Saturday, October 15, 2011

Pathfinder Does a Beginner Box


Ok, so a project that was supposed to be due sometime in mid-November is now due by November 1st, which means blogging will be spotty until next month. Even my regular gaming has been thrown off schedule. This is what I get for boasting about how we play nearly every week. For those of you to whom I owe writing, yeah, might be a little late because of this. Basically, work is sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

Paizo's decided they wanted to get in on the box action, and they're launching their beginner box this month. It includes a 64 page player's book (nice traditional page-count there) that will get you all the way through 5th level. The pre-gen character sheets are done up to explain how to use the stuff on the sheet to minimize running back to the book. There's also a DM's book that's twice as long that includes an intro adventure that introduces different aspects one-per-room (the first room involves a skill check, the next room has a combat, etc.). It also includes 100+ monsters with a much more strealined statblock (still not old-school simple, but surprisingly sleek for 3.x game) and advice on building your own adventures. Plus other goodies:

Frankly, the neatest parts to me are the character sheets for the pre-gens that give you the basics right on the sheet. For a game as complex as 3.x, that seems pretty vital to me. I'm also intrigued by the implication made towards solo play out of the box (though no details, so possibly I misunderstood that part).

The box comes out in late October and retails for $35. That's probably still in the impulse-buy range for people with jobs and comfortably below the price of a new computer or console game. The challenge for Paizo will be getting it in front of potential new players; their strength has always been in catering to the existing 3.x community, and I doubt they're going to have penetration into WalMart or Target.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 18: In the Hot Seat

On the subject of random tables, someone recently asked me, "how much is enough?" That really depends on you and your skills as a DM.

The dungeon isn't just easier for players. It's also noticeably easier for GM's. Each room is usually a unique experience. You almost never see dungeons consisting of the same type of room over and over again. Why would you do that to your players? It's boring.

Now let's take a look at our wilderness map. It's got a lot of the same sort of hexes right next to each other. To the west, we have lots and lots of savanna. In the east, it's lots and lots of jungle. In terms of geography this looks right. In terms of running a D&D adventure this looks like a nightmare. How in the world are you going to prevent this hex crawl from devolving into an endless repetition of "another two hexes of jungle"?

If you happen to be one of these amazingly creative types who can come up with interesting stuff on the spur of the moment, you've got no problem. This map plus some wandering monster tables should give you all you need to create interesting terrain and situations for your players to deal with. If that's not you, however, you might want more help. And you can give yourself all the help you need with more random tables!

Keep in mind, however, that were still talking about a fairly gross scale for all of this. So the sort of things we want to be talking about are probably going to be those things that you almost assuredly can't miss if you enter one of our 6 mile hexes. So most of the interesting features we should be talking about need to be at least a mile long, tall enough to be seen from miles away, or extremely flashy.

Any day (but not night) where a random monster isn't encountered, or some other interesting terrain feature (like a village or river) isn't encountered, roll a d12 and consult the following table for the jungle:

1: Nothing.

2: More nothing.

3: Even more nothing.

4: Short cliff of obsidian, measuring 3d4 feet high and 1d4 miles long.

5: Elven ruins built around a circle of massive crystal menhirs. Any magic-user spells cast while standing inside the circle are treated as being cast by a magic-user or elf of 150% their level (round down). If the moon is full, then treat the spell as being cast by someone with twice the level of the caster.

6: Empty monster lair. Roll on the wandering monster to table to see the type of monster, then roll for its treasure as per normal. 1d6 x 10% of the rolled treasure is here. If the monster rolled is sentient, there may be traps.

7: Quicksand! Double movement penalties through one hex.

8: Ancient Goblin Burial Ground. If players search this area, they can collect 2d100 copper pieces, 1d100 silver pieces, and 10d100 gold pieces worth of jewelry every hour, for 1d4 hours. However, for every hour that they actually find something, there is a 1-in-4 chance that they will be assaulted by 1d100 goblin skeletons the following night.

9: PCs stumble across the corpse of a dead adventurer. The human died of disease and/or infected wounds. The corpse will have fairly standard adventuring gear, plus one random potion. There's a 1-in-6 chance the corpse was carrying a map of the area and that this map hasn't been completely destroyed by moisture. It will reveal 1d4 hexes in each direction from the current location (roll separately
for each direction).

10: Ancient Shrine. Roll randomly to determine the alignment of the deities the shrine was dedicated to. Clerics of compatible alignments who meditate or pray at this shrine will be able to cast an additional 1st level spell the next day. Clerics of the opposite alignment will have the next spell they cast with a random component behave as if the lowest possible number was rolled.

11: An especially monstrous tree. If the PCs scale the tree to its top (this will eat 3 hours for up and down) they can map out every surrounding hex.

12: PCs stumble across the entrance to a dungeon!

Saturday, October 01, 2011

What You May Have Missed: Romancing the Clone

Yes, I'm still alive! Just busy as all get-out. New text-mapping posts should be showing up next week.

In the meantime, unless you are a fan of 3.x gaming you may have missed what Paizo's been up to lately. Of particular interest to me have been attempts to add rules for romance into the game. As you'd likely expect, they seem heavily influenced by computer RPG tropes. We don't see the actual rules here, but we do see that there is a romance score, preferred gifts, and hated insults. At a guess, you ply your character's object of affection with gifts and services to, in effect, "buy" their romantic interest.

An interesting twist on this idea is the inclusion of a devotion boon. This is the mechanical bonus your character gets when they have earned enough of the NPC's affection. There's also an enmity boon that I assume you acquire if the score goes too far in the opposite direction. It's a neat idea, and I would be shocked if the notion isn't picked up by outfits like BioWare.

In other news, Paizo has also optimized their online rules resource document for viewing via phones and tablets. I imagine this will be a huge boon for their players of their game in the coming years.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 17: You're Everything That a Big Bad Wolf Could Want

I'm going to assume that most of you are already familiar with wandering monster tables. The idea is pretty simple: you write up a list of monsters you want the players to be able to encounter and then number them so that they can be chosen by a die roll.

The outdoor wondering monster list in Cook's Expert book is a little more complex. It involves nested lists; that is rolling on one list references other lists. The monsters are grouped by similarity. For instance, the lists you can roll for a swamp encounter include Men, Flyer, Humanoid, Swimmer, Undead, Insect, and Dragon. Each of these send you to another list which actually includes the monsters. Not only does this give you a huge variety of monsters without having to resort to d100s, it also makes certain types of monsters more common in one place that in another. In the swamp list Undead appear twice. Animal is listed twice for the woods list, and Men is listed six times for encounters in a hex that includes a city.

When it comes to actually listing the monsters, some tables just list the names and often in alphabetical order. Again, redundancy is used to increase the likelihood of encountering a particular type of critter. This is the sort of wandering monster table most of us are used to.

In Vault of the Drow, Gygax gives us a very different sort of list. His wandering monster lists include detailed groups, each of which has a specific purpose or goal that they are pursuing when the PCs encounter them. Zack does something very similar with his expansive random encounter lists in Vornheim.

The great thing about these lists is that they do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. You don't have to guess why this particular band of slaves and drow overseers are wandering through the fungus forest. Gygax lays it all out for you. The bad thing about this sort of list is that you can only roll on it so many times before it starts repeating itself. Zack suggests crossing encounters off in his lists and replacing them with new ones as they are used.

Cook's list is the opposite. Even if your rolls do turn up two different groups of nomads, the lack of details means its very easy for you to make each distinctive. Unfortunately, by that same token, it's entirely up to you, in the heat of the moment, to make them distinctive. If you're good at that sort of on-the-fly encounter creation, this is great. Not everyone is, though, and you're going to be rolling on these tables a lot as you run your hex crawl. There's no reason you can't give yourself a little more help if you need it.

So let’s investigate a compromise option. In addition to a list of monsters, you can also use a list of motivations. This simply tells us what is foremost on the mind of the wandering monster. It serves principally as a springboard for improvisation.

You can roll all the dice at once, but I'd suggest rolling the monster first and then the motivation. I designed this list so that rolling a 2d4 returns a reasonable motivation for bestial monsters. For sentient creatures, roll a 1d10.

