Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

An overlooked OSR gem: Lesserton and Mor

Lesserton and Mor, written by Joel and Jeff Sparks of Faster Monkey Games, is a product that I don’t think has received its due. It’s a fantastic, unique, flavorful, and versatile sourcebook for a premade city and its neighboring open-air megadungeon, and it’s incredibly cool. (Update: And it’s now free in PDF!)

For starters, just look at this glorious Peter Mullen cover:

The late, great Steve Zieser did all of the interior art, and his style — like Mullen’s — matches up beautifully with L&M’s “dirty British fantasy” aesthetic.

The hook

L&M has an awesome premise: The ancient city of Mor, “mankind’s proudest achievement,” was sacked by barbarians, and then destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. The refugees of Mor made their new home next door, and grew that ragged settlement into the city of Lesserton — “the adventurer’s paradise,” a home base for those brave and foolhardy enough to venture into Mor to claim its riches.

Lesserton is fully described in L&M, from districts to buildings to personalities to laws. But Mor is not — Mor, you make yourself. It’s even possible to roll it up as you play, creating new hexes and populating them as the PCs venture into unexplored territory (along the lines of my own Hexmancer).

What’s inside

L&M is a shrinkwrapped bundle, old-school style: a wraparound cardstock cover, unattached to the three booklets inside. The loose cover doubles as a map of Mor, intended to be filled in as you go. Inside are three books: a ref’s guide to Lesserton, a thinner players’ guide to Lesserton, and a guide to rolling up your own Mor.

Lesserton reminds me of WFRP’s Middenheim and Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork — two of my favorite fantasy cities — but it’s also its own animal. It’s populated by a ragtag mix of people, including many part-ork (“orkin”) folk descended from the original invaders of Mor, and home to all manner of gambling houses, pubs, and brothels. (“Fantasy Mos Eisley” would also be decent shorthand.)

The Referee’s Guide to Lesserton plumbs its depths rather well, and packs a lot of stuff into 68 pages. It’s not chaff, either — it’s stuff you’ll actually use at the table (like another of my favorite city books, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, which I’ve written about on Yore).

There are regular pit fights, places to rob, weird shops where you can buy weird shit, normal shops that will sell you adventuring gear, and on and on. There’s a whole section on carousing, which I now realize I missed in my look at carousing in D&D from 1977 to present, and it’s great.

I loathe homework in RPGs, but I love players’ guides to settings; for me to be happy, players’ guides need to be extremely well done, or they’re just homework. The Player’s Guide to Lesserton is extremely well done. For starters, it’s 16 pages long.

What’s the city like? One page, boom. Where is X? There’s a map on the back cover. “I want to get shitfaced.” Covered. “I got too shitfaced, where do they take drunks here?” Covered. “Where do I gamble/drink/fuck?” Covered.

Also covered are lots of things that feel very Lesserton to me. For example, Brinkley’s Assurity Trust will, for 100gp, sell you a bumblebee pin that signals to the orkin tribes who live in Mor that there’s a ransom for your safe return. That’s brilliant! L&M is full of touches like that; it’s designed for play, not just reading (or worse, endless, droning setting-wankery), and it shows.

Finally, there’s the Referee’s Guide to Mor, plus its companion map. This booklet (28 pages, also a great length for what it needs to do) opens with useful background on Mor — what was where, what sort of city it was, and the like. That gives you a good foundation for improvisation during play.

The balance of the book is a framework for generating your own version of Mor, hex by hex, either in advance or on the spot. Random terrain, random buildings, random encounters, special areas (caches, dead magic zones, excavations, etc.) — pure hexcrawl goodness. It even covers generating the orkin clans who call Mor home.

Awesome possum

Put it all together, and L&M is a hell of a toolbox. To stretch the toolbox analogy a bit, it’s like a toolbox that contains some top-notch tools you’re likely to need, as well as the parts to make the ones it’d be more fun to create yourself, and an owner’s manual to help you make the most of both.

I rarely hear anyone talk about Lesserton and Mor, which is a shame — it’s a true gem of a setting. I rate it a 10/10, and heartily recommend it.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Mapping with index cards, and Jedi Blackbird

John Aegard has produced some really cool stuff, including two resources that jumped out at me: Jedi Blackbird, a Star Wars hack of Lady Blackbird, and a collection of tips for running a Dungeon World one-shot.

