Justin Achilli

Tag: exploration

Great Places for RPG Scenes, Part One

I’ve been leaving this open as a Google Doc in the background and dropping new ideas in there as they come to me. I think there are 20-something other entries on the list right now, so there’ll be a part two when I finish it, but for the time being, here are 50 great places for RPG scenes.

  1. Belowdecks
  2. The cloudmines
  3. The catwalk beneath a suspension bridge
  4. Backstage at the auditorium during the coronation
  5. Inside the nest of the giant wasps
  6. In the mouth of the cavern that leads to the Underworld
  7. At the signal-beacon camp long thought abandoned
  8. The tarpits where dragons go to die
  9. In the second-worst tent at the bazaar
  10. In the cottage where the woodsman lived before he joined the Other
  11. On the wharf that rolls with the tides
  12. In the theater, amid the aghast actors
  13. On the mountaintop
  14. The reliquary
  15. In a disreputable pot shop
  16. In the shadows of the agora’s collonades
  17. At the crossroads in the cursed town
  18. In the presence of the man who thinks he is a village
  19. The corpus of a dead god
  20. The place where all whispers arrive
  21. In the gardens of a city as yet undreamed
  22. A mnemonic castle
  23. Under the horned moon
  24. Where the madman is prince
  25. On the heath, when the air crackles with the energy of a spring storm
  26. The only surviving subsection of a derelict space station
  27. The space between the two most distant pocket realms
  28. The gemcutter’s workshop
  29. An abandoned motel on a lonely length of highway
  30. On the riverbank, near a fragrant cluster of bougainvillea
  31. The access hallway behind the storefronts at the shopping center
  32. While scavenging a scavenger-class vessel
  33. The second-highest level of the parking garage
  34. Overlooking the crater left behind by genesis
  35. In a jungle of the senses
  36. The organ loft of the cathedral
  37. Behind the curtain of flesh
  38. The passage beneath the hollowed-out column
  39. Within the portrait of Dorian Gray
  40. Among the thousand-plus shelves of the god-king’s library
  41. Floor 41
  42. The grove where Oberon takes his liquor
  43. The fane of the wolf-god
  44. In the shadows, when the witching hour tolls
  45. The earliest-known cistern ruins of a vanished culture
  46. In the company of nightmares
  47. The shantytown built from the hulks of ruined cars and buses
  48. Under the overgrown arbor
  49. The hedge-maze of the jealous sultan
  50. Love’s secret domain

Eumenesthes and the Signal Station

As Wintergris develops, I’ve kept two objectives in mind. One, the setting has to be evocative of the classic rulesets from which it’s drawn. Two, it has to be evocative of the classic weird fiction that inspired those original rulesets.

Here’s one of the locational encounters. Early in the campaign, the PCs (likely) discover the original objective of their decimated legion, and the keeper of that objective. Built in is an opportunity for the GM to decide which weird-fantasy-flavored attribute applies to that NPC. Here’s an excerpt:

Classic weird fiction inspires the setting.

The master of the signal station is Eumenesthes, an elderly man of seemingly Imperial stock who speaks the Imperial tongue with native fluency. Whatever the secret Eumenesthes hides, he can be a scholarly patron to the PCs or a distant enemy, depending on their disposition. Eumenesthes has lived in the Pagan Lands for longer than he can remember, and has accumulated much of the lore of the island frontier. While he is no longer able to face the rigors of the wild lands themselves, he often possesses some secret that might shed a bit of light on any given anomaly that resides in the Pagan Lands.

