Woodland Vales: An Introduction

This might be the first post in a potentially long running series. Or I might lose interest after a week or two and not much more comes from it. Hard to say at this point.

What this is

For a good while now, I’ve been pondering and tinkering with various ideas for a kind of sandbox campaign that would be best suited to really bring out what I consider the strengths and most interesting design of my Kaendor setting and emphasizes the aspects of sandbox play that I always found the most intriguing. What I am aiming for is a structure and set of mechanics and procedures that combines the Basic/Expert D&D dungeon and wilderness exploration system by Tom Moldvay and the concept of players establishing a domain in the wilderness, with the West Marches approach to player proactivity by Ben Robbins, the Points of Light worldbuilding paradigm, and various inspirations from the Hill Cantons posts by Chris Kutalik. And yes, this all sounds extremely 2011.

What this series is going to be about is to take all these elements that people have used very effectively in the past and turn them into one unified system that is simplified and streamlined enough that even someone with ADHD like me can run it entirely from memory without having to cross-reference any tables or do any kind of calculations in the middle of play. I think that I had already some 90% of all the mechanics and procedures well worked out over the last couple of years, and mostly this will be me putting all of that mess into an orderly and coherent form that other people can understand and actually use for their own games, or adapt it in parts.

The big question when doing something like this is always whether you are going to present the readers with the finished product that they can use and reference during play, or to take them to the entire design process and explain in detail what all of the moving parts do and my reasoning for making them the way they are which would be immensely useful for people who want to further tinker with it to adapt it to their own needs and purposes? In my over-abundant enthusiasm, I decided that I want to try doing both. This series of posts will go with the later approach first. While I think my ideas are pretty cool, I don’t have expectations that this will turn into the next surprise breakout hit book for sandbox campaigns among the DIY Elfgame crowd. But I know that there are plenty of people who love tinkering with this stuff like I do and that there is a real audience interested in just talking shop. Even if I end up not having the stamina to see this through to the end, individual posts about the design process of specific elements will still be of some use to some people.

What it’s for

The overall campaign concept for which these Woodland Vales systems are being designed is based around an Iron Age society of scattered farming villages that cluster around a main hill forts that serves as the central market town and stronghold of the local big man.These islands of early civilization are separated from each other and surrounded by true primordial wilderness of dark forests, vast swamplands, and treacherous mountains. Traveling merchants move between towns with boats and rafts across a network of rivers or with caravans of pack animals along a few established trails through the woods. Throughout the wilderness and the scattered valleys of farmland are the ruins of ancient  civilizations of inhuman sorcerers, many of which hold the hidden lairs of dangerous monsters or treacherous magical curses that keep people far away from them, but also occasional ancient treasures that are an irresistible lure for foolish young warriors and reckless vagabonds.

Civilization is a fairly small affair in these Woodland Vales, and many of the clearings and valleys that could be suitable for farming have never been settled or been abandoned after some calamity befell their people. The old keeps and crumbling castles of their former lords and chiefs often become home to monsters or bandits, making these vales dangerous places to move through. But many of them could still hold great potential for settlement and various resources that could be of great value, if someone were to drive out those threats and secure their boundaries.

The player characters in a Woodland Vales campaign are assumed to be adventurous warriors and scoundrels, or curious and ambitious scholars and apprentice sorcerers lured by the promises of riches and ancient secrets. The intention behind the mechanics is to strongly incentivize players to establish temporary or permanent bases on the very edges of the inhabited vales that will serve as their base camps for the exploration of the surrounding unsettled valleys. Resource management goes beyond counting torches and arrows, and includes taking caravans of pack animals to a nearby town to stock their base with supplies for weeks of exploration and possibly maintain hold of the surrounding area throughout the winter. This will require large numbers of hirelings to both maintain the base and defend it while the PCs are gone for days or even weeks to roam through the forests and descend into caves and ruins. It is up to the players to chose between expanding one of their bases into a proper stronghold and recruit people to build farms under their protection, or to keep moving to other borderland valleys and establishing a new base camp there. Either way, this is a process that is meant to start in the early game and not to be locked away behind some arbitrary experience threshold once there are no more challenging monsters to be found.

As owners of a stronghold (or perhaps several keeps owned by different PCs?), there is also a lot of room to go into a more political game of dealing with the other big men of the region and making allies to stand again common foes. Mass Battles are something that I can very much see as being a thing in this kind of campaign environment, for which a simple wargame system like De Bellis Antiquitatis could quite easily be added on to the RPG rules for Player Characters. But what I want to avoid is to turn campaigns into games of tax accounting or granular base building where you have to count the silver pieces for the furnishing of individual rooms. Owning a stronghold should be a game of making meaningful decisions and dealing with new kinds of dramatic conflict. While managing your resources to establish how many troops you actually can field when it comes to a battle is of course important, I believe that the amount of number crunching should be limited to as low as absolutely possible.

3 thoughts on “Woodland Vales: An Introduction”

  1. Hoping to see more of this! Which are the inspirational post at Hill Cantons that you’ve mentioned?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *