Giving Places Character

I read a really great article called “Schrödinger, Chekhov, Samus” by the Angry DM that is really good and describes his “Slaughterhouse” system for defining zones in dungeons/ruins/whatever.

It reminded me of a brilliant thing that Sword & Sorcery Studios (the White Wolf d20 imprint) did with their Scarred Lands stuff, which was to have ELs for various wilderness areas representing the average EL of the kind of encounter you might have.  Lovely civilized farmlands, you come across a bunch of CR1 kind of folks.  The Dark Woods of Dark Death, on the other hand, are maybe EL7.  It provides a nice mechanical backup to how dangerous that place over there is – you as the GM know what to expect immediately, what kind of encounter charts to use, what kinds of stories to tell – “Twenty lumberjacks from our village went in there and a hydra attacked and half of them were killed and the other half is missing random limbs.”

It’s also an expansion of the 3e concept of city stat blocks (which I don’t really use all that much – it’s good to know the population and $ limit of goods but the rest of it isn’t all that actionable).  Here’s an example if you’re not familiar with it:


Large City conventional (mayor); AL N
GP Limit
40,000 gp; Assets 32,856,000 gp
Population 16,428
Type mixed (81% human, 5% halfling, 4% dwarf, 4% elf, 3% gnome, 2%
half-elf, 1% half-orc)
Authority Figures
Haldmeer Grobaras, lord-mayor (N male human aristocrat 9); Verrine
, spokeswoman of the Council of Ushers (NG female elf
aristocrat 5/bard 2); Lord Justice Bayl Argentine, leader of the Justice
Court (LN male human aristocrat 6/fighter 3); Remeria Callinova,
leader of the Varisian Council (CG female human expert 4/rogue 2);
Lady Vammiera Symirkova, mistress of the Gargoyles (NE female
human aristocrat 2/rogue 6/sorcerer 4); Princess Sabriyya Kalmeralm,
de facto ruler of the Bazaar of Sails (CN female human rogue 12)

And they use a much simpler country stat block –

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom

Alignment: NG
Capital: Almas (76,600)
Notable Settlements: Augustana (54,200), Bellis (4,800), Carpenden (10,600), Falcon’s Hollow (1,400), Oregent (22,700)
Ruler: His Excellency Codwin I of Augustana, Supreme Elect of the Free Peoples of Andoran
Government: Fledgling democracy
Languages: Common
Religion: Abadar, Erastil, Iomedae, Aroden, Shelyn, Cayden Cailean

Bat in the Attic has a cool “Traveller-like” village stat block random generation system.

Angry DM’s scheme is good but is pretty 4e-ey and also is good mainly for very enclosed locations – “that tower,” “that part of the dungeon” – not really useful for a wilderness kind of area.

So what would a more 3e/Pathfinder-type of stat block for a wilderness area look like?  Let’s see.  You want to know the CR.  You want to know what kind of major inhabitants there are, both friendly/intelligent and major critters, while not becoming as complex as a full encounter table…  And keeping the granularity large enough to not be fiddly but small enough to be a discrete adventuring area.

Well, let me take a shot at it.  I did up an area called South Argavist Island where I knew my pirate PCs were going to venture.  It’s forested, has some small friendly settlements, a ruined shrine, and a bad goblin problem. It’s really not worth doing a huge amount of work on – mapping it and placing locations and all that, because the PCs are *probably* just going to shoot through it to the  ruins.  But you want a little meat to expand on if necessary.

South Argavist Island

CR3 Temperate forested island
Zones: Coast, Low Forest, High Forest (on the slopes of the mountain)
Inhabitants: Junk Kicker goblin tribe (moderate population density), local human tribe (light population density; human 50%, half-elf 50%)
Notable Inhabitants: Chief Chop-Man of the Junk Kickers (goblin warrior 4, goblin village), Vixyondriax (Very young green dragon, Low Forest), Bobobobobobobo (ettin, High Forest)
Notable Locations: Greenglade (human thorp in the High Forest), goblin village (Low Forest), ruined shrine (CR 6 dungeon, Low Forest), hidden cove used by pirates (Coast), ancient circle of trees inhabited by dryads (Low Forest)
Random Encounter Tables: Temperate forest CR3 (Low and High Forest), Beach CR2 (Coast)

Hmm, what do you think?  Concise but meaty?  Is it missing anything?


14 responses to “Giving Places Character

  1. Thanks for the link – that’s a much tidier approach to what I was doing with the Isle of Dread in my STAP campaign. His other articles are interesting too. Cheers!

  2. Very informative. I like condensed information when I am sketching out cities/ communities/ regions and I am always interested in new and better ways to organize that basic information.

  3. Well, I won’t apologize for being 4th Editiony because that’s what I’m playing and what I designed it for. But, as you’ve shown, its an organizing principle, in the end, and it can be ported anywhere.

