The Pencil is mightier than the Board

You know all these kids these days, with their battle maps, miniatures, and VTTs? I think it’s one of the worst aspects in which RPGs have gone into the completely wrong as they developed, following right behind the total mistake of adventure paths, campaign books, and “telling a story” (the curse of Dragonlance).

It’s gonna be this kind of post.

Now I am not that old. I actually played way more videogames than I’ve run RPGs in my life, and been doing it for much longer. Baldur’s Gate was my first introduction to D&D, and in my early days as a GM I spend way more time as one of the admins on a German Neverwinter Nights server than playing at a table with my first group. It’s not that I am opposed to any of that on principle. But in my opinion, when it comes to playing an RPG with character sheets and dice, and having a thinking GM running the show, all this stuff like highly detailed battlemaps and fancy looking tokens don’t actually work as visual aids, but instead are serious distractions from the game.

This also doesn’t have anything to do with 5th edition or how kids these days are playing the game. The whole issue goes back to at least the launch of 3rd edition over two decades ago, when the game was designed from the ground up to revolve around position markers on a square grid. (Which was a really strong incentive to entice players to give the publisher more money for miniatures, which were already a money printing machine for Warhammer at that point.) But it seems to me that even with 5th edition significantly cutting back on that as the game mechanics are concerned, all the tools available to make very impressive looking maps yourself, various brands of plastic dungeon floors and walls being around, and the ease with which people can show of images of all swag (I know, “old man”…) seem to have made all this stuff much more prominent.

But my stance is that all this superfluous stuff does not make your campaigns better, but instead detracts from them. It might very well be that this perception is impacted significantly by how ADD affects the brain processes information, but to me, highly detailed battlemaps or fancy toy soldiers don’t inspire my imagination. Instead, they lead to a greater abstraction and create distance and detachment from the scene. I am very much in favor of running adventures with basically an empty table. To me, the table is a surface to roll dice and put your papers down to write. Indoor maps can – and should – be nothing more than a simple sketch to communicate the general layout of the area when explaining it verbally woul be too cumbersome, and regional maps are best handled as props in the form of sheets on paper that look like someone in the game world drew them by hand.

Ingame map from Thief.

The less visual input you get from stuff that is on the table, the more the mind is encouraged to create an environment in your head that reflects the details in the GM’s description of what you see. At least in my own personal experience, when you shove tokens around on a square grid, you start perceiving the encounter as a logic puzzle that is to be solved by computing an optimal sequence of moves.

Something like this looks very fancy and perhaps even evocative. When you first look at it, you might even start imagining for a moment what the place would look like if you were a person stepping into it through a door. But as the encounter progresses, all of that color that hints at an environment starts to fade away, and the only thing you really keep seeing is the grid lines and the barriers that block ranged attacks and spells. Because those lines are what is relevant information if you play like that. The grind lines are the signals, while the colors that hint at a stunning and memorable environment are  only noise.

To take the most extreme case, who ever imagines the battlefield, hordes of peasant levies, mounted knights, and war elephants that are represented on a chess board? It doesn’t happen. They are simply a grid on a board and abstract tokens that can be moved within certain rules. And even when you have the action of a fantasy RPG being connected to a non-mechanical story, I see this mental process of abstraction happen all the time. In an RPG, encounters should be scenes. They should not be logic puzzles. Or as someone phrased it many years ago, “don’t look for solutions to obstacles on your character sheet”. That’s not what RPGs are supposed to be for. That’s not where their amazing unique potential lies.

Moving tokens around on a terrain map is something that goes back to wargaming before roleplaying games were ever a thing, so it’s not like there ever was a moment in which they were introduced. But wargames have a completely different intention to RPGs. Their whole point is to be an abstraction and a simulation, to play out  how battles might have turned out differently if certain tactical decisions had been made. Making things more objective was the goal for both military planners and armchair generals. Imagining yourself as an officer on a hill talking with messengers delivering reports and orders was never the goal. But that’s exactly what fantasy RPGs are about.  To imagine yourself stepping through great ancient gates, or descending down a damp stone staircase into the darkness. To see vague forms slithering in the shadows and staring into the face of a demon as it rises from a burning pit. Putting a toy demon on a square grid just doesn’t deliver that.

