View Full Version : DM Help Desolation without boredom?

2017-07-02, 06:23 AM
I am a big fan of the aesthetic of desolation that is found in many fantasy worlds; most commonly in videogames but also some movies and occasional books. I just love this style of vast, seemingly uninhabited wildernesses. But I think in videogames and movies a great deal of that design comes from visual elements and the inclusion of quiet time in which nothing really happens or is said for a while. Obviously this doesn't work in an RPG where everything is either actions or talking. As a GM you could describe how the environment looks, but in practice it really has to be limited to just a few sentences before you get into monologing and droning on about things that seem to have no meaningful relevance to the players.

Ideally it should be show instead of tell, with players getting a sense of desolation from the way their characters are interacting with the world. Which sounds good on paper, but how could it be actually done at the table?

The only good idea I have is to rely mostly on animals and puzzles as obstacles and have whatever NPCs there are clustered quite tightly together.
Maybe have players more often find skeletons in the wilderness and dungeons than living people?

2017-07-02, 06:23 PM
Pump the importance of supplies. Little-to no foraging. At least as little to make just the journey itself risky. If audio is accepted at your table, Cryo Chamber on youtube has some good, dark, quiet ambieces.

2017-07-03, 03:24 AM
I was wondering about the same thing as OP recently, but didn't come up with something. Also, my interpretation of "desolation" feeling is probably different from OP. Here are some thoughts though.

To me, the desolation feel is mostly about loneliness and regret about the golden past. The environment should probably be semi-urban, because pure wilderness bears no trace of that past. Finding someone to talk to shouldn't be an easy task, so I would agree about clustering NPCs together. Maybe use non-living enemies mostly, like constructs, or animated objects, or undead - something that the players can't communicate with on any level. Animals could also be fine, but might not work as good if encountered in the wilderness, because they are "normal" there, and players can empathize with their emotions of pain or fear or others. Maybe animals and living monsters would be better used in locations that remind of former splendor, but are somehow twisted now - to illustrate the decline. Traps and puzzles sound right.

I would want to have different locations with unique themes and flavors, but unified by an overarching motif. For example, locations can have some objects or some events from the past that would influence them through time, like a mage tower, or a dangerous monster in a cell, or a volcanic explosion, or something. And I would also want the players to need to move between the said locations and hope that their variety brings the sense of vastness - like "look, all these different places are desolated now".

2017-07-03, 05:16 AM
Since you want to create the feel/aesthetic of desolation then we should focus less on mechanics, more on little psychological tricks, perhaps?

Question: how do you normally measure time/distance during travel?

This is just an idea, but... when I last played, the players selected their we measured distance by adding tokens on table with "path" - each "locale" (e.g. Deadmist Marshes) had few "paths" they could take and by adding tokens they could measure how far they are within the locale (represented by a small map-like picture). If they got lost, the "daily travel" token went to the "Lost" column.

Boardgame approach, I agree, is not always good, but it worked reasonably well.

If it was a desolation like you said, I would subvert their expectation by asking them to pick a path... ask them how much rolls they want for foraging/hunting...and putting down the token I'd ask them to cross out week of rations (minus the days spent foraging/hunting) and start with "...after week of drudging through the dusty plain...".

...foraging, hunting and searching does not slow down travel, but takes full days, even more than one...

Play with distances. "In distance you see small speck - maybe a tower...?" would become "As you come closer, you notice that the building is enormous" and the small speck is acutally a huge pyramid-like building.

If hexmap was used, I would go for much larger hexes - week to pass one simple hex, encounters very sparse (2 rolls per week, perhaps?), maybe change this according to how dangerous/densely "populated" (by abandoned buildings?) this hex is.

I'd have separate encounter table for "scenery". Most of the time players would encounter destroyed buildings with writings in ancient language ("Library", "Build by Rashfawon the Tall", "Public Bath"), simple scenes setting a mood ("you come across small grave, with wooden plank with a name "Shaara" and "Did not make it." written on it."... next day you encounter a body of the person who wrote it.), events ("a sand storm starts picking up" in addition to whatever weather) and overall scenery (field of thousand rusted blades, sunset in shadow of colossal tower with rays coming through destroyed parts of it).

