Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Structured Improvisation for the HDQ Sandbox

I've been thinking about reference material, and my conclusion is: do less.

Having a bunch of stuff to reference is a chore. It makes you look bad, and no one will like you.

You know how one page dungeons are great?

One page other-major-chunks-of-the-game are great too.

So that's the goal here:

  • When you're hexcrawling, use the hexcrawling page. 
  • When you arrive at town, use the town page.
  • When you enter the temple, use the temple page. 
  • Etc.
This post is going to be shorter and sketchier than I would like, but I'll either update it or give each bit its own post going forward, and, perhaps, if the stars are right, actually make fancy one pagers. Treat this as a one pager of one pagers. 

For each of these, improvise and write down the stuff on an index card. After the game, you can copy over the stuff for later reference (but by then it'll be in your head pretty well). 

Regions (hexcrawling)

  • Visual inspiration
  • Procedure
    • Think of what they can see; tell them
    • Give them ways to go; ask them which
    • Check for random encounters; if indicated, interrupt with it at any point
    • If they encounter something non-randomly, describe and resolve
    • Resolve any special actions (RP opportunities, hunting, crafting)
    • Transition energetically into next turn
  • Three things
    • A distinctive topography
    • Something beautiful or terrible
    • A resource or danger
  • Example: the Greenfields
    • ocean of deep green grass, tall and short, undulating, wispy clouds in sapphire sky
    • patches of scarlet, dripping flowers like bloodstains where battles have been, bones always beneath the soil, and perhaps monsters and treasure
    • it's so peaceful: +proficiency temp hp if you have a picnic or sleep here in the open


Towns are any settlement smaller than a largish city. They're not meant to be hung out in for very long. No random encounters. 
  • How they people are (xenophobic, oppressively religious, oppressively do-goodery, aggressively backward, learned and kind, grunting rather than talking, all dead)
  • Aesthetic of town (ruins all about reappropriated to adorn structures far less grand, gothic Warharmmer 40k style, elfy, postapoc wasteland, very English, Hobbiton, so dirty, hovels and mansion)
  • The deal with it—exaggerate, please (wonderful wine, everyone into it; the end is night!; marriage fever!; stonerville; normal and boring; tulip mania) 
  • First impression: an encounter or description of the entrance
  • Procedure: first impression > ask if they want to go to tavern! conduct other business! or something else. 


These are the hubs for the town or city. You should communicate to the players that the tavern(s) is where you should go to get access to more game content. But don't say it that way of course.
  • name of the tavern (owner or adjective-noun or nonsense)
  • quality (fancy with big rooms, terrible with folks piled on in common)
  • specialty (something normal, exaggerated, made grotesque, or just gone too far)
  • decor (rustic, hipster, country, military, police, memorial, normal, historical)
  • secret, usually none (cult-run, cult-extorted, cult-meeting-place, crime front)
  • entertainment (bard [q.v.], feats of strength, feats of skill, feats of stupidity, lust, excellence)
  • eavesdropping, a possible option (blackmail, rumors, secret of the tavern)
  • asking the barkeep and barflies (rumors)


  • someone (merchant, king, priest) is a cult member
  • someone (merchant, king, priest) is being extorted by the cult
  • a nearby village has been razed
  • a cult camp is nearby
  • a cult enclave is nearby (temple, house)
  • an institution in the city has been compromised (temple, militia, guard, court, kingsguard)
  • a dungeon is nearby
  • monsters lair nearby


Unlikely (1/6) that they'll have something very special (magic item unawares, unique but very useful mundane stuff), or a secret (as tavern)


  • generate as person
  • style, as a musician or band or artist you know
  • what their problem is (needs money, fame, love, carnal pleasure, to actually good, confidence)
  • will write songs about your deeds if you keep with you 
  • +temp hp = prof bonus if you spend rest listening to performance
  • knows history/religion/arcana, 50/50 or d100% chance to know basically anything


