Guest Article: Signal Fire Studios – “In With The Old, In With The New”

“In With The Old, In With The New”
By Jamie Chambers

The following article discusses the 5th Edition adventure A Delve In The Cave (written for 1st level characters) that has less than a week left on a Kickstarter campaign as of this posting. Here you’ll get a peek inside my creative process when writing adventures. If you’re a Game Master interested running this adventure you will find some information and inspiration here. If you’re a player who might undertake this quest pleae stop reading, as there are spoilers below!

I was sitting at my dealer table at a convention in Austin, Texas when inspiration struck. Surrounded by gamers all weekend, the clattering of dice tickling my ears, the cheers and jokes and bad Monty Python impersonations surrounded me and filled me with both nostalgia and a creative surge. I had recently fallen back in love with Dungeons & Dragons and its Fifth Edition, and the ideas began bouncing around in my brain. I grabbed some loose leaf notebook paper and scribbled down two pages worth of notes so I could write up an old-school dungeon crawl. Before the weekend was up, I snagged some players and grabbed a vacant table to run an alpha-test version of A Delve In The Cave.

We had a blast, and days later when I sat at my desk the experience of running the cave-crawl wouldn’t leave my brain. I started typing, and it wasn’t long before ten thousands words hit the page. The notes were now an adventure! I recruited some help, purchased stock images for layout and asked one of my best friends to do a quick pen-and-ink illustration of a new critter, and put together an Early Access version. I knew that Delve wouldn’t leave me alone until I had gotten it out to the world.

An Homage to Some Classics

I started gaming in 1982 at the tender age of seven, bouncing back and forth from BECMI Dungeons & Dragons to 1st Edition AD&D. I played or ran many of the old greats—clearing out the Caves of Chaos, getting confused by the Temple of Elemental Evil, freaking my players out with the crazy Amber family, died horribly in the Tomb of Horrors, etc. So when a notion for a dungeon crawl struck me, I wanted to pay some respect to classic tropes.

Lots of great modules from back in the day—especially those geared toward low-level adventurers—begin in a fairly detailed town. Think the village of Hommlet from (you guessed it) The Village of Hommlet by Gary Gygax, or the trouble village of Orlane in Against the Cult of the Reptile God by Doug Niles. These places offer a great Act One for a new party, as it allows players to stretch their roleplaying legs, face some challenges without the continuous pressure of a dungeon, convey some of the flavor and history of the setting, and ideally point the heroes toward the meat of the adventure without railroading them.

With the above in mind, the town of Shadowhaven was born. On the fringes of a human kingdom, the region was once occupied by creatures of faerie and shadow until a powerful wizard and his companions exiled the shadow fey to their native plane. For many generations the town has enjoyed peace and prosperity, as a trading stop along a nearby river and surrounded by local farms and vineyards. Of course, the violent story of how humans settled the region will not stay buried in the pages of history …

Real-World Inspiration

I love caves. While not an experienced spelunker, I have stopped for cave tours whenever I can in my travels. Within the last year I’ve gone (again) to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Inner Space Caverns near Austin, Texas. I instantly knew that my “dungeon crawl” should be a natural cavern instead of a straight-walled labyrinth. One spot in particular was the perfect creative seed to build an adventure around—the one cave I’ve been inside that also serves as a tomb.

Squire Boone Caverns in Corydon, Indiana not only hosts interesting chambers and passageways, cool cave features and an underground river, it also holds the mortal remains of a man named Squire Boone. Most of us recognize the name of his more famous brother, Daniel. The Boones charted large areas of middle America, and consequently ran afoul of the people who already lived there. The story goes that when Native Americans pursued Squire Boone with less-than-friendly intentions, the explorer hid in the cave that would later bear his name. Boone felt safe inside, and he returned to the cave to explore it throughout his life. In his will he requested that his remains be interred inside the cave. Generations later, his wish was finally granted.

If you take the cave tour at Squire Boone Caverns you will enjoy all the cool feature of this limestone cave—the sound of rushing water always present—and eventually reach a chamber that holds a coffin and a headstone. A cave and a notable dead guy, perfect brain-fodder for creating an interesting dungeon.

The story of native people driven away by settlers and a “hero” buried in a cave merged perfectly with the ideas for my starting town, providing backstory to inform the plot. The shadow fey have been gone for centuries and to the humans in the region they are legend and folklore. But those exiled against their will have no forgotten, and realize the key to their return may lie with the remains of the wizard who defeated them so long ago—now resting in a cave under a hill.