  1. - diplomacy
  2. - patrolling territory
  3. - hurt
  4. - horny
  5. - hungry
  6. - napping
  7. - fighting! (roll again on the wandering monster table to see who the monsters you first rolled are, or are planning on, fighting)
  8. - home
  9. - raiding
  10. - art

This list is purposefully vague. “Diplomacy” might mean you’ve encountered an envoy from one tribe to another, or it might mean a caravan carrying tribute, or a craftsman gathering materials to build a peace-offering. “Horny” might mean a couple preparing to get frisky, humanoids raiding to engage in a bit of bride-kidnapping, or a more poetic soul pining for a lost love. “Home” could mean they’re in their lair, or they’re seeking a new lair, or they’re improving their lair in some way.

Now we simply combine this with territory-specific lists of creatures. This list is for the eastern jungles. If the PCs are traveling through the goblin territory, roll a d8. If they are in the Lizardfolk territory, roll 3d4. When they have reached the orc territories, you can roll a 5d4. And you can always roll a straight-up d20 when you want something really random.

1 - goblins
2 - rock baboon
3 - python
4 - giant bees
5 - crab spiders
6 - goblins with (roll a d6):
1 - 2: harmless giant spider mounts (doubles movement rate)
3: black widow spider mounts
4 - 6: tarantella spider mounts
7 - lizardfolk
8 - black widow spiders
9 - basilisk
10 - lizardfolk mounted on tuatara lizards
11 - spitting cobra
12 - orcs mounted on dire wolves
13 - hydra
14 - orcs
15 - ogre
16 - robber fly
17 - orcs
18 - wolves
19 - ogres riding elephants
20 - displacer beasts

There is, of course, lots of room for expanding this list. I didn’t manage to get most of the giant lizards listed in Moldvay’s Basic, for instance, or any fey, etc. But this, combined with our motivations table and the reactions table mentioned last time, gives us a good working list that can provide a wide variety of encounters on the fly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 16: to Fight the Horde and Singing and Crying...

Let’s start our discussion of random tables with the classic: wandering monsters.

Mr. Cook writes:

Encounters are usually checked for once per day, but the DM may include planned encounters, or may make additional checks if appropriate. No more than three or four encounter checks should be made per day.

Again, the time scale, like those for distance, is grossly large.The assumption is that the PCs will travel through a hex, jot down the principal terrain type, and then move on. Making only one or two wondering monster checks per day means that you can quickly mark off a handful of days fairly quickly. Cook suggests rolling a d6 to see if an encounter happens; in grasslands and hexes occupied by a civilized settlement, encounters have a 1-in-6 chance of happening. Most terrain has a 2-in-6 chance of generating an encounter, while jungles, swamps, and mountains have a 50% chance of generating an encounter.

That’s not a lot of encounters. Traveling across your fantasy version of the American Great Plains will allow your average group of PCs to cover 18 miles in a day (three hexes) and encounter wandering monsters only once per six days on average (or basically once every 108 miles).

In short, logistical shortfalls are of greater concern than monsters. That D&D is about exploration more than monster-mugging becomes abundantly clear in a hex-crawl. Logistics are a bigger issue than combat (and so we’ll take a closer look at it later, when we discuss hex-crawling from the picture side of the DM’s screen).

But wait, there’s more! If you use Moldvay’s Monster Reactions table (page B24 for those of you following along at home), combat becomes even less likely. That’s because it’s a 2d6 roll with the most common results (a roll of 6, 7, or 8) being “Uncertain, monster confused”. You’re just as likely to roll “Enthusiastic friendship” (a 12) as you are “Immediate Attack” (a 2). (Cook reproduces the table on page 23 of the Expert book when discussing outdoor encounters.)

And, just to lower the chances of combat even further, there is a chance for the PCs to evade the monsters. The table given decreases the chances for larger parties of PCs, and increases the chances for larger groups of monsters. A party of 5 to 12 PCs, hirelings, etc, has a 50% chance of evading a group of monsters numbering between 4 and 8, and a 70% chance of evading groups larger than that. Failure to evade still allows the PCs to flee “in a random direction (no mapping)” with a 50% of being caught if the monsters are faster. “This procedure is repeated until the party successfully evades or is caught. (This may result in the party being chased for several days, if the pursuers are really serious about catching them.)”

Two other things of note on wandering monsters: first, many are bestial, and so won’t be carrying treasure on them, unless the PCs are lucky enough to encounter them in their lair. Second, there is absolutely nothing done to match the levels of the PCs with the toughness of the monsters on the charts. In most terrains, Cook’s tables return a dragon (which could be a chimera, wyvern, basilisk, or salamander in addition to one of the classic color-coded wyrms) in one of eight encounters on average (one in four if the encounter is mountainous, hilly, or barren terrain).

The moral of our story here is that combat isn’t the fun in a hex-crawl. The real fun is exploration and discovery, and even a mid-level party is going to want to avoid most combats and needs to be willing to sacrifice their mounts if they encounter a hungry dragon or the like.

With this in mind, our two goals in creating a wandering monster table need to be 1: a random complication to the otherwise straightforward logistical challenges over overland travel and 2: an opportunity for interesting RPing encounters. We’ll tackle actually building some tables next time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 15: Getting Random

Embracing the hex-map-as-improvisational-tool, we’ll want to develop other, similar tools as sort of utility-multipliers for it. The most traditional of these is the random table. And the most traditional random table is the wilderness wandering monster table. But there’s no reason to stop there. You can create random tables for all sorts of things, including:

  • unusual land formations.
  • results for hunting, fishing, and foraging.
  • disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hail storms, etc.
  • weather.
  • frequency of and style of the ubiquitous defensive terrain the PCs will always want to camp in.
  • celestial phenomena like auroras, shooting stars, blood-red moons, etc.
  • bizarre animal behavior like birds trying to bury themselves or spontaneous sponge migrations.
  • magical effects, like magic being stronger or weaker, or rivers that steal your memories, or portals to other planes or other spots on the map.

There’s no need to go crazy here; none of these are mentioned in Cook’s Expert book, for instance, and so you can probably get along just fine without them. Still, if there’s any aspect that you consistently find yourself flummoxed on when the players ask about it, go ahead and make a table.

In my Doom & Tea Parties game, the PCs have been very careful to be well-supplied before leaving town, but they’re always asking me about the layout of their camp. A good random table simply helps me not repeat myself too often. Magic is extremely rare (so I don’t bother with a table of wacky magical effects or strange animal behavior, since anything the PCs see along those lines is extremely important and crafted to fit the situation) and the island of Dreng Bdan, like the one we’ve been building for this series of articles, is in the tropics, so the weather is fairly predictable (rain every day during the rainy season, hot the rest of the time).

The key to a good random table is to not put more than you need to inspire you on it. The more detailed the table is, the less flexible it is. Here’s the table I’ve been using to describe defensively-positioned campsites in the jungle:

Roll a d10 1d4 times on the following table.
1: water (stream, river, pond)
2: boulders
3: hollow tree (strangler fig)
4: fallen tree
5: thorn bushes
6: cliff or ledge
7: sink hole
8: quicksand
9: insects
10: tangle of vines.

By rolling on this table, I get a series of barriers that the PCs will use to guard one or more flanks of their camp. Some are potentially as dangerous to the PCs as they are to any attackers (like the insects or the stream if its inhabited by nixies), and I usually describe these features to the PCs to see if they want to accept the site or if they want to keep searching for something a bit safer.

It’s the combination of a random number of randomly generated features that keeps this list from looking like too much of the same thing over and over again. All of these are things you’d expect to find in a jungle, and so a certain amount of repetition is fine, even builds a sense of verisimilitude, but the combos are going to be unique enough to spur my own imagination when necessary. You may find your own imagination needs fewer or more details. As always, season to taste.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 14: What do I See?

Whether you’ve opted to be a traditionalist and allow your players a few levels in the dungeon, or just decided to throw them straight into a hex crawl, eventually you’re going to have to deal with what, exactly, is in these hexes that we’ve mapped out. Six-mile hexes made sense in terms of long distance travel. In terms of what someone standing on the ground can see, however, they are absolutely absurd.

