Nearly a year ago I wrote about red herrings in dungeon dressing, and how room/area descriptions can instead be useful if they give players knowledge about what's going on in the dungeon.
Reconnoitering the Shrine of WoeLet's say that the party has committed to taking down the Shrine of Woe - it's a blight on the landscape, disgorging troublesome beasties almost monthly, etc. etc.
They don't know what's there, but rather than go kick in the door and go toe to toe with whatever it is, they equip themselves for a long journey, to tour all the little marshlands villages to see what can be learned about the Shrine.
They then plan out a second and third missions to do recon - one approaching the Shrine from the west, another from the east, to scout out the lands around that place before planning a fourth and final journey to assault the Shrine directly.
In a linear campaign, making this happen is easy: you just structure the chapters of the pre-planned adventure accordingly, but I've never seen this happen organically in a campaign.
If you have, I'd love to hear your tale!
Until then, here's my ideas for ways to bring this about.
Some Principles of Valuable Knowledge
- Danger is distributed unevenly
- There are hidden exploits
- Rewards are distributed unevenly
- There are clues that explain the layout
- Preparation involves trade-offs
Uneven, Hidden Dangers
Danger varies wildly - some areas are safe, while other areas nearby are downright lethal. Much of this isn't obvious. Monsters have horrible, non-obvious powers - infection, curses, leap attacks.
- They are warded off by certain preparations or weapons
- They are dangerous unless unusual preparations are made
- They inflict harm that requires unusual treatment
Consequences might spring, trap-like, from innocuous sources. You ambush a small pack of goblins, but reinforcements boil out of every hole in the ground for miles. Deadly things are sleeping in caves, but awaken with determination to punish any who have disturbed them.
Potential allies are easily offended, and have unadvertised cravings and needs.
There Might be a Way..
On the other hand, there are exploits. Monsters have hidden weaknesses. Sites have solid defenses, but hidden access.
There's a long, winding canyon through Jutland that keeps off the worst of the sun and stops the orc ridge-scouts from ever spotting you. Morton villagers know a dry path through the Gormarl. Water shades can't stand the taste of vinegar, so sprinkle some in your footprints.
The Spawn of Ubratna will turn you inside out with a look, but powdered limestone sends them scrambling for the dark places.
The Gomarl is dangerous, sure - especially if you get lost, but in the summer (and only the summer), it's full of blackfruit, which will keep you alive for days. If you know the ways in and out, it can be worth diverting through. Anders' Rock is hollow, and conceals a spring of good clear water.
A Bowlful of Nothing
Even so, not all pain is gain, because rewards are distributed unevenly. You might know how to placate the Devil of Folly's Basin, but the only things there are sand and broken glass. Avoid it!
On the other hand, the wasteland giants are weak and divided, and their emperor rules in name only. The outer clans will benefit from his downfall so won't come to his aid, making his vault is ripe for the picking. Better yet, Queen Malian's tomb is completely unguarded, all you have to do is find it.
The Skirts of Athena
This is all well and good, but if players don't have a way to find out, they'll be blundering randomly into fame and fortune, or a gruesome, profitless death.
As I wrote in Interesting and Useful Dungeon Descriptions, I like to build descriptions from a short list of emitters - core facts about the adventure location that are constantly throwing off evidence.
A halo of clues, sightings and rumors, that spreads out through the dungeon, rewarding investigation. Sometimes, the edge of the 'hem' makes it as far as nearby communities.
Players come to expect that by looking for facts, they can steadily build a picture of the situation around them, a picture they desperately need.
- What sort of place is this? (What can we expect of the layout of the rest of it?)
- What's been happening here? (What might happen again, soon?)
- What's in here with us? (Where is it? How do we prepare for it?)
- What does it want? (Should we avoid it?)
- How bad is it? (Is it a militaristic, vengeful gestalt? How brutal is it with prisoners?)
Trade-Offs in PreparationThe party can't balance itself against all possible threats and obstacles. They can be as prepared as possible, but a general state of being well prepared is inadequate for the variety of challenges out there.
They need to make specific preparations, and if they're wrong they'll be out of their depth quickly.
If it's easy for the part to prepare for any eventuality, there's no need for recon. Recon missions are about going in quietly, learning what needs to be learned, and getting out again - so a subsequent foray can be planned that makes different trade-offs.
If the party is full of plate-armored spell-mages carrying their repertoire of magic and two hundred pounds of useful gear with them in a bag of holding.. they're not going to need to make multiple forays.
Instead, imagine expedition prep is all about trade-offs:
- Specialist gear is heavy, or has other side effects (e.g. warm clothing makes you hot)
- Magic must be chosen well in advance (perhaps components or spellbooks are heavy, expensive and/or easily lost)
- Special preparations are expensive and have a shelf life (e.g. potions, ointments, poultices)
- Hirelings provide strength in numbers and can carry everything, but they eat a lot of food and leave a trail that can't be missed
- Certain foes require large, specialist armament (pikes for giants, crossbows for water shades, the wheeled scorpio for wyverns and harpies)
If this all works, I suppose it's players going out and creating their own hard-won assets and options, top-quality gameable campaign capital.