Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hexcrawling and its Fundamental Use in Old School DnD Part 2

Second in my series on the hexcrawl campaign in DnD.  See the first post here.

So, most people know that the premise of the hexcrawl is pretty much a central and fundamental factor in a "sandbox" style campaign.  The sandbox being, a world within which your PCs are free to explore, plunder, and do with as they wish at their own discretion.  Now, I could go on in another entire direction here discussing the elements of the sandbox as a whole, but right now I'm just focusing on the fundamentals of a hexcrawl and the basic elements to start one.

There are hundreds of posts on forums and blogs that go into much greater detail into the fine art of designing a hexcrawl and world building than what I will offer up here.  Rob Conley, for example, has a fantastic series of posts going in depth on world building and designing your hexcrawl campaign worlds.  Even if you don't plan on using his method, I'd still highly recommend having a read through because there is a ton of valuable information in those posts.  There are others as well to be sure, and chances are if you're reading this, you have your own ideas of the best ways to go about designing a hexcrawl.  By no means is the method I am suggesting, or the advice I am offering the ONLY way to design such, it's just MY way of doing so.  It works for me.  Maybe it will work for you as well.

As I noted in my first entry, the first step is to draw a map.  Sounds pretty simple.  If you're like me, however, designing great maps can be frustrating.  I've drawn hundreds over the years, and never seem satisfied with the results.  There are all sorts of theories that go behind world building and terrain placement relative to regions, etc.  I'm just going to keep things simple for this exercise.  You might opt to sketch out a rough drawing of your map on a scrap piece of paper beforehand, or maybe you just want to wing it.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages.  I'm going to focus on designing the hexcrawl using the least amount of effort initially.  If you're like me, you already have a busy life, and while designing campaign worlds is a great way to spend your time as a hobby, you don't want to spend countless hours on world building and writing up histories and details about far away and distant lands your PCs might never encounter.  One basic rule of campaign design for me: focus on the immediate areas/regions my PCs will be engaged in prior to each session.

So, let's get right down to business then.  The first step is to get the initial hex map ready for where you're going to start the campaign.  You can either print a blank one out and draw in the details yourself, or use a program like hexographer to do it on the computer. In this exercise I'm going to just use hexographer.  Now, mind you, it will take some time playing around with this to get the full use of the program, but the free version is an excellent utility for mapmaking and comes highly recommended.

In the first step, we'll start out very basic here.  Enough to get your wheels turning and start getting you ready for that first session.  Whether you printed off a map, or are using hexographer, or any other utility, you always want to start your mapping for the campaign from the center most hex.  This way, as your players explore in whatever directions they might choose, you have plenty of room to go in and add features to your already existing map.

To make things simple, let's simply start out with 7 hexes, with each hex equal to 6 miles.  One center hex, and 6 surrounding hexes.

7 starting hexes
 In the above picture we have the central hex with the 6 surrounding hexes with grassland hills, a light forest, and a forested hills, with a river, which forks, running down the center.  Now, that we've placed our basic terrain features we need to determine what exactly are in these hexes that our adventurers are going to want to explore?  So, let's start by adding 4 basic features to the map.  A starting village (in the center hex), a ruin, a tower, and a monster lair.  Fairly basic components just to give you the idea.

Our original hexes with some areas for the PCs to explore
In the center hex, we have the village of Windholm, which sits along the river, as well as a set of ruins not far away, a monster lair in the forested hills, and a tower of some sort in the grassy hills to the south.  So already you have 4 areas for your PCs to explore, although they'll certainly focus on the 3 areas most ripe for adventure outside the starting village.  Jot down the hex number on a piece of paper, or word document and write a brief description of that hex's details.  For example:

04.04 Windholm - Small fishing village located along the Southling River.  Population 80.  Ruled by a town council of elders led by Sumerus Halfhand (LG hf9)

Of course, the above is simply an example.  You want to write out as much detail as possible in your notes.  You might want to consider drawing a map of the village, or just doing a short write-up of the major locations your PCs are likely to encounter (inns, taverns, etc.) and the NPCs they are likely to interact with.  No need to get too crazy with the details though.  It doesn't matter if Farmer Goldenwheat has a bag of 10 silver pieces hidden under a hay pile in the barn.  These things are simply filler and can be made up in the game as you go.  Focus on the important stuff, and go from there.

