Woodland Vales: Choosing the Hex Scale

I’ve long had an ambivalent relationship with hex maps. I think the conventional approach to hexcrawl campaigns in which the party enters a 6-mile hex and discovers whatever cave or ruin in located inside just goes beyond any believable plausibility. As an “outdoor dungeon room”, 6-mile hexes are just way too big and even 1-mile hexes would be stupidly huge. But I really do like hex maps as a tool  to quickly and easily estimate the length of a winding path through the wilderness and around natural obstacles like mountains or large lakes. I really can’t imagine the Woodland Vales system without using a hex map for the GM. I think the players should never actually see a hex map, as cartographers of a typical fantasy world would not be able to create any maps with that degree of accuracy regarding relative directions and distances. Navigation should be done by the players entirely by following roads, rivers, and visible landmarks. But for a GM, hexes are a great tool to track supply consumption and random encounter frequencies.

People have long discussed the merits of different hex scales for adventure and campaign maps, and I’m entirely in the 6-mile hex camp for long-distance overland travel. But for doing multiple criss-crossing trips through a much more bounded play area, this might not necessarily be the best scale as well. But to choose the right scale for a hex map, it’s first necessary to establish what kind of information is actually meant to go on that map.

The Default Domain Template

For my Kaendor setting, I recently made the decision to model borderland settlements on the image that is being created by the D&D Expert and Companion rules by Frank Mentzer from 1983. A region of wilderness that is dotted by small keeps of independent lords surrounded by a small area of farmland with numerous tiny villages paying taxes for the lord’s protection against the monsters of the wilds. Mostly as an aesthetic choice. I just find it very evocative. Having a bit of casual research into the medieval manor system for social and economic organization in western Europe, I came up with the following average template for what such a lord’s domain might plausible look like.

At the center of the domain is the lord’s keep. A fortified residence that serves as the domain’s military headquarter and treasury, that might also serve as a refuge for people living nearby in times of attack. Close by or surrounding the keep is a town where most of the domain’s businesses and services are located. The rest of the domain would consists of several manors. These are the lands that are under the economic control of other wealthy and powerful families of the domain. Either as personal property or on rent from the lord. These manor estates in turn would work a small part of that land but rent out most of it to common tenant farmers. The masters of these manors make up the retainers of the lord of the domain. Depending on the local culture, these might be called knights or something to a similar effect. Part of the agreement with the lord that grants them the right to own or rent property in the domain is to provide military service. In addition to themselves and perhaps some of their sons, these retainers would each also employ a few semi-professional soldiers as their men at arms, funded by the rent the retainers receive from their tenants.

A plausible scale for the numbers of the people making up such a generic domain I settled on the following, which I believe falls into roughly the same range that you find quoted for some actual medieval baronies and manors.

A domain has one keep that is home to the lord. The keep is next to the domain’s single main town of 1,000 to 2,000 people. The rest of the domain consists of 20 to 30 manors that provide the lord with 1 retainer and 5 or 6 men at arms each and have a further population of 200 to 300 farmers. This comes out as a total population of 20-30 retainers, 100 to 180 men at arms, 1,000 to 2,000 townspeople and 4,000-9,000 villagers. That’s a bit low for the ratio of villagers per townspeople, but ultimately this is about getting a sense of scale rather than doing precise head counts.

As a very broad generalization, it appears that it takes about 3 acres of fields and pastures to support one person. For our roughly 10,000 inhabitants of an average domain, this comes out as 120 km². Assuming that the domains are pretty wild borderlands and between 1/3 and 1/2 of the land is unworked by farmers, this would be 160 to 240 km² for the total domain size. This translates to about 4 to 6 6-mile hexes, 20 to 25 2-mile hexes, or 80 to 100 1-mile hexes.

The Why and Where of Towns

In a pre-modern farming society, farms are largely self-sufficient, producing all the food they consume and most of their clothing. However, once you get to have carts with wheels, horses with harness, and plows with metal blades, and you want to do some embroidery on your good clothes with fine threads in bright colors, you can’t do all these things by yourself on your farm and require the work of experiences specialists with specialized tools. And while there might be one guy who has a simple forge and can make crude nails in most farming villages, for many of these specialized trades you can have a single business supplying a very large number of customers over a fairly large area. And you need all these customers to make your business economically viable.

