Exploration System, Part 2: Practical Encumbrance

Encumbrance in D&D has always ranged from bad to terrible. The idea behind encumbrance is actually great. The default assumption for the first decade or so had been that the party enters a dangerous place, gets their hands on valuable stuff, and gets back out again, preferably with their loot and without anyone dying. When wandering monsters are a thing (look forward to part 3) and fighting battles is a negligible source of XP (look forward to part 4), then getting in and out quickly is of the essence. The longer it takes you, the greater is the risk of anyone dying with no benefit in trade. So as you keep delving deeper into the dark unknown, you are using up some of the tools and supplies you have brought with you, but at the same time get weighted down by the treasures you find. Which leaves you with two choices. Slow down and risk fighting more opponents and reducing your odds of being able to run away. Or reduce your weight, either by choosing to leave some of the treasure you’ve found behind, or by dropping some of the equipment that you hopefully won’t be needing on your way back to the surface. Hang on to all your potentially life saving tools and weapons as you slowly crawl back to the exit, or make a mad dash to safety? Or play it safe and leave some of your hard fought for rewards behind? This is a real question that players will have to face. There is no right answer which two out of these three you should choose and will greatly depend on the constantly changing situations. To me, this is one of the big things that make exploration adventures so exciting.

Random Encounters, XP for treasure, and Encumbrance are really a single unified system. They really only work together as a unit. When you ditch one of them, the other two stop serving any purpose as well. And I think most of the time, Encumbrance is the first one to go. Because the way D&D handles it is just so annoyingly tedious that almost everyone very quickly, if not immediately, decides to just not bother with it at all. Whether you calculate your character’s equipment load in pounds or in coins, every time you pick up an item or drop an item, you have to adjust your current encumbrance load value. And inevitably you will sometimes forget it or make mistakes, requiring to make a complete recount of all your inventory and calculate all the different weight again. Nobody thinks that’s fun. To really do that, you need to keep your inventory on spreadsheets, and playing the game with everyone having a computer open can’t be the way to go. So out the window Encumbrance goes, making the whole exploration system pointless.

But there is a solution, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. It also isn’t mine. This idea is taken pretty much straight from Papers and Pencils. I don’t really add anything significant to it, I am just aligning it with my exploration system here. What this system does is to say “calculating loads by weight doesn’t work because nobody uses it, let’s drop the idea of doing it ‘realistically’ and use a much simpler system of inventory slots”. Yes, it’s a greater degree of abstraction, but as I always keep saying all of the numbers in these mechanics are make believe anyway, and a system that people would want to use is always better than a system that always gets ignored.

The basic, and really very simple idea is that any items have a weight that is either “insignificant”, “significant”, or “especially heavy”. Insignificant weight means the item has an encumbrance value of 0, significant weight means it has an encumbrance value of 1, and especially heavy items have an encumbrance value of 2 or higher. To assign an encumbrance value to an item, my rule of thumb is round up the weight in pounds to the nearest multiple of 10, then drop the last 0. Items with a weight below 1 pound have an encumbrance value of 0.

The amount of items a character can carry is as follows:

Speed Max. Load Effect
Unencumbered STR x 1
Encumbered STR x 2 Speed -10
Heavily Encumbered STR x 3 Speed -20, disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con

And that is the entire system. But you can even simplify this even more by setting up your inventory sheet in the right way. I recommend making a dedicated inventory sheet like this, but you can try squeezing it into the inventory space on your character sheet.

There are two columns for items. One for items with significant weights that add to encumbrance, and one for items with insignificant weights that don’t. On the left side you have all the rows numbered. When you now put all your items with significant weights into the left item column, and make them take up as many lines as its the encumbrance value, you no longer have to calculate anything. Your current load value is right there to the left of the last item on your list. To make things even easier for you, you can mark the lines that match your Strength score times 10, 20, and 30. In this example, the character has a Strength score of 13, so he is unencumbered with a load up to 13, encumbered with a load up to 26, and heavily encumbered with a load up to 39. The line below 13 items is marked green here, the line below 26 items marked orange. When you add or remove items on your inventory list, you immediately see when your current encumbrance category changes. The column with the items of insignificant wight doesn’t matter, I just thought it fits conveniently in the place where it is here.

Next to the numbers, I added another column as a recently added new feature. In this column you can mark if the items are part of your Arms, Exploration Gear, or Travel Gear. If you keep them sorted like this, it becomes trivial to say “I put down the backpack with my heavy travel gear and continue forward with only my arms and my tool pouch”. Again, no new calculations are needed. In this example we immediately see that the Arms and Exploration Gear cross below the green line, but stay above the orange line. That means when I drop my backpack with my tent, food, and spare clothing, my encumbrance will be Encumbered.

I did play around a bit with an idea of keeping track of various pouches and sacks characters might be carrying, but that just ends up disrupting the neat simplicity and easy of use of this system. So again, I just said eh!, and went for the more abstract option that requires the least amount of bookkeeping and rearranging your inventory. Though I admit I still don’t have a perfect idea what to do when characters go into a dungeon with empty space in their Exploration Gear pouch that later gets filled with treasure that they pick up. Right now, this still requires you to move an item from the top of your T-items to the bottom and adding the new item as an E-item. Maybe this can be improved as well, but I think so far this is a really damn good inventory management system, far better than anything you find in almost all versions of D&D.

How do I use mount?

I think in the almost 20 years now that I have been playing D&D, I’ve not seen any PC or NPC ever use a mount in combat. It’s always been on foot. I think a main reason for this is that I’ve been playing almost exclusively 3rd Edition and Pathfinder, and one of the many, many big flaws with that system is that it’s always too much of a bother to learn a new combat subsystem for a single encounter. So it never came up, and I never used it as a GM myself.

5th Edition does most things in much simpler ways and so I gave mounted combat (and grappling) another look. And using a mount effectively turns out to be actually really easy not requiring learning anything new. It’s just that once again, the PHB does not make the effort to explain how this works and you have to go hunting for four or five different rules in different parts of the book to piece together how it’s done.

Being up on a horse or other mount doesn’t give you any practical advantage. When you park your horse next to an enemy and then keep hacking away for a couple of rounds, the horse is not doing anything for you. Where the horse comes in really handy is when you use it in the way that actual cavalry charges were historically done. You race towards the enemy, make a single strike, and then be gone before they counterattack. And then you keep doing that round after round after round.

You could theoretically try this on foot, but with a mount it becomes much more effective because you get one additional action. When you are on a mount, you get your mount’s movement, your mount’s action, and your own action all on the same turn. The mount can only dash, disenngage, or dodge and not attack itself, but this serves you just fine here.

  • Direct your horse to use its movement (60 ft.) to move past the enemy you want to attack. (No action.)
  • Your mount takes the disengage action so it does not provoke any opportunity attacks from any of the enemies it moves past this round.
  • When your mount has moved you into range of your target, you make your attack.
  • The mount continues its movement until it has moved 60 ft.

What makes this work so well is that in 5th Edition, you don’t provoke opportunities when you are being moved by another creature. And when your mount disengages, it does not provoke any opportunity attacks either. The only way enemies can get a shot at attacking you as you ride past is to ready an action to make an attack when you come into reach of their weapons. However, they will have to ready that action before you start your charge. If your movement doesn’t bring you into their reach, their action for that round is wasted.

Enemies could try to run after you and make an attack at the end of their movement. But if you are dealing with a pursuer that has a speed of 30 ft., simply make sure you end your turn at 40 ft. away from it. If it pursues, it can either dash to get next to you and not take any other action, or move its 30 ft. and take its action still 10 ft. away from you. Then in the next round you move 10 ft. towards that enemy, make an attack, and have your mount continue to a position that is again 40 ft. away from your enemy.

This all works even better when you have other allies on mounts with you. If your enemies try to pursue you, you can scatter them over a larger area, making it harder for them to work together and gain the benefits of a being in a group.

Of course you need a good amount of space to pull this off, which is probably another big reason mounted combat rarely shhows up in D&D. But it’s a nice way to give encounters a new dynamic and have to players fight in a new situation. Because everything the players can do, their enemies can also throw against them.

Exploration System, Part 1: Setting the hex-scale

While working on my wilderness setting it became obvious that running it would require a solid and easy to use system for overland travel. There are tables for Travel Pace in the Player’s Handbook and additional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to deal with overland travel in 5th Ed., but just like the tables and mechanics in 3rd Ed., I find them very impractical to use in actual play. If you use them rarely, it’s difficult to remember how it all works, and if you use them frequently it’s way too much calculating and eating up too much time. I plan this to be a series that will put together a complete system that is easy and fun to use and covers all the relevant aspects that are part of wilderness travel. Which is movement speeds, resoure management, encumbrance, random encounters, and weather. All of this will be based heavily on the 1981 Expert Rules by David Cook. Those are a really good start and reference point, but they can be improved and require some tweaking to work with 5th Ed.

I have a long and very conflicted relationship with hex maps, which I attribute primarily for my distaste of hexcrawl campaigns and my appreciation of pointcrawls. But using hexes to measure distances and treating hexes as discrete areas are completely different things, and my dislike of the later is no reason to completely discard the former. One reason I don’t like hexmaps is the amount of time it takes me to make anything good looking. Another is the way in which it makes the players interact with the fantastic imagined world. Filling in little white hexes with as you move along really feels just plain wrong to me. But when you just want to measure distances and see whether the movement is along roads or through plains or not, then you can simply add a hex grid overlay to any existing map. In most situations, you are going to need separate maps for the players and the GM anyway. I recommend the GM-map with all the secret locations marked on it getting a hex grid overlay, while the player map does not. But ultimately, what made me decide to use hex grids for this system, was the issue of parties getting lost. This seems quite important for a system intended to be used in a giant forest without roads, and I just can’t think of any way in which this could be handled on a point map.

Using a hex grid to measure distances for a journey has been a long established tool, but neither 3rd nor 5th Ed. are designed for it. When you try to convert movement rates to hexes, you always keep ending up  with the party traveling 1/2 hexes over a full day, or 3/4 hexes. Which I think defeats the entire purpose of measuring distances in hexes in the first place. So I made the decision to not attempt doing that and instead begin the entire design process by creating a system in which movement can only ever happen in full hexes and everything else will be tailored to fit on top of that.

I decided to use the Travel Pace table from the PHB as reference, which has speed always being either fast, normal, or slow, and the terrain either being regular (easy) or difficult, with difficult terrain taking double the time to cross than easy terrain. 3rd Ed. also had terrains that would take 1/4 or 3/4 normal time to cross and while that may seem more “realistic” it really makes things needlessly complicated. All of this is pure make believe anyway, somewhat inspired by reality, but completely disconnected from it. Two types of terrain is enough, and I also don’t consider it to be useful to account for the different walking speeds of smaller and larger creatures. While there are significant differences in running speed that matter in tactical combat, when travelling an entire day we can simply assume that smaller characters have the natural stamina to walk at a faster pace to keep up with the walking speed of larger characters. Stamina is also the reason why horses generally don’t travel further in a day than humans. The important difference is that a horse can carry all your heavy supplies with ease without being slowed down by them as you would. So three movement speeds and two types of terrain it is. And I think there are really just two practical ways this resulting table could look like.

Simple System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 6 hexes 3 hexes
Normal 4 hexes 2 hexes
Slow 2 hexes 1 hex

PHB System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 8 hexes 4 hexes
Normal 6 hexes 3 hexes
Slow 4 hexes 2 hex

In the Simple System, we have movement speeds in the ratios 3:2:1. The Travel Pace table gives movement in miles per day, but these are in the ratios 4:3:2, which I replicated in the PHB System table.

The next question is now “how big is a hex?” I tried out different hex sizes, and again there are only two solutions that really make sense and get close to the distances in the Travel Pace table in the PHB. The following tables show how much distance would be covered when traveling the number of hexes given in the previous tables.

Simple System, 6-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 36 miles (+20%) 18 miles (+20%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 12 miles (-33%) 6 miles (-33%)

PHB System, 4-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 32 miles (+7%) 16 miles (+7%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 16 miles (-11%) 8 miles (-11%)

Both tables happen to have 24 miles for normal pace in easy terrain, which is exactly the same number as in the Travel Pace table. Using the Symple System with the speed ratios of 3:2:1 and and 6-mile hexes, we get significantly more miles covered at fast speed and fewer miles covered at low speed, when compared to the distances given in the Travel Pace table.

In contrast, when using the PHB System with speed ratios of 4:3:2 and 4-mile hexes, these differences are much smaller. Exactly one third the difference we get in the Simple System. So when it comes to replicating the Travel Pace table from the PHB as closely as possible in full hexes without fractions, this one is the clear winner.

But in the end, I am still going to go forward into creating my additional travel mechanics using the Simple System with its speed ratios of 3:2:1 and 6-mile hexes. As a simple matter of practicality. 6-mile hexes are quite probably the most commonly used size for hexes by far. There are a huge amount of existing resources out there that have hex maps at the 6-mile scale. And there are other reasons why 6-mile hexes are really good. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever come across any map that uses 4-mile hexes.

Yes, if you would start from scratch in a vacuum, 4-mile hexes are clearly the better choice. But when dealing with hex maps in D&D, we are looking back at four decades of established customs and existing resources. And I really don’t want to muddle with that.

xkcd

My ideas for sea travel hexes aren’t worth a separate post, so I am adding them here:

While movement speed on land appear to be somewhat plausible when compared to reality, speeds for water travel are completely fictional. The numbers in the PHB seem considerably too low, but then you also get the complication that ships being propelled by wind depend on the wind conditions to move and because of the way sails work, going in a straight line is generally not the quickest path to get where you want to. Creating an even halfway decent approximation of ship speeds is way more complex than it would ever be worth it in a game like this, and so whatever system you are using will be a very basic abstraction.

For the same reasons that I prefer the 6-mile hex for land travel, I also like to go with the 30-mile hex for sea travel. 24-mile hexes would have more flexibility if you would want to have ships with many different speeds, but I am satisfied with ships being either “fast” or “slow”, with no further differentiation.

Speed is determined by the vessel and the water and wind conditions. Favorable Conditions means that the wind blows in the right direction at a good strength, or that the boat is going down a river with a significant current. Unfavorable Conditions means that the wind is weak and blowing from a bad direction, or that the boat is going up a river against a significant current. Average Conditions simply mean that the wind is neither particularly good or bad, or that the river does not have a significant current.

Ships out at sea can travel for 24 hours per day. By the PHB, rowboats are 50% faster than river boats. But a sailed river boat requires less work to move, so you can travel for more hours until it gets too dark. I say the two cancel each other out and the total distance per day comes out the same.

Water Travel

Speed Favorable Average Unfavorable
Boat 6 hexes (6-miles) 4 hexes (6-miles) 2 hexes (6-miles)
Slow Ship 3 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles) 1 hex (30-miles)
Fast Ship 6 hexes (30-miles) 4 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles)

From what I was able to find out, doing 36 miles rowing downriver is quite realistic, and for the sake of abstraction we’re ignoring that actual rivers aren’t straight. And again, the reality of travel speeds are much more complicated than this. This is the speed characters with light encumbrance would do in easy terrain. Since most wilderness in my campaigns isn’t easy and supplies for a long trip can easyily mean having heavy encumbrance, this is very good.

Going upriver would only be 2 hexes per day. Which is also what you get when travelling on foot through difficult terrain with heavy encumbrance. Since a long expedition is probably going to haul a lot of stuff with them and most wilderness will be difficult terrain, doing such a trip by boat isn’t going to be any faster or slower than doing it on foot. No change when going up the river, but huge advantage when going back down totally justifies the use of boats to travel deep into the wilderness for me.

Trade Goods as Treasure

This is one of these “I made this, so I might as well share it” things.

In my setting, travelling merchants are supposed to be a really big deal. And I also enjoy the players having to deal with encumbrance. Making exotic goods into a type of treasure that can be found is the sensible thing to do.

In my encumbrance system, weights are rounded up to the next multiple of 10 and then divided by 10. So the average weight for an item with an Encumbrance load of 1 is around 5 pounds. (Equally, the encumbrance limits for characters are divided by 5 to get the number of items that can be carried instead of the weight in pounds.) The quantities listed in this table have been chosen accordingly and the resulting prices and container capacities are based on the numbers from the 5th Ed. Player’s Handbook. If players come across these goods and want to take them as treasure, the only relevant number at that moment is how much they can carry while staying under the Encumbrance limits. Players won’t be trading in silk by meter but by encumbrance unit.

For the sake of simplicity, the numbers for kegs and barrels of ale and wine are rounded to easy number. The actual values for any of these goods are completely made up anyway.

Item Quantity Price Encumbrance
Sack of grain 30 lb. 3 sp 3
Sack of flour 30 lb. 6 sp 3
Pouch of salt 5 lb. 2 sp 1
Pouch of ginger 5 lb. 50 sp 1
Pouch of cinnamon or pepper 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Pouch of cloves 5 lb. 150 sp 1
Pouch of saffron 5 lb. 750 sp 1
Keg of ale 20 l 10 sp 4
Barrel of ale 200 l 100 sp 40
Keg of wine 20 l 20 sp 4
Barrel of wine 200 l 200 sp 40
Bottle of expensive wine 1 l 100 sp 1
Keg of expensive wine 20 l 2,000 sp 4
Canvas 6 sq. yd. 6 sp 1
Cotton cloth 20 sq. yd. 100 sp 1
Linen 12 sq. yd. 600 sp 1
Silk 24 sq. yd. 2,400 sp 1
Iron 5 lb. 5 sp 1
Copper 5 lb. 25 sp 1
Tin 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Silver 5 lb. 250 sp 1
Gold 5 lb. 2,500 sp 1

 

Planescape/2

Planescape has always been hugely fascinating. But everyone will agree that it is very big. And I think many will admit that perhaps it might be too big. 17 outer planes, most with three or four layers, some with much more than that; and 18 inner planes. It does get a bit overwhelming.

While I was working on my Green Sun setting, I was drawing inspirations for the Otherworlds very heavily from Planescape. However, only from a small number of planes, all of which I would consider to be among the somewhat more obscure ones. You know which ones are the famous and popular ones: The Abyss, Baator, Limbo, Mechanus, and Celestia, with Hades, Elysium, and Arborea also having some claim to minor fame. These happen to be the “even numbered” planes; the ones that correspond directly to the nine alignments. It’s the “odd numbered” ones between them that very rarely seem to be given any attention. And I have to say, after 20-something years, the primary planes have started to feel a bit stale and overdone, while the secondary ones still hold much more fascination for me.

This got me the idea: How about running a Planescape campaign in which the outer planes only conist of the secondary planes? And only having four elemental inner planes should also be enough.

I admit, Bytopia and Arcadia still look pretty bland and boring in the Lawful Good corner. But then, I don’t think Celestia and Elysium ever did any better. But I do think that you could do something interesting with players having to do errands in Arcadia and the place feeling slightly too lawful for being balanced in its lawful goodness. After all, this is where the Harmonium has its main base, and these berks aren’t quite known for their politeness and ompassion.

I’ve never been thinking much of either Bytopia or Archeron, but their crazy landscape should be able to provide some short term fun. I think the odd one out is actually Ysgard. I can’t really imagine it as anything other than Viking Land.

I fully admit that Gehenna, Carceri, and Pandemonium are where my real love lies. These are the more desolate hells, which I really like. Very Dark Souls, I might say.

I’ve put so much work into my Green Sun setting that is finally turning into something really playable, so my next campaign just has to be set there. But the idea of using only half of Planescape without the worn out standard planes makes me once more quite exited to jump into that setting as well.

Potions

Hemra

This potion is made from the boiled leaves of the hemra plant and some simple additional ingredients. The potion is a slightly bluish green and heals 2d4+2 hit points. Partiqularly high quality potions have a deep blue color and heal 4d4+4 hit points.

Rusan

This potion is an oil made from the leaves of the rusan shrub. A full dose causes unconsciousness for 1d4 hours, while drinking a third of that amount put a person into a hazy state that gives an advantage on saving throws against being frightened and disadvantage on all Dexterity and other Wisdom checks, which lasts for 1 hour.

Valkar

Eating one of these seeds gives advantage on saving throws against exhaustion for 6 hours. Eating another within 24 hours requires a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or it causes the poisoned condition instead.

Satak

This vile potion is made from a mushroom found in Venlad. For 6 hours it gives advantage on Strength and Constitution ability checks and saving throws, and disadvatage on Wisdom and Charisma ability checks and saving throws. When the effect ends, the drinker takes 1d4 points of poison damage and is poisoned for 6 hours.

Tamgut

This potion is made from specially prepared berries from the Tamgut shrub of the Wyvern Mountains, mixed with rusan oil. It causes incapacitation for 6 hours, at the end of which a DC 15 Wisdom check must be made. If successful, the drinker gets the effect of a divination spell.

Silly Stuff with Statistics

Yesterday I did what I always tell people not to bother with. Work out the population numbers and distribution of classed and leveled NPCs for your setting. It’s almost always pointless and often leads to nonsensical results. But I did it anyway, not because the setting and campaign need it, but because I sometimes simply enjoy the fun of working with numbers.

I went into this  with the following premises:

  • The global population of Murya, Fenhail, Yao, Kuri, Kaska, and Sui is 1 million.
  • 1 out of every 100 people has classes and levels.
  • The highest level any mortal can reach is 10th.
  • For every two 1st level NPCs there is one 2nd level NPC, for every two 2nd level NPCs there is one third level NPC, and so on.
  • Half of all leveled NPCs are spellcasters (half of which are Priests).

I first planned on having a global population of 10 million and make 1 out of 1,000 NPCs have levels. But someone pointed out to me that that seems too high if all the population lives on the coast and given the size of my map sketch. There are about 4,000 miles of coast and I estimated civilization being within 10 miles of the sea (on average, there are also some major rivers and highland settlements), which results in a habitable area of only 100,000 km². That’s about the area of Hungary, Portugal, or Cuba. And three quarters of Greece, which is always my default reference point. That’s not a lot of land to live on, even if the continent itself is the size of Europe. With 1 million people, this leads to an average population density of 10 people per km². Which is roughly the estimate for Greece during Roman times, which does include all the uninhabited mountains. Perfect.

I was also curious what results these premises would give me for the amount of NPCs of each level. And those got really quite interesting. For simplicity, I didn’t calculate with 10,000 leveled NPCs but 8,190. When you’re a bit of a math nerd, you know the powers of 2 by heart, which makes continuous halving of numbers very easy. The distribution I got out was this:

  • 4,096 1st level characters
  • 2,048 2nd level characters
  • 1,024 3rd level characters
  • 512 4th level characters
  • 256 5th level characters
  • 128 6th level characters
  • 64 7th level characters
  • 32 8th level characters
  • 16 9th level characters
  • 8 10th level characters
  • (4 11th level immortal sorcerer kings)
  • (2 12th level immortal sorcerer kings)

That’s really not a lot. And actually gets really fascinating when you consider players wanting NPCs to casts spells for them. The number of those gets really low.

  • 4,098 people can cast 1st level spells
  • 1,026 people can cast 2nd level spells
  • 258 people can cast 3rd level spells
  • 66 characters can cast 4th level spells
  • 18 characters can cast 5th level spells
  • (6 characters who can cast 6th level spells)

Only half of those are Priests who have access to the cleric spell list. Getting one of those 9 priests alive who can cast raise dead to resurrect your friend could be quite challenging. However, if you are among the 100 most powerful people in the world, getting access to these guys might not be that far out of reach.

I’ve got no intentions to track the numbers and levels of NPCs that appear in my campaign. That’s too silly and impractical even for me. Instead, I came up with some rules of thumb, when it comes to creating NPCs for the campaign, that do reflect these population numbers of the setting:

  • If the character does not seem important enough to get a name, personality, and motivations, it’s going to be a generic acolyte, bandit, cultist, guard, tribal warrior, or commoner with 2d8 hit points.
  • Leveled NPCs who aren’t important regional individuals are 1st to 3rd level. (There are thousands of them in the world.)
  • NPCs  of 4th to 6th level are among the most powerful individuals of their region and regionally famous. (There are hundreds of them in the world.)
  • NPCs of 7th to 10th level are among the most powerful individuals in the world and famous throughout the continent. (There’s barely more than a hundred of them in the world.)

These numbers all seem amazingly low, but when I looked at them I really started to like the resulting implications. These are distributions for campaigns in which the players play individuals like Conan and Elric, or the various ancient Greek heroes.

And still this is a world where there are CR 7 yuan-ti and CR 10 aboleths around, and CR 6 wyverns and CR 7 stone giants. A 1st level PC is not yet standing out, but when you get to 3rd or 4th level, you’ve already made it big. You are playing in the top league of heroes.

I am really looking forward to this campaign more and more every day.

What is in the box?!

Things are getting real. My apprenticeship as a gardener is coming to an end in barely more than a week and then it’s off to university for me again. And that means hypothetical ponderings for a future campaign are now turning into actual preparations for the next campaign. Probably not in february, and perhaps not in march either. But then it’s time to get butts on chairs and dice rolling.

I must confess that even as a GM with two decades of experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been a great GM. Judging from players’ reactions in the past, not a terrible GM, but really not a great one either. To me, all the campaigns I’ve ran where pretty meh. This time I am vowing to do better. I have spend a lot of time and effort into learning what makes great games in theory, and why I didn’t manage to pull it off in practice yet since my last campaign.

I think there are two things that have changed in how I approach a campaign now, both very much influenced by learning how Apocalypse World works and is meant to be run, even though I am now preparing for a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. campaign. The first one is that a campaign is about the player characters. The PCs are the protagonists who are driving the story and who are its heroes. We all play the game to see the PCs doing exciting things. Any NPCs that I have are supporting cast to enable the PCs to do exciting things. The second thing is that the world that I made also exists to enable the players experiencing exciting things. Every place that I create, every faction that I make, and also all the NPCs that I prepare exist for the explicit purpose of creating excitement for the players. If it burns, let it burn. If if dies, let it die. This world doesn’t exist to be the setting for a metaplot that gets constantly updated by some company. If the world looks completely different once the players have been through it, that’s totally fine. If everything gets fucked up by the players’ antics, then it was probably very exciting for the players to experience it. And that’s the whole purpose of playing the game.

As such, I decided to take another shot at a sandbox. Of the non-hexcrawl, non-megadungeon type. An environment that is full of strange sights and interesting people that will react based on what the players do. I have heard many great things about such campaigns, but one of the challenges is that for the world to react, the players first have to do something. And for the players to do anything, their curiosity first has to be caught by something. That’s the big problem with “Yo all start in a tavern. You can do anything you want.” If the whole world so far just consists of a nondescript tavern, there isn’t anything for the players to want yet. While there is a lot of information and advice around for preparing a sandbox campaign and for running a sandbox campaign, there appears to be very litle about starting one. Lots of people can tell you how to run session 0 and session 2, but what about session 1?

A good while ago I did come across one promising looking option someone wrote about years ago. At the start of a sandbox campaign, don’t let the players do whatever they want, but tell them what they should do. Start the campaign on a train, but then drop them off at the train station. If you do it right, you will have introduced them to enough things about the starting area during that initial train ride that they have sufficient information and incentives to take off on their own from there. Thinking about it, I remembered one of my favorite scenes from the Fellowship of the Ring movie. The hobbits have been on a quite wild adventure, that is much larger and wilder in The Lord of the Rings, and finally reach their destination where Gandalf told them he would take over as their leader and guide again. And they also expect him to take care of the threat that is following them. But he’s not there, and hasn’t been seen in the area for months. “What are going to do now?”

The hobbits of course still have their bigger goal of having to get the Ring to Rivendell, but I think this moment in the story is precisely that train station. The initial instructions are completed and the heroes find themselves in a place that is new and full of possibilities for them, but simply going back home and waiting for a new call to adventure isn’t a practical option either. Based on that, I have come up with an early concept for a campaign start that I currently very much consider using.

“In a wrecked ship that was washed up on the shore, you discovered a sturdy chest bound with iron. It resisted your attempts to open it, but a sage was able to detect an enchantment on the chest and  identify the lead seal on the hinge as that of a wizard who lives in a town a week’s travel up the coast to the North.

At the end of the first day of your journey to the wizard, you reach the local trade post where you can complete your preparations for the rest of the journey north.

The trade post is kind of a tavern, but the players start there as an existing party and with a destination where to head for when they leave. After they have bought whatever supplies they want and can afford, they have the option to take the coastal road north, or to get passage on a boat to their destination. If they take the road, they get two opportunities to chose between staying close to the shore or take a shortcut through the forested hills. Perhaps have any ship they take make a stop halfway along the road, between the shortcuts, so the players have another opportunity to switch from boat to one of the land routes on the second leg of the journey. This serves to teach the players that they have to chose between different aproaches themselves, without any guidance. Even at this point when their destination has been set for them.

Along each path there will be several encounters that introduce the players to various aspects of this world they are not yet familiar with. Some of which I want to include clues to something more interesting nearby. The players can chose to come back and check them out later once they have delivered the chest, or they can decide that the chest can wait and they go checking it out now. This also puts the players into situations where they can chose without any guidance. They have an objective, that isn’t really that interesting, but there also isn’t an hurry to complete it. If they run into something that seems to be more interesting to them, they are free to chase after that instead. Now one could argue that this has the major drawback of having to create three adventures while knowing that you will only be using one, which is super inefficient. However, this is meant to be a sandbox campaign. The players traveling along this coastal road again is quite possible. But even if they don’t, all of this content can easily be used on any other costal road in the future. It’s not wasted work, but rather some pregenerated content to use whenever it might come handy.

The chest is, obviously, a bit of a Macguffin. The players will recognize it as a plot cupon that they need to follow to find the main adventure. But it’s not like they actually have to take it to the wizard. What keeps them from opening it is a simple arcane lock spell. The chest can be opened by the wizard who it belongs to, but also by most 3rd level wizards with a knock spell and pretty much every 5th level spellcaster with a dispel magic spell. Or the players could chose to just chop the whole chest to pieces with enough persistence. In fact, it is going to turn out that the wizard isn’t going to take the chest off them for a reward.

And that’s the train station moment I am aiming for. The players find themselves in a town, that I hopefully can make appear as interesting to explore, with a chest they can’t deliver and would need to find help to open, some things they could go back to and explore further on the coastal road, and what I feel as being quite important, no place or quest giver to return to. If an NPC gives the players a mission and they can’t complete it, I would very much expect them to go back and ask what they should do now. If the wizard had hired them to get back his Macguffin and he isn’t there when they return, they most likely would assume that they are supposed to go searching for him because that’s what the GM has planned for the story. Making the starting adventure have no quest giver seems like something quite important to me to get that transition from preset goal to player drive  play.

Creatures under Leaf and Moon

I went into the creation of the Green Sun setting (which I think could get a proper name by now) deliberately avoiding any elements that are specific original creations of Dungeons & Dragons. And I still think that this was a really good idea. Dark Sun and Planscape are both my favorite D&D settings, and I am far from alone in that opinion. And they both have their own setting specific casts of monsters, many of which became quite iconic, that aren’t part of the regular D&D economy. Especially with Dark Sun, which has only unique creatures other than elves, dwarves, and halflings, but even with Planescape most of the famous monsters first appeared in that setting and where added to the regular monster manuals later.

Setting out to make a non-D&D world first and only later starting to think of how it would translate to D&D rules (which wasn’t even a given when I started the work) led to a very different outcome than if I had just sat down with a Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual and browsed for the classes and creatures that I want to use. But now that I decided to start the first campaign using the setting in D&D 5th Edition and a lot of my creatures can be done perfectly with reskins of existing creature stats, I don’t feel bad about picking other creatures that I find fitting for the setting from the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters as well.

Monsters

These are dangerous creatures of the wilderness that are not magical in nature but clearly more than normal animals.

  • Hydra (CR 8)
  • Giant Ape (CR 7)
  • Wyvern (CR 6)
  • Phase Spider (CR 5)
  • Umber Hulk (CR 5)
  • Girallon (CR 4)
  • Manticore (CR 3)
  • Carrion Crawler (CR 2)
  • Ettercap (CR 2)
  • Ogre (CR 2)
  • Yuan-ti Pureblood (CR 1)
  • Aaracockra (1/4)
  • Kuo-toa (CR 1/4)

Spirits of Forest, Mountains, and Sea

This category consists of fey, as well as all plant creatures and most elementals. They are all detected by a detect good or evil spell and affected by similar magic.

  • Treant (CR 9)
  • Genie (CR 8)
  • Stone Giant (CR 7)
  • Air Elemental (CR 5)
  • Earth Elemental (CR 5)
  • Water Elemental (CR 5)
  • Night Hag  (CR 5)
  • Unicorn (CR 5)
  • Yuan-ti Abomination (CR 5)
  • Wood Woad (CR 4)
  • Succubus (CR 3)
  • Merrow (CR 2)
  • Will-o-wisp (CR 1)
  • Deep Gnome (CR 1/2)
  • Myconids (CR 1/2)
  • Blights (CR 1/8 – 1/2)

Spirits of Beneath and Beyond

This category covers spirits that are native to the Realm Beneath, the subterranean wilderness that is inspired by Pandemonium and Gehenna, and also beings from the stars, though there aren’t any of those at this point. They are all either aberrations or fiends.

  • Aboleth (CR 10)
  • Efreeti (CR 8)
  • Mind Flayer (CR 7)
  • Fire Elemental (CR 5)
  • Helmed Horror (CR 4)
  • Grell (CR 3)
  • Choldrith (CR 3)
  • Howler (CR 3)
  • Dark Stalker (CR 2)
  • Grick (CR 2)
  • Meenlock (CR 2)
  • Chitine (CR 1/2)
  • Dark Creeper (CR 1/2)

Undead

Undead are limited to the very basics. Undead in the world are always the result of warlocks using powers gained from Spirits from Below and Beyond and never rise naturally.

  • Wraith (CR 5)
  • Wight (CR 3)
  • Ghoul (CR 1)
  • Specter (CR 1)
  • Shadow (CR 1/2)
  • Skeleton (CR 1/4)

Beasts

This category covers all the natural animals that are enough of a threat to deserve getting stats.

  • Axe Beak
  • Brontosaurus
  • Crocodiles
  • Giant Badger
  • Giant Beetle
  • Giant Boar
  • Giant Centipede
  • Giant Crab
  • Giant Hyena
  • Giant Octopus
  • Giant Rat
  • Giant Wasp
  • Hadrosaurus
  • Plesiosaur
  • Pteranodon
  • Sharks
  • Snakes
  • Tiger
  • Triceratops

There are a handful of additional creatures that I want to incorporate, but for those I have to write stats first. When I have them, I will share them here with descriptions.

I didn’t plan that eight of the Top 10 biggest critters are all underworld monsters, but that’s actually a pretty cool outcome.