I recently decided to try doing weekly delve nights with my girlfriend while pining for a regular campaign to run again. At a loss for inspiration for a delve, though, I decided to try a little experiment. I've seen many folks suggesting using tarot spreads to generate NPC or character backgrounds, so why not do the same with adventures? So I ran a quick spread on Llewellyn's free tarot reading page and here's what I got:
I chose a simple three card past/present/future spread for my first go. It's not only quick and simple, it fits a delve perfectly, with the three cards possibly representing the actual past, present and future of the scenario, or the three consecutive encounters in the delve, or any number of other aspects. In this case I got a rather plain spread: Four of Wands, Two of Wands, and Three of Wands, with nothing reversed.
It's been a while since I did an actual reading, so I'm relying largely on Llewellyn's interpretations here and the look of the cards, in this case the Llewellyn Tarot. As a side note, I'd suggest using one of the usual Rider-Waite based decks rather than the more abstract decks out there so you can use the imagery of the card as inspiration alongside the symbolism.
The Four of Wands in this set is represented by a fairly Arthurian looking castle overlooking meadowy hills and a pair of bridges over brook. Four poles decorated with festive banners and garlands are planted around the brook. The card represents, among other things, celebration and rest after an ordeal. Both the card and it's symbolism suggested to me the setting for the delve: a kingdom celebrating the end of a long war.
The Two of Wands shows a woman in a brightly patterned black dress looking into a crystal ball that catches the low sun, flanked by two sprouting poles with buildings silhouetted in the background. She looks like she may be perched on a parapet overlooking these buildings. The card symbolizes planning, seeking out new opportunities and hidden options. "Viewing a situation from a higher perspective." Once again both the art and the symbolism suggested things to me. This time it's the villain of the piece: a mystic woman, a sorceress or wizard, plotting in the background and viewing things from on high.
The Three of Wands depicts a princely figure overlooking a bay or inlet where three ships of various sizes are setting sail. He grips one garlanded pole like a staff of office, with two more planted around him. It symbolizes launching new enterprises, exploring adventure, as well as trade and gambling on the unknown. This card helped flesh out the setting: not just a castle, but a fortified trade town overlooking the mouth of a river. The princely figure may represent a nobleman, perhaps the one motivating the PCs.
A quick side trip to Google Maps to grab some appropriately European city names, and we have the fortified trading city of Mazara celebrating the end of a long war with it's neighbor Catania. A festival is being held in honor of the treaty. But our villainess isn't happy with this development for some reason. A bit of brainstorming and she becomes the Bella Donna, a beautiful noblewoman who was exiled from the city years ago for dabbling in forbidden magics and trafficking with the foul creatures of the river marshes, nowadays reduced to a minor boogeyman parents use to frighten their children. I might even make her a custom monster, a hag tweaked to match the level of the adventure. Excellent. But what about the action?
Looking over the cards again I see the villainess with her crystal ball looking down over the city. There's the nobleman, dressed in red and gold, contrasting with the more subdued colors of the castle and it's festival poles. Aha! The noble is a visitor from Catania, come for the festival, perhaps one of the signers of the treaty. What better way to disrupt this new peace than by having him assassinated and blaming it on Mazara.
So, we have the evil sorceress Bella Donna lurking on the rooftops, watching while her minions move in to assassinate the Duca (sure, we'll use Italian titles, since I stole the city names from Sicily), disguised as guards for one of Mazania's prominent noble families. The PCs see the assault or hear the clash of combat and come running to help. A street full of commoners in the midst of a festival should make for interesting combat, especially if the PCs have to worry about keeping the attackers away from the Duke at the same time. Since the Donna is the big bad and the first encounter is a bit early to have her getting directly involved, she curses when her minions begin to fall, drawing attention to herself, then flees across the rooftops. A perfect opportunity for a Rooftop Chase skill challenge once the last minion falls and she has a decent lead.
Where to after the chase? The first encounter matched up nicely with the first card, out on the festival streets. The rooftops of the second card gave me the chase scene. The ships of the third card give me an idea, but I want to save that for the big finale. Time to improvise. City on a river, villain needs a getaway.. into the Absurdly Spacious Sewers! So, the Donna ducks down into the storm drains. Here's where the reward for the skill challenge comes in: if they succeeded, the PCs managed to stay hot on the Donna's heels. They get down into the sewers just in time to hear her shout to her minions to arm themselves as she slams a grate down behind her, giving them a surprise round against scattered and unprepared guards. If they failed, they barely manage to spot where the Donna was going and wind up facing armed and ready guards waiting in ambush. Either way, they'd be wise to deal with this opposition first before battering the door down and giving chase again, dealing with the constricted passageways and ample difficult terrain in the sewer tunnels.
I hadn't decided up to this point just who the minions would be. Demons? Undead? Goblinoids? I also hadn't specified a level for the delve. We'll say 3rd. With that, a sewer encounter added in and the city's placement on the river, my choice suddenly became clear: bullywugs. Obviously just putting on a tabbard isn't going to disguise a frogman as a guardsman, so now I have a reason for the Donna to be lurking watching over her minions: maintaining the illusion spell that masked them during the attack. And just imagine the look on the PC's faces when one of the "guards" in the first encounter opens his mouth wide and snares a PC with his exceedingly long tongue!*
Once the guards are dealt with and the grate blocking the way removed, the PCs follow the easy trail of the fleeing Donna to the river docks, just in time to catch her barge pulling away. The fight takes place between the PCs and the Donna and her most loyal minions amidst the crowd of revel-barges swarming the river, with lots of opportunities for daring leaps from boat to boat, swinging on lanyards, and unfortunate tumbles into the water below. If they succeed in bringing the Donna down, they're able to present her to the nobility of both cities, alive or dead, narrowly preventing renewed hostilities. If they don't, well, the river has played host to it's share of corpses. What's a few more?
Voila. A complete delve in three cards plus a bit of brain juice. There's still plenty of work to do building the individual encounters in details, maps and stats and all, creating the rooftop chase skill challenge, etc, but the tough work of actually putting a story on it is all done.
* I know, bullywugs in 4e don't actually have a tongue attack.. but I'm the DM so by gods I want tongue-grappling frogmen so that's what you get.