Short thoughts on condensed Hexmap travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns

As I outlined in my previous post, I really do like the general idea of hexmap travel through the wilderness, but also think that Sword & Sorcery adventures have their focus on the most exceptional events in the travels of their protagonists and don’t concern themselves with the regular day to day stuff, like the majority stetches of long distance journeys.

Reading up again on Chris Kutalik’s great introduction to Pointcrawls, I’ve been considering that system as an option, but couldn’t quite get myself to fully leave the hexmap behind. I don’t really need it for what I now plan to do with campaign I’m preparing, but it still just feels really right to have one, especially since I want to capture a bit of a retro-feel of how I perceived fantasy RPGs in the late 90s. (I’ve even been playing around with a neocities site as a compendium for world information and play reports.)

One thing that is easily done is to draw a Pointcrawl map on top of a hexmap. After which the hex grid basically becomes purely decorative and serves no more mechanical function. While that would provide the useful additional information as described in the page linked above and simplify things for me as GM, it would still not actually do anything to deal with the question of how to play out long distance travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns. But it gave me the following idea.

The upper path is an example of regular pointcrawl notation laid over a hexmap grid. Going from the blue site to the read site means going through six hexes between them, costing six time intervals to travel through, and perhaps causing six rolls for random encounters.

The lower path shows the same situation, except that the markers for random encounter checks are placed only within two hexes of the blue and red sites.

The idea here is to only have the players actually play out travel on the solid path sections with random encounter rolls, supply consumption, and whatever else your game of choice might include. The dashed section of the path represents a time skip during which the world still turns and the sun rises and sets, and the PCs might even have some side adventure or another, that isn’t of particular relevance to their main tale. Events that didn’t result in meeting NPCs who make later reappearnces or in any of the PCs being meaningfully affected, and their supply situation will be about the same when they reach the other side.  It’s only when they are getting close to the red site again and the path resumes being solid that the whole procedures of covering one segment of travel are being played out again. It still preserves some of the aspects of hexmap wilderness travel, but can greatly reduce the play time of long distance journeys as I am planning for. Any random encounters with NPCs or monsters will happen relatively close to a site where they can have some kinds of effect or connection to the inhabitants of that site. If the players encounter a group of bandits deep in the wilderness, nobody will care about what happed there in the towns they left or are headed to. But if the encounter happens within one or two travel segments from a town, people there might have had problems with the bandits in the recent past, or might be friends of them. The random encounter in the wilderness could very well be quite important to an adventure that happens at that particular site later.

For longer joureys between towns and famous big dungeons, there can also be squares for minor sites to break up thr long journey between the start and destination into multiple smaller adventures. These can also have their own random encounter check ponts near them.

I think this could be a quite interesting solution to having most of the aspects of hexmap travel and pointcrawls on a map that is at continent scale and doesn’t really try to map and describe its whole area at a 6 or 10-mile scale. You do lose a bit of it, like getting lost deep in the wilderness and running out water in the desert while one PC has to be carried. But in a Sword & Sorcery themed campaign, there probably isn’t even the time to spend much focus on these things, so I think it might be a pretty good trade.

Rewarding Play Reports in Dragonbane

I am once again planning to start a new campaign as a kind of open table sandbox since sandboxes are really the only way to go and setting things up to work with an open table makes scheduling so much easier. No need to keep delaying the next game until there’s finally a day where all players think they are available and don’t have to cancel on short notice. Just play with whatever players happen to be ready to play that day.

But with some players playing irregularly, keeping everyone on track on what’s been happening in the game recently become a challenge, and play reports really seem like the way to go to deal with that issue. I could of course write the play reports myself, but that would be extra GM work and when running a weekly game while I’m working full time I’ll probably have enough game stuff on my hands already. It also would mean that I am giving the players my perspective on what actually happened and what the important moments and developments of the last game were, and I think it would be much more fun to have the players perpetuate their own narratives of what’s going on. Having some of the players write the play reports seems a much better idea.

But of course you have to incentivize the players to do additional homework between games. I once had the idea to give characters +10% XP for the last game if the player writes and shares a play report for a D&D game, though never actually applied it. Dragonbane does not have XP like that but instead has Advancement Marks for every skill that is being used in play. At the end of the game, the player makes an inverse skill check for each of these skills, and if the roll comes out higher than the current skill rank, the skill advances by one rank. Each character also gets one free mark that can be assigned to any skill that didn’t get used during the game, plus additional ones if the characters did certain things that are encouraged by the GM for being appropriate to the genre and style of the campaign.

