poniedziałek, 20 kwietnia 2015

Reasons why hex crawls are bad

There are several degrees of sandbox campaign, and recently I've been leaning towards closed, objective based and beatable type of it. I always said, that sandbox stands much higher than arbitral improvisation game, because there are random tables and special referee tools, but it can't be denied that there is huge amount of improvisation, and it doesn't even decrease necessary prep. It's really hard for GMs to prepare, to make something good from poor random results rolled during play, so I've been looking towards something easier. Lost City of Barakus is great example of closed sandbox, where 90% is non-random, semi-linear adventure but in modular and sandboxy dynamic. And the rest 10% are also superb random encounters that are also quite developed. This is important too. When you roll minor curio on random tables, it often doesn't bring any value to gameplay. Anyway, the middle  tier of sandbox is campaign where plot is open and in draft form, for example you've got villain's actions planned, but there is no predetermined finale, it depends on actions of PCs. It is interesting, but hard to do in practice without prepared locales and modules.

Then we've got full sandbox. But in this article I will discuss only one aspect of it, which is hexcrawl, and will leave out for now the case of dynamic plot development from random tables and PCs actions.

When I tried to run hexcrawl modules it turned out to be rather poor experience for both referee and players. When I read such module, I find it impossible to brew any sense out of these encounter areas and NPCs. They exist in separation from one another. Trying to bring some plot and sense only gave absurd results. After collecting my experiences I can point out following reasons on why hexcrawl is bad.

1. Each encounter is separated from others.
Even when you struggle to reference one encounter to nearby settlements or plots it still is small encounter, not worthy calling it adventure, too short and poor to be satisfying. Recent versions of Blackmarsh do a lot of effort to create interactions between different hexes, which looks nice (though I'm not sure how it works in practice), but it is not enough. After you resolve interaction between two encounters, that's it.
To put it bluntly, hexcrawl encounters are like monster hotel dungeons, where each room contains creatures that are unrelated to monsters in another room or anything else in the gameworld.

2. Trash hexes abounds.
Trash hexes is term I use for minor curios, landmarks, meaningless NPCs that were created only because otherwise the sandbox would be "empty". Why do you need something as boring as several monster lairs? Because sandbox guide says so? It is very limiting aspect of this method of campaign creation that referee has to develop such things. When confronted with something like this I can even see how right are newschoolers who criticize sandbox gameplay for wasting a lot of time on low quality gameplay instead of skipping to interesting stuff.

3. It requires too much prep AND improvisation at the same time.

Now, we can come to constructive conclusions and solutions if we look at successful sandboxes. One example that right now I can remember is Barbarian Prince, more of a solo boardgame than RPG. It plays really good, there is no time for boredom, and why is that, despite the fact that there are no long adventures, only worldmap with encounters and scanty developed settlements? I think it's probably because it has really tight encounter system and stong focus on objective. The objective is to regain your castle before an extremely short time limit. Encounters are clearly defined with no room and need for improvisation, while at the same time delightfuly unpredictable, because each one has a lot of possible variation depending on dice rolls. Encounter with a merchant can gain you a follower, kill you, allow you to buy something, or reveal plot secret that will show you a shortcut to win a game. Generally there are no pre-made locations or encounters except the Castles, each is generated during play. So Barbarian Prince at first glance looks like a good example, but I'm not sure if this style of design translates well to an RPG.

So what to do, abandon hexcrawl style of campaign maps, or rather change them according to more successful versions of it? I can't yet answer that question, because a lot more modules would have to be analyzed. Instead I invite you to discussion on this subject.

Chronicles of Tyrin, June of Year 754

 Campaigning in the world of Tyrin, mainly with modules from Darkcitygames and C.H.Brandon's Cauldron Magazine. Dark City Games' Legends of the Ancient Worlds rules are used, except that combat is classic Melee, jobs are from Into the Labyrinth, and some sandbox tables are added. Most materials can be found on darkcitygames.com.

Year 754 of the Eagle

2nd June
Durward the Warrior, Mills the Guardsman, Carleton the Rogue, Woodward the Tank and Marsyon the Illusionist arrive at Leaf's Hill Village near High Mountains.[1]

Heroes venture to a cave and recover kidnapped village girl Graentel from mysterious elf Grim leading band of orcs, as well as impressive treasure in coins. Mills, Durward and Marston are killed in the process.

