Using 30-mile hexes

Everyone knows that Hexagons are Bestagons, and that the 6-mile hex really is the only size that makes sense for wilderness travel. But since the dawn of RPG time, the 30-mile hex has also always been around and keeps showing up from time to time.

As someone who thinks that hexes are best used as a tool to approximate the length of a winding path between two points without having to fight with a measuring tape instead of treating it as a “wilderness room”, I always found the use of 6-mile hexes very compelling. Most wilderness travel will be something like 12 to 24 miles per day and you can easily set up a travel speed system where any overland movement will only be in full 6-mile hexes with no fractions and remainders. (And by you, I mean me.) Going smaller than that with the hexes becomes pointlessly granular, and bigger hexes become less useful for tracking daily travel. The 30-mile hex is way too big for travel tracking, and if you think the 6-mile hex is ridiculously big to hide just one encounter, then 30 miles is just ludicrous.

However, I was once again struggling with frustration about not having a clear image of how I want to handle the contrast between wilderness and civilization in the Kaendor sandbox I am still working on. And it occurred to me that perhaps I could make the city states much smaller and treat them as being on the same scale as individual barbarian tribes that live spread out over several villages in a limited area. And I think the 30-mile hex might actually be a really good unit for the territory claimed and mostly controlled by a mid-sized town or a tribe.

Example made from my 6-mile hex Savage Frontier map.

A 30-mile hex with the main settlement in the center means an area with a radius of 15 miles. That’s about the distance that you can travel with cargo in a day in pre-modern times. (Though of course express messengers can go much further than that.) This allows people from the outer edges of the area to travel to the central main settlement in a day, stay for the night, do their business in the morning, and make it back home before nightfall. Historically, towns organically grew to be spread out at half that radius for their respective area of influence so people could make it back home on the same day. But that’s for medieval Europe or the early American colonies. For a sparsely populated setting and in a frontier context, I think 30 miles should be very suitable. (In a more densely populated and developed setting, 10-mile hexes could be very useful too, though.)

I think that a 30-mile hex also makes for a good size for a forest or swamp in a sandbox. Each 30-mile hex contains 18 6-mile hexes and 12 half-hexes. Assigning 24 hexes to a geographic region with shared environmental conditions and using the same wandering monsters tables seems like a pretty good size if the campaign is about traveling to spread out ruins instead of clearing hexes where every hex contains a thing.

Old-School Essentials as a D&D alternative for D&D

In just the last week, I had three encounters with people voicing their unhappiness with essentially the same  issue they see with “D&D”.  (By which I assume they mean 5th edition in particular.) I only now got around to watching Matt Colville’s video Why Are We Fighting? last weekend, but I think his previous video What Are Dungeons For? also talks about the same fundamental issue. Then there was the thread Structural Flaw of the D&D Combat System on Enworld on Monday, and then this morning I saw this post on Mastodon.

And every time I was thinking “This issue had been figured out 40 years ago. This is a solved problem!”

I wanted to write an article about why people should consider Old-School Essentials as a system for roleplaying campaigns about wilderness exploration a few weeks back, but gave up when I couldn’t get even just the introduction down to under 2,000 words after several attempts. But now seeing several people independently voicing frustration with what I see the same fundamental issue with “modern D&D”, I really want to tell more people about a possible great match for their needs that has been hiding right under their noses by preconceptions about “old D&D” and “dungeon crawling”. Yes, OSE is both that, but in my opinion the rules are also a fantastic system for combat light, high tension, interaction heavy, semi-freeform adventures about exploring strange and magical underground environments and journeys through fantastical wildernesses.

Background and Origin of the Rules

When Dungeons & Dragons came out in the 70s, it was considered a huge success within the sphere of an established wargaming hobby. But whatever qualities Gygax may have had as a game designer, he really did very poorly as a technical writer and editor. Both the original D&D game that was more a collection of reference tables for people who had been taught the game in person, and the greatly expanded AD&D game a few years later are among the most difficult games to get into just because of the big hurdle of simply deciphering what the explanations are trying to say. To make D&D more accessible to a wider audience, Tom Moldvay created the Basic Rules that were a drastically cut down version of AD&D with only four human classes, a single class for dwarves, elves, and halflings each, and only covered the first three experience levels. At the same time, David Cook put together the Expert rules that had the expanded class tables up to 14th level, more spells for higher levels, more monsters and magic items, and also the rules for outdoor scenarios. They both did a great job in creating a much more compact version of AD&D and making it vastly more accessible, and the Basic and Expert rules became a massive commercial success, now usually simply known as B/X. Two years later, the B/X rules got a new edition that was still mostly the same game, but also got the Companion expansion and later the Master and Immortal rules, which led to it being known as BECMI.

When WotC created 3rd edition and released it in 2000, the new game was very much an evolution of AD&D 2nd edition with the alternative BECMI system being largely forgotten and unknown to people like me who only got into D&D at that time. But the compact and lightweight nature of the original 1981 B/X rules made it particularly well suited to using it as the starting framework for heavy modifications and it became the default standard for OSR creators trying out more experimental things that drifted increasingly further away from the conventions of D&D during the early 2010. While the original Basic and Expert rules are still available as pdfs, getting print versions in good conditions after 40 years is of course getting only more difficult, and while having the Expert rules separate from the Basic rules is really quite useful when learning the game, it’s a bit inconvenient to have spells, magic items, and monsters in two different books.

Old-School Essentials was created to address both these issues by combining the material from both books into a single text and putting it back into print. But in regards to the content of the rules, OSE and B/X are identical, with the one exception that the books have the attack bonuses and AC values for using the modern attack roll system of “d20 + bonuses vs AC” listed in all tables and description, alongside the original TSR system of attack tables. So if you want to use the modern (superior!) system, you don’t have to make the conversion yourself as with other retroclones and have the numbers you need right in the book.

Roleplaying Dungeon Crawling

Now, finally (after 800 words) to the main subject of this article. What makes OSE an interesting alternative to modern D&D for people who have gotten bored and frustrated with the slog of endless and mindless combat and are looking for something that makes exploration fun and exciting and has a stronger focus on interacting with the environment and the people and creatures that inhabit it?

On a first look at the rules (it’s all available online as an SRD), OSE seems a really strange choice for that purpose. It’s all about dungeon crawling and the rules for PC actions mostly just cover combat and spells and almost nothing else. There are no skills and no rules for social interactions. And the XP system is all about collecting as much gold coins and possible. That sound more like a hack and slash dungeon crawler than a roleplayin game. This seems worse than 5th and 3rd edition in those regards, not better.

One of the issues raised in one of the two videos I linked to above talks about how WotC was very successful in getting D&D established as the game that can be everything to all people. And in the process, their editions turned into a game that isn’t actually about anything specific. What is D&D about? What is the goal? How are individual mechanics set up to further that goal? These games provide mechanics to do a lot of things, but they don’t have a structure. Borrowing a term from videogame design, they have no gameplay loops. That makes the rules flexible and easy to adapt to many different kinds of campaign. But in turn they lack mechanics that specifically support the kind of adventures you have picked from your campaign by providing structures that take work of the GM’s shoulders and help players to be more proactive. I believe that much of the burden on the GM when it comes to preparing adventures and moving things along, and what can make playing D&D feel like a slog that drags on to players, comes from this lack of mechanical support for specific adventure styles.

The rules of Old-School Essentials all come together as a game that is designed with a very clear focus: It’s a game in which the PCs go into old ruins in the wilderness and face their many dangers to return with hauls of gold and other riches.

This does of course greatly reduce the possibilities of what kinds of adventures you can run with OSE. If you want to run a game in which dungeons do not take a central role and you are not interested in playing characters who are searching for riches in the face of great danger, then OSE does not have much to offer to you. But what the system of interdependent mechanics and procedures does provide is very strong support to make such explorations of strange undergrounds in mysterious wildernesses a game of great adventure in which the players are in charge of their fates and their choices determine what paths their stories will take. In many ways, I would even argue that OSE is a game for campaigns that are more similar to Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark than to the adventures and campaigns published for modern D&D.

Most of the quirks of early D&D need to be looked at in the context of adventures the game wants to produce and how this mechanic interacts with the other rules that make up the whole system. In most RPGs I’ve read over the years now, mechanic seem to be created to figure out what die to roll when a player wants to do a specific action. But the old B/X rules used by OSE are much more clever than that. You don’t just have mechanics to make dice roles for actions, you also have procedures that create situations and structure that give players the means to chart their own course instead of having to pick between two choices that the GM offers to them. All of these elements create a unified system in the strictest sense of the word, where every mechanic influences several others, and together they create results that you wouldn’t immediately expect if you just look at individual mechanics in isolation from the others. How this works is what I’ll be trying to explain in the rest of this article.

