Monday, March 9, 2015

The Search

Having gotten the party onto the Island, we must do something with them.  We can safely assume that they will have little interest in the duties of the other ship mates - they might help, if asked, but I wouldn't count on the party having much interest in collecting water and firewood or in hunting.

We could always hand the players the adventure on a silver platter: "You see a large, crystal shrine rising fifty feet above the trees, with a tremendous sign, Treasure Buried Here."  I once played in campaigns with other youngsters where this was about the game's speed.

Barring this, however, it will not be very long before the party utters those dreaded words, "We search the island."  It may surprises some, but for many the act of describing an island - even a small one - sector by sector becomes a tedious process.

A typical DM will cut right to the chase.  What is the point of dragging it out?  "The party finds a cave where the surf pounds the cliffs on the west side."  Simple, straight to the point, let the dungeon begin.

After all, how is the party going to search the island?  Inch by inch?  Foot by foot?  Do they stroll about at a normal pace, like any of us would searching an island like this, enjoying the sights and sounds?  It's quite unlikely that they'd see anything hidden or unusual that way, since the island is obviously regularly used by ship's crews.  And what is the point, anyway?  Sooner or later the party is going to find that cave, so all we're doing by having the party wander about the island pointlessly is wasting time they could be spending in the dungeon.  Right?

Well, a DM could argue that the party ought to put in some effort.  They ought to try a little before finding the cave.  And if they don't put in the effort, well, tough luck.  If only they had tried - but they didn't.  So sorry, all, no dungeon for you!

This has even less point.  Now the DM has spent time creating the island (and, presumably, the dungeon), only to have a moment of useless superiority by denying the party everything.  What is the party going to do now?  Wander off to another place, presumably, where they DO find the dungeon, so that gaming can result.  Wouldn't it be easier to let them find the dungeon on the island?

Here is a point to consider - why should the party even suppose there is an adventure here?  Unless the DM makes it obvious to the players that there IS something on the island, it's reasonable for them to think, "Oh well, this is just an island, no reason to presume something is happening."  And parties will do this.

Every party that finds a dungeon entrance and starts inside assumes that something is going to be down here . . . but I've found that most players on roads, moving through woods, landing on islands, poking about a village and so on will assume that this is just a normal day.  The reason is obvious - if every 10 mile stretch of road was an 'adventure' like a dungeon, the party would never get anywhere.  If every village was another Hommlet, characters would be in their rights to lay waste to the countryside.  Thus are wildernesses empty, while dungeons full of promise.

Ask this, O Reader: how does a film script convey to an audience that there's more than meets the eye?  Yes, that's correct.  Clues.  An imperceptible movement, catching the character's attention but proving to be a shadow.  An unusual object lying on the path.  The movement of animals.  A cliff that looks distinctly odd when viewed from a particular angle.  An distinctly unnatural sound.  Fit in nine or ten of these little details and a party will begin to think there's something up - without having to put up a big sign.

Suppose we break the island down into its requisite parts.  A ridge along one side of the island.  An opposite hillock.  A central lagoon.  A bridge of land connecting the two parts of the island.  A spit that nearly cuts off the lagoon.  A passage of water connecting the lagoon to the sea.  A small rocky islet.  A small pillar and a large, tall pillar.  Two distinct cliffs, one at the top of the picture, the other bottom left.  A steep shore that runs below the ridge.  The aforementioned well & windlass, where water can come from.  Here are plenty of things from which we can make clues.

The well-water tastes metallic.  There are large bubbles rising in the water on the shore below the ridge.  The cliffs at the end of the ridge are too sheer to climb, but there is the picture of a seven-foot humanoid scratched there, ten feet above the waterline.  The lower cliffs are stepped and easy to climb; these are popular with birds, who for some reason become absurdly spooked without apparent reason.  The pillars are covered with moss.  The islet has a black, indistinct shape on it, that can't be made out.  The passage connecting the lagoon to the sea is littered with stones on the bottom that twinkle in the sun.  The spit seems to have been worked by stone masons, but only in part and for no apparent purpose.  The bridge between parts of the island gives a feeling of unease.  The central lagoon is no more than four feet deep, the bottom covered in sand; but where the sand is rippled in some places, in others it is smooth and flat.

More than enough things to grab our attention.  Naturally, the party will pull out wands and spells for detecting evil, enemies, life, treasure and what have you, but its easy enough to remind them that the distances on these things are usually inadequate.  The lagoon is at least 200 feet across; it's full of little darting fish and algae.  If there's a giant crab buried in the mud, the character with the right means of detection would have to be standing on the right stretch of shore, no?

That could also be a monster laying in the water off shore, making bubbles.  But where, exactly, how far away, how big, etcetera?  A sea snake?  A giant squid?  A natural spring?  The party may have to dive in to find out.

Why does the moss that grows on the two pillars not grow elsewhere on the island?  How hard would it be to swim out to that little islet?  Bad waves, no doubt, a strong current, rocks hard to grasp once the islet is reached . . . a party would have to work these things out.  And what is that disturbing the birds?

It should be understood that all of these clues lead somewhere.  It's tempting to make them a lot of red herrings, but let me remind the reader: in a dungeon, we make every door go somewhere.  We're responsible for doing the same thing in the outside world.