Our hex map is a gross abstraction. This is where you see the greatest divergence between a hex crawl and a traditional West Marches campaign. In a West Marches map it’s very important to mark minute details of the terrain since that is how the PCs are going to navigate across it. It’s very much a matter of moving from the river to the old, twisted oak, past the toppled menhir towards the ragged ridge.

Hex crawling is not like this at all. The basic unit of time measurement in hex-crawling is not the round or the minute or even the hour, but the day. The scale is not about searching for lost children or combing through forests to find a hidden shrine. It is more on par with the movements of armies, the interactions of nations, and the journeys of explorers.

Your hex map is a tool for improvisation but it cannot answer the question, “What do we see?” It can help you answer that question, and that’s exactly what it’s for. But it’s only a help. The DM of a hex crawl needs to be ready to fill in the fine details from the gross generalizations.

So what can be in a six-mile hex? Doc Rotwang turned to his own neighborhood to answer what could be found in a one-mile hex. I’m going to turn to history for my example. Specifically, what existed in Sherwood Forest?

We have a fairly good idea of the boundaries of Sherwood Forest because the term “forest” was more legal than botanical in medieval England. Using the 1232 borders (unfortunately many years after the death of King John, and so probably after the notorious banditry that would’ve inspired the legend of Robin Hood) we can see that it was roughly 6 miles wide and 24 miles north-to-south. This makes it almost perfectly fit four of our 6-mile hexes stacked atop each other. And what could a traveler in 13th century England expect to find in Sherwood Forest?

According to our map, the following: fourteen towns and villages, three abbeys, five hunting lodges, and three castles. Hardly a deserted and desolate place, even when not harboring a band of Merry Men.

This, then, is the other beauty of the six-mile hex. It’s literally big enough for you to put damn near anything you need in it, from a hidden bandit camp to a lost castle everyone forgot was there. The gross details we’ve plotted on our map are the things that are obvious: the large communities, the dominant terrain, that sort of thing. If you suddenly need a pond or a strange outcropping of mystical crystals, or the pillar of a cranky, misanthropic living saint, there’s more than enough room in each hex for you to include it. Suddenly dropping in a mountain with a 100-foot carving of a skull in its cliff-face might be a bit much, but short of that there’s lots of room for improvisation, the inclusion of new material (like a recently purchased adventure module), or whatever your random tables generate.

Next time, we’ll talk about more about random tables, since they’ll be your best friends when it comes to spicing up the PCs’ journeys across our hexed terrain.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 13: You Take the High Road and I'll Take the Low

Finally, back to the hex-mapping fun. What's the next step? That depends on how traditional you want to get. My game of choice these days is Labyrinth Lord/Moldvay/Cook B/X. The assumption of Moldvay and Cook was the players would graduate to hex crawling at the third or fourth level. Before then, the adventures would primarily be focused on dungeons.

If I was going to do things this way, I'd probably stop building the hex map now and refocus my efforts on one or two dungeon locations near the human city. It's still good to have mapped out the island as we have because I want to seed the dungeons with the promises of the hex-crawl. In this case, at least one of the dungeons would've been constructed by the wicked elves back when they ruled the island. I might also throw in a hint or two about the mind flayers or one of the dragons. I'd probably avoid using goblins since I want those to be one of the special parts of the jungle. I'd probably go with lesser undead, regular humans, and fantastical animals and follow the classic tropes of making each level more dangerous than the one above. I'd also strongly adhere to Moldvay's scheme of dungeon design in which a third of the treasure is in the hands of monsters, a third of the treasure is guarded by traps and a third of the treasure is undefended, though perhaps difficult to get to or find.

Optimally, the dungeons would be in, or very close, to the city. Part of the goal would be to solidify the human city as a home base for the PCs. One of the benefits of starting this way is that the players really learn their way around the human city. By this I don't mean geographically; the human city is mostly a safe place and I don't expect to do any urban crawling through it. I'm more talking about learning what resources the city has to offer and how to get them. They should learn which temples offer which services, what the alternatives to the temples are, if any, where they can (and can't) sleep safely for the night and store their treasure, and, of course, where they can acquire weapons, armor, and other supplies.

Finally, when I run hex-crawls, it can be important to have some idea of who the political and economic movers-and-shakers are in the civilized border area. There's an aspect of first contact in my hex crawls. The PCs are likely to find themselves ambassadors and go-betweens for both the human city and the monster civilizations they encounter. So there will at least be opportunities to explore the dungeons on behalf of, or under the patronage of, someone important in town.

I'm not going to go into too much detail here, because there are already some great resources for writing dungeons. With an eye on the above issues and prepping the campaign for the hex crawl to come, the dungeon should follow the usual design advice that works for low-level dungeoneering. That's not to say that they can't be unique. Only that there are well known methods for crafting a successful low-level dungeon and there's no reason not to use those here.

Next time, we go back to the hexes as we prepare to unleash our players upon them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ryan Dancey Thinks the Kids are All Right

Ryan Dancey did his second pod-cast interview with "Fear the Boot" and, as always, he has some interesting stuff to talk about. Probably the most interesting thing is the younger, more gender-balanced demographic seen at GenCon '11. (They really get into this around minute 44.)

The idea of gaming being more a cultural thing than a pastime thing is fascinating. I can see it, though; there is gaming music and gaming fashion and all of that now, in a way there's never been before, even when TSR was trying to sell official D&D wood-burning kits.

On the face of it, that would appear to be a good thing from the viewpoint of the pen-and-paper RPG hobby. However, as Dancey points out, the new generation doesn't play like we used to. There is no strong commitment to one game for years of time. They're interested in playing a wide range of games for brief periods, hopping from game to game not in a sort of gamer ADD, but rather in a more planned manner: "Ok, Jen will run Traveller over the summer, and then in fall we'll start Dave's Pathfinder Game, and Mike can run his Kobold's Stole My Baby one-shot over the Labor Day weekend."

This seems to fit very well with what I've seen from the 20-somethings I've been playing with. They like my games because it's a change of pace from these short-term games that seem to dominate their usual play. Long-term commitment doesn't seem to happen much. Getting people to commit to even four hours weekly seems to be a challenge. Gaming is part of the air they breath, but there doesn't seem to be a strong need to make it happen, if that makes sense?

Ok, no, it doesn't to me, either, but that seems to be what I see happening in a lot of groups.

Of course, we're all talking from personal experience, and the plural of "anecdote" ain't "data," so YMMV and all of that. Still, it does appear to be what I'm seeing. And that kinda implies that the future of RPGs is the FUDGE model, where you have simple-to-learn rule set that can be picked up quickly, but then ported to all sorts of different genres and styles. A core mechanic that bridges many different games is good because it means you don't have to teach a brand-new game to everyone when you want to play something different, but these core rules need to be extremely simple and bare-bones because you want to be able to run everything from traditional dungeon-delving to fantastical western to space opera to angsty-teenagers-dealing-with-mutant-powers-and-typical-highschool-drama. True20 or Savage Worlds might really flourish in this sort of environment, but my gut suspicion is that even these games are too complex to be portable to the variety of games the new generation will be eager to play.

What is Best in Life?


This troll spent the last week and a bit moving to a new cave. Eventually, a troll's cave gets so funky all you can do is set it on fire and move to a new one. Now that it's done, I should be getting back to the hex mapping articles soon. Maybe by Friday, but certainly by Wednesday.

In the meantime, to celebrate having moved all my loot to a better cave, I treated myself to the new Conan movie. It's not bad, and I can understand why some folks might even compare it favorably to the Schwarzenegger film from the 80s. I'm not quite willing to go that far just yet, but it wasn't horrible. It was much better than "Sucker Punch" for instance.

What follows isn't a review of the movie. Frankly you probably already know if you're going to see it and reviews are unlikely to sway you one way or the other. You know if you are this movie's audience. And after you see it, you'll know whether or not you liked it. I did, however, want to point out a few interesting things I noticed.

(Spoilers follow, so if you don't want to know too much before seeing the flick, stop here.)

