Hyperspace Opera: Hyperspace Travel

When creating a new setting that departs from the normal conventions of reality, it’s always a good idea to define the new rules that are different. Of course, countless writers have always just made stuff up as they went, going with whatever seemed convenient at that point, but that’s just asking to run into contradictions and thing that just don’t make any sense later on. And these are pretty easily avoidable if you just take a bit of time to define the parameters by which the setting works at an early point of the process. In fantasy worlds, the major subjects are the magic system, the categories of supernatural beings, and the nature of other worlds where those beings come from. For settings set in space, I think the number one thing by a wide margin is the rules by which space travel works. This really was pretty much the first thing I was thinking about when I decided to work on this setting. It’s the one biggest change from normal life that really affects everything about economy, politics, and societies throughout the setting.

Something that always bothers me a lot in science fiction is that writers constantly use the latest new terms that have come out of physics to give their works an appearance of scientific backing and legitimacy, but then straight up doing things that have nothing to do with the concepts they are referencing. Personally, I feel highly certain that faster than light travel is physically impossible. Alcubierre drives are the one tiny sliver of hope that the true believers have, but that seems like a really long shot, and even if it might be theoretically possible, there are several complications that make possible applications much less convenient and practical than what you see in sci-fi. In order to not mangle any actual physics, I knew immediately that I want to go with the most purely make believe solution that doesn’t connect to reality at all: Hyperspace.

With Hyperspace, all the existing laws of physics remain completely untouched. It doesn’t violate reality by simply supposing that ships can, somehow, enter another dimension complete separate from our own, in which faster than light speeds are not just possible but easy. There is absolutely no evidence that such a dimension exists, but if there were, then all the problems with faster than light travel just magically disappear. So that’s what I am going for. In this setting, Hyperspace is a thing.

I think this is a pretty good example of Iceberg worldbuilding. Pretty much everything in this post is meant to be stuff that remains under the water. Players don’t need to understand or know any of this to play a campaign. The purpose of this whole system is to be able to answer questions if players ask about how these things work, and to avoid situations where players realize that two things that have been established through the course of the campaign make no sense and contradict each other. Players don’t need any of this to play adventures, but I need to understand this to set up adventures that will hold up to scrutiny.

The Nature of Hyperspace

Hyperspace is a separate dimension from normal space that has very different laws and properties. It takes very little energy to cover incredible distances many times faster than the speed of light, and the engines required to enter and exit hyperspace are simple enough to be very widespread and accessible. In this setting, Hyperspace jump capable space ships are as common as planes and similarly expensive to operate.

Every point in normal space has a corresponding point in Hyperspace. To move between any two places in normal space faster than the speed of light, a ship simply jumps into Hyperspace, flies to the point that corresponds to its destination, and then jumps back out of Hyperspace again. However, things get greatly complicated by the fact that Hyperspace is extremely warped and twisted. In real physics term, the geometry of normal spacetime is flat, but the geometry of Hyperspace is very much not, and there are no indication of any repeating patterns in the curvature of Hyperspace. This means that even when you know the exact position of two or more stars in normal space, you have no way to tell the positions of their corresponding points in Hyperspace.  And even if you have the Hyperspace coordinates of two stars, you can’t just draw a straight line between them to know how to get from one star to the other. Even knowing how to get from star A to star B, and from star B to star C, does not really tell you anything useful about getting from star C to star A.

Hyperspace Charts

Determining the corresponding points of stars in Hyperspace and the paths to move between them is part of the field of astrometry. And while moving a ship through Hyperspace is really quite uncomplicated in practice, finding the Hyperspace routes that connect stars is extremely difficult and requires the expense of huge resources. Since the warping of Hyperspace is effectively random, every route between any two stars has to be measured and calculated separately. Accordingly, most star system in the core of known space have only two or three known routes leading to and from them, and many frontier systems are dead ends as Hyperspace travel is concerned. The only place to go from them is back to the system from which you came. In practice it is much cheaper to simply make multiple Hyperspace jumps between systems to get to the one that is your destination than trying to calculate direct routes between all the possible stars people might want to get to. Accordingly, Hyperspace charts look like subway train system maps with many stations that the routes are just passing through, and several stations where two lines cross and you can switch from one line to another.

Since calculating Hyperspace routes takes a long time and is expensive, astrometric services pick new systems to connect to the network not at random. Instead they rely on data from astronomic observations of newly discovered planets around unexplored stars. (Something scientists have learned how to do in the last 20 year, and as such you don’t see in older science-fiction.) There are many exploration companies that commission routes to be calculated to systems which they think have great potential for exploration. But often astrometric services just take a gamble calculating new routes to previously unexplored systems and hoping to make their investment back with sales of licenses for the new routes. But more often than not, these new routes turn out to lead to systems that don’t have anything anyone is interested in, and as such these routes simply expire after 10 years without getting any new updates.

A further complication is that all objects in space are always in motion. Stars move around their galaxies at very considerable speeds and even the galaxies themselves are constantly moving around in space themselves. This means that the Hyperspace coordinates for any stars are constantly changing. In theory, you could calculate a route for a Hyperspace jump between two stars at a single moment in time, but even just seconds after that calculated moment the route would leave you somewhere in empty interstellar space with no way to find your way back to a known system. Since this isn’t any useful for almost all space travel, a single Hyperspace route is actually a big catalog of data that lists the correct path for travel between two stars for any moment throughout a longer time span. For smaller routes, this time span is usually 10 years, while for the routes in the home systems it is 100 years. Nobody would go and explore a new system or set up a mine or colony if that system might become unreachable in a few weeks or month, after the route expires and nobody bothered to have an update commissioned. The government owned astrometric services of the home systems are constantly releasing new updated catalogs for the main trade routes, each time extending the expiration date back to 100 years. But in small frontier systems, things can get quite tense if the last updates are reaching their expiration and there is no news of new updates being announced. Often small colonies have to commission a new route update to connect their system to the rest of known space with their own money, which can be a huge financial burden. Colonies that can’t afford the huge costs often have to be abandoned, but there are countless stories of stubborn colonists who supposedly held out and accepted being cut of from the rest of the galaxy forever.

