Sunday, September 17, 2017

Danger Pockets

There is a very interesting series of web posts on a sandbox-style fantasy campaign called the "West Marches."

If you haven't read them, and you have any interest in sandbox-style play, it's worth reading them. You can start here:

Grand Experiments: The West Marches

I first discovered them a few years after I'd started running my DF campaign, Felltower. What's interesting to me is that many of the features of the West Marches game are also features of mine, in a case of parallel development. Or re-invention of the wheel. Or however else you'd term it. My game came later, and by a combination of accident, design, and emergent lessons of running a sandbox, I ended up with many of the same situations.

While I don't run a wide-open game featuring a large pool of players, I can't just run game on whatever day a few players are available to show up at my house, and I don't feature a wilderness-based area, the similarities really struck me. I read those posts and felt, hey, I do that. Hey, I realized that and changed to that. Hey, that happens in my games, too.

We started with very similar approaches. A modernized version of an old game (his was D&D 3.5 3.0, mine GURPS 4th edition). Minis. Tactical combat. Open rolling (although I still conceal a lot). Narrowed choices of character design but open access within those choices. Risk of death. Cross-player shared maps and knowledge to keep information from being siloed. A decided lack of NPC rivals willing to do the inherently foolish thing of walking open-eyed into extreme danger because you think there is money there.

I decided I'd finally sit down and take a look at some of the elements my game shares with the West Marches, and discuss them in the context of Felltower. Partly because I think it might make an interesting and helpful series of posts. And partly because it was a fun experiment for me to analyze my own game in light of someone else's game.

Today let's talk Danger Pockets.

Danger Pockets

My game in general, but the megadungeon Felltower in particular, has what Ben Robbins called "danger pockets." These are especially high-reward areas, which are often high-risk, difficult to access, difficult to find, or all three. The risk is much higher than the area around it. But I try to make the reward out of proportion to the risk, or at least well out of proportion to the surrounding area. They are static places, although they may feature mobile danger.

Sometimes they are really easy to find but getting in has some difficulty. They're places you can avoid for as long as you want - maybe forever - but if you want to get rich, one way is through those places.

Just like in the West Marches, people sometimes find these and then put them aside for "later," and "later" becomes "never."

Not everything is a "danger pocket." The big lizard man demon temple was a huge, epic fight, but not a "danger pocket." The dragon fought many sessions back was just a very dangerous encounter. The sword-spirit with his great magical sword wasn't a "danger pocket." Even the Lord of Spite isn't - he's an unavoidable problem that happens to have some treasure if you know where to go and get it. The dungeon isn't just broke wandering monsters and "danger pockets."

Interesting areas aren't all "danger pockets," either. The room of pools is interesting, and had an encounter, but wasn't really any more or less interesting than, say, the hall of murals and No Mana Zones or the apartment complexes or the weird temple. They weren't really out of line with what was around them. A statically located reward guarded with a challenge isn't a danger pocket. That's just normal danger for a sandbox.

But what is a good example of a danger pocket?

Good examples are: (* means it's been cleared or accessed)

- the Black Library*
- the draugr
- the "boss's" apartment complex*
- the double-doors in the "cavern area" past the "dragon cave."
- the big dragon
- the twinned temple*
- whatever is behind the repelling doors
- the force-walled temple in the Lost City
- the statue-puzzle "black door" (to the treasury)*
- the gate destinations (generally)

That's not all of them. That's just some.

The gate destinations are interesting. Either they are high-risk high-reward areas, or they're just access to new adventuring areas in general. I'm a little concerned they'll see very little actual adventuring, because by design they aren't set up for dipping a toe in to check the water temperature. You can't just pop in, look around, and get back out and come back when you're ready. Well, you can for some, but not all, and it's not always going to be clear which it is until you go for it.

But the one-and-done or enter easily/leave with difficulty places are "danger pockets" - high risk, but high reward. They'll wait for someone to take some risk to exploit it. And if you set them aside until "later," and only come back once you've reduced the risk to nil, odds are the treasure is not going to be as high-impact as if you'd gotten it first. Imagine if the PCs had solved the rotating statue puzzle right away, and cleared out rings of wishes and high-end healing stones and piles of coins and gems years back. And for reward, it was dangerous and tricky, required thought and a lot of travel around a dangerous dungeon (and thus some work), and carried well in excess of the amount of treasure anything else on the 2nd level could be expected to have.

I highly recommend using some "danger pockets" in your sandbox. Or even in a more linear campaign, so you can bring it back as a callback to earlier days. As in, "Hey, the key to the wizard's treasury must be the one behind that lethal series of magical traps we saw back in Dungeon #1!"