First, something silly that amused me: adult Conan does not wear pants. It's a sartorial choice he shares with John Carter when the latter is on Mars. So let the ladies have their pants! The look of today's masculine fantasy hero is a layered kilt and boots.

There were a lot of missed opportunities in this film, and I suspect most of them are the fault of the writers. There are three writers listed, and I suspect it was a matter of rewriting rather than collaboration. Toss in the cutting-and-editing process, and who knows what was originally intended?

Early in the second act, we are treated to a scene of the bad-guy army dragging a boat through a forest. It's a neat visual and immediately makes you wonder why they're doing that. It's intriguing. Unfortunately, it's also never explained. The ship on wheels is never used in the water, it's never demonstrated to have magical powers, and ends up just seeming kinda silly.

The villain's sorceress daughter (apparently rewritten from an original male version) has a neat look and a creepy vibe. We get one brief interaction between her and her father with Electral undertones. It makes both of them a lot more interesting. Dad has a goal that isn't just the typical take-over-the-world, and Daughter is a little conflicted about bringing Mom back from the grave. Again, this is set up in the second act and nothing is ever done with it. I was kind of hoping that these issues would explode into some really interesting dynamics in the final confrontation. That never happens. Instead, we get a fairly bog-standard mano-y-mano fight at the end.

If you get inspired to throw in little twists in the story or adventure, be sure to do some follow-through. Make it matter! This is at the heart of old-school improvisation. You just rolled hobgoblins on the wandering monster table. Sure, you could just have a randomly generated band of hobgoblins sitting in the middle of the road waiting for the PCs to arrive so they can fight.


Why are they here? Are they part of the larger tribe? Is it nearby? Are they renegades? Survivors of genocide? Scouts looking for a good target for a raid? Heroes seeking some lost hobgoblin relic? Even if all you want is a brief little battle, you can at least have them ambush the party.

On the other hand, if the players really are not that terribly interested in your hobgoblins, there's no reason to beat them over the heads with whatever clever idea came up with. Not everything needs to be explained or make sense. But if your players do seem intrigued you should absolutely take advantage of that.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Works For Me

...and may not work for thee, but hey, I can't make it down to the South Texas mini-Con and there's a good chance I won't be posting much next week as I slay a few Real Life hydra that have been creeping up on me for a few weeks now. So, three "best practices" and how they work, etc.

1) Play Every Week.

We play (almost) every week. Every Thursday is game day, and my group game plays. Yes, I make that commitment to the game up-front, and I ask it of my players as well. We'll move stuff around on rare occasions when necessary, and cancel for holidays, but otherwise, we play every week.

This keeps the game fresh in everyone's minds. There's less fumbling around for what we were doing last time, and what everyone's goals are. There are also fewer cancellations or arguments about scheduling; everyone knows that Thursday is not open. We play, we play regularly, and we play for years.

Sometimes I can't play with great folks because they can't make that kind of commitment. That sucks, but I think it's worth it. Besides, I have a huge pool of players to pick from because...

2) I play online, via text-chat.

The entire world is my hobby shop. I've had players from as far away as Japan in my game. And no matter if I'm at home in Texas or visiting family in New Jersey, if I can find access to the intrawebs, we can play.

More than that, however, is the depth of play you get in text chat. Verisimilitude is heightened not only by the engrained habits of life-long readers, but also by access to everything that was said and done in character from the log files of previous games. Players also find it a lot easier to speak and act in-character via text. It's not at all rare for players to banter back-and-forth in-character in my text-chat games. Players interact with the world and the characters far more than they do at the table. It's just easier to suspend disbelief.

Understand that you also lose a lot playing this way. You lose body language and non-verbal ques and the way suddenly rolling the dice behind your DM screen focuses everyone's attention. The game is also slower, which is why it's vital that we play every week.

But it's absolutely worth it, because it really allows me to leverage my writing skills. Descriptive passages, characterization, mood and atmosphere are all much easier for me to conjure via text than I could at the table.

3) I play with topics that interest me.

In junior high and starting in high school, I was obsessed with the Arthurian legends and kept trying to invest my D&D games with that feel. I failed miserably.

But I never lacked for players or for ideas.

If you do it right, you'll be playing your new campaign for a long time, so it best be what you want to play, not what you think (for whatever reason) you ought to play. Enthusiasm is infectious, it builds quickly under reinforcement, and can weather criticism (especially of the constructive sort). "Ought-to" and "should" will just make the thankless task of GMing an unmitigated burden.

These days, I'm most interested in pre-Roman ancient civilizations. Apparently, including terror birds was one of the aspects that attracted Oddysey to my game. Be honest about your passions, and you'll be far more likely to find folks who share them.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 12: Workin’ in a Coal Mine, Workin’ Downtown...

Last weekend somebody asked me, "do you really do this much work before starting a campaign?"

My reply: oh, heck no!

What I have posted so far would be the work of a lazy afternoon. Over the span of 2 to 3 hours I would have scribbled out a map with pencil and paper and jotted down maybe a page or two of notes. I could have just shown you that, but would you have been able to make any sense out of "orcs" and "mind flayers" with an arrow pointing between them?

So I downloaded Hexographer and wrote up fairly detailed descriptions, or, at least, much more detailed than I would have written for just myself. If you've been at this for any period of time, you certainly have already developed a shorthand for describing places and monsters and situations your players are likely to encounter.

Evan at In Places Deep touches on this when discussing this picture of Gygax at the gaming table. You also see a lot of this in the Zak's Vornheim. We don't really need to be that detailed. Hex crawls are primarily powered by improvisation. What we've done so far is just give ourselves enough of a framework to build on as the players explore our island. We'll be hitting this point a lot. Most of the tools that we're going to develop are aids to improvisation. This includes the map I've been talking about for the past two weeks, the random encounter tables we’ll be tackling in the future and any other bits and bobs that invoke randomness (like random weather tables) or terrain details.

Unlike a West Marches game, classic hex crawls are not about going over the land with a fine-toothed comb. It's more on par with the Lewis and Clark expedition, exploring the terrain at a land-eating pace where one of the primary motivations is discovering what cool things the DM has hidden just beyond the horizon. The double-sided purpose of the map we have made is to both inspire and leave room for cool things to tantalize and dazzle our players with.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 11: Tyger! Tyger! Burning Bright

“Oh,” say those who have played in my campaigns before, “here’s where he’s putting in the rakshasa.”

I'm a big fan of rakshasa, whether you're talking about the tiger-headed sorcerers of D&D or the shape-shifters of Hindu and Buddhist lore. There are a handful of monsters I just really love using, and I try to include them in every campaign. I doubt I'm unique in this, so when building your own hex crawl be sure to keep your favorites in mind.

In this case, I'm putting them in a city in the hills where the river bifurcates. It was originally built hundreds of years ago by the elves, and was one of the last abandoned by them. (Note that this also gives us an excuse to cover the countryside with abandoned elven ruins.) It's ruled by a family (or perhaps feuding families) of rakshasa. Most of the inhabitants, however, are less dangerous humanoid monsters, probably gnolls (another favorite monster), minotaurs, and maybe unusual merochi families.

Along the river exist small communities and individual freeholds of thri-kreen. These were left behind by the elves when they abandoned this area. South of the city, in the swamps along the coastline of the delta, are hidden villages of turtlefolk. Both avoid the city as much as possible.

In the plains on either side of the river wander clans of wemic. In the hills to the north and east are small clans of hill giants. Both of these prey upon the thri-kreen to keep as slaves for themselves or to sell in the rakshasas' city. Moon beasts may also be involved in this trade.

The broken lands to the west and north are a veritable maze of shattered stones, defiles, ravines, small canyons, and lava tubes. This territory is claimed by a number of minotaur clans. Successfully navigating this maze will lead you to the active volcano at the southernmost tip of our secret plateau. Here, a fortress inhabited by fire giants guards the entrance to the plateau.

What's in the plateau? No idea just yet. But there's still no rush to fill that in. On Friday, will back up, survey what we've done, and discussed how I would actually accomplish this much for normal game I was planning to run.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 10: Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

We’re now to the southern end of our island, the sections furthest from the human lands and our PCs’ starting zone. These should be the most challenging sections as well as the most fantastical, just as you’d expect at the deepest parts of a dungeon.

