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Requesting Help: Game Design Approach to an adventure

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Today, I read a fantastic post by @JohnnFour in the adventure building sub-forum about how @Jordan Jessee could plan his campaign.
That got me thinking. Johnn began with the system pillar, asking himself how the game could be improved for the players. I usually begin with setting and story instead.

Naturally, I wondered how it would be, if I did it like Johnn? What could I learn from it? And how will the game improve (and I believe it will)?
So, next weekend, I will GM a quick adventure and I plan to approach it this time with the game designer hat on. This will be a challenge!

Please, @JohnnFour (and all others), I would love to hear your tips on how I should approach this.

The PCs:
- Rhea from the Bitter Plains, Blue Leaf tribe elven warrior-druid, who tries to protect her tribe and nature from unnatural creatures and dangers.
- Edwyn from the Saphire Capital, chaotic human bard in search of a great ballad to sing about (that's why he accompanies Rhea)
Rhea wants to prove herself before her tribe and to herself, while she gradually realizes that other races are sometimes not inferior to her.
The down on luck fat bard Edwyn on the other hand has just realized that he may very well become a hero of his own story, even as much as the mysterious Rhea.

The Quest:
The heroes have just rescued the small town Auheim from invading insectoid monsters called Kikimore. The town is forever grateful to them, the mayor even more so because they had managed to solve a very difficult dwarven puzzle to enter into the mysterious burial mound of the late king.
There they found a copal amulet containing a living will-o-wisp called Smirny. Although imprisoned in the copal Smirny was able to communicate with the heroes and told them that the late king had imprisoned her for one of her tricks and she was left in the burial mound to forever watch his remains after he had died.
She was still in her copal prison, but she yearned to be free again and to return to her bog. The heroes helped her out of the burial mound but didn't dare yet to smash the copal as nobody was sure whether she could survive it. They agreed to bring her back to her bog, but even she doesn't know where that is.
The heroes first plan is to investigate and research further on the copal, will-o-wisp and bogs.

So here are my initial brainstorm ideas for the game designer approach:

Win-state: Smirny is freed of her copal prison and returned to the bog where she came from (to return to her "people").
Meaningful Choices: How to release her from her prison? Smashing? Magic? Asking for help from the will-o-wisps they eventually encounter? Learning how copal can originally be used to imprison will-o-wisps? The "meaningful" part is still very hazy... it needs costs for that... What else could meaningful choices be?
Conflicts: I imagine an interesting conflict with a giant during their travels to the bog (as they read quite a lot about them in the burial mound), but a mere combat encounter seems lame here, I am actually looking for a different kind of major conflict, maybe even a moral conflict. What else could be conflicts here?
Constraints: These are constraints on how to overcome the conflict. Obviously, the constraints are that the smashing of the copal prison would probably prove as a failure. Smirny needs to be kept alive during the prison break and during the travel to the bog. What else could be constraints here?
Costs: So, I could imagine that there is a choice between going through the hills and the accompanying risk of meeting a giant, and the choice to go via a different likewise dangerous path. The second one maybe with a stronger risk from nature itself. What else could be costs here?
Consequences: Consequences of her death would just be two sad heroes, I guess. Her survival could on the other hand mean that more merchants will find their death in the bog... if I turn her into a dark-grey NPC in order to artificially create a moral choice... What else could be consequences here?

But really, what is the game, I want to play with the players? Investigation and Exploration, not predominantly combat.
Maybe to reach different steps in the process...
1. Legend about an old dwarven hermit in the mountains who showed the king how to use copal.
2. He doesn't want to free her, but tells them how it would be done, if they can convince him.
3. It needs a specific material from a monster (e.g. giant) that he doesn't have.
4. The PCs would need to borrow, steal, trade, loot that material from the giant.
5. The PCs might be able to free the will-o-wisp.
6. The PCs research all the bogs in the area and are down to two or three that could be her home-bog. This could become a sort of a riddle to find the correct one.
7. There is an obstacle in the way to the bog.
8. The PCs might be able to return her to the bog and her (loving?) "people" without themselves becoming deceived by the other will-o-wisps.