Jedi Blackbird

Jedi Blackbird is more structured than its inspiration, but only a little. That’s a good thing: Lady Blackbird is brilliant, but I want a hack of it to do something more than just reskin the characters and call it a day. Jedi Blackbird does more.

It’s still every bit as delightfully brief: two pages of sparse background, one page of GMing notes, and the characters. Boom.

The added structure comes from the premise:

NOW, word has arrived from the distant Outer Rim that the renegade padawan ORDO VALLUS has established a holdfast on the junk world of KONDU. The Jedi Council has hastily dispatched three Jedi aboard the starship BLACKBIRD. Their mission: to bring Vallus back to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, where he will stand trial.

Vallus has an agenda; it’s covered in the GMing notes. The PCs are on a mission, and on a specific planet, which fits well for Star Wars. But beyond that, things are wide open — there’s no plot to follow, no rails to ride. (JB tweaks more things about LB than just the setting and structure, too; those are also in John’s notes.)

I’ve already printed this out and added it to the folder full of zero-prep games that rides in my gaming bag.[1]

Index card mapping

I dig Dungeon World, and John’s tips for fitting a satisfying, emblematic DW experience into a typical four-hour convention event slot look good to me. But what really grabbed me was his mapping technique, which uses index cards.

Here’s why this sounds amazing:

The map will be a grid of index cards arranged where everyone can see. […] A map made of cards is super flexible and totally lets you earn your Draw Maps While Leaving Blanks merit badge. See, if you want to add a location between two other locations while you’re in the middle of play, you can just insert a card in between those two locations.

This turns the map into a pointcrawl, a variation on a hexcrawl that uses more abstract mapping and travel rules, on the fly.[2] Which is brilliant!

For a longer-term game, pin the cards to a corkboard or stick them to the table (or a portable surface) with poster putty (paid link). Or hell, just take a picture of the map and rebuild it for each session (until it gets large enough to need a more streamlined solution).

This is one of those mapping techniques I can’t believe I’ve never thought of using before. It has so many applications to different types of game, and it’s right up my alley.

[1] I suspect I’ll write a post about that folder before too long. I love zero-prep grab-and-go games!

[2] The pointcrawl series on Hill Cantons is a great look at this style of play.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

One choice, two consequences

Over on Monsters and Manuals, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Yoon-Suin, one of the starred recommendations on my big list of RPG stuff on Lulu) wrote a neat post about a rule of thumb for sandbox games: Two Problems for Every Solution.

David shares an example from his campaign that explains it well:

For example, in one of the games I am running, the PCs solved the disappearance of a group of villagers – but as a result of this they now have a vengeful demigoddess to deal with and a magic potion to track down, not to mention having to act as a go-between for two power centres and becoming entangled in an apparently unrelated issue to do with the enchantment of a young noblewoman.

Emergent play with a high degree of player agency is my jam, and I love this rule of thumb. It reminds me of last Sunday’s Star Wars World session, which makes sense because, as David points out, Star Wars is full of solutions that only beget new problems.

One bad roll popped us out of hyperspace in the wrong place, and we crashed our ship. We survived, and learned of a settlement not far away . . . full of dangerous poachers, and about to be attacked by angry natives. Problem > solution > problem, problem, and so forth. It’s a good fit.

For where I’m at in terms of sandbox experience, though, I’d like to offer up a related, but not identical rule of thumb: one problem, two consequences.

Making meaningful choices which have meaningful consequences is a hallmark of sandbox play (and other sorts of game with no predetermined plot), and “problem” is just another way of saying “meaningful consequence.” Reminding myself that choices ripple, and those ripples don’t lead to a single new choice, or consequence, or problem, should help my sandbox stay vital and alive.

When I’m stumped for how the world might react in my DCC RPG hexcrawl campaign, I’m going to keep both of these rules of thumb in mind.

Categories
D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Chance Cards in Blackmoor

I was poking through Dave Arneson‘s The First Fantasy Campaign[1] the other day and happened across a section I’d never looked at before: Gypsy Sayings & Chance Cards.

The sayings don’t mesh well with my GMing style (they remind me of Ravenloft’s Tarrokka Deck (paid link), a 2e product revived for 5e), but the Chance Cards certainly do. They look a lot like the event tables in Oriental Adventures, which I absolutely love (and which — like so many cool D&D things — I was introduced to by way of a post on Jeff Rients’ blog).

And that’s basically what they are: random campaign events for Arneson’s Blackmoor setting. He wrote them up as cards, but presents them in FFC as a simple chart.

