Thursday, September 3, 2009

Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill Design Notes

As I'm piecing together the Insect Shrine and going back over three years (uugghhh) of notes and writing and trying to figure out what stays and what needs a rewrite, I am struck by several thoughts.

The first was how solid I still find the basic premise and setup. That's a good thing, because rewriting this monster from scratch would be soulkilling.

The second thing I noticed was how exact I was on every detail. Every room needs a big, interesting description and if it doesn't have one it's not finished. It's not like any of the connecting material for the main parts was done (lots had been done and scrapped for being too crappy, one bit I'm taking out of this project and making it its own, etc etc), but the main portions - Gorsamfeld's Inn, the Goblin Tribe, and the Insect Shrine, are effectively complete and have been since autumn 2006.

I ran into the same problem for the house in No Dignity in Death. When I first decided to tackle that project, I had this idea that every single room in that house needed a detailed writeup, even though the house is largely empty. Those of you with the module realize sanity prevailed. The same will happen to the Insect Shrine - every room in the inn doesn't need to be unique and completely fleshed out (what would that accomplish? "My character says he wants #23... the drapes suit his taste much better!"). Every dank corner in the Shrine doesn't need it's own "oooh spooky!" Some areas will be like the house in NDiD or the crypts in Death Frost Doom.

Not to say I won't be longwinded in places - I gotta be me - but that sort of thing will hopefully be saved only for those areas that are interesting. Aside from artist issues, attempting to (or thinking that I should) catalog the complete contents of every crate in the goblin lair was a major element in my dropping the ball on Insect Shrine in the first place ("Hey Bob, there are 14 nails, twelve wooden stakes, and a ball of twine in crate #37! Are you writing this down?"). Stupid, stupid.

The project had three goals, which I've cut down to two in my current preparations. It's interesting because while there are things that I am tightening up, for the most part the outlines and ideas still seem solid after so much time. The goals:

  1. Be the Quintessential Dungeons and Dragons adventure!
  2. Bring the principles of the Successful Adventures essay into focus
  3. Do for goblins what Tucker did for kobolds

#1 isn't going to happen. Keep on the Borderlands is already out there and doesn't need to be redone. The "humanoids in caves" idea is so overdone that to just do it as a straight "slay the goblins!" hackfest would be pointless. I seemed to know this in 2006 as I wrote half a page on the goblin tribe's internal politics. Asking myself, "What would make this different," is essential, and I laid the groundwork quite well. I am going to expand the diplomatic possibilities (and define "victory conditions" that don't involve goblinoid genocide), but this sort of thing will be an extension of #3.

#2 Page 107-109 of the Players Handbook seem oft-ignored by players, referees, and adventure designers. I wanted to write an adventure that rewards good play, not just powerful characters. In Death Frost Doom, it was PCs vs. Environment, in No Dignity in Death it was PCs vs. Society (and again vs. Environment for the end bit), but very little traditional D&D-style play.

Insect Shrine will have "classic" dungeoneering and plenty of foes to stab. But if the only thought put into the expedition is "kick in the next door and stab whatever is behind it," or, "we need to thoroughly explore everything and clear this whole place out," then the party will likely die.

Plenty of puzzles and pure time-wasters, with random encounters an ever-present danger.

The adventure is going to be advertised as another low-level adventure (never can have enough of these suckers, it seems), but the distractions, and there will be many, will be scaled to an entirely different level set altogether. Basically this is for both low-level (1-3) , and mid-level (4-7) characters, but neither set should really use the entire module. Higher level characters will run roughshod over the stuff intended for low-level characters, and low-level characters are of course going to be in a world of hurt if deciding to ignore some obvious warnings.

#3 What do you do about goblins to make them impressive? I'm using a straight Monster Manual writeup as the basis for my goblins. They will have all the bells and whistles allowed to them (wolves, bugbears), plus one rather gleeful surprise that has its roots in D&D history.

But they are 4' tall one-hit kills. And the detailed portion of the module is their lair (including lady goblins and itty bitty baby goblins), their living-space, not a military fortress, and it cannot simply be a honeycombed death-trap. So what to do?

First, just as some goblins are bigger and tougher than others (being 2hd instead of the usual 1-1), some will be smart. Being primarily a warrior race, they will realize they are pretty much small squishy beings in a world where just about everything else is bigger and deadlier than they are. The MM says they're "Lawful Evil" so I take that "Lawful" to mean they are very efficiently organized and prepared for incursions. Especially since they're messing around human territories.

But what about that "Evil"? The women and kids are present so I'm not going for the "evil mythic creatures" angle that some prefer. The gimmick I'm going for is that the goblins are not a stupid or barbaric society. They won't be sophisticated (at least not presented as such, Ecology of the Goblin is not my aim, not to mention the average goblin is a bit dim), but they will have a functioning society that would be classified as a "demi-human" race rather than a "humanoid" race but for one tiny detail: Goblins see non-goblinoids as talking cattle. Stock animals. And being a self-sufficient tribe without the benefits of trading for resources, goblins waste nothing.

And that's the horror of it. Not that some twisted creatures of nightmare (... with just a few hit points) are terrorizing the land, but that perfectly articulate, otherwise civilized creatures need to feed and clothe their children and prepare for winter and you and yours are their most valued means of doing so.

There is still a fair amount of bits to do on Insect Shrine, and lots to polish (I wouldn't say my writing style has changed in the past three years, but my idea of how to best present location descriptions has), but the work at this point seems like a pleasure, and with nothing else I'm supposed to be doing, I should be making some announcements in a matter of weeks.

1 comment:

  1. With all the time you spent on this post, you could have finished the adventure! Snap to it!