Leaving the farm to go on an errand to one of these specialists takes time and keeps you away from your own work. So farmers will always prefer to go to a place that has many businesses and services in one spot so they can do multiple errands on a single trip. When given the choice, they will do their errands in whichever place has the most businesses close together. Businesses located in these places will do better than those in the middle of nowhere, and so all businesses will naturally move to a single central place. That’s a town.

But while farmers will always prefer to do all their errands on one trip to the largest town, this does have a limit. Even more preferable than doing everything in a single trip is to make all your trips in a single day and be back home before nightfall. Staying the night in a foreign town is unappealing and expense, and getting stuck on some dark road until the next morning is even worse. Also, many farmers might not like to have their family be alone on the farm for the whole night, and somebody is having to feed the animals in the morning. So even when a larger town is available in the area, it’s typically beaten out by smaller towns that can be visited on a single day trip. And as it turns out, the maximum distance for a trip to town, doing your errands, and making it back home by nightfall is about 5 to 6 miles when traveling on foot or with a horse cart. This means that every town is surrounded by a bubble some 10 to 12 miles across from which it gets all its customers. If there’s another town inside that bubble, the one that has the better range of services will draw in all the customers and businesses in the smaller town will have to move to stay competitive. If there are rural villages that are located outside of any of these bubbles, then there’s a huge business opportunity for trades people to set up shop there and provide their goods without competition and a new town will grow. Once an area has been newly settled by farmers, businesses will move around and potential towns grow and decline until the entire area is covered in permanent towns whose bubbles of customers are just touching, but also leave very few gaps between them. And we can see that in many rural places. The distances between towns are rarely much shorter or much longer than that.

The Options for Hex Scales

As I mentioned earlier, I am quite the fan of 6-mile hexes. It’s the most commonly used scale for hex maps and its resolution is quite convenient for long distance overland travel. But when it comes to mapping a domain consisting of four to six hexes, maybe not so much.

At the scale of a domain, this hex size really doesn’t provide anything useful. All you could mark on this is that any sites in the domain are either right next to the town or six miles away. And if the domain takes up five or six of the seven hexes, every domain will have nearly identical outlines on the map. This really doesn’t look fun.

Now the 6-mile hexes could be split into 3-mile hexes, but that just looks really wonky when trying to overlay a 3-mile hex grid over a 6-mile grid. So let’s go right ahead to look at 2-mile hexes instead.

I say that’s more like it. We have 37 hexes within a 6-mile radius around the central town, and would require some 20 to 25 of those to make up the territory inhabited by the domain’s farming population. That’s vastly more options for domains of different shapes. It’s also a resolution in which the relative positions of various villages or landmarks in the domain could be indicated by a single hex coordinate.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s take a look at 1-mile hexes, which has been advocated for small scale wilderness exploration by early D&D.

If your entire campaign takes place only in a single 6-mile hex and the directly neighboring wilderness hexes, then I can see using a 1-mile hex overlay being a decent choice. But for Woodland Vales, I also want to include interactions between different lords and the overland journeys between domains. If you were to make a map with 8 domains and some wilderness between them and surrounding them, I think going down to a 1-mile hex resolution seems like overkill.

The 2-mile hex seems like the ideal hex size for my intentions with the Woodland Vales borderland exploration system.

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.

My Revised 3rd Edition

In hindsight, I’ve come to regard the 3.5e rules revision of D&D 3rd edition as a mistake. Revising the rules was certainly the right call, but the arguments that have been made by many people about many of the specific changes are really convincing to me. These days, I think it’s a much more interesting thought to run a 3rd edition campaign with my own revisions again instead of dealing with the 3.5e rules.