In the next post, I'll talk about fleshing out the areas for your party to explore, getting them to learn about the areas, and a bit about traveling to them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hexcrawling and its Fundamental Use in Old School D&D Part 1

The first in a series of posts whereby I discuss the merits of the old school hexcrawl.

In new school era games (3e, 3.5, 4e, etc.) when PCs are expected to travel long distances to get to their next destination, it might be typical for a DM to say "after a week long travel you all arrive at 'destination x,' subtract a week's rations," for the sake of "moving the story along."  That's fine and dandy and all, and maybe the players want that at times, but let's face it, in a world of medieval/weird/apocalyptic fantasy, "getting there" is half the battle.  That's the difference between the old school game and the new school era, video game centric scaled "encounters" in modern RPGs.  In the old school, it's not always about the destination, but more about the journey.  After all, in a fantastic setting peopled with monsters and magic, all kind of things can happen when the PCs are moving through the wilderness, even if they take a populated and well traveled road.

In my present game, it won't be long before the party gets a clue to what will likely be their next destination, should they follow that path of course.  They could certainly choose to ignore it, but most likely they won't.  As such, the journey will take them almost a month, on horseback, even if they take the main road.  In a world of fantasy, a lot can happen in a month's time.  So, in essence, they'll be doing some hexcrawling for a while.  Maybe even a few entire game sessions.  A lot can happen on the way to town.

Hexcrawling has been covered in great detail all over the OSR blogging world.  There is already a wealth of information on the subject.  While some may argue semantics, at its heart hexcrawling is similar to dungeon crawling, except the "crawl" takes place above ground, often in wild, and relative uncivilized lands where lots of interesting things might happen.  It becomes even more dangerous at times than the dungeon crawl, with the probability of getting lost, running out of food, or encountering creatures and people well above the level of the party.

If handled properly, a wilderness hexcrawl can be an exciting and engaging part of your campaign that will be just as enjoyable (maybe even moreso) than the "story" you have presented them with.  So, here is my take on the hexcrawl, some pointers on how to make it engaging, and keep your players' interest in the game.

First, the basic elements of what you need for a hexcrawl are pretty much considered universal.

- A numbered hexmap of the area (preferably with hexes representing 5 or 6 miles...I like to use 6 miles) with various land and terrain features like hills, plains, scrublands, marshes, forests, mountains, radioactive volcanoes, or whatever suits your flavor.

- Populate the hexmap with some interesting locations/events the PCs will discover if they enter the hex.  Basically you're creating a key corresponding to the number of the hex you want the feature to be located in.  Obviously, at first you want to focus on the immediate areas around the hex your party will start from.  There is no need to fully flesh out some ancient ruin 20 hexes away which your PCs might never encounter.  Keep focused on what's immediately ahead of you for the time being, as it will save you hours of unnecessary prep time.  When you're initially doing this, just make small notes about the features, and worry about fleshing out major details, drawing dungeon maps, etc. until later on.  In some cases, you're just going to have to wing it.

- Create random encounter tables.  Depending on the terrain or area, you might roll for an encounter 3 times a day or 6 times.  This is usually up to the DM to determine, although there are guides for such.  The 2e DMG has a table which gives the encounter chance, number of encounters to roll per day and what not based on the terrain type the PCs are passing through.  Random encounter tables can be simple with say only 6 options if triggered, or as complex as 100.  This is up to you.  Obviously the less time you spend on the encounter tables, the less diverse the random encounters will be.

Traveling over long distances for PCs can be tedious.  It's up to the DM to keep things entertaining and engaging for the players.  Random encounters or hex features designed for your party to find should be engaging for some reason.  Perhaps the PCs will discover a village in the next hex they travel to.  But let's say that village is cursed, and its citizens can't leave the village.  The PCs can investigate and maybe find the source of the curse lies in a barrow just outside of town.  Perhaps they'll be led to free the village from the curse at the rumor of some hidden treasure in the barrow.

