Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Makes A Good Adventurer Base?

I recently indulged a nostalgic urge to check out some old beginner-level materials in my collection. My occasional foray into Old School Renaissance gaming (OSR) and my preference for Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons started me thinking about the towns new adventurers use as bases for their explorations of nearby dungeons. Recent solo gaming in this regard exposed me to the city-state of Cryptopolis in Kabuki Kaiser’s Ruins of the Undercity, which provides a diverse base of operations. I also pulled out the second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons boxed starter set, First Quest, since I recalled it included a town characters could use, and, of course, one of the classic B/X D&D modules, Gary Gygax’s B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. While investigating these three examples I came to a few conclusions on what essential elements make a satisfying adventurer base.

Adventurer bases cater to “downtime” character maintenance instead of core activities of exploration and combat. Certainly such an environment can take on a life of its own, but for some it’s a matter of finding a place to simply buy provisions, heal wounds, cash in treasure, level up, and tend to other technicalities marked on a character sheet. Providing the necessities to recover from the last dungeon delve and prepare characters for the next one stands as the bare-bones foundation of a base; yet it can, if artfully crafted, offer elements that interlock with and enhance other setting components. A good base fulfills three criteria: it provides a place where characters can find support, offers potential for future adventures, and reinforces the setting.

Support: A good base must obviously provide support for character maintenance activities. A provisioner offers a stock of items for purchase. Armorers and smiths repair and replace armor and weapons. Temples offer healing services to all and respite for clerics. A local mage might provide magical services like artifact identification, purchase interesting objects, and tutor starting magic users. Characters can find hirelings at the local tavern. Sometimes these establishments are simply names or numbers on a map, other times they come with scant few notes. Very good bases forge some personal connections between the players/characters and the location by helping to make character maintenance activities meaningful in the context of setting and story. They offer a nice balance of information to bring the place to life: names and personalities of gamemaster character proprietors, menus of services and prices, and useful details about how they fulfill the function of character-related game mechanics. To provide solid support a base must provide relative security within and without; sure, factions or individuals might look askance at characters engaging in unsavory activities, and outside forces might conspire to overthrow the base, but overall the location should mostly represent a safe haven for character maintenance activities.

Potential: A good base should demonstrate the potential of its surroundings. Rumor tables for tavern talk might seem an overused cliché for fantasy roleplaying games, but they serve to inspire curiosity in characters and motivate them to explore the setting. Gamemaster characters can also help expand future adventures by exploiting their motivations, concerns, and fates, especially in relation to the characters’ actions. The community as a whole might enlist their aid should its core purpose or even survival become threatened.

Setting: A good base reinforces the setting through local color and thematic elements. Any details developed at this level reflect on aspects of the entire fantasy world: gamemaster character names, goods and services offered, views of magic both arcane and divine, treatment of itinerant adventurers, enforcement of taxes on treasure and confiscation of forbidden items, and the internal and external conflicts the denizens quietly face. Is the base run with well-ordered military discipline or a lawless border town where anything goes? These factors can help fuel adventure potential as well as demonstrate key elements of the wider setting.

These criteria stand apart from other measure of quality for the product in which adventurer bases appear: the size of the base coverage compared to the overall page count; the quality of graphic design (particularly renderings of the base); and the overall usefulness of the entire product. Earlier I mentioned three game accessories presenting adventurer bases. Let’s look at each base using the criteria outlined above and see how they measure up.

Cryptopolis in Ruins of the Undercity

This random dungeon generator, ideal for solitaire or group play, focuses mostly on tables for randomly generating the labyrinthine chambers and passages beneath the city-state of Cryptopolis. The section covering the city covers 11 out of 72 pages, or roughly 15 percent of the entire book. It consists primarily of tables listing different establishments offering merchandise or services useful to adventurers; each includes a list of offerings, a random die roll to determine the number of a particular item available, and the price. Some rare items have a chance of not being in stock at all. A page details rules for hiring henchmen as well as short stats for the various kinds available. Players roll a die to determine the number of days they spend shopping and seeking hirelings, then have a 1 in 6 chance of a special encounter occurring during their time in the city (most involving fights). The absence of a city map seems bearable considering the large size of a city.

