Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Notes on Swampsedge

Swampsedge is the name of the "base" town in our Dungeon Fantasy game. What will not wanting to send the PCs back to the Caves of Chaos (been there, done that, not nostalgic again yet), I needed a new base.

Luckily I'd marked some ""Troll Marshes" and "Cold Fens" down on my maps, heavily inspired by the coolness of having a marsh-and-swamp land on the scale of the Pripet Marshes. And I had an adventure that takes place in a swamp. So I just needed a base.

Swampsedge is a smallish town, with well under 1000 people, about six miles from the edge of the swamp. It was unwalled, guarded by militia and some private guards, and is part of the County of Eorna. It was pretty quiet, because although they are close to a dangerous swamp, it's exceedingly rare for critters to come and raid a large settlement and the local militia could handle that. They could handle the occasional foolish troll or lost giant snake and knew not to shoot arrows at giant flying monsters on the hunt.

Now it's getting a wall, the militia is being re-formed, and the Count sent some of his house troops to guard the place after it was raided and partly burned by a small-ish but vicious group of bandits.

In-game, there is frantic wall-building going on. Militia have been re-formed and are drilling with their weapons after the previous bunch got routed and slaughtered. The locals are doing their part, paying special taxes, gathering wood, feeding the militiamen and the new garrison of a dozen or so troops, etc. Meanwhile, the PC delvers have arrived to deal with this bandit problem and, clearly, some other problem what with the composition of the party.

In game, too, the PCs are getting into this background story. Hannibal has Strategy and he has appointed himself an adviser to the town's mayor and militia leader, advising them on their defenses. El Murik is healing people hurt beyond the limits of the local clerics. Rahtnar is probably explaining the benefits of a vegan diet to them. Korric and Orrie would certainly volunteer for the militia while they're waiting between trips. Stuff like that.

But out of game, it's a DF Town. Its purpose is to be a safe base to adventure from and not worry if your guy is pickpocketed or killed or whatever between adventures. Don't get shirty and it's okay. It's a small town but they'll buy loot to sell on to passing merchants or passing merchants will buy it directly. Downtime will be enough to recover. Even the cruddy local wizards have someone with the secret to charge Power Items and a Guild Membership Card to discourage people beating said secret out of him. There are just enough nameless NPCs spinning tales to allow for rumor rolls.

And the players know all of this. I told them straight out:

"Don't worry about Swampsedge. There won't be big combats around that town unless you mess up badly and somehow rile up a bunch of bad guys and run screaming back to Swampsedge with them in hot pursuit. Town is a safe home base unless you take steps to [mess] that up. That it was attacked is background story, and the wall is there to explain why it won't get attacked again, and the limited resources in soldiers is why they need you to deal with the swamp instead of mounting another expedition."

I also said:

"I'm deliberately limiting access to Stericksburg's resources and previous PCs, so pretty much put Vryce, Dryst, The Bank of Honus, etc. on the "not available" list. Just like when we started the game, it's a poor base with limited resources and a big task in front of you. So pretty much if any idea involves something from Stericksburg, it needs to wait until you've finished up here."

In other words, the limits on the town that mean you can't get a lot of potions, scrolls, paut, special items, replacement weapons, etc. are there on purpose. Circumventing them by saying, "The heck with this, I send this magic item to Dryst to analyze, take a loan from Vryce, and special order a bunch of potions" is beyond discouraged and taken all the way to "No."

Why do this?

- It's a shakedown cruise. It's not meant to be playing your bootstrapped PCs up. That's fine when the bootstrappers and bootstrappees are in the same location and fight shoulder-to-shoulder against the same monsters. It's less fine when the bootstrappers are more like helicopter parents, waiting to swoop in and make it all better. To discourage "but this one time, is it okay if we . . . " I made sure to make it a "no."

- It's a challenge. It's harder to start over with less stuff. But everyone has a much clearer idea of what's coming this time. Well, at least half of the players do. So putting a hard challenge with limited resources in front of them is a way to let the new characters earn their spurs without feeling like second-class citizens when they arrive at Felltower. The survivors will have real accomplishments, just like the survivors of the Caves of Chaos could point to their sacking of the various lairs and destruction of all of the component parts of a growing temple of evil as a real benchmark accomplishment.

- It's a focusing tool. Without access to "anything in the books we can afford, and any of the spells in the game, and all the knowledge and resources in this city" the players will focus on their new characters and see what they can do. Getting access to those resources later is fine - even with all of that, the party has gotten chopped up badly a few times and nearly slaughtered to a man last time. But starting without it means the party has to focus like a laser on what they can make out of what they started with.

And that's why Swampsedge is the way it is. The resources are limited for out-of-game reasons but given in-game explanations. The PCs are allowed to interact as if they don't know the town is safe (because in the game world, it isn't) but the players know not to spend any time worrying about stuff other than adventuring. Town is there to make the adventuring work better and provide the basic assumptions of play, not to change the focus from "Dungeon Fantasy" to just "Fantasy." Ultimately, town is a dungeon delve enabler with a backstory. And Swampsedge is that town.


  1. For the record, I absolutely love limitations like this. Let's get to scrapping together what we can to do whatever we're able!

    1. In a more story-centered game, I'd be inclined to couple limitations with weaker challenges, because it makes a good stepping stone towards great challenges and greater power. Pretty much how most games do it (level 1 D&D guys fight kobolds and goblins, not masses of orcs or mindflayers by the bunch.) But for DF, the PCs are more powerful from the word "go" and coupling an acceptable challenge with less outside resources seems like a good way to force people to over-achieve a little and strain the limits of their (quite powerful) characters.

    2. Yeah I always thought that was cool. Strain to victory makes it more meaningful.

  2. "The resources are limited for out-of-game reasons but given in-game explanations."

    This is my favorite kind of world-building, I think.

    1. I like it too. I'm happy to do it any way around, but coming up with in-game explanations for meta-game restrictions meant to create out-of-game fun has very few downsides for me, in or out of game.


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