Credit goes mostly to Gus L’s Classic Dungeon Crawl series and Joseph Manola’s General Purpose posts. Everything about all of this I only know because they explained it.

XP for Gold is actually briliant

When I first heard that in older editions of D&D characters gained experience and advanced in levels based on the amount of treasure they collect around 2004, I thought that this was the dumbest rule that I had ever heard of. How is the amount of gold in your purse connected to getting better at swordfighting or learning more powerful spells? Getting better at playing lute from fighting monsters also doesn’t make much sense, but XP for gold seemed like a much more terrible mechanic.

What really is the purpose of XP? The reason why we want to reward certain actions and behaviors with XP but don’t give XP for others is to nudge the players to seek out opportunities to engage in those actions. When we are playing a campaign based on a premise that the PCs will have adventures similar to a certain type of fiction, then we want to create a lot of situations in the campaign that match that premise. OSE is a game about characters going into old ruins in the wilderness to search for treasure. By giving the players XP reward for collecting treasures and putting those treasures into old ruins, the players will automatically end up going to lots of dungeons and exploring them from top to bottom. And at no point do you have to make the decision as the GM what you want the players to do next. All you have to do is to make sure that there are several dungeons (could just be three) that have more than one path to explore them. The players are allowed to do anything they want and can think of, but by letting them know that they will be rewarded if they can bring treasure out of a dungeon,  they always know something that they can do next if there is currently nothing else pressing to them.

Another great thing about giving most XP for treasure but only little XP for defeating enemies (Moldvay recommends to aim for 3/4 XP from treasure and 1/4 XP from creatures when filling dungeons with content) is that it separates the questions of whether it is worth it to risk a deadly fight and whether they want to try getting a treasure they can see ahead. As Obi-Wan Kenobi once said “There are alternatives to fighting”. This is super important. By playing the emphasis on returning with treasure over defeating enemies in battle, you introduce the whole concept of stealing treasures through trickery rather than killing their guardians. This is something that gets completely lost in games where XP for defeating enemies is the default way to advance characters. As players, we always want XP. And if we only get XP by fighting monsters, we seek out fights with monsters. As many fights as possible. If a monster seems to strong to defeat it, then we probably plan to come back later when we’re stronger and get the XP then. Monsters not fought are XPs left unclaimed! And that is where the Murderhobo spawns as the only logical consequence.

In the OSE rules, it is assumed that monsters have their treasures stashed away in their lairs and don’t carry them on their bodies. You can sneak past the monster, lure it away, or distract it otherwise to get at its treasure without having to fight it at all. And perhaps even more importantly, wandering monsters that players run into in random encounters don’t have a treasure stash at all. This makes random encounters something you want to avoid. Random encounters have all the risk of losing health and spells and perhaps even characters getting killed, but don’t provide any meaningful rewards in the form of XP. In contrast, when combat is the primary source of XP, then random encounters are extra XP that come to you.

XP for treasure creates a kind of fiction in the game that is very different from post-Dragonlance D&D. In this game the PCs are treasure hunters, not monster slayers. And this allows you to present them with enemies that are actually scary instead of having to limit the dungeon to only monsters that do not pose a real threat. It’s now a survival game in which it makes sense to sneak past enemies and run away from them, and doing so can actually be an efficient way to gain XP faster than a form of failure and giving up.

Encumbrance is important

Encumbrance is one of the most hated mechanics in RPG. And for good reasons. Having to add the weight of each item you pick up to your total and subtracting the weight of every item you use up or throw away is a lot of bookkeeping. And inevitably there will be mistaken and then you have to do a full weight count of every item on your character sheet all over again. This sucks, this is terrible. And people are completely justified to not want to deal with it. Thankfully, there are much better ways to track how much stuff characters are carrying and how much it slows them down by making weights a little bit more abstract. Because having travel speed affected by how much gear the characters carry is serving an extremely important function in the greater exploration system. I believe people not bothering with calculating encumbrance because the rules in the books are too annoying was the first loose stone that made the entire complex exploration system of D&D collapse and disappear in later editions.

