Friday, March 18, 2016

Sexing Up Hexcrawl Terrain

Volturnus could have been a contender. Having recently reread that capstone series of Star Frontiers modules (lucky you, you can download it free and legally here), you can see the foundations of what could have been a truly great adventure series with heavy dollops of planetary romance, fun little mini-games (like a dino-riding polo match with tribal octo-critters), and a colorful, evocative wilderness hex map.

But the light-railroading and over-reliance on pre-planned encounters that lead you to meet Planet of Adventures-style each major sentient race on the planet sadly eclipse what could have been a truly great example of location-based hex-crawling love. (With some medium-exertion one could derail the whole series and revamp it, perhaps a post for another day.)

But hey, let's not beat a 30-plus year dead horse, there are some lessons that can be drawn out of the hexcrawling elements of those modules about gussing up your own wilderness adventures (a long running theme here on the blog). (Note I am leaving out pointcrawls for now mostly because there are some inherent fixes to these issues in that format.)

So what can we learn from Voturnus? Three lessons, I reckon:
1. Terrain should be more varied and sub-divided.
2. Terrain should be weirder and more wonderful (or at least interesting).
3. Landmarks and Specials should be more densely-encountered and varied.

Now click on this map here (also from the Star Frontiers site), zoom in and take a nice long gander at this map before diving in. Run your eye over the key and all those strange markings and lovely colored areas.

Ok let's scoot over to the analysis.

1. Varied and Sub-Varied Terrain. Volturnus is a large map hex-count wise but a not terribly large one scale wise. The hexes are 8 km (that's five of your earth miles). But what immediately jumps out at you is how much diversity there is in terrain. Not just in using a wide range of the major types--to hell with the tyranny of realistic bio-clime modeling—but in diversifying into sub-varieties.

So you don't just have one single mundane “mountains” you have mist-mountains, crystalline mountains, lizard head rock and soaring cliffs each that have differing horizon sight limits, movement rates and special features. You don't have plains you have glass shard plains, salt flats, rocky barrens etc.

2. Weird and Wonderful Terrain. You got a whiff with the list above, but a pulpy swords and planets modeled wilderness led to some great choices in that series.

See on Volturnous you don't just have easily-transversed blah woods, you have “bachanda forest” with dense thorn plants as undergrowth and giant massive-limbed trees as canopy roads. You have razor sharp “shard plains” rolled flat in weird-shaped avenues by steamroller-phant critters. You have baroomian dried canals running through miles of ruins ruins. Lands burning with pitch and oil-slicked lakes.

3. Dense and Varied Landmarks. The next thing that jumps out you is the large number of icons all over the map, many less than a day or two's walk from each other. There's something to travel to and have the party find interesting several times in a session.

You've got needle spires, mesas, weird trees, geysers, weird rock formations (four kinds even), elevation points, and other landmarks. You have vast lost city ruins, crystal stonehenges, ceremonial burial grounds, space pirate bases and alien artifacts. And in a lovely underworld turn, mammoth caves linked by miles of tunnel and underground rivers (marsh even).

This shit is good. There's no reason fantasy shouldn't also reach more beyond the mundane in this regards either. Dream big or go home.

All of this kind of design takes a little work, but has a big payout in my experience in breaking up the boredom of large stretches of terrain with easy to transmit and grok variation. Unwittingly and not always for the best of reasons, it's a route I stumbled into with the Feral Shore where the hex scale is even smaller--at two miles per hex--and wildly varied. Above is just a small, explored part of that map, you can see all three lessons at play.  

Monday, February 29, 2016

Grim Frontier: The Game

One of my favorite things about the Hydra Cooperative is that we have started slowing evolving away from just being a publishing vehicle for individual DIY rpg projects and into a space that can synergize and cross-fertilize on projects. A couple months back Hydra partner Trey Causey posted about the Grim Frontier, an idea he had for a hardcore survival rpg/setting.

His summary:
“Potentially easy death, resource management, and some horror elements beloved by many old school gamers; an evocation for modern audience of the strangeness or alienness of new environments through use of Roadside Picnic-esque zones element...Ancient mounds,giant skeletons or mummified dwarfs borrowed from the real folklore of the West; vaguely late 18th to first few decades of the 19th level of technology, probably with low magic.”

