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.

5 komentarzy:

  1. This is a very interesting article Peter. Many things to consider and very insightful!

  2. You are right in the sense that on-the-fly random generation during play doesn’t have to work properly (and if it doesn’t - that doesn’t mean you are a bad referee). But there is one more option, which you forgot to mention: roll all your random dice in the prep phase. It allows you to think about each result for more than 5 seconds (30 seconds is pretty enough) and come up with all the connections. It does not require a non-random material, you just move the rolling phase in time.

    Nevertheless, the lack of connection between random results in an on-the-fly method can be fun too: you roll a random village, the inhabitants claim that there is nothing interesting nearby, then - on the next hex you roll a huge orc warband - the villagers didn’t know about it? Or they knew but didn’t tell the PC on purpose? Lots of plot hooks emerging.

    @”how right are newschoolers who criticize sandbox gameplay for wasting a lot of time on low quality gameplay instead of skipping to interesting stuff”

    I understand that it is tempting to ignore some of the random results, because they may seem to be dull, but they don’t have to be. When you roll a random encounter with d10 orcs it does not have to mean that each time they ambush the party and jump out of bushes, you roll initiative and a fight ensues. They can be doing a lot of other stuff. In some time I’ll try to share my thoughts on the issue in a longer form on my blog.

    1. That's sound advice on pre-rolling encounters, but in this article I was focusing on described hexes. In some modules they really don't fit each other or the whole area.

      On a further note, recently I started developing small sandbox area for Blighted Lands, and while I was rolling for locations it was actually easy to fit them into setting reasonably. Now I see that a lot of my previous problems were from the fact that I used someone else's modules. In my own I can easily tell, why there is a fort occupied by Thrassians (kind of lizardmen). They are fugitive gladiators from city-state in the southern island who found there place in this new land, now spying on nearby merchant harbor to sack it, etc.

  3. Although I love the idea of hexcrawls, I do agree with several of your points, especially regarding trash hexes and lack of plot.

    But on the other hand, the random, disjointed nature of hexcrawls are excellent if I want to run a game where the players are exploring an unmapped continent or the plot is much more low-key.

  4. I guess I always used a sandboxy approach to getting from place of origin to place of major plot element, with opportunities for something big to crop up on the way that might even divert the characters away from their original goal. That always seemed to work okay for me. Of course, I also have some "plot lines" (like you need to discover the ancient barrow of the Northern King -- among all those barrow mounds in the Barrow Hills! -- in order to be able to use the Gate of the Northern King to GET to the big adventure hoodoo.... Which leads to a lot of exploring of various random barrow mounds until or unless you piece together the clues that lead you to the RIGHT barrow mound to get the bijou.) The idea being to force a hex-crawl into otherwise "trash hexes" that actually has a sort of purpose. Along the way, you meet the usual riff-raff, of course....

    But overall, I try to run my hex-crawls more or less LIKE Barbarian Prince (one of the earliest and best fantasy board games I ever owned); that is, I try to keep them more or less tightly bound to the plot, even if they are random. I try to make sure that at least a few of the random encounters will provide information, people, or events that will further the plot line. Heck, even in Lord of the Rings, the encounter with the evil crebairn in Hollin provided the characters with a chance to observe the nature of the evil they were opposed by up close -- as well as demonstrating the Dark Lord's long reach. So you can usually find a way to make at least some of the encounters help with the overall atmosphere or plot line, even if it's just by adding some atmosphere.