Tower Watch, Harrows Pass, and Greenbrier Chasm. We decided that Greenbrier Chasm would be the starting dungeon, so that's where we're turning our attention this month.
I haven't actually pulled my next gaming group together yet. Presumably, you have a better idea of who's in your group and what they enjoy in a D&D game. That's actually our first consideration in thinking about the dungeons of Greenbrier Chasm. If you could call your group of players "slayers" -- the kind of people who come to the game table from work or school ready to lay some smackdown on whatever monsters stand between them and treasure -- you have a pretty easy job. Just draw or find a dungeon map and start populating it with said monsters and treasures.
Assuming that your players have some interest in story and social interaction within the game, though, we're going to go a little deeper into the story of Greenbrier Chasm. That means we must first make some decisions about what happened to create it.
You might think about that question from a couple of different angles. Was the opening of the chasm a goal -- someone set out to open it in order to access the dungeons below -- or a side effect of a larger plan? Maybe it was an earthquake, or maybe a not-so-natural disaster. Or instead of someone on the surface opening the chasm to get inside, perhaps someone in the dungeons broke free, or created an opening to the outside world.
Last month, we discussed the idea that the opening of the chasm was connected to the burning of the nearby forest. So let's take that idea of something breaking out of the chasm and run with it. Deep in the ancient ruins of Greenbrier Chasm, something was bound by powerful magic. After centuries of slumber, something happened -- maybe an earthquake broke the circle of binding that held it imprisoned, or maybe it simply served its sentence of 1,001 years. Whatever it was, the creature exploded up from the earth, creating the chasm, and rampaged off into the wilderness, burning the forest to cinders at the same time. The burning suggests that we might be looking for some kind of entity of fire, but we'll leave the nature of the prisoner aside for the moment.
What I like about this angle to the story is that it suggests a long-term campaign goal -- hunting down whatever creature was imprisoned there and either killing it or returning it to its prison. That's not something the characters might even think about until they're into the epic levels, but I can work seeds of that idea into even the very first adventures of my campaign. So I'm going to hold on to the question of the nature of the beast until I have a better idea of what sorts of themes I want to explore in my campaign.
Fortunately, I've had one of those ideas bouncing around in my head for the last couple of days. I was moving my D&D books from one room of our house to another, and my eye fell on Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations. I love that book -- it's one of my favorite 3rd Edition books I didn't write. I like aberrations, I like the themes of madness and the corruption of nature they suggest, and I like the Lovecraftian edge they bring to the game, while remaining distinctly D&D.
I also really like the organizations and prestige classes dedicated to fighting aberrations: the nature-focused Circle of the True, the psionic-themed Society of the Sanctified Mind, the holy Topaz Order, and the lone-wolf keepers of the Cerulean Sign. Cool anti-aberration organizations with really cool names . . . and very easy to loot for a 4th Edition campaign, even without making use of the specific mechanics attached to the prestige classes.
So I'm going to fill the deeper dungeons of Greenbrier Chasm with aberrations. The 4th Edition Monster Manual doesn't have much in the way of low-level aberrations, though, so I'll have to get creative. But I'll definitely hold on to the idea that the lower reaches of the chasm provide entry into more dangerous levels of the ruins, which I can populate with mind flayers and aboleths and other higher-level aberrations. As the characters approach paragon levels, I can start to introduce foulspawn and carrion crawlers, but for now aberrations are a bit out of reach.
This is telling me that Greenbrier Chasm has a lot of potential for adventuring through the life of the campaign. Probably, the characters' adventures will take them away from Greenbrier for a time, but that can be a really rewarding aspect of a campaign: The characters leave their home town and go off to grand adventures, then come back home as powerful heroes and face new threats back in their very first dungeon. That will be great, when the time comes.