“Random campaign events” may not sound interesting, but they’re a great piece of gaming tech.

Chance Cards

Here’s Arneson on his Chance Cards:

It was the Chance Cards that allowed the Great Peasant Revolt and the Duchy of Ten Raid I mentioned earlier. These cards were only used after the 3rd year and generally only in the Outdoor Survival section of the campaign.

Those both sound like awesome events! Just the sort of thing to provide a backdrop for what the PCs are doing, or to give them something obvious to do if they’re overwhelmed or feeling directionless.

Here’s the other bit:

These cards represented ‘strategic encounters’ for the Blackmoor area, though one could allow one of the 20 forces listed under the Great Invasion to be affected at random. Roll percentile dice to determine Chance Occurance [sic] once a month (preferably ahead).

The “Outdoor Survival section” refers to using Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival (paid link) board game to represent the campaign’s wilderness areas, and manage wilderness travel.

As Chris Kutalik notes, Arneson determined these events well in advance — “once a month (preferably ahead).” That’s an approach to random events I’d never considered; I’m more of a “roll when you need to” sort of GM, but there are lots of advantages to having a year of events already rolled up.

The table itself

The table is pretty brief, just 35 events (counting a couple of “draw twice” results, and the like) with a 2%, 3%, or 4% chance of each (varying by encounter). Here are three examples:

  • Large Orc Uprising (Civil War) Report: Each area, 400 – 4000 per area (special as for Isengarders).
  • Small Bandit Attack: 100 – 1000 Cavalrymen.
  • Storms: Delay Trade by one month, movement reduced.

I’m currently reading Jon Peterson‘s Playing at the World (paid link), and one thing that’s struck me about it is just how much of what I love about D&D can be traced back to Dave Arneson’s contributions to the game. Chance Cards are just one more example of this.

While the FFC’s Chance Cards didn’t make it into the original three booklets of OD&D, nor into Supplement II: Blackmoor, they were certainly in use around the time of D&D’s publication. I didn’t realize the notion of random event tables in RPGs went back that far — and it’s a durable concept. Tables like this are still around because they still work well.

Why they rock

“Domain-level” random events are a great way to spice up an ongoing campaign and, like wilderness encounter tables or OD&D’s implied setting, what you put on these sorts of tables communicates a lot about the world.

For instance, look at the second example entry above: 100-1,000 mounted bandits is a small bandit attack! As befits a setting (and game) born out of wargaming, Blackmoor was a place where roaming around during the wrong month might mean running into hundreds of bandits. The PCs were expected to marshal suitable forces to deal with those sorts of threats.

Compare the top of that range, 1,000, to the top end — in terms of number appearing — of the wilderness encounter numbers for the creatures in OD&D, and it’s 2.5 times higher than the most goblins, kobolds, or dwarves one might randomly encounter (400). That alone makes it a dandy monthly event — something that will define a good bit of play during that period.

Populating a table like this isn’t too difficult, either. The ones in Oriental Adventures make a great baseline, as do those in The First Fantasy Campaign. Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko both offer nifty interpretations of this simple mechanic, and I’m sure there are plenty of other books out there from which to borrow.

[1] Why the FFC isn’t legally available in PDF is both baffling and frustrating. It’s a fascinating book!

Categories
DCC RPG Tabletop RPGs

Wilderness encounter chance by terrain type for DCC RPG

I use the wilderness encounter system from the B/X D&D Expert Set in my DCC RPG hexcrawl (the binder for which is full of hexcrawling tools), but it occurred to me that it would be pretty easy to tweak that system to take advantage of DCC’s dice chain.

In this tweaked version, an encounter occurs on a 1 or 2, but the die type varies by terrain.[1] In general, roll once per day.

If the PCs are doing something that would dramatically increase or decrease their chances of bumping into something while traveling, like leading a small army of hirelings (increase) or wearing camouflage cloaks and moving at a snail’s pace (decrease), just step the die type up/down accordingly.

For example, if they’re in the woods (d6), but wearing camouflage garb, roll a d7 instead. Now the odds of getting a 1 or 2 have gone down from 33.33% to 28.6%. If they’re also moving super-slowly, consider rolling a d8 (25% odds) or even a d10 (20% odds).

Be wary of adjusting the die type by too many steps in already-dangerous terrain. Two steps down on a d4 is a d2, which is a guaranteed encounter.

The terrain types in the table above match “fantasy western Europe,” and play nice with my wilderness travel speeds and encounter tables by terrain type for DCC, but the sub-system itself should work fine with other approaches.

The only difference in odds between this table and the one in B/X is plains, which gives 20% odds here and 16.67% odds in B/X.

[1] In B/X, it’s always a d6, but the range of results that produce an encounter changes based on the terrain.

Categories
D&D DCC RPG Old school Tabletop RPGs

DCC RPG wilderness travel speeds

I wanted to use the wilderness travel rules from the B/X D&D Expert Set in my DCC RPG hexcrawl, but character’s movement speeds don’t translate 1:1 across the two games.

I compared species (races) in both editions, crunched the numbers, and turned the results into a one-page PDF reference for DCC RPG wilderness travel speeds by terrain type.

I also tweaked my favorite weather mechanic, weather as a reaction roll, from The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, and stuck that on the bottom of the page, mostly because there was room for it.

This one-pager is designed to work with my DCC RPG wilderness encounter tables and Hexmancer (for procedurally generating terrain), and all three share the same terrain types (“fantasy western Europe”).

Categories
DCC RPG Old school Tabletop RPGs

DCC RPG wilderness encounter tables

I needed wilderness encounter tables for the DCC RPG hexcrawl I’m running, but there aren’t any in the book. Jeff Rients created some excellent tables for wandering monsters by dungeon level (which also appear in Crawl! #5), but after searching high and low I couldn’t find any wilderness encounter tables online. So I created some.

They’re broken down by terrain type (for “fantasy western Europe”) and include number appearing for each monster. You can download them as a free PDF: DCC RPG Wilderness Encounter Tables. They’re also available as a plain text file so that you can fiddle with them to your heart’s content.

(2018 update: My tables, along with a shortened version of the design notes, appear in The Gongfarmer’s Almanac – Volume 3, 2018, with excellent editing by Rob Brennan.)

There’s no scaling by PC level or party size in these tables, and they’re not “balanced” in any way. The world is the world, and what’s out there is what’s out there.

To use them, you’ll need a way of figuring out whether or not a random encounter takes place (I use the system from the B/X Expert Set). That’s all!

I love design notes in gaming books, and a surprising amount of design goes into making wandering monster tables (these took me about 12 hours to make!), so the rest of this post is about my goals, process, assumptions, and the theory behind my tables.

Design goals

I went in with a few goals in mind:

  • Quick and dirty — when in doubt, make the choice that sounds the most fun, and do a lot with one roll
  • Showcase the flavor of DCC
  • Give each terrain type its own feel, which should be discernible to players after just a few encounters
  • Use only the monsters in the DCC core book, and use whatever they say (including rarity)
  • Don’t have too few monsters, because lack of variety is dull
  • But don’t have too many, either, because that dilutes each terrain type
  • Reflect “fantasy western Europe,” and a borderlands/wilderlands kind of region
  • Match the terrain types I used in Hexmancer, my system for procedurally generating hexcrawl terrain and features
  • Play nice with B/X D&D’s encounter chances by terrain type, since that’s what I use

The overuse of “men” in the monster names, while matching the feel of Appendix N, bugs me, but I figured changing it would make these tables less useful to others, so I left all of the monster names as-is.

Baseline

My baseline was always “What does the DCC rulebook say?”

If a monster entry listed terrain types, number appearing, relative rarity, or other details, I used those. If it didn’t, I looked at B/X and/or Jeff’s wandering monster list, and then came up with something that felt right to me.

I excluded monsters that are listed as underground-only, as well as the weird ones that seem like they’d work best as placed encounters, not random ones (extradimensional analogues, for example). I also left out things that only live in hot places or jungles (which aren’t in fantasy western Europe, or in Hexmancer).

Massage, dismantle, repeat

My first step was to list every DCC monster under all of the terrain types where it could appear. That gave me a picture of what a world created with this monster manual might look like, as well as some unique monster for specific terrain types and a host of critters that appear only in a couple places — both great starting points for flavor.

It’s not a short list, but it is short on specific things — normal animals, for example. And it’s a quirky list, which I like! Sure, the world likely does have animals in it the PCs could meet . . . but I didn’t worry about that.

I started out with d8+d10 tables, because that roll produces one of my favorite distributions for encounter tables. But I quickly found that I wanted more granularity, which led me to percentile tables. Those also have the added advantage of making the odds immediately discernible, which I like.

A few hours in, I hit on the idea of creating a template table based on the concept of using “brackets” of monsters to convey things about the world.

Broken out, those brackets look like this (in the order they occur on the table):

  • 10% (1-10) say a lot about the world (and the style of game I like to run), while being quite rare. Results 1-10 are on every table except Water, a big-picture statement about what kind of world feels like DCC to me.
  • 25% (11-35) emphasize the importance of humans and humanoids. Humans, humanoids, and subhumans (which are kind of like a mix of both), are on every table.[1] Humans are big in sword and sorcery fiction, and humanoids are big in D&D.
    • Taken in aggregate, the first 35% (1-35) also serve another purpose: Most of them are things that won’t always just try to eat you. Intelligent monsters, and encounters that aren’t always fights, are both good things in my book.
  • 20% (36-55) round out the flavor of the terrain type. These are often unique to the terrain type, but not always, and they’re indicative of what kind of place it is.
  • 45% (56-100) define the terrain type. You have a 45% chance of meeting each terrain type’s signature monsters. More than anything else on the table, these convey what that terrain is all about.

Seeing those odds in graph form also helped me decide that this was a fun distribution model (column height equals percentage chance of that encounter):

Having a template really sped up the process, too, because it made it feel less daunting. Instead of staring at long lists and not being sure quite where to start, I could just look at each terrain type and go, “Okay, which three say ‘forest’ best? Cool, now which four also look like good forest options?”

I ripped apart my draft tables a couple of times, but once I built them using these brackets they stayed pretty stable. My last couple iterations mostly involved comparing the lists, looking for ways to sneak in monsters I regretted not including (so many!), and — most importantly — making sure that the flavor of each terrain type came through clearly.

In B/X, some types of terrain are more dangerous than others by virtue of how likely it is you’ll have an encounter there: 1 in 6 on clear terrain (plains) vs. 3 in 6 in the mountains, for example. The way my lists shook out, some terrain types are also more dangerous because of what’s on them. For example, you’re 40% likely to meet some sort of giant in the mountains, which seems like fun to me.

Surprises and rolling your own

Two things surprised me about this process: how much work it was, and how personal it turned out to be. If two GMs sat down with the DCC book and designed wilderness encounter tables, I guarantee they’d look different — and probably not much like mine!

They’d use different die rolls, different breakdowns of monsters, and different philosophies about what a DCC world looks like. One would follow the B/X model of rolling once for terrain and then again on a sub-table for that terrain; another would compress things into one roll, like I did, but use 2d6 instead of d100. And since they’d both have to choose a subset of the overall monster list, they’d play favorites (just like I did!).

Chances are, if you’ve read this far, you can think of all sorts of things you’d do differently in building a set of DCC RPG wilderness encounter tables. I included my template in the plain text version, in case you like that baseline.

If you make your own tables, I’d love to see them. Post them somewhere and share them with the DCC community — the more the merrier!

[1] Except Water. Just add “except Water” to pretty much everything. Water is weird because there just aren’t that many water monsters in the DCC core book.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

While reading Chris Kutalik’s excellent blog, Hill Cantons, I found myself thinking, “Why the hell don’t I own any of his books?” So I ordered three of them in print: Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and the Hill Cantons Compendium. (While I was waiting for them to arrive, I also blogged about his killer series on dynamic sandboxes.)

After spending some time with them, I want to write a bit about Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.[1] Maybe this should be two posts, but I don’t care. I’m in the Kutalik Zone[2], and I’m staying there. Onwards!

Slumbering Ursine Dunes

Here’s a snippet from the introduction to set the tone:

Slumbering Ursine Dunes is known to the outside world for three things: the massive bulk of its red-sand beach dunes; the annual Yambor pilgrimage of soldier-bears; and Medved the hirsute godling who tenuously rules over its Weird-dominated reaches.