  1. Eumenesthes is actually the father of Emperor Kalasthes, and the ambitious son exiled the former emperor across the Mordant Channel in order to seize the crown for himself. If this is the case, Eumenesthes knows more about the Empire than he does about the Pagan Lands, but his information is almost a generation out of date.
  2. The signal station hidden on the coast of the Pagan Lands is a beacon to some powerful — and potentially otherworldly — ally of Emperor Kalasthes, and the Empire seeks to invoke this ally. So long as Eumenesthes lives, however, he refuses to light the beacon. To hear him tell it, he’s the only thing that stands between the world and this powerful, unknowable evil. Demons? Devils? An ancient technology? A hoary Fae prince? Something from beyond the world itself? Even Eumenesthes doesn’t know, but he knows its bad, and he has no end of eschatological theories of what it might be.
  3. Eumenesthes is the soul of a dragon cursed to inhabit the body of a human for the duration of a dragon’s lifetime. His behavior and mannerisms are quite alien for a normal man, but quite in keeping with those of the great wyrms: He maintains his lair and never leaves it, he keeps a vast hoard (in the form of knowledge and magic instead of treasure). His movements are precise, his eyes unblinking, his skin cool to the touch. How he treats the PCs will change over time, as he grows to fear their increasing power or believes that they may have the power to restore him to his true form.
  4. Fort Lorica was once under the command of Captain Eumenesthes, but he dismantled the regiment and decommissioned the fort against the orders of the Empire. What happened to the troops who were garrisoned there? Why did the captain abandon the fort? These are the secrets that keep Eumenesthes watching the seas for Imperial vessels.
  5. Eumenesthes is not a man but an informational construct, an index of information regarding the Pagan Lands that exists in the form of a person but that has no true individual drive or desire. Whether he is a magical archive, a divine ashram, or an incomprehensibly advanced technological pseudoentity may never be known.
  6. The signal station is an anchor in time, and its steward, Eumenesthes, will always be present at it, far beyond the span of a mortal lifetime. He seems to advance or regress in age depending on where in the tower he is found, based on what he needs to be doing. For example, Eumenesthes might be young man at the top of the tower, gazing out from the vantage of an open balcony, while youthful acuity of sight serves him best. Encountered on the ground floor, while discussing some matter of the Pagan Lands’ history, he becomes an aged man, with a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and experience at his disposal. If this is the case, Eumenesthes can never leave the signal station, as venturing too far from it place him in a flow of time either before or after he actually exists.

With those choices (or his own creativity) available to him, the GM can decide likewise what the motivator was for the Empire to send the Thirteenth Legion to the signal station, and potentially how Eumenesthes will react to the PC survivors when and if they choose to visit the tower.


Getting There First

In many tabletop roleplaying and video games, the setting is topheavy. Designers pack as much as they can into the game world to give players the impression that the world is real and it has a myriad of things going on. That’s fine, and it’s great for verisimilitude and for providing a variety of options, but it’s not always best for the drama.

Let’s say you’re an explorer. You’re Robert Peary, and you’ve crossed untold icy perils, faced down starvation and frostbite, and… you see a group of level-80 Arctic Rangers hanging around at the North Pole. One of them is jumping up and down for no apparent reason. One of them is naked and dancing on top of a mailbox. Whether you’re playing WoW or in the Forgotten Realms, this is your result. The world is already explored, a known quantity. Worse yet, it’s probably some lousy NPC who’s up there, or who has already discovered the place in some supplement or expansion.

In most published worlds, this is going to be the case. Published worlds are too "known" out of the box because the perceived value added, from the writer and publisher’s perspective, is the depth or breadth of setting. There’s something up there to do. It’s rare that the finding of the place is the objective itself, and the "something to do" is figuring out how to treat the discovery. Is being the first person there its own reward? It certainly can be, especially in a world that allows its characters to make their mark on the setting. That heretofore unclimbably tall peak can be named after a player’s character, party, or own poetic turn of phrase. Or maybe there’s something there that be harvested or exploited. There’s no silver mine in the unknown valley yet, say — it’s the characters’ opportunity to start one. Perhaps the discovery isn’t even a place. It might be an unknown piece of technology, or an extremely talented poet or musician.

How cool would it be to have something happening in your favorite world that facilitated and even rewarded exploration? Perhaps it’s a mostly cooperative effort, like the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (which is a magnificent name for a cultural event, by the way). Perhaps it’s a competitive land-grab or tactical effort, like the Space Race. Or even something with a bit of a higher calling behind it, like the Manifest Destiny. Maybe it’s looked at with a skeptical eye by the larger population, like the explorations of Heinrich Schliemann.

It’s certainly something that can fit in any genre, adding a bit of tension and/ or adventure, depending upon how you twist the dials. It doesn’t even have to be pure exploration of unknown places. It can be cultural rediscovery of places Man hasn’t visited in a long time, like discovering the Hollow Earth in a pulp tradition or uncovering a forgotten civilization in the sword-and-sorcery genre.

So there’s a challenge. Put a significant exploration milestone into your next tabletop session. If you’re an MMO player, grab a lonesome stretch of in-game geography and do something with it that the devs don’t expect. It can be a one-shot or just for a few nights, or it can spawn a whole campaign. Let me hear how it works out.


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