The Alphastream Game Design Blog
(Originally posted in 2010 on my WotC blog)
I am a sucker for tweaking stuff. I love finding some new way of doing things, trying it out, tweaking it, blending it with another idea, finding something else… repeat.
This sort of cycle is what makes the hobby so approachable for me. The first decade of gaming for me was largely devoid of this. The only input was what my long-term DM did and the things I saw in adventures. When you read about how revolutionary the original Ravenloft adventure was or you keep hearing people mention Temple of Elemental Evil or Tomb of Horrors… these are the only inputs we had. Today’s Internet provides endless cool stuff for our hobby.
One of the brilliant ideas I recently found was on Stephen Radney-MacFarland’s (SRM’s) blog (Edit: now no longer available) called Neogrognard, where he tackled a system for exploring/traveling. The idea is to combine some of the ideas of sandbox play (where PCs choose how to proceed) with the concept of the terrain posing actually cool challenges and environmental stresses with the old idea of random encounters, all while still preserving story and the DM’s hand. At least, that’s my take on it. SRM explains it really well in a series of posts, and I’ll quote this for good measure:
I wanted the exploration of this area to be fun and exciting. I wanted them to make interesting decisions, but I didn’t want to have to detail every little part of the game or to breathe life into the wilderness. I wanted the players to be challenged; I was too busy running the game to be the one who was challenge(d). I could make a skill challenge, and I wanted something skill challenge like, but I was getting to the point where the skill challenge formula, as mutable as it was, was becoming old hat. I wanted something new. Something fun. Something…well… “gamey.”
The thing I liked about the game is that it simulates the uncertainty of overland travel into new vistas while traveling on foot or horseback. The world really is a different place without maps, roads, or any idea of where the hell you are going. Even in our world of satellite maps and GPS software people still get lost in the wilds. In the Northwest, there seems to be a news story at least once a month, if not once a week, where someone gets lost in this stretch of wilderness or the other. Now imagine you are living on the frontier. Beyond those points of light everything is uncertain. That’s the sense of wonder, uncertainty, and danger I wanted to create.
He broke the approach down in a series of posts (Edit: as it was deleted, I am using web archive links):
The concept of having a trek through the wilderness be a cool experience is especially applicable to Dark Sun. It is one thing to travel a road to the city of Greyhawk It is an entirely different matter to travel from Nibenay to Raam! Even along the “road” (really just a worn travel route) the terrain is inhospitable. Rocky Badlands, Sandy Wastes, Boulder Fields, and even Silt are threatening you… and then there are monsters, slavers, templars, merchants, raiders…
So, I took SRM’s idea as written in Tiles and Tables and I cobbled together something for my home campaign last night. I really like the idea of using Settlers of Cataan styled hex cards, but instead I drew a hex map of the area. I decided they could normally cross 5 hexes a day, but mountains or rocky badlands terrain would slow that by half. PCs could only see the adjacent hexes plus the main features. Thus, as they moved, they had to make some choices. They had enough survival days to last the trip, so long as they did not get delayed. The default for travel is you use up a survival day. If out of survival days, you face Sun Sickness – all per the DS rules.
You can check out the map here. (Yes, I can barely draw stick figures, why do you ask?)
I then added the encounter table SRM made, using it for Rocky Badlands areas. I made two altered versions of the table, one for harsher terrain (Stony Barrens, Mountains) and one for very harsh terrain (Boulder Fields). The general difference is a slight change to how often you trigger bad stuff. Oh, and in the base one I actually added a Benefit entry where something good happens. Every two hexes a player would roll and I would consult the table. I honestly like the idea of flipping cards over a bit better, but this is more random and the DM can also adjust on the fly. I’m torn on which would really be better. Here is what I used:
I spent a fair bit of time on the encounters and hazards. I designed one true combat encounter and saved time by having any “Encounter” roll advance the plot towards the combat. I made notes for each roll of Encounter. They might see something at a distance, have a lone member of the group come scout at night, encounter a creatures, etc. It all leads up to a big fight… maybe. They can avert it and I wrote down how things can trigger or remove the actual Encounter.
I wrote up several short bits for each category. Last night, an easy hazard was a stone arch over a rift in the ground. Something dangerous was in the area, but it was resolved through skill checks and would not have been particularly taxing even on a failure. Many of the hazards are based on terrain challenges or climate. A particularly hot day, cold night in the mountains, blinding sandy wind, etc.
A difficult hazard was the activation of a particular monster, which then can play a role in future checks (or not, based on PC actions).
A benefit was rolled, which was finding an old skeleton – a villager that had attempted the same journey the are undertaking. A bone grappling hook and climbing kit was found.
I also put a few features on the map. A road automatically activated an encounter, with some of the encounters above being earmarked for possible ones. Gulgan slavers looking for escaped slaves. A tall spire afforded a view of the surrounding terrain and provided bonuses to terrain challenges. Caves might offer shelter but hold foes. These all activated certain encounters for weal or woe.
Oh, and each night I described the two moons and lighting conditions and then they rolled two checks. An encounter may or may not activate at that time (a terrain one might kick in the next morning in that very hex).
It was really positive! I thought the random aspect kept the game fairly fresh. Everyone took turns rolling and there was a sense of mystery about what might come up. At the same time, it was a bit mechanical. I am never certain if it would be better to just run a story or use these kinds of tools. Even trying both I am never able to make up my mind. I guess it is just best to try different things and keep it interesting.
But, I did really like how the random nature, with some logical mechanical backing, meant that it was interesting for me as well. I was certainly having a blast seeing what they triggered and how they RPd a response. It is worth mentioning that this was RP-rich. This whole thing was far from being a mechanical skill challenge or even a good skill challenge – it was a much more open experience. This system facilitated good RP, player driven sandbox-style (without losing a sense of purpose), and story.
We are halfway through and now the players head back. I see myself looking forward to that and also to using this in the future. I hope SRM codifies this soon and releases it or sells it. It has real potential as a system. I would totally buy it (and then, of course, tweak it, blend it with other ideas, etc.).
By the way, if you ever need to print out hex paper, this site allows you to scale the hex size and make a pdf to print!