The simplest of planned encounters is called a key—a listing of who lives
where, what they have, and what they might do if a character enters their room,
visits their farm, or explores their cave. This key can also contain colorful
details about otherwise boring or empty rooms, creating detail for the player
characters to explore. Here's how a sample key for an ogre's den, a three-chambered
cave, might be written.
1. Main Chamber: One passage of this chamber leads to the outside, a narrow cleft in the rock
hidden behind some bushes. Following this, the passage widens after 10 feet. The
walls are coated with soot and there is a large pit in the center of the floor
filled with ashes and charred bits of bone. The ashes are warm and the rocks
of the pit are still hot to the touch. The chamber stinks of burned meat and
leather. There is a lot of rubbish on the floor but there is nothing of value
here. At the far end, the cleft once again narrows to a passage.
2. Sleeping Chamber: Here the air is thick with smells of animal sweat and worse. There is a loud
rumbling from the far side of the chamber. There, sleeping under a mound of
crudely skinned furs, is a large ogre. Next to him is a large wooden club. Hanging
from the walls are bits of bright cloth, shiny buckles, and tarnished badges. A
few simple torches, now unlit, are wedged in the cracks.
If the characters don't move slowly in this room, one will kick a metal helmet
across the floor, waking the ogre. Groggy for one round, he then attacks the
group. Just beyond the nest is another passage.
3. Treasure Room: The entrance to this chamber is blocked by a large boulder that must be rolled
into the room to get it out of the way. Characters must get it out of the way.
Characters must roll a successful bend bar/lift gates check to move it.
(Several characters can work together, totaling their chances into a single roll.)
Inside the room are the treasures of the ogre. These include 500 gp, 3 gems
(worth 10, 500, and 100 gp), a suit of chain mail +1 the beast cannot use, and a mound of horse trappings, bridles, and saddles.
Aside from the bats, there are no creatures in the chamber.
When you write a key, describe the way the scene looks as accurately as
possible. Also think what sounds the player characters might hear, what they'd smell,
what the place feels like, and so on. Writing a good key is like writing a
good story. At the very least, include the following information for every
• Any monsters or NPCs found there.
• What equipment and magical items the monsters will use.
• Any treasure (and its location).
• Any other unusual items of interest. This can include colorful details to help
you describe the area or clues to warn characters of danger ahead.
The key can also include special conditions that must be met while in the
area. In the example above, there were penalties for not being alert and cautious
(kicking the helmet) and requirements for Strength (moving the boulder).
However, keys are static—things don't change that much. No matter whether the
characters enter at noon or midnight, the ogre will be sleeping. He won't be
cooking his dinner, out hunting, or picking his teeth with his toes.
For fairly simple scenes this is fine, but the situation gets ridiculous for
more complicated situations. Imagine a farm where the farmer was always in the
field or a castle where dinner was continually being served!
Static also means that events in one place don't affect things in another. If
the characters heave the boulder out of the way, won't the noise awaken the
ogre? Not according to the description as it is given, although a good DM would
certainly consider the possibility. Writing a key that takes all these potential
inconsistencies into account isn't easy. To be complete, you would have to
design the key in your head, figuring out all the interconnections, before you
wrote anything down.
There are two solutions to this problem: You can try to be complete and
thorough, preparing answers for every possible situation, or you can reduce the
amount of detail you give about creature behaviors and improvise answers as you
play. To describe a farmhouse, you could simply note the occupants (their ages and
the like) and the significant possessions at the farm. The activity of the NPCs
can be adjusted to the moment—working in fields, sleeping, eating, etc.
Trying to pre-plan for every eventuality is time-consuming—there is a fair
amount of planning and writing you must do. Improvising cuts down on preparation,
but forces you to work harder during the game. The best solution is to
compromise: Carefully detail the most important planned encounters and simply sketch
out and improvise the small encounters. This way you are not overwhelmed in
preparation or play.
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