In the southwest we have our corridor of active volcanoes, grey ash, and giant fungus forests. The smoldering (or even actively erupting volcanoes) constantly belch smoke and ash into the sky, and the prevailing winds and shape of the valley cause it to blanket the area between the mountains. It’s not unusual for the sky to rain flakes of ash or dustings of very fine grey-black powder from the sky. Drifts can be as deep as four feet, and speeds will likely be reduced to a mere third of normal. Just walking through this landscape can be dangerous.

Even breathing can be a challenge, because the dust is shot through with magical particles (perhaps the magma pushes up through a vein of mithril or some other magical mineral). Breathing this dust without some sort of protection or filter will result in strange magical effects or even mutations. For every half-day the PCs spend traveling through this terrain without the proper protections, roll a 2d6 and consult the following table.

2-3: the character’s skin sprouts (roll a d4): 1 - iridescent scales (+2 to AC), 2- golden feathers, 3 - porcupine quills (+1 damage in melee) 4 - a glistening lair of slime (+1 to AC, -1 to reaction rolls, +2 on saves vs. poison or to resist fire or magical fire).

4-5: the character acquires (roll a d4): 1 - nictating membranes over the eyes (+1 to saves vs. blinding or gaze-attacks), 2 - a prehensile trunk (may be used to wield an additional weapon at -4 to hit), 3 - a forked tongue, 4 - a prehensile tail.

6-8: the character develops a hacking cough. So long as they are exposed to the dust, they get a -1 to all dice rolls.

9: character behaves as if under the influence of a confusion spell for 1d2 hours.

10: roll for a random insanity. Only a lengthy clerical purification ritual will remove it.

11: character gains ESP for six hours. At the end of that time, roll a save vs. spells to see if the character acquires a random insanity due to the thoughts of others intruding upon their mind.

12: character gains the ability to cast a single, randomly determined first-level magic-user spell at will so long as it is cast in the next 24 hours.

The western line of mountain and the broken lands at the northern point of the territory are inhabited by wandering tribes of nomadic gnolls. They wear complicated masks with filters to catch most of the dust, but incidents of mutation are still fairly common among them.

In the fungus forests along the river live myconids and similar critters. These have no need to protect themselves from the ash and soot falling from the sky. In fact, their lives may very well depend on the stuff.

At the river’s end, where it flows sluggish and silty into the sea, is a large elven city. These are Melnibonean-style elves, wicked and cruel and wracked by ennui and caprice. They are most assuredly not likely to be allies of the PCs, and any alliance they do make will last only long enough to allow the elves to betray the PCs at the worst possible moment. It’s rare to meet any of these elves outside their city, but occasionally their sleek corsairs are sent out to raid along the coast or seek out merchant ships for plundering.

Over half of the city’s population are slaves. This far out, they don’t need to worry about the effects of the ash (though nobody drinks the water if they can avoid it), but the elves themselves delight in “improving” their slaves. Most of the slaves are thri-kreen, imported to the island because they appear to be largely immune to the worst of the ash-fall’s effects. However, members of nearly ever population on the island, including some humans, are represented among the city’s enslaved.

Long ago, the elven empire laid claim to the entire island. As their numbers dwindled, they’ve been forced to abandon all but this last bastion. Still, they consider the island to be theirs and theirs alone, and treat humans or other recent arrivals (and by “recent” they mean anyone who’s landed in the last 600 years) as interlopers. Luckily for everyone else, those elves who don’t spend most of their time indulging their depraved vices are too busy squabbling among themselves for lordship of the city.

Still, the city and the fungal forests to the north are rich in magical resources. Characters interested in rare herbs, psychedelic fungi, and exotic flora will find a veritable cornucopia of varied species along the river’s banks. Ever hour spent exploring beneath the towering mushroom caps will reveal one of the following (roll a d8):

1: random lotus type

2: tangerine smut: grows on other fungus. Horribly toxic to touch, causing nerve damage on contact with bare skin, resulting in the loss of 1d4 points of Dexterity. (Powerful clerical magic can undo this damage.) If the smut is dried, it will produce a bright orange powder with anesthetic properties (heals +2 hit points per level of the wounded when used in bandages on open wounds; each found collection of the smut results in 1d6 such uses when dried).

3-4: cleric’s wort: a small plant with silvery fuzzy leaves. If these leaves are dried and added to 100 gp worth of incense which is inhaled by a cleric who is meditating or praying to prepare spells, the cleric will be able to prepare one additional spell of their highest level available that day. However, there’s also a 1 in 12 chance that the cleric will also permanently lose one point of Constitution. Each plant found gives enough leaves for only two such uses.

5-6: berserker pods: red and green puff-balls that grow in wet, sheltered spots. If a pod is crushed under someone’s nose so that they inhale the spores, they will be filled with amazing strength, (treat as a 19 strength or a +4 to hit and damage bonus) for 2d3 rounds. However, every round they are under the influence of the spores, there is a 1 in 10 chance of the character behaving as if subject to a confusion spell. Harvesting results in the collection of 2d4 viable pods, but they lose their potency after a week.

7: Tartarus’ slime: a blackish-purple slime mold. If coated on a blade it will render anyone even scratched by the weapon catatonic for 1d4 hours if a save vs. poison is failed. Each crop found will be enough to coat 2 swords, six daggers, or eight arrows. Tartarus’ slime loses its potency 2d6 days after being harvested.

8: A shrieker: roll on the wandering monster table.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 9: Valley of the Avians

Hopping back to the eastern side of the mountain, we’ll next populate the broad, long valley south of the jungles. Starting in the far east, there’s a tower built by the orcs. It’s not as necessary as it used to be, but its primary purpose remains to guard against large forces moving through the gap between the mountains and the sea. I suppose the hidden lair of the mind flayers could be below it as well, but I haven’t really decided just where I want that to be, and it would make more sense if it was further north and west in the range, I think. At this point, there’s no need to force the issue.

Moving west up the valley, we see a village marked on the southern range. This is actually an ancient monastery that’s fallen partially into ruin. The current inhabitants are a community of kenku. Assuming the PCs can put up with their antics, they could serve as potential allies for the PCs, but knowing the way most players deal with thieving kenku, this is likely to turn into the target of a vengeful raid. ;p

Moving up (to the west in) the valley, we find a village in the plain between the mountains, alongside the river. These are orcs, captured from across the mountains and enslaved to toil here by the batfolk who live in deep caves where the town is marked on the map to the north and east of the village. (What are batfolk? Not entirely sure just yet. I’ll probably throw up stats and such next week.)

Finally, all the way up the valley is a castle. It was built by cloud giants in ancient times, but the current inhabitants are stone giants. In a massive aviary on one side of the castle they keep rocs, and they use them to raid all across the island. Most of their slaves are ankeri from the eastern side of the island, though they also have gnollish mamluks and a few hill giants among their menials.

Most of these creatures are neutral (or under the thumb of neutral monsters) and so any could conceivably serve as allies to the PCs. At the same time, none are obvious allies for the PCs. The players could easily end up antagonizing all of them which will make life very difficult, especially if they’re moving clockwise around the mountains. This is their last best chance to make powerful friends for a while.

Finally, there’s that one, single mountain south and west of the dead volcano. That was an oops on my part when I way plopping down mountains, but I left it, and I’m still tempted to do something with it. Perhaps it’s the home of reclusive, xenophobic dwarves? Again, there’s no rush to drop something in there now, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind for later.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Hamsterish Bestiary

I mentioned Taichara's Hamsterish Hoard of D&D yesterday. She's got a great assortment of imaginative, original critters for BECMI (which means you can pretty much use any of them as-is for any TSR edition of D&D). Going through it, I made this annotated and incomplete list of monsters that might make an appearance on my example hex-map island.