So what do I do during the character's first few levels? As I said before, I get creative. The Monster Manual is full of low-level monsters, from the usual kobolds, goblins, and orcs to stranger fare such as kruthiks and needlefang drakes. There's nothing that really screams "aberration" at me, except maybe the kruthiks, but sometimes it's all in the perception. Let's say that whatever hideous aberration was imprisoned in the depths of Greenbrier Chasm tainted the upper reaches of the dungeons as well, corrupting the creatures that made their homes there. So I can use kobolds and goblins, but these will be warped kobolds and goblins, twisted into horrible mockeries of their original forms. (What makes an aberration an aberration? The answer is largely cosmetic.) Just changing the appearance of these monsters will make them seem strange and alien, giving the players a clue about the dangers lurking farther below. At some point, maybe I'll either modify a hobgoblin stat block or reduce the level of one of the foulspawn in the Monster Manual to make a major opponent for a climactic battle.
So far, then, I have an origin story for the chasm itself (which might come out in local legends), an idea of a really broad arc for the whole campaign, and some starting ideas for the first excursion into the chasm, and the kind of monsters the characters might face there.
What Is Your Quest?
I have a story background, and I have monsters to kill. One thing I lack is a story for the actual adventure. I don't mean a narrative of the adventure's events -- my players will write that as they play through the adventure. I mean some idea of what draws the characters into the adventure and what they're trying to accomplish. In 4th Edition, the characters' goals come wrapped in the handy mechanical wrapper of quests.
What brings the characters to Greenbrier Chasm?
For reasons I'll soon make clear, I want to steer clear of the clichéd idea that the denizens of the dungeon have been raiding outlying farms or ambushing caravans. So a couple of alternative ideas are bubbling around in my mind (partly inspired by looking at the 4E Dungeon Master's Guide's list of adventure seeds).
- Rather than monsters or raiders coming out of the chasm, weird, alien energies are spreading out from it, warping crops and twisting animal life. Then a calf is stillborn in a farmstead near the chasm, its body equally corrupted. That's enough to spur the town into action, before the Depravation (as they call it) spreads into humans.
- It's a tradition in the town that in order to be recognized as an adult, a young person must spend the night in a place of danger. In the old days, youths would sleep in a dark part of the forest, but since the burning of the forest, Greenbrier Chasm has been the dangerous location of choice. Most people come back to the village alive, but then, most of them sleep on a ledge near the top of the chasm. When the PCs (as a group) undergo their rite of passage, they see strange lights in a cave mouth just below them. If that fails to lure them into the dungeon, some warped goblins come out and attack.
- An ancient prophecy known to the village elders (or one crazy old priest of Pelor) describes the events surrounding a solar eclipse. The eclipse is due to occur in a few months, and the prophecy contains dire warnings about what will happen if a particular ceremony is not performed on the day of the eclipse. The problem is, the prophecy dates from the time when the dungeons in the chasm were inhabited, and the ceremony has to be performed there. The characters are handed a dusty old scroll and some ritual materials, and off they go into the dungeons, the fate of the village in their hands!
There are three ideas off the top of my head. I'm least enthusiastic about the second one, but if I wanted to, I could combine all three. Let's try this:
Most or all of the characters are approaching their rites of passage. There's some debate among the villagers about whether to perform the rites this year or not, because of the weird energies that seem to be emanating from the chasm. Perhaps the PCs join in this debate. But one additional factor is that one member of the party -- someone with ties to the crazy old priest of Pelor -- has another reason to enter the dungeons. He's going in to perform the ritual. Maybe he doesn't want to tell the others about it, or maybe it's an important point in the ongoing debate. The result, at any rate, is that the PCs enter the dungeons, intending to spend the night, perform the ritual in the morning, and emerge afterward, hopefully in one piece.
Now the characters have a good story reason for entering the dungeons. Here's the catch: The PCs enter the dungeon, kill some of its inhabitants, perform their ritual, and leave. Naturally, that angers the other denizens of the dungeon, and they launch some raids into the village and farms. So we do actually reach the cliché, but now the PCs have a really good, personal reason for stopping the raids: the raids are, essentially, their fault.
Mapping the Dungeons
True confessions time: I hate drawing dungeon maps. So here's where I come back to a recurring theme in these articles: creative theft. For this article, I was lucky enough to have the fabulous Chris West draw a map for me. If it weren't for that, I would be digging through old adventures or looking at Maps of Mystery to find a pretty basic, straightforward dungeon map. I'd copy it, and then pull out the big magic marker.