Cryptopolis fulfills most of the three criteria nicely. The numerous merchant tables provide standard equipment, arms, and armor along with some more uncommon items. A temple provides healing other divine services, while the local magicians’ society offers spells and potions. The mechanics and stats for hirelings emphasize their importance in overcoming the undercity’s dangers. Rules give bonuses in hiring for offering greater shares, an availability roll (like stock for merchant goods), and some specialized, more uncommon hirelings like elves with spell abilities, scoundrels with thief skills, and dervishes with cleric spells and infallible morale and loyalty.

The lesser concerns of potential and setting emerge through subtleties in the goods, henchmen, and encounters. A few subtle hints might lead to potential adventures, primarily motivated by chance encounters in the city: the beggar with a treasure map to sell, plundered caravans that drive up prices, a trader seeking to buy maps of the undercity. Elements characteristic of the desert locale quietly help add depth to the setting: dervishes, dealers in babusches and turbans, and a few unique magic items for sale.

Overall the random dungeon provides some excellent solitaire play potential, even if its lethality levels remain high. Ruins of the Undercity emerged from the multitude of inspired Old School Renaissance products (OSR) released in recent years. Although specifically compatible with Labyrinth Lord it easily ports to almost any old-school game system. Gamers could easily use the basic approach of merchant tables, hirelings, and city encounters to provide a suitable adventurer base of nearly any size.

The Town in AD&D 2nd Edition First Quest

TSR released this beginner boxed set in 1994 to help promote the second edition of AD&D. Like some other materials at the time – most notably the disastrous Spellfire collectible card game rushed into production to compete with the Magic: The Gathering phenomenon – it relied heavily on existing, quality TSR art. The boxed set packed so much perceived value (three books, two spell booklets, a gamemaster screen, polyhedral dice, character cards, maps, plastic character miniatures, and a sound effects CD) that it seemed like a loss leader even at $30 retail. Although distributed through the Random House deal that helped doom TSR, it found its way to bargain bins; I recall picking up my copy for a deep discount at either a hobby store or chain bookstore in the mid 1990s to satisfy my lifelong fascination with roleplaying game starter sets.

As an introduction to fantasy roleplaying First Quest included an adventure base location simply named “The Town.” A color cardstock insert showed a graphic of The Town with numbered locations, only three of which had any bearing on the game: The Wizard’s Tower for identifying and selling magic items, Temple for healing, and The Store for equipment. Reference to The Town in the entire boxed set consisted of this card insert, three tables on the gamemaster screen listing goods and services offered at the three key locations, and one page in the 64-page adventure book. While the map is nice, it only shows businesses and no actual dwellings for the residents; most of the locations only have a name with no notes on how they might benefit characters.

Although The Town fulfills the first criteria of offering support, it does so at an extremely minimal level. The three key locations offer various cleric spells, magical services, and equipment (with a few notes on selling loot). No notes cover where one might find hirelings, possibly indicative of a general movement in second edition AD&D from the Gygaxian concept of character-henchmen parties in first edition. Other locations one might feel remain essential to a fantasy roleplaying game – thieves’ den, inns and taverns, guard barracks, moneylender – have no description beyond their name and location on The Town map card along with a note that “Only three buildings are actually used in the game (wizard’s tower, temple, store). DMs can use the other buildings if they want.”

The Town offers very little potential for adventures beyond the scenario introduction itself, which references a few locations before propelling the characters to look for a missing elf lord in a nearby castle ruin. A sidebar on the one-page describing The Town includes brief notes on three townspeople, standard fantasy gaming cliches that fail to inspire readers. Such a scantly outlined adventurer base fails to reinforce any sense of setting beyond the basic medieval fantasy village stereotypes. Sure, gamemasters could port these vanilla bits about The Town into their own games and settings, but there isn’t much here worth using beyond the standard tropes.