There are many situations where less is more. And less visual aids means a more vivid imagination. (If the GM is doing a decent job with descriptions, but that’s a different story.)

Another thing that keeps happening to me is that any time I work on a new world map, I always get fed up with whatever shiny map making program I have and keep going back to go grab a pencil and some graph paper. Not quite sure why, but the process of designing environments always goes so much better and faster by just using a pencil. I guess in some part, it might be because of the limitations of the tools. There is no choice of colors or different line strength. Putting down a line is really easy, as is adjusting one. And there is no temptation to make everything right and good looking the first time so you don’t need to redo it all later, because you know the result will be a smudgy mess and making a nice handout to show the players has to wait until all the placement decisions are locked in. I’m not even hyperbolic when I say designing maps is probably 10 times faster on paper than doing it on a computer.

Why do I never see links to All Dead Generations?

Looking back, the prime days of OSR lie now a decade behind us, and while a number of people are still around, occasionally sharing some new thought or insight every couple of months, very little of any meaningful significance is added to the discourse of B/X and AD&D that hasn’t been thoroughly examined years ago.

But one thing still does stand out that really brings something new (back) to the table that has significant value to help understanding how those old games tick and how you can make them really work without existing experience going back to the 80s. Which is Gus L’s “new” site All Dead Generations. This is an excellent resource I never really see mentioned anywhere.

When I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign a year ago, one of the realizations that I gained from it was that I just didn’t get the concept of dungeons. What a dungeon is is obvious, but I never understood how going from room to room filled with monsters and random crack-wizard puzzle-devices was supposed to be fun for anyone involved. As someone who got into D&D in the last days of 2nd edition, when the 90s Metaplot craze was still in full swing, fighting monsters in rooms never seemed like something that contributes to the plot of an adventure or a campaign. And it doesn’t. That’s one of the key things to take away from the many long pages of All Dead Generations. Thinking about a plot when going into a dungeon to explore is already the completely wrong approach. I never figured out how to make it work in 20 years, because that’s never how it was supposed to work. Dungeons & Dragons under WotC has been a cargo cult game, that emulates mechanics from the 70s and early 80s because they’ve seen these things being a major part of D&D, but with no apparent understanding of what they are for and how they work.

All Dead Generations has been a massive eye opener for me and got me super excited about an all dungeon crawl campaign just after I had given up on using dungeons in my games entirely. It’s a fantastic read for anyone who wants to understand how B/X is actually supposed to be played. And yet, nobody seems to be talking about it. I guess partly because there are few people still around who could talk about it, but to do so they’d also need to hear about it in the first place.

So here’s a big shout out to Gus. Which is a bit weird from a marginal nobody like me to one of the well known big guys of oldschool RPGs, but it is what it is. Go check out All Dead Generations.

Return of the Mapper for online games?

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

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

I have seen the light!

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

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

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

Mapping a River for pointcrawling

While tinkering further on my Rivercrawl idea, I cam up with this notation to map a huge river network.

First I made a Melan diagram of the main river branches for my river and marked the branches in different colors, which then looks like this.

I then turned the same information into a big table. Below you have a heavily cropped down version to show the principle of how it works. The real thing I made actually has 180 rows over five pages, but most are still completely empty at this point. The principle is basically the same as in Ultraviolet Grasslands, but without the illustrations. I find this easier for river that curves and fans out, compared to the more or less straight trade routes in UVG, and it also allows to make more notes without making a huge unreadable mess. As a tool for GMs to use at the table, I think this plain look isn’t a bad thing.