So, what shall we find?  Well, I leave that up to you, gentle reader.  Let me know what you'd like to investigate first - and we can give it a look-see.


Eric said...

As a player, I'd first make sure the ship is well secured against weather- but that's more an issue of picking the right captain and navigator. That being said, I'd investigate the bubbles first. Do they smell of anything? Is the gas flammable? Is it noticeably lighter or heavier than air, so that we can fill a bladder or a bucket with it? If so, what happens to a small animal when exposed? The water looks lovely and clear, can we see the source of the bubbles?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hey, Eric,

I'm going to forego answering questions or giving additional details in order to allow anyone who wants to comment to have an untainted perspective on the post.

I'll answer questions with the next post.

connor mckay said...

I would probably begin an inspection of the stone work done to the spit of land, and use the opportunity to inspect the glittery stones in the passage from the lagoon to the sea.

From there I would probably ask:

Why are there stones in the passage but just sand in the lagoon?

What type of tools seem to have been used to work the stone, over stone tools, metal tools or what?

And other related questions.

Tim said...

I'd definitely be curious about the cliffs and the dark shapes. Would it be possible to make a facsimile on parchment of the figure and attempt to deduce its form? Could we row out and take a better look at the area from a boat, examining the birds and the islet?

Scott Driver said...

As usual, I'm the meta butthole, I guess.

Do you design things that are "only to be found" by special actions or under certain circumstances, without a plan for the current group finding them or an eye towards recycling later? It seems contrary to your expressed philosophy, but I like the idea of a locale having secrets that one group might not find, but the next might, or maybe no one ever does but they're there nonetheless - little pockets that very likely will never be used.

Actually, I guess that's another question - when you're designing dungeons or other static sites, do you design them with the idea that other groups might come along later and interact with the same environment, or do you design them with the current group in mind? (Reckon it could be both.)

Oddbit said...

The picture seems pretty cool, but also seems like a dead end if there's no decent supported knowledge system.

I might feel disinclined to swim due to the high level of danger and investigate those last, perhaps checking out the area around the mossy pillars.

Shelby Urbanek said...

I'd try to get above the figure carved on the cliff and rappel down from above to get a good look at it. Try and tell how old it is, maybe if some sort of scaffolding were installed on the cliff face. Possibly look for signs of someone else rappelling down from above. Failing that, I'd see about borrowing a spyglass to look at the dark shape on the islet.

Preston Selby said...

I'd have our party naturalist attempt to communicate with the local wildlife, and hope for some sort of useful clue, remembering that D&D animals tend to be wise, but not intelligent.

Also, check to see if the moss is some peculiar species or if the material of the pillar is somehow different from the surrounding stone, allowing moss to grow. Perhaps some environmental factor is causing the anomaly.

Preston Selby said...

Or we could just ask the sailors who are already familiar with this island.

Harvicus said...

@Scott I believe the difference here, is that there are obvious mysteries presented to the players. It is then up to them whether to investigate them and learn more or not.

The DM has given them enough information here (without any prompting on their behalf) to indicate there is something here to interact with or investigate.

This is very different than just presenting them with a typical island such as described in the first post, and then waiting for the players to take the first steps to look for something.

It is a bit of an unspoken contract between the DM and players, (or should be) that there will be indications/clues when something is worth examining, and that the DM is not going to leave the players in the dark and expect them to pixel bitch about in order to find anything.

People love finding the answers behind a mystery, so most likely they will proceed to investigate in this case. And if they do not, then they had enough information to make the choice that they were not up to this adventure at this time for whatever reason.

And that is perfectly fine as well. The adventure will wait, until they decide to come back, or perhaps another party in the same world finds it. And if not, the DM can cannibalize some of their favorite ideas to use in a different adventure sometime later.

William Jones said...

I want to see what's at the bottom of this well. The water tastes metallic? Well, lets lower a chunk of meat in first, to see if it gets grabbed or nibbled. If it's clear, lower a lantern on one rope and me on another - slowly and carefully please!

Ivar Emmaneel said...

Some of your descriptions gave me the shivers. Well done. I'm sure the party will investigate. Now I see how you manage to leed the party without Any rails. The bate is just to food to let go.
That to the side. I'm very curious about the humanoid picture on the rock. Wat kind of humanoid , how is it made (bas-relief or pigments) and how old does it appears to be.
I already suspect I don't really want to know. (so there is the tension part) well done.

Blaine H. said...

The pillars definitely grab attention. The odd moss could have interesting alchemical traits or be useful in a potion. Perhaps there are inscriptions or carvings hidden beneath the moss that are related to the carving up on the cliff that could help give more information of what was once or still is here.

Perhaps it is related to the well or the bubbles. Put any and all of the lore skills and proficiencies that players pick up in the hopes of having character development or background to us.

Even if the dungeon itself is not found on this particular trip, if there are at least something of value that could be gained from the trip, it would or could be worth it.

Perhaps instead of a dungeon, there might be a discovery that could aid in crafting and thus be of value elsewhere. May even be enough to add a few twists or the plot hook for a plot involving merchants and guilds.

William Jones said...

Just wanted to add - if there is ANYTHING untoward with that well water, we need to stop the sailors leaving. I'm assuming that they are our lift back from the island at their next stop, I really don't want them getting poisoned and not making that pickup.