9th June
After week of celebrations heroes return to explore rest of the caves. Sandy the Mercenary and Wesley the Sorcerer from nearby town of Cretia join the party.

A kraken is encountered near underground lake, retreats after losing one tentacle.

Upon hearing on recent upheaval in Redpoint, of which leader revolted against the king and allied with beast-men and other nations, party decides to venture to distant city to find employment.

10th June

Party scales mountains through Rockhail Pass.

12th June

Party encounters two evil sorcerers who terrorize the land to extort money from people. Only thanks to Sandy the Mercenary's diplomatic talent confrontation is avoided.

22th June

Heroes arrive to Redpoint city and find no job but learn about ancient mansion where a sorcered lived. He disappeared, supposedly leaving his treasure, but none dared to investigate the manor. [2]

Party finds and explores the manor, encountering snakemen and cultists hinting some schemes against human race. Very long tunnel leading somewhere is discovered, but left alone for now. Wesley is gifted scroll of his choice from ancient librarian. (Heal spell). Sandy the Mercenary is killed by a cultist. After leaving the mansion party recruits Derwood the Skirmisher.

Sorcerer's treasure was not found [3], but snakemen had strange map, which party decided to investigate later.

29th June
Carleton and Woodward were recovering their wounds for 4 days, while Derwood and Wesley were working to cover living expenses. Derwood was skilled tracker and managed to find good job as hunter, earning 30s. Wesley learned Assist spell from friendly librarian at Sorcerer's Manor [4] to find job as Wizard's Apprentice, there he earned 75s. [5] It covered all living costs of the party and even 65s remained, making total party wealth 660 silver and 6 gold coins.

Party investigated the map found in the manor and with help of sage Moffitt found abandoned muncipial building in another district of the city, which contained secret passage marked with a rune. Here more snakemen were encountered, they had an amulet which was identified by Moffitt as belonging to dangerous cult. He went to report it to city ruler.

[1] Orcs of the High Mountains module begins here.
[2] The Sorcerer's Manor module begins here.
[3] With bad dice rolling and decisions a lot of module content is sometimes missed and can't be discovered without replaying the module.
[4] Normally spells can't be easily found without a guild. However he still had to pay XP cost.
[5] They also earned for their jobs 1 and 2 XP respectively.

piątek, 17 kwietnia 2015

Welcome to Gothic Fantasy

This blog is a place where I will develop some of my old-school RPG projects. First and foremost it was created to present my idea for a "new way of overland adeventuring", which I call Puzzle Sandbox. It's fiddly but interesting method, you will read about it soon.

Other thing I'm interested in right now is The Fantasy Trip (Wizard/Melee) and Heroes and Other Worlds. After being fed up with limitations of B/X D&D, I discovered TFT and became fascinated, like I first found Dungeons & Dragons. This system is new and fresh, modular and easily adjusted, plainly awesome. To call it brilliant is an understatement. It is the best RPG ever made.

Besides old-school RPG I do a lot of sologaming. Mythic GM emulator is all you need to do everything you want. I like solo games too, Barbarian Prince or Dark City Games modules being good examples.

If you have similiar tastes, you will surely find something worthwhile on my blog.

Blighted Lands setting

A The Fantasy Trip setting designed as testing ground for my ideas.

Genre and convention

It is gothic high fantasy. You can also call it colorful gothic. It means that horror elements are not serious, but present. It isn't dark fantasy, like Warhammer, because people are generally good, their world just got raided by evil creatures called Deathkings. These darklords riding wyverns and other hideous reptiles almost destroyed civilization and then settled in deep mountain citadels to plot on taking over the world. Now most of human government is non existent, only some independent cities remained, true points of light, with villages and manors scattered around. Dwarves in their mountain kingdom defended their positions, but are becoming decadent. Most high elf enclaves in Griffon Hills remained as they were, but these houses are tiny and also distant from human affairs, no longer willing to lend their legendary bowmen. There also other races: gargoyles, stoneborn, the Old Race.
Deathkings are currently building their armies to march on Carse and other cities.