SUD is a small, short book, but its size is deceptive: There’s a lot of stuff packed into its 64-odd pages. Like what? Like this (note: spoilers, albeit somewhat mild ones):

  • Pointcrawl: Chris notes that he originally ran SUD as a traditional hexcrawl, but realized that because of the way the dunes truncate the PCs’ option set based on location, it makes a better pointcrawl. Seeing the pointcrawl concept in practice in SUD is neat just from a design standpoint. (If you’ve never heard of a pointcrawl, Chris also wrote a handy index to his entire series of pointcrawl posts.)
  • Sandbox adventure: There are factions, tons of locations, wandering monsters, rumors — all the ingredients of a saucy little sandbox. Even if you have no interest in running the dunes, this is a great toolkit for developing your own sandbox by way of Chris’ example.
  • Two cool dungeons: The Golden Barge is a huge ship with a golden dome rising from its deck, while the Glittering Tower is a tall sandstone obelisk that’s home to one of SUD’s signature personalities, Medved. Both are nifty dungeons.
  • The Chaos Event Index: This is such a neat piece of tech. It’s a subsystem to model the ebb and flow of weirdness in the Dunes based on the actions of the PCs and SUD’s factions, from blood rain to comets to the arrival of bubbleships to a demi-god who arrives to tour the Dunes. It fits SUD perfectly, but it’d also be easy to re-skin and use elsewhere.
  • A box full of goodies. There are monsters (ghuls, grues, pelgranes, soldier bears, zombastodons, and more), a couple of spells, a couple classes, and some tables for random hirelings, all solid stuff.

Taken as a whole, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a self-contained, peculiar, sometimes-gonzo sandbox area, all ready to go — you can drop SUD right into an ongoing campaign. It doesn’t deluge you with useless information, but it doesn’t stint on providing cool stuff, either.

But it’s also a toolkit, a box of delights from which you can pick and choose just the bits that interest you. Either way, well worth the money.

(Illustration by David Lewis Johnson. David also did many of the illustrations in Focal Point: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions, which I published in 2015.)

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

Set in the same world as SUD (but not requiring it in any way, or vice versa), Marlinko is “a more directly adventurable location than the traditional city setting book,” which is good because most city books are kind of super-boring. Marlinko is designed for change-of-pace adventures, a session or two long, and for use as a hub. (Notably, a hub for exploring the Dunes.)

The beautiful back-cover map by Luka Rejec is a perfect introduction to the city of Marlinko:

Marlinko’s four quarters (Contradas) are succinctly described, with a focus on conveying their flavor and providing interesting encounters. My favorite is the Golden Swine Contrada, a “benighted slum,” which includes:

  • A catacombs excavated by robo-dwarves full of ossuary sculptures dedicated to Jesus — yes, Earth Jesus.
  • The hirelings’ union. Send too many hirelings to their doom, and the party will find themselves blackslisted.
  • The Brothers of the Other Mother, a loathsome and dogmatic cult nonetheless useful to PCs because they can heal you.
  • Headquarters of the League of the Free-Handed, a criminal society that sticks up for the city’s poor.

That quarter feels like two-parts Ankh-Morpork, where a union of hirelings and a combination thieves guild/mutual aid society would be right at home, one-part D&D (the Brothers), and one-part Hill Cantons weirdness (robo-dwarves and Jesus). Marlinko isn’t Just Another Fantasy City.

Marlinko also two dungeons (one being the catacombs noted above), both excellent; a section of city news, which I love; a bit on buying/selling stuff; and a useful look at what happens when you commit crimes in Marlinko. But wait, there’s more — my three favorite things in the book!

  • The Chaos Index, which is like the one found in SUD, but Marlkinko-specific. I particularly like the (non-exhaustive) list of things the PCs can do in Marlinko that will directly affect the Index.
  • Random carousing rules, divided up by city quarter. “You must admit that waking up caked in dried blood is an alarming experience.” “Who is lowering that wicker basket of hand lotion down to you?” “Exactly whose mummy is this that lies in your bed.”
  • Rules for tiger wrestling. It’s as funny as it sounds, and your players will have their PCs do it: Defeating Pan Meow-Meow is worth a 1,000 gp bounty.

That last bit — of course the PCs will wrestle tigers for money! — is the genius of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: This is a city book purpose-built for gaming, not fluff-wankery or the someone’s shitty novel masquerading as gaming material. Everything in Marlinko is there in answer to the question “What will your players actually give a shit about here?”

It does what it says on the tin, and it’s one of the best city books I own.

[1] The Hill Cantons Compendium is neat, too, but it’s a modest tome compared to the other two — by design — and it’s a PWYW PDF.

[2] It’s right next to the Danger Zone.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Hill Cantons and Building Dynamic Sandboxes

Chris Kutalik has been running his marvelous-sounding Hill Cantons campaign for seven years, and blogging — with clarity and vigor — about his experiences along the way. I love reading about sandbox and hexcrawl games, and Chris knows his stuff. (He’s also published several books, three of which — Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and Hill Cantons Compendium II — are currently winging their way to me.)