My idea for an incentive to write play reports is to give the players’ characters one Advancement Mark in either the Awareness, Myths & Legends, or Spot Hidden skills at the end of each game if they shared a report for the previous game. Awareness and Spot Hidden are a bit of a stretch for being improved by characters chronicling their adventures, but this gives the players alternatives if they already got a mark for Myths & Legends for using it during the game. I guess alternatively I could just give them a free mark that they can apply to any skill. But I quite like the idea of treating the players writing the report being something that their characters are doing as part of playing the game.

Untested Character Creation Houserule for Dragonbane

I like to give old D&D shit for apparently throwing random ideas for rules and mechanics at the wall to see what sticks, and then keeping some around for decades even though apparently nearly everyone ignores them. But I do really like the idea of starting character creation with randomly rolled attribute scores and players then having to work out a way to turn that into a character that is fun to play. There are plenty of character types that can make for great additions to a party of adventurers and produce interesting situations in play with their peculiar traits, but which you would never choose to make when creating stats from scratch because it would obviously be an inferior choice.

I don’t usually believe in forcing the players to their enjoyment (strange, this German expression doesn’t seem to exist in the English language), but not letting the players choose their character attribute scores is one thing where I make an exception, if the rules system for the campaign is suited for it. (I wouldn’t do it with D&D 3rd ed.) But there really is the chance to get a character with just crappy attributes, or which is really only suitable for a character type the player just doesn’t care about. Which is why you almost always have some limited degree of customization for the rolled attributes.

In Dragonbane, the rule for creating attribute scores is 4d6 keep best 3 in order for six attributes (the same as D&D, it’s a Fantasy Heartbreaker). Players can then chose to switch any two of the numbers with each other to have a bit of flexibility. Once the attributes are set, they determine the starting rank for all 30 skills. The players then select 6 skills from a list specific to the characters profession as trained skills, and between 2 to 6 of the remaining skills depending on the character’s age. Trained skills have their starting rank doubled.

The Houserule: Players can switch two of their atrributes with each other for free. For each additional score to be moved, the character looses one of the age-based free trained skills.

A player who makes an adult character (6+4 trained skills) and wants to rearrange four of the rolled attribute scores would have only two free trained skills to select after picking the six profession-based trained skills.

This seems like a decent trade to me. With Dragonbane’s skill and advancement system, giving up trained skills in character creation means that you’ll have a somewhat slower start by starting with fewer skill ranks in total, but you’ll have more starting ranks in the main skills for your character concept. And doesn’t close off any future developments for your character. But just one trained skill fewer can easily cost 4 or 5 skill ranks in total, which is not insignificant.

If you really want to play a fighter even though your Strength and Agility both came out really low, you can. But placing a price on it might be an incentive for players to take some time to consider to perhaps create something interesting and fun from the weird attributes they rolled.

Some Dragonbane Advancement Statistics

Dragonbane is a skill based system in which you advance your character by using your skills during adventures. When you use a skill, you mark it, and at the end of the adventure you roll a d20 against your current skill rank. If the roll exceeds the current rank, the skill advances by one rank. It’s a neat system that justifies having a roll under dice mechanic as the default action resolution. And in practice it means that it’s easy to raise low skills quickly, but it gets increasingly slower to advance skills a character is already very good at.

I was curious about how long it would take to get a skill to it’s maximum rank of 18 and calculated the following numbers. On the left is the starting rank of each skill and at the top the rank you are aiming to reach. The field where the row and column line up shows how many adventures it will statistically take to get to the respective new rank.

6 3 6 10 15 23 34
7 1 5 9 14 21 33
8 3 7 12 20 31
9 1 6 11 18 29
10 4 9 16 28
11 2 7 14 25
12 5 12 23
13 2 9 21
14 6 18

In theory a skill rank could be as low as 3, but that takes a score of 5 or lower in the respective attribute (1% chance for that) and the skill also not being trained at character creation, so I didn’t bother with starting ranks lower than 6, which makes the table much smaller and more readable.

The highest a skill can start at is 14, which requires an attribute score of 16 or higher (13% chance for that) and the skill being trained. And even then it will take you a statistical average of 18 attempts to get it to its maximum rank of 18.

Of course, there are 30 skills in the game and you’re not going to use every one of them each time you play. So for many skills, especially those that aren’t the focus of your character, getting them to very high ranks of say 16 or higher should take a very long time. The risk of a character reaching a point where advancement pretty much stops seems to be very low.