Despite the lackluster adventurer base, First Quest actually provided a great bang for its buck at the time. The 16-page Rules Book (the smallest in the box) clearly outlines the basic rules for essential AD&D activities, including an explanation of how THAC0 operates. The Monsters & Treasures Book provides 32 full-color pages of useful goodies, and the 64-page Adventure Book uses the enclosed CD to enhance the mood with audio scenes and sound effects. It’s not a bad starter set for its time.

The Keep in B2The Keep on the Borderlands

Many gamers cite the module included in the Moldvay edition of the Basic D&D boxed set as the paragon of adventure material (and I’m sure many loathe it). Designed and written by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax and revised by several TSR notables at the time, the module offered gamemaster advice, extensive material describing the keep and its environs, and dungeon details about the Caves of Chaos. It works well as a companion in which players can test out the Basic rules in a compact yet diverse setting.

Of the module’s 28 pages, almost 7 – about one-quarter – describe the eponymous keep, with an additional page covering a few nearby wilderness locations. The text offers descriptions 27 numbered locations on the full-page keep map and four wilderness encounters for the full-page regional map. The Keep on the Borderlands does the best job of fulfilling the three criteria for a good adventurer base. It provides a very secure place from which characters can foray into the surrounding wilderness, the Caves of Chaos, and the Cave of the Unknown. With the Keep’s walls one finds many support establishments with details on how they operate and who runs them: jewel merchant, smithy and armorer, provisioner, trader, loan bank, inn and tavern, guild house, and chapel. Besides offering details on what characters can accomplish in each location, the section provides short stats for non-player characters and notes on their behaviors in interacting with adventurers and in maintaining the security of their own base at the Keep. The text also offers details on the Keep’s defenses in towers, gatehouses, and the inner fortress. The Keep stands as a well-stocked, secured location suitable for sustaining extended campaign play.

The location offers plenty of potential relative to the surrounding wilderness and the Caves of Chaos dungeon presented in the module. The introductory overview includes the obligatory rumor table with hints both true and false about what characters can expect from the wilderness and dungeon locations...including the infamous “‘Bree-yark’ is goblin-language for ‘we surrender’!” Those seeking mischief can find it; the list of riches for sale or stored in the loan bank seem easy temptations for those seeking a life of crime. The notes about the Keep’s inhabitants emphasize their interest in maintaining law and order within the walls and their concerns about the monsters lurking on the borderlands. The most notable and devious potential comes from the priest and his two acolytes staying in the private apartments; supposedly jovial, harmless people, they have infiltrated the Keep to spy on the inhabitants and attach themselves to adventurer parties to betray them at a crucial point. The four nearby wilderness encounters also provide potential for those using the Keep as a base. Although the Caves of Chaos serve as the principle dungeon and focus of the adventure, the module isn’t called B2 The Caves of Chaos. The very title The Keep on the Borderlands suggests a tense situation filled with adventuring potential: an imperiled outpost on the edge of monster-infested lands waiting for a band of characters to come and rid the area of threats.

Like much TSR D&D material at the time, the Keep does not inhabit an established, specific setting beyond the standard medieval fantasy genre. It makes no mention of how it fits into the world of Mystara presented in the Expert D&D module X1 The Isle of Dread (though that didn’t keep gamemasters like myself from placing it somewhere on that world map...). Yet it established, perhaps even reinforced, concepts one might later call Gygaxian, especially after looking at Gygax’s early work in the evolution of D&D as a game in which heroes, based in some castle or village, forayed into the depths of some dungeon with their hirelings to slay monsters, take their stuff, and return to their base to recover for the next adventure. It demonstrates Gygax’s ideals in dungeon creation and by association his expectations for adventurer bases.

This is by no means a survey and evaluation of existing adventurer bases across numerous roleplaying game settings. I can think of several in various games worthy of their own analysis: the village of Hommlet in the eponymous module T1 and even Tierfon Base in West End Games’ first edition Star Wars Roleplaying Game come to mind. I’ve not yet found time to examine the fifth edition D&D starter box, but I noticed the adventure book Lost Mine of Phandelver has a village that, once characters resolve some issues there, might also serve as a good base for exploring the surrounding region. Feel free to head over to Google+ and mention your favorites in the post about this Hobby Games Recce missive.


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