Six Days on Kenshi

(Kenshi has become my gold standard for what a sandbox campaign should be like. I am constantly mining this game for ideas to set up a West Marches campaign.)

Severed from the Hive mind, nobody would speak with Klik anymore, and so he had no choice but to walk out into the desert. A single worker drone with nobody else and no supplied. Looking around him, he saw a pack of Beak Things to the south of the village, and so he headed north with no knowledge of what to expect.

After wandering through the sands for several hours, a gang of Hungry Bandits came running over a dune, charging at Klik swinging their sticks. Running for his life, he spotted what looked like the stone walls of a human hive on a hill nearby, since the human hives hated the Hungry Bandits and always chase them away from their gates. But as he came closer, there was not a single human soldier to be seen. Looking for a place to lose the pursuers or someone to save him, Klik headed for the largest building in the village, but as he reached its gate he spotted the symbol of the Holy Nation. While the soldiers of the Holy Nation hated the Hungry Bandits, they hated Hive drones even more, and Klik immediately headed out through the gate on the other side of the village. With the bandits were still in pursuit, Klik’s path crossed that of a group of human mercenaries, and a big fight broke out between the two groups immediately. Only a single hungry bandit was still chasing after Klik, and even though he didn’t have a stick of his own, he made a courageous attempt to take the stick from the bandit. But the bandit was much stronger than Klik and beat him up, badly injuring his knee. Klik had no food for the hungry bandit to steal. He didn’t even have any pockets or bags where he could have carried any, but the bandit must have been too hungry to think of that.

Once the bandit had left, Klik crawled back to where the bandits had fought with the mercenaries and discovered a pack of bone dogs feeding on the dead. As night fell, he hid in the broken frame of a ruined human hut while waiting for the bone dogs to move on. When it seemed that they had left the area, he crawled over to the bodies and managed to get a stick from one of the bandits and some human clothing from one of the mercenaries. The mercenaries also had bandages with them, with which Klik could finally treat his still bleeding wounds. He even got some raw meat from two bone dogs, as well as two pelts and some teeth that he knew human traders would trade for. Now that he had food and a stick, and his wounds were no longer bleeding, his chances to survive another day had greatly increased.

At the dawn of the second day, Klik continued his journey through the desert, though still with a badly injured leg. After some hours he spotted a few houses in the distance with some fenced in animals. No humans were to be seen, but the risk that they might be of the Holy Nation made Klik keep his distance and continue towards a mountain range in the distance.

As he reached the edge of the mountains, Klik spotted another large human hive nearby. But as soon as he could see the soldiers on the wall, they started shooting at him with arrows and he had to quickly run back towards the mountains. Were he was jumped again by a gang of hungry bandits who viciously beat him and took all his bone dog meat.

Continue reading “Six Days on Kenshi”

My Plans for Aumaril and Wilderness Exploration Rules

People who’ve been following what I write for some time might know that I often come up with plans for grand ideas but rarely have anything finished to present later. Since I don’t have any money at stake with all this elfgame stuff, that’s fine. And it’s rare that I actually abandon anything I’ve been working on completely. Much of stuff that I create is tinkering with mechanics and concepts and it’s always a learning experience that helps me increase my understanding of the material. And nearly all of it kind of just goes into a drawer where I let it sit for some months or a few years while my attention is on other things, to get pulled out again at some later point to continue tinkering with it. So while it might be pretty early to make any kind of announcement yet for what I am currently working on and nothing might come out of during the next year or so, my current plans for a rules system and campaign setting are actually just a new phase of the same things I’ve been working on for nearly 10 years now. I am constantly getting better at it and feel like I am making great progress, but with increasing experience comes a better understanding of how far away the goal has actually been all along. It’s a bit like fusion power research, I guess.

With a lot of talk, confusion, and general uncertainty about the licensing situation of D&D type games in the last month, plenty of people have come out with the opinion that this is as good a time as there’s ever been to just go through with their ideas of what a perfect game system should look like and make it happen. Though in full self-awareness of how much interest and use such systems might actually see, the old term of fantasy heartbreakers immediately made it back into circulation. It’s not going to be the next Dungeons & Dragons or the next Pathfinder, and most likely not even the next Swords & Wizardry. This is something you do just for the fun of it and maybe to use for your own campaigns, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, it becomes popular enough that some people will take bits and pieces as house rules for their own campaigns. And in this mood and environment, why the hell not? I’ve been collecting quite some house rules myself over the years which I already put together as the Yora Rules, and there’s a number of things in B/X that I would personally have done very differently.

So I’m gonna do this!

There are actually three connected but separate things that I want to make:

  1. A revision of the classes and combat rules of B/X (like attack rolls and saving throws) mostly intended for my own personal use.
  2. A set of new rules and mechanics for a streamlined wilderness exploration system that makes wilderness travel and resource management simpler and faster, and a system for maintaining a fixed home base to serve as treasure vault, supply depot, and winter camp. I think this one actually has potential to be a successful (free) product.
  3. A campaign setting for my own next campaign in which I’ll use and playtest the new rules above.

At this stage, these are really more general plans for a playtest than specific plans for a product. These are plans to develop something, which depending on how things work out, could at a later point lead to releasing something.

OSRIC and OSE already set great examples for how you could replicate the structure of AD&D and B/X even with the OGL 1.0a, and with the new Creative Commons license for the SRD 5.1, I feel that all of this is both perfectly within both the letter and spirit of the law.

The Rules Revision

I started RPGs with D&D 3rd edition just when it came out and later played some Pathfinder for a while. It was fine back then because it was what I knew, but when I became curious about this oldschool roleplaying stuff I spend a while with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, as a more accessible way to get into the AD&D mechanic, but since I discovered the Basic/Expert rules eight years ago, I’ve been a huge fan of those rules ever since. That is, at least in general terms. I’ve never been able to actually understand the TSR system for making attack rolls and the saving throw categories seem quite nonsensical for someone who was first introduced to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. That’s why I always only actually ran Basic Fantasy and Lamentation of the Flame Princess and more recently Old-School Essentials, which all let you make attack rolls like in the d20 system. But I’m also quite a fan of some changes made to the B/X rules by Stars Without Number and its various descendants.

In the big picture, these rules will still be B/X. But with the amount of house rules I already made and some other changes I think would be big improvements to the game, it just seems convenient to do a fully new writeup for everything that I can hand to players and also share publicly. Some of these changes seem quite radical as they throw away a presumed “balance” that Gygax and Moldvay created for different classes. But it’s by now pretty well known that there was no precise fine tuning and diligent play testing for the exact values in the tables, and they just made up numbers that looked right. (If anything does break, it will show up during play tests and can be fixed later.)

  • Attack rolls and Armor Class as in d20-system games.
  • Saving throws are Physical, Mental, Evasion, and Magic.
  • All classes advance at the same XP scores as fighters.
  • Attack bonuses and saving throws increase linearly with levels.
  • No restrictions on weapons and armor.
  • Spellcasting is restricted by encumbrance instead of armor.
  • Spells are not lost after casting. (Though still limited in uses per day.)
  • Encumbrance based on number of items instead of weights.
  • Ability checks are rolled with 2d6 against a target number based on the ability score.
  • In dungeons, 1 turn covers exploration of “1 area” instead of a distance of corridor.
  • Encumbrance increases the requirement for rest turns instead of reducing exploration speed.
The Wilderness Exploration Game

While the rules for character advancement, combat, and dungeon exploration in the Basic rules are already pretty nice as a rules light version of D&D, it’s really the Exploration rules that always keep me coming back to this game. I remember when West Marches by Ben Robbins was first making its rounds and it always seemed like a really cool approach to set up a sandbox campaign. I later was greatly inspired by Joseph Manola’s The long haul: time and distance in D&D about approaching adventures as months-long expeditions into the unknown, interrupted by spending months cooped up in winter camp. More recently, I’ve read Gus L’s series on Classic Dungeon Crawls that emphasizes the survival game aspect as being essential to making the exploration of dungeons an engaging mode of play, and the whole time I was thinking “Yes, but what if we apply all of this to the outdoors?!”

I feel the wilderness has always been overshadowed by dungeons and by city adventures, but my own mental images of amazing fantasy worlds are filled with trees and mountains from horizon to horizon. And pondering on the ideas of the three wise men above, I’ve become convinced that there can be absolutely fantastic campaigns in which the wandering around in the wilderness can be the main attraction, rather than just the connecting transition space between different adventure sites. To make such a campaign work, there needs to be a clear campaign structure, as well as a set of easy to use tools for the GM to make it happen.

As campaign structure goes, the concept very much follows the West Marches and the original Basic rules: The game begins with 1st level PCs in a small frontier town that is relatively close to several ruins and caves that are home to various creatures and hiding ancient treasures. At first adventures are relatively short, with the travel to the sites being quick and probably uneventful and dungeons being fairly small, and all the PCs being back in the town after 3 to 5 hours where they get XP for all the treasures they recovered. Dungeons with more dangerous creatures and greater treasures tend to be farther away from the town and descend into greater depth, leading to increasingly longer adventures that eventually won’t be able to be played in a single go.

At this point it becomes strongly encouraged for the players to have more than a single character to deal with scheduling. If players A, B, C, and D go on a longer adventure with characters A(1), B(1), C(1), and D(1), the adventure can’t continue until all four players can come together at the same time with the GM again. If player C can only play every second week (maybe), but players A, B, and D want to play more often, they can go on another adventures with their character A(2), B(2), and D(2), and maybe also take along two other players with their characters E(1) and F(1)? If the campaign is about uncovering the secrets and mysteries of the wilderness instead of the personal stories of individual PCs, this way of playing multiple PCs is perfectly viable and it increased scheduling flexibility immensely. It also makes long healing times and characters working for weeks or months on creating magic items and similar things more viable. Just because one character is out of action for the game doesn’t mean all the other PCs have to sit around and fiddle their thumbs while they are waiting.

The Expert rules recommend that characters should start going on longer journeys deep into the wilderness and away from civilization around 4th level, which I think remains a good guideline. But I also think that this is actually the perfect time for PCs to start establishing their own stronghold. Not as barons ruling over their respective towns and villages (which isn’t really much of a group activity anyway), but to have a new forward base camp for their exploration deeper into the wilderness. It’s a place where they can stash their newly found treasures in their vault (and get XP for said treasures), have a supply depot with food reserves for months, can set up fully stocked shops for armorers and alchemists, and a garrison for the hired mercenaries who guard the vault and stay with the pack animals and supplies while they go down into dungeons to explore. It can also serve as their winter camp when the whether makes campaigning nearly impossible for several months of the year.

This new stronghold not only serves as an alternative for the starting town for launching new adventures deeper into the wilderness, it also functions as a generator for new adventures. Ben Robins recommends that the PCs should be the only adventurers exploring the West Marches, but the players don’t have to be the only people establishing a new outpost on the very edges of civilization. There can also be the keeps of aspiring new barons, mining camps, bandit camps, and of course endless hidden lairs of evil cults. Not to mention monsters like giants and dragons making their homes in the area. All of which could have a problem with the PCs setting up a new base near their own turf. Or potentially become allies to share resources and information, and aid each other in times of attacks.

The critical importance of random encounter in dungeon explorations is well enough known, but the same mechanic can also do an incredible amount of heavy lifting when it comes to the wilderness. Nearly everything that can be encountered in the wilds or on the road is either going somewhere or coming from somewhere. After the encounter has played out, there’s usually an option for the players to either follow the creatures to where they are going, or to follow their trail to where they came from. This is a fantastic opportunity to introduce new sites to the sandbox. People probably have noticed that the numbers of creatures encountered in the wilderness often goes into the dozens, and in the case of some lairs even in the hundreds. These numbers are not for a group of four PCs being suddenly ambushed by an entire army on the march. These are numbers for populating keeps, camps, and lairs. These groups are what you find when you follow the wandering groups of monsters back to their homes. And they don’t have to be hostile. The same reaction rolls for random encounters in dungeons can be used when approaching a stronghold in the wilderness. Which I think has the potential as an amazing tool to create a wilderness area that is a living space where players can discover the unexpected and the GM has fantastic opportunities for very freeform and improvisational play.

As I mentioned, a campaign like this also needs tools. The following are mechanics that I’ve already dabbled with to make running such adventures easier. Some of which overlap with the changes to the basic game mechanics mentioned in the previous section. Most of these are things that the Expert rules already cover, but I feel they are clunky and inconvenient to use. All of it can be done better without dramatically changing the outcomes.

  • Item-based encumbrance.
  • Simple rules for water and food rations.
  • Mechanical consequences for lack of food and water.
  • Rules for disease(?)
  • More robust rules for hunting and foraging.
  • Travel speeds that map exactly to 6-mile hexes with no half hexes or third hexes traveled per day.
  • Simple rules for river travel speed.
  • Rules for tracking.
  • Wilderness exploration turns analogous to Dungeon exploration turns.
  • Stronghold and lair generator tables.

The final piece for my upcoming campaign during which all these ideas for new rules and mechanics will be playtested is the setting. I like the sound of Aumaril, and I checked that it isn’t already used by something else. And it’s different enough from Arduin and Amalur to not seem like a knockoff.

Aumaril is a world dominated by severe weather and many volcanoes. Volcanic activity covers the sky in ash every few decades that can cause brutal winters and ruin harvests, but on some occasions have tipped the climate to a point of causing ice ages that can range from centuries to tens of thousands of years. The world only emerged from four thousand years of winter fairly recently, which destroyed the civilization of the fey, reduced the kingdoms of the giants to barbarism, and diminished the empires of the serpentmen to a shadow of their former greatness. As the ice retreated and forest returned to the northern lands, mortal barbarians migrated from the south to make them their home. In recent generations, these first mortal empires have fallen into chaos and decay, and many people are fleeing deeper into the wilderness to try their luck among the abandoned ruins of the fey and giants, and things much more older than even the ancients.

While civilization is centered around three old empires that have seen much better days, and could be interesting places for adventures in their own right, these are not the actual setting where the planned campaign takes place. The adventures of the PCs cover the vast wilderness of forests and mountains that still cover most of the world and remain largely unexplored, but have many ancient ruins from the previous age and civilizations that have long since disappeared. I am an unashamed fan of the 70s and 80s Sword & Sorcery style that gratuitously blends together traditional medieval fantasy elements with weird and alien environments from science fiction or prehistoric Earth. Mushroom forests, dinosaurs, and giant insects are totally my jam, as are evil sorcerers in giant black towers covered in skulls. Which I think has never been executed better (at least stylistically) than in Morrowind. I’m not leaning as much towards the camp or melodramatic, but I still think this is a really cool aesthetic that can be just as well suited for more down to earth fantasy adventures.

One thing that really excites me about this setting is that it’s being populated by various intelligent creatures that have been created for D&D pretty long times ago, but never really seen much breakout success or prominent appearances. In addition to the very human-like Aumarilians, who are greatly inspired by various cultures from the Hyborean Age and the Elder Scrolls, the other major peoples are chitines, derro, fey’ri, grimlocks, locathah, quaggoths, raptorans, and stone giants. Goliaths seem to have become quite popular in 5th edition, and of course yuan-ti have always been famous.

This part of my great creation probably won’t see any kind of proper release as some kind of book, but I guess I’m probably going to share various bits and pieces about it here as the actual campaign develops.

Good artists borrow, great artists steal

So let my show you my loot haul.

I am never able to restrain my gushing over the worldbuilding of Morrowind. While the gameplay of that game is of somewhat dubious quality and characters and quests leave a lot to be desired, the kind of very unique world it presents always had a huge influence on my perception of fantasy world, similar to Star Wars for space settings. There is a lot of the world of Morrowind, and to a small extend also Skyrim, that I am just blatantly ripping off for the new setting. The dominant civilization are strongly bases on the Dunmer and their three living gods, Almalexia, Sotha Sil, and Vivec. Except that in my setting, they are not a tribunal ruling over one kingdom, but three bitter enemies that go to war with each other on a near regular basis. The Camonna Tong and Morag Tong are very interesting templates for criminal organizations, and I like the way the Ashlanders represent the idea of barbarians who have escaped to the edges of civilization because they oppose the changes in traditions enforced by the god-kings.

I also think that the Redguard and Orsimer are quite interesting as well, at least as they are represented in Skyrim. I think I can use them for another urbanized kingdom to the south near the lands of the naga, and for the highland barbarians.

I also really like the way the Daedra fulfill the role of demons in the setting, though I want to take that idea and make it much more actually alien and weird. More Hermaeous Mora than Sheogorath. And of course, Morrowind is where I got the idea of the wildlife consisting primarily of various dinosaur-like reptiles and insectoid monsters instead of the typical familiar dogs, horses, cows, and pigs. I’ll definitely be reviving the honey caves ideas that was based on the kwama egg mines. I used them once and it was really fun.

While I love the Dark Sun campaign setting for AD&D, the things that I see as worth stealing basically just mirror things that I’m already taking from Morrowind. The sorcerer kings are like the Tribunal, the Templars as their warrior-priest enforcerers are just like the Ordinators, and the approach to slavery is very much the same. I feel you can’t really evoke the style of a Bronze Age society that is different from a medieval one without large parts of the population and economy being slaves.

Various ideas with a similar style come from Kenshi. This weird little game is actually a lot like Dark Sun, except that before the world turned into a desert wasteland, it wasn’t a magical fantasy world but a technological sci-fi world. But in the state that it is now, life turns out to be very similar. My two favorite idea from this setting are the Shek and the Hivers. The Shek are a take on something not too different from orcs, and one of the main inspiration for the highland barbarians. The Hivers already served as the main inspiration for my take on slightly insectoid goblins. Which were one of the last things I created for Kaendor, but I think will be a much better fit here. One of the two main powers on Kenshi is the Holy Nation under their Phoenix King, who rules over a nation of slaves with the help of his elite Paladins. Yeah, basically the same points as covered by the Tribunal and Ordinators of Morrowind and the Sorcerer Kings and Templars of Dark Sun. The other one are the United Cities. Who are despotic slavers in their own right, but still come out looking much better from the Holy Nation. They gave me the idea to have a fourth nation of the dominant culture consisting of loosely allied city states in the coast that have banded together to stay out of the grasp of any of the god-kings.

In the post about my ideas on magic and demons, I already mentioned Demon’s Souls. While the design styles of the setting is completely different from what I am going for, I find the supernatural concepts of the game very inspiring. The ideas that humans can become demons if they consume their energy opens very interesting possibilities, and the idea that regions can become shrouded in permanent fog while demons rampage inside of it is also really cool. The lands of Boletaria have little in common with what I am working on now, but conceptual ideas like these are pretty big in my mind.

A very similar case is Thief. Another game I’ve been gushing about many times in the past. Again, the type of city that the series is set in looks nothing like the kind of cities that will be found in the new setting. But everything that has to do with the Pagans is just pure gold for what I have in mind. The Pagans are a reclusive cult that exists somewhere between druidism and rural demon worship. Exactly the kind of interactions I am going for with my spirit worshiping barbarians. I am actually pretty sure that this game is where I came across the idea originally. The Trickster demon-god and his leafy lieutenant are great spirits, and I totally love the witch that is the main antagonist in the third game as a villain that might work wonderfully in my campaign. I also think that the organization of the Keepers is a really cool archetype for a cabal of arcane scholars who have much more benevolent intentions than the demonic cults they oppose, but are far from being clear cut good guys either.

Something I remembered only a few days after I’ve already been tinkering with ideas for a coherent setting concept was my experiences with diving deep into the published setting material for the Unapproachable East region of the Forgotten Realms. When I decided that I want to make a new setting from scratch that better represents the ideas I am interested now than organically grown tangle that Kaendor had become after close to a decade of trial and error, I made a decision to stay away from any Dungeons & Dragons or Middle-Earth material. But as I did mention in my post about reading through the various sourcebooks, there actually is fairly little of the typical Fantasyland stereotypes in that section of the Forgotten Realms. There’s no orcs, dwarves, drow, mind flayers, or beholders to be found anywhere, or mentions of trivial teleportation or magic item shops. It is quite strongly inspired by medieval Eastern Europe, but scratch a bit away at the paint and there’s actually a lot of stuff that I think can go straight into my new setting. My final thoughts had been that the setting material that existed for the region was full of great ideas, but at such a surface level of detail that you would still basically have to create your own content that is inspired by those prompts to run a great campaign. And in that case I could just make a new world myself. And now seems like a perfect time to completely carve up that setting and scavenge it for its most interesting parts!

The barbarians and witches of Rashemen look like a great starting point for my forest barbarians. I planned for them to have a Baltic style anyway, so the weird mix of Slavic and Germanic elements should be pretty easy to switch out. The Red Wizards of Thay in their original incarnation are just what I need for one of the three god-king nations. Blend them together with House Telvanni from Morrowind and you got a great magical oligarchy. The barbarians of Narfell are more steppe nomads as presented, but I think I can still take a good amount of stuff from them for my highland barbarians. I think I also want to have something like the ancient demon summoners of the Nar Empire whose ruins are still slumbering under the ground, many still haunted by summoned demons. I’ve long been fascinated by what snippets I had read about the independent city Telflamm and its Shadowmasters thieves guild. As it turned out those snippets were really all there is about them, and this is now a great opportunity to have some fun with expanding them. And finally there’s the kingdom of Impiltur, which is really more an alliance of city states than a centralized nation. And as such the second inspiration for the alliance of city states that oppose the god-kings, together with the United Cities of Kenshi.

While outside of this specific region, the biggest disappointment for me when reading the classic Forgotten Realms material was the city Westgate and its Night Masks thieves guild. I thought these were something big like Baldur’s Gate or Silverymoon, but the actual content is severely underwhelming. I want to make the port city of crime and vampire assassins that I envisioned a reality.

Finally, another important resource that I added to my pile is Red Tide. When this resource on running sandbox campaigns came out in 2011, it made quite a splash, and when you read it for the first time without much knowledge about running sandboxes, it’s really quite amazing. The setting that is presented is quite interesting, but there’s not a lot worldbuilding ideas that I find useful to copy. Much more important are its thoughts on how you set up and expand a sandbox campaign. The tools provided in the book where later overhauled in Spears of the Dawn and then more recently in World Without Number, but I actually really like the version in this one a lot more. The most interesting to me is the system for creating courts with just a very small number of NPCs and conflicts and complications between them. With the way that I envision the new campaign to play in practice, dealing with the important leaders of other strongholds, villages, clans, cults, and gangs will probably be a primary driver of the action. The tables for creating villages with interesting local problems might also come in very handy at a later point. And while I don’t expect there to be an awful lot of dungeons in the campaign, the ruins sites tables might also turn out a quite useful tool when the antics of the players require new content to be welded together on very short notice.

A Tale of the Past

Feeling particularly fed up with the D&D Fantasyland cliches, I found the motivation to resume work on Planet Kaendor and go full out with the Sword & Sorcery treatment. I once again had Kenshi and Conan Exiles on my mind, and now Forbidden Lands. (Also Morrowind, because I always do.) When I last ran out of steam, the setting seemed a bit bland and stale, but I think a new backstory could do wonders to give it the spark it needs without reworking the geography and culture in significant ways.
Long in the distant past, the lands between the Sea in the West and the Mountains in the East was home to the northern civilization of the Rakshasa and the southern civilization of the Naga. Eventually the two rising powers came into conflict, which turned into centuries of warfare. As the wars dragged on, both sides unleashed incresingly devastating sorcery, turning the forests that made up the borderlands between the two powers were into a blasted wasteland. Even when armies managed to cross the burned plains to lay siege to the enemy’s cities, there was no way to possibly hold a city that was taken on the other side, and so the original plans for conquest gave way to a rage of blind destruction. As the desolation spread further into the two great woodlands and both sides exhausted their power, invasions became more difficult and less frequent, until eventually they simply stopped altogether, with nobody having any claim to victory.

Where the burned wastelands slowly recovered over time to turn into a great plain of grass and shrubland, the two battered civilizations did not. When the shared enemy from the outside faded into the distance, cities turned against each other, further reducing both realms into hollow husks of their former selves.

Eventually, human barbarians from the Mountains in the East came down into the depopulated plains. First to hunt the abundant grazing beasts, but then to settle the fertile banks of the great rivers. Three shaman kings managed to defeat the last rakshasa lord ruling in the plains and somehow gained immortality for themselves in the process. Each of them claimed one of the former rakshasa cities for themselves as conquerors, though two of the cities had already been abandoned long ago at that point.

While human civilization grew in the plains, they always stayed clear of the great ancient woodlands to the North and the South, as the Rakshasa and Naga that continued to live beneath the trees were still terrible foes to face. But over the last generations, hunters and explorers have dared venturing deeper and deeper into the northern woodlands, and rumors spread that the Rakshasa seem to be gone. Many have doubts that these ancient beings have truly disappeared for good, but to many people in the western plains, possibility of a life beyond the reach of the sorcerer kings is very much worth such a risk. The northern woodlands are not just calling to those who wish to escape the grasp of the sorcerer kings. Abandoned rakshasa castles and towers promise powerful magical artifacts that might have been left behind and forgotten, and whose value could be beyond measure.

What’s the function of a Stronghold?

Working on my Ruins of the Shattered Empire campaign, I was thinking again about Kenshi, a wonderfully weird sandbox indy game set in a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland full of bandits, robot skeletons, ancient vaults, ninja, cultists, crashed satellites, insect men, random orbital lasers from the sky, and flesh eating giraffes. The game has no story. You just start somewhere in the desert, with nothing but the shirt on your back – if your character is one of the lucky ones – and your only goal is to survive by getting something to eat and avoid getting eaten yourself. Unless your character is one of the mentioned robot skeletons. It’s a wonderfully odd game that feels like something that would have been made in the early 80s if the technology had existed back then. People who like things like Veins of the Earth or Ultraviolet Grasslands will probably appreciate the style. There are various bare bones NPCs around the game world that ask to join your team or can be permanently hired for a one time payment. The desert is full of hungry beasts and nasty bandits, and while it certainly is possible to play the game as a lone wanderer, a very attractive option that opens up very early on is to build a small base with a wall that protects your people while mining ore to sell in a town or working on a patch of dirt to grow your own food. You still keep getting attacked by raiders who’ll easily break down your gates after a minute or two and loot your little storage shed, and so you can easily find yourself in an endless cycle of expanding your base to provide more food and income to expand your group with additional warriors, so that you can expand even bigger to add your own workshops to make your own weapons and armor instead of having to buy them. It’s often compared to Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld, with it’s own special type of weirdness and hilarity.

In addition to building materials, you also need to first research construction plans for new buildings and equipment, and for that you need books of ancient knowledge. A few of which can occasionally be found in stores for a hefty price, but the more rare ones require you to go explore ancient ruins in increasingly more dangerous parts of the massive wastelands. And setting out on an expedition to find and explore these ruins always reminds me of good old D&D wilderness adventures. The ruins themselves are all pretty small, so I wouldn’t call looting them dungeon crawling, but getting your group of scavengers to those places and hauling back your loot to your far away base is just like wilderness adventures should be.

I’m also now remembering how I always found the use of NPCs as part of PC’s “gear” in Apocalypse World a really cool approach, and how they can be used as really nice adventure hooks, but I don’t want to go onto another tangent and actually get to the point.

Base building in Kenshi is in many ways an economy sim in which you figure out how to assign your characters to different jobs, optimize workflows, manage your resources, and invest your profits into new technologies and expanding your operations. It’s a lot of fun on a computer that takes care of all the math, and you spend hours upon hours on it by yourself. It’s not something that translates to playing a roleplaying game as a group. All the stronghold building rules for RPGs I’ve come across so far fail because of this. But the aspects of defending your stronghold against raiders and having to go out into the dangerous wilderness to gain resources you need to maintain and expand your base are also endlessly exciting, and those activities are the daily bread and butter of D&D adventurers.

I am really intrigued by the idea of giving the players the tools to take over any abandoned or cleared out ruin, fixing it up and fortifying it, and using it as their main base of operations while they are exploring the surrounding wilderness. And after some pondering on the subject, I believe the best way to approach this is not to start with any mechanics for upgrading a base or price lists for various expansions, but first figuring out what kinds of functions the stronghold should play in a game that is still fundamentally about going into dungeons to find treasure. This really is just throwing around some ideas and sorting out my own thoughts on this.

What a Stronghold should be for

Safe Resting Place: This really is the primary function of a stronghold in the wilderness for adventurers. A stronghold provides a place where the party can rest and recover from their ordeals without having to make wandering monster checks. I plan to run the campaign without clerics, so healing either takes a good amount of time to recover naturally, or use up healing potions that are valuable and can not be infinitely replaced. This should make a place where the PCs don’t have to worry about monster attacks.

Treasure Vault: If the players have their stronghold guarded by mercenaries while they are out of adventures, I would consider storing their new treasures in their vault as having “returned with treasure from the wilderness”. Since they are also no longer under constant threat of being attacked, that means they have completed their adventure and can get the XP that their loot is worth.

Supply Depot: In addition to storing treasure at the stronghold, the players can also store supplies of food, water, ammunition, lamp oil, and tools. The stronghold might even have its own well or cistern to provide an endless supply of water. Using their base as a supply depot means that the players don’t have to carry as much supplies to get to the dungeon and back, and if they should be running low while in the dungeon, a resupply trip to their stronghold would be considerably shorter than returning all the way to the nearest town. Of course, they first need to get the supplies from the town to the stronghold, which can be a small side adventure in itself.

Necessity of Hirelings: I love hirelings as a game element, and really want to see wilderness adventures turning into large expeditions of a dozen people or more. Having just four or five PCs as the whole party is nice for a lot of campaigns, but I think wilderness exploration campaigns should be at a much larger scale. Wilderness exploration is more than having one outdoor combat encounter between the town and the dungeon entrance. That’s the kind of game the Expert rules are for. Having a stronghold full of supplies and treasures means the players need someone to guard all of it while they are away. And they probably don’t want to leave some mercenaries they picked up in a tavern alone with all their money for days on end on a regular basis, so they should also have some trusted retainers to leave in charge while they are gone. With a more permanent base, you also probably will want to have additional servant staff to cook and make repairs, tend to the animals, and you can see how this can escalate very quickly.

Money Drain: One thing that lots of people have been thinking about a lot for a very long time is what players should be doing with all the money they make on their adventures. Especially in a campaign where XP are gained from finding treasure to mechanically support the PCs’ endless hunger for more gold, the whole thing becomes increasingly less believable if the characters are already drowning in more gold than they know what to do with. Conan is always up for an opportunity to steal some gold because he’s constantly broke. In such stories, the heroes spend their loot on wenches and ale, but enjoyment of luxuries is not something that you can really get across through the mechanics of a game. Players saying that their characters go on a massive tavern crawl after an adventure is maybe fun once or twice, but stops feeling rewarding after that. A stronghold is a great way to drain the coffers of the PCs. Every expansion or upgrade to their base costs money, and all the guards and staff need to be constantly paid for. The wages are pretty cheap, but if you include proper tracking of time (without a meaningful campaign is impossible, as you know) then all the time that the PCs are spending in the wilderness while searching for ruins, days spend healing from injuries, weeks spend learning new spells and creating potions, and whole months stuck inside waiting for the end of winter, this all adds up.

Merchant Access: This is related to the aspect of Supply Depots above. Once the players have established their stronghold and have to make regular runs to the next town for considerable amounts of supplies (all those hirelings need to eat), they can become important enough customers for traveling merchants to make detours to sell their goods to the PCs. Maybe not with whole wagons, but at least with a handful of mules. In addition to regular supplies, such merchants can have a number of special items for sale that the players might be interested in, like potions or maps, and also provide the players with new rumors when they are away from civilization for long.

Trouble with the Neighbors: Even with solid fortifications and mercenary guards, the treasures and supplies inside a strongholds will attract all kinds of people and creatures. Some might be out to raid the place, while others might simply not appreciate newcomers in their territory. The possibilities for adventures beyond the default treasure hunting are endless, without the typical situation of sending the players to chase after prepared adventures. Pacifying the surroundings is a good way to let the players be proactive and deal with situations in whatever ways they come up with, without giving them a villain with a plan they have to stop before it is too late.

What a Stronghold should not be for

Economy Sim: As I mentioned earlier, managing your resources and working out production systems can be a lot of fun if you’re playing by yourself on a computer, but just isn’t something that works as a roleplaying game. Adding a smithy to your stronghold or constructing a wind powered water pump for your well can be fun and exciting, but I think it really shouldn’t turn into a resource management game.

Generating Income: In Kenshi, I started my first base as a small mining camp to simply mine ore, smelt it into metal plates, and sell them in the next town to make money with which I would buy anything else I need, such as food and medicine. Getting your stronghold self-sufficient and even profitable is a fun idea, but that would go directly against the overall premise of the campaign and one of the main purposes for having a base. The upkeep costs for having the stronghold is meant to provide the financial pressure to keep the PCs going into dungeon to search for more treasure. The strongold being a source of money instead of a giant money sink would work completely opposite to that. While being landowners with servants working for them can be a fun idea for some roleplaying games, it just doesn’t fit here.

Seat of Government: Related to the point above, becoming the biggest dog on a stretch of the frontier and clearing the surrounding land for settlement can be a great motivation for characters. But once you get into that kind of stuff, there’s not going to be much room or time for continuing to go dungeon crawling. You could still go into underground places to fight the enemies of your domain, but then you end up with a completely different type of gameplay from sneaking around in the dark to steal treasure without alerting the inhabitants.

This as a broad overview of where my thought are on this subject at the moment. We’ll see if I’ll get around to put further work into this and develop it into some kind of system with established mechanics and procedures.

Discovering Sites in the Wilderness

I’m a big fan of wilderness sandbox campaigns, but never been really enthusiastic about the hexcrawling approach, in the sense of “go from hex to hex until you find something”. A 6-mile hex is something like 80 km². Even a large castle might not be noticed while simply moving through such an area, and if the area is forest or mountains, you would have to run straight into it. Spending some amount of time to search a hex to see if you discover something also doesn’t seem convincing to me. If you’re a treasure hunter, you wouldn’t just pick a random spot in the wilderness and start searching it with a fine comb. That takes way too long to find anything of interest. What I believe adventurers would do is trying to make their way to sites that they already know about and that look promising for holding treasure.

Under this approach to adventuring, the players first need to have clues where to look for treasure and adventure. So here’s a couple of ways that PCs can learn of new sites to add to their own map.

Highly Visible: Castles and watchtowers are commonly build on high points where they can overlook a lot of the surrounding areas. Sites like that could be spotted by simply being in the same hex they are in. Or in particularly clear terrain, even by being in a hex next to it. Though if the site is hidden among trees or mountains, it would remain hidden even party is moving through the same hex.

Sites on Roads and Rivers: If a site is directly on an old road or a river that the party is using for navigation, the players discover it automatically when they pass that spot. In some cases, it might even make sense to road signs or something similar point the players that something worth investigating lies down a side path from the road the party is currently traveling on.

Found Maps: Players can find maps among the treasures they pick up which show some sites that are known to them, and some sites that are not. This allows them to go search for and discover the new locations by following the clues on the map. They could also buy maps from certain individuals, or be given a map as a reward from grateful NPCs.

Rumors and Quests: Locals simply tell the party about sites they know but are not on most maps. This also provides the players with some vague idea of what they might have to deal with when they get there.

Following Tracks: After a random encounter, if the players try to follow fleeing enemies or follow their trail to where defeated enemies came from, the tracks can lead them to a nearby site where the creatures have their lair. If no matching site is anywhere nearby on the GM’s map, a quick lair can be put together with a small cave or campsite plan and rolling up a lair encounter by the wilderness encounter rules.

By using all five of these methods to give players hints where they can find new sites they didn’t yet know about, it should be quite easy to make it all feel quite natural and a consequence of the players’ actions, rather than the GM deciding the party needs a new site to be send to. It’s not a big red glowing sign telling the players “the next prepared adventure is here”.