Things that make my setting different

This setting started as playground for my experiments in refreshing old ways of fantasy gaming that I so got used to. Just like Heroes and the Other Worlds/The Fantasy Trip is for me new D&D or Puzzle Sandbox is the new way of adventure building, this setting is also going to be quirky and original. It heavily relies on alternative campaign modes focusing on downtime and world economy. The wilderness map avoid staples of standard modern sandbox, replacing them with new ideas. For examples I don't like trash hexes. It's term that I apply to such wilderness or dungeon parts that are placed only to fit into game's dynamics and conventional pace. For example strange monuments that doesn't do anything except looking mysterious, it's boring. When I was a player once (rare occasion), my Barbarian upon encountering such thing on the road didn't even stop to inspect it, LOL. You can't easily create a module in Labyrinth Lord that doesn't have enough loot, so after making some athmospheric locale you have to add additional treasure just to give  PCs chance to advance in levels. Or pack your worldmap with meaningless encounters so it's not "empty". It's very limiting and I don't want such compromises here. Generally I have bad experiences with pure hexcrawl, I prefer sandbox with some kind of aim, that are winnable, though this time I need something less rigid and more random, so I don't know how will it turn out.

So my campaign map will have cities, villiages, ruins, underground caves and maybe forts from standard repertoire. Monuments and such decorations are "not allowed", even magical places, except maybe for some very characteristic and iconic interactive devices, like particular type of altar. Wizard towers are the most boring and overused thing to date, but Dwarf Fortress have interesting concept of Necromancer Towers, which might be good here.

From main settlements in campaign region, there are two coastal cities, one medium town called Ravenfell, ruined city of Blighted Ones, high elf enclave, and a valley of small dwarven abodes. In Ravelfell there is a necromancer tower with skeleton of a dragon on top, its' tail serve as stairs. The necromancer is one of Deathkings, governing the region.

New map features (in development)

- Magical items are rare, more powerful ones, like magic swords, are artifacts.. Each artifact has history: who crafted it, where he kept it, who has stolen it later, and where it is now (usually underground lair or dungeon). Artifacts are rare and hard to find, but here comes artifact hunting systems. By researching legends it is possible to locate an artifact.
- Haunted villages. Sometimes a villager is a lycantrope or a vampire murdering others at night, but hiding his identity during a day, or in case of lycantrope, sometimes unaware of it. It became so common that some people specialize in hunting such monsters, they are called vampire hunters or Silent Avengers. They claim right to accuse certain person of being a monster and arrest them for investigation.

Gameplay modes

Big overland map is a hex map. Small location maps are made as puzzle sandbox. If time permits, medium scale maps are made as pointcrawling sandbox (as described in Hill Cantons blog).

Game system: the setting would be playable with more than one game system. TFT, Heroes and Other Worlds would be main focuses, but later maybe D&D 5E too. 

Downtimes activities

First reason for their importance are high living costs and taxes. Another is that they give bonuses.

D&D 5E has quite good downtime system, scattered among many books. Here is a list of downtime activities:

- Crafting - acquiring items at half cost
- Jobs - similiar to TFT and Midkemia but without dangerous jobs and only cover living expenses
- Recuperating from long term injuries
- Researching information
- Running a business - quite good system
- Selling magic items
- Training to get levels/talents, takes some time and money
- Gaining faction renown, takes time and money
- Special faction downtime activity, depends on faction and place and gives significant benefits

TFT has many thing for wizard to do, job system, guild system, which is mainly buying elite talents

Depending on rules system, some things from this list are used.

PCs can start in home village

It can add drama, make interesting introductory adventures, or at least nice background and NPCs for start.
Players roll d4-2 for number of family members present in the village and d4 for number of friends. Then randomly determining their profession, name and social level (1-8, from beggar to wealthy merchant. Social levels 9-12 are reserved for cities)


Attacks by undead and some other creatures, as well as delving into areas hevily blighted by recent Deathking activity cause blight points. Also being at proximity of 5 miles from any blight monolith causes 1 blight point per week unless saving throw for ST is made. Destroying such monolith wins great gratitude of local community.
Blight points can be removed by priests of light or shrines found in wilderness.

Effects of blight start from minor ones, like glowing green wounds, to eventual transformation into undead.