This is all very raw...
 
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
So, I've thought a lot about how to proceed with this and prepared accordingly for last session.

But I'm still asking for your thoughts, especially about how to make a digital hexcrawl with fog of war work..


Game Idea: So, basically it is a game of bringing NPC A (Smirny the will'o'wisp) to Location B (The Wailing Bog) without NPC A dying.

Current Adventure Plan
Prelude
A week after their heroic defense of the town of Auheim, Rhea had been able to attune herself to this new area. Not only did she pick up another natural animal to shapeshift into, she also communicated with the spirits of the land and confirmed that the threat was really gone.
Meanwhile, Edwyn told and retold the story of their adventures to the townspeople. Although he soon noticed that the local audience was far less challenging to entertain than the one in the Saphire Capital, he was beginning to find the right words for a well-formulated epos. On the other hand, he had to grundgingly realize that he had not paid attention much to the wise learnings of his former master. He was only able to identify one of their newly found magical items: a pair of dwarven dancing shoes with unerring balance.
For the price of a great depiction of himself in Edwyn's stories, the mayor of the town and gnomish archaeologist, Merwild Dusk of Amber, had agreed to help them look for hints on the creation of the copal containing the will'o'wisp and how to free Smirny.

Scene 1
As the two adventurers were meeting up for a late lunch in the Lucky Cauldron, they noticed once more how the town had changed since they arrived. The constant fear of the Cloud Devourers circling overhead, of the strange earthquakes when dusk was settling, and of the unknown abducting pets and farm animals was gone. Instead, the people built new buildings, repaired the broken ones, smiled relieved, and greeted the adventurers wherever they went. Also, the presence of the guardsmen was drastically reduced. Some people still thanked them, the elven druid had become respected although still perceived as strange, and the human bard had almost trouble to shake of his "fans".
On the market they met their old friend Berik Vintner, also called the Burned Berik for his burn scars. He had come to this borderland town in hopes of purchasing the last exquisite dwarven wine that existed from the glorious days of the dwarven empire. And he had succeeded, as the adventurers saw. With the help of a nice-placed comment by Edwyn, the mayor had sold him the last casks of wine and he was preparing his return to the Saphire Capital in the morning. He asked the adventurers whether they would join him, but they weren't quite sure yet.

Scene 2
In the afternoon, the adventurers met up with Merwild Dusk of Amber to hear about the results of his investigation. He told them that he would of course try to just get rid of the will'o'wisp. All the bad luck that had befallen Auheim is surely her fault. But nevertheless, he had found a way. He told them about his family's original business of amber production. He didn't believe the stone that encased the will'o'wisp to be millenia old amber though, and it was harder than years old resin, so he believed it to be "just" centuries old copal. Also, they already knew that the late dwarven king Thor Grimbeard had captured Smirny within the copal during his reign. During his readings of old tomes and maps, Merwild had been able to find one proof of that story. During his campaign against the northern orcs, before the Orc War started in earnest, Thor had been harrassed by a small light burning holes in their provisions. A gnomish advisor had then found a way to capture this immaterial creature within resin. On that day, Thor had marked a young pine tree sappling with his kingly rune to mark where they left the Dwarven Road between the second and third milestones and ventured north against the orcs.
And that gnomish advisor would later receive the title of honor "of Amber", thus, he was one of Merwilds own ancestors. Since then, a part of his family had always followed this trade. He himself had rejected the trade and had become an archaeologist instead, but there should still be a cousin of his following the trade. It's been 30 years that he had heard of him and doesn't really like that rough and rude hermit. But if anyone can help them, it's probably his cousin Brendish Dusk of Amber. Last he knew, he was living somewhere in the mountains north of the Dwarven Caravan Road to the north.
And on the question of where that bog might be, she wants to go back to, the adventurers studied two centuries old maps depicting some marching routes during the Orc War and a more current map of the land surrounding Auheim owned by Merwild. All of them were quite different and it was hard to make much sense of them. But they all contained a thick line for a road north of the river and a thick forest beyond, mountains to the east. And indeed, Rhea noticed some wavey lines at three possible places in the woods of one of those maps, that could have meant that there is a bog.

Scene 3
After long discussions with Merwild and after borrowing a book on dwarven runes from him, the adventurers eventually sat again in the guest room of the Lucky Cauldron and had dinner with Berik. He had taken their advice to the heart and had convinced a young woman to follow him back so that the long journey wouldn't be so lonely in case that Edwyn and Rhea wouldn't travel back with him. Showing him the crude sketch of the map Edwyn had scribbled onto a piece of parchment during their investigations, they discussed which the best route would be. Finally, they were able to convince him to not directly travel to the east, but to accompany them with his wagon towards the north, through the villages and across the river to the Dwarven Caravan Road, and then they would look for the second and third milestones to find the "probably mighty tree with the rune". They didn't know if that was to the west or to the east, but this way, Berik had a little bit more company and could travel on the road instead of traversing the Bitter Plains in the east to reach the Saphire Capital.

Scene 4
As dawn was coloring the small mining town in orange, the adventurers joined Berik and his horse-drawn wagon at the northern gate. Not surprised that many people had gathered to say their farewells to the adventurers, Edwyn spoke to them of their past adventures, of their coming quest, and of the townspeoples' huge help. He made a lasting impression and they were richly presented with gifts and food bags and trinkets.
Meanwhile, Rhea talked to some townspeople she liked and would miss. The horse breeder Buck had developed a crush on her and akwardly hugged her until she asked him to stop. The twin girls who they had rescued from imminent death within the silver mines didn't want her to go and insisted on her staying in town. Rhea didn't like many townspeople, but she had strong feelings for those two girls. She suggested that they become stronger to someday wield her spear, but one of the girls just cried angrily and fled.
All in all, it was an emotionally rich departure into a new adventure.

And this is where we stopped for the evening.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
I thought about restrictions to the journey with Smirny and what it should mean that she is a will'o'wisp. I researched many a legend about them in different languages and this is what cought my eyes as interesting:

The truth behind Smirny

Identity
  • She is a lost child like so many newborns dumped in the Wailing Bog, killed by her parents (often out of desperation).
  • She is a spirit in transition to her next life, but doesn't know this.
  • She is sentient and has become intelligent, but doesn't remember much
Portrayal
  • She looks like a tiny pixy girl glowing in blue flames.
  • She loves to trick people and has no real understanding of morals or decency
Restrictions
  • In her freed form, she can't enter buildings
  • In her freed form she can't traverse flowing water (unless when she is ready to pass on)
  • She is almost invisible (and probably powerless) at day, when she rests
  • Her mere existence creates bad luck for those around her
Powers
  • She can wink in and out of existence
  • She is able to burn brightly and leaves traces of soot when staying in a place too long
  • She can see magic, conjure spirits of the dead, create minor illusions, and burn things
Development
  • As a child she always wanted to travel far -> when she comes home to the bog, she will realize that she actually did
  • And when she hears about the circumstances of why she was killed, she is finally able to pass on


The first part of the journey

Map Auheim area.jpg

Location 1
A small halfling village called Alt-Auheim (Old Auheim) at the crossing of the river Linner. I imagine just a short night within the village, before the adventurers travel onwards. They might hear about the dwarven milestones and how they are counted. They begin at a rough mountain wall in the east, entrance to Dwarven Mines but not opened for hundreds of years.
[ ] Determine how many dwarven miles that mountain is away from Old Auheim.

Location 2
A big town to the west called Holt-Lindeck with a mage tower and possible library to find out about the lay of the land and where bogs might be. Althouth the players have this lead, I hope they will travel east instead and not venture into the center of the Borderland.

Location 3
The Dwarven Caravan Road. The second and third milestones will be way to the east along the road, thus outside Jochen's Borderland. The adventurers will deduct that they have to travel to the east on that road.