Starship owners have to buy expensive licenses from the astrometric services to get access to their catalogs of Hyperspace charts, which is a substantial part of the cost of space travel. Of course, there are countless unlicensed charts making their rounds on the black markets of the frontier. But since a ship that gets lost in interstellar space for all eternity can’t come back to complain, the accuracy of these black market charts is always extremely dubious. Few captains are desperate enough to gamble their lives on these.

Hyperspace Jumps

While ships in Hyperspace are effectively blind and have no way to tell where they are going, the gravity of massive objects in normal space still has effects on Hyperspace and cause it to warp even more than usual. Accordingly, the routes of Hyperspace charts really only show how to get to the general vicinity of a star. Making a ship arrive at a specific point inside a star system is for all intents and purposes impossible. While stars themselves are actually really small compared to the scale of a system, the warping of Hyperspace near them becomes stronger the closer you get, which makes it actually pretty easy to accidentally get much closer than expected or even come out inside the star itself. Usually navigators keep things safe and jump out of Hyperspace somewhere in the outer part of the star system where the risk of randomly appearing inside a planet are negligible. Similarly, jumping into hyperspace too close to a star could lead to navigational errors that lead to a ship getting lost in interstellar space.

In practice, this means that between arriving at or leaving from a planet, and jumping in or out of hyperspace, ships have to travel considerable distances at sublight speed. While the Hyperspace jumps themselves often take only a few hours, flying between planets and jump points can take from many hours to several days. Small stars with low masses have much weaker gravity and all their planets close to them, so transit times in such systems are on the low end, while large stars with great masses have very strong gravity and their habitable planets much further out, resulting in the very long transit times.

Another quirk of the warping of Hyperspace is that even with the best navigation computers, both the exact point at which a ship jumps out of Hyperspace in another system and also the precise time at which it arrives are somewhat random. Fleets leaving a system together always arrive at their destination scattered over great areas and arriving over the span of several minutes and sometimes even hours. Fleets always require several hours to regroup after a jump, followed by several hours of transit time to reach the planet they are headed for. This leaves people on the planets many hours to notice them and prepare for their arrival, which makes surprise attacks with space ships impossible.

Hyperspace jumps require fuel. Licenses for Hyperspace charts are included in the regular upkeep and maintenance costs for spaceships, but fuel for the Hyperspace engines is a resource that has to be tracked at all time. Players making journeys to other systems have to check if their fuel will last them to make the journey and return trip, or plan to make stop at fuel depots along the way. I think fuel stops can be a great way to introduce randomized encounters into the campaign. Aside from the PCs running into interesting people during these fuel stops and getting into trouble while waiting for their ship to be ready to continue their journey, you could also have various complications like the fuel station turning out to be inoperable, causing long delays, or being destroyed, causing potentially serious problems with keeping the engines running. Fuel costs also seem like a great way to put financial pressure on the players. Without fuel they get stuck and so are forced to make money, or can’t afford to be charitable to people who would really benefit from their cargo. Or they might be driven to try to steal fuel somewhere. I think there’s great potential in this that could lead to wonderful organically developing side adventures.

Hyperspace Travel for Players

Even with all the theoretical background stuff, the things that players need to understand is really simple:

Ships can only go to star systems that are on the map. And every journey has to be taken along the marked lines. Every jump requires a unit of fuel. (Or two or three units, depending on the size of their ship.) After leaving a planet, they need to survive for a couple of hours before they can make the jump. Even if pursuers decide to follow them through Hyperspace, they will arrive far enough apart on the other side to reach a planet before the pursuers catch up to them, and if they manage to make another jump before the pursuers arrive they will have lost them for good.

That’s really all the players need to know. Anything else is just for curious players that enjoy these things, but I find it important as the foundation that explains why these few player facing rules are the way they are and to make them consistent even at closer observation.

Hyperspace Opera

I’ve been working on this fantasy setting stuff for many years now and it’s a huge ongoing project that I don’t think will ever reach a point of being called “complete”. Once or twice a year I feel like taking a break from it for a while, and often I’ve turned to tinkering with ideas for a Star Wars campaign. But last week I was playing Kenshi while simultanepusly having Dune on my mind and an urge to put on the Cyberpunk 2077 music again, and I was overcome with the sudden drive to create a majestic Space Opera setting myself. Something that feels like watching an old monumental movie with grand landscape shots in ultra-widescreen cinemascope. Something with the imposing style of 1920s architecture and blend of dusty grime and lavish decadence.

I am still a giant Star Wars fan; as big as you can be before it becomes cringy. But I think the modern iterations of the last 20 years have lost most of the original charm, and I am growing a bit cold on the old Empire and Rebels thing, which never has really been what I thought as compelling game material. And I am also not feeling like Jedi right now. Smugglers is always an option, but for such a campaign you have to create a lot of your own new content, and in that case I am feeling like doing my own original thing from scratch right now. Probably just as a fun exercise, but maybe there might be a campaign coming out of this at some point.

The References

My main reference is of course the greatest movie of all time. The Empire Strikes Back. Specifically I am thinking of Bespin and Lando, but also the bounty hunters. Dagobah also has a stunning feel that I don’t mind refering to for wilderness environments either.

A Princess of Mars. The Granddaddy of them all. This is where most of the other sources on my list get their main influences from. Swordfights, radium guns, desert palaces, space princesses, alien monsters. Barsoom has it all. And I am really quite fond of the aesthetic of Antiquity most artists always associate with it.

Dune. Admittedly mostly the aesthetics of the 80s movie and a bit of the mystic elements, but technologically and socially my setting will probably  be very different.

