Add Spikes Of Danger To Get Deeper Campaigns

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1084

An RPT GM asks about a design technique from my Adventure Building Workshop:

Hey Johnn,

I was reviewing the links in your 2019 Compilation and saw reference to “Spikes of Danger”.

What is that referencing? I googled around and couldn’t find anything.



I replied to Paul directly, but thought I’d share with you too.

Hey Paul!

It refers to a lesson in my Adventure Building Workshop.

Spikes of Danger represent challenges too difficult for PCs at their current power level.

They represent major sandbox milestones that require great player ingenuity to overcome now, or clever player planning to return later when the PCs are tough enough.

Here’s an excerpt from the Adventure Building Workshop, Lesson #39: Spikes of Danger, to give you more details.

Hola, game master and adventure builder. In this video, we’re going to talk about another cool tool for your DM toolbox, and it’s called Spikes of Danger.

This tool was inspired by the West Marches campaign of Ben Robbins. Ben has a multi-part blog series describing how he ran and organized the West Marches campaign.

The Approach

He just created a blank map for the players.

He noted down a few different regions like a dangerous forest, a dangerous swamp, and a dangerous mountain range.

Then he dropped a few points of interest like “wizard’s tower” and “here be monsters” — that kind of a thing.

Then he let the players decide where they wanted to explore next. The regions that he put on the map drew players to those places initially, where then they would discover exactly what was in each hex.

It might have been a terrible spider lair, some kind of goblin camp, something to do with a dungeon, an ancient set of ruins, or something deep underground that needs to be explored, cleared out, and all the rewards thereof gained.

Spikes of Danger were Ben’s approach — he didn’t call them that. He called them danger gradients and Danger Pockets.

You Get to Be Flexible

Spikes of Danger are my version of adding surprises, believability, and immersion into your campaign.

You don’t need a grand plan starting out.

You don’t need a linear script with all of the cool twists and turns and details and story embedded within it.

You don’t need an existing campaign plot with cool story progression baked into it.

You’re simply creating things as you go, often during the game, by rolling on tables and answering the critical question, “What’s in the hex?”

The Trap

Therefore, your game world has the danger of falling prey to the symptom of being catered to the characters, of revolving around the characters.

The challenge levels of the encounters will reflect the characters, and that’s kind of our default state.

We will run an adventure for first to third levels for a brand-new party of inexperienced adventurers, for example.

Likewise we will generate hexes, in general, where there are challenge rating appropriate encounters for them.

You want to add great dangers and rewards to less challenging areas so players have that thrill of exploration and discovery.

Wither Whether What Now?

Players don’t know what’s going to be in that next hex. They don’t know if it’s going to be incredibly dangerous to them, or if it’s just another level-appropriate kind of a challenge — which is interesting, but when you throw things around, when you change things up and offer the chance that something way too powerful for them to tangle with is right there in the hex they’ve just entered, that’s thrilling and exciting and will keep them on their toes.

I grabbed this weather map. You’ve got high and low systems, and it’s a visual metaphor for your areas of danger.

Each line on this map might represent a region with a specific challenge rating.

For example, if we start in the middle here, that’s level 1. Then the PCs move to the first lines, those are level 2 encounters. They stay within this little valley here, this conduit, it’s level 1, level 1, oh — level 2 now, and then they go to level 3 and level 4 and level 5.

You can see that there is a smooth gradient of challenge. As the characters go farther away [from home base], they understand the danger increases.

But that metagaming aspect of it, especially for experienced players, detracts from the fun of the game.

What I’m proposing visually and metaphorically with this graphic here, is that the L’s and the H’s are sudden Spikes of Danger.

Let’s say the part moves across here and they are now still within a level 1 region — but this L here is a level 10 Spike of Danger. It is the bottom level of a dungeon, the heart of a forest, or a gate to a pocket dimension.

If the PCs go into it, they are overwhelmed. It could be the environment does 1d10 damage every turn just by itself because it’s so toxic — well, goodbye first-level characters within a few rounds.

These sudden Spikes of Danger add drama to your campaigns, and through the hex system, you can add them in your encounter engine so they get procedurally generated as well.

Ultimately, what you want to do is avoid those smoother gradients that I talked about — level 1 and 2, then 3, then 4. Players can metagame that and feel the world is fake, because what world exists where everything is just smoothly increasing in challenge?

Everyone Levels Up

The world is not designed for the expedience of the adventurers and their XP levels. The unexpected dangers offer surprise, fun, and excitement. They also encourage players to be cautious. It encourages players to be smart.

So having sudden dangers in your milieu means that, around any corner, the players might be in over their heads.

Therefore, Spikes, by their nature and structure, teach your players to be smart.

Players don’t have to turn off their brains because they know that whatever decision they make, it will be level-appropriate and they’ll win.

Instead, they have to be engaged and thinking and observing to see if they should proceed forward or back out of this hex.

You don’t want to encourage bad habits and low engagement just by throwing typical challenge rating appropriate encounters at them all the time.

These nasty little surprises — they are not mean, they are meant to reward smart gameplay and encourage players to think and stay engaged — they are mysteries of drama and curiosity.

The Spikes of Danger could be part of your Legends System: therefore known in advance. Then players will anticipate them and say, “Oh this, we’ve just encountered what we’ve heard about. We’re not prepared. We better go back to town and re-equip. Let’s mark the spot and come back when we are ready for it.”

If they come back to town, then it’s something they can think about in the back of their minds always — “What’s really there? I wish we could find out what’s in that castle or in that dungeon. If only we were more powerful.”

That drives them to explore more of the world and get to that power level so they can uncover the answer to that mystery. It totally feeds their curiosity.

A couple of examples:

  • The spider queen’s hive in the Spiderweb Forest
  • The villain’s head quarters

You could put these dangers in the middle of the plains or in mountains where there are just a few goats and goblins to worry about.

Suddenly, the PCs happen upon the headquarters of a villain and they are not ready to tackle the spider queen, lich, or whatever the villain is, nor the traps and hazards.

Heads-Up: Spike Rumours Lead to Thrills

Ingredients you need are simply a region map. As you are hex crawling, you can generate these Spikes of Danger and put them in a specific location.

The Legends System will help out here, so that you can start sowing the seeds and teasing and letting characters know ahead of time about the existence of the Spikes of Danger.

When players finally encounter a Spike, they have that sudden emotional engagement, that reaction, that thrill.

Faction Pyramids help here because Spikes of Danger are often involved in faction play. It could be the resources that they must guard at all costs, the treasure pile or their crime syndicate, sources of their income, or the head of assassins, the secret weapon stash.

Factions will also present you with logical reasons to have these Spikes of Danger.

Building Spikes of Danger

How do we create them?

First, focus on the reward.

Why risk triggering the Spike of Danger? Why risk trying to confront it?

When the players gamble and they think, “Okay, now we are ready. Let’s go back to the dungeon, to the lowest level, and see what’s behind that door with the terrible warnings marked in magical runes.”

Why would they do that? There is the sense of mystery and exploration and a sense of unknown — that will drive them.

But if you could put a reward behind it, then it will motivate the characters to slam themselves against that wall again and again, testing it to see if they have the mettle finally to tackle it.

Then you throw that reward into your Legends System and Knowledge Table so you can properly foreshadow it and hint that there is a great reward behind that door, so it’s worth continually thinking about and planning for.

Then you add the rewards to your information system, your Legends System for hex generation, your Knowledge Table for sandbox play and hex crawling.

Then you put the Spikes in less challenging areas.

Put Hard Rocks in Soft Places

When you’re ready to put a spike on your map, make sure it is in an area much less powerful so you get that spike effect, that sudden steep cliff of a challenge differential.

The party is cruising along in the wastelands and the characters are whacking away at their 5th level monsters. The giant scorpions and the ettins and the mutants.

All of a sudden there is this spire of rock and these terrible birds that breathe fire and have spell-like effects they throw upon the characters.

The flying birds can completely outmaneuver the characters. The characters are going to definitely avoid that, but they are going to wonder what’s in the spire, what’s in the holes.

Maybe there is a little bit of light or something gleaming from the spire to taunt PCs to approach. Make sure you have that difference in challenge rating.

Trap: Why Regions Develop Challenge Parity

An interesting thing Ben Robbins noted was that dungeons have roughly the same challenge rating as the surrounding area, and that makes sense.

The ecosystem will normalize over time.

If there are powerful and active agents in an area, then that means the area is going to become more difficult to pass through or to challenge head-on because of the existence of these additional threats which are more difficult.

Even if it’s just a bunch of goats and goblins, but then you have patrols of the villain that are a higher level. That means the encounter level, the challenge rating of that region, is higher than it used to be because there is an ongoing chance you can encounter these patrols.

Just a footnote here to make sure that your dungeons and factions are represented in the challenge area of a region, so then you don’t kibosh your attempts at making that differential.

If you have a level 5 dungeon, then the surrounding area should be level 4 to 6-ish.

That level 5 Spike of Danger you threw in that area? Well, there is no differential there. It’s no big deal. Even a level 6 or a 7 Spike of Danger would not feel the same because you’ve got the dungeon increasing the challenge rating closer to level 5.

Therefore, you want to hide, seal, or isolate your Spikes. Otherwise, their power and influence would bleed into the nearby region, increasing the challenge rating of that region.

Boundaries Keep the Danger Hot

You kind of need to contain the Spikes so you maintain that sudden differential.

Spikes — again, this is Ben Robbins’ brilliance here — he’s saying Spikes can be easy to find and become well-known.

That means Spikes have a large Legend radius using my Legends System.

And it means the PCs know about the danger and will avoid it.

It doesn’t mean the challenge rating of the area is increased, because the Spike could still be contained.

Everything leading up to the Spike is still easy-peasy or on the same challenge level as the characters can handle.

A well-known Spike means the characters know about it in advance and then they can avoid it, and that’s fair play.

You’ve warned them, and if they insist on still going in there, then TPK, roll up a new group of characters. Or the party is heavily wounded or it suffered partial casualties.

The Spike was easy to find and well-known, so it’s all on the PCs and that’s the whole hex crawl thing. The characters make the decisions. The players make the decisions.

Alternatively, Ben says you make the Spike hard to find and unknown, so the chances of accidentally stumbling upon it are small.

If PCs do stumble upon it, then it completely radiates the metagame signals that it’s something unusual and the players should suddenly be cautious, because it was hard to find and they haven’t heard about it until now.

Again, smart players — conscious players who are paying attention and are awake — will know “Okay, maybe we should do a little foray, investigate, do some magical detection, do some stealthy reconnaissance before we just plunge into this because it might be over our heads.”

Generally, these kinds of Spikes of Danger have a small Legend radius, so just one hex. They don’t know they are in it until they’ve entered that hex. Isolate your Spikes.

Steps to Create Your Spike of Danger

First, create dungeons and adventure regions as you normally would for your hex crawl.

Roll them up. Use the Legends System to find your radiuses and start your information and teasing and hinting.

Put your Spiderhaunt Forest on the map, and your terrible swamp, and the tall peaks of a mountain range.

When you are ready, throw the higher challenge-rating Spikes into the regions.

That puts a pin in your map for each Spike so you know roughly how to GM the surrounding area, and so you know the challenge ratings.

It’s a way to kind of infer or deduce the surrounding area and back into map creation. You put your toughest challenges here on the map so you know the surrounding areas need to be four or five levels, at least, of differential in difficulty.

And now you have a simple system for figuring out the “isometric bars” of challenge ratings on your map

Add the Spikes as you create them to your Legends System so you can foreshadow and foretell.

Add them to your Knowledge Table for the same reason.

Optionally, you can add them to your sandbox system, so they are now an Adventure Site, a place where events can take place, a place where encounters can take place. So, you can put them into your sandbox system if you like.

That’s Spikes of Danger. Again, we are answering “What’s in the hex?”

With Spikes of Danger, you totally surprise characters in a fair way, but also in a compelling way.

And it will make your players want to go back to encounter places they’ve already gone.

You can then repopulate these locations, put them in a different light and reframe, throw in Story Overlays, or throw in your events and have more adventures in the same spots. This way, you get maximum reuse out of all your Lego pieces, and that special kind of recurring storytelling feel inside a deep, immersive, living world.