In the dungeon exploration and wilderness travel rules of OSE, random encounters are checked at specific intervals of time. The amount of random encounters a party will have depends on how much time they spend in a dungeon or how long it takes to reach the destination of a journey. And this depends entirely on how fast the party can travel. Ideally, you always want to travel as fast as possible to minimize the amount of random encounters. But a light load with no speed penalty really doesn’t let you carry a lot of things. You need your weapons and your armor. You also need food and water. You will need torches, lamp oil and arrows. You probably also want to have someone in the party having a rope or two, and crowbars, sledgehammers, shovels, and so on. Also sleeping bags and tents. And on top of all of that, while you are exploring the dungeon and make the journey back to the surface and then home, you’ll be increasingly loaded down by all the heavy treasures you collected.

If you bring too much, you get too much slowed down, have lots of random encounters, and might die. If you bring too little and things don’t work out just as planned, you might run out of supplies necessary to survive and will have to make detours or take greater risks. Perhaps you could leave things you no longer need in the dungeon behind to make more room for treasure you want to carry home. But then, who knows if you’re really not going to need them during the return journey?

There are no correct answers to these questions, and that’s what makes encumbrance such a brilliant mechanic in the exploration system. It creates constant tension and permanent doubt, and there are infinite possible combination for your characters loadout. It is also what will create situations in which the characters are dangerously low on certain supplies and force the players to go on unplanned side adventures to get water or stumble around blindly in the dark. Or at least have the party race through the tunnels in panic as their last remaining torch keeps getting dangerously low. Exploration as an adventure does not work without encumbrance.

Also, the amount of gold character need to gain new levels at the higher levels increase exponentially and pretty soon reach ridiculous levels. Even if the party has a bag of holding or two, the hauls at higher level get so big that it can take dozens of mules to carry all the stuff in one go. And the mules can also help a lot with carrying all the supplies that players might want to bring on a longer journey. Of course, you can’t take all these mules inside of dungeons and when left alone any bandit or griffon passing by can just snatch them up and be on their way. So the players probably will have to hire mercenaries to guard the supply train. And maybe get some retainers to look over the mercenaries while their PCs are gone inside the dungeon for hours on end.

Reaction Rolls and Morale Checks

The reaction roll is something that has disappeared from D&D long ago and I absolutely have no idea why. I assume its part of the fallout of the Dragonlance transformation that turned RPGs from players developing campaigns through their actions and choices as they went into a medium of adventure writers and GMs narrating a written out stories to the players. But together with dropping XP for treasure but keeping XP for defeating enemies, dropping the reaction roll is one of the main things that creates the murderhobo phenomenon and makes it pretty much inevitable.

In the OSE rules, monsters and NPCs encountered in a room or as wandering encounters have no default disposition towards the PCs. When the type of the creature or its placement really only allows for one plausible reaction of the monsters, then that’s what happens. For example an ancient crypt in which the dead bodies have risen as zombies. What else could they do but attack the living and try eating their brains? Or randomly encountering a group of guard looking for intruders into the castle? Of course they will tell the PCs to drop their weapons and get arrested. But those situation are generally rare and meant to be the exception. Normally, when creatures are encountered in rooms or wandering, a reaction roll is made.

Now as much as I praised Moldvay and Cook for making the D&D rules more accessible and easy to comprehend, the explanation of the different results for a reaction roll are super vague. There’s really only one or two words for each number with no elaboration on how that might look in practice. It’s also not quite clear how a character’s Charisma modifier to reaction rolls is supposed to be applied. (But I do have an idea how you can do it.) But having spend some time with that section of the rules, I think the following is really just the only thing that makes sense for what was originally intended.

  • There is a 3% chance that the creatures see the party and immediately charges at them and try to kill them.
  • There is a 25% chance that the creatures have a problem with the PCs being there and will threaten them to leave the area, try to rob them, or otherwise make demands on what the players will have to do to not have it devolve into a fight.
  • There is a 44% chance that the creatures are undecided on what to do and wait to see what the PCs are doing next, perhaps followed by another roll with a modifier based on the PCs behavior.
  • There is a 25% chance that the creatures want to avoid a fight and will try to negotiate with the PCs or retreat from the area to avoid violence.
  • And finally there is a 3% chance that the creatures see the PCs as welcomed guest and offer to provide information and assistance as it is within their means.