Alraune - carniverous mandrake (plant)

Ankeri - gazelle-men (humanoid)

Brass Jackal - clockwork jackal (clockwork guardian)

Briarbones - aggressive vine wrapped around skeleton (plant)

Cepes - fungus-men (plant)

Cricipter - flying hamsters! (cute)

Dreamsnake - memory-stealing serpent (snake, reptile)

Greenfang - carniverous cabbage (plant)

Heartbriar - carniverous, ambulatory plant (plant)

Iaret (Cobra Lord) - snake-man (snake, reptile, humanoid)

K'kithil - sapient scarabs (insect, humanoid)

K'sshir (Nightmist) - carniverous cloud (phenomena)

Lithira (Pearl Gazelle) - magical gazelle (herd animal)

Lurru - large locust (insect)

Marrowlight - carniverous pumpkin (plant)

Raintiger - magical, stormcalling feline (elemental, water, feline)

Sau'inpu - necrophagic humanoid jackals (canine humanoid)

Sshian - snake-men (snake, reptile, overlord)

Thief-of-Hues - color (and emotion) stealing snake (snake, reptile)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 8: Go For the Eyes, Boo. Go For the Eyes!

If you’ve been reading my blog (or many others in the OSR) for any length of time, you’ve likely seen praise heaped on Taichara’s Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons & Dragons. Taichara doesn’t post often (the site is on hiatus right now) but when she does, it’s amazing stuff. Even better, if your players don’t read blogs much, they’ve likely missed out on all the hamsterish goodness. So they’ll have no idea what hit them after you unleash the hoard’s hordes upon them. Muah-ha-haaa...

I’ll be returning to the Hamsterish Hoard repeatedly for inspiration and monsters. Today, I’m going to use one of my personal favorites, the ankeri.

South and west of that northern V of mountains that cradle the human settlements, a pair of rivers wind out of the mountains, through some hilly terrain, and then join before continuing down to a swampy delta and then into the sea. Nestled along these waterways are the handful of villages and towns of the ankeri. Their homes are made of kiln-baked bricks and thatched with the grasses and reeds of the rivers. In addition to chickpeas and grains, the ankeri also farm papyrus (for they are a highly literate society) and various breeds of hamsters from which they weave an especially fine and water-resistant wool. Cricipters, especially albino ones, can also be found in grand aviaries in some of their temples, as they are seen as the messengers of the gods and the bringers of love and fertility.

The ankeri nation is a loose confederacy woven together by a shared faith. The supreme position of their priests makes their nation technically a theocracy, but it is a tolerant one that primarily wields influence though judicial means. Most personal matters and conflicts between clans are settled through an ornate and festive dueling culture. Matters that touch on the larger community are brought before a council of priests to adjudicate.

The ankeri are likely to serve as another group that might prove friendly to the PCs, or at least willing to deal with them as commercial customers. Trusted PCs may be able to buy maps of the lands surrounding the river communities of the ankeri. Even the best maps, however, won’t show anything beyond the mountains. So far as the ankeri are concerned, that’s terra incognita.

Cohesion among the ankeri is reinforced by their neighbors: two nations of merochi which live on opposite sides of the river, bracketing the ankeri civilization between them. (Hey, it’s my blog, I’m gonna pimp my critters too!) Each nation has its own ceremonial center, a broad plaza surrounded by stone-walled, curve-roofed barracks for visitors, the small complex where the priestesses who tend the site dwell, and a ziggurat temple. Few merochi can be found here, however; most dwell in scattered settlements where the males raise the young and supervise the slaves who tend their fields (many of whom are ankeri or gelded males) while the females hunt.

There’s a lot of interaction between the ankeri and merochi. The ankeri sell the merochi most of their pottery, clothing, and jewelry. In return, the merochi sell the ankeri leather, feathers, captured animals, and their services as mercenaries. Unattached merochi males frequently serve as guards in the homes of wealthy ankeri, or in the clan caravans of the sau'inpu merchants who travel between the settlements of both ankeri and merochi.

Among the slaves of the southern-most merochi are gnolls and thri-kreen. They can tell the NPCs something of the bizarre lands that lie further south, where the volcanoes still rumble with angry life, and fill the skies with clouds of strange ash.

And now a musical interlude: But-kicking For Goodness!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: Den of Thieves

David Chandler offered me the chance to read the first novel in his upcoming fantasy trilogy, “The Ancient Blades.” Den of Thieves is Mr. Chandler’s first fantasy novel, but not his first professionally published novel, having written horror novels previously.

Den of Thieves is an interesting book. Firstly, it is the most medieval fantasy novel I have ever read. By this I mean that Mr. Chandler has done his homework and his Free City of Ness looks and feels like a medieval city, and not a Ren-fair city. You see this a lot in the little details: the tanners shops reek, magic swords weep “vitriol,” and children drink small beer. This gives the book a very different flavor from most fantasy novels. The closest comparison I can make is maybe to David Drake's “Thieves World” stories (you know, like the one where the protagonist finds a secret door by peeing on the floor). There are a few spots where certain details feel off (Ness is one of those cities that somehow thrive even though they actively work to keep a lot of people from entering) but for the most part just reading about the city was fun, and it really feels like a place the protagonists live in.

The story looks like heist fiction but is really a mystery spanning two capers. It even wraps up with a standard full explanation/confession from the villain. Other than that, the book is full of little surprises. Similar to "Babylon 5" and the stories of Joss Wheadon, certain familiar tropes are set up to confound your expectations. If you pick this book up and read the prologue, you're likely to think you've read this story before and that the characters feel a little flat. Some of them are a touch pat, and there's at least one relationship in the book that doesn't work for me (two characters never get around to killing one another as the situation they find themselves in would seem to dictate; instead they develop an almost friendly business relationship). I also have a few nitpicky issues with the book, like the map not being entirely accurate in a few important details, but these are easy to ignore and won’t spoil the fun.

And there is a lot to like here. If you're a fan of the Middle Ages, you'll enjoy the historical touches. If you like your fantasy dark and gritty, you'll enjoy the down-in-the-gutters focus. GMs will find a trove of neat ideas, from unusual magic swords to bizarre demons to fiendish traps and clever ways to get around them. This book is full of the fun lateral thinking we OSR types are always crowing about. And if you are a big fan of thieves, you'll really enjoy both the glimpse we get of Ness’ thieves guild and the two heists.

If you do enjoy Den of Thieves, you’ll be happy to hear that the two following books of the trilogy are slated to be released this October and December. Thankfully, while Mr. Chandler's books follow the current fantasy trend of being a touch on the thick side, he hasn't embraced the notion that readers should have to wait years between installments. Mr. Chandler is also an old-schooler himself, so be sure to check out the Russ Nicholson illustrations on the trilogy's web page and offer him your congratulations on his getting published by HarperCollins.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 7: Tradition! (Dai-dai-dai-dai-dai...)

Generally speaking, a hex map should work very much like a dungeon map: the “deeper” you go, the more dangerous the critters should be. The caveat on that is, in the wilderness, the PCs have a lot more flexibility when it comes which encounters they tackle with combat and which they avoid entirely. There’s just a lot more mobility in the wilderness, and if the PCs ever come across a population they don’t want to fight, they can generally get around them somehow.

So we’ll start with a fairly traditional low-level monster: goblins. The eastern jungles below the V of the mountains and north of the first river is peppered with small goblin tribes. Most are probably nomadic hunter-gatherers, but some will be organized into actual static villages. The further south you go, the more organized the tribes are and the more they’re likely to have domesticated giant spiders. I could even see some of these guys dressing up in spider-inspired war costumes.

Those living close to the southern river are in a constant state of low-level conflict with their neighbors. There are raids across the river going both ways. In the jungles between the two rivers live lizardfolk. While less numerous than the goblins, they are a lot more organized, and possess an actual city along the edge of the mountains. It’s an ancient ruin built in their prouder days (or possibly by another race entirely?) where their immortal king (who is actually the green dragon who disguises himself with magic) lives and rules over them.

While the goblins are almost certainly to turn out to be foes of the PCs (though playing one tribe off against another certainly is a possibility) the lizardfolk might turn out to be fairly friendly to the PCs. Having groups that are potential allies is important, especially if you use advancement rules like Jeff’s Carousing rules or LotFPWFRP’s insistence that only treasures returned to civilization count. The deeper the PCs travel into the wilderness, the harder it’s going to be for them to return to Home Base between missions. You need to give them some way to replenish their expendable supplies and level up. Allies can do that for you. We’ll be revisiting this topic later.

