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.