Framework: The missus and I co-DM a two-player campaign for the two of us, a desert-based sword and sorcery adventure, both to brush up on our own skills and to allow me, the perennial Dungeon Master, the opportunity to play as a PC on the occasion. I'm gonna break down the most recent session, which I DMed, and discuss the mechanics and adventure design, its strengths and flaws, with an eye towards improvement.
Premise: Tasque the Troll (male human fighter, former drover freed after ten years of combat served within the fighting pits) and Hariqa Fireskin (female tiefling bard, wandering storyteller banished from her homeland by telling a fictionalized account of her fiery efreet patron), travel across the Palmlands, a low-magic desert region modeled heavily on the sword-and-sorcery epics of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Lieber with a strongly Middle Eastern and Mediterranean aesthetic. This week adventure brought the unlikely pair to the merchant city of Umagui, where they sought the missing member of mated pair of massive emeralds in the ruins of a burnt-out monastery.
The Main Mechanic: The meat of the adventure took place in the aforementioned monastery, which I visualized as a towering pagoda, consumed decades before in an unspecified fire and now a blackened ruin, an act of the gods the only thing preventing the creaky old thing from toppling. To design the eight levels of the pagoda, I came up with a simple algorithm to determine how burnt/destroyed the walls, pillars, ceiling and floors of each individual floor were. Here's a map of the finished product.
|The pagoda's larger ground floor, complete with cherry trees and massive rubble pile.|
|Levels 2-4 of the pagoda, stripes indicated a warped floor or wall, Xs representing cracked pillars.|
|Levels 5-8 of the pagoda, with the mostly complete top level, where resides the emerald.|
The MacGuffin, in this case a conspicuously unguarded emerald, was of course awaiting the heroes at the pagoda's highest level and they were forced to ascent the crumbling and creaky tower to reach it. Success at two skills were needed to successfully climb the tower. With a successful Dungeoneering check (something the bard was competent at), a character could discern how stable the various areas above them were and where it was safest to attach a grapple. With a successful Athletics check (something fighter was trained in), a character could toss the grapple and climb there, assisting the other player.
What I thought made the challenge interesting was that it served as the main conflict of the adventure, taking the place of a traditional series of exploration and combat that would normally occupy that space. The randomly generated nature of the pagoda meant the heroes were required to innovate their own solution up, as one simply hadn't been provided as the clear method by the DM. The tension also remained high, as the bard really didn't possess much Athletics and fell several times, emphasizing the dangerous nature of the endeavor.
The most salient difficulty came from the limited suite of skills the encounter presented; really only Athletics, Dungeoneering, Acrobatics and Perception where relevant, barring Charisma or Intelligence based skills completely, which the bard favors. The inclusion of a combat (a batch of kenku thieves waiting in ambush for the players) at the top of the pagoda was also somewhat anti-climactic, considering how dangerous the ascent had been, largely on account of poor rolling from the PCs. The combat also didn't utilize the interesting terrain as much as it might, as neither monster nor PC possessed forced movement powers, that could push enemies off ledges or into holes.
The encounter's biggest strength was its innovation towards engaging skill encounters that force players to make decision not based on their mechanics. The encounter's biggest weakness was its dependency on a small handful of skills to solve all problems and subsequent limiting effect on improvisation. Overall, I thought the exercise was worthwhile and I'm currently looking for a means to incorporate such encounters into my regular D&D campaign.