The concept hit me as I was deep into my own thoughts about a survival small-scale “domain game." We started the game design equivalent of a jam session with Robert Parker, Humza K, David Lewis Johnson (who gussed up that piece above), Trey and I riffing and expanding on elements. It's a backburner project—we have so much to finish like Misty Isles, Strange Stars OSR, Operation Unfathomable, Broken Fire Regime—but a fun one.
Here are some of the design goals:
Grim Frontier Design Goals
Three Main Themes. Exploration, treasure-hunting and surviving/settling. Provides a potential beginning, middle and end arc where the characters may go from just basic survival to reasonable comfort to growing/leading a whole small pocket of civilization in the wilds.

High Lethality. Characters are fragile and powered down and the threat level is constant and high.

Hostile Wilderness. The wilderness should be as much or move of a challenge as monsters. Travel mishaps and disasters become huge and relatively frequent challenges. Exposure, dehydration, hunger are just around the corner.

Almost No Civilization/Safe Zones. Outside trade post, some tiny fragile and suspicious neutral holdings and that's it.

Troupe Play. Each player has several characters that he/she can cycle through. This both helps with the high lethality and gives the player skill variety and characters to accomplish downtime activities between sessions. Instead of NPC hirelings you are for the most part using your own PCs.

NPC Dynamics are Important. Loyalty and morale are even more important than most games. To either entice an NPC—and backup PCs--to leave civilization to come to this godforsaken place or ally with you, close attention needs to be made to their needs and desires. Charisma and success matter a lot. Low morale and loyalty NPCs are more likely to desert, steal, or mess up during downtime. Higher levels provide bonuses. Good CHA, success during adventure sessions and providing a comfortable existence

Downtime. Characters not in use during a session are assumed to be able to do a small range of activities over the week “turn” between sessions. Many of these are base, scouting or scavenging oriented.

Organic Link Between Domain Turn and Adventure Session. The game revolves around two play arenas:
1. the traditional face-to-face adventure session where the players choose one of their PCs to play and the players go after some big ticket adventure goal (like exploring a large ruin, raiding a large resource cache, etc).
2. a mini-game/subsystem that takes care of all the domain/downtime activity of the PCs and Base around weekly turns. Grim Frontier will make the link between this activity and the session more organic and frequent. So say a downtime PC goes on a chart-resolved scouting run and learns some valuable, but sketchy details about Zone X that might guide the player goals for the next session. Or a downtime PC has a mishap is trapped under a fallen log and has to be rescued in the session.

Base Building. Base building is a key player activity in surviving the deeply hostile environment.

Housing (start with tents and can build larger structures that provide more durable structure)
Fortifications (palisades, stone wall, trenches, towers and traps)
Workshops (blacksmiths, carpentry, etc)

Base Resources. Base resources are somewhat abstracted and you need basic thresholds of each to both survive, maintain (keep up morale/hit points), and thrive (build expansions or new settlements). Resources can be scavenged in downtime and pursuit of large hoards/caches may become goals in adventure sessions.

Hardware (nails, tools, plows, etc)
Ammo (or Powder and Ball)
Raw Materials (wood, stone, iron, etc)
Luxury Items (provide bonuses to morale and loyalty, have a chance of converting mook NPCs

Hit Points. A la Robert Parker's excellent downtime house rules for Krul, hit points are re-rolled per session according to the level of accommodation and luxury at the home base. More comfortable and more sustainable bases provide bonuses to rolls for hit points, the obverse is true for hard scrabble bases.

Equipment Deterioration. Shit breaks and downgrades. A good steel axe becomes worth its weight in gold.

Tech Level. Late 18th/early 19th century (black powder firearms).

Treasure and Artifacts. Treasure/artifact hunting is an important goal/activity beyond survival. Supernatural or high technology artifacts are rare, powerful and highly sought out in some of the sites/zones. Tradeable goods are important also for relations with other enclaves and getting badly needed supplies shipped in from distant civilization. Luxury items can be consumed as a base resource and provide significant advantages.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Erol Otus DDG Pantheon

A few months back I posted on Google Plus about another chuckle-worthy find from my days as a tween DM. Among the coverless Dragon issues and ripped up modules that single time-misted, roach-infested box found in my mom's garage (the one with the partial key for Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid) has several cryptic loose leaf sheets.