The goblins are little more than an annoyance to the lizardfolk and their wyrm-king. Their other two neighbors are far more threatening. To the east are the bullywugs that live in the massive swamp that spans the shoreline between the two rivers. The swamp is a spooky, eldritch place, teeming with carnivorous plants, strange creatures, and mysterious phenomena. The rocky hills in the center of the swamp are holy places to the bullywug, where their living ancestors dwell.

Relations between the bullywugs and the lizardfolk are fairly quiet most of the time. Every generation or so, however, the bullywugs swarm out of the swamps in great numbers, bent on pillage and destruction. The lizardfolk have erected a few forts, mostly of earth and wood, to guard against these occasional invasions.

Of greater concern to the lizardfolk are the orcs that live south of the river. Raids and skirmishes across the river are common in both directions. The orcs have matched the forts of the lizardfolk with tall stone towers of their own. While the jungle claimed by the orcs is vast and includes many different tribes, the orcs seem capable of banding together quickly, and even engaging in long-term projects such at the building and garrisoning of the towers. An alliance between the lizardfolk and the fey living in the southern river (a clan of potent nixies) is one of the reasons the lizardfolk haven’t simply been overwhelmed yet by the orcs.

The source of the orcs’ inexplicable organizational abilities is not guessed at by even most of the orcs. In truth, their chieftains and shamans are all in thrall to a cabal of mind flayers who dwell deep beneath the mountain range that makes up the western boundaries of their domain. A complex system of potlatch and raiding between the orcs sends a steady stream of slaves and treasure to the mind flayers in their hidden caverns. The principle foe of the mind flayers is the living ancestors of the bullywugs. To date, however, attempts to invade the jungle with
massed orc hordes have failed to penetrate deeper than a dozen miles beyond the river.

So that’s the eastern quarter of the island. Next time, we’ll populate the western quarter with some less-traditional critters.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 6: Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

Finally, we’re ready to begin populating our island. This is probably my favorite part of world building.

First, an important note about hex-crawling. The bedrock assumption of the hex crawl is that the area the PCs will be exploring is mysterious and unknown to them. There are no maps existing already that show what they should expect to find. The point is for the PCs to fill in the blanks spaces.

Towards this end, the outposts of civilization (or, at least, the civilization the PCs belong to) should be few. On our map, there will be only a handful, and all clustered close together.

So, starting at the top, we put a large city where the northern-most river meets the sea. I want a fairly serious city so that the PCs can expect to buy anything they might need: triremes and mounts, porters or slaves, powerful healing magic, and someone who can remove curses or similar unfortunate magics for a price. You can fudge this a bit by making the city heavily focused; the Pitsh of my Doom & Tea Parties campaign is a theocratic community that grew up around a temple to Uban that itself was focused on exploring the island of Dreng Bdan and plundering its ruins. That means it is much richer in clerical resources than you’d normally expect from a city its size.

For our hex-map island's human city, I’m thinking it’s an outpost of the Sea Lords, a city-state that only recently won its independence from another such state. Possibly a brother or nephew of some other Sea Lord or some such. It’s a port-of-call for pirates and smugglers, but also an important shipyard for same. Up-river, in the jungle hexes, I’ll put one or two villages that are based on logging. They’ll float their lumber down river to the city where it’s transformed into new ships. I’ll also drop in a few villages in the clear hexes where farmers grow food to support the city and the loggers.

This part of the island is pretty well explored, and when I hand the PCs a map of the island, the part north of that V of mountains will be largely filled in. So will the coastline, but nothing else; due to the city-state’s battle for independence, they’ve not really had the chance to explore the interior yet. That’s where the PCs come in.

Some critters are so dangerous, they’re practically forces of nature in their own right. Dragons come to mind. I want three on this island. The youngest, a male red, lives in the extinct volcano just north of the mysterious plateau. The oldest, a female red and possibly the mother or grandmother of the young red, lives in the dead volcano just north of the grey volcanic ash wastes. And I’m thinking there’s a green somewhere in those jungles on the eastern side of the island. I could put a black in those hills surrounded by swamp along the eastern coast, but I’ve got other ideas for that part of the world.

I want to place the dragons now because they'll likely distort the social map. Few people want to live next-door to a dragon. Now that I've got a good idea of where there be dragons, I can start plopping down the more civilized, social monsters. And we'll get to that next week.

Art by Frederick Arthur Bridgman and Albert Bierstadt.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 5: Things That Grow

With the coastline, mountains, and rivers placed, we’re set to drop in everything else we want. And you probably want most other things. Granted, on an island this size, it’s probably not reasonable to include both arctic ice-sheets and tropical jungles. Still, snow-capped mountains surrounded by tropical jungle is certainly feasible, as are the sorts of rain forests you find on the coast of the Pacific northwest creeping up towards tundra. If you really want it, you can probably find a way to make it happen.

Why go to such extremes? It’s not really necessary, but you may want to be able to drop in things you pick up. Death Frost Doom kinda requires a frozen landscape to work in, though a good, tall mountain might work. N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God works best if you have a swamp. B4: The Lost City could be dropped in a jungle, but the feel is decidedly desert.

Besides, endless days of nothing but forest get dull. You want to keep things fresh and interesting. Varied terrain also makes picking a route more interesting. Traveling down the river is faster than cutting through the hills, but if you do that, you might miss something interesting. And maybe that river doesn’t go where you want to go.

Before we start plopping terrain, a word about climate. Right now, in the tropics, the prevailing winds, and the rains they push, move from east to west, and in the temperate regions they go the other way. This is what creates all the moisture in the Amazon as the rains that don’t fall over the jungle are forced to dump their moisture when they run into the Andes, while the Pacific coast of California is rich and fertile while the other side of the mountains is a desert.

But the world was not always as it is today. The Sahara was once a lush forest. Ferns once grew in the soils of Antarctica. If climate’s a useful tool for you, use it. Some people feel climate is a good framework to use when the blank hexes grow too daunting. Otherwise, feel free to chunk it.

Let’s start with hills. Hills often appear alongside mountains, the way big wrinkles in a blanket might be surrounded by smaller ones. They’re also a good excuse if you have a river that suddenly zigs or zags abruptly. Put some hills at that point, and the river is flowing around the higher terrain, always choosing to flow down and never up. If you put in any lakes, maybe a series of hills caused the water to back up until it could flow through a saddle in those hills.

Marshes and swamps usually occur alongside rivers. Basically, the land is low and you get what would be a lake if the depression was deeper. Or the river meets the sea and the separation between earth and water becomes muddled. If you put in one of those deltas we talked about last time, the land around it is probably pretty marshy.

Could you have marsh next to desert? Sure. It’s easy to imagine something like the salt marshes outside Lankhmar along the edge of a desert, or maybe even as the dividing line between desert and sea.

Since I’ve said my island is tropical, I’m going to put lots of thick jungle on the eastern half. I’m declaring the western half is mostly savanna. Putting the PCs’ base near the dividing line in the north gives them an interesting choice almost immediately: dense rain forest or open grasslands?

But this is a fantasy world, not just Hawaii writ large. Normal terrain is good and all, but if you can, you should absolutely drop in some really cool fantastical bits of terrain: rivers of lava, rocks that float in mid-air, columns of stone that have been hollowed out to be the homes of gnomes, landforms that are actually giant creatures, mammoths’ graveyards, magically warped terrains, groves of treants and dryads, burning hellscapes, great plains teeming with carnivorous plants, yellow brick roads, rainbow bridges, gumdrop mountains, towers that shift between different dimensions, tesseracts, enchanted forests, eternal storms, ancient standing stones, radioactive wastelands, crops of magnetic crystals, and other cool ideas I’ve never even dreamed of yet, but that I hope you’ll share with me.

In that spirit, the southwestern portion of the island is a strange landscape of poisonous ash coughed up by the volcanoes. Living there will be difficult without magic or specialized gear. In this strange dust and ash, giant mushrooms have sprung up into dense fungal forests. Perhaps colonies of myconids tend them, and sorcerers lurk in the shadows, collecting rare and potent reagents for their potions and spells.

