'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Corrupt Cliffs

Corrupt Cliffs
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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Narrative Terrain Decks.

At the beginning of the year I played a game of Primeval THULE via the Genesys system. During this game we had to make a daring escape, which involved cards drawn and skill checks made. That day is the direct inspiration for these terrain decks.

I worked on the idea and tried it for the first time at the Calgary Expo during my two Conan 2d20 games. The prototype, as you can see, isn't nearly as polished as the current offering. The decks changed from the basic idea to the current idea between day 1 and day 2 at the convention. Those cards would eventually become the "Weird Wood" deck. Since then I have created a desert deck, a cave deck, a passageway deck and a cliff climb. The cliff climb was my second attempt at a deck and I used to for my home players scaling a cliff, where they had a standard room encounter before finding their way into a set of caves which used another cave deck.

But why these decks over a more normal exploration system with a grid or a hex map? The two biggest reasons are player engagement and prep time.

Often some players are left in the back and don't get to contribute as much as the others, sometimes they roll less dice and this often can translate to less fun for them. The second reason is prep time and these cards require almost none. At most you might need a list of monster stats that players may or may not end up fighting in the dark passages or twisted forest.

The Decks

Generally the decks contain about 36 cards in total. 5 of these are the reference cards and the remaining cards are split between terrain and encounters.

  • Reference Cards - Basic instructions, sample monster ideas, sample cards.
  • Terrain Cards - Each card shows a picture of terrain as well as a skill.
  • Encounter Cards - Each card shows a skill or fight that must be overcome before continuing.

An Introduction to the Cards

Terrain Card
  1. Picture of the area the players are crossing. Strictly aesthetic.
  2. A good place to place a chit or a d6 to record the difficulty of the card.
  3. The default skill a player can use to cross the area. Use the cards base difficulty.
  4. When using another skill, add this modifier to the difficulty before making the test.

Encounter Card: Obstable
  1. Description of the obstacle and skill used to pass it.
  2. Difficulty of the skill check.
  3. Cost of skipping the skill check in doom.
  4. Damage a player suffers for failing the skill check.

Encounter Card: Fight
  1. Description of where the fight takes place.
  2. Base difficulty for physical attacks in the area.

Using the Decks

Step 1: Set aside the reference cards and split the deck into encounter and terrain decks. Determine the total momentum required to proceed through the terrain, this should be 1 per player at minimum.
Step 2: Shuffle the decks and place them in a convenient place.
Step 3: Draw a Terrain card and place it face-up on the table. Place a D6 or similar in the corner showing the "1", to symbolize a D1 skill test.
Step 4: A player either attempts the skill test listed on the card or chooses another skill test at a +1 or +2 difficulty modifier, depending on the card.
Step 5: Whichever skill the player uses, they must be able to narratively describe how it helps the party move through the card.
Step 6: Assuming success, place a momentum marker on the successful card. Place another terrain card above the first and increase the D6 by 1. ie a 1 becomes a 2. Any excess momentum can be stored in the pool as normal.
Step 7: Repeat the process increasing the difficulty until enough momentum is generated to move the players through the terrain. Each terrain card must be attempted by a new player until everyone has gone, then the process repeats.
Step 8: On a failure draw an encounter card and place the card beside the failed terrain card.
Sept 9: On a skill encounter each player individually attempts to succeed and move past the obstacle. On failure, they can pay the listed doom, or take the listed damage.
Step 10: On a fight encounter describe the terrain listed on the card and the base difficulty the players face. Run a simple combat encounter.
Step 11: Once the encounter card is complete place a new terrain card above it and reset the difficulty counter to 1, repeat steps 3-11 until the players are through the terrain.

NOTE: I don't specifically mention what to do with a complication. I believe they should be open-ended and make things interesting. That being said a simple idea is to draw an encounter card and have the player that rolled the complication resolve it, or the group if you get a monster card. Once complete place the next terrain card down and do not reset the difficulty counter.
*NOTE: The trek through the terrain should be viewed as a single scene giving the players no downtime. They should be weakened and haggard when they come out...iF they come out.

A Sample Play Through

We will assume our party of 4 adventurers need to find something within a dark and twisting forest. We set the number of successes they need to 4, one for each player.

Card 1: Terrain Card, Difficulty 1

Balor chooses to go first. He chooses to use his Survival skill instead
The difficulty becomes 2, as this falls under the "Other" Skill.
Balor says, "As we enter the dark forest I look around and try and see an open area to lead the party into the darkness."
He rolls 1 and a 15, and gains two successes. The party moves deeper into the woods.
Card 2: Terrain Card, Difficulty 2

Dorian takes up the lead. He chooses to use his Observation skill instead
This is the cards default skill, so the difficulty remains 2.
Dorian says, "Continuing into the darkness, I try and build on the path Dorian has found by looking for the signs of animals passing this way, indicating a path to something....." Dorian also chooses to use a bonus die and so rolls 3d20 (Either through Momentum or Doom)
He rolls 11, a 12 and a 15, and gains two successes. The party moves deeper into the woods.
Card 3: Terrain Card, Difficulty 3

Sarina takes up the lead. She notes acrobatics is not her strong skill and so attempts to use her Lore skill
Lore is again a +1 difficulty since it is not the default skill.
Sarina says, "Using my knowledge of the area and how trees grow from within my vast store of natural world knowledge I take note of the moss on the trees and use it to gain a direction and guide us further into the forest."
Sarina knows this will be a hard roll and so chooses to add 2 dice to her pool, rolling 4d20
She rolls 11, a 3, an 18 and a 15, and gains three successes.
Her failed roll leads the party astray......
Card 4: Encounter Card, Cliff Climb

The party's path leads them to a sheer, scalable cliff in the forest. The only way forward is to climb....
It is a simple D1 Athletics check.
Balor, Nualla and Dorian all choose to make the check and easily scale the cliff.
Sarina being less confident in her atheletics skill, chooses to pay the doom cost to join her companions at the top.
Card 5: Terrain Card, Difficulty 1

Nualla is the last party member to contribute to finding their way through, so it is her turn.
She chooses to use her resistance skill, so the test remains at a D1
Nualla says, "As we move beyond the cliff the insects begin to increase in numbers causing us to be maddened by their constant annoyance. I manage to push through the host of insects....."
Nualla rolls a 4 and a 20. A success and a complication.....
The party gains another success but is ambushed by a group of wolves.
Card 6: Encounter Card, Monsters!

Due to Nualla's complication, the party is set upon by a group of wolves! Note that the battle takes place in a thicket making the base combat difficulty a 2.
After taking some scratches the party defeats the wolves and presses on into the darkness, sensing they must be close to their goal!
Card 7: Terrain Card, Difficulty 2

We don't reset the difficulty as the encounter card was a complication, not a failure.
As the whole party has contributed we reset and choose someone else to start again.
Sarina using her keen sense of observation, at a difficulty of 2 tries to lead them to their goal.
Sarina says, "Excitedly I point into the trees and say, "Look I can see it through that break in the trees!"
She rolls a 5 and an 11, succeeding.
Finally, after the long trek through the forest, the party emerges at their goal......

And finally we see the final layout, and which cards gave the characters their successes.

As you can see we can create a large variety of terrain maps that are engaging on a role playing level as well as on a visual level with next to no prep from the GM. If you like these you can grab a set of cards over at the Game Crafter for about $10USD. You can also get a set of counters that include numbers which can be used for difficulty markers.

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