This is perhaps one of the oddest and it took me six months to figure out what the hell I was thinking 35 years ago: that I tried to develop a pantheon out of Erol Otus's Deities and Demigods cover. I loved the shit out that cover (still do) with all its evocative weirdness and the simple fact that other than those ghostly pseudo-Egyptian it was totally independent from the contents of the book. It was a free-floating piece of Otus fever dream.

So anyway in its unedited glory, this is what I got...
Part 1: The Kutalikean Cover Pantheon
Halgorr, Major, Glory/Light/Scourging (sic), Lammasu, M/F clerics, Gold, Sunrise, Temple Hall. 600 hp.

Sinthimaxx, Major, Serpents/Deviousnes (sic), Vipers, M clerics, Secret Hall. 550 hp.

Vortok, Minor, Corruption/Chaos (Evil) , slime priests, lose (?) caverns. 300 hp, AC -10

Hatshepsut (LN), Minor

Shebaka (TN), Minor

Settnaknteh. (CN), Minor

Part 2: The Other Gods
So anywho scanning over Otus's equally wonderful title page illustration with its own made up gods, goddesses and divine critters, I just realized 12-year-old Chris missed a golden opportunity. I mean look how wonderfully this rounds out the weird fantastical cohort of deities on that cover?

Woe gets the best of it here with that Sarku-like lichy dead god and ichor-blasting tentacle fell god. Bonus points though for Weal's laser-ray pigeon god, Quetzalcoatl-ish, and Thundarr.

So who are these deities? What's their portfolio? 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Hexcrawls vs Pointcrawls

Despite the header this is not a cage match between hexcrawls and pointcrawls. Pointcrawl reputation notwithstanding, I both love and use hex maps all the time in my campaign. Having run all kinds of wilderness in my campaign, I've started to become keenly aware of how each format complements certain types of outdoor gameplay.

Let's unpack the distinctions.

In a hexcrawl, the party is presented with a 360-degree, six-direction choice most every time it exits a hex. Terrain will often foster soft positive and negative natural choices, the presence of a road running into a different hex or a bordering “open” or “rough” hex (easy/quicker travel in a grasslands or what) codes incentivizes/deincentivizes choices.

The problem from a design perspective with that approach is this the “paradox of choice”, that lovely study that showed that an over-abundance of variables, tends to surprisingly reduce meaningful choice by causing option paralysis (that “fuck it, let's just do this” exasperation). And I believe that paradox often extends to the designer of the hexcrawl. I find making hex maps an incredibly quick (maybe too quick process) I think about the kinds of sub-regions I want, pop open hexographer and the map just flows out of geographic naturalism (or at least some kind of internal logic).

Unless you densely pack your hexes (I am insane about this) you end up with large amounts of empty hexes. Now you need pacing (and a sense of travel) and a principled sandbox GM just has to live with the fact that players may never see this or that thing you worked so hard to make, but it does mean at least for me that I can make some sub-optimal choices about placement.

A weird serendipity often hangs over the map when you start playing put these kinds of hexcrawls. The party runs this way and that way, sometimes running into a good run of interesting hexes, sometimes just somehow, inexplicably hitting the dullest string of hexes one could imagine.

A pointcrawl on the otherhand is all about the deliberate path choice of say a dungeon. You place a node much like a room with its doors and corridors leading out.

The drawbacks are much like that of dungeon design again. Make the decision choices too limited, too linear and/or too chokepointed and you end up straight-jacketing the players and making for a dull-ass map to explore.

Secondly it's also more challenging presenting an environment where wide-open wilderness exploration for its own sake is the goal. Sometimes you do want that 360-degree exploration/clearing or serendipity. Hexes give an exactness of space and have the advantage of being gridded with a recognizable number pattern. Being able to call a hex number is a convenient short-hand both for the GM during play and for players thinking about how to explore an outdoors area.

The punchline here is this...

I use a hex map when I want a campaign phase that...
3. is quick and dirty.

