There are many guides and posts on building an exciting encounter or creating a three-act structure or five room dungeon of combats, but when we began designing adventures for OSR-clone Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) different principles were being used.
- Many ways and none is the right one
- There are bosses, but no boss fights
- Balance is not the issue, avoiding combat is
- There will be death
These are some of the key-elements, and now that I have begun translating the adventures into English from their Danish originals, and adapting them for D&D 5th edition, it might be the right time to have a look at the principles behind the adventures.
Many ways and none is the right one
The dungeon must have more than one way to go. It cannot be linear, and ideally it has multiple entrances, and it allows the players to choose directly or indirectly between the entrances. A great part of the fun is to see the players choose, and when running a living campaign with multiple groups running through the same dungeon, the different choices are interesting. Many dungeons emphasize the multiple paths by giving the characters the option of breaking down walls, falling through floors to other areas or scaling the walls to gain quick access to other parts, i.e. in Tower of the Star Watcher the PCs can scale most walls and enter different areas in almost any order.
There are bosses, but no boss fights
It follows that when the PCs can choose multiple paths, there will rarely be a boss monster exactly at the end of the dungeon, and it helps bring the world to live, when the players know, that monsters in the dungeon do not behave according to computer game logic. I.e. in One Night amongst the Necromancers the ‘boss’ is moving around in errands, and stealthy PCs can easily find their way to him without working their way through all the rooms. In other adventures, such as Grave of the Alchemist, one of the worst monsters resides just inside of the dungeon and to gain access, it must be defeated in some manner.
Balance is not the issue, avoiding combat is
The encounters in Hinterlandet are not really balanced, and this feature is carried over into their D&D 5th edition adaptions. However, many encounters include creatures that can be avoided or snuck by, or they begin with parlay – some monsters are hungry and can be bribed, some are sleeping or distracted, others are mistaking the PCs for other residents or guests, and yet others are suspicious but not hostile. Rarely does a monster attack, when the PCs enter. Instead the players are invited to interact with the monster, and this results in many great moments.
There will be death
Even though it may sound easy to avoid the nasty encounters and the tough fights, it is not so. Character death is common, and one cause is traps and magical dangers. Each dungeon usually contains one trap or phenomenon, that will kill or remove a PC from the game. Often there is some warning sign, and usually the PCs can simply choose to stay clear of it, but it will challenge their curiosity, and it will tempt their greed. For instance, in Palace of Sweet Dreams drinking too much of the ghost wine will trap a character in the realm of the dead, and merely visiting the ruins of the palace might result in a character forever lost in its madness.
These are some of the main governing principles for the adventures of Hinterlandet / The Hinterlands. The adventures have all been part of the OSR Living Campaign at Danish roleplaying conventions and have been run for multiple groups. Some characters survive, some don’t, but we always end up with great stories of adventurers’ daring do.