His series on dynamic sandboxes is a fantastic read:

  1. Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part I
  2. Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part II
  3. Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part III

Here’s the core premise, from the first post in the series:

Often providing dynamism is just a matter of thinking through after a session ends how the various pieces of your sandbox (the machinations/reactions of NPCs high and low, what an in-game activity like a massive treasure haul did to change a base settlement, etc) are organically pushed and pulled by players (and other actors), but it helps immensely to develop a range of tools and habits to give it depth and consistent motion.

Also from the first post, this gem is half of Chris’ technique for making wandering encounter tables (already a fantastic piece of worldbuilding tech) more dynamic:

Adding a variable New Developments slot that is basically a place holder for a special encounter tied to either a recent news event or an action that the party takes. A concrete example is that there has been a recent invasion by horse-nomads (kozaks) just to the north. If that slot is hit on the chart the party will hit something that has to do with event, maybe it’s a patrol by the local militia, foraging stragglers from the horde, deserters etc.

If that sounds like your jam, check out the whole series. They’re quick reads, but dense with inspiration and ideas.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Hexmancer update and extended example

Thanks to a great question from Rogue Prismatic Golem on G+, I’ve updated Hexmancer to version 1.1. This version includes clearer language for the d24 roll, the d20 roll, and the Byways and Waterways section, plus a new logo. (The logo font is Hexatus, by Koczman Bálint.)

I also thought it would be a good idea to share a extended example of Hexmancer in use, so I grabbed the five dice it employs and printed out a sheet of numbered hex paper.

Hexmancer in action

For this example, I made 12 Hexmancer rolls, pausing to draw results on the map between each roll — but first, I seeded the map. I apologize in advance for subjecting you to my “artwork.”

Seed the map of Examplehawk

I added a village to the map, picked a terrain type for that hex (plains), included a trail because I figure the village has to be connected to something, and seeded three rumored dungeons out in the wilderness. (The map appears in Roll 1.)

For purposes of this example, I’m not going to check for random encounters or see if the party gets lost, and I’m not going to create features if any are rolled — I’m just showing you Hexmancer. I’m also actually rolling dice — and not manipulating the results — because rolling dice is fun and I want to use this example as a proof of concept.

Roll 1

The PCs are in the village in hex 1208, which is in a borderlands region of Examplehawk. They decide to check out the rumored dungeon to the south (down). The villagers tell them the trail heads in that direction, so they follow the trail.

  • d30: 6
  • d24: 6
  • d20: 10

Their origin hex is plains, so I look at the Plains column in Hexmancer. A 6 gives me plains as the terrain type for the new hex.

They’re in a borderlands region, and they’re following a trail, so I check the fourth row in the d24 table (the third row is borderlands, the fourth is borderlands while on a byway/waterway). I needed a 1-4 to get a feature, and rolled a 6 — no feature. Because there’s no feature, I ignore the d20 roll.

But I also know the trail continues into the new hex, so I’m going to use Byways and Waterways (Hexmancer, p. 2) to see where it leads. I use option 2 (“Party is following the feature”) and just roll a d5 to see where the trail exits the new hex.

I rolled a 4, so I count 4 hex sides clockwise from the origin side and draw in the trail. It exits into hex 1109, to the southwest.

Here’s the map with my new hex added.

Roll 2

Seeing that the trail seems to be heading in the right direction, the party stays on the trail. (From here on, I won’t show you my rolls, I’ll just list them and show you the map.)

  • d30: 29
  • d24: 10
  • d20: 1

Exiting a plains hex, a 29 gives me mountains. They’re still following the trail and we’re still in the borderlands, so a 10 on the d24 roll doesn’t generate a feature. I ignore the d20 roll again.

Using option 2 in Byways and Waterways, I roll a d5 and get a 2. The trail will exit hex 1109 into hex 1110.

Roll 3

The party presses on, following the trail through the mountains into hex 1110.

  • d30: 29
  • d24: 24
  • d20: 6

Looking at the Mountains column for the d30 roll, a 29 gives me plains. No feature again, so I ignore the d20 roll and move on to the trail. I get a 3 for the trail, so it’s going to exit into hex 1111.

Roll 4

The PCs continues on into hex 1111, still following the trail.

  • d30: 24
  • d24: 5
  • d20: 2

24 on the d30 roll yields hills. 5 on the d24 comes soooo close to generating a feature (needed a 4), but doesn’t. I get a 2 for the trail, so it’ll exit into hex 1112.

