by Mike Shea on 7 October 2019
When I began putting together Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures, I had a model for what I wanted to do already in hand. Monte Cook Games had recently released Weird Discoveries, a book of ten short adventures for their awesome science fantasy roleplaying game, Numenera. Weird Discoveries fit very well within the philosophy behind the Lazy Dungeon Master as a book of adventures designed from the ground up to be easy to prepare and easy to run. I wanted the exact same thing for Dungeons & Dragons so I wrote and released Fantastic Adventures to do exactly that and, this year, wrote Ruins of the Grendleroot to do the same thing.
As part of the latest release of Numenera, Monte Cook Games released Explorer's Keys, a book very similar to Weird Discoveries. It's another book of of ten adventures built from the ground up to be easy to prepare and easy to run. In particular, Explorer's Keys has one design technique to solve a difficult problem in published adventures; how to control their timing and pacing: keys.
In this article we're going to dig into this design technique and see how we can incorporate it into our own D&D games.
Keys, in this context, are physical things tied to the overall objective of an adventure. The key is the thing you need to accomplish the adventure's goals, or one of its goals. A key can be just about any physical object. It might be an idol the characters are sent to acquire. It might be an ancient forbidden tome they must acquire. It might be a demilich's dormant skull. It might be an actual key required to get through a door. It might also be the door itself.
Keys aren't bound to unthinking objects either. A key might be a boss villain that must be put into the ground. It might be a child that must be rescued. Keys might even be information. A secret or clue could be a key required to move on in an adventure or campaign. The secret location of the ancient blue dragon sorcerer, Iymrith, might be a key.
One factor defines keys in this context: they're required to accomplish an adventure. Sometimes only one key is required. Sometimes a few are needed. The characters have to acquire the key or keys to complete the quest.
Here's a list of twenty potential keys we might find in any given adventure.
It's one thing to clearly define keys in an adventure but that isn't a big change from how adventures work. One trick to the keys in Explorer's Keys is that they can move. Like secrets and clues, we need not define exactly where any given key is in an adventure. We can put these keys where they best serve the adventure we're running at the time. Being able to move keys around means we can tune an adventure for the time we have and change its pace if things get slow and boring. I sometimes refer to this as the "moving MacGuffin".
Obviously the location of some keys will matter. The ark of the covenant can really only be in the well of souls. The well of souls, however, might be anywhere. The well of souls itself is a key.
One great example of movable keys are the artifacts in Curse of Strahd. In the adventure itself, tarokka cards are drawn that define where these artifacts lay. Just like in the original i6 Ravenloft, the location of these artifacts defines the adventure. One problem with this design is that you can't change the location of the item once the card is drawn. If the characters are having a hell of a time getting up into the highest tower to recover the Tome of Strahd, you can't suddenly decide it's in the dining room to save everyone some time and energy.
Let's look at an example of how movable adventure keys can fit into an adventure. I'm going to lift this one right out of the short story Jursalem's Lot by Stephen King.
One of the characters has inherited an old dilapidated mansion far outside of town. Shortly before arriving at the home, the characters are attacked by cultists of the White Crow, a strange and forgotten cult that once resided in the area. They shouted "the worm must be eaten" before trying to stab the characters to death. If interrogated, they tell the characters that the character inheriting the home is a descendant of a priest who resided in the nearby town of Blackbristle. The town was overtaken by the wilds centuries ago and no one knows exactly where it once stood. On arriving at the house, the characters are accosted by specters and worm-filled zombies. In their exploration of the house, they learn that the character is indeed cursed by their ancestral line and must burn the Book of the Worm, lost in the Blackbristle temple, if they want the curse to be broken.
Thus, we have two keys for this adventure: the location of Blackbristle and the Book of the Worm.
We could have three or four locations for this adventure, each with a number of smaller locations, rooms or chambers. The mansion itself could be one big location, the forest surrounding Blackbristle might be another. The town might be its own location. The temple of Blackbristle and the dungeon beneath might be a fourth. This can give us quite a big adventure if we want. Maybe twelve to sixteen hours worth if we fill it all out. Or we can compact things and run it in three.
It all depends on where we put the keys.
If we want to run this adventure in a couple of hours, we might move the book out of the temple completely and put it in the cellar beneath the mansion. If we want to stretch things out, the location of Blackbristle might take quite an investigation to find with all sorts of twisted ruins and lairs in the forest blocking the way. Maybe the Book of the Worm is on the lectern in the temple's nave. Maybe it's five levels down in the rat-infested sub-cellars beneath the temple. Our movable key lets us tune the adventure however we want and however it best fits the time we have to run the game.
Keys are fundamental components of our D&D adventures. When the characters go off on a quest, they're changing the world somehow. They must find something. They must recover something. They must destroy something. Keys are the objects, people, monsters, or pieces of information they must find, recover, or destroy. Some keys may be as small as a glyphed jewel. Others may be entire lost planes of existence floating in the astral sea. Identifying our keys and understanding how we can move them gives us a powerful dial to make our D&D adventures as exciting as they can be.