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 (paid link),  Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (paid link), and the Hill Cantons Compendium (paid link).  (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.

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 [paid link], Fever-Dreaming Marlinko [paid link], and Hill Cantons Compendium II [paid link]– 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.

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.


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!

Old school Tabletop RPGs

Hexmancer: Procedural Hex Generation System

I needed a simple system for procedurally generating hexcrawl terrain and features, so I made one: Hexmancer. It’s two pages long, including design notes and acknowledgements, and you get to roll funky dice.

What it does

Hexmancer hexcrawls with your hexes, baby!

Hexmancer is designed to procedurally generate a fantasy borderlands/wilderness region in “fantasy Western Europe,” with occasional wasteland and weirdness, on the fly during play. It assumes that you’re placing dungeons/modules and perhaps a feature or two, but otherwise starting out with the PCs in a village surrounded by a blank hex map.

This 1.0 version has been through multiple drafts and rewrites, but hasn’t yet been tested in play.

(Update: I’ve now written up an extended example using 12 actual Hexmancer rolls, and I took that opportunity to tidy up some of the language and update the PDF.))

Other stuff you’ll need

You’ll need five dice: d5, d6, d20, d24, and d30. (The excellent, and free, Purple Sorcerer dice roller includes funky dice.)

Hexmancer will generate terrain, tell you when features are present, and determine what those features are — but you’ll need to create the actual features.

The recommended resources section used to be more robust, but I edited it in February 2020 after the current owner of Judges Guild turned out to be a massive fucking asshat.


Hexmancer is based on the system found in Wilderness Hexplore Revised, which was created by Jedo of the New York Red Box forums. The core “Terrain > Feature? > Feature” mechanic and the broad relationships between terrain types in Hexmancer owe the most to Jedo’s system.

If you use Hexmancer, I’d love to hear how it went!