Some time ago I posted an e-mail exchange wherein my players were arranging their next adventure. They had recently ditched the painstakingly detailed hinterland campaign setting I crafted for them over many long and arduous days (enter strings, largo molto mesto) for the nearest big city. The party was now on the look-out for some work. Specifically, they were interested in establishing themselves as legitimate merchants to sell goods (i.e. captured loot and purchased stock) and their peculiar services (i.e. general butt-kicking). The purpose of posting this exchange here, aside from tempting my players to come and read tales of their very exploits on my fledgling blog, was to illustrate how we attempted to facilitate our normal face-to-face table top game via electronic communication. Some in-person games use things like campaign wikis or message boards away from actually playing, but how many try to play-by-post or via e-mail in addition to their normal face-to-face game? We gave it a spin with mixed results and you can go back and read about it if you like, but I'll summarize below.
Over the course of the posted exchange the party arranged a deal with a highly placed member of the city's merchant's guild. In exchange for their assistance in clearing out a recently acquired property the official would pay them each in gold, provide for their induction into the guild and even assist them in establsishing their business, should they prove to be reliable and capable in the endeavor. What that has to do with today's post begins in the comments section of the former. Reader C'Nor wondered what happened once the party got to the estate. I've been waiting for "the adventure" to conclude before making this post, and this past weekend it finally did so. What happened at Castle Caldwell actually involves a number of topics I've been wanting to opine on, and I'll get to below. First, I'll recap what happened before and after the exchange.
Lord Caldwell, until recently simply Burgher Caldwell, has long been a successful merchant in Valinport, the party's new home base. As a result of some deal struck with the Duke of Mubonc, Caldwell finds himself risen up to the landed class with an estate, title and substantial adjunct lands to his name. The nature of the deal involves some level of secrecy or at least sensitivity, as the duke's official Sir Barius was inclined not to speak of it in front of the player-characters when Caldwell made an oblique reference to it in our e-mail exchange.
Caldwell's problem, of course, is that the castle upon the primary estate is overrun with strange, monstrous creatures that are a variation on these guys (thanks to Mr. Curtis). I boosted the possible effects of the psychotropic spores to include the chance of being controlled by an extra-dimensional spore hive-mind/ portal hidden down deep in the castle (much fun) but gave clerics the chance to turn them. There were also spore blobs that looked like sacks full of loot (much fun), spore skeletons and a giant spore monster akin somewhat to a blob or jelly.
How the spore-creatures and their hive-mind-portal came to be occupying the castle involves events predating Caldwell's concerns. The short story is there's a magic user with a forbidden tome of knowledge and a penchant for intricate, trans-dimensional revenge plots at the heart of all of this. The party never uncovered the plot or gave much thought to the magic user, somewhat to my surprise, despite fighting her twice with each encounter resulting in her slipping away. This lack of knowledge or closure didn't actually interfere much with the adventure's conclusion so I'll spare the details.
The rest of the story you can probably already sort out. The party traveled to the estate and installed themselves in a nearby village. Before leaving Valinport they were equipped with knowledge from a sage in the employ of Caldwell and alchemical aids they felt would be of use against a trans-dimensional mold. When entering the castle itself they took precautions not to breath the spores in and conducted a rather efficient and at times exciting exploration of the place. Highlights included a nice knock-down, drag-out with the blob-monster; inexplicably locking themselves in a trap room despite having ample opportunity to avoid it; being ambushed in the village by the aforementioned magic user and discovering the pieces of a disassembled magical door. After puzzling out the function of the latter they uncovered a trans-dimensional space wherein treasure was hidden. The door and the treasure were both kept by the party, unknown to Caldwell.
In the end, two concerted but failed attempts to deter or wipe out the party that instead severely depleted her own resources and nearly cost her life led the magic user to abandon the castle and take to the hills. Lacking the vile ceremonies and ministrations of the mage, the hive-mind/ portal was expelled from the campaign world and the minions that were left behind mopped up easily enough by the party over the course of several tactical forays into the castle. There was a time-sensitive aspect to the hive mind/ portal's ability to stay "open". The party had so many days to kill or drive off the mage or somehow interrupt or stop any of the handful of ceremonial activities she was conductng to keep the hive-mind from becoming a more permenant fixture to their world. They succeeded without ever realizing it. When the hive mind/ portal was gone they were perplexed, having encountered it once and retreated but expecting that they would need to do so again.
