Open-World Situation Building In Dungeons & Dragons

After nearly two months, I got to run my Sunday night Dungeons and Dragons campaign again. After side-sessions, many missed sessions, and a whole lot of tumult in everyone’s life, we were able to gather again and return to the dark fantasy and mild horror stylings of the world I’d spent over a year slowly developing. I had fun, my players had fun, there was a lot of lucky rolls, the player characters survived a lot of nasty damage, there were some clutch reactions and actions, and only one player character died in a boss battle they were absolutely unprepared for! That’s the danger of open-world scenarios, you know. You can accidentally wander into the desecrated temple to the not-evil gods right as a priest of what is essentially malicious entropy completes a ritual that temporarily grants him a huge deal of power in a side-realm. All without any of the information that contextualizes any of that so even when you do win, you’re not sure if it matters or not, or even how to do anything as a result.

I was accused (in good humor) of pushing my players to “assassin’s creed” their way through this unfamiliar territory because I pointed out the city rose toward the center and it was difficult to get the lay of the land from the ground before immediately letting them know there were a wide variety of tall things they could maybe climb to get a better view. I just thought that was how, you know, scouting and vantage points worked. I went with the joke of course, but I began to think maybe I shouldn’t have when they latched onto the tallest spire in the region that I knew was the location a Void Cleric was preparing to perform a ritual that was going to be a part of the something larger and that they absolutely weren’t ready for a boss fight or even to make good use of a boss fight. They didn’t know anything about what’s going on or what they could potentially accomplish other than look for their missing friends.

I know what the ritual was for. I have a whole list of timed events, people of interest, locations of interest, and things the players could do to make things better or worse for themselves since I’m approaching this segment as an open-world style exploration puzzle rather than a specific mystery to solve. After all, if they just happen to walk through the right door, they should be rewarded for their extreme luck. It has meant a lot of open-ended preparation on my part, with a focus on broader goals and oversaturating the world with things to do. This means they could stumble into an important piece of information that reveals everything to them if they’re wandering at random. Or, you know, into the final stages before a ritual is performed that now includes them in a potentially horrific way they don’t full comprehend because they still have no idea what’s going on.

It’s like when you’re running through that nice little forest on the plateau in Breath of the Wild and accidentally climb on a giant rock that starts moving. You flee, in your confusion and sudden fear at the shift in music, but it’s too late. You’ve woken the Talus. Because you’re in your first thirty minutes of playing, you’re instantly killed by it when it hurls its arm at you the first time and then you wonder why they put that so close to the starting zone. Or when you play on Master Mode and find that goddamn Lynel just chilling on the open plains right between two shrines. It sees you from so far away that when you’ve seen it, it’s probably too late for you. It’ll shoot it’s arrows up into the sky and they will, defying all physics and logic, follow you no matter where you run. You’re not even safe hiding beneath a roof of some kind.

Anyway. Everything is out there. Everything is available. They could go fight the being ruling this strange dimension right now if they rolled well (to, you know, survive long enough to get there) and just happened to go to the right place. The session ended with everyone in a rough spot, so there’s no telling how things will go. As we concluded with a solemn moment of mourning for the fallen player character, the party was talking about taking a rest because the two fights they’d been in so far left them pretty low on resources. They could rest, if things stay calm and they feel safe enough to do so, but they’re completely unfamiliar with the world they’re in so there’s no telling what might happen. Or if they’ll even be able to rest the same way. Only time will tell and I can’t wait to see what happens.

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