Say the PCs run into a group of bandits and the reaction roll makes them friendly. The bandits could mistake the PCs as new member of their gang or visitors they were expecting. Or they could assume the PCs have come to see their leader and join them. Or they are having a problem and think the PCs are another group of bandits and they could join forces to deal with the threat and split the spoils. Imagine the players encounter an ogre in his cave and he offers them pieces of his roasted halfling over the fire? That would be a very interesting situation for players to respond to.

Morale checks have lingered around much longer, but I’ve never really seen them given any real attention. Even back in B/X they were listed as optional, but they really serve a very important function. The idea is that under certain conditions, there is a chance that a group of enemies will panic and flee from a fight. The first morale check is made when the first member of a group goes down, killed or otherwise incapacitated. That’s when things suddenly become very real for everyone involved. Another check is made when a group has lost half its members. At that point, it’s generally becoming clear that the remaining ones probably won’t be surviving either. I personally also like to make morale checks when the leader or a particularly big and impressive ally of the group is killed. When a group of 12 goblins and an oger is two goblins down and the oger falls, that’s a very good reason for the goblins to reconsider their chances, even if their group is only one quarter of their fighters down. Successful morale checks of course don’t preclude the fighters to to make an informed rational decision that the fight is not worth to continue and order an organized retreat, or to offer their surrender. It just means that they don’t start blindly running away in terror.

What these two mechanics bring to the table should be very obvious. Not only is it not desirable for players to fight everything in the dungeon and the wilderness, most of the time they might not even have to and still can continue on their path without having to retreat back. It also provides many great opportunities to have interesting unplanned interactions with NPCs during explorations.

As GM, you could of course always decide what reaction towards the PCs randomly encountered creatures will have. But in my experience, in the heat of the action when all the players are looking at you eager to hear what happens with the things they just encountered, it’s just overwhelming tempting to always go with the default option that takes the least effort and can sprung into action immediately. “They attack.” By having the reaction roll as part of an established procedure for every encounter, you have a tool that always makes you at least take a moment to consider your options before settling on the easiest one. If the roll gives you a reaction and you have no clue how that could possibly work with that creature in that situation, you still always have the option to pick yourself how it should logically react. But having a dice roll always make a suggested outcome first is a very useful tool to have.

OSE might be worth a look

At 4,000 words, this is still only a look at the surface of what makes these 42 year old rules an interesting option for GMs and groups that think generic modern D&D can be a slog with too much mindless combat that takes way too much work and time to prepare for. I’m still not really happy with how this has come out and I am sure there are many more intricacies that would be worth mentioning, but I don’t think I’m going to get it much better than this in any reasonable time frame. If any of this sounds interesting and you want to know more in a lot more detail, I recommend again the Classic Dungeon Crawl series by Gus L I linked to above. He does a much better job at it, but also takes considerably more than 4,000 words.

Return to Kaendor

Y’all all don’t what real Gamer ADHD is!

Yesterday I mentioned on Mastodon that I regular keep getting new ideas every few months for what could be really cool campaigns and then losing interest in the work after a few days or weeks, but that it seems like I always keep coming back to the same Sword & Sorcery inspired setting of nature spirits and dinosaurs on an alien forest planet. People asked if there’s any place where they could read more on that world, and there really isn’t anything I could direct people to at this moment. So this post is going to be that.

Kaendor is the current incarnation of a Sword & Sorcery style campaign setting heavily inspired by the worlds of Morrowind and Dark Sun, and the visuals of classic Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian, that I’ve been tinkering and experimenting with since at least back in 2009. I’ve run three separate campaigns in that world over the years, but there have been many drastic overhauls and changes to the geography, history, cultures, and monster populations that it’s become a completely different world from its original incarnation. But looking through my old material, the jumble of ideas and fragments seems to have gained the general shape of what is now the Kaendor setting in Summer 2016 when I wrote my Project Forest Moon concept. Reading it again now, it still feels like a perfect match for what I want to accomplish with the setting.