First Impressions of Dragonbane

The new Dragonbane game by Free League was released a month ago and yesterday after work I spontaneously got the idea to give it a look, as the pdf is only €23. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of it, but I am intrigued by what I got.

Dragonbane is released as a new edition of the old Swedish RPG Drakar och Demoner, which apparently was a pretty big deal with Swedish players back in the 80s. But looking at the rules that we got now, I wonder how much continuity actually is there in the mechanics, because I feel I recognize almost everything from either recent D&D editions or Free League’s Year Zero system. The original game was apparently based on Basic Role Play, which I think is the engine of RuneQuest, but I don’t really have any experience with that.

First of all, this is a very slim game. The main pdf is only 116 pages and the actual rules are all on just 59 pages. I absolutely consider this a rules light system like B/X and Barbarians of Lemuria, though slightly crunchier than the later.

The Core Mechanic and Skills

While it feels quite similar in scope and purpose to B/X, it is a skill based system rather than a class and level based one. As the core mechanic to do pretty much anything, you roll a d20. If the number is lower or equal to your skill rank, you succeed. If it exceeds your skill rank, you fail. Being a guy raised on the d20 system, rolling under instead of rolling over always seems a bit weird, but in this case it really simplifies things in several areas. You don’t have to make any additions or subtractions to the number on the die for every roll and you don’t have to ask the GM for the target number for each specific roll. Your skill is at 14, then just don’t roll over 14.

It also is a neat part of the character advancement mechanic. If you use any skill during an adventure, you mark it on your character sheet. At the end of the adventure, you roll a d20 for every skill that you have used. If that d20 rolls over your current rank, the rank advances by 1. This means that when your skill rank is low, it will go up pretty frequently, but once it is high it will only increase more rarely. This way to you stop being bad at things you do often quickly, but it also can take a long time to actually max out the skill.

Skill checks can also be rolled with either a boon or a bane. Which are really just advantage and disadvantage from D&D 5th ed. Roll two d20 and pick either the better or worse one as your result.

Creating a Character

The first step in creating a character is to roll attributes. These are the same as in D&D and rolled in order with 4d6 keeping the best 3. The attributes determine the starting value for all your skills which will be from 3 for a score of 3, and a 7 for a score of 18. They also determine your Hit Points (equal to Constitution), your Willpower Points (equal to Willpower), and maximum load (equal to half Strength).

The second step is choosing is your character’s kin. The default ones in the game are pretty much the standard generic fantasy peoples plus wolf people and duck people. The character’s kin provides a single special ability that takes Willpower Points to use.

Next is profession. There are 10 professions that each provide the character with another special ability and also have a list from which you have to select six of your trained skills. The skills you select as trained have their starting rank doubled.

Characters’ age works pretty much like in Year Zero: Young character get a +1 to Agility and Constitution but only 2 free additional skills to pick as trained (regardless of profession), while old characters have penalties to attributes but get 6 free additional skills to pick as trained. (Adult characters just get 4 free trained skills.)


The basic mechanic for combat feel a lot like the d20 and Year Zero systems. Each character gets one action and one movement per round. However, there is no armor class. If you succeed on your melee combat skill check, you hit. If the target of your attack has not yet acted in the current round, it can use its action for the round to immediately make a parry or dodge check to negate the hit. You have to decide to dodge or parry before damage is determined. So I guess the decision depends on how scary the attack looks and how many hit points you still have left. This is the one part of the whole game where I really have no idea how well this actually works out in practice. But characters low on hit points being forced to give up more of their actions to negate hits could actually be a pretty interesting and cool way to represent fighters becoming less effective in combat as they are getting hit. Unlike D&D where you’re at full fighting capacity as long as you still have any hit points remaining. I’m really curious to see this in action.

When a target is getting hit, damage is rolled and then subtracted by its armor rating. This means actual damage might be quite low, which of course lines up with characters only having as many hit points as their Constitution score. A very different approach from D&D where hit points and damage just keep going up forever as characters advance to higher levels and face more powerful opponents. I like that.

When your character is out of hit points, a death roll is made where you need to roll a d20 lower or equal to your Constitution each round. Once you have three successes the character recovers, once you have three failures the character is dead. I believe this is exactly as in D&D 5th ed. There is an optional rule that a character recovering from being dropped has to make one more roll against Constitution and on a failure suffers a severe injury that causes penalties for a couple of days until it heals. This is quite similar to the critical injuries from the Year Zero system, but the severities of the injuries are much lower.

As in old D&D editions like B/X, there are three units of time. Instead of rounds, turns, and days, Dragonbane has rounds, stretