On Encounters, Rumors, and Foreshadowing

Earlier this week the inestimable Middenmurk blog spoke about foreshadowing as a technique to use during play. He references this specifically in regards to random encounters, a specific complaint rather accurately addressed by the Retired Adventurer's procedure for wandering monsters allowing players to encounter spoors, tracks, and traces of the monster before ever running into it or it's lair.

However, wandering encounters are only part of the solution. The general idea is that the world is dynamically foreshadowed in play. What this means is, that much like when players die and then realize their own poor decisions could not have led to any other conclusion, whatever happens during play should appear both completely logical and for a non-trivial percentage of the time an unknown surprise. This happening dynamically is important for both the Dungeon Master and the players, allowing play to surprise both parties, and yet remain logical.

There are three components to this technique -- unsurprisingly techniques used frequently in old school play. However we also have access to more modern styles of these techniques that improve their use in play.

The central idea to this, is that information about the adventure is transmitted to the players, before the players actually encounter the adventure. The three components are staged rumors, wandering encounters, and adventure design.

Wandering Monsters
The arrival of a wandering monster (i.e. one that is not located somewhere on the dungeon key) can create a feeling of atmosphere, but still often can appear 'random' in the sense that there was no sign of the creatures that were wandering. No one will be surprised by a skeleton in a graveyard.

However, regularly letting the players encounter a monsters spoor/tracks/ or traces can both provide interest to the game ("Why is there chewed up silver everywhere?") but increases the weight and meaning of the actual random encounter itself. Either "That strange creature that is chewing on metal remains at large!" or "Oh, an Aurumvorax, that must be what's leaving that chewed metal all over the place!"

The technique is covered extensively over at the Retired Adventure's blog, and perusal of it is left as an exercise to the reader.

Adventure Design
Isn't the adventure itself the best place to put the foreshadowing?

Designing the foreshadowing into the adventure has the benefit of being complex and unique -- since you know the location, you can plan for the ambiance, rather then being forced to adapt a random result from a table to whatever location you are in.

You are free to create a situation however complex you wish in order to foreshadow encounters: A previous victim, a trophy room, a group of people hunting the creature, etc.

This step is not particularly complicated, you simply provide some pre-prepared sign of a later encounter. All the best designed adventures are doing it.

Rumors Basics
At it's core, the rumor list contained in adventures such as Keep on the Borderlands were a gold standard of this technique for years. They both provided information about what to expect on the adventure "An Ogre sometimes helps the cave dwellers" and sets up the players for entertaining misunderstandings "'Bree-yark' is goblin-language for 'we surrender'!"

But this too can be taken an additional step, into the realm of 'staged rumors'.

Generic rumors are a waste of time and shouldn't show up inside a project, especially one that's being published. "Kobolds raid from the southern hills." Great! Let's go kill them for my +1 sword. That sounds exciting and totally new! Hey, while you're at it, never write another module again please!

"Lizard demons rise from the earth in the southern hills and steal iron from the forges of men. They know, because they've found scales near the dead bodies!"

Better, right? While we are on rumor basics having rumors that drive player actions are also extremely interesting. The above might encourage players to offer metal to any 'lizard demons' they come across. But you can be even more specific than that. You could say "Gold inspires lust in the lizard demons." and then your players have their characters kidnap someone who they then crossdress and laden with gold, and it all ends in blood and screaming and isn't this encounter a far sight more interesting than 4 kobolds attack on sight.

Staged Rumors
But that's all basic stuff. What we're interested in is the staged rumor. These are less like rumors of specific items or situations in encounter areas, but interlaced ways of providing setting information and background information without exposition.

Rumors gathered from graffiti, books, townsfolk, interrogation, iconography, and architecture all combine to related information about major threads within your campaign. This is particularly effective at generating traditional "plot" elements in a sandbox campaign.

For a quick example, a wizard (Savimal the Bleak) can only be killed by a magic sword (Yaris Baneblade) once wielded by a hero (Urox the Lunatic). Keep in mind the following rumors are interspersed with other rumors, even other staged rumors. This rumor is staged as follows:

In town:
Night demons (goblins) haven't bothered our town in an age.
Urox the madman walked north into the darkness never to return. Surely he lairs there surrounded by his wealth and treasure.
"Savimal the Bleak was cast out of town for performing fell experiments -- that's code for skinning children as sacrifice, but don't tell me wife I said so -- and he's certainly the source of the strange lights in the tower."

With research (gather information and library research):
Urox was cursed with the weapon Yaris Baneblade, though it was this sword that allowed him to eliminate the night demon threat.
"Aye, Savimal was run out of town, but only after we tried killing him. No blade would pierce his skin. I saw it with me eyes."
Night demons are called that because they gather their energy from the darkness of night, where evil deeds are done, they spring into being.

In discovery (graffiti in ruins, books at adventure sites - gathered during play)
Discover a statue of a man, being weighed down by a giant sword. Emblem on the sword is of a full moon, set with 3 stars.
Graffiti: Savimal is lord of blackness!! Surrender, there is no hope!
In a book titled "The curse of night": Jaris died while forging the sword and all who have ever head it gain great power over darkness and the night, and yet become cursed by the moon, becoming lunatics and mad-men"

Consider that at any given time that in additional to normal rumors you might have two or three staged rumors going at any time, and that in fact the separate staged rumors can be interconnected themselves.

Now when they find a magic sword, it will not take them long to realize what they have.

The basic thesis is this: If you want your adventures to be discussed and played a decade from now, design your adventures from the perspectives of the people, both players and Dungeon Masters who will be playing them, not from the perspective of "verisimilitude" or "whatever dull shit you think a castle really might be like".

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  1. Great ideas. This kind of thing really brings a campaign to life. I often strive to include stuff like this in my games but rarely do I pull it of satisfactorily. Thank you for the advice and tips.

  2. Breaking Bad reference?

    1. I have not seen Breaking Bad -- what's the reference?


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