Way Down in the Hole

Castle Erobring by Kurt Komoda

As a Torchbearer GM, your job is to create opportunities for players to make choices.

The communities you’ve placed on your map have problems! Not only do they face the possibility of real-world horrors like natural disasters, war and plague, the lands surrounding them are filled with goblins, dragons and evil enchanters. The dungeons and hazardous locations on your map won’t just exist in isolation (for the most part), they’ll create direct and indirect threats to the settlements on your map, and the people in those places will notice!

Always consider how the dungeons and hazardous locations you put on your map might threaten one or more settlements on the map. Maybe some of them aren’t immediate threats: They’ll evolve over time from isolated incidents to threat, unless the players intervene. Others might lay dormant, and will only become threats if the PCs disturb something they shouldn’t. Some, of course, will present an immediate problem.

In Starting Fresh, I placed three dungeons on my map to start: Under the House of the Three Squires in the south, The Dread Crypt of Skogenby just a hop, skip and a jump to the west, and Thelon’s Rift in the north.

The Dread Crypt represents the immediate threat. It was dormant until some villagers disturbed the ancient barrow, and now an evil spirit is haunting the village and killing people. It doesn’t get more immediate than that. But there’s also room for evolution. The players may decide to pursue another adventure first. In that case, the threat presented by the Dread Crypt will grow: More undead will boil out of the crypt and invade Skogenby, destroying the village and flooding nearby communities like Asktoft with refugees from the slavering undead horde. The PCs could still turn the tide, but the danger will be greater.

Under the House of the Three Squires is the delayed threat. While the initial victims will have lost their lives if the players don’t tackle this adventure immediately, the monsters don’t immediately threaten the surrounding countryside. However, if left undisturbed, they will soon begin raiding merchants and travelers using the Post Road. Asktoft and even Holtburg will begin to feel the sting of the cut trade route over time.

Thelon’s Rift is my dormant site. Reputedly filled with fabulous treasure, it will stay in stasis until the PCs tackle it (or I get inspired to do something evil). I don’t want to spoil this adventure too much just yet, but the PCs can definitely unleash something horrible if they step wrong within the Rift.

In placing your own dungeons, try to include a mix of threats. If every dungeon and villain presents an immediate threat, you’ll make your players feel helpless. They’ll feel like their choices don’t matter because no matter what they do, everything else will get even more terrible. On the other hand, if every dungeon and villain is dormant, they’ll feel like their choices don’t have consequences: It won’t matter what they choose to prioritize because everything else will stay the same.

And make sure to spend some time considering how your threats might evolve over time. Not only will such evolution help your players feel that their characters exist in a living, breathing world in which their choices matter, it will also help ensure that time you spend prepping a dungeon isn’t wasted. You won’t have to worry about the PCs leveling past the adventures you’ve worked on. Instead, you’ll spend a little bit of time updating a given adventure to keep it compelling.

Have You Heard the One About…

As I mentioned at the outset, your job as a Torchbearer GM is to create opportunities for players to make choices. Once you’ve created your dungeons and thought about how they’ll threaten your setting, you need to put some information in the players’ hands so they can weigh their options and decide what to prioritize.

Rumors are one of the best tools at your disposal to do this. When the PCs arrive in a settlement, let them know what people are buzzing about. Maybe you roleplay a bit when they visit the tavern, and the barkeep or some drunken wag fills them in on the latest gossip. Maybe they hear tales from fellow travelers as they wait to pass through the town’s gate. Or you could just tell the players outright what people in town are talking about.

The first time my players went to town in my new game, they heard the following rumors:

  • Some folk in Skogenby, the next village over, uncovered a strange barrow while clearing a field recently. They think some evil spirit has come out of it, and they’ve asked for Lady Gry’s help, but she’s away. Supposedly there’s a lot of treasure in the tomb.
  • The Widow Auda owns the tavern you’re currently drinking in. Her sons, Odger and Samo, made a trip down to the House of the Three Squires last week to pick up some casks of sour beer, a trip they make about once a season. They should have been back days ago. It’s planting season, so no one wants to leave their fields, but some of the townsfolk have taken up a collection as a modest reward for anyone willing to make the trip to find out what’s happened to them.
  • A master enchanter named Thelon used to have a secret workshop in the mountains, somewhere near Holtburg. He used to come into Holtburg every once in a while to buy alchemical supplies for his work. No one has seen him in years. He’s probably dead. They say his workshop was packed to the rafters with all sorts of wonders.

I don’t make the players take any particular actions in town or pay a price to get these rumors. These are the things everyone is talking about. Note that this doesn’t invalidate town actions like gathering rumors or digging for leads. Instead, they give players a starting point. If they players decide they’re really interested in Thelon the Enchanter, they might ask around about him and his work.

Rumor Grows as It Goes

There’s an art to creating compelling rumors. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Don’t give everything away. A good rumor is a tease. You want to whet the players’ appetites, get them interested, but leave room for discovery and surprise. Remember that the players have tools like Digging for Leads at their disposal if they really want to get more information. You may want to have a few additional choice bits of information prepared in case they do try to hunt them down.
  • Use your NPCs. Unless their characters are all loners, tough and cool, your players spent a bit of time in character creation detailing their parents, friends, mentors and enemies. If you want to really get the players’ attention, weave those NPCs into your dungeons and rumors. Do this sparingly! If an enemy is behind every plot, or a friend gets lost in every dungeon, it will feel contrived. Include them at just the right level and your players will be hooked. You’ll have to experiment to find the right amount.
  • Reincorporate.  Leverage past events from your game and include them in the rumors. The more you tie new things into past events, the more your players will feel that the world and campaign have a life of their own. Did the PCs drive the Red Crest clan of kobolds out into the countryside while dealing with the House of the Three Squires? Maybe after an adventure or two pass, they hear a rumor about a steading that’s been overrun by kobolds that bear the mark of the Red Crest…
  • Seed expectations of treasure. Not all (or even most) Torchbearer PCs adventure for altruistic reasons. Your players might be the exception, of course, but I try not to rely on the desire for heroism to hook players with my rumors. The implication of cold hard cash or magic items usually does the trick. You know your players best. Think about what might get them going and make sure to hint at those things in your rumors.
  • Don’t feel bound by the truth. Your rumors don’t have to be true! They’re rumors and gossip after all. They may get some things wrong. The rumors may say a house is hauntedby spectres and ghosts, but the truth might be that a band of slavers is using the house as a base for their smuggling operation. In my view, every good adventure includes some sort of unexpected surprise. You can use a rumor to set up the eventual twist. As with using NPCs, don’t do this all the time! If rumors are always wrong, the players won’t buy them anymore. Mislead the players sparingly and everyone will enjoy the payoff.

Do you have any tips for creating rumors or stories about how you’ve used them in your games? If so, please share!