Flavor, Mystery, and Danger

I had the idea for the town, the “dungeon” (i.e. cave), and the main backstory. I needed a villain for the piece, and like others for low-level adventurers this would be a flunky working for greater powers. Since the shadow fey can’t enter this region on their own, they need a human catspaw to re-open the gateway to their dark realm. Long a fan of Old World faerie legends, a tragic story for the bad guy hit me all at once, also providing a sad NPC and possible adventure hook in the town. (Click here to learn about the warlock in the cave’s true identity and relationship to the town of Shadowhaven.)

The fey are opening a rift from their plane back into the prime material, just a crack at first that only allows a few to slip in at a time, but with powerful ritual magic they can rip it open and allow their kind to pour back into the world of men. It also manifests as a curse on the town, at first barely noticeable but grows worse with time. If no one identifies the source of the trouble and stops the ritual before it’s completed, the shadow fey will invade the region and Shadowhaven will be completely unprepared for their vengeance.

I found myself really drawn to the legends of medieval Wales when developing the story, so I used Welsh names for many people and places. And it allowed me to stock the cave with a new low-level baddie straight from the area’s faerie folklore and turned it into a new 5E monster type: the coblynau.

Caves often have more than one entrance and I didn’t want it to play like a sight-seeing tour that set out in a specific order. So the cavern under Brin Brenin has two possible entrances and some of the encounters are dynamic, meaning enemies and challenges can go different ways depending on some of the choices made by the heroes as they explore. I worked to make the threats in the cave logical and in line with the backstory and plot. I wanted the terrain challenges and “set dressing” to be authentic to real-world wet caves.

My Way

While I wanted to honor the fantastic dungeons of the past, I deliberately didn’t wish to mimic the style and presentation of “old-school” material. Other companies have built entire product lines around the nostalgia for the old days, so I wanted to walk the fine line of echoing the past without repeating it. Having written many adventures for several game systems, I wanted Delve to reflect my style.

Cover Design. I wanted something that would catch the eye of old-school gamers without trying to look like TSR module covers from the early 1980s. Digger Hayes—our wiz-bang graphic designer—came up with a striking look that accomplished exactly the balance I wanted. The artwork by Nick Kremenek shows our warlock villain conducting his magic ritual over the sarcophagus of a dead wizard, arcane candles burning violet.

No Boxed Text. While I have a lot of affection for the old days of read-aloud text and leaned on it hard when I was a novice Game Master, I prefer the information to come out naturally and in the GM’s own words. It allows you to reflect things in a way more specific to the party, such as the range of their vision, things they might notice with passive Perception, or enemies that fled through the area. I use bullet-points to convey the most basic information first, giving way to more specific or situational tidbits going down.

A Kick-Ass Map. While I still use and love my vinyl battle mat, I have become increasingly fond of cool set-piece encounters with pre-printed maps. The internet and office supplies stores make it relatively cheap to download exactly what I need for my home campaign and print it out for visually rich tactical gameplay. I wanted to include this as a standard feature in Delve, and got map artist Owello to craft a map that has an old-school feel while being uniquely his own style. For early playtests I did a quick-coloring in Photoshop and blew it up to 36” x 48” so the entire cave fits one large map. I used dollar store construction paper to cover it up so I could reveal the cave a piece at a time (“fog of war”) as the heroes explored its frightening interior. The final version will include a full-color poster map by the incomparable Ben Mund (Atlas of the Serenity ‘Verse), and I can’t wait to see how pretty he makes our spooky cave!

You can grab the Early Access version of A Delve In The Cave directly from Signal Fire Studios. And if you see this before May 23, 2018 you can back its printing on Kickstarter—including increasingly badass rewards as you “go up in level.”

What are your favorite elements of old-school and new-school RPG adventures? Let us know in the comments. Thanks, and Game On!

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  1. ConflictGame says:
    In many tabletop Roleplaying games (D&D, Pathfinder, Dungeonworld, etc.) magic doesn’t always have the mystique it deserves. The magic systems are designed to work but not designed to add to the amazing story you are telling. This is mostly because there are only a certain number of spells, and experienced players can recognize them instantly. One could say, once you have seen one magic missile, they have seen them all. Or when they know what one Enchanter could do, they know what all Enchanters could do. Wielders of the Mighty Arcane cease to be men of mystery and become instead merely different levels of pointy hat artillery. Of course, This issue is even worse at lower levels, where there are fewer options. Players will not respect such NPC unless GMs can recreate a sense of mystery and drama.

    This is one of the issues MAGIC DESCRIPTION CARDS solves.

    STRETCH GOAL ANNOUNCEMENTS BELOW: Plus you gotta listen to these great audio clips by the voice on Czath! so cool!

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