My previous campaigns were run playing Pathfinder, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and while I wanted to run D&D Basic/Expert last time, there just wasn’t the audience for it and we ended up playing 5th edition. I had been very seriously considering Barbarians of Lemuria, Worlds Without Number, and Forbidden Lands as systems for future campaigns. But now with the considerable popularity gained by Old-School Essentials, which is reformated reprint of the B/X rules, I think it’s now much easier to get player for it. And it really is the system that Kaendor was always meant to be for.

Inspirations and References

  • A Princess of Mars
  • Albion (DOS game, 1995)
  • Bound by Flame
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Dark Sun
  • Fire and Ice (by Bakshi and Frazetta)
  • Kenshi (PC game, 2018)
  • Morrowind
  • Nausicaa
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Record of Lodoss War
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Severance: Blade of Darkness
  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne
  • X1: The Isle of Dread
  • X6: Quagmire!

Yes, this is all very 80s/early 90s. That stuff is on fire! ;)

The Environment

Kaendor is the smaller of a pair of binary planets around an orange dwarf star, the other one being a a blue gas dwarf (a type of planet now known to be common in the universe, but with no example in our solar system). With the stars lower gravitational pull on the planets, a year is slightly longer at 381 days, but with another large planet in place of a moon, months are considerably shorter at only 16 days. (Leading to two 8-days weeks per months.) With the gas planet casting a much larger shadow than a smaller moon, solar eclipses are much more common on Kaendor, and many places see one or two every year, which are typical occasions for many magical rituals.

Kaendor with the gas dwarf and its orange dwarf sun in the background. (Simulated with true scales and perspective in Universe Sandbox 2.)

The surface of Kaendor is about half land and ocean, with almost all but the higher mountain ranges being covered in an endless expanse of trees, giant mushrooms, and swamps. The dominant animals on land are reptiles and insects, with many species growing to enormous sizes. Instead of birds, the skies are home to many kinds of feathered flying reptiles. Mammals are somewhat uncommon, mostly resembling rodents of many shapes and sizes, but there are also many types of deer and goats. (There are no dogs, cats, horses, or bears)

The Peoples

The common Kaendorians are very similar to humans in nature and appearance, but they don’t have any particular resemblance to any specific peoples from Earth. Giants, serpentmen, and fishmen exist, but their numbers are a far cry from what they were tens of thousands of years ago and most people never see even one of them in their entire lives. Insect-like goblins are more common, but they mostly keep to themselves and only occasionally make short visits to other settlements to trade.

Civilization on Kaendor is generally fairly small. While there are many large river valleys for civilizations to arise, there are few open plains, and clearing the ancient forests along the river banks is difficult and dangerous work with the massive scale of many old trees and the amounts of deadly animals and treacherous spirits. A few major cities exist near the coast, but mostly people live in small towns and surrounding villages scattered far and wide across the lands, in whatever small patches of farmable land can be found. The larger city states can establish some kind of centralized government over the surrounding towns and villages a few days’ ride out from their city walls, but most people are ruled over by local chiefs or tribal councils.

The technology level of Kaendor is mostly Bronze Age, with crudely made iron being only suitable for nails, cooking pots, arrowheads, and armor scales, but too fragile for weapons, tools, or chainmail. There are a few roads through the forests connecting the city states with nearby towns, but transportation of heavy goods is done almost entirely by boats over longer distances, or hauled by pack animals that can walk on narrow trails and step over roots or through mud. Wheels are only used for wheelbarrows or handcarts within towns and villages.

The Supernatural

This is an aspect of the setting that is still somewhat up in the air and I am currently undecided on how I want to nail down the specific rules for the future. In general term, all the natural forces in the environment are the actions of spirits. Most spirits of plants and stones are extremely simple beings that have no real consciousness, personality, or individual traits. They simply exist, maintaining the natural cycles of the environment through their passive influence. But the spirits of particularly ancient trees or large caves, and especially the spirits of whole forests, mountains, or island are very powerful entities that have a great awareness of everything that happens within their domains and the power to influence the environment directly to their will. However, the nature of these great spirits is completely different from that of mortals, and they perceive the world and understand events in drastically different terms. Their desires and choices lie well outside the comprehension of ordinary mortal minds and they generally have no concerns of any kind how their actions and changes to the environment affect individual people or even whole villages.