Shadows of the EmpireStar Wars again. I think this one was the last hoorah of classic Star Wars, happening around the same time as the Special Edition relreleases and testing if the market was there for a Star Wars relaunch. I am the first to admit the Shadows of the Empire is not particularly good as a story, and I only played the game and read the book, but not the comics. But this story hits the right notes for me to slighly blend the classic Space Adventure style with Noir elements. Not sure where that came from, but even as a 13 year old or something like that, I always imagined the sections on Corruscant as looking like Noir movies with towering 20s architecture.

The Knights of the Old Republic comic series, which takes place at a similar time and some of the same places as the game but is otherwise a completely separate story. It stands out to me among Star Wars stories in that it’s not about the typical big damn heroes, but rather follows a simewhat obscure B-Team that has its own adventures that mostly happen alongside the big galactic events but occasionally have short, important impacts on the greater picture. What I love about it is that the characters are not the big invincible heroes and their goals seem more personal, even when they are interacting with the great poweful leaders of their time. I find that a much better reference for more pulpy space adventures than the big epic adventures of the main cast, which are also much more practical for playing actual games.

Mass Effect 2. While in many aspects more military hard sci-fi, the series is still well at home among the space operas, and especially so in the second game that has more stories set in the underworld and doesn’t deal with intergalactic politics like the other two games. There are some just gorgeous environments that I happily salavage for descriptions, but in particularly I love the way the series creates its alien species. There is only a dozen or so in total, and with two embarassing exceptions, they all have their own thought out cultures that don’t make any of them a generic villain species. I think the cultures of Mass Effect are one of the geeatest achivements in woldbuilding ever done, and it’s a model I fully embrace for my own species. And of course Lair of the Shadowbroker is an amazing pulpy noir adventure.

Blade Runner has a fantastic environmental design which I am totally going to straight up copy for at least one planet, though the story and technology have nothing to do with what I am planning.

And in the opposite way, Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that has a lot of thematic a d narrative elements I want to make use of, while the visual style is really little overlap with the imagery I want to evoke.

The Concept

The Hyperspace Opera is set in a corner of its own galaxy, completely unrelated to the real world. It’s a pulpy Space Adventure setting with swashbuckling snd gunslinging, a style in which realism doesn’t really apply on the list of priorities. Though as an astronomy nerd who knows a bit or two about chemistry and demographics, my wish is to avoid things that are totally unrealistic when a much more plausible alternative will still make for an equally exciting and interesting setting.

The setting will have a dozen or so space traveling species, and since unlike most classic science-fiction authors I have learned about “demographic transition” back in seventh grade, their populations are each around 10 billion people or so. Which is around the scale at which the human population of Earth will peak out in the middle of the century before stabilizing or possibly even decline. And that is for all the members of the species on both the homeworlds and all their colonies. People aren’t suddenly starting to have more children because they moved to another planet. In total, I think there will  be only 300 or so inhabited planets in the entire known space, most of which have only tiny populations of a few thousand people. And only 30 of these will be part of the local region that gets actually developed for play.

Because of the way stars and planets form, no natural resources are anything remotely qualifying as rare. Anything that you might want from a planet is just as abundantly available on dozens of other planets. With only a few hundred inhabited planets, this makes fighting over patches of dirt pointless. You can always find another source if one you found is already claimed, and it’s much easier and cheaper than tryimg to fight someone for their claim. There is no scarciry of natural resources in the setting. The value comes from the work to extract and refine them.

Hypsrspace travel in the setting is pretty easy and quite cheap. With there being an endless abundance of planets of every imaginable shape, it’s very easy for people who don’t like the way things are run around where they live to just pack up their things and leave for one of the many frontier colonies or start their own. With blackjack and hookers!

In a setting with no scarcity of resources, unlimited space, and easy interstellar travel, there is no source for conflicts over territory. Interstellar wars between governments are extremely unusual and their space fleets are really much more like police services or coast guards than military forces. The dominating source of violence is crime, which can come in many different shapes or forms.

The main areas of conflicts are out in the remote frontier colonies. The home systems of the various species are all quite safe, which means there is little adventure to be found. But out on the frontier, there are no meaningful governments or powerful security forces, and things are very different.

While the lure to settle in a colony on the frontier is very enticing to many people, very few of them are imagining a life of scraping in the dirt to grow their own food with muscle power alone. They still want all the comforts and conveniences of the homeworlds and major colony worlds, but being much too small for the industries to produce advanced technologies themselves, they rely on imported machines and goods. And usually the only things to trade for them are whatever natural resources can be dug out from the ground with the simple machines the colonists brought with them on their first arrival.

This is where the great companies of the industrial barons come into the picture. These companies sell about anything that people could want, both in the home systems and most remote colonies, amd they are always in the market for valuable ores of any kind, especially when they can avoid the trouble of digging them up themselves. But as perfect as this arrangement seems, without powerful governments out in the frontier, it’s all a giant setup for massive exploitation. It is open knowledge that the great oligarchs are organized in far reaching cartels to make sure nobody pays the frontier colonists more than a pittance for their ores and agree to not undercut each other with the outrageous prices they demand for the goods they export to the colonies. Everything is set up exactly to squeeze as much money as possible out of the colonies and leave them just enough to keep them from collapsing completely and lose these sources of cheap ore and well paying steady customers. The companies also pull such tricks as not selling any machine parts with the longer service lives that are available in the home systems, or engineer crops that can grow in poor alien soils but don’t produce seeds on their own requiring the purchase of new seeds every season.

The home systems are big and important enough customers so that the governments can enforce regulations and dictate terms, but the frontier colonies have no other suppliers to turn to, and the companies are more than willing to let a few colonies collapse just to send a message to the others what happens if they refuse to do business at the oligarchs’ terms. Some colonies have found ways to escape the clutches of the companies and unite together to pool their resources for better bargaining positions and form industrial cooperatives that build shared factories for advanced technologies that would not be economically viable for a single colony. Any such attempts to unite and collectivize are a thorn in the companies’ sides and a threat to the oligarchs’ power if they are allowed to succeed. And without strong and powerful governments, there is little that js stopping them from using every single dirty trick there is to sabotage them.

