Exploration scenarios - my experiment last Sunday


After all the sandbox/railroading threads over the past several weeks, in my most recent session I decided to try running an exploration-heavy scenario to see how it played.

The starting point

In the previous session of my 4e game, the PCs had arrived at a crude wooden house built on ruins clearly dating from the Nerathi empire (ie at least 100 years old). They had met the two old women who lived in the hut, and had worked out that the two women are probably witches of some sort with links to the Feywild. They had survived a battle with spiders in a tunnel complex below the ruins, which the witches had initiated by dropping one PC into a pit. And after the fight the PCs had reached an agreement with the witches that, if the witches would cure the wizard PC of a disease which was badly debilitating him (stage 3 slavering canker), the PCs would rescue the witches' sister from the serpents holding her prisoner.

The scenario

Once I decided to try and run an exploration scenario, I needed to find one! I decided to use the first vignette from the Eden Odyssey d20 book "Wonders Out of Time".

*Spoilers below*

This scenario involves a manor that once belonged to the most powerful wizard of a fallen empire, but has been abandoned for the past 1000 years, since the fall of that empire. The idea of the scenario is that the PCs will explore the manor and discover that the wizard went mad and killed all his apprentices, before then disappearing. The PCs will also learn some cultural and religous facts about the ancient empire, their sun worship and their burial practices. They will also have to battle the undead guardian spiders that are patrolling the manor, and hiding inside an ogre's skull on a pedestal in the laboratory.

I made the following tweaks to the scenario, so that it would fit my campaign world:

*The manor dates from the Nerathian empire (100 years ago rather than 1000 years ago) and the time period of the scenario is only a few years after the fall of Nerath;

*The manor became abandoned when the pending fall of Nerath to gnoll invaders (the downstream consequences of which have been a bit part of the campaign to date) led its wizard owner to go mad with the strain and kill his apprentices;

*The guardian spiders were mostly not undead but a Bloodweb spider swarm (this tied nicely into the spider-filled tunnels under the ruins that the PCs had already dealt with - the Large spider they killed in the gameworld "present" was the sole survivor of the many swarms of Tiny spiders they would encounter in the gameworld past);

*The religion of the dead mage was a particular cult combining worship of Bahamut (god of the east wind and also of the dragonborn - it is an already established fact of the campaign that the dragonborn empire had been in this region some time prior to Nerath), Kord, Pelor and Ioun - so a type of mystical sun, weather and strength worship;

*That the burial practices of the cult had the intention of trying to avoid the dead being dealt with by the Raven Queen, instead going directly to Mount Celestia or Hestavar as exalted (the party has a cleric, a paladin and a lapsed initiate of the Raven Queen, so this was likely to be an interesting point for the players);

*That the spiders in the skull were undead spiders as the module stipulated;

*That the last work the wizard who owned the manor had been undertaking before he went mad was to try to find a way of harnessing the power of the Raven Queen without compromising the principles of his cult, in order to create more powerful defences by which Nerath might resist the invading gnolls - he snapped when his most religiously devout apprentice learned what he was doing and accused him of treachery.

The first two of these tweaks I worked out in advance. The rest I worked out during the course of play, as they became relevant to the exploration that the players/PCs were engaged in.

The play

The session started with the witches beginning their ritual to cure the ailing wizard. I described the bubbling cauldrons, acrid fumes etc, and that the healing seemed to be preceding by drawing on the inner strength of the wizard's spirit and making his body equally strong. I then told him that, as he released his spirit into this magic, he felt it being "tugged" on - sent back into the past on a journey by the witches. I asked the player if his PC would like to take any other spirits with him, and he answered that Yes, he would, very much so! The other players made Arcana checks for their PCs and those who didn't do so well accrued some minor penalties as their spirits travelled back in time.

I then described the opening setting for the scenario -standing outside the doors of a manor which was clearly the place where the ruins they had just been in now stood. They made some History and Arcana checks to work out what had happened, about how far back in time they had come, etc. They then opened the door and started exploring.

As per the module, there was an initial fight with some spider swarms - 3 level 7 soldiers for a level 9 party, but a party with no daily resources left, its leader left behind in the "present" (because the player of the cleric/ranger couldn't come to the session) and with the fighter and the mage on less than full hp. Given the level imbalance a pretty quick combat, but still interesting because the weakened state of the PCs, together with their uncertainty about what they might be facing or why they had been sent back in time, meant they had to make a few interesting choices (eg having the drow sorcerer, rather than the fighter or the paladin, hold the front line at one stage).

They then started looking around the manor - opening doors, looking through chests and bookshelves, reading the scrolls that explained the religous beliefs, using Comprehend Langauges and Object Reading rituals, etc. The most interesting thing here was their response to one particular room. As per the module, I described it as containing a mirror containing the reflection of a woman in great distress - but there was no woman in the room. They worked out that she had been trapped in there by magic, and decided to rescue her. Based on some past experience with trapping mirrors (in Thunderspire Labyrinth) they decided to teleport her out using the wizard level 7 encounter power Twist of Space - which worked. This was not something that the module had contemplated, and in the course of a pretty easy social skill challenge they were able to get a lot of the backstory of the manor from her (including that she was problably the last surviving apprentice), which helped the rest of their exploration.