Basically: I would give them simple things they can interact with, but which will hammer down the idea "this was once wondrous kingdom, but these ruins are all what's left". A large platform that the resident sorcerer can identify as "part of ancient teleport system" but has no other working parts. Huge stone tablets with laws, that they can use for shadow, to cool themselves in the sun. Full ship with skeleton crew (dead or undead? your choice)...

2017-07-03, 05:57 AM
I too wrestled with this in a recent campaign where the crossing of a vast desert was necessary. Here are things that helped me to attain whatever sense of desolation-without-boredom I succeeded at:

- Watch Lawrence of Arabia while/before prepping this stuff. The first half, at least.

- As a DM, I love visual aids. There are lots of different types of desolate wastelands, after all; Google Image Search is indispensable for finding a good example to show.

- Animals are a good suggestion, not just as obstacles but as portents. Vermin too. If you tell them they go for over a week without seeing another living creature, and then they encounter a normal-sized scorpion, it's almost like "Oo, a friend!" More significantly, birds in the wasteland can suggest water, food, shelter, a humanoid community, etc.

- You mentioned often finding remains. What I did was, the first few days in the wilderness? Yeah, lots of skeletons--horses, people, monsters. But before long? Just bird bones. And then, no remains of any kind anymore.

- They must believe that there is no help available: no celestial deus ex machina, not even a nomadic caravan. That's not just for the loneliness, but for the fear. In my campaign I used the sandstorm rules from the Sandstorm book, and it was BAD. Even with the use of magic to hide in the earth (to successfully avoid the flensing of their flesh), the party got briefly separated and--and I am not an evil DM, this is literally how the dice rolled--their two bags of holding and all their contents were carried off countless miles in unknowable directions, lost to them for the rest of the campaign. They couldn't create food and water either. The situation, to put it briefly, was dire enough to induce suspension of disbelief (specifically, disbelief of the usual "Oh he wouldn't kill everybody off in THIS fashion" assumption).

- After enough alone-ness and natural hazardousness has been established, THEN you can have a mysterious stranger appear, presumably for the purposes of plot advancement (Lawrence of Arabia has a great scene where this happens). It's more dramatic if the stranger's alone. The question then is, "What kind of weirdo would be out here? Besides us."

2017-07-03, 08:22 AM
*SNIP lot o' good ideas*

They must believe that there is no help available: no celestial deus ex machina, not even a nomadic caravan.

The biggest enemy in desolation should be the environment. Heat during the day, freezing cold during the night, no water, no food, no shelter.

After few weeks add crazy weather, sandstorms, poisonous mists, mile-wide cracks forming just under PC feet, moving/booming sand, magical taint, unnatural fire, acidic/corrosive rain... and it starts looking like something really bad happened there... and they should be really glad for the poisonous giant centipede to fight :smallbiggrin:

Again, it depends on what kind of desolation (urban/wild/mixed), what kind of game (both mechanically and genre-related - e.g. sandbox exploration/story/survival horror) you plan.

2017-07-03, 08:56 AM
I think it's one of those themes that really just doesn't come across well in TTRPGs. It's pretty hard to play up isolation and desolation in a dining room drinking with a bunch of friends. Loneliness and hopelessness works great in single player video games, books and movies, but can't be replicated by this hobby. It's a reason that, no matter how much I wish it could happen, a true Dark Souls TTRPG would never be successful. Some mediums just aren't meant for certain stories.

2017-07-03, 09:07 AM
Some people say the same about horror... and I find it one of the easiest things to do in TTRPG.

Evoking a feeling in TTRPG is not easy thing to do, but it is possible - however, it requires help both from the mechanics (or better: mechanics can hinder lots of it if chosen wrongly) and subtle help from the GM.

Buy-in from players is a must in this case - but I assume Yora's players are in on the playstyle/game conventions.

2017-07-03, 09:26 AM
Stumbling upon a bunch of corpses? The party finds out that the dead are being feasted upon by glowing maggots, which also happen to have tiny spikes. This will encourage the party to make up theories, and may increase immersion.