Yes, you got that right. Somehow this attempt to create a space opera setting inspired by 1920s architecture and design turned very quickly into a setting about the evils and struggles of industrialization. I was already pretty far into the process when I noticed this, and I think it’s actually really cool. That’s a great theme for pulpy science fiction that I’ve never seen done before, and which I think can be an amazing source for many kinds of conflicts.

A setting like this could easily be very one-dimensional and preachy by making it all about how awful industrialists are and how collectivization is the answer to all problems of the world. Done a thousand times with no real room for any interesting nuances. But being whatever the opposite of a tankie is, I think there are much more interesting stories to interact with in the divisions of the labor movement and the devastating flaws in anti-capitalist ideologies. While much good has come out of the labor movement, communism has not just been a complete failure, but a horrifying disaster of unprecedented scale. Of course you can always have industrial saboteurs and company security looking to break some knees as wonderfully evil antagonists and villainous burocrats, as they should be. But it’s also easy to imagine corrupt colonial leaders who take oligarch money or preferential terms for their own colony in turn for obstructing their neighbours attempts to unite. And of course idealistic small settlements beyond the reach of any governments are te perfect spawning grounds for countless wouldbe tyrants. And space pirates. Always got to have some space pirates.

But with all of that said, what are players supposed to do in an actual game that is supposed to be played? What I have in mind is a classic staple of this kind of space adventurs. The humble independwnt logistics entrepeneur. The space trucker. And or smuggler. The campaign structure I have in mind is about a small cargo crew making occasional deliveries of small shipments to frontier settlements. Out there they quickly become aware of the exploitation going on and the plight of the colonists, as well as the widespread coruption and violence by press gangs and company security. As owners of a small freighter that are no strangers to the concepts of smuggling, this is an environment in which huge profits could be made. But also one in which the players might find it in themselves to offer support to the struggling colonists. But even the most charitable hearts still need to eat, and keeping the lights running on a freighter isn’t cheap. At the end of the day, the campaign is supposed to be fun and exciting pulpy space adventurs. All these ideas for social and economic struggles are really there to provide an environment that creates opportunity for all these things. I think generally the motivations of the actors in this environment are fairly simple to grasp, but they are different from what you usually get in fiction in general and in RPGs in particular.

To close this up, some additional small details:

Artificial gravity exists, because it always does in Space Opera. But there is no explanation given for this marvel that defies any known principles of physics.

Firearms and ship cannons come in the form of railguns. They are not lasers and work just like normal guns. Except more spacey. They also feel right as big chunky things with a somewhat primitive aesthetic rather than sleek and shiny.

Swords and knives are cool and awesome. Knives are actually extremely deadly in a gunfight at short distances,and fights on ships tend to be extremely close. They are also useful when you have to make sure to not shot anything important, and unlike railgun power cells, they are not picked up by most detectors. It makes sense for lots of people to have blades and to know how to use them.

There are no starfighters. They don’t really make sense when you think about how yoh could fight in space, and once I started thinking about how a setting without them could look like, I think you can actually have something really cool with only full sized ships.

No psychic powers. I might change my mind if I find a really good reason, but currently I just don’t see them needed for the stories and situations I have in mind.

No robots? They are of course an old classic element, but currently I don’t really see how theh would meaningfully contribute to the setting with their existence.

No cybernetics or transhuman nonsense. They are all the rage in recent years, but I think they feel out of place with otherwise 1920s retro-aesthetics.

There is no galactic empire. Because the ways I plan space travel and communication to work, governments rarely control more than a single star system, though there are many small comfederations consisting of a home system and a dozen or so autonomous major colony worlds.

Business oligarchs are the space aristocracy. They don’t usually use noble titles (sorry Star Wars), but they are an aristocratic merchant caste in all ways that matter.

No evil species. As I mentioned earlier on, I really like having aliens as actual people instead of bland stereotypes as a convenience for lazy character writing.

Lots of exotic planetary environments. RPGs are not limited by effects budgets, so we can have all kinds of different suns and moons and other fun things to make planets distinguishable and evokative.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Oger

The quantum oger has a pretty bad reputation. It’s the idea that as GM, you have made the decision that an encounter is going to happen, no matter where the players will choose to go. You present the players with two doors, one of which will have an angry oger behind it and the other a treasure. But you have also decided that the players should encounter the oger first and only after that find the treasure, because that feels more dramatically appropriate. As the joke goes, the oger and the treasure exist in a state of quantum superposition and their actual locations are not defined until the players open a door to look. Except unlike with real quantum superposition, the actual locations are not purely random, but the deliberate choice of the GM who wants to make certain events happen in certain ways regardless of what the players do. While in theory that could lead to adventures with great pacing that has the players under the illusion that things happen because of their choices, in practice players can read the signs of what’s going on in a GMs head and can spot patterns of things just happening at dramatically opportune moments. And once players get a hunch that their agency has been nothing but a lie, there’s little reason for them to care about continuing to play.

However, there is something very attractive about rolling random encounters in advance and spending some time on preparation to make the encounters something more interesting than “it attacks”. When you roll  wandering monsters on the spot after a wandering monster check has determined an encounter, there’s already some amount of work to roll what creatures it will be, how many of them, whether the party of the creatures are getting surprised, what the creature’s reaction is to the party, and at what distance the encounter starts. This takes some time in which the players are waiting expectantly, which creates additional pressure to make the encounter start playing out quickly, and in such situation there’s always a strong instinct to just go with the default option of having them attack. Rolling the encounter in advance lets you put more care into all of it and in theory create more memorable scenes. The problem with that approach is that if you present players with a ready made encounter, it just doesn’t feel any different from an encounter that was written into a script by the GM. It doesn’t seem random at all, even if the GM tells the players that everything was totally rolled with no fudging.

There is a middle way, though, that combines the best aspects of randomly generated and placed encounters and advanced preparation while avoiding most of the main shortcomings: Roll the variables for the creatures that are being encountered, like type, number, reaction, and surprise, in advance, but determine neither a time nor a place when that encounter will take place. During play, at the end of each turn or when the players do something that could draw attention, make a wandering monsters roll. Roll the die in the open or let a player make the roll, with the players being told in advance what the numbers mean. (For an X-in-Y chance, I’m a huge proponent on of “something always happens on a 1!” Easy to remember.)

This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Oger. The type of the encounter is known, but it’s location and timing is not.

By making the wandering monster check in the open, the players have clear evidence that the GM had no part in deciding that this moment or this current location would be a great point to interrupt the party with a confrontation. Hostile monsters don’t kick the PCs when they are down because the GM thinks its funny. Neither do friendly NPCs appear in just the right moment to save the PCs asses. It was randomly determined that the encounter would happen in this room, at this moment. The pacing of the adventure is something entirely in the hands of players and the dice. No point in trying to predict what the GM might want to happen. There’s still of course the possibility that the GM could chose which of several prepared encounters gets used at any given point, but if that happens to be an issue you can write the creatures, numbers, reaction, and surprise on cards and put the stack out in the open where the dice are rolled, to have a player flip over the one at the top.  You could shuffle them when you start playing, but there’s also an advantage to arranging them by hand.

The main reason why I want to do wandering monsters like this is that I find it very useful to know what the next encounter will be. This gives me an opportunity to spend some thought on how I would run the encounter if it appears in one of the two rooms that the players might go in next. For example, I know that the next encounter will be an ambush by bandits, and with that knowledge I can consider where I would put the bandits if that ambush is in the next room. There’s often not much time to spend on such thoughts while following what the players are discussing in the current room and answering their questions, but I still find it a lot better than being caught completely by surprise when the dice determine an encounter. If you have four or five encounters prepared and it could be any of them in any of the three rooms the players could decide to enter next, this  just isn’t going to be possible.

Another neat thing that this approach helps with is encounters in which the players get surprised and the creatures don’t charge at them immediately. The original D&D rules don’t seem to consider this possibility at all, but when a creature gets surprised, I really like the option for those creatures quickly hiding behind cover and watching the party. The creature might even follow them around to observe, especially when the initial reaction is “uncertain”, or stalk them to wait for the best moment to strike. When you know in advance that the next random encounter will be such a situation, you can look at the players’ actions from the perspective of the observing monster. The random encounter check does not determine at what point the creature discovers the party, but rather at what point it will reveal itself to the players. This doesn’t really work when you roll all the parameters of the encounter after the random encounter check, because the players will know that you rolled several dice and looked up several things before announcing “you encounter nothing”. Having a random roll decide when a creature will show itself isn’t quite as good as really waiting for the best opportunity, but that seems to be a necessary compromise to have this kind of situation while still having the players see the rolls that determine when encounters happen.

Why exploration works as a game

Numerous keyboards have been worn out on ENWorld over the last month with endless discussions about why exploration in D&D is so bad, why it doesn’t work, how it could be made to work, and that it would work if people just were to actually use the rules that are already there. Obviously, the vast majority of people are arguing from the perspective of 5th edition, which is why that discussion never seems to go anywhere. My conclusion after having run a 5th edition campaign for half a year was that this game doesn’t actually know what it wants to be, or to be more precise, the writers of the Dungeon Master’s Guide don’t understand how RPGs work in the first place. Lots of 5th edition players in the discussion keep repeating the point that exploration is one of the three main aspects of the game. Because the books say it is. But it’s not. It hasn’t been part of the rules since 3rd edition came out over 20 years ago, and it wasn’t included in the rules because D&D as a brand had lost interest in by the mid 80s. I believe what people want is something that resembles the vague stories they’ve heard about the games played by earlier generations that preceded them, but 5th edition just isn’t made for that. Contrary to the designers’ insistence.

One opinion I came across yesterday was something along the line that random encounters are not viable stakes for exploration challenges, because when you have a fight it’s switching to combat and is no longer exploration. And that exposes a fundamental flaw in the underlying assumptions that all these discussions build on. Exploration and combat are not two separate game modes, and neither are social interactions. Or at least, they must not be separate game modes for exploration to work. You can have a pure combat RPG. D&D has proven that for the last 20 years. You also can have a pure social RPG. There are plenty of those around. But exploration just by itself does not work as an RPG. Or at least, I’ve never hear of any such a thing existing.

Exploration, combat, and social interactions are not three game modes that come packaged in a bundle. In a good roleplaying game with an exploration focus, they are components in a unified system, and so entangled that you can’t look at them separately to understand how they work. I would say that the threat of combat is not just a viable component to have stakes in exploration, but a necessary requirement. At least when you’re envisioning a game with warriors and wizards descending into the lairs of monsters and get into lethal fights.

Now here’s the actual point I want to get to: Somewhere else in the several discussions someone talked about how characters exploring a dungeon can simply use some spells to check everything for possible traps before getting close to them and that the game (5th edition) gives players all the tools to do just just, and how that’s why exploration doesn’t have any meaningful threats like combat does. (Might actually have been the same person who said combat can’t be a threat of exploration because then it’s no longer exploration.)

This had me realize why exploration in D&D from the first 10 years is exciting and works as a primary gameplay loop that get people to come back forever. When exploring a dungeon, one option you have is to do everything extremely carefully. Always check everything for traps, never step on anything without poking it with a 10 foot pole, use magic to always scout ahead, always have everyone healed to full hit points, and rest as often as it takes to always have your spells ready. But if you try that, you’ll inevitably get killed by the 5,000 wandering monster checks you have to make. This is not a viable approach. The other option is to just be quick. Kick open every door and charge straight in and attack everything that moves. This approach simply gets you just as dead, only much faster. It’s not a viable approach either. And that’s the main tension that makes classic dungeon crawling work. You have to be both swift and careful, two needs that directly oppose each other. This is a problem with no optimal solution. And that means every single turn is a challenge and a gamble.

That’s how exploration works as an exciting game.

Ideas on using Notice in Worlds Without Number

One of the additions that Worlds Without Number adds to the common oldschool structure is skills. The system for skills is not bad. Basic skill checks are 2d6 plus the appropriate attribute modifier, plus the character’s level in the respective skill for the task. Skill level can be as high as 4 at 9th level, but with the way the cost for each skill level increases each time, I don’t think you’re going to see that often, except maybe for skills like Stab or Magic, which are not usually used as skill checks but rather as modifiers to attack rolls or how much magic a Mage can use per day. I think +2 and the the occasional +3 added to attribute checks is the most that will be commonly encountered in the wild.

However, one of the skills is Notice, which is something that is usually considered one of the big things that make newer D&D editions unsuitable for classic dungeon crawling, which in the defense of Worlds Without Number, it never claims to do. The GM tells the players the things in a room that are immediately obvious, and then it’s up to the players to ask the right questions to find the things that are not immediately obvious. “You can not roll dice to avoid playing the game.”

Worlds Without Number does not specify when Notice checks are supposed to be made, but after some pondering, I’ve decided that there’s still ways to both make the skill work and also make it worthwhile to put points into for players. One approach is to make the target number of a Notice check to “notice something unusual” very high. I would consider a character with a +2 Wisdom modifier and a +3 skill bonus to be highly specialized, and quite likely the highest total modifier that players might actually be able to field in play. Maybe a total of +6, but that’s probably really it. With a +5 bonus, a character would have a 28% chance to make a difficulty 14 check. A character with a more modest +3 would only have a chance of 8%. That doesn’t seem too bad.

But to still make players work for their progress, I’d add the following rules to making a Notice check to find hidden things: Since searching an area is a group activity, I’d only allow a single check for the whole group, with the highest modifier of any characters in the party. They don’t get four or five checks to maximize their chances of someone rolling a 12. Also, I am thinking that this method can only discover a single hidden thing. So the players better search the place as well as they can before they make that roll. You don’t want to waste it on something that you could have found yourself with two more minutes of thinking. Making a Notice check should be the the final gamble after the party has given up on finding anything else themselves.

Another way to use Notice checks is when it comes to surprise. Worlds Without Number only addresses surprise in regards to one character waiting in ambush to attack another character. In which case it’s a Notice check against a Sneak check. It doesn’t mention how you’d do that with groups of characters (if everyone rolls, it’s boils down to the defenders’ best Notice roll against the attackers’ lowest Sneak roll), and it also doesn’t go at all into the situation where wandering monsters just happen to stumble into the party entirely by accident.

The regular surprise system in B/X is rolling 1d6 for both sides, and on a 1 or 2, that side is surprised. (Both sides can be surprised, and neither side can be surprised.) This roll could instead by made by having both sides make a Notice check, rolled by the character with the highest modifier. Monsters and generic NPCs in Worlds Without Number usually have a +1 or +2 modifier in whatever skills they would likely to be good at. I think Notice checks to determine surprise should always fall under that. Players would easily have a +2 or possibly +3 advantage over the creatures they encounter, and since 2d6 give a normal distribution, that’s really quite big. But this can be addressed by tweaking the difficulty of the check.

In B/X, the chance to become surprised is 1/3rd, so the chance to detect the other group is 2/3rds. Since most monsters and guards in Worlds Without Number have a skill modifier of +1 or +2, setting the default difficulty to detect a group of adventurers exploring a room to 8 gets the closest to those 2/3rds odds. PCs will regularly have higher modifiers to that, since they also get to add their Wisdom modifiers to their check. But monsters prowling the dark tunnels of a dungeon are much less noisy, so to detect them, the difficulty should be a higher 10. And if you have really sneaky creatures prowling in the dark, that difficulty can increase to 12.

Now you might be wondering: “Why do this much more complicated approach to get basically the same result?” That is a good question, Timmy. If I’d design a game from scratch, I just wouldn’t bother with a Notice skill in the first place. And as GM, I totally have the option to just modify the rules and kick out Notice entirely. But each small change you make to the system comes with a cost when it comes to recruiting players when you’re not in the position to tell your existing group that this is what you’re going to play from now on. Getting players for a more obscure system (that is, everything that isn’t D&D 5th edition) is not quite trivial to begin with. Having a somewhat well known and highly regarded name like Worlds Without Number helps a lot in that regard, but when that’s your way to lure in players to your campaign, many of them will show up to play Worlds Without Number. And every change you make to the default rules slightly decreases the enthusiasm people will have to join your campaign. There’s already a good number of changes I am making to the system, like ditching a couple of foci, two of the magic traditions, and completely overhauling the High Magic spells. I’m ditching much of the weapons and armor lists and the whole equipment modification system. All of this adds up to make the game less of what people think of when you ask who wants to play in a new Worlds Without Number campaign. A change like this doesn’t really change anything on the player facing side of the game. They still can get their Notice skill and all the foci that give bonus skill levels to Notice, and they are still going to make plenty of Notice checks while they play the game. Even players who know  the rules might not even notice (huh huh) that anything has been changed at all.

Re-associating exploration speed

Many rules in OD&D and B/X look very weird on paper, when you approach them as “new rules” that are added to what you consider a typical Dungeons & Dragons system. Giving XP for picking up treasure instead of fighting enemies is perhaps the most famous of them, but there are plenty others, like encumbrance, random encounters, or reaction rolls. But I think the purpose of all of these in a greater exploration system has become fairly well reestablished, and I believe I’ve written quite a bit about all of that already.

But one of the things that to me still stands out among these is the unexpected way in which movement outside of combat is handled. In Basic/Expert, the default movement rate for characters exploring a dungeon is 120 feet per 10 minutes. That’s 12 feet per minute, or about one step every 8 seconds. The rules explain that this doesn’t actually mean characters are moving that slowly. What happens is that the characters are carefully searching their environment and drawing reasonably precise maps. Dungeon has become a fairly generic term for any complex of passages, but I think the original idea of what a dungeon is like was less strolling through a castle and more exploring a cave. While very few dungeons are actually natural caves and most have long been used as regular passages by humanoid inhabitants, cave explorers often only manage to progress 300 to 500 meters per day, or say 1,200 feet. If they are at it for 10 hours per day, that’s 120 feet per hour. Even if the PCs are heavily encumbered and have their speed reduced to a quarter, that’s still faster than cave explorers. So maybe not actually a ridiculously low speed.

But where things start feeling strange is when encumbrance comes into the picture. In B/X, encumbrance reduces your encounter speed from 40 feet per round to 30, 20, and eventually 10 feet. And the same modification is also applied to exploration speed. When you take, on average, one step forward every 8 second, you spend almost the entire time of exploration not actually moving forward at all. Heavy loads slowing your movement to half or even a quarter is somewhat believable (maybe the characters are literally dragging heavy bags of loot behind them). But that also reducing the speed at which you can look and poke at things the same way is a cognitive disconnect. It’s a dissociated mechanic. A party with more heavy gear making slower progress makes sense, but representing this through reduced movement speed doesn’t feel very plausible.

However, B/X already has a small, seemingly mostly forgotten rule, that can be adapted for the purpose. Part of the rules for exploration movement is that after every 5 turns of exploration, the party must rest for 1 turn or the characters suffer a -1 penalty to hit and damage from exhaustion. Of the eight retroclones I have, only one carried over this rule. It just seems pretty pointless when you can assume characters are already getting sufficient rest for their legs during the regular exploration turn. And maybe people are right to throw this one out, but I think it’s a great place to apply penalties for encumbrance during exploration instead of reducing speed.

Instead of reducing the movement rate during an exploration turn  to 90 or 60 feet, you can instead increase the rate for required rest to resting for one turn after every 3 turns or every 1 turn of exploration. This seems like a huge decrease of time actually spend on making progress, but because of how the math works out, this system actually makes parties progress somewhat faster than under the default rules. Which is fine with me. Numbers in D&D have never been an exact science anyway and are always simplified approximation. Being 10% faster than by the book isn’t going to break anything. But I feel that this change makes it much easier for players to intuitively grasp why their characters are making slower progress with heavy loads and don’t have to accept it as something that just is because the rules say so.

Return of the Mapper for online games?

Have you heard the good message of our savior Gus L? I learned entirely by accident that he didn’t stop writing RPG stuff but instead has been sharing new stuff on his new site All Dead Generations for the past three years. All the stuff on the site is about what he calls Classic Dungeon Crawling, which is basically OD&D and early Basic D&D, and how that style of Dungeon Crawling is an exploration fantasy game and not a combat fantasy game. A fantastic resource that I recommend to everyone, though it comes in hefty chunks that take quite a while to chew on.

After my overall pretty great D&D 5th edition campaign last year, I was throwing the towel on trying to make dungeons work, because I just could not figure out how to make a dungeon an interesting place that is not simply a warehouse for nonsensical puzzles. All the advice I was coming across on that front was “Well, sometimes funhouse dungeons can be fun.”But now, after 20 years as a GM, I finally get dungeons!

I have seen the light!

Dungeon Crawling and exploration in general isn’t just an aspect of an RPG, it’s even more a system of multiple mechanics than I previously had realized. Treating the whole dungeon as one big puzzle that will reveal the safest ways to the best treasures when figured is a great focus draw players engagement with the campaign. Especially when there’s no plot and characters don’t get shiny new toys every time they level up.

Part of solving that puzzle often is to fully grasp the layout of the dungeon and gain the ability to pinpoint the likely locations of possible shortcuts or otherwise completely inaccessible areas. Gus mentions that having players draw the map themselves is particularly bothersome in online games, where the GM can’t peak at a player’s pencil drawn map to spot obvious misunderstandings of his descriptions. (Minor errors in dimensions are desirable though.) But I took a quick look at Roll20 and found that at least in this case, this thing is actually very easy to do.

Roll20 has the paintbrush tool, which also has a shapes tool that draws rectangles by simply clicking and dragging. As a lifelong diehard user of pencils and grid paper, I think this is actually a lot easier and quicker than drawing lines around squares with a pencil. To correct errors, you can just click on one of these shapes and delete it, without any messing around with erasers. Now I’m definitely going to bring back this aspect of the game in my Great River Campaign. At least giving it a trial run. I’ve been told that there isn’t a function like this in Fantasy Grounds, but I’ve never used that myself. Which seems like a shame, since this is something really simple and basic. Though I guess when you do your mapping like this, you might not be bothering with something as fancy as Fantasy Grounds.

A picture says more than a thousand awkward words

Tired of trying to explain to your players the coloration of the peoples inhabiting your setting, and not having any illustrations to show them what you really mean them to look like?

Make a simple color palette and show it to them.

This rally isn’t anything fancy and there might be better ways to display the colors, but this is a fairly painless quick and easy way to it clear to players what I mean when I tell them that the Murya of Kaendor are “red”. That red!

A proposal for a river navigation mechanic

Most RPGs I’ve seen mention about navigation that when you’re following a road or river, you automatically get to your destination eventually, and you only need to make rolls for navigation if you’re going cross country or across the ocean.

Yeah. Kind of. But not really.

If you’re on a river and your destination is to just go downstream to the coast or a city you know to be further down the river, then there’s really no way you can get lost. But things look completely different when you’re trying to go up a river and you come across forks where you have to pick going left or right.

I’ve been on a couple of canoe tours throughout my life, and I’ve been doing the navigation on most of them. Though I have to say that was on very easy rivers in Germany, on waters that have regular traffic and existing infrastructure and very good maps. And we were going to destinations that had been selected by people who knew that those routes would be very easy to follow even to amateurs. And even then, I’ve had many cases where I really had no clue if that big branch to the right is the already the third big branch to the right we need to take, or if one of the branches we already passed looked much bigger in person than it does on the map. The map has an accurate scale on it, but with no means to monitor your exact speed, that’s still only of limited help. Now imagine that deep in the wilderness, following a map drawn by someone with no access to aerial photography or surveying tools.

In my rivercrawl campaign, going to a site will almost always consist of going upstream all the way to your destination. And since all wilderness travel will be along rivers, going with the “you can’t get lost when you follow a river” approach isn’t going to cut it. (Though conveniently, getting back to base at the end of an adventure will be very easy, and going with the current also a lot faster.) Something else is going to be needed.

Making a complete map of an entire river system spanning hundreds of miles with all its little side arms really isn’t practical. You could theoretically let players give it a shot on a blank hex map with very small hexes, but I think that would be very tedious and not feel like it reflects the kind of maps actual river explorers would be using for their notes.

Instead, I want to go with an entirely skill check based system to navigate through the networks of small side branches that fork of from the main waterways that are depicted on the main overview map. My own GM map only shows branches up to the third order, and I intend to let players find their ways on those without navigation checks. It’s only for the rivers even smaller than that that this system comes into play.

Maps are items that characters can find or sell that have instructions on how to reach certain hidden places from an easily recognizable and unmistakable landmark. Every map has a dificulty based on it’s quality. Using a very good map is an easy task, while using a poor quality is a very hard task. The difficulty is further modified by how far the destination is from the clearly identified reference point on the main rivers. Since I have all my travel times in increments of 10 miles, (1 mile per hour times 10 hours per day), I increase the difficulty of the navigation check by +1 for every 10 miles that you try to follow the map.

If the navigation check is a success, the party reaches the destination in the shortest time possible given the distance and their travel speed. If the check is a failure, they still get to their destination, but for each number that the check fell short of the difficulty, the travel duration is increased to require one additional random encounter check. I do three random encounter checks for each day of travel, plus one check per night. So missing the difficulty by three adds a whole day on the water searching and backpaddling, and you also get another night to rest and potentially have another encounter before you arrive at your destination. Since I usually have random encounters at a chance of 1 in 6 for every check, getting two or three checks added to the journey generally shouldn’t be much of a problem. But for journeys deeper into the smaller rivers, having someone with a good navigation skill and paying for high quality maps can become really appreciated.

The fun part comes with the additional use for navigation checks to make your own maps of the unknown rivers you explore. These maps can be very important if you want to find a place again after having left it, and can be sold to other characters. To make such a map, a character makes a navigation check. The quality of the map and the difficulty to use it depends on the result of the navigation checks. For Worlds Without Number, I’ve decided to make it 20 minus the navigation check result, with the minimum difficulty being 6.

WWN makes skill checks with 2d6, so I think it’s a great idea to let the player roll one of the d6 either open or in secret, and the other d6 gets rolled by the GM. That way the player has a clue for the final quality of the map, but can not be certain how accurate it really is. The ultimate difficulty for using the map remains secret for the GM, at least until the players trying to navigate with the map have reached the destination and will have found out for themselves.

For players going to discover unknown sites by going into these small rivers blindly, one simple approach would be to simply roll a d20, and the result is the number of random encounter checks until the party finds either a small randomly generated site or a larger site whose exact location on the river has remained undefined until a party randomly discovers it. Since you might always need a monster lair or pirate camp if players try to track randomly encountered enemies back to their hideouts, it’s a general good idea to have a couple of those ready at hand anyway. And players can be required to tell the GM that they plan to go on a random exploration a few days before the game.

Hit point rolls in Worlds Without Number

Worlds Without Number introduces a number of modifications to the basic B/X system. Many of which are really great, while others are rather puzzling.

Among the later ones is rolling the hit points for mages and warriors. Mages rolls their hit points not on a d4, but on a d6-1. Similarly, warriors roll a d6+2 instead of a d10. The total averages are completely the same, but this changes the odds for extreme values.

Mages have a chance to roll a 0. To that you add the Constitution modifier, and if the total is still 0 or lower, you still get 1 hp for that level, as you see in basically all versions. They also have a chance to roll a 5, which isn’t possible when rolling 1d4.

For warriors, it works the opposite way. For them, the range of 1 to 10 is reduced to a spread of 3 to 8. They have a reduced chance to get very low hp or very high hp.

Now one could say that for both mages and warriors, these changes to the spread cancel each other out. And the average does indeed stay the same. But what we get is that extreme results become more common for mages, and less common for warriors. The important thing here is that warriors can much more afford very low hit points than mages do. A warrior with low hit points still has a somewhat decent cushion to survive a blow or two. A mage with low hit points can’t survive anything. Having very low hit points is more bad than having very high hit points is good. So as I see it, this change makes things harder on mages than on warriors. Who also get bumped up to d10 equivalents instead of getting a d8 equivalent. (Experts got also bumped up from a d4 for thieves to a d6.) Do we really want to give warriors increased survivability over mages?

The other thing is a very simple statistical phenomenon called the Law of Large Numbers. The larger your sample of numbers you have, the more likely is it to be close to average.  If you get large amounts of random numbers, it becomes more and more likely that the high numbers will cancel out the low numbers. If you have only two or three random numbers, the chance that you get all very high or all very low becomes much more probable. Once you get to 10th level, all characters of a class (with the same Constitution modifier) are going to have pretty similar hit points with only few characters being notable outliers. This means that the risk of getting very low hit points is much greater for low level characters than high level characters. Do we really want to have increased risk for low level characters?

As I see it, the move to have all classes roll a d6 with a modifier for hit points really only hurts low level mages the most by increasing their risk of being extremely fragile while increasing survivability for everyone else. What’s the point of that? This really seems like an awful change. That’s definitely something I’ll be changing back for my games.

At first I thought the change to only using d6 for hit point was because of the dual-classing mechanic, and it could be possible that this is where the whole idea came from. But the way dual-classing works now, you can absolutely replace those with d4s and d10s.