Jun 27

June RPG Blog Carnival: Brainstorming the Hole




My previous contribution to the RPGBA Blog Carnival was a contribution to the April Carnival, a post about the GM’s binder.


The June Carnival is being hosted by Fitz at Moebius Adventures.


Fitz describes the current Carnival topic on his site as follows:


During the month of June, Moebius Adventures is hosting the RPG Blog Carnival. And we want to know what’s in the hole. So your posts should address that question: “What’s in the hole?” All genres and play styles are welcome. No game too small. No crevasse too big.



For my contribution to the Carnival, I shall be walking you through the process of creating an underground complex in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign. An underground setting, such as the archetypal dungeon, is essentially a big inhabited hole. The latest subterranean setting for the campaign is a network of catacombs.



The Playtest Interlude

The story of these catacombs began with the Playtest Interlude that I ran for the new version of HeroQuest Glorantha.


This Interlude served to introduce the catacombs to the Players as a flashback, to set up the next quest for the Players.


The basic premise for the Interlude was that four factions converged on the catacombs to search for a sword called the Xiphos of Fate. So, “the Xiphos of Fate” is the simple answer to the question “What’s in the hole?”


This legendary sword had been brainstormed previously as part of The Scholars’ Game sequence at the start of the campaign.



The Features of our Hole

Before we explore the contents of the hole any further, it is worthwhile considering the hole itself. It is all very well knowing what is in the hole, to use it as part of the story in an RPG, it is necessary to know what the hole is like. Well, I have already labelled the hole a catacomb, but what is that like?


To generate the features of the catacombs, and the surrounding landscape, I opened the process up to the Players to collaboratively generate some location aspects.


This proved to be as fun and productive as ever. The first pass at setting creation focused on the Villa Tanicius, another product of the pre-campaign Scholars’ Game. This Villa was the surface building that served as the entrance to the catacombs. One trait of the Villa was Connecting Catacombs at Medium.


Now our hole has become one in a series of holes. As the rating was only Medium, then there are only likely to be a few connections between the catacombs and other types of holes. Clearly, one of these connections would have to be to the Villa Tanicius itself. Later brainstorming determined that the local valley exports gems, so there should be a link to the mines too.


Must the catacombs link to the mines? No, of course not. Yet, following the principle of Chekhov’s gun, if the gem mines have been generated in one set of brainstorming, then I ought to link them up with another part of the setting. This helps to keep the gem mines relevant to the story by folding them back into the plot. After all, the catacombs need to connect to something, and why not make use of what we already have created?


A Hole in a Landscape

By having the catacombs connect to the mines, I am trying to put the location into the wider landscape. As the Players have already helped to brainstorm Evercloud Valley, the location of the Villa Tanicius, then there could be other features of the wider world that can influence the design of the catacombs.


The brainstorming for the valley created some interesting traits:

  • Thick Pearlescent Cloud, at High Rating
  • Abandoned Bio-sorcerous War Machines, at Very High Rating
  • Commune of Earth Cult Gnomes, at Very High Rating


The nearby town of Tanicium was brainstormed to have the following traits:

  • Trade – Gem Mines, at Medium Rating
  • Trade – Hallucinogenics, at Medium Rating
  • Outlaw – Commune Leader, at High Rating


Finally, the Villa Tanicius was given these traits during the Interlude:

  • Thick Walls, at High Rating
  • Loyal Garrison, at Low Rating
  • Connecting Catacombs, at Medium Rating


Brainstorming the Catacombs

So, beyond being connected to the gem mines, what other features do the catacombs possess? As part of the previous Interlude, we brainstormed three location features for these tombs. The nominated features were:

  • Full Tombs, at Medium Rating
  • Shelves of Servant Corpses, at Medium Rating
  • Clockwork Mechanisms, at Low Rating


After rolling up some higher ratings for the landscape, the dice were not so enthusiastic about the traits of the catacombs themselves. This is not a big problem, but does suggest to me that many of the environmental traits will make themselves felt in the catacombs.