I'm not touching the spot in the middle, our mysterious plateau, just yet. Still not sure what I want to put there, but there's no rush on that score. As rorschachhamster pointed out on Monday, that lake really is just crying out for an island in the middle, isn't it? But first, I think I want to decide what my major populations on this island are going to be. We'll tackle that on Friday, if all goes well.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 4: Mountains and Subdivisions

As promised, today we’re talking about mountains. Now that we have our coastline defined, we can chop up our big, flat island into more digestible chunks. Mountains work really well for this purpose because they are both a physical boundary but also permeable. Mountain slow you down, but they don't stop you necessarily.

This makes them useful for the players as internal boundaries inside the island. And they work well for the DM because mountains have frequently served as cultural boundaries in the real world. The Alps marked the boundary between Italy and Gaul just as the Pyrenees mark the boundary between France and Spain. Mountains work better for this purpose than rivers because rivers are facilitators of mobility instead of inhibitors. Rivers encourage motion; mountains discourage it.

So the players will use our mountains to define geographic subdivisions of our island. We will encourage this behavior by using mountains to separate cultural and racial groups.

More about that later. Right now, we just need to chop up this big Island into more digestible bits. So I'll go ahead and slap down some chains of mountains radiating from the center of our island out towards some of the points.

(If you wanted to, you could extend these mountains out into the sea as islands. You can see this sort of thing in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. But keep in mind we want to encourage our players to stay on the island and not give them small, tempting distractions just offshore. So we’ll stop our mountain chains well short of the coast.)

As you can see, I've chopped my island into six sections. Some are a little big, especially the ones on the eastern side, so I'll probably want to vary the terrain a little bit over there. The northern section is the smallest, so I'll probably make that the "safe zone" of civilization. Finally, I put a ring of mountains in the center of the island. This is going to be our mysterious and difficult to reach plateau. It's perfect for a “lost world” teeming with dinosaurs, ancient lost civilizations, or crashed spaceships à la Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I have no idea yet what I'm going to put there, but that's okay. We're still only just getting started.

Now that we have mountains and the coastline defining our highest and lowest spots, we can put in rivers. Assuming your world works under the same general principles as ours does, water will flow downhill. Find some likely spots, and draw some squiggly river lines heading towards the coast. Rivers tend to do one of two things when flowing from a mountain to the sea; they either separate into smaller rivers, or merge into bigger rivers. If you want some massive artery like the Mississippi or the Amazon, have lots of rivers flow into one. If you have a good fan-shaped piece of coastline your river can fan out into a delta like the Nile.

Don't go too crazy with the rivers. Not every nook and cranny of your coastline requires a river flowing into it. On a map this size, a handful should serve you well. If you've already located what you consider to be choice spots for civilization, go ahead and put a river by that. Communities love rivers. But we'll get to those later. We've still got to finish our geography first.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Movie Review: The Black Shield of Falworth

In the reign of Henry IV of England, all is not well with the realm. The king is ill and leans more heavily by the day on the Royal Council to govern. The Royal Council is full of plotters and schemers who think nothing of raping a young peasant or flogging their serfs. The king’s son, Hal, is a drunkard with no serious concern for the welfare of the nation. Everywhere is villainy promoted and the common folk downtrodden.

But this is “Merry Olde England” in a Hollywood film from the ‘50s, so this state of affairs cannot continue. Indeed, not everything is as it seems, especially the hot-headed young peasant Myles and his sister Meg. Their parentage is mysterious, and is somehow wrapped up in black shield bearing a rampant red griffon.

If you’ve got Amazon Prime, “The Black Shield of Falworth” is a free “rental” for you via livestream. If you’re at all a fan of this sort of movie, period pieces made in the middle of the 20th century, you’ll likely enjoy this one. Historical accuracy is not a big point in these flicks, and while there are a few nods towards it in the clothing, it leans more on Shakespeare than Froissart. But there’s romance, action, derring-do, jousting, and a grand melee in the end.

Tony Curtis isn’t quite playing the same character here that he plays in “The Vikings” though their circumstances are quite similar. Myles is light on his feet and quick with his fists. He never walks when he can run and never goes around when he can vault over. If this were a Jackie Chan flick, we’d be saying he’s showing off, but Curtis fills the movie with so much energy it’s hard to complain. Interestingly, if the folks attempting to recreate real medieval martial arts are correct about how the fighting actually happened, this movie might be the most realistic ever; it’s full of grapples, throws, and disarms.

Otherwise, while absolutely charming, this movie isn’t a must-see. The plot-and-counter-plot of the principle factions keeps the movie moving at a good clip but isn’t nearly as interesting as the romantic elements or Myles’ quest to learn his origins. Curtis almost makes the fights seem too easy; the battles entertain, but don’t dazzle. It’s a fun way to while away a lazy evening, though, and if you’ve got Amazon Prime already, the price is certainly right.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 3: Hittin' the Beach

Ok, so three posts into this and we’re finally ready to whip out the hex paper! First question is, how big should our map be?

We want lots of room for exploration, clearly. If you’re running an "open table" sort of game, as West Marches is, where you’ll have lots of groups running around, you’ll want both lots of room to explore and multiple directions to explore at a time.

(The actual, hex-less West Marches game was probably a lot smaller than this, since Mr. Robbins encouraged navigation by landmarks. That sort of play encourages a much more intimate knowledge of the terrain than a hex map will usually give you, and six miles is a huge distance if your landmarks are things like unusual rock formations, big trees, or sinkholes.)

Just to pick a dimension at random, saying that our map takes a full month of travel to cross from one end to the other sounds good, yes? Since we’ll want a wide array of terrain types, let’s say we can expect people to move at an average pace of 12 miles per day. That comes to a map that’s 360 miles (30 days x 12 miles) across. If we simply square that, we’ve got an area of 129,600 square miles.

How’s that square with the real world? Well, it’s a hint more than 150% the size of Great Britain. That should be more than big enough to give us all the adventure we need, at least for the first few levels.

360 miles is 60 hexes (360 miles / 6 miles-per-hex). We’ll start a bit bigger than that, since we don’t want to just create a simple, square plain. I also want a bit of a border because I’m going to draw an island.

“Here Am I, Your Special Island”
Why an island? Islands work great for hex-crawling games. First, they give the area of play a solid and unequivocal boundary in the sea. When the PCs reach the ocean, the players know they’ve reached the edge of the map. At the same time, it’s not an insurmountable barrier; players can buy boats and sail outward to new lands if they get tired of the starting area (or if it gets too dangerous for them).

Plus, I never did get around to adding anything to the Seas of Os’r project, so...

When starting a new map, it’s generally a good idea to start at the bottom and work your way up. Most times, that means sea level and your coastline. Coastlines generally come in two flavors: soft and rocky. The Texas gulf coast, for instance is soft, the beaches sandy, the land clay. So you get a nice, smooth coastline, with long barrier islands just offshore.

The other option is rocky and that usually means jagged, like the fjords of Finland or Denmark, though it can mean smooth, like the cliffs of Dover. In either case, you’re likely to end up with lots of little islands off the coast, but not the long, delicate barrier islands of a soft coast.

Since I’m going with an island, I’m thinking volcanoes. And I’m thinking tropical, too, because I’m kinda on a tropical kick just lately. So we’ll start with something a bit softer, like Hawaii and its collection of shield volcanoes. Saving the volcanoes for later, here’s the coastline.

Just one big island. Why? Because we want the coastline to signal to the players, “Hey, this is the edge of the map.” We want to encourage them to explore the island as much as possible before they hop on a boat and head for the horizon. Still, dividing our island into clearly recognizable sections is a good idea for all sorts of reasons. We’ll do that next week as we swing to the other extreme, jumping from sea level to maximum elevation when we place our volcanoes and mountains.

UK map from the CIA's World Factbook. Satellite image of Padre Island, TX from these folks. They have lots of great pics of geological formations of all kinds, so be sure to explore. My map was done in Hexographer to save y'all from having to decipher my pathetic chicken-scratches.