Getting the whole thing set up was a bit tricky, so here’s how I did it: Since I have only three main branches at any given point of the river, I made a table with seven columns. I think you could also do it with four branches and fit nine columns on one page, but more than that probably makes the thing more a nuisance to read than a help. I found that my river has seven different combinations of parallel running branches, so I made the table with seven rows as well. At this point you first set the column widths that you want, because this will be a total bitch if you try adjusting those later. After that you merge cells together as the river branches fork and meet, which in my case looked like this.

At this point, you can simple select and row and use “add rows below” or whatever your program calls it, and you should get an identical row to the one that you had selected. Then add mile markers to the leftmost row, and you’re done.

Now to the new neat feature that I actually came up with myself. The River Ratings. Each river section row has a little field on the left side that quickly shows the GM the water conditions the players are moving into. It’s fairly self-explaining when you look at the legend above. The letter says what size categories of ships can enter that section of the river. In case of my emerging setting, it’s galley size, junk size, dhow size, and canoe size. Ships larger than that will get stuck on the bottom of the river. (The width of the river or any obstacles in the water are not considered as a separate factor for the sake of convenience. Either your ship can continue on, or it gets stuck on something.) The number indicates the speed of the current. This number is added to your ship’s speed when you travel downriver, and subtracted when you travel upriver. If the speed of the current reduces your speed below 1 mile per hour, you can’t continue by water. I had been thinking to mark the type of terrain on the riverbanks as well to calculate overland speed, but that would mess the readability of this format with too much clutter. For the setting I want to make, it’s going to be “dense forest” pretty much everywhere anyway. I did a bit of looking around for average speeds of the boat types I listed, and the numbers I went with seem to be quite realistic. They are actually leaning to the lower end, as I suspect the original numbers were based on strong ocean breezes, so it would be slower further inland.

My plan for the campaign is that there is an adventuring season of 8 month, which is then interrupted by a flood season of 4 month, where the water speed is simply too much along the whole river to get upstream. I think it would be cool to make a roll at the start of each new adventuring season to see if water levels are exceptionally high or low this year. A high river increases the size rating for the whole river by one, while a year of low water levels reduces it by one. The players might find that the expedition they had planned either needs to be canceled or attempted with a much smaller boat as the river conditions make reaching the destination in a junk or dhow impossible. You could also have a randomly determined special event that changes the water level or speed halfway through the season, which can lead to very inconvenient complications hundreds of miles away from civilization.

Row, row, row your boat, bravely up the stream

So, if you have a setting idea that is not centered around kingdoms and cities, what other reference frames can you use to give structure to the peoples and societies of a vast wilderness setting? How about rivers? All the earliest civilizations of the Bronze Age first appeared along the largest rivers in the old world because big rivers are really really useful. They provide a steady source of water, which in the sub-tropical zones where you find these civilizations can otherwise be quite a problem. But they are also extremely useful for transportation. Rivers allow you to transport large quantities of cargo just as easily as by rail. Load all the stuff on a boat, add a sail or go with the current, and wait until you’ve reached your destination. If you have goods to move, rivers are the way to go. Or to float. While water isn’t as much a problem in Central Europe, the region between Germany and France has been constantly contested for many centuries because it’s the origin of the Rhine, the Seine, and the Rhone, having easy access to the North Sea, Atlantic, and Mediterranean.

It’s been one of the design elements for Planet Kaendor very early on that all civilization has to be on rivers or the coast, with the deeper forests being more or less inaccessible for heavy cargos. When I was thinking of city states, I was mostly thinking about the coasts and large ports, but that’s not where the adventure is. Adventure is deep in the forests where the ancient ruins are hard to get to. I am now thinking about moving all the pieces on the map to correspond to three huge river systems and one archipelago of islands of the coast. I really like ocean beaches, but Planet Kaendor is meant to be a forest world foremost. While there won’t be any along the major rivers, there’s more than enough in the islands region. While I have plans for a sub-arctic and a tropical forest set in Kaendor, for practical reasons it makes the most sense to only go with the temperate-subtropical one for now. I think any single campaign is best served by being based entirely on a single river.