These types of encounters can lead to little mini-adventures on their own, and can make the hexcrawl something the players will remember and actually WANT to be engaged in.  What you want to avoid is dragging out a pointless journey with uninteresting events i.e. "you travel for half a day, you're attacked by goblins (roll out stupid pointless combat), you take up watch for the night, you encounter some wolves (roll out stupid combat), you wake up and head out again," wash, rinse and repeat...boring.  Make the journey count, and make it interesting.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's Here and It's Awesome:THE HOBBIT Trailer HD

Tavern Game: Rot Grub Roulette

Within the lower quarters of Blackspire it is not uncommon to find patrons of the local taverns engaged in one of the more strange of games, and one of the most dangerous; rot grub roulette.  Two players sit opposite one another, blindfolded, their left forearms exposed, with their right arm tied to the chair behind their backs.  The mediator takes 6 small wooden cylindrical containers and shuffles them back and forth on the table.  Within 5 of the small wooden containers are pairs of harmless maggots.  One of them, however, contains a pair of burrowing rot grubs. 

Each round the two men place bets and the mediator dumps the contents of one container onto one player's forearm.  The player, not knowing if he has been exposed to the rot grub or not, must wait 5 full minutes with onlookers jeering and howling along.  This process is repeated between the players with the stakes getting higher each round as one more wooden container with harmless maggots is taken away making the probability of being exposed to a grub even higher.

No onlooker may attempt to prevent a rot grub from burrowing if exposed, nor douse the player's arm with fire.  If a player manages to free his right arm and do this himself, he is immediately taken outside, beaten and cast aside as a useless craven (if the beating he suffers does not kill him.)  Indeed it is often said that it is better to die from the rot grub than to feel the merciless beating of an angry drunk Blackspire mob.

The game ends when one man decides to quit, losing all his earnings, or one man dies. 

Cormyr Campaign Update or When Actions Have Consequences

So, when you're running a sandbox style game as opposed to a railroad adventure, one of the big things that sets it apart is the fact that your PC's actions will have consequences.  This is all too often forgotten in the sandbox game.  Because unlike a railroad adventure where the PCs will always pop into the room with the evil mage right smack in the middle of sacrificing the virgin, the sandbox is a different animal altogether.  In the sandbox, you have a world, full of NPCs and villains and what all and they all have their own plots, schemes and motivations, and shit is happening in the background.  Sometimes it's major world changing shit, and sometimes it's not so grand, but the point is, when your PCs act, or DON'T act, their should be consequences and those consequences should affect them.
If you have been following my Cormyr Campaign series of blog posts, you probably recall that in the first session, the party had an opportunity to find a pretty powerful artifact (although they didn't know it at the time, of course.)  Unfortunately for them, they botched this effort and were sent on a wild goose chase through the Stonelands outside of Tilverton.  In the time it took them to make their way back into the city (after discovering that their original retainer was basically a bad guy) a lot of shit went down. 
So, in sum, they made their way through the goblin smuggling tunnels from the Stonelands back to the sewers of Tilverton.  Cleverly disguised as bandits with a passphrase to get into the thieves guild controlled sewer system which they retained from a bandit encounter, they were ready to get back into the fray and find this thing before it fell into the wrong hands.  They were too late.  Instead of tracking down this thing (which they learned a little about while in the Stonelands), they were greeted by undead...who were multiplying rapidly.
After an encounter with a Purple Dragon patrol in the sewers, they discovered several things had happened in their absence.  First, all of the priests from the friendly temples in Tilverton had been murdered almost simultaneously.  The undead had begun ravaging the sewers and some were making their way to the city streets as well.  The Purple Dragons had uncovered that the ancient crypts, sealed up long ago, had been breached from the inside.  Something blew the seal open, and it was believed the source of this chaos, whatever it was, was stemming from somewhere within the crypt.
So, this now leaderless Purple Dragon patrol (their sergeant killed earlier by said undead) were commanded by one of the PC's (a hedge knight in Cormyr) to accompany the party into these crypts to investigate.  Along the way, the party discovered a secret temple devoted to Myrkul within the crypts with lots of evil necromancer types, a few undead, and a group of stone guardian golems (which almost resulted in a TPK.)  As the session ended, they were spending time resting and recouping in the crypts attempting to gain some strength (and lost hit points) before pressing forward.  Their resources nearly depleted (most spells cast, hit points low, etc.), they now face the dilemma of spending valuable time restoring resources or pressing forward.  They choose to restore their resources.  Again, this action has consequences.  One they'll discover in the next session in the form of a 7 hit dice abomination summoned from the Abyss.  
Shit has hit the fan in Tilverton, and the more the PCs delay, the closer they come to losing the city.  Because their actions have consequences. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Thoughts on the New Carcosa