The second part of the journey
I like hexcrawls, so I will probably try to make the journey a hexcrawl with fog of war. Any ideas on how to pull this off digitally?
I'll probably use something like this.

Dam Mountain 01.jpg

[ ] Prepare a fog of war hexcrawl.

Encounters Road
Journey along the Dwarven Caravan Road.
[ ] Create Random Encounter Table (Road)
- Family fleeing from orcs
- Rider with post
- A waystone
- ...

Encounters Forest
Once following the northern route beyond the Mighty Pine Tree, the adventurers will venture deeper and deeper into the woods. There, there will be some wandering monster tables just for fun,
[ ] Create Random Encounter Table (Forest)
- A group of goblins
- A group of orcs
- hunting spider
- Tracks of dire wolves
- Broken trees (tracks of Ogir)
- A bear
- ...
  • At one point, the adventurers will hear 2 chuckling goblins (Urig and Arig) waiting in hiding for someone to spring their "superior intelligent" trap (they use bacon as bait). (This is a copy of one of Johnn's ideas in the ADV1 course; thank you Johnn!)
    I chose to spring it backward when the adventurers confront the goblins, by having the hunters become the hunted as suddenly a huge hunting spider drops on one of the goblins. How will Rhea react? Will she help the helpless goblin? Or will she follow "nature's rule"?
    Rewards: As gratitude the goblins might tell the adventurers about the rough whereabouts of the hermit or orc camp.

  • At one point, when Smirny is freed, the adventurers may be surprised by a large group of orcs riding dire wolves. This is the local clan. They will be in great numbers and will want to take the adventurers prisoner to sacrifice to Ogir.
    Once in their camp the shaman of the orcs Ikil'gezzai will recognize the "Blood Spear" of grand shaman Or'gezzai that Rhea is carrying and that was believed to be lost. He will intend to take it from her.
    Then later, if the adventurers try to escape, they will need to make an important decision: will they prioritize escaping with Smirny or will they dare to get the Blood Spear back?
    I imagine that the adventurers will flee and be followed by many orcs on dire wolf back. It seems impossible to flee. But then the playing field is leveled by a sudden torrents of water. The dam created a new riverbed. The torrents surprise the PCs fighting the orcs maybe. Smirny is separated from the group, but the PCs probably escape the orcs. Torrential Rain in a mountain forest, a landslide, monsters fleeing.

  • A dryad may be helping them find Smirny back.

Encounters Mountains
Once the adventurers follow tracks of someone living nearby in the mountains, they will be able to find the hermit cousin.
[ ] Determine how the adventurers could find the cave in which the hermit is living besides sheer luck, just to be able to sprinkle some hints and give foreshadows.
  • [K21] Encounter with the gnome hermit and druid Brendish Dusk of Amber. He is still living. He is a bit rude, brisk, cautious. He shares Merwild's opinion on will'o'wisp, but knows a lot about copal. He will not like to hear about his cousin. His price to help the adventurers free Smirny is that he wants to prevent the half-giant Ogir Ragnicson from building a dam within the mountains.
    [ ] Create a fateful event that worsened the relationship between Brendish and Merwild.
    [ ] Create and polish the location and encounter.
    [ ] Think of a convincing way to open the copal to free the will'o'wisp.
    [ ] Think of a material component to do this that is in the belonging of Ogir Ragnicson.

  • Encounter with the half-giant Ogir Ragnicson. He is building a dam on the southern part of the mountain path [S2], so that he can build a huge bath tub for himself. In his demeanor I imagine a half-giant like the cyclops in the Odyssey. I imagine a small herd of rams, a nice big cave, maybe even orc prisoners and pet spiders. He lives alone and has only one eye left. He should be fearsome and huge, but not very intelligent. Maybe he is producing something with the spider silk?
    [ ] Create and polish the location and encounter.

  • Dwarven ruins

Encounters Bog
Mist and illusion in the bog. A group of other will'o'wisp
[ ] Build and polish the encounter and location
[ ] Create random encounter table (Bog)
  • Remains of a village where Smirny's parents had lived about 400 years ago.

Possible Rewards
  • Fulfilling a vow and helping her pass on is a reward in itself
  • The other silent will-o-wisp will lead the PCs to a forgotten treasure
  • The PCs hear that Thor Grimbeard who had trapped Smirny 400 years ago wanted to have more treasure from her, so she should be able to somehow find / create magical treasure.

I'm looking forward to any tips and ideas.
 
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ExileInParadise

RPG Therapist
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
I will take a stab at this but maybe I should have some more coffee first?

In game terms - yes it's an escort mission.

First why should the PCs care about the will-o-wisp or getting it back to a bog?

What does the wisp know that it can trade for its life?
How about a map to treasure (which is suitably guarded by the next adventure obstacle?
Are the PCs doing this to get a truce with the wisps for the safety of the merchants?

What does the dwarf want in return to explain how the gem prison works?
Why did the dwarf agree to imprison the wisp in the first place ... and what will it think of the PCs trying to undo that?

What does the giant want int return to help or not hinder the party through that hex?
What about previous encounters betweent the giant and the wisp which pit the giant against the party for trying to free it?

What do the wisps think of the returning wisp?
What are the threats to the wisp along the way?

Who is upset about the looted tomb?
Who is after the PCs to recapture the wisp's gem prison and return it to the tomb?

How to make a hexcrawl into a game using fog of war?

Lay out each hex as at least one encounter.
That encoutner has 5 possible approaches to resolve and 3 possible outcomes.
The 5 approaches are the 5 common actions: parley, explore, trick, fight, avoid.
The 3 outcomes are: success, failure with complication, failure with setback.

Getting the players to explore those hexes and such means laying clues all around that direct the players to the appropriate hex for that "key" to unlock one of the constraints.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Thank you, Allen, for all your input.
I notice that there is several background information which hasn't become clear for readers.

I'll try to answer your questions and take it from there.

First why should the PCs care about the will-o-wisp or getting it back to a bog?
The PCs rescued Smirny from an ancient dwarven tomb that hadn't been opened for roughly 400 years. They like her. And she has been helpful to them. She asked them to help her get out of the dark here and they agreed to take her out and try to find a way to free her from the copal amulet. They know that the dwarven king who had trapped her and spitefully had her be entombed with him, wasn't at all a king that was absolutely nice. The PCs felt pity for her and agreed to bring her back to her bog.
Basically, they now help her because they like her and they gave their word to do it.
But it is true that I should introduce another more material incentive also.

What does the wisp know that it can trade for its life?
How about a map to treasure (which is suitably guarded by the next adventure obstacle?
One of the PCs is a bit lazy and the other arrogant, but there is no doubt that they are heroes. They try to do the right thing. But in case they actually go that way and think about why they are helping her, Smirny can help them by identifying their gear, telling them about the forest land and its inhabitants (400 years ago), and I was thinking of introducing a gift or power of hers that makes things magical or to find or attract magical items. Maybe I stick to the identifying part though. That is more than enough. And she could tell them about treasure that the will'o'wisp are protecting.

Are the PCs doing this to get a truce with the wisps for the safety of the merchants?
No. They know of prejudice against will'o'wisp in general that they bring bad luck, but they didn't even know that will'o'wisp existed. The will'o'wisp faction will become important or known only after the current adventure. I don't think they will meet any other will'o'wisp before the end part.
But I might have them meet merchants who have heard about horrible stories of will'o'wisp leading merchants to their doom. This should give the PCs something to worry about during their journey and again make them choose whether to help her or not.

What does the dwarf want in return to explain how the gem prison works?
The dwarf is now a gnome, but anyway, I assume he wants something in return. As he is also a druid, he might want to stop the half-giant from changing the lay of the land, maybe protect the forest or even the dryads within. The half-giant is trying to construct a giant bath tub for himself from the waterfall between the mountains. Daming the flow of the river would ultimately lead to a swamp land on one side, no water on the other side.

Why did the dwarf agree to imprison the wisp in the first place ... and what will it think of the PCs trying to undo that?
The dwarf = gnome hasn't been alive at that time. Some 400 years ago, one of his ancestors helped the dwarven king. He was given a title and riches. He had noticed that will'o'wisp were reluctant to cross flowing water and was vulnerable at day, so he enclosed Smirny with flowing water while he let thick resin wash over her. Now when the adventurers come to the gnome with their request, he has no ill-will regarding the PCs' intentions, but is reluctant to free a will'o'wisp for that bad luck. But he would help them if they help him in return.

What does the giant want int return to help or not hinder the party through that hex?
The half-giant wants his bath tub, ideally very hot. Else, he would just want to eat the party alive. The orcs sacrifice some of their own on regular intervals, unless he hunts them for sport.

What about previous encounters betweent the giant and the wisp which pit the giant against the party for trying to free it?
This is a great idea! Of course Smirny must have come through this pass some 400 years ago and the half-giant was alive at that time. I think he can tell some stories about the ill-mannered dwarves who poisoned his father, especially that dwarven king he despises. But he also met Smirny. I think he lost his eye because of her. That would be even more challenging for the PCs to steer around.

What do the wisps think of the returning wisp?
I think Smirny has been one of the oldest spirit-children in the bog and thus the only one who tried to venture out of it. Some of the others might have already passed on, but some might even remember her. The longer the will'o'wisp stay in this world, the more sentient they become. Thus, the babies and small children of the past, might have matured to older children's minds. Nevertheless, they will never become adults or really realize what they are. I think at the end the other will'o'wisp should welcome Smirny back. She had been some kind of leader or inspiration to them, and if she really passes on in the end, they will become even more inspired by her.

What are the threats to the wisp along the way?
She can become lost, she cannot cross flowing water, she cannot enter buildings, she can be smothered by attacks, water, and magic.
She is able to move through the astral and evade many attacks, but she is not flawless. She is especially vulnerable during the day time. And she can hardly move during that time. I'm thinking of reverting her to a glowing bug at day time once she is freed. Easily squashed, but the PCs could take her with her.

Who is upset about the looted tomb?
Dwarves. But as there are hardly any dwarves left in this part of land, no one is specifically upset about it. In contrast, the gnome mayor asked them to help him open it to conduct archaeological investigations on the glorious days of the dwarven empire.

Who is after the PCs to recapture the wisp's gem prison and return it to the tomb?
No one. Yet. But you are right, that I could introduce someone. In case I'm going in that direction I'm thinking of having the evil brother of the king, now returned as a necromantic lich and priest of the dark god, who they accidentally freed by opening the tomb but not having been able to stop him, from sending his undead after them. But honestly, this is too soon for that and he shouldn't be interested in that will'o'wisp at all. Unless she can help him with one thing that no one else can. He knows of her, sure, but he is currently looking for world domination, not some basic magic detector. But there is of course the ancient Kikimore queen and her insectoid army that the PCs send after him... For now, I want to give the PCs a break from that story.

How to make a hexcrawl into a game using fog of war?
Lay out each hex as at least one encounter.​
That encoutner has 5 possible approaches to resolve and 3 possible outcomes.​
The 5 approaches are the 5 common actions: parley, explore, trick, fight, avoid.​
The 3 outcomes are: success, failure with complication, failure with setback.​
Interesting. I was actually asking for programs to use to visualize the hexmap for the players with fog of war. I know how to use the free version of Roll20 for rectangular fog of wars, but I have no experience with Foundry or others. I'm looking for a free, easy to use version of a program like that to just present the players with another game element.
@JochenL: Do you know whether miro has a way of marking fog of war hex fields or circles?

Getting the players to explore those hexes and such means laying clues all around that direct the players to the appropriate hex for that "key" to unlock one of the constraints.
Good advise. Thank you.

Alas, I'll only be able to work on Wednesday evening on this. But I'm confident to present my players a really nice experience in the next sessions.
 
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