The Setting

Since this first river is located in what I used to call the Dainiva forest, I’m going to call it the Dainiva river here for convenience. And since nothing is a permanent as a temporary fix, that’s probably now going to be its name forever. The great Dainiva river has been the home to many great civilizations over the ages. Cyclopean castles of the giant Rock Carvers overlook the river from cliffs towering over the meandering courses of the upper rivers, with the lower river being home to many old Naga cities. Ruins of the sorcerous Tower Builders rise above the dense trees flanking the river banks, as well as the magnificent living citadels of the Tree Weavers. All these civilizations have long ago faded from history, and it was many centuries after the Naga retreated to the jungles of the south that mortal peoples began settling on the lower banks, gradually but cautiously moving into the abandoned palaces of the serpentmen. Among the ruins they discovered the arts of casting bronze and mastering the secrets of alchemy, leading to the rise of the first mortal civilization. Over many centuries and generations, explorers ventured further up the waters, but even a thousand miles upstream, there were still no signs of the headwaters of the major branches. Only more water and trees, and the wrecks of explorers who had gone before them. And more ruins and monsters.

The Map

A setting of this type is perfectly suited for pointcrawls. Since travel is basically linear along the river branches or their banks, and ruins have to be visible from the river for characters to have any chance to find them, using a hexmap would not provide any actual benefits. Instead, a map showing the various main branches can show the distance between any fork, settlement, and ruin right next to them, and you can also use color to mark different types of water. For example, the common speed for rowing a canoe with no current is given in most places as 3 miles per hour. Currents of 1 or 2 miles per hour also don’t appear to be anything unusual, and while many rivers are much faster, the current generally is slower when you stick close to the shores where it’s more shallow. So you can mark the river conditions in three colors. Dark blue for the slowest water, in which rowers go 2 mph upstream and 4 mph downstream; medium blue for faster water, in which rowers go 1 mph upstream and 5 mph downstream; and light blue for waters too rapid to paddle against, that require continuing on foot. But you could still build a single-use raft from trees and go downstream at 6 mph. If you want to, you can also convert straight from miles per hour to miles per day, if hourly precision isn’t desired, but if you don’t have to deal with things like traveling 2.33 hexes in a day, I think tracking distances by the mile isn’t really any nuisance. On the major branches of a river of this size, there is easily more than enough room to navigate large cargo ships like a junk. With a slightly more sophisticated sail than just a plain square cloth, it is possible to sail up a river against the current, even with quite moderate wind coming from the sides. Merchant ships like these would replace the trade caravans seen in many land-based settings.

Settlements are all either directly on the river or at least have an accessible pier that connects to the actual village by a short path. Since they would want to be visited by traders, such piers would be clearly visible. But you could also have lairs of rivers pirates or secret cults hiding in barely visible side branches much too small for larger merchant ships. With civilization being based along the lower river near the coast, settlements become more scattered and smaller in size as one travels upstream. This can be used as a great indicator for players about the dangers they can expect to encounter. In civilized areas on the lower river, big monsters have long been driven out, but all the best ruins have been picked completely clean generations ago. But on the upper river, few mortals have ever set foot and there are both more dangerous monsters and much greater treasures to be found.

Since traveling on water is relatively simple and allows for the transport of great loads with little effort, I think a campaign of this type works best if you make it really big. Make it a river as big as the Volga, the Mekong, or the Columbia, where characters can go exploring for months between the end of the spring floods and the onset of winter. With the help of rafts, parties will be able to return with huge hauls of treasure, so the journey back to civilization should be a long one to compensate. Bigger hauls should translate to fewer hauls.

Basing a sandbox around a river system is also really convenient for a GM. By its nature, its close to a fractal, allowing you to just keep expanding it with more and more side branches as the party continues exploring upstream. A river map does not have to bother with mountains or elevation, and generally there’s no need to be exact about the width and depth of the water. And if you should end up with a branch that gotten too narrow and shallow to continue on, the party can always go back downstream a couple of miles and go up another branch. Now for the lower river, I think the players should have a map of the main branches and major side branches, as those are areas frequented by river merchants making their regular round. But once you leave civilization behind, there’s no limit for how far you can continue.

Similarly, it’s very easy to create villages and ruins in a vacuum and just plop them down on the map wherever the players decide to go. That goes a bit against the common ethos that players should have control over where they go by making informed choices, but I think in a setting like this, there really are not a lot of choices to make. Check it out or continue up the river? And given how many branches a river system of this size has, I don’t think working with fixed locations would actually be feasible. You’d end up with a lot of “this branch gets too narrow to continue and you’ve not seen any signs of a ruin”. That’s not player agency either. You could very well establish some facts about a ruin when the party stops at a village or trade post and gets a tip from the locals. But there wouldn’t be any need to establish any of this before the party arrives at this part of the river.

Encounters and Sites

I think for a campaign of this type, random encounters might actually the bread and butter of many adventures. Ruins are cool, but when slowly travel up a river for hundreds of miles, you’ll be doing a lot of encounter checks.

In a world with river merchants, you’d also get river pirates. Those pirates would know not to bother explorers going up the river in the spring, unless they are desperate for supplies, but be waiting to pounce at any explorers coming back down the river in the fall with their big hauls of loot. Merchants might invite the party to get a free ride with no paddling on their ships in exchange for protection against pirates while they have the same route. On the upper river, you can have encounters with aquatic and semi-aquatic humanoids, who could either be friendly or hostile to rare visitors from downriver with goods to trade. There can be the wrecks of failed expeditions, which might even be salvageable and be sold for a huge profit if floated down the river without sinking. Or repaired and used for further expeditions the next year. Or there could be ancient crumbling dams from the old civilization that threaten settlements downstream with disastrous floods, allowing for some variation between dungeon crawls.

And then there’s of course the river creatures. Obviously crocodiles and big snakes, but I’m really giddy at the idea of giving players a paralyzing phobia of hippos. Someone suggested to me adding dire beaver dams to block of some rivers and require hauling boats over land to continue. I also really like the idea of creatures in the trees following the players in their boats from shore, waiting for an opportunity to attack.

It really is a fairly simple concept for a sandbox setting, but one I think has huge potential, while looking very manageable at the same time.

Call of the Planes

When I wrapped up my 5th edition campaign last year, I was pretty fed up with the system for it just not being the kind of game that works for the kind of campaigns that I had created my setting for. It also made me throw a small pile of notes into the corner that I had scribbled down for a Planescape campaign. Last week I came across a discussions about planned campaigns we never got around to run, which reminded me of those ideas. And here I am now, picking up right where I left a year ago.

Blade Runner
Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3
Fury Road
Fury Road
Hellblade
Hellblade
Hellblade
Metro: Exodus
Metro: Exodus
Metro: Exodus

And yes, I am super pumped for Carceri. (But also Ysgard and Pandemonium.) And the factions I want to include in important roles are the Bleak Cabal, the Doomguard, the Dustmen, and the Revolutionary League.

With references like these, keeping the thing from going all grimmdark will be one of the priorities, but I think with the quirkiness of Planescape it shouldn’t be too hard to find a good balance. If everything breaks, a Solaire and Siegmeyer duo should always be able to save the say. With jolly cooperation

Planescape is a setting designed around the rules of AD&D 2nd edition, and no way in the Nine Hells am I going to try learning that mess of a game. I think 5th edition will do the job just fine. Adjusting my plans to what the system can provide might work out much better. I also think aiming to have the players reach a new level every four or five games was too fast a pace. Decoupling advancement from fighting enemies and aiming more for a level every 6 to 8 games should play out better and not feel as rushed and overloaded.