The following are my thoughts on adopting or rejecting certain changes introduced by 3.5e and 5th Ed.:

  • Replacing creatures’ Face with 3.5e’s Space. Yay, spherical cows!
  • Dwarves’ movement speed is always 20 ft., regardless of their armor or load they carry.
  • Keeping 3rd Ed.’s Damage Reduction and Energy Resistance values.
  • Keeping 3rd Ed.’s weapon tables, letting small characters use daggers like short swords, and short swords like longswords. Not quite as realistic for many weapons because of blade shapes and weight distribution, but it allows magic weapons to be used by people of other sizes than the creators.
  • Clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, and wizards prepare spells like in 5th edition. (A number of spells of any level equal to their class level plus spellcasting ability modifier. Spells remain prepared after casting.)

And here’s the genuinely new additions:

  • Prestige Classes are off by default. They are exclusively for secretive orders and only shared among members.
  • Lets try actually applying the XP penalties for multiclass characters. I don’t think anyone ever actually did that. ;)
  • Initiative is rolled for the entire group instead of individual characters. The roll is made by whichever character makes the most sense in a given situation, like the one in front of the marching order or the back of the marching order, the one being on watch, or the one who first draws a weapon in a confrontation. If more than one character could roll initiative for the group, the roll is made by the character with the highest initiative modifier. (Group initiative greatly increased turn speed by letting players think about their turn at the same time and avoiding them getting distracted when they have nothing to do for several minutes on end.)
  • When the PCs are first noticed by NPCs or creatures, a 2d6 reaction roll is made to determine their initial reaction. (2 immediate attack, 3-5 threatening violence, 6-8 waiting for the PCs’ move, 9-11 avoiding confrontation, 12 offering help.) If a PC approaches and greets a group of NPCs or creature, the 2d6 roll is modified by the Charisma modifier.
  • Creatures and NPCs must make a DC 15 Will save when the first member of their group goes down in battle, when their group loses half its members, and when their leader is taken out of the fight or become frightened. (Must flee from combat, -2 to attacks, checks, and saving throws if cornered.)
  • Spells and effects with durations measured in rounds last for the entire combat in which they are cast. Durations measured in minutes last for the whole scene in which they are cast. Durations measured in hours last for the entire day on which they are cast. (No longer having to track which spells expire in which round.)
  • When attempting to hide from other characters or move silently as a group, the opposed skill checks are made by the character with the highest modifier to Listen or Spot and the character with the lowest modifier to Hide or Move Silently. The same principle applies to other opposed skill checks between two groups of characters when applicable.
  • Characters can carry a number of items equal to their Strength score as a light load, twice their Strength score as a medium load, and three times their Strength score as a heavy load. 100 coin and one daily ration of food and water count as one item each. Two-handed weapons and armor counts as two items or more.
  • Removing all the large exotic melee weapons. They are all stupid!

DIYRPG on Lemmy

Inspired by Marcia B. and Idle Cartulary writing about DIY Elfgames, and people on Mastodon reminiscing about the Google Plus days, I got the idea this morning to try set up a Lemmy instance for just these types of things. Sharing new creations and vague ideas of any kind related to game mechanics, campaigns, and adventures to see what other people think of that and talking about RPG design in general in ways that you can’t really have on Mastodon or Discord.

After some heroic struggles, I did get it set up and here it is: DIYRPG

As you can see, there’s nothing really there it. Just the infrastructure set up. I went into this without having any specific plans on how the whole thing should be structured and if there should be any particular rules to be established in advance. This is all still to be determined and open for future changes, based on what people think of it going forward. Registering an account on DIYRPG should be open to everyone, but being a federated Lemmy instance, you can also access it with any Lemmy account from any other instances. And if you make an account on DIYRPG, you can also use it to access all other instances.

Right now, what is needed is a couple of people to get the thing started. I’ve not yet created specific communities that will sort posts and threads into different categories, as I am looking for people sharing their ideas on how it could be structured. I started a thread on just that topic, which everyone can contribute to here.

Dungeons & Dragonbane

While I love Dragonbane precisely because it’s not Dungeons & Dragons, while still providing mechanics and content to represent similar kinds of fantasy worlds, there are a few things from D&D that I really love and want to carry over into Dragonbane anyway.

Reaction Rolls

I really love the B/X reaction rolls. It’s one of my favorite game mechanics. Any time the PCs encounter creatures or armed people in the wilderness or a ruin, and their disposition hasn’t already been determined by previous events, roll 2d6 to see how they react to seeing the party:

  • 2: They see the PCs as enemies and attack.
  • 3-5: They are hostile and threaten attack if the PCs don’t leave or surrender.
  • 6-8: They are uncertain and observe what the PCs do.
  • 9-11: They don’t want trouble and will avoid confrontation.
  • 12: They are friendly and might offer information or assistance.

PCs approaching a brigand camp might be mistaken for bandits who want to join or expected reinforcements and told to come inside. A troll might be friendly and offer to share his roasted dwarf. Lots of interesting situations that can happen if you don’t start encounters without the expectation that it obviously has to be a fight. And once the players get used to it, it changes how they approach creatures and people who haven’t spotted them yet.

Morale Checks

Plenty of armed and dangerous people might be willing to risk the chance of getting killed and to accept that some of their allies will get killed. But it is extremely rare for people to stay in a fight where their own death is certain and there’s nothing to be gained from it. Most fights should end with the losing side making an effort to escape with their lives.

But when you decide as GM that the enemies will break off the fight at a specific moment in the action, the players might always suspect that you were going easy on them because some PCs would have gotten killed if the enemy had fought on a bit longer. And that creates the expectation that you’ll probably do it again if their PCs are getting in real danger, and causes frustration when their character’s don’t get saved by a fortuitous enemy retreat.

Making a dice roll in the open solves all of that. Make the dice decide when the enemy loses morale and then stick to what the dice said. I like to roll when the first enemy is killed (or looks to have been killed), when the enemy leader is killed, and every time the enemy group is reduced by half.

Roll 2d6 against a morale value between 3 and 11 works for B/X, and I think it should work just as well for Dragonbane.

Random Encounters

Dragonbane already proposes to make a roll for a random encounter once per shift when in the Wilderness. I would also make a roll once per stretch while inside dungeons.


I really like the concept of having the PCs travel to ancient ruins deep in the wilderness with a group of camp followers. Not exactly sure how to implement that yet, but that’s something I want to have in my campaign.

Divine Sites

The BECMI Companion rules introduced the concept of Clan Relics. Powerful mystical objects that allow their keepers to activate a number of divine spells and create a magical ward that keeps away undead and demons. The idea was to let nonhuman settlements have access to the powers of a cleric in a game system where only humans could be of the cleric class. While there is no such thing as a cleric class in Dragonbane, I still really love the idea that there are powerful magical sites associated with particular deities or divine spirits that provide mystical protection for settlements that grow around them, and draw pilgrims who seek the special blessings of the shrine or temple. The priests tending to such a site don’t even have to have spells of their own.

Domain Lords

The Expert Rules imply through their mechanics and recommendations for designing a setting a world in which there is little centralized authority, and the typical social structure that is encountered consists of a lord and his soldiers in a keep providing security for a few small villages in the surrounding area. I always thought that was really cool and evocative, and something that should mesh very well with the tone and presentation of Dragonbane.

Why is it interesting?

Campaign preparation with ADHD can be challenging. Especially when circumstances keep delaying the start of the campaign and you have plenty of time in which you can’t keep your creativity occupied by building and expanding upon what’s happening in the current adventure. Instead, thinking of alternative ideas that you could use becomes a very inviting creative outlet.

When I started working on my “current campaign” (whatever that might actually mean at this point?), I wanted to make it a Classic Dungeon Crawl West Marches sandbox running Old-School Essentials, because that’s a very simple campaign structure to apply. The PCs go to places holding old treasures, overcome the obstacles in the way, carry out the treasures, and gain XP to become more powerful and able to go into more dangerous and fantastical places to search for even greater treasures. It’s very much a game structure. The mechanics of the game provide the incentive for the players that makes engaging with the obstacles attractive. But three months ago, Dragonbane was released and it turned out to be just the kind of game that I had wish existed before I settled on starting an OSE sandbox campaign. And with not being able to get a campaign launched for still two more months at least, exploring how a potential Dragonbane campaign in Kaendor could be set up is just something that I literally have to do.