If you can find a map that's perfectly suited to your needs, by all means use it. But if you can't, don't feel like your only choice is to draw one from scratch. That's why I call it creative theft -- I'm stealing, as it were, using a map drawn for some other purpose. But I'm using my own creativity to stitch it into the patchwork campaign I'm creating.
In this case, I'm going to interrupt this dungeon with Greenbrier Chasm. I'll take a magic marker and look for just the right place to draw a long, wide gash, right through the middle of the dungeon. That should leave a lot of cave entrances on both sides of the chasm where the gash cut through chambers and corridors. Already this is looking like a map that's unique to this adventure.
As I think about this, I decide I want the chasm to be a part of the adventure as well -- I won't just send the characters into the dungeon and keep them there until they're done. So I want some of those cave entrances to be dead-ends -- to lead into small areas of chambers and tunnels that go nowhere. They'll be self-contained encounter areas, and the PCs will have to travel through the chasm to get between them. So, marker in hand, I start coloring in some passageways to block corridors that link sections of the dungeon. At the same time, I want to make sure I have room for future expansion. I'm going to add some passages going off the edge of the map, as well as some stairs leading down. I can also, if I need to, create connections between different areas that would otherwise be cut off by the chasm, though I'll only do that if I need to bring some rooms together into a larger encounter area.
Speaking of encounter areas, here's something I learned while working on last year's Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adventure. When you're working with an existing map, particularly a map from an older adventure (like the original Ravenloft adventure), you need to train yourself to approach the map from a different perspective than that of the original cartographer and adventure designer. A 20-foot by 30-foot featureless room was a perfectly reasonable encounter area in those days, but it's just not any more. Most 3rd Edition encounters, and especially 4th Edition encounters, play a lot better in larger areas. But that doesn't mean you can't use old maps -- quite the contrary, actually. I found that some of the most interesting encounter areas in Castle Ravenloft were places where I grouped three or four rooms together to form a single encounter. The PCs barge into one room and start fighting there, and either the noise attracts monsters from another room, or some of the monsters in the first room retreat into the hallway or circle around to other doors. Multiple rooms means lots of cover, lots of movement, and combat on multiple "front lines," all of which make for more dynamic and interesting encounters.
Encounter design, though, is still a few steps away. Next time, we'll do a little more exploring into the idea of a campaign arc, and think about the various forces acting on the region of Greenbrier.
The Idea File
This is a great time to mention one of a DM's essential tools: some kind of notebook or electronic file to hold the random ideas that come into your head at strange times. I bring it up because I have two more ideas bouncing around in my head that I'm filing away for future reference. I want to have those written down somewhere, or else I'll forget them. Guaranteed. I'll leaf through my notebook once in a while, especially when I'm looking for inspiration.
The first idea is directly relevant to the campaign I'm building around Greenbrier Chasm, and it has to do with another older D&D product I want to loot: The Gates of Firestorm Peak, a late-90s adventure written by Bruce Cordell. This adventure more or less introduced the Far Realm to the D&D cosmology, and Bruce has had a reputation (or at least his creations have!) for slime and tentacles ever since. So clearly it would fit in with the aberrations theme I've started building. At some point, I'll want to work that adventure into this campaign, or an adaptation of it. Maybe I can tie it in with the Harrows Pass I scrawled on my map last time.
The second idea is something that popped into my head while my son was watching TV at his grandmother's house. I don't really know what he was watching, but it sparked the idea of a campaign world that's entirely underground, with civilized population centers on the upper levels and different dungeon complexes on deeper levels. Something about the verticality of that environment appeals to me -- it's sort of like an underground Sharn, Eberron's City of Towers. I like the idea that going on an adventure doesn't mean trekking across the wilderness to some remote ruins; instead it means descending once more into the depths below your home to prevent the latest threat from working its way up from the darkness. That's a setting that takes the "points of light" idea of the D&D world to its extreme conclusion. In theory, I could add a city-dungeon like that to my Greenbrier campaign, but I suspect it would work better if I built the whole campaign around it. So I'll file it away in the Idea File.
Next time: The campaign arc for Greenbrier Chasm!