Last week I spotted an image on Twitter shared by Dungeons & Dragons Game Designer Dan Dillon. A collection of detritus had been arranged very conspicuously on the beach. Dan, a terrific designer and creative mind for the RPG hobby, took note. “Odd beach sights,” is the caption. “Something happened here. Make an Intelligence (Investigation) or Intelligence (Arcana) check, your choice.” Okay, I’m game. What adventure hooks for D&D can we takeaway through this real world sighting?
D&D adventure hooks from real life
Our location is a beach, which in D&D terms translates to coastal terrain. Right off the bat, any Circle of the Land druids or rangers with this favored terrain in the party could discover an opportunity to shine. They’d be most likely to spot the odd sight, and probably have the best shot at interpreting the symbol’s meaning. And since it’s coastal terrain (a personal favorite) I’m thinking this could be an encounter to add to a Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign. Any characters with backgrounds from the D&D adventure storyline — fisher, marine, shipwright or smuggler — might also have a special relationship to this odd sight on the beach.
There’s a few ways I use encounters like this as a Dungeon Master. I call it an encounter because in the fifth edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, an encounter is described as “the individual scenes in the larger story of your adventure.” The first way is simply including it in the description of the surroundings any time the party walks along the shore. Any time you include unusual details in your description, players will generally take note. Take heed! It’s not uncommon for players to take avid interest in something a DM describes. A tapestry hanging from the castle wall, twisting tree limbs in forest, or the date of a journal entry found in a moldy chest can lead adventurers down unexpected paths. All three of those things were innocuous descriptions from my own games that turned into side quests. So an odd arrangement of sticks, shells and stones on the beach will almost certainly capture players’ attention.
For a more dramatic discovery, imagine the party is battling sahuagin on the shore around sundown. One of the characters gets knocked to the ground by a sahuagin coral smasher. They land right next to the unusual symbol in the sand, noticing it clearly as the struggle to get back on their feet. What does it mean? No time to ponder it right now though. A sahuagin champion wades from the surf onto the beach. The one who spotted the symbol might want to think about maneuvering the fight away to avoid scattering the detritus in the fight.
Another way to use an encounter like this very explicitly creating a mystery. The symbol could appear when the characters aren’t looking. They searched the area and scouted around the vicinity before making camp, and the coast is clear. In the morning, they awake to the gentle sounds of the surf. But arranged in conspicuous pattern around their campsite, a symbol is arranged in the sand of driftwood, shells and stones.
When you present encounters like this in your games, you’re under no obligation to provide immediate payoff. For starters, you might not have any idea what the symbol portends or what creature placed it there. This is okay. In a dynamic world, not everything that happens has to do with the player characters. In the last example, sure, it involves them when their campsite is marked. And in that case, if you want to introduce a little paranoia to the party, congratulations. Who’s watching them, and what does the symbol mean? They may never find out, or discover similar symbols and clues throughout their adventures. That’s up to your group, based on the players interest. If they express curiosity, reward them with side quests and a B plot.
The nature of the side quest can be for good or ill. My first thought is some creepy cult activity. In season one of True Detective, one of the clues they find are strange twig sculptures left by the cultists. These beach symbols could be something similar, like a cult devoted to Sekolah. But it could just as easily be a secret cabal opposed to such evil, trying to warn the party without revealing themselves. It could have nothing to do with the campaign narrative at all, and instead be some element of a character’s backstory. In this case, it could be interested to have a different character make the discovery of some link to their companion’s past. That way you’re creating potential drama between two players, and it could become a cool moment for their characters to explore where this story goes together.
Or, the symbol could turn out to be a driftwood sculpture left behind by partying teenagers the night before. Who knows? It’s your world.