The other interesting thing happened when they were finally solving the mystery of what exactly the wizard was doing that sent him mad. They found evidence of necromantic magic (the aformentioned ogre skull, with large rubies in its eye sockets, and some old scrolls from Bael Turath). When the player of the paladin had his PC look closely again at the scroll describing the cultic burial practices and made a good perception roll, I decided that he noticed a stiffness/crustiness in the paper. Eventually, after use of Object Reading, the PCs worked out this was evidence of invisible ink. The drow then suggested that they should try and render the ink visible in the library outside the laboratory they were in, which would be more comfortable (good Bluff check). Then, lingering (good Stealth check) he pried the gems out of the skull eyesockets (good Thievery check). As per the module, this released the undead spiders inside the skull.

The combat which then ensued with these spiders was quite interesting, although they themselves were only a single level 7 soldier - the drow trying to conceal what he'd done by making Arcana checks to keep his magic quite and using Bedevilling Burst to push the spiders back into the skull. Unfortunately he rolled a 1 on his attack, and being a chaos sorcerer therefore pushed everything over, sending skull and spiders tumbling into the adjacent library. On his next turn he used Thievery to surreptitiously pocket the gems in the middle of combat, while the wizard and defenders tried to kill the spiders without wrecking the library that they were fighting in. This is my first 4e combat in which the "Rule of the Ming Vase" has come into play.

After that combat, which seemed pretty hard to beat and in any event was towards our wrapping-up time for the session, I moved very quickly through the rest of the exploration - just telling the players the most interesting things they found in the other rooms and glossing over the details (like how many gps in each chest - they'd already decided that the PCs weren't going to openly loot the dead in front of the last surviving apprentice whom they'd rescued).

The session ended with the PCs returning back to the "present", in the ruins with the witches. Upon their return they realised that they'd moved positions, and from that inferred that the whole time their spirits were in the past their bodies had been walking around the ruins just as their spirits were walking about the manor. They were puzzled, though, as to why the witches had sent them into the past in the first place (eg why would they want to see where the PCs walked in the manor in the past?) - that mystery will likely be one of the focuses for the next session.

The upshot

Because of the low number and level of combats, I gave more non-combat XP than usual - I retroactively classified a number of stages of the exploration as Minor Quests - one for each PC - and I also used the DMG2 drama rules to give an hour's worth of XP for the interaction with the apprentice freed from the mirror.

I enjoyed the session a lot. It's a while since I've run this sort of scenario, and never in 4e (in the past I've had single rooms or situations in the 4e campaign involve exploration, but not a whole session like this).

I found that 4e can do some stuff I hadn't fully expected, like creative use of spellcasting (in freeing the trapped apprentice) and - because of DMG page 42 - handling the Ming Vase situation much better than some other games would (better than Rolemaster or Runequest, in my view, and probably better than 3E as well, although I'm drawing on less experience in making that call).

The players liked it, I think. I'm not sure they noticed the different style as strongly as I did, however, because I was very conscious of having tried something different, whereas they had just turned up to play a regular session, and (from their point of view) did so.

Finally, I learned that while sandboxing might rely heavily upon exploration, exploration can be done without sandboxing. Most of the interesting details of the exploration were worked out by me on the fly, whether as needed or even in response to player actions (like the invisible ink). I've never run a reacitve/improv exploration scenario like this before.

And thanks to everyone on those sandboxing threads that (deliberately or not) prompted me to try something new as a GM.

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Sounds like a lot of fun Pem. Nicely done.
Cool session.
Thanks both!

Did the other characters (not players) ever figure out what the drow sorcerer was doing? If so, did they demand he share the loot?
When we play, almost everything is just done in the open at the table. Very occassionally I'll take a player aside if there's something important that only that PC can see.

So in this case, everyone knew what the drow was doing. The loot hasn't been distributed yet, but I think it's likely to be shared out (the drow tends to be the party treasurer in any event).
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Another thing just occurred to me - an unintended consequence of running a time travel adventure.

When the campaign reaches epic, I'm hoping to run some journey into deep myth (from memory this is the phrase used in The Plane Above) - more commonly known as heroquesting (from RQ and other Gloranthan games).

I had been wondering how I would handle the whole issue of travelling back in time, because the Plane Above has comparatively little to say about this, leaving it up to the GM. But by having already run this scenario, I've sowed the seeds now for future journeys into the past as acceptable -even ordinary (for a heroic adventurer in a fantasy world) - rather than jarring.


Ohhh time travel :) cool! Do you have any plans for noticable interactions between the timelines? Say, that in the present they find a door split in half, then in past they later encounter the same door, with someone yelling for help from the other side, which they then kick in?

I've been wondering how feasible it would be to do that - without breaking the story (the risk being that once they discover their actions have consequences, they'll try to use that in unpredictable ways...)


Eamon, I haven't pushed the time travel thing too far yet. The closest I got was that the drow, in the past, hid some loot (including some scrolls) in a secret cache - which, when they got back to the present, they discovered that the witches had taken (and had already used one of the scrolls to help set up the manor as their base before the PCs had met them).

I am thinking of bringing the apprentice whom they rescued back into the game - of course, after a 100-odd years she wouldn't be just an apprentice any more!

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