That the magic user is still out there and bares significant ill-will to the party is obvious. That until reading this most or all of my players are blissfully ignorant of this is equally true. What they will do upon reading this is anybody's guess. Probably nothing. These are not the droids you are looking for...
Use of Commercially Available Adventures
So a number of things were involved with all of the above, first of all being my use of a commercially produced adventure as the basis for what was happening. Anybody familiar with Castle Caldwell and Beyond may already know or suspect that this is the adventure to which I refer. Those particularly in the know will no doubt realize by now that the spore-zombies, vengeful magic user and the political underpinnings of my Duchy of Mubonc have absolutely nothing to do with the module. This is typically how I end up using pre-written adventures when I do so at all.
I hardly ever set out intent on using a pre-made adventure. It almost always begins with the party throwing me some kind of curveball. I already mentioned above the abandoned campaign setting (enter strings, largo molto mesto) so once a name for a city was given and the distance to get there determined the party set out immediately. This was during the same session that they informed me they sure as shit weren't going back into that gods-damned deathtrap of a dungeon I cooked up (a ruined castle not Castle Caldwell). I had some notion of the city before this point in time, but had no plans for us playing there anytime soon. Then I suddenly had 4-5 hours of adventuring to facilitate. No worries.
Along the way to the city of Valinport a random encounter was rolled involving a group of bandits. This motley band had happened to have just robbed and murdered family members of the Duke Himself! I'm a proponent of the belief that even random encounters can and should be woven into the ongoing campaign narrative when it makes sense to do so. This notion was expressed and demonstrated recently by ChicagoWiz. That he chose to post about it as I wrote this saved me the effort of explanation, so thanks Michael. In my case I had no idea yet how the duke's niece and nephew being struck down and discovered by the party would factor into the campaign, but it was there in the tool box if I needed it. The rest of what's important about getting set up in Valinport is covered above and in the previous e-mail post, so I'll spare you that.
Once the players expressed to me their desire to "go legit" I immediately cooked up all sorts of Byzantine hoops they could leap through to become chartered by the merchant's guild and recommended we manage the start of that via e-mail in preparation for the next session. The party side-stepped them all. They thought to go directly to the duke as the first step, whose family they had recently avenged in meting out justice to the bandits and returning their loot. It was a bit cheeky, but of course he owed them some small gesture and of course they could have kept the loot for themselves so why not allow serendipity and their initiative with the duke pay off? In short order they were set up with Cladwell and made aware of his problem.
My problem, though, was that the actual adventure The Clearing of Castle Caldwell sort of sucks. I've got stacks of bought and paid for adventures that are all unsatisfactory to me in some way. None more so than Caldwell's jaunt. The monster encounters make no sense given the map lay-out. The dungeon level below the castle is silly and absurd. In the end I used only the premise, Caldwell's name, the castle-level map and that's about it. Oh, I almost forgot the room descriptions. I used those, but instead of using the actual denizens of Caldwell's newly acquired estate I used only their corpses as descriptive elements. If, for instance, the players would have normally encountered a nonchalant merchant dozing on a bunk in an abandoned guardroom, several rooms away from hostile goblins and slathering wolves, the party instead located the dessicated corpse of the same lying amongst the moldy bones and teeth of goblins and once-slathering wolves. Having these room descriptions at the ready and having solved my own issues with suspension of disbelief saved me a lot of time and effort that I spent on the important aspect of the adventure.
Having and Understanding the Dynamics of a Location is Vital to Sandbox Play
If you play the way we do, your adventure plots aren't detailed out ahead of time because you already anticipate that your players will have their own ideas about what should happen and when. Not being so concerned with adventure structure in terms of story structure as one might otherwise be, I now focus on knowing the environment and characters better. For the former, this mostly amounts to maps detailed enough to figure out what goes where and enough general knowledge or notes to fill in those blanks when the time comes. Pre-written adventures are a handy resource for these. By using just a map and a few notes, whole dungeon room descriptions can easily be fabricated on the spot once you've done enough of them. I say don't waste a lot of time writing detailed descriptions of slimy dungeon walls and spooky noises. If you can't conjure that up at the table with a few notes you might want to consider another hobby.