I like this one. It creates a sense that the environment is alien and the players don't understand it without being an immediate threat.

Play with distances. "In distance you see small speck - maybe a tower...?" would become "As you come closer, you notice that the building is enormous" and the small speck is acutally a huge pyramid-like building.

That sounds really cool. Having places be visible from a long distance and then still having to travel a good time before seing it up close should be fun.

I'm unfamiliar with the setting, so some of my suggestions may not be applicable. As far as I know, it's only been about 18 months since the apocalypse, so plenty of localized, bizarre events can be unfolding in any given area.

Desert settings really do a lot of work for you in this regard. I quickly noticed that using a forest planet as a setting is making this style of campaign a lot more challenging.
But what I think might work is to have ruins extremely overgrown with huge trees and roots digging into underground chambers. They are still a symbol of crumbling civilization and the passing of long time.

2017-07-03, 09:52 PM
Have food get moldy if it becomes wet.

Swarms of insects.

Have good water run out, all the water available is slimy and tastes bitter.

None of those things have to do any damage, or, if you feel like it, they can do a minor amount of hit point damage.

Have the heat and humidity do nonlethal damage on failed saves for environment.

Break up the sunset and sunrise with distant drumming on a hollow log.

If the party doubles back on its own trail have it discover the tracks of a massive carnivore following them in the woods.

Have nomadic caravans be invariably hostile! Their guards insist your party travel directly away from the caravan and attack while the party is out of sight of the caravan (safari man-train, for forest/jungle). The guards are better at woodcraft and stealth than any of the party and do not speak their language. Make the party go to some trouble to travel quietly, avoiding clearings and open spaces, etc.

The party finds a clearing leading to a swift river. A wrecked boat is beached on the near shore. It appears to be totally abandoned but may contain useful items. The river both above and below this wreck is a mass of rapids and cannot be easily crossed-- the party must turn along the river to march 90 degrees off their course, or use their ingenuity in crossing it. All that is certain is that this river appears on no map they possess.

The party is buzzed by pterodactyls.

The party is confronted by a thirty-foot cliff surrounded by impassable jungle. Atop the cliff is a field with yams planted beneath rows of palms. There is no sign of the farmers.

The party encounters a mud brick wall forty feet high and a mile in circumference. There is a gate on the east side that is fifteen feet above the ground. Arrows fly at the party when they come within range of square towers a hundred paces along the wall. The arrows fly from narrow windows. Nobody answers any hail or plea for aid. Smokes rise from beyond the wall, and the cries of poultry can be heard. (This assumes nobody can fly!)

2017-07-04, 01:07 AM
Desert settings really do a lot of work for you in this regard. I quickly noticed that using a forest planet as a setting is making this style of campaign a lot more challenging.
But what I think might work is to have ruins extremely overgrown with huge trees and roots digging into underground chambers. They are still a symbol of crumbling civilization and the passing of long time.

The forest understory can actually be pretty desolate, especially in old growth in either taiga (because of needle-based acidification) or in jungle (because of a multi-layer canopy that allows relatively little light to reach the forest floor). Food that is suitable for humans is not particularly abundant, or is highly dispersed and requires considerable effort to scavenge. As such, humans will be clustered into areas near consistent food sources (usually meaning water) and huge amounts of territory may be almost totally empty of people. Therefore husbanding food supplies can be very important. If the area was previously cleared ever even thousands of years ago, then the ruins of that civilization would likely be much more abundant than the settlements of the people actually living there at the present, so its quite reasonable to have encounters with empty ruins be more common than encounters with people.

Also, in an environment that hasn't suffered human-induced fragmentation, the impact of natural disturbances may be felt across a vast area. Blowdowns, burns, wetlands, pine barrens, and other areas that offer essentially no resources to humans might be miles on a side. Image walking through a burned region for several days - that'd be pretty darn desolate. Finally, overland movement through primary forest or jungle is difficult. Bushwhacking sucks, and in many areas requires the lead traveler hacking their way forward with a machete or an axe. Burrs get stuck to everything and thorns cut and tear at all surfaces. Water and mud inevitably get into boots, and bites and stings from insects are almost a certainty. Depending on terrain, characters might only move a few miles per day in primary forest, and would spend much of their time soaked and miserable. It's not unreasonable to impose fatigue penalties of some kind if they go for a number of days without taking a day of rest from time to time.

2017-07-04, 01:16 AM
Well one of the things to remember is that one of the crappiest parts of desolation is that it is very very boring. Boredom is a serious problem because it leads to complacency or other negative behaviors. So that's something that you shouldn't discount. Hiking through an abandoned fortress is eventually going to be boring and tedious, until something happens and somebody dies. That's a feature if played right and a bug if it's handled well.

2017-07-04, 06:27 AM
I've never had an entire campaign in a desolate place, but areas of primary world I DM in has a few expanses like this.

Here is basically what I do to handle it...

Long before they ever reach this place, it will occasionally come up in conversation with NPCs now and then in reference to it being such a bleak, lifeless, and inhospitable area. It gets mentioned because one of the sub plots/side quests in the game involves the prison situated in the center of it, so occasionally when people are talking about criminals or breaking the law or anything along those lines I try to drop clues about that prison and the area around it.

Next, when they do finally reach this place, I try to describe the sheer immensity of what they are seeing. The one area in particular up near that prison, looks like a sandy desert. I describe it by comparing it to seeing the ocean for the first time and you're a bit overwhelmed by the limitless expanse of water that stretches out as far as the eye can see all across the horizon and things of that nature. I warn them out of character, usually by having one of them make an intelligence check since this is how I like to give them common sense that their character should have, that this place is going to be scorching hot with no food or water, so it would be a death sentence to venture out into it without enough supplies and also if they lack some means of transportation across this desert it will take significantly longer.

Once they get going, i'll describe the sheer misery of their journey through it. The constant heat radiating down on them, those of them wearing metal armor will have to take it off to avoid getting burns on their skin like grabbing a hot iron. Even things like leather get sticky and hot, with sweat flooding out of every pour of your body desperate to lower the ever increasing temperatures. They have to make frequent constitution checks against exhaustion, have to drink a lot to stay hydrated, and suffer ever increasing maladies if they start to dehydrate. The sand also makes it very slow going and very exhausting to trudge through it, just as anyone who has walked a lot in sand can tell you it is a rather miserable experience and the scorching heat from it can potentially have consequences for the character's feet or shoes depending on a few things.

When the sun goes down, they experience a fairly rapid and extreme temperature drop to freezing levels so even those with fire resistance who get by in the day without much trouble are going to have a hard time coping with the nights. Without any resources in this desert to burn, they usually can't create any fires because there is nothing around them but sand. A complete lack of any vegetation or other materials. There is a very specialized caravan that makes the journey through this desert periodically, usually carrying the prisoners to the prison but sometimes just to resupply the prison with provisions as well, and they carry a lot of extra water, have covered wagons for shade against the sun, and carry a lot of special flammable materials to burn during the freezing nights to survive these trips without too much trouble. The beasts they use to pull the wagons are also desert dwelling creatures that are very adapted to traversing sand.

But anyway, all of these little details turn it into something more interesting and challenging and engaging. You could just handwave it and say "you spend the next 10 hours crossing this desert..." or whatever, but all of the little details are what bring it to life. Depending on how the players prepare and how they cross, ive had some that said crossing that desert was more difficult and more scary than most of the encounters they've fought in up to that point. They can easily die out there as well if they aren't being careful, but it's rare because usually by that point they know better than to assume they're going to be handheld. There is also a lot of information on the place if they bother to ask people who live nearby as well, like stories of people who tried to cross and carried supplies to brave the scorching desert only to freeze to death when it got dark because they had no way of keeping warm and nothing to build a fire with, etc.

Truth is, the time you dedicate to thinking about and preparing your environment in advance and how you describe it and have players interact with it will determine how interesting it will be for them.

If you don't give them any kind of challenge and the wasteland is truly featureless with nothing to learn or discover or explore at all, it would be tough to make that interesting and not handwave their trip through it. But if you're thinking of things like fallout for example, you can mention the occasional tree stump you come across or maybe the remains of a collapsed building or the bones or a long dead creature. You could even populate your wasteland with a specific kind of enemy they will only encounter there and maybe leave little clues of their presence here or there.

Just think of things to add to it.

Even in a forest setting you can have obstacles and challenges. There could be plant-related challenges. They want to forage for food, but they don't know what is and isn't safe to eat in this deep and dark part of the woods, none of them have ever seen these types of berries before. Maybe there are mushrooms nearby that emit a poisonous cloud of spores that gradually exhaust the party or make them angry/aggressive and they have to figure out what is causing it. Water they find could be poisoned or tainted in some way. Maybe the forest it's self is alive and seeking to stop them or inhibit their progress. Living trees don't have to mean combat encounters, maybe their thick canopies block out the sky so navigation by sunlight or starlight is impossible without climbing the trees and maybe other means of telling direction such as direction on trees that moss gross on, could be fudged by the trees simply turning to make it face other directions. They could even rearrange themselves to make paths that lead in a circle or backwards out of the forest rather than deeper. Never moving while being watched, always moving well in advance of the party or waiting until they are asleep. Maybe the player on watch hears limbs groaning and snapping with the dirt rustling a bit but they don't know what is causing it. Etc. Just a few random ideas for a forest.

Also, I dunno what kind of campaign you have going on, but you could add other little things to be creepy and add to the general vibe of the forest. Maybe they find severed ears (and/or eyes as well) nailed to many of the trees in the forest put there by a hag or witch to keep an eye on intruders, but they don't know why they are there and just get freaked out by it. Could be skinned animals hanging from the trees. Maybe they find a mangled arm, locked in place by long rigor mortis that is jutting up from the stump of a tree with no visible hole or way it could have come through that they can discern without trying to pull the arm out of cutting around the tree. If you go with the living forest theme, maybe they find bits and pieces of a skeleton with most of the parts missing and strewn about with gnaw marks, obviously preyed upon by carrion creatures and with the body in such a state there is no way to determine cause of death but searching around the area they might find an old rusted axe laying on the ground and one of the trees next to it having an old scar that looks like it was hit a couple of times and had since healed up. Maybe if their perception is REALLY good, they might notice a few blood stains on some of the limbs of the trees 10-15 feet up that have long since dried. Can sort of plant those seeds in their head that this forest does not like to be screwed with and responds violently if threatened without spelling it out. Monsters you can't see are often the scariest. :) Etc.

Darth Ultron
2017-07-04, 09:34 PM
I'm a fan of desolation too. Nothing I love more then tossing this at some players, even more so the demi god like modern players.

So, step one is to tweak the rules you are using to make things not easy, or even hard. Lots of modern games have the ''character's can just wish up anything'' sort of idea. You need to drop that right away. Remove or alter skill and spells and abilities that make life easy. If your game does not have them...you need brutal and unfair rules. Most games go the ''hero'' route of things like ''wounds don't matter'' and such....you don't want that sort of system.

Second you need to tweak the game world setting so it's not like ''a perfect RPG setting'', that you get in most games. So like the weapon shop has three clubs, and two broken dagger blades with no hilts and lots of dust and sand. The tavern has worm stew. This can be tricky as in a lot of game players expect to have super awesome looking character with shinny brand new powerful stuff and equipment. You need to break that mold quick from ''lightsaber +5 of vorpal kill anything'' and more to ''my character has a chunk of wood with some sharp rocks sunk into one end''.

Third, you want to balance the game play on ''the edge'' as much as possible. Never let the characters find very much of anything useful. Force them to use whatever they find. Keep them on their toes. Make them work like dogs just to get a single spoon.

2017-07-05, 02:09 PM
While I have usually different approach to players/PCs as Darth Ultron, he has several very good points that were not yet mentioned.

Rust, weapon fatigue and breakage should be PC concern.

Average quality weapons? Whatever they bring. Shops are nonexistent and caravan traders can charge anything up to your next of kin just for the "good quality dagger". The things they find will be mostly old, rusted - and that assumes they find something.

Wounds, diseases and poisons matter a lot - if you don't clean the wound, you lose the arm.

Oh, now I'll want to run a desolation campaign... :smallbiggrin: