The worlds in which our role-playing characters live vary wildly in their flexibility.
At one end of the spectrum you have the fundamentally inflexible railroad where characters influence the progress of plot only in terms of whether they live or die. The world exists in a sort of stasis in the absence of the characters, and when they leave that torpor state returns. Do bears sh*t in the woods? Only if there’s a party of characters lurking behind a nearby tree waiting in ambush.
On the other end of the spectrum you have open world role-playing, or more often collaborative storytelling, where the players mould the setting like putty in their hands. The characters not only interact with their environment, but the players interactively shape the plot. Non-player characters have a life, purpose and existence all of their own – opening up the potential for relationships that evolve and develop.
Many role-playing campaign settings and adventures look to fall somewhere in-between. Some infer the option rather than necessarily providing the tools for execution, while others concentrate solely on setting up a sandbox environment – like Lamentation of the Flame Princess supplement Isle of the Unknown.
In many respects the adventure I’m reviewing here reminds me of Isle of the Unknown, as it adopts the approach of mapping the accessible world out as a hex-based landscape. However, Evil Wizards in a Cave (from Red Box Vancouver) provides two expanded plot-lines to draw the characters into the sandbox and provide a clear driver to their exploration of the wider world.
Evil Wizards in a Cave is an 89-page PDF in a digest form suited to half US Letter size printing – and easy reading on a tablet. The front cover sports a fine image of a monastery on a rocky outcrop overlooking a forest landscape – and a neat way of showing the players where their characters end up at the beginning of this sandbox experience.
The PDF adopts a single-column layout, with plenty of white space and a straight forward, no-nonsense presentation. The book makes liberal use public domain art that ties in with the locations and people in the setting. Credits for the artists appear at the start of the books, along with notes about the game systems, typeface and release format used.
In addition to the core book, the download also includes a booklet that repeats all the maps included in the module for easy reference.
You might not appreciate it at first, but the adventures title – Evil Wizards in a Cave – while very matter of fact, does a very effective job of distracting the players from the wider potential of this module. The adventure isn’t a true sandbox, in the context of allowing the players to personally modify the environment themselves; it is an open world setting – in that the non-player characters that litter the landscape will not sit idle in the player character’s absence.
While Johnstone Metzger has written Evil Wizards in a Cave for Dungeon World and Labyrinth Lord, that combination makes a lift-and-shift to another system quite simple. The former means you know enough about each character’s motivations and intent to use the descriptions as written. The common format of the latter, used by so many other games in one form or another, make it easy to work out relative power levels, expertise and challenge in opposition.
The adventure concerns the theft of a relic from a monastery, though that isn’t the only way the character’s might get involved. Someone has stolen the relic and the abbot seeks it’s return, but at the same time the region has been beset with attacks, and sightings, of wild and ferocious animals. Player characters might become involved because of the relic, as big game hunters, or just as travellers embroiled in the trouble that has erupted in the region.
The Gamemaster gets 5-pages of introduction on the general plot, how to get the characters involved, and a brief word on the whole business of a timeline progressing without character involvement. Half the remaining PDF provides descriptions of the monastery and the wizard’s cave, with key character outlines and statistics. The other half provides a hex map, covering more than 500 square miles of territory across 132 hexes, and descriptions of every hex.
The core value of this adventure lies in the hexes. Each hex has a description, ranging from a single sentence through to a full page or more. You shouldn’t discount the content of the shorter entries, as they often contain elements that require careful consideration.
For example, the land supports several farmsteads. From the road that cuts through the middle of the region, you can see one of these farms nestled in the hills in the east. Amidst the hills, previous generations of farmers have been buried – and those graves might interest anyone seeking notable dead of the area. However, the curious might also disturb a desperate and hungry bandit lurking north-west of the farmstead.
Now, the sandbox approach takes these little details to a new level. On the day the characters get involved, the bandit will have just arrived and started casing the farmstead as a potential target. If the characters visit the farmstead early, they may meet and befriend Artur, Ilsa and their two children. On the other hand, if they don’t travel this way until a few days later, the Gamemaster can absolutely have them discover the family dead and their farmstead robbed. A visit early followed by a grim return later could generate a whole new sub-plot.
Several hexes mention other forces at work in the region, like the workers on a private plantation suffering unexplained deaths to wild animals and the forces of two competing nobles watchful of their borders. Each of these presents a fresh challenge, potential information, a possibility of new relationships, and a sidetrack into new adventure. If you befriend one noble, might you suffer later when coming across the forces of the other, who may have heard rumours of your allegiance with the enemy?
Even if the wizards succeed in their plans to subvert the power of the lost relic, the adventure needn’t end there. The player characters have the opportunity to seek out a means to overturn or dispel the changes the wizards bring about. Equally, the plans of others in the region will continue on and may mean more situations that require attention and resolution before the characters move on.
To be clear, Evil Wizards in a Cave isn’t a straight-forward, read-off-the-page adventure. You have a primary hook, two locations and a big open space to lay before your players – and to focus on that hook alone would be to spoil the potential. While you will start out engaging the characters on what might seem like a simple mission, that isn’t the point here at all; it would be a shame, and a lost opportunity, if it was. To focus on the central mystery alone, as it first appears, would be highly unsatisfying.
All being well, the players will solve one mystery only to thoroughly upset the apple cart and leave themselves with half-a-dozen more problems to set straight. A wily and resourceful Gamemaster, willing to keep track of unfolding events in the region, could really get a lot of value out of these 89-pages – and Metzger looks set to linger in this area, as it forms part of an ongoing River Knife series.
Reading the basic set-up, I found my thoughts running ahead of me as I flicked back and forth between the hexes. The download includes a separate PDF of all the maps included in the module – which means you can have the main hex map constantly in view while you read through.
I admit to moments of surprise during my first read through, not quite expecting the little twists in the plot that will likely serve to further extend the potential of Evil Wizards in a Cave as the basis for multiple sessions of play.
Evil Wizards in a Cave, written by Johnstone Metzger, published by Red Box Vancouver. Available on RPGNow for $5.00.