Thursday, January 21, 2016

Information as Treasure Type: Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part III

The gradual chipping away at mysteries both big and small is one of the central running themes of the Hill Cantons campaign. I am a big believer in the notion that every dungeon or adventure site really should have at least one or three nagging questions about why it is there or what is going on with its residents (both historical and present).

Just to complicate it further I also have a self-rule that each site's mystery or theme has to have a connection with either another site's or a larger setting one. Since I tend toward designing and introducing lots of small and medium-sized dungeons of 1-3 levels rather than mega or large ones, that means alongside the campaign news round up that I have had a pretty good working method to keep the layers of mystery dynamic and sustainable even after seven years of weekly campaign play.

That said, I feel like I have always been challenged as a GM in how to present layers of mystery players without it just being “hunh that's weird and inexplicable.” In other words how to achieve that sweet spot between keeping your cards close to your chest and giving players enough information and access points to make meaningful choices in the sandbox—and to have actual value to their advantage.

Early on in the Google Plus campaign, the players started using a term coined by Robert Parker (a player): “info-treasure.” Simply that coming along some piece or another in exploration is valuable in itself.

Classic D&D has a couple long-standing examples of this: the rumor table and treasure map. Rumors are like starting magic item equipment, small random items that can help a party (or be “cursed” and hinder with misinformation). Treasure maps naturally are straightforward as being directly tied into the reward system of well-aged D&D.

Punchline: Why not just treat Info-Treasure as a literal treasure type?

Here's a system that I started to work on that incorporates Info-Treasure into the time-honored B/X d6 dungeon stocking rolls.
Treasure Table
Roll d6
1-5 Treasure only (roll on Treasure Tables as usual)
6 1d2 Info-Treasure roll (1-2 on d6 chance of Treasure Table roll too)

Info-Treasure Table
Roll d6
1 Red Herring/Misinformation
2-3 Sketchy/Cryptic Clue
4 Minor Clue
5 Substantive Clue
6 Full Monty Exposition

Info-Treasure delivery ideas:
Lost Journal (savor that cliché)
Oracular pool/creature
Magic Mouth
Friendly or Neutral NPC/monster
Hostile but Captive NPC/monster
Players Map (level of detail dependent on type)

Red Herring/Misinformation. There is a single muletrack that leads from the woods to the Lost City of the Angels. Also the Gopherman saying for “I surrender” is “Bree-Yark.”

Sketchy/Cryptic Clue.
Only roads beneath the ground lead to the Lost City of the Angels.

Minor Clue
Underground roads exist from all the local dungeons to the Lost City of the Angels.

Substantive Clue
An entrance to an underground highway exists in the eastern part of the basement of the Hall of the Ancient Hyperboreans.

Full Monty Exposition
Here are all the ways you can get to that damned Lost City of the Angels, also this is what's going on there.


  1. One day, after all these generations of exploration, we will discover the true meaning of "Bree-yark!"

    1. I'm assuming something rather common like "I'm a gonna let you finish..."

  2. Red Herrings seem like a bad idea, especially if your players spend a good long time following up on a road that leads precisely nowhere. Seems like a recipe for frustration.

    "Misinformation" might work better, like in the "Bree-yark!" example. It might cause the players to get into a bit of a snafu, but it won't completely derail them onto a pointless side-quest.

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  4. Have you looked at the Trail of Cthulhu mechanics for managing information and research, Chris? Might find some worthwhile ideas to exploit there.


  5. But do you award XP for this treasure-type using a bit standard, or a byte standard?

  6. Chris, cool post. Based on my readings of the HC campaign's progress, I would say that you've hit the sweet spot re: slowly revealing the mysteries of the HC.

  7. Chris, cool post. Based on my readings of the HC campaign's progress, I would say that you've hit the sweet spot re: slowly revealing the mysteries of the HC.

  8. I award actual XP when my players follow up on a rumor, whether to confirm or disconfirm its veracity. Maybe it's a bit of a cheat on my part, but it does help keep ears perked in the taverns and drive exploration.

  9. I would agree that this is one of those topics that should be included in the OSR's uncompiled but being written DMG.

    Two examples from recent play, semi-successful and unsuccessful:
    1. Too obtuse or of not obvious utility: diary of a noble woman revealing affairs and the illegitimacy of a near by ruler. PCs didn't give it a second glance and didn't even take it with them (encumbrance!). The world goes on; they've got plenty of other hooks so no loss there. It took all of 5 minutes of my writing so even if I don't re-introduce it in another form (would that be a quantum plot hook?) no big loss.

    2. Giving up the game too soon. On a pilgrimage to an abandoned/clandestine temple of Loki (to rid themselves of one of their starting catastrophes I saddle all my PCs with) the PCs discovered the passage to the secret inner fane of the temple, an extra-planar tesseract where there was no Loki (or even Norse) flavor at all; instead they found traps of temptation and golden apples. They deduced then one of the campaign conceits that Loki was really just Dischordia in drag. Is that an oops or a feature? I wonder if this is how GRR Martin feels about all the fans that deduced the R+L=J mystery?

    add: I definitely give XP for discoveries. My house rules proclaim that they have to declare the quest for the unknown, but I've handed it out anyway. Bad DM.

  10. This is great! I was thinking... since it's a d6 roll followed by a d2 roll and a d3 roll and another d6 roll, it could be combined like this in order to make fewer rolls:

    Roll 1d36:

    1-30: Treasure only
    31: Treasure & One roll on Info-Treasure
    32: Treasure & Two rolls on Info-Treasure.
    33-34: One roll on Info-Treasure
    34-35: Two rolls on Info-Treasure

    Or w/ 2d6:
    2: Treasure & One roll on Info-Treasure
    3: One roll on Info-Treasure
    4-10: Treasure only
    11: Two rolls on Info-Treasure
    12: Treasure & Two rolls on Info-Treasure

    Both of these variants have the exact same probabilities as your original treasure table but... should be quicker.