[D&D 4E] Fun with Elminster's Ecologies

edited June 2010 in Story Games
In the _____ old days of AD&D 2nd Ed., when TSR was grinding out enough setting books to bury a small town, they published a boxed set called Elminster's Ecologies. It contained nine thin, paperback booklets: eight of them detailing a different ecology in the Forgotten Realms, and a ninth, written in the voice of Elminster, with things like "consumption chains" (food chains), leading into a section on trophic levels, and population control. My wife saw me looking this over, and said, "It's like a biology textbook for a bunch of make-believe creatures!" I'd say that's a pretty fair assessment. Of course, after all that comes 23 pages of random encounter tables.

Then you get to, say, the Cormanthor booklet. That's the one I was interested in, because I'm starting a new campaign set there (I talk about what I want to get out of this campaign in the second segment of my latest podcast episode, if you're curious). In there, you've got things like the sidebar on page 7, giving the average temperatures for each of the four seasons, the annual lows and highs, annual precipitation, and days with snow on the ground. On page 8, you have your tables for generating random weather.

This is the kind of stuff that gave big, detailed settings a bad name. I suppose someone really interested in Simulationist play might eat this stuff up, but I just went cross-eyed. Don't get me wrong, I love a game that has a good helping of ecology—that was one of my favorite things about Mouse Guard, which is one of my favorite games. But the "OK, next day, let's roll for temperature ... and precipitation..." Well, that's just not my idea of fun.

The campaign I'm running now takes its inspiration from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. Getting lost in the woods is how about half of those stories get started. While starting to plan for this campaign, I read the "Wilderness Travel" articles (Part 1 & Part 2) in Mike Mearls' series on running skill challenges on the D&D website (a series which, sadly, has now reached its end). These articles gave me an idea for a structuring skill challenge which would also put all the information in Elminster's Ecologies to good use, but in a way that might actually be fun. Basically, I added a "world map" to my game.

As you'd guess from a booklet like that, Cormanthor is a pretty well-defined entity. So, I got a big map of the forest, and put a grid on it, scaled so each square is 10 square miles. A normal human can walk maybe 15 miles in a day—20 if they push hard. Since the PC's are mostly elves, and they're all supposed to be heroic, I pushed that up to 30 miles a day. So each day, they can make three traveling skill checks to move from one square to the next, or more, if they're willing to give up healing surges for it. If they succeed, then everything goes according to plan. If they don't, I move them to a square adjacent to the one they want to go in. They have an ungrided map to give them an idea of the general locations and distances involved, but I have the real map, which I keep hidden, so they don't know when they've gone off track, nor do they know how off-track they've gotten. Then they have assessment checks, which give them some idea of where they are and where they're going, and they have secondary skills, which can give them bonuses or remove failures.

Besides throwing them off-course, failures accumulate, and after three failures, they have a random encounter. Not a random monster they happen to cross paths with, as Elminster's Ecologies sets out. I have a table of random bits of story that the PC's might or might not wander into. Most of them plug into the main storyline in one way or another. For instance, if they run into the gnolls fighting each other, they might get a more nuanced and detailed picture of the gnolls they'll confront in the main storyline, and perhaps even a gnoll ally.

Elminster's Ecologies sets out three regions of Cormanthor, the "Rimwood," the "Midwood," and the "Starwood," essentially different successional areas. I've broken these out, each with their own DC's for skill checks, and their own random encounter table. The Rimwood has encounters and DC's appropriate for the low heroic tier, the Midwood for the middle heroic tier, and the Starwood for the high heroic tier.

The other thing I did with Elminster's Ecologies was break up the information therein. My wife is playing in this game as an elf ranger. She shares my admiration for a character like Aragorn—sure, he's badass in a fight, but it impresses both of us just as much when he knows just what type of plant will help Frodo's wound, or can track Uruk-hai across bare rock and tell exactly what happened to Pippin and Merry. Little things like Foxberries and Chime Oaks that get mentioned in Elminster's Ecologies can really add a lot of color to the world, but it gets kind of lame if it's always coming from the GM. So, I made little cards for her, with the various bits of flora and fauna, so she can just pull one out and work it into her description. We get the color, we spice it up by having it come from someone other than me all the time, and she really gets to come off as the person with the incredible knowledge of nature, which just doesn't happen when the GM says, "You know that..." and proceeds to say what you know. It just doesn't work the same as when the player gets to say it.

We used all this a little bit in the last game, and it worked well. They started to get a little off track, and started to realize they really should have come upon the road by now. I loved seeing them start to get anxious about how they'd gotten lost in the woods. They never got so far off course that they ran into one of my random encounters, but that's only a matter of time.
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