    Very nice work on your system and I hope it works well for you (and for others). And, of course, thanks for the plug. I think I may just need to steal the name Bobobobobobobo.

    One thing I do want to disagree with – using the foibles of 4E (such as exploration/travel skill challenges), Slaughterhouse would work just as well with a wilderness area or a wilderness area with smaller sub-zones (The Western Highlands, The Caves of Terrible Things, The River, , The Keep on the River, The Eastern Lowands) etc, but I do think it works best with more limited traffic flow and definite borders around the area.

    • Oh yeah, no problemo on the 4e, I just wanted to change it more towards my Format of Choice. I love it, and thanks for sharing it!

      I think the problem with a larger area is that the Slaughterhouse format more assumes a location is “held” by someone specific that can be attrited – more of a reasonable concern for a keep, less so for a “forest full of stuff.” Unless your goal is to denude the forest of life… Though perhaps it could do both with expansion, useful for a Kingmaker kind of adventure. But if I were going to use that, in my South Argavist example I would have broken it down into sub-sub-zones, so “the golbin part of the Low Forest” would have its own “card.” Heck, perhaps Slaughterhouse stat blocks are a drill-down on a location stat block the way city stat blocks are drill-downs of the country ones.

  4. Keep in mind that Slaughterhouse includes the concept of Unclaimed Territory. And that works well for an area that can’t easily be held by a faction. In a case like that, the Unclaimed Territory would still draw on the Roster of nearby factions (who would become unvailable if their Lair was conquered). So, even though the Herosquisher Tribe of Trolls are prominent in the Swamp of Oozing Mud that Gets in Every Crevasse, they don’t actually hold the territory and if their nearby Lair/Outpost is destroyed, they stop appearing in the Swamp.

    If you look at the example I used of The Sewers which really can’t be denuded or conquered, but the source of abberants can be closed, at which point it becomes dominated by sewer creatures you’ll see another method of handling such an area.

  5. How about a suggested list of monsters? Not quite a random encounter table but something of a start.

    Encounters: black bear, giant crabs, giant spider, lumberjacks, pirates, dryad, troll, golbins

    I’d use the above list with my “roll d6, +2 at night” and use it straight as it is. Fans of a bell curve can write their own 3d6 distribution, and more free-form DMs can just pick from the list.

    • You could, but my thought was to just put in a reference to a random encounter table. That’s more actionable for a DM. If you just list some monsters, then they have to figure it out. Now if you want some modification, I could see doing a quick mod to one…
      “Encounter Table: Temperate forest CR3 (treat 80-100 as goblins)”

  6. Pingback: Campaign Notes - Developing Your Zones Further |

  7. I think both mxyzplk and the Angry DM have really great ideas that are both applicable to a sandbox style campaign. What I did was divide the overall region that my players would be able to explore into zones. Each zone then would have its own stat block based on mxyzplk’s design. Within each zone are several locations which would then in turn have their own stat blocks based on the Angry DM’s design. Each NPC/monster faction would have their own stat blocks which (since I’m using wiki software at Obsidian Portal) can be linked back to the appropriate zone and location blocks.

    Drilling down even further I will be able to attach individual monster stat blocks (whether generic minions or named npcs) to their appropriate faction, location, or zone stat blocks.

    I haven’t really mentioned city stat blocks for the simple reason that I’m not really using them in my current campaign. However, you can attach the city stat block to the appropriate zone stat block. Or, if you were focusing on urban adventures or they were featured in your campaign then maybe the city is a whole zone for you.

    Check out my blog post Campaign Notes – Developing Your Zones Further for examples.

  8. Yeah I think that works.

    Country block drills down to
    Area blocks (mine) and City blocks, both of which can drill down to
    Zone blocks (Slaughterhouse), which can drill down to
    actual dungeons and encounter locations. Woot!

  9. Actually, in my own super dungeon project, I’ve also used broader divisions than zones. This is due to the sheer size and number of factions (about 60 and 30). I call them regions just to keep them clear in my head. So, “The Edge of the Underdark” region might contain several zones like “The Fungal Forest,” “The Acidic Swamp,” “The Lightless Halls of Zarenzandren,” and so on. The regions themselves don’t have any stat blocks or relevant mechanics in my game because they are just an organizational tool, but you could certainly layer these things up.

  10. rorschachhamster

    This ideas are great. To make it a little more dynamic, or if the pcs venture into terra incognita, how about leaving things out and adding it to the stat block “in play”? Like, the first few times the pc enter the dark forest, you use a generic random encounter table and depending from the encounters develope a specific one for this forest – when the pcs for example never met a dryad, there are no dryads in this wood, and when they met each and every time a satyr it’s crawling with satyrs… and this example could make a good adventure hook, too. Just my 2 cents.

    • I was thinking about doing something like that for my players. Just have the outline of the stat block posted in the player viewable area of Obsidian Portal and then fill it in as they explore and discover.

  11. Pingback: D’Maron Forest « Yong Gallery

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