Or in case of TFT, class themes. Noble, an inspiring leader, Crime Lord, someone who know how to profit in big city, White Eye Magician fighting with dagger and grenades, Crimson Wolf, elite mercenary who takes adavantage from its' guild prestige... Things like that to add color, I will describe them in next blog post.


5E did factions and downtime in interesting way. When you work for the faction you obtain reputation and better standing in their ranks. One good way to gain renown is when player go for adventure, and sometimes they are informed by their guild that they can do special side quest for them.

Description have simple sentences because they were based on random generator, but I decided to leave them like that with only slight editing, because it sounds funny, like background generators in roguelikes or something.

The Poison Scepter
Thieves' Guild

They have impressive guild hideout. Their vault is hidden in highly secure dungeon with traps.
Their motivation is power and wealth. They are identifiable by specific weapons (blade throwers, daggers). They have few wizard allies. They have some merchant enemies.

Downtime activities by renown:

Procure information about recent wealthy citizen coming to town.
procure illegal or rare goods.
Ability to buy special thievery tools
Learn elite combat ability after long and expensive training
Can become warden of group of thieves and send them on missions
Silent Avengers
The vampire hunters

Their motivation is rightousness.
rumored to have special artifact
identifable by colors of clothing (red scarf, also brown hood)
leader promoted because of power
Their hideout is ruined castle in the mountains.

Renown bonuses:

Procure information about recent monster sightings in area
Craft random gadget from available scrap
Ability to buy automatic crossbow
Learn elite combat ability
Knowledge of guild’s secret artifact is revealed to you

Crimson Wolves
mercenary guild and elite fighters

Identified by beautiful armor and jewelry. Joining requires refferals. They have well decorated guild house in city center. They have a fort in remote area. They have jolly parties in guild dungeon. In favor of the current political situation. They hire only humans. Their motivation is money. Leader is seleced by previous leader.

Downtime activities by renown:

Procure information about recent military events
Training with fellow guildsmen gives you special attack bonus or ability for next combat
Ability to buy elite armor, 4 def/2 magic def, -3DX, -3MA
Learn elite combat ability after long and expensive training
Can vote to raid or declare war on someone

The White Eye
Assassins and wizards fighting for honor of their so called mage clan. Indetifiable by symbol on jewelry and black or brown armors covering them from head to toe. Mages carry themselves differently, with long square hats and long sleeveless robes comfortable for combat, they fight with dagger and grenades. Assassins fight with katars. Very hidden lair. Recently change of leader due to assassination.
They are allied with the thieves' guild.

Downtime activities by renown:

Information about ancient ruin and artifacts in the area. You can buy special spells and wizard equipment.
Training to empower a spell for one casting.
Access hideout hidden by secure glyph.
Ability to buy elite armor, 3 def,-2DX, -2MA, 20% to avoid magic effects, or weapon: katar, grenades
Learn elite combat ability after long and expensive training
Can hire assassins

Blighted Ones
Organization of humans afflicted with blight, who remained intelligent. They dwell in a ruined city overgrown with forest. One must be of blighted race to be a member of this faction.
Their motivation is vengeance on Deathkings and necromancers, and any who helped them. They are civilized enough to maintain good relations and reputation with other races. Having a lot of gold to spare helped too. They obtained a lot of treasure form the ruined city, which they scavenge freely - due to blight radiation of the place they have no competition.
Their leader recovered many precious scrolls from the ancient Valley of Mages, which allowed him to lift some of the Blight effects from his people and create his group. Among the treasures was also the Book of Shadow, containing many uniqure spells, but the book is fragmented. Blighted Ones have a subgroup called Seekers of Shadow that hunts for the remaining pages. They accept new people to the group and let them copy spells from the main book, but in return they demand the members to dedicate themselves for searching missing pages. They ensure loyalty by bracing each seeker with obsidian arm braces, which also enables telepathy with other members of the group. 
The White Eye believes that the Book of Shadow is actually a copy of much more ancient scrolls that were originally property of their own order. They think themselves as the only rightful owners of these powerful spells and two organizations often fight each other. 
(Idea of Seekers of Shadow is from Cauldron magazine by C. H. Brandon)

Downtime activities by renown:  
Learn secret language of the group. Access to common spells.
You can scavenge the ruined city for random treasure
Receive 400$
Can increase IQ by 1 point
You can use books retrieved from Valley of Mages