Spend your time instead on understanding what's really going on... what sorts of things would be happening if the adventuring party were not involved. Know your characters. Stat them out as required and understand their motivations. If the boss-NPC's sole purpose for existing is to stand in the area marked A on your map and fight the party to the death prior to an obligatory award of XP or treasure, then your game will be as shallow and 2-dimensional as most video games. As the NPCs have and display more depth and complexity, the party will be encouraged to deal with them in different ways, making the game deeper and more interesting. This doesn't mean that your game, mostly about exciting combat and looting ruins, needs to become a social encounter game. I'm just saying make the environment and the characters in it dynamic and driven by something in addition to just what the party happens to be doing. That sort of movement in a game milieu creates its own excitement and stretches the imagination.
Some like to imagine in detail and ahead of time the final confrontation and whatever important encounters that lead up to it. Their adventures could amount to story boards or flow charts. The last two iterations of D&D, being 3rd and 4th of course, focus a great deal on constructing appropriate encounters and arraying them in a somewhat, if not exactly, linear fashion. Blah & phooey. Don't we want the freedom to have the party kill-off all of the minions prior to the "final confrontation" if they're smart enough to do so? Don't we want the villain to have the freedom to do the same? If the party makes a huge mess of the villain's lair and network of henchmen only to bail out to rest and recuperate, why on earth would said villain simply wait around for the party to return, sitting in the same exact place they would have been had the party busted into their den of villainy the day before or two weeks hence? It's absurd and too often that's exactly what is settled for, because that's what has mostly been written in the modules and what we see in computer and console games. We can do better than that, can't we?
Forget about where the villain will stand as he delivers his ludicrous monologue or where his archers are always hiding at the ready. Figure out why he's there in the first place and what he'd logically do about a group of raiding interlopers like your adventuring party. If this means his taking his forces and striking out at the party's not-so-secret camp, I say go for it. This is an adventure game. Make it so.
Sometimes the Players Can Miss the Point and Still Succeed
In my example the players were confronted with two underlying situations relevant to their adopted task. One, there is some political maneuvering going on back in Valinport that has resulted in a common burgher being elevated to a lord. What machinations could possibly be going on? What does this newly made lord's established position as a guild functionary (and not a guild master) mean to the guild politics? How do the established nobles, many of whom now possess much less in land than Lord Caldwell, feel about this? What vital dealings are there between the duke and Caldwell that would necessitate such a strange circumstance? Is the party now embroiled in this situation? Lord Caldwell was rather accommodating in seeing to the party's new business established when they returned to Valinport, does he desire something more from our intrepid band?
As for Castle Caldwell itself, the party never sorted out what was happening there, but they could demonstrate to Caldwell's local agent how the castle was now free of monsters (that very second). So, after an IMech resolution with a difficult soon-to-be castellan, they were on their way. What of the mysterious magic user and her book of forbidden lore? Did the trans-dimensional moss-blob that fell several hundred feet down a shaft and into an unexplored natural cavern truly die? What of the hive-mind/ gate? If alive/ still open, what now? Given future possible complications, will the party's burgeoning and politically powerful ally Caldwell seek retribution or remuneration?
We may never explore these questions or they may be front and center the next time we play. A lot depends on the party who, by the way, have chosen to immediately follow up on leads regarding an ancient dwarven treasure in the nearby hills. Since the players chose not to explore these questions during the adventure I have them at my future disposal as necessary, but neither I nor they are compelled to do anything. There's no moment looming in our future where I say "Look guys, this is the adventure I prepared tonight so can we just drop this merchant business and have you go chase after the magic user you've been ignoring?" or, almost as bad, have the magic user waylay and capture the party on their way to the dwarven ruins because I want to tie up a loose plot thread.
The magic-user may never return or the party may discover she is the unwanted love-child of Caldwell and the duke's mother, or a vengeful alien emissary from another dimension or simply yet another power hungry mage with forbidden knowledge that has now gone on to greener pastures (so sorry you didn't get to loot her body and get that staff and grimoire, by the way). That I'm not relying on the mage's relevance and the character's biting on a single hook to propel the campaign forward means they're not being railroaded and the information is there if and when I need it to help make the game go. So the next time I roll a random encounter and the results involve the party hearing a familiar cackle from over the next rise just before a wave of moss-zombies descend upon them, it will have some significance. Or maybe it'll be just another band of duke-hating bandits.