  • the god(s)/king worshiped/ruling here
  • the weird thing (exaggerate an element of worship or doctrine / customs, dress, entertainment)
  • the good/awesome thing they do or preserve
  • unlikely, a secret
  • resource (secured treasure, magic gear or relic, library, zealots / warriors, court wizard, $$$)
  • learned people who can read languages and know history
  • they want something from the people or rulers or clergy (respect, piety, money, behavior modification)

Faction Contacts

  • randomly determine which factions have contacts here
  • will meet you in a tavern, church, or place of entertainment (amphitheater, garden, museum)
  • takes your info, gives you aid (money, henchmen, hirelings)
  • has rumors
  • to get more info, do objectives (q.v.)
  • the particular faction flavors the objective: when the Order of the Gauntlet wants you to assassinate a cultist, it's probably a priest known for heresy (but maybe he's innocent)
  • introduce uncertainty and ethical choices into the objectives given by the factions (target is sympathetic, target has family, eliminating target will have drastic consequences)


  • Use this to get a name, face, and style:
  • Use my characters board:
  • general description (tall, blonde) and one unique thing (cataracts, missing arm)
  • choose body part (brain, heart, eyes, loins); person wants something associated with it
  • either speak normally, change meter, change accent, change timing of speech
  • make a particular facial expression and hold it: let that expression direct your speech and manner
  • do things that invite judgment or admiration




  • Visual inspiration
  • Use my maps board:
  • Use my caves board:
  • Use my dungeons board:
  • Use my objects board:
  • Use my lore board:
  • Procedures
    • Check for wandering monsters; if indicated, interrupt with encounter during this turn
    • Tell the players their options, ask which way they go
    • Resolve stuff they encounter
    • If there's nothing interesting there, don't hide it; say there's nothing interesting there
    • Most rooms in a big dungeon should be boring and only there to confuse mapping
    • End turn when they've crossed ~100' or explored a room or two thoroughly
    • Mark off light sources
  • Decide and Do
    • Who built this and who inhabited it?
    • How did it come to ruin?
    • Show what you know in your descriptions
    • Give awesome, then boring, then AWESOME
    • What awesome treasure or knowledge does this place guard? 
    • What horror runs this place now? 
    • What else will kill the PCs here? 
    • If they are proceeding carefully, always give warning of traps; otherwise, sorry
    • Make your warnings diegetic and give false positives to make it interesting


  • Use my caves board:
  • What lairs here?
  • What are the signs of it (stench, bones, markings, droppings, screams)?
  • What does it feel like (cramped, expansive, vertical, mossy, damp, echoing)?
  • What parasites or hangers on are about?
  • Is it small or expansive, straightforward or mazy?
  • What main treasure or secret or mystery lies hidden here? 
  • Does it connect to a dungeon? 


  • Use my cities board:
  • Use my interiors board:
  • Create the districts of a city like towns (q.v.)
  • Create random encounter tables (crime, shock, cult, injustice that is normal here, delightful entertainment or festivity)
  • Cities are corrupt and oppressive and always infiltrated by the cult; a merchant, temple, or court will always be extorted or loyal to the cult; to deal with the cult, do objectives


  • Assign an action (assassinate, sneak in to get proof of, set up, track down, capture for interrogation, capture for ransom or deal, make public display of, tail, discover loyalties)
  • Assign a target (king, merchant, priest, courtier, general, captain, grunt, commoner, faction member or contact, slave)
  • Sometimes layer ethical problems or hard choices onto this objective, per faction contacts (q.v.)
  • Color the objective's action and target by whoever is giving the objective
  • To resolve an objective, ask how they're going about it; if they don't know, have them ask around at a tavern or with a faction contact or whatever
  • Either make a skill check (DC 15) or a reaction roll; can give advantage or disadvantage
    • On a fail, the worst thing happens; on a DC+5, the best thing happens; otherwise, some complication arises
    • For the reaction roll, 2-5 = worst, 6-8 = complication, 9-12 = best

1 comment:

  1. I created a pinterist account just so I could discover all the links are dead. Heartbreaking.