Bringing it all Together

The next step is to look at all of the ratings that we have created together, and pick out some elements to include in the tombs. Working from the larger areas down to the catacombs themselves, this gives me the following components to our hole in the ground:

  • Evercloud Valley
    • A Bio-sorcerous War Machine – high rating, cool concept and likely to make a challenging encounter, not least as a change of pace from endless undead
    • Earth Cultists – high rating, another great idea and one that the Players engaged with strongly when we brainstormed the Valley together
  • The town of Tanicium
    • Gem mines – as previously mentioned
  • Villa Tanicium
    • Catacombs connect to the Villa and the mines – as explained above
    • Few guards – the low garrison rating suggests only a rudimentary guard on the catacombs, which should ease access for the Heroes
  • Catacombs
    • Full tombs – only at Medium so most tombs will be full, and not much empty space, yet this was not rated at High, so the catacombs are not overflowing
    • Shelves of Servant Corpses – also rated at Medium, so a common feature, but not present on every wall. Many of these servants were animated during the Interlude game, so perhaps a few of those have survived in the catacombs
    • Clockwork Mechanisms – ended up with a Low rating, so there are not many of them remaining. Or perhaps just not many of them in working order.


Taking all of these together, I have enough to work with to create a selection of encounters.


Stealing a Map

Even though I will not be running a traditional dungeon crawl, I still like to have a map. While running the game I will make use of narrative to advance the story as much as I can, to avoid the game crawling along. Also, as the Players have asked for a dungeon sequence, then drawing out the map will reinforce this style of play for them.


So, this means that I need a map. The best source of maps I know is the incredible Dyson’s Dodecahedron.


Find more of Dyson’s maps at his blog.


Rummaging through my small sample of his many, many maps, I quickly settled on his Cinder Throne map. This is a small complex of about 20 rooms, set in the side of a hill, connected to some caves. So, if I make these caves the mines, have the exterior as the grounds of the villa, I have a good fit for my rough outline of the catacombs.


Encounter Structure

The last stage of my scenario creation process is mapping out the encounters. For a location, such as the catacombs, I would typically use a Five Scene Plot structure. Drawn together from several sources, the Five Scene Plot is another spreadsheet form that structures my game design.


In this case, the form breaks down the classic story structure into five scenes suitable for a RPG adventure. The five elements are:

  1. Entrance & Guardian
  2. Puzzle or Roleplaying challenge
  3. Trick or Setback
  4. Climax
  5. Reward, Reveal or Twist


Looking at these from a more traditional storytelling angle, Scene 1 is the introduction while Scenes 2 and 3 are the rising action. This leads to the usual climax to the story, and the reward for the Heroes. Many dungeon adventures seem to explore the rising action for a long time, before finally reaching the climax. I prefer to have my plots more compact, so generally stick to the Five Scene Plot.


Ten Scene Plot

However, in the case of the Villa Tanicius catacombs, the Players want a longer dungeon experience, so this time I shall double the amount of encounters, and effectively create a Ten Scene Plot.


I do not want to go into too much detail about the encounters here, as the Players may read this, and I am pushing 1,400 words already. So, let me just take a brief look at the revised, ten step structure. I want to keep just one climax and reward, but several of the other steps are listed as a pair of options. If I separate out these options, it takes me to the following eight steps;

  1. Entrance
  2. Guardian
  3. Puzzle
  4. Roleplaying challenge
  5. Trick
  6. Setback
  7. Climax
  8. Reward


Taking a conventional approach to dungeon adventures, I can define a setback as a combat challenge. Those animated corpses left over from the Interlude, or an active clockwork defence, would all make suitable setbacks. Then, I sprinkle those into the sequence, I now have ten steps to my plot:

  1. Entrance
  2. Guardian
  3. Puzzle
  4. Setback
  5. Roleplaying challenge
  6. Setback
  7. Trick
  8. Setback
  9. Climax
  10. Reward


This is not necessarily how the Heroes will meet these encounters, as they will be scattered through the catacombs. Clearly, they will start with Scene 1, and the plot finishes with Scenes 9 and 10. The remainder will be scattered across the map and left for the Heroes to find.



Every GM turns holes in ground into adventures in different ways. I hope that you have enjoyed reading about how I have built the catacombs. This has involved a large degree of Player input, from the collaborative brainstorming to the desire for a longer underground adventure than normal. I am very pleased with the finished adventure that I have pulled together from everyone’s ideas.


Come back to Tales of a GM over the next few weeks to see how the catacomb adventure plays out as I talk about our game in my Prep in Progress series.


What sort of details would you have picked out from our brainstorming? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Happy Gaming


Something for the Weekend next week: the Mechanical Limitations of Interludes


EDIT Another aspect of creating these catacombs was the topic of my August RPGBA Carnival article.

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