Among the many differences between Dragonbane and OSE is that Dragonbane does not have the mechanical incentives that OSE does. Characters advance their skills by using them and may gain an additional Heroic Ability whenever the party has completed a significant goal. This does not in any kind suggest or incentivize any kind of objectives for the players to pursue. When anything you could do is as good as anything else, then nothing is inviting to engage with. And at the start of a new campaign, especially when playing in a new setting, the players don’t really know anything about the world and what kinds of activities are even feasible or will lead to interesting and fun outcomes. When starting a new campaign, the players need to have some kind of guidance which goals and activities will be the most likely to lead them to the most interesting and exciting parts of the setting. In a Classic Dungeon Crawl, that suggested starting point is to look for old ruins and search them for treasures because of how the game mechanics work. In a Dragonbane campaign, and many other games, you have tell the players how they can set out to find the most interesting things in the world that you have prepared.

This reasoning led me to my first question to pursue to hopefully lead me to an answer on how to reach an overall concept for a campaign: “Why is any of this interesting?”

Why would players want to play a campaign in the Kaendor setting? What are the elements of the world that are the most interesting to engage, explore, and interact with? Now I can’t read the minds of players I’ve not even pitched the campaign to yet, but instead I can ask “What are the elements of the Kaendor setting that I find the most interesting?” As these will of course be the elements that get by far the most attention and details during its ongoing creation. The things that I find the most attractive in my concept for the world are the old ruins of the various ancient civilizations, the different typed of spirits and demons that lurk beyond the borders of civilization, the mysteries and possibilities of sorcery, and the numerous secret societies and cults.

Playing RPGs, and what makes them so fascinating and unique as a medium, is all about interacting with things. Questioning and negotiating with other people. Poking at things to see what they do. Opening doors to see what’s behind them. Investigating what the enemies are doing and interfering with it. So after having identified those most interesting elements, a logical next question to ask is: “How can the players interact with these things?”

All these elements have in common that they are things that the people currently inhabiting the world really don’t know that much about. They are mysterious and either inherently supernatural in nature or strongly influenced by it. So the very first thing to do on encountering them is to find out more about them. What is it that players could learn and would want to know about these things:

  • What is inside this ruin?
  • What was this ruin originally build for?
  • What is this unknown creature?
  • What is this creature doing here?
  • What does this magic item do?
  • Where does this magic item come from?
  • Who is this secret cult?
  • What is this secret cult trying to do?

And looking at this list, a possibly very interesting and compelling campaign concept already suggests itself. This is a world that very much lends itself to provide a lot of interesting material to engage with for characters who are a combination of demon hunters and archeologists. Which really isn’t that different from the typical Classic Dungeon Crawl PCs. They go into ruins to explore, looking for relics of ancient civilizations, and confront the supernatural horrors from the past.

But the incentive structure is rather different. It’s not so much to personally enrich themselves and gain a life of luxury, but because the PCs believe that it is important to learn the secrets hidden in the wilderness and understand the supernatural forces and entities at work in the world. They can be motivated by being worried about possible threats to the mortal peoples, or a deep personal curiosity about the supernatural unknown. Or, if a player wishes so, by the fact that the powerful NPCs who also share these motivations are willing to pay a lot of money to anyone who can bring them such knowledge.

It has always been bothering me a bit that the generic oldschool treasure hunters are only motivated by getting rich, which doesn’t lend itself to interesting social complications. And the typical adventuring heroes who constantly risk their lives to fight evil for strangers out of a sense of compassion or chivalry don’t very much lend themselves to players being proactive and determining goals for themselves. Such characters are kind of compelled to help every possible person in need they encounter, which doesn’t leave them much choices in setting out their own path. But PCs whose guiding motivation is to learn about the unknown and to determine if something might be a possible threat that could cause great damage in the future seems like a nice middle ground between those two extremes. They are characters who you can simply let become aware of a secretive society existing and it’s something that they might want to investigate. You don’t need to have them see the cultist murdering people or stealing a magic artifact to make it clear that they are an evil that needs to be smited immediately.

It’s an interesting approach to what PCs could be and how a campaign could be structures that I am eager to explore further. Any maybe it will be useful to other people to develop a concept and structure for new campaigns by asking “What about this world is the most interesting?” and “How could the players be interacting with it?”