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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Return To Moria: The Sandbox

A while back I posted the pitch I made to my gaming group. The response from my players was overwhelmingly positive, so the game is afoot. Since mega-dungeons and sandbox play are recurring threads in the blog-sphere and that's the direction I'm taking with this game I thought I'd throw down some information about how I'm preparing for this game.

Since the game is set in Tolkien's Middle-earth, my first step was to find some inspirational resources. A quick web search turned up two sites that look useful, The Encyclopedia of Arda and The Thain's Book. I also spent the weekend watching the The Lord of the Rings.

My next step was to define the potential roles for player characters. Tolkien's world provides many options for races and backgrounds, but doesn't really fit the classic old-school class model very well, but I've already decided to play fast and loose with the setting, so coming up with a collection of races and classes wasn't all that hard.

My initial pitch sketched out the very basic outlines of the sandbox, so my next step was to firm up the area of play. I had visualized Hollin, the player's base of operations, as a gold rush town, populated by those drawn by the potential wealth of Moria. With that in mind I laid out a list of businesses:
  • Durin's Rest - A slightly better quality inn and tavern
  • Farin's Provisions - General supplies and provisions
  • Gamling's Mounts - A stable
  • Garden of the Valar - Shrines to the various Valar
  • Mithril's End - A smithy
  • Moria Tours - Guided tours of Moria
  • Sheriff's Office - The local law enforcement
  • The Common - The open central square of the village, generally a muddy morass
  • The Dancing Dwarf - A tavern, brothel, casino and inn, all rolled into one
  • The Market - A bazaar held outside the palisade three days a week
If you're a Tolkien fan you can probably see the first big divergence from canon, shrines to the Valar. Since we'll be using some variant of D&D, clerics and magic-users are pretty much assumed. Clerics draw their power from the Valar, while magic-users study the remnants of magical lore left by the Maiar.

The next step was to lay out an overview of Moria. Moria is a huge place, something like 40 miles east to west, so a broad strokes layout is going to be very helpful in planning who or what lives where. Clearly laying out 40 miles of dungeons a grid at a time is the work of a lifetime, so I needed a framework to hang the important bits on. I did a little digging into the history of the Dwarves and discovered the number seven has some significance to them (seven Dwarf clans, seven rings of power), so I decided to play up that theme. Moria, I decided, was made up of seven Great Upper Halls, cut into the slopes of Silvertine. Twenty-one Great Deeps (seven times seven [edit: clearly my math is flawed]) were cut beneath the mountain's roots and housed the mines, armories, and workshops of Moria. I also picked out some of the major features of Moria mentioned by Tolkien, Durin's Tower, the Endless Stair, Dimrill Gate, the Bridge at Khazad-dum, and added them to the list. I then did a very rough layout of these levels on paper.

So far so good, but all those levels are carved by Dwarves. I wanted a little more variety, so I defined a few different areas as well:
  • The Upper Caves - natural caverns that honeycomb the slopes of Silvertine.
  • The Lower Caves - lightless caverns deep beneath the Dwarven diggings inhabited by creatures even Gandalf didn't understand.
  • The Black Reaches - Caverns tainted by the foul presence of the Balrog.
Now I have a variety of level types and potential sources for occupants for the Mines. I've discovered an obstacle though. Moria as described by Tolkien only has two entrances, Dimrill Gate to the east and Hollin Gate to the west. Unfortunately Tolkien did a good job of destroying both these entrances. The watcher in the water blocked Hollin Gate and the Bridge of Khazad-dum was broken when Gandalf confronted the Balrog. Hmmm, time for some improvisation. I concluded men and Dwarves had reopened the Hollin Gate (in fact a group of men has set up a toll at the newly opened gate to capitalize on the adventurers venturing into the depths). I also added the Seven Watches, towers built on the slopes of Silvertine by the Dwarves, and Balrog's End, a great chasm smashed into the depths when the Balrog was finally destroyed by Gandalf. I also have some speculative notes about Upper Caves that lead to the surface, but nothing concrete yet.

At this point I have a pretty good idea of how things are laid out in and around Moria:
  • I have thumbnail descriptions of the important businesses and points of interest in Hollin
  • I've written a line or two about most of the named NPCs in Hollin.
  • I have the general layout of Moria in place, and have solved the "how to get in" problem.
  • I've also accumulated some rough notes about who or what might be found in Moria.

My next steps are going to be focused on the occupants and features of Moria proper, but that's fodder for the next article.
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