All settlements require a shaman who knows the local spirits and has at least a basic understanding of their goals and desires. The role of the shamans is to consult with the spirits to get permission to build new settlements or make any major changes to the environment and to plead with them for understanding about offenses or aid in times of hardship. They also perform the many rituals and sacrifices demanded by the spirits in return for their continued permission to settle, farm, hunt, and mine in their domains. The exact purpose of many rituals and what the spirits actually gain from them is a mystery even to many shamans, but they are not questioned as subservience to the spirits is an everyday part of life everywhere on Kaendor.

Magic that falls outside the domain of interactions with the spirits exists in the realm of sorcery and is closely tied to demons. Being part of the environment and regulating its natural processes, the power of the spirits is limited to guiding the many forces of nature, but it can not break its laws. It can control plants and the weather, accelerate healing or cause disease, or increase strength or cloud the minds of mortal creatures. Existing outside of nature and coming directly from the primordial chaos, demons are not bound to such limitations. Sorcery can do the impossible by rewriting the laws of nature and overturn the natural order, making it potentially extremely powerful. However, the natural world is extremely complex with everything influencing and affecting everything else, and seemingly minor changes that disrupt the natural order can have impossible to predict consequences with wide reaching scale. Sorcery is inherently corrupting, spreading decay and sickness in everything it touches. The effects of a single spell are typically very subtle, and over time the natural order will restore itself and the damage disappear. But the continuous use of demonic chaos magic has devastating effects on both sorcerers and the lairs in which they perform their spells and rituals. The transformation into ghouls is the first stage of the effects of continuous exposure to sorcerous spells or corrupted environment. At that point there is rarely any hope for victims of returning to their former selves, and the only paths ahead if the effects of sorcery persists are numerous forms of true undeath.

This has to be the most ridiculous adventure premise I’ve ever seen

The D&D adventure Journey to the Rock has a reputation of being really bad. It’s not as infamous as The Forest Oracle or Castle Greyhawk, since it’s just really bland and forgettable, but it’s really bad.

The party takes one of three different paths to get to the Rock. So they’ll only get to see one third of the adventure. Because when they reach the Rock itself, it only has a single room inside. Which is a giant empty room. 240 by 350 feet with a 350 feet dome. On one wall are seven chests and four statues. The statues will attack the party, but only if the party is strong, has most of its hit points, and most of their magic still available. Otherwise they are just normal statues. There is a stupid puzzle and if the players pick the wrong chest, they are teleported out the door and have to go back empty handed. If they pick the right chest with the MacGuffin, the quest giver will teleport them back to his house. That’s the whole adventure.

But it has backstory! Which is just ridiculous.

Many thousands of years ago, a great magical city was under attack by forces of Chaos, and when things started to look desperate, the rulers decided have two of their best escape the city and go into hiding until they could continue the fight. To make sure one of them could not reveal the identity of the other if captured, the two were given their mission secretly and not told who the other person was. But the two would be able to find each by being given two halves of an amulet that would make them both immortal and grant them great magical powers to fight Chaos, but whose magic could not be used by anyone else.

Eventually all the people of the city were banished to another dimension and the city itself was forgotten.

One half of the amulet was hidden away in a secret chamber in the Rock. The forces of Chaos learned that one half of the Amulet was hidden in the Rock but couldn’t get to it, so they laid a spell over the entrance that would prevent its owner from going inside.

Now this millennia old immortal wizard decides he needs to get his half of the amulet from the Rock to find the other immortal who escaped from the city so they could start finding a way to rescue their people from that other dimension. And to break the barrier that has been preventing him from going inside the Rock himself, he hires 6 to 8 adventurers of 1st to 3rd level.

Actually, his servant hires them. The wizard himself never comes out of his laboratory and does not reveal anything about who he is, what the amulet is, and what he needs it for to anyone. The players will never know any of that and it has no relevance to the adventure at all. Which is a good thing, because it makes no fucking sense!

As in the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the person producing this should have immediately been sacked. And the person responsible for sacking him should also have been sacked.

I do like the cover, though…

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”

Flipping again through Ghostwalk

Ghostwalk came out in 2003, three years after the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition and just before the new revised rulebooks came out. It’s a book that I see getting mentioned every other year or so and that always seems to be fondly remembered by a few people. However, in the almost 20 years since its release now, I have never heard of even a single person mentioning a campaign or even just a one-shot adventure that was actually played in this setting. Looking through some other early 3rd edition stuff these last days, and thinking about games with this system that I always wanted to run but never actually did, had me of course reminded of Ghostwalk.

The whole idea behind Ghostwalk is that characters who die on their adventures aren’t simply gone from the campaign unless the party can arrange for the characters to be resurrected with a raise dead spell, but instead continue their adventures as a ghost. That alone was a big draw for me when this book was announced, and I was actually surprised when it turned out to be a campaign setting. It’s centered around a city of the dead outside the gateway to the afterlife, with some brief additional information about the surrounding lands. That sounds quite cool, but it never managed to get me even starting on a preliminary concept for an actual campaign, and from everything I’ve seen about the setting since then, very few other people did either.

So I sat down again with the book, and after literally decades since I first read it, tried to find my footing again with the basics of the world and what kinds of adventures it is setting up. And as it turns out, for a 220 page book, there is stunningly little in the way of material that would inspire adventure. When you first hear the idea of a land where the dead don’t actually die, it might sound really cool and make you want to know more. But there really doesn’t seen to be much more.

The central nexus of the setting is the gateway to the afterlife, though which all the souls of dead people have to cross. As these souls are getting close to the gateway, they start to gain the traits of ghost, gaining the ability to be seen and heard, manipulate physical objects, and eventually take on a semi-solid form. Most souls simply pass through the gateway right away, but some hesitate out of a fear of the unknown beyond, or because there is something in the world of the living that they can’t make themselves leave unfinished. And so, over the ages, a whole city has risen up around, and now high above the gateway. Populated by the ghosts who are struggling with the fear of what awaits them in true death or hoping that someone from their past life will try to meet them in the city of Manifest to settle the things that keep them. Because the existence of the city is well known in the surrounding lands and people frequently make the journey in the hope of being able to talk with the dead one more time before they are truly gone.

Where things get a bit muddled is that there is also the practice of taking the bodies of the dead to the gateway to reunite them with their souls in the afterlife. This is where the whole thing starts to feel implausible to me. Is the gateway in Manifest the only one in the world? From how far away are the spirits of the dead coming to pass through it and perhaps linger outside of it for some months or years? Does all the world know about its existence, or is this something known only in the neighboring countries? Is it a local custom to try sending the bodies into the afterlife as well or a global thing? Is it something for the super rich and powerful, or is it a common practice for everyone but the poorest? What about the people who just get buried in this world? Are they condemned to an eternal afterlife in an incomplete state? The idea of having these funeral processions from distant lands coming through the streets of the city every day is very evocative, but it feels really not thought through.

And what about conflicts? The main antagonists that the setting describes are the Yuan-ti. Yuan-ti abominations are not humanoids and as such don’t have spirits that travel to the gateway and manifest as ghosts. And because of that the yuan-ti want to destroy the city. That’s not enough of a motivation for villains outside of superhero comics and it doesn’t really give you anything to work with then coming up with adventures. Necromancers are hated but also really interested in the city, but I wasn’t really able to find out why. What about the ghosts? They populate the city and mingle with the living, but what kind of things would they be up to that could set up an adventures for PCs?

And beneath the city is a giant maze of old ruins called the Catacombs. But if the city is build around a gateway to the afterlife and people bring bodies to the city to move then through it, why does the city have catacombs? Maybe it’s just a name, but a city of the dead with giant catacombs that don’t actually have any dead bodies in them would be kind of lame. Also, what do the living people who build the city around the gateway actually do there? The dead don’t need any of the things that a normal economy provides for the living. Is it all about catering to the living travelers coming to drop of a body or hope to catch a ghost before it departs?

What really amazes me is how this book manages to reach 220 pages. There is so much text that goes on an on about things without actually saying anything interesting. The rules for ghost characters also seem way too complicated. This book has over 80 new feats. Nobody needs that.

In hindsight, I can fully understand why you never hear about anyone ever having played a campaign in Ghostwalk or used the rules for semi-dead PCs.

The elevator pitch sounds like something that could be made into something really interesting. When I picked the book up again, I was thinking that this could be a great opportunity to make a campaign that draws heavily on the Dark Souls and Legacy of Kain series. And while that still seems like it could be a cool campaign, I think all the work needed to make that interesting would leave very little of the setting material that is actually present in the book.