Module-Writing Woes: Campfire Encounters

While formatted somewhat like my Orthodoxies post, these are significantly more difficult concerns that I’ve run into recently. Several people on Discord were kind enough to ask that I write up my difficulties, so that they might take a stab at a solution. So here goes nothing.

First, three assumptions you’ll need to understand, going in:

  1. To me, a campfire encounter is the sort of monster that functions really well in a story told around a campfire, but that seems to become either boring in a D&D fantasy adventure context, or it becomes a mystery that’s very unintuitive to solve for most players.
  2. For various reasons, I do in fact want these “campfire encounter” monsters to occur as single encounters in a dungeon or dungeon-like environment. I think the most accessible solution for a “campfire encounter” is just to build an entire campaign around a monster. For instance, if you have a hard time conveying how scary the ghost of a haunted house is as a single encounter, perhaps you can tool the entire haunted house into emphasizing how scary this one particular ghost is…this is effective, but is not a solution that’s viable for my project (feel free to ask me on Discord about why this is, but for this exercise, consider this a restriction).
  3. A lot of these problems are almost trivially fixed by being more responsive to how players behave, and addressing their behaviors in the game, either with improvised roleplaying changes, or by pausing the game to clear up a misunderstanding. However, these are module-writing woes, not GMing woes – I’m trying to figure out how to achieve results consistently as a module-writer. So, GM advice like “just make this monster less scary until your players are willing to talk to it”, for example, isn’t helpful to my particular conundrum.

Okay, let’s begin.

  1. Given a mythological monster whose signature ability in stories is to fight for seven days and seven nights without tiring, I decided to make a monster that had a fast fleeing speed, as well as the ability to mitigate a lot of the negative effects of retreating in D&D.
    The intention was to have this monster be a recurring threat, but in actual play, the monster proved to be exasperating for players, who felt that it was something they weren’t being allowed to defeat. How could such a myth be converted into an encounter that would still pay respects to the myth, yet without being irritating in play? There are many other similar demons who must be killed three times to truly die, or who must be defeated three times to truly submit, et cetera, that are similarly hard to implement. Especially as, for a lot of these creatures, this facet of their existence is the most standout part (they otherwise are interchangeable with just…well-armed bandits, or slightly more aggressive tigers, or whatever).
  2. Given a mythological monster who was only defeated in its story by heroes supplicating the gods into coming down to earth and striking the monster down for them, how could you incorporate this monster into a dungeon encounter? In the original story, the monster was essentially a runaway from Heaven, and Heaven had no leads as to where the monster went. The protagonists, realizing that they could not slay the monster, but also realizing that it was a runaway from heaven, essentially reported the monster to the authorities, who came to take him away.
    I have the feeling this would not be satisfactory in a D&D encounter…particularly not a written module. More than perhaps any other encounter type, this sort of monster feels like it would only work with an entire campaign built around it…which is not what I want.
  3. I’ve been trying to figure out what sort of layout works best for a “stealth dungeon”, and this is one of the maps that I tried out:
By 0one Games

The way I ran the dungeon, two invincible liches start at room 16, and spread out to try and corner the players as they navigate the space. Players need to get to room 26 and then escape.

I ran into a lot of issues when running this, not merely issues with the dungeon layout, but one of those issues was that I didn’t know how to proceduralize the enemy movement in a “stealth” dungeon. If I just run the liches as intelligent beings with a sense of the tomb, they could just wait for players in chamber 1, since the players need to eventually leave from there. But this somewhat negates the point of a stealth mission – if you’re going to run into enemies anyway, you may as well do it on your terms, not theirs.

Another issue was the lack of feedback – in a lot of stealth games, you usually have some sense of where the enemies are to help you decide where to hide and how to route your infiltration. I tried having the liches converse with one another, and in a separate playtest gave players a one-way ability to see through walls, but it just felt clunky and uninspired – plus the more “stuff” I overlaid on top of the dungeon, the more the feeling of dread from actually exploring the tomb vanished.

So…with all that as context for what I tried, the encounter is this: some number of invincible undead are in a tomb, and encountering them is lethal, but they guard something you need. How do you make that work in a D&D game, in module format?

4. There’s a monster that I see in a lot of horror games and see in a lot of other media as well – it’s the monster that only is able to move when you aren’t looking at it. You know the type – Weeping Angels from Doctor Who, haunted dolls from Emily Wants to Play, SCP-173, etc. While I can think of some ways of building an entire campaign around this concept, I’m a bit stuck on how to “dumb down” such a monster for the purposes of a wandering monster table – how do you introduce this weird monster mechanic in a campaign where there’s already a lot of other stuff going on, and how do you have it as a constant threat (like how a wolf or bandit would be on a wandering monster table), without it overtaking the entire campaign?

5. Finally, I’ve got a set of “monsters” which aren’t really monsters – they’re more set-dressing. Birds whose feathers store various magicks and thus can be used in various potent ingredients, horned rabbits (think jackalopes) whose horns can be used in potions, and flying snakes who are attracted to gold and who will fly great distances so that they can sleep on piles of gold. What’s the best implementation of “magical folkloric wildlife” like the above? Do I create a side-quest structure? Do I cut them out for being too distracting? Do I make them into more meaningful encounters (the birds could become something like blood hawks, the rabbits could become giant rabbits that attack you, the treasure snakes could be very venomous)?
My instincts say that making things “threats” when they’re not supposed to be sort of invalidates the role they have from their folklore…but D&D, especially in the dungeon context I’m working in, is so threat/reward-focused that I get caught in a loop of thinking of everything in that same context.

2 thoughts on “Module-Writing Woes: Campfire Encounters

  1. 1. a.Try to think of a loophole in his powers. From myth, Ravana received a boon that he couldn’t be
    killed by any God, so Vishnu was born as Rama so He could kill Ravana.
    Similarly, there was another demon who received a boon that he couldn’t be killed “by any
    God, man or animal, with any weapon, not on land, nor sea nor sky” so Vishnu incarnated as a
    half-man half-lion (no man nor animal) spawning from a pillar (not land nor sea no sky) killing
    the demon with his claws (no weapon).
    b. If you can’t find a loophole, your players won’t either, so give he monster a specific weakness.

    2. I don’t know.

    3. Gadgets useful for stealth missions
    a. a broken arrow, the 2 halves point to each other. Useful to track position of an enemy.
    b. the detachable eye fro Tomb of the Sepent Kings
    c. smoke-bombs
    d. stuff that makes noise to distract the guards/minions, either mobile objects or immobile pieces
    of architecture.
    e. Grappling hook, suction cups and the walls to use them

    Have the purpose of room be clearly defined, so that when the PCs hear the minions say: “I’ll go check in the kitchen, you search the library” Yhey have an idea of what sort of route they might take, if they already mapped the dungeon a bit.

    Have some areas that look like monsters don’t go there often, safe havens where thay can take a breather while the rest of the dungeon is a constant effort to avoid being detected and trigger the alarm.

    series on how stealth is implemented in videogames: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLc38fcMFcV_s8CEnf_j1ZOu-UCTEXRAfl

    As to how to track the movements, maybe you can use some tokens to move around the map for once. I think in the new adventure by Ben Milton there’s a monster whose position is tracked, maybe check that out.

    4. a. Tie it to an area or time of day, like they’re only met in dungeons or there’s a chance only at
    night
    b. It’s summoned when players take a particular action, or don’t take a particular action, like
    burying/cremating the humans they kill

    5. a. again, make them invulnerable and give them a weakness. The legendary vegetable lamb can
    only be hit by arrows. It’s said that a unicorn will jump in the lap of a virgin and that’s how you
    can catch it.
    b. don’t make the monster dangerous, make the area around it very dangerous. The golden
    goose was found in the giant’s castle in the clouds. Maybe all samples of magic birds are in a
    powerful sorcerer aviary.
    c. make them significally tied to the habitat? The mermen fins are used to make potions but since
    they’re being killed there have been some bad omens: fish started swimming backwards, water
    turned red, seagulls fall dead.

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  2. 1. The stakes of such a random encounter aren’t “will this creature be killed?” and it can be quite hard (a woe, even,) to communicate that from a writing perspective, since players can be bull-headed about that kind of thing. One straightforward thing to attempt is simply have the implacability of the opponent be in-character knowledge. “How do we get away from this foe who can fight for a week straight without tiring?” is an interesting problem, and so is “How do we fight a foe who can leave at will?” but players usually don’t ask that question. There are more subtle ways to handle it, but one can always just say “this monster is so fast it could retreat at will.”

    2. You’re right this kind of creature is easier to design as a dungeon rather than a random encounter. You could change the monster’s behavior, say it wants to keep a low profile and appease the party, making the first couple encounters of the creature potentially positive. Or if it must attack, writing it to specifically cover its own weakness. Have PCs automatically know that prayer can banish it, and it conceals its identity or attacks from ambush for this reason.

    3. Give the PCs some way of suspecting that the foes are near or attentive to them, like how in many stealth games you always know if you’re hidden, spotted, or in danger of becoming spotted. Perhaps the party can hear approaching groans in the floorboards, or mouth-clicks as the liches try to echolocate them. In this particular example, I would also consider giving the liches an additional goal. Perhaps each wants to get to the party before the other one, preventing them from just sitting back and waiting for the party at a bottleneck.

    4. bind them to a particular region or give them a rule that eventually ends the encounter. “The Angel does not pursue outside the basilica” or “If unsuccessful for an hour, SCP-173 will target other prey in the forest.” Though I don’t think I understand your concern about overwhelming the campaign, so perhaps this is solving the wrong problem.

    5. Most of my fictional mundane wildlife is inserted instead of “no encounter” results when travelling. When the animal can be harvested, you can write a simple trade-off. “Rabbit horns take up 1 equipment slot each and are worth 10 gold coins, but can only be sold for full price in 25% of settlements or directly to magicians.” So usually you’ll just describe the PCs travelling that day and mention they see giga-hawks wheeling in the sky, magnificent birds prized for the potency of their gall bladders, and if players are interested tell them that there is some money to be made, but they’ll smell like fumes and down for who knows how long before they find a buyer. There is still an element of risk/reward, but not life and death.

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