Roll 5

(In true “live TV” fashion, starting around this point my phone didn’t actually take a bunch of pictures I thought it had taken. You may notice ghostly terrain in unexplored hexes going forward — that’s me backtracking through the finished map, erasing things so I could retake photos for earlier rolls.)

The party decides to leave the trail and head southwest, straight for the dungeon in hex 1012.

  • d30: 24
  • d24: 7
  • d20: 10

Another 24 on the d30 roll, but since the hex they’re leaving is hills I look at the Hills column: a 24 is plains. No feature, again.

This time they’re not following the trail, though, so I glance at Byways and Waterways again. Option 3 (“Party isn’t following the feature”) notes that I only need to worry about the trail if its origin side connects to the hex they’re entering, which it doesn’t.

The dungeon looted, the party decides to head back to the village, buy supplies, and go for the dungeon in hex 1609, to the east. They follow “known” hexes the whole way, so I don’t need Hexmancer again until they decide to leave hex 1208, the village.

Roll 6

When they leave the village, there’s no trail to follow and they go straight for hex 1308.

  • d30: 15
  • d24: 4
  • d20: 10

Leaving a plains hex, 15 on the Plains column makes the new hex plains as well. A 4 on the d24 roll would have generated a feature on the first four example rolls, but now they’re in borderlands and not following a trail.

Roll 7

They head for hex 1409, to the southeast.

  • d30: 8
  • d24: 8
  • d20: 11

That’s plains, no feature, and ignore the d20 roll.

Roll 8

Not knowing anything else about the map, the absence of a trail leads me to decide that the PCs are now in a wilderness region.

  • d30: 24
  • d24: 7
  • d20: 12

Those rolls give me hills, but no feature.

Roll 9

  • d30: 12
  • d24: 12
  • d20: 17

Hills, no feature (other than the dungeon).

Roll 10

The party makes it out of that dungeon, too, and returns to the village via a known route. The next Hexmancer roll will be made from the village, hex 1208, heading towards the dungeon in hex 0806.

  • d30: 2
  • d24: 14
  • d20: 6

Back to borderlands, no trail, and leaving a plains hex, so that roll gets me a plains hex with no features.

Roll 11

They head into hex 1007.

  • d30: 23
  • d24: 9
  • d20: 15

23 on the Plains column is woods; still no features.

Roll 12

Hex 0906 has a feature! Also, the party is in wilderness again.

  • d30: 25
  • d24: 1
  • d20: 19

The terrain here is swamp, and a 1 on the d24 roll would be a feature in any type of region. I look at the first row on the d24 table (for wilderness, not on a byway/waterway) and see that this gives a -2 modifier to the d20 roll.

With the d20 roll (19) now a 17, instead of a getting a village (the 19 result), I get a castle. I could make one up or pull a pregenerated castle out of any number of books; easy peasy.

At this point I assume the party would decide what to do about the castle (or vice versa!), so I’ll stop the example here.

Postmortem

I rolled up 12 hexes using Hexmancer, including a mix of borderlands, wilderness, on-trail, and off-trail rolls. The average chance of rolling a feature across those four rows on the d24 table in Hexmancer is around 13%, or about 1 hex out of 8. Statistically, my one roll that resulted in a feature is about right.

Is it “right,” though? I’m going to sleep on that, but it seems about right for the style of campaign I had in mind when I designed Hexmancer. There would also have been random encounters, at least a couple checks to see if the party got lost, and the fallout from both of those things.

Features are fun, though, and the balance depends on your specific group and campaign — if you want more features, just change the d24 table. You could also seed the map with more stuff, which I’ll be doing tonight for my DCC campaign, probably to the tune of three or four villages and a similar number of features.

After 12 hexes, I’m also left with some interesting questions — and more importantly, so are the players. For example:

  • Where does the trail to the south go?
  • Why is there a castle next to a dungeon?
  • Why is the castle built in a swamp? (Cue Monty Python reference.)
  • What else is out there?

I also see that the terrain in Examplehawk is pretty diverse, but not unrealistically so (at least, not for the value of realistic that I care about for gaming).

Lastly, I should note that it took me much longer to write about each hex here than it did to generate them. After a few rolls, things like “d30 roll under 16 = same terrain” became second nature, and I didn’t even have to check Hexmancer to know the results.

If you have questions or feedback about Hexmancer, I’d love to hear them!