Dungeons and Wilderness in Modular Campaigns

In my previous post about modular campaigns I have been rambling about the reasons for structuring a campaign into individual chunks that can easily be moved around, rearranged, and modified. (It’s all still work in progress.) The key idea being to have the convenience of episodic one-shots with an irregular group of players while also giving the players agency in choosing where they want to go and what motivates them and getting a campaign that better captures the spirit and atmosphere of Sword & Sorcery tales. What I haven’t really been talking about yet is how I want to structure each module to get as much out of every session as possible (occasional players should not be left hanging at the end of a session with nothing seeming to have been accomplished) without making thing too rushed and not neglecting a proper buildup of tension and atmosphere. Because that’s something I only worked out these last days.

Something I struggled the most with is how to deal with the journey from the town to the dungeon. I am a big proponent of skipping the boring parts that serve mostly as padding to make the adventure feel bigger but contribute very little to make the game feel like an adventure and making it memorable. Especially when you have players who only play four hours every 5 or 6 week you don’t want to unnecessarily draw things out when you could do more of the exciting stuff. Simply starting and ending each session at the entrance seems tempting, but I think that’a throwing out the baby with the bath water. I support the notion that most dungeons should be otherworldly. If the essence of Sword & Sorcery can be broken down to a single phrase it would be the encounter with the supernatural. But for a world to be other and supernatural you have to contrast it with a world that is normal and natural. Both the town and the journey to and from the dungeon are this normal world to which the PCs are native.

So, going with the assumption that the wilderness travel is a crucial part of the experience, the next goal has to be to find ways to pack these trips with as much excitement as can be done and making it relevant to the real meat of the adventure that is the dungeon. It’s not often but sometimes you see people make suggestions that seem to be just pure gold. The suggestion someone gave to me is to make the encounters on the trips to and from the dungeon not based on the natural wildlife and local population of the region but on the denizens of the dungeon the path leads to. I think you can actually treat the wilderness journey as the first level of the dungeon. What the party encounters along the way is not unrelated to what is inside the dungeon but already connected to it. With larger dungeons the party might have to make the trip multiple times to haul back the loot and get new supplies, which makes randomly rolled encounters a much more interesting option than having just one or two fixed ones. You can also already include a few “rooms” and branching paths the players may choose from. Sentry posts or creaky bridges that could be collapsed to shake pursuers trying to keep the party from reaching the safety of the town with their loot would be great additions to what could otherwise just be a single straight path through the forest. The wilderness from The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun comes to mind, though it’s a somewhat crude execution of a great idea and more tedious than adding much to the exploration of the dungeon. Through random encounters players could learn of secret entrances into the dungeon or safe places to rest near it without having to make the whole trip back the the town. I think the only real difference between the “wilderness level” and the dungeon levels would be to make wandering monsters check ever 2 hours instead of every 20 minutes and perhaps only once or twice when the group is making camp for eight hours. There’s not going to be much treasure in it (though perhaps a randomly encountered group of humanoids might be tracked back to their nearby lair) but players already have an opportunity to learn about what is making its home inside the dungeon. And especially in OSR games, knowing is half the battle.

Once you reach the proper dungeon I am a big fan of making the players feel that they have come to the other side of the rabbit hole and are not in Kansas anymore. If the dungeon includes surface ruins they often form a kind of border zone. You have reached a strange place and can start exploring but you still have the sun in the sky and fresh air around you and plenty of room to escape if you wish to. But this ends at the threshold beyond which looms the mythic underworld. It can be a door, a cave entrance, stairs leading down, or just a small hole in the ground. Once you cross beyond this point anything could happen.

It’s a bit different when the adventure site lies in an enchanted forest. Enchanted forests usually don’t have a threshold and that’s what makes them unsettling in their own way. You make your way through the wilderness anticipating the see the border to the magical realm ahead until you realize that you crossed it long ago and you won’t be able to get out quickly. How to do this well I am not sure yet. I think it might be a good idea to have two different encounter tables for the mundane wilderness and the enchanted forest. The players might only realize that they’ve already reached the magical realm when they encounter its inhabitants. When the dungeon is in an enchanted forest I think there’s no need to for a visible transition from surface ruins to underground passages. The characters have already committed themselves to the dangers of the otherworld.

How long the trip should be depends on the overall setup of the module, but for the reasons mentioned previously I wouldn’t make it more than two fixed encounter area per possible path (if you have alternative routes to the dungeon) and an average of two random encounters. In a four hour session you probably don’t want to have more than half an hour for each trip.

Now you’ve come to the dungeon itself. How should it be structured? Since the main goal is to allow irregular players to enjoy the game even when jumping in irregularly and to let players have many adventures all over the world I would keep each dungeon relatively limited in size. Usually it shouldn’t take more than two or three trips to a dungeon before the players decide it is time to move on to another module. I don’t imagine playing only the middle one of three adventures into a dungeon to be terribly satisfying. The first contact and the big discovery in the farthest corner are usually the highlights of a dungeon crawl and which give the whole thing context and meaning. With relatively modest sized dungeons I would also recommend sticking mostly to a single theme that ties everything together. If you could split a dungeon into two or three separate dungeons that could each stand on its own, then you probably should.

Also a few words about towns here: During each adventure players will spend relatively little time in the town and will have little interaction with the NPCs. What I would do is to not create a completely new town for each module. When the players wrap up a module and you offer them a few new rumors and hooks to pursue you can easily put one of them near the town they are already in, or in a town they have been to in the past. Since modules are meant to be shuffled around regularly as the players move from place to place I think it’s probably the best idea to keep any town NPC for a module very generic. When preparing each module in advance make notes simply for “guardsman”, “merchant”, or “innkeeper”. These roles will then be assumed by whatever fitting NPC is present in the town currently visited by the party.

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