But it's not really "new" you say.  It's just repackaged and made more awesomer.  Yeah, yeah...maybe.  First let me say, it might not be fair to call this a review since I haven't bought the product, and probably won't.  Not because I don't love the idea of Carcosa...believe me I do.  It's just that the product is absolutely so niche, that I can't see myself investing the money to purchase the new totally awesomest version.  Not now at least...maybe that will change.
As much as I love the idea of Carcosa, I am not sure I could run a long-standing sustainable campaign using the setting.  Not because I'm not able to do so, but more so because my players would have a difficult time getting into such a weird setting/game.  I have mentioned it to them a time or two.  Some sounded enthused to try something new, but as one of my players put it best, "sounds like it would be something fun for a one-shot, but not really long-term."  That pretty much sums it up.  And while that one-shot would likely be fun as hell, I can't invest the money the new version of Carcosa demands just to let it sit and collect dust on my shelf after a one-nighter.  See Carcosa, as glorious as it is, is quite different from my previous LotFP investment; Vornheim.  Because I use Vornheim at pretty much every session.  Because Vornheim has a generic appeal and use for any city-based gaming situation (even though the content about the oddities of Vornheim is amazing as well.)  With Vornheim, Zak produced something that could essentially be used by anyone despite the type of campaign they were running.  Obviously you could pick and choose what you want to use and integrate into your own campaign with Carcosa as well, but that's really not the best way to get the most use out of the material.  And I only bring Vornheim into the discussion here because it is also a LotFP published product, and the only LotFP product I have bought.
Just from sampling the PDF preview I can surmise that James and Geoff put a lot of time and effort into the product.  Much of it was easy because, well...the material was already written 3 years ago, but the repackaging and addition of the art really does a service in bringing Carcosa's dark and vivid imagery to life.  Carcosa is, in my opinion, probably the epitome of what old-school gaming in D&D is really all about.  It's basically a melting pot of EVERYTHING that inspired the game from Appendix N.  It's as if Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, and H.P. Lovecraft were all merged together into one Frankensteinian creation, threw up on some paper, and out came Carcosa (not meant in an insulting way at all, for what it's worth.) 
At its heart, what really makes Carcosa intriguiging are the sorcerous rituals.  I mean, the setting, and the rules are all interesting and strange enough on their own, but people know Carcosa because of the sorcery rituals describing child rape and virgin sacrifices.  Again, this hearkens back to the old pulp days when sorcerers really were despicable villains.  I'm not going to sit here and rail on about how awful the content is, or how this should not appeal to anyone with any sense of morals.  I really don't think that's the case.  After all, no one will hold a gun to your head if you change the content up and maybe don't use or change that ritual requiring the sacrifice of some kids.  Carcosa could be enjoyed without using these details, to be certain.  But at its heart, these controversial areas really define Carcosa, so to NOT include them, really does little to echo the dark and desperate nature of the world.  In other words, if you're not going to use them, just run something of your own creation...or maybe Gamma World, or Mutant Future...or Greyhawk.  In the same ways that the controversy of these elements brought attention upon the supplement, they are also integral in using it to its full effect.  And to James' credit, he did include some of the excerpts about the rituals in the preview, so it's not as if anyone who purchases the product will be blindsided.