I use a pointcrawl when I want...
1. choice in travel and exploration to feel more deliberate and meaningful.
2. to highlight the major and minor sites in a wilderness as the major goals of exploration. (Revoca being an example of a pointcrawl hidden behind a hexmap).

Oh and while I am on the subject, Luka (again for the umpteenth time in our collaboration) wowed me with this weekend with this beauty of a pointcrawl map for Misty Isles of the Eld. Maps can and should be beautiful also in themselves, no?
Do so click on me. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Misty Isles Sample Pages

Super quick update and some show and tell. Misty Isles of the Eld has gone through layout and is just waiting on some maps and proofing.

Slumbering Ursine Dunes Kickstarter backer, old-school blogger and all-around good guy Jeff Russell jumped in the on the last minute to finish layout for the project. Not only was he a life-saver but he did it on our tight deadline, not a mean task given that this product is a good 24 pages longer than the Dunes (you know the actual crowdfunded adventure).

In other last minute happy news old school cartographer Cecil Howe has jumped in to do some of the site maps. I have been digging his work especially some pieces from Ed Greenwood recently.

Just to give you a taste of what is to come, here are some of the first round pages. Naturally many of these pages will get cleaned up and changed around as we work through the last step. Seeing all of Luka Rejec's art in one place made my jaded heart flutter a-new (and the thing is just packed with it).

Click on each to enlarge. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Information as Treasure Type: Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part III

The gradual chipping away at mysteries both big and small is one of the central running themes of the Hill Cantons campaign. I am a big believer in the notion that every dungeon or adventure site really should have at least one or three nagging questions about why it is there or what is going on with its residents (both historical and present).

Just to complicate it further I also have a self-rule that each site's mystery or theme has to have a connection with either another site's or a larger setting one. Since I tend toward designing and introducing lots of small and medium-sized dungeons of 1-3 levels rather than mega or large ones, that means alongside the campaign news round up that I have had a pretty good working method to keep the layers of mystery dynamic and sustainable even after seven years of weekly campaign play.

That said, I feel like I have always been challenged as a GM in how to present layers of mystery players without it just being “hunh that's weird and inexplicable.” In other words how to achieve that sweet spot between keeping your cards close to your chest and giving players enough information and access points to make meaningful choices in the sandbox—and to have actual value to their advantage.

Early on in the Google Plus campaign, the players started using a term coined by Robert Parker (a player): “info-treasure.” Simply that coming along some piece or another in exploration is valuable in itself.

Classic D&D has a couple long-standing examples of this: the rumor table and treasure map. Rumors are like starting magic item equipment, small random items that can help a party (or be “cursed” and hinder with misinformation). Treasure maps naturally are straightforward as being directly tied into the reward system of well-aged D&D.

Punchline: Why not just treat Info-Treasure as a literal treasure type?

Here's a system that I started to work on that incorporates Info-Treasure into the time-honored B/X d6 dungeon stocking rolls.
Treasure Table
Roll d6
1-5 Treasure only (roll on Treasure Tables as usual)
6 1d2 Info-Treasure roll (1-2 on d6 chance of Treasure Table roll too)

Info-Treasure Table
Roll d6
1 Red Herring/Misinformation
2-3 Sketchy/Cryptic Clue
4 Minor Clue
5 Substantive Clue
6 Full Monty Exposition

Info-Treasure delivery ideas:
Lost Journal (savor that cliché)
Oracular pool/creature
Magic Mouth
Friendly or Neutral NPC/monster
Hostile but Captive NPC/monster
Players Map (level of detail dependent on type)

Red Herring/Misinformation. There is a single muletrack that leads from the woods to the Lost City of the Angels. Also the Gopherman saying for “I surrender” is “Bree-Yark.”

Sketchy/Cryptic Clue.
Only roads beneath the ground lead to the Lost City of the Angels.

Minor Clue
Underground roads exist from all the local dungeons to the Lost City of the Angels.

Substantive Clue
An entrance to an underground highway exists in the eastern part of the basement of the Hall of the Ancient Hyperboreans.

Full Monty Exposition
Here are all the ways you can get to that damned Lost City of the Angels, also this is what's going on there.