Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Omen and Vision
Look out!
This article isn't about prophecies.

Rather, it's about how to make your wilderness travel more eventful. Or your dungeon crawling more interesting. Basically, you really never want to say "the trip passes uneventfully" or "you pass through the room and find nothing of importance".

One way to do this is to have an alternative set of non-combat encounters that occur whenever you don't roll a random enemy. However, I find that those can derail an adventure as your players run off to catch butterflies or go rock collecting. It's better to have a list of non-encounters that help build the story, world, or tension in your game.

The way I like to do that is using omens. I've read about these in a few places, my favorite being as a part of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings, an excellent adventure for low-level characters.

An omen is a hint that you place in the world to make it seem bigger and to foreshadow the monsters yet to come. The players may not be able to fight vampires yet, but if they find hints that vampires exist, the world has expanded and they have a sense that someday they will be taking on vampires. That's pretty exciting, or maybe frightening if you're a first-level character.

Here's some ideas for things you can give omens about, and how those omens can present themselves:

A Treasure in the area (anything from a legendary artifact to a token granting minor power)
  • A journal describing a previous expedition to find the treasure
  • A single gold coin from a hoard (historically from the same time period as the full hoard)
  • A blueprint for the treasure
  • Marks along the ground where a particularly heavy treasure might have been dragged
  • A workshop where the dungeon denizens built the chest/traps/containers guarding the treasure
  • A mysterious note hinting at the location of a secret or hidden treasure
  • Half of the full treasure (as long as it requires both halves to work, like a wand or something)
  • A prophecy or warning concerning the misuse of the treasure
  • Marks along the wall pointing to the treasure's location (may or may not be accurate)

Monsters (make sure to include a mix of low and high level monsters, and don't leave out any monsters on the wandering encounter table)
  • The monster's footprints
  • The monster's droppings
  • The monster's shed exoskeleton, looks exactly like the thing
  • A belonging of the monster they lost
  • The monster itself, playing dead
  • The monster itself, temporarily petrified
  • A small part of the monster that has autonomy and can spy on the party
  • A book or journal/diary written by the monster
  • A note from a previous expedition on the monster's weakness
  • An item that has a powerful effect on the monster
  • A message that was supposed to be delivered to/from the monster but never was
  • An object the monster finds offensive or hilarious
  • The corpse of a monster that rivaled the monster
  • An object the monster hid in case of emergency/escape
  • A symbiotic monster that lives in harmony with a more powerful monster

NPCs (could be a villain, potential ally, rival adventuring party, etc)
  • Old campsites
  • Signs of someone having already completed a certain challenge (hang gliders on the other side of a ravine, etc)
  • Monster corpses
  • Discarded maps (inaccurate)
  • Areas affected by certain spells and attacks
  • Marks on the walls indicating which direction the NPC went
  • Footprints
  • Buried latrines
  • A hireling or guide, who got separated from the NPC
  • A hireling or guide, petrified and left behind
  • A hireling or guide, dead
  • A lost journal or diary of the NPC
  • Vomit near poisonous plants, blood near traps, severed fingers, etc
  • Broken arrows or javelins

I recommend writing out omens before play. Then, as they are used up, you can cross them off and replace them with new listings between sessions. Depending on how often you roll random encounters, you may need a list of 20 or more. Also, don't forget that some omens (such as footprints or campsites) should be used multiple times.
The thing that the ranger in your game was built to do but never actually gets to do
Another good trick is to put "false flags" in your omen table. Make an omen for a monster type that was recently eradicated from the dungeon or forced out of the area by a new predator. Have an NPC adventuring party leave omens throughout the dungeon, except in the final area - they turned back at the challenge difficulty. For an extra bonus, you could have them waiting outside the dungeon to ambush the PCs.

Finally, don't forget that omens can help build history. Is this a dungeon that was built by dwarves but taken over by goblins? Make some omens for the dwarves that lived here. Was this area once a civilization that built a great magic item or weapon? Make omens about its lore. They aren't foreshadowing anymore, but players who like to be immersed in the fantasy world will love learning about the history of these areas.

Someday, I'll get there...
Now, let's talk about vision. Again, not prophetic visions.

Part of building a world with depth means making the world feel like there's too much for the players ever to encounter. This can be easily done by giving the players a huge map and pointing out the tiny locations they will be exploring, but it's better to keep that sense of immersion in-session as well!

To do this, create points on the map that act as areas with great visibility. When your players find a point with good visibility, grant them a certain number of omens. You can add omens that have nothing to do with your campaign, especially if you are outdoors. "You see a traveling merchant's wagon" is a great way to add worldbuilding and flavor to an area.

In the wilderness, this can be easily done: "Hill", "Watchtower" or "Cliff" all act as great points where you can add lots of visibility. But in a dungeon, this might be a little harder to pull off.

However, for a great example of how this can be done well, look no further than Dark Souls. "Barred window overlooking another dungeon area" is a great one, as is "hole in the roof that you can see the highest tower through". Even "stairs leading to the rooftop" or "parts of the dungeon on the other side of the ravine" can be incorporated into an underground complex if done beforehand.

Do remember that light is an issue underground. Even those with darkvision will have a hard time seeing the distances required to perceive an omen.

The final question is this: how many omens per vision point?

I'd say at least three, to make the point more interesting than a simple random encounter. For outdoors, this article has a great set of distances an average character could see at given elevations. In the mountains, you might have a lot of vision points.

Based on the distance they are able to see, you could roll a die and give that many omens.
  • Small tower or hill: 1d6
  • Watchtower or cliff: 1d8
  • etc.

If the PCs are in desolate territory, such as tundra or desert, I'd make less vision points. Not because they don't exist, but because they wouldn't reveal much. Also, in bad weather, you can grant a penalty to the number of omens received, so the PCs have some incentive to return to these places.

Finally, I'd use an alternate set of omens for these long-distance omens.
  • Birds flapping out of the trees
  • Howls heard far away
  • Smoke
  • Villages
  • Ruins/towers
  • Mountains/volcanoes

And remember, at these areas, one of your omens should always be "you get a sense of the surrounding area". This can translate to a partial dungeon map, advantage on wilderness rolls not to get lost, or even a way to point towards optional adventures in ruins or villages.

That way, finding a vision point is a real, in-game reward, and a treasure in its own right, as any map-maker would tell you.

Well, I guess I'll mark that one down for later...
Thanks for reading!

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