It's tricky as a player to guess what would count, or start interpreting encounters as "danger pockets." But once it's clear an area is especially dangerous and potentially especially rewarding, it's worth keeping in mind that there might be special rewards lurking there, too. Think static areas where something way more dangerous than what is around it lurks and waits for someone brave enough to take the risk to exploit it. Why I am going on about this? Because I half expect players to meta-discuss if something is a "danger pocket" or "just another encounter" to try to analyze risk to reward. Analyzing with only the information on the PC side of the screen can be deceptive - you can get a 100% logical conclusion that leads you astray because you're operating with far less than 100% of the actual data.

Long story short? You can avoid clear "danger pockets" for now, or forever. But there is usually better-than-commensurate reward for tackling them. Clear and obviously more-dangerous area probably have more reward, if you're willing to chance them.


  1. "What's interesting to me is that many of the features of the West Marches game are also features of mine, in a case of parallel development."

    That's because you are both running impartial* megadungeons. The West marches are just "outdoors" and Felltower is "indoors".

    Otherwise aside from scheduling, size of player pool, longevity of the game... they fundamentally identical.

    * Mostly. Ish. He ran using pure Core Only 3.0 D&D and you've 'fudged' DF a bit over the years. So there is more "Hand of the GM" (GM calls and arbitration) in your game, but otherwise they sound to be almost the same as far as "from the RAW" goes. But you've also hewed bit more OSR in that direction, and OSR was very Gm Arbitration.

    1. Interesting points. I suspect a lot of that will come up in a sandbox, though, even if you don't set out to do it all deliberately. Some of the parallel development will be because we're both putting a play area in front of people, and certain things will happen automatically as a result.

      I have "fudged" I guess, but he had the advantage of a single-book system to hand out. If I was starting now, with the DFRPG, I could easily do the same. Starting out 6 years ago with a subset of the now-available DF books, I had to pick and choose. "Anything from the books" and "everything as written" would have been a problem as even DF is set up as a toolbox, not a rigidly defined list. I'd have had pixie swashbuckler-knights, coleopteran priests of the god of war, wizards with necromantic spells right net to necromancers, etc. and more material to prep for than I could have handled. And I'd still have had to pare back and modify in play as standard GURPS met game world assumptions. I think "just the core books" would be easier now, since the boxed set gives a tightly knit subset. It's why I'm so free to say that folks can use anything at all from it.

    2. Oh agreed. Now is the time to start running a "by the book" DFRPG game!

      I'm even considering it myself.

      There is another pair if differences between Felltower and Westmarches, and they're big:

      You don't have a demarcation between Character and Player knowledge... which leads to you also don't have any PC/Player Rivalry/Competition.

      Thus you won't have stuff like:

      Honus Honusson and the B Team spot the Fabulous Fortune of the Fraidy Cat Goblins, but can't get to it. It's locked behind pretty solid locks and such (goblins being tricksy with traps), but the guards are easy-peasy (again, gobbos). So the Players say nothing, maybe even lying about the lack of treasures and goods down that set of side corridors. The corridors get mapped, but they tell everyone "Nope, just a set of useless knives and trash off some weak goblins" and hey, look, they didn't have any wealth when they came back, so any info anyone could glean from town rumors would support this...

      Which would occur Westmarches, as that group would try to gear up to go back later and get that loot and screw the other groups!

      In Felltower, Honus' Player would tell everyone else about the treasure, traps, hard locks and weak gaurds and probably even suggest someone hire a good locktickler if the next set of guys was gonna make a run without him! He'd share the knowledge knowing that turn about is fair play and they'd do the same if the situation were reversed.

    3. Sure. We have different group mechanics, and what sounds like an overall smaller group. Our players default to cooperation to the point that we had to have a discussion about keeping found loot that could maybe, someday, be used by another person. For example, finding a magic robe that no one could wear - do you save it for eventually when someone makes a wizard the right size? That seemed really game-y in a bad way, so as a group we went with no. But it's a good example of how far-reaching "help each other" goes.

      Plus, having everything be public knowledge makes it easier on the players with multiple PCs - they just have to remember, not remember which of their PCs knows what.

  2. Waitaminnit...
    what's "- the double-doors in the "cavern area" past the "dragon cave." ??

    1. Pretty much what it says - there are some double doors the PCs can't figure out what to do about in the so-called "dragon cave" tunnel system. I think they first encountered them here:

      Vic can probably give you the by-post rundown of all the times they were encountered.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...