tl;dr: On places as puzzles and setting your players on problems where you don't know the answer
This talks through how I cobble together and then use locations using an recent session example. I have less 'big set piece combats' and more 'forces loose in a place' model.
I needed something cool for the end of a hunt. I knew it was a dwarven location, high in the mountains, where a physically large artefact could have gotten lost. I had been thinking it was a shattered dwarven ruin until I got Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures in a sale. It had the Dam of the Beselmir Kings in it. This also featured in an article on his blog that I loved about adapting Storm Kings Thunder. I loved the aesthetic of the dwarven heads pouring water out as beards, so I wanted to try and use that.
For the set up I mashed together the sub-locations from "The Dam of the Besilmer Kings" for Storm Kings Thunder with the "Queen of Red Water" in Fantastic Adventures. That gave me a dam, with lots of internal locations and gubbins, under assault by giants. I set out the locations within and around the dam in a point-crawl format so I knew how they related to each other and that was it for prep. The main modification I made was to have three water-spouting heads on the dam instead of four.
A big rock was missing and the groups living in the mountains along the north of the players realm were tearing themselves apart. To be precise, the dragon-blooded ruling house had discovered that the Treaty Stone which sealed the live-and-let-live pact between dragons and giants was missing. The giants were on the move, causing much destruction and fighting amongst each other. Most of the realms forces engaged in a war with their northern neighbour and locked in place through this deep mid-winter, leaving few options to deal with this.
Enter the PCs. After a vision from Kord enlightened our cleric that the stone was missing, the party set out in their flying boat (a Spelljamming dragon-saddle strapped to a longboat.) Despite poor navigational choices the party managed to track the stone from where it had been rolled away by forces unknown to the edge of the frozen dam-lake, all high in the mountains.
While scouting the location where the stone was lost into the lake, they heard the sound of conflict. Investigating they found a stone giant and some bug-bears pounding on the nearside towers of the dam. Having narrowly escaped being smashed out of the sky by giant-flung rocks earlier that day, our party approaches cautiously, arcing out over the dam and discovering that the dam was tall and the lake behind it deep. They also spotted a group of fire-giants approaching in the distance. Water pours out from the left and right giants carved stone heads while the central one releases only a trickle.
So the task was to recover a big spherical rock from the bottom of a lake. To open, I had no idea how the players were going to accomplish this, I just knew where all the pieces were and that they had day-light today before even more hostile forces arrived.
How it played out.
This turned into what I felt was a quintessential 3.5e D&D session with the players turning out their backpacks and spell-lists for all the weird odds and ends they had collected over the campaign so far and trying to build a rube goldberg device to solve the problem.
Some poking about, dropping rocks to smash the ice and avoiding flung rocks from the stone giant establishes that the stone is currently wedged at the base of the dam in the fast flowing channel in the centre.
- unhook the flying saddle, swim down to the stone, strap on the saddle and fly it back to the hole in the ice (unclear if mounting and powering up the saddle would cancel the bards water-breathing)
- tie a rope to the stone, blast a hole through the ice directly above and then hitch up a long rope and lift the stone out (discarded as too visible, likely to draw fire, not enough available rope)
- break into the dam, stone-shape the place where the stone was wedged to allow it to pass that bottleneck and then catch it from the air once it passed through the dam (second best plan, needed a nights rest to select the right spells)
Finally, realising that the channel through the dam needed to be cleared for the second-best plan, the bard and the cleric entered the machine room, shattered the water-wheel in the centre channel and in a fit of paranoia about dwarves realised the doors the stone was jammed against could be opened further. The bard exited while the cleric stood ready to turn the wheel inside. The sorceror calculated where the stone ought to fall, the bard took their Ring of the Ram and got ready to catch the stone. The cleric activated the old dwarven machinery and the stone rocketed out from the water pressure behind it. Temporarily boosting their strength to fire-giant level, the bard caught the stone and lashed it into the back of the flying boat.
At the point the forces within the dam had realised they were no longer alone and made for the machine room. The cleric closed the channel gates again, and gave them the slip through the now dry channel, hopping aboard the boat as the sorcerer brought it back around again. Party and stone exited, stage up.
This all played out as a great elaborate puzzle, with focus on avoiding combat and getting away clean. I had originally considered that the dwarven ruin this was all happening in was going to be a dungeon delve with a classic mountain hold sheared open by avalanche but the combination of terrain challenges (ice, deep water) and hostile giants (who could fling rocks at fliers) combined to stay entertaining across a full-day ~8hr session. For me, lifting a location and re-tooling it got me the 'where' done quickly which let me figure out the 'what' surrounding it.
Some winning problem-solving plays were:
- the bard casting alter-self to become a merfolk and swimming under the lake to scout where the stone was
- the cleric of Kord drawing on their domain 'shatter' spell to clear mechanisms from their way
- the decision to enter the dam via the open mouth of the centre dwarf-head and avoid the hostiles and fortifications above
- the sorcerer using the waterfalls of the right and left heads outflows to gauge where the stone was going to fall
- the cleric deciding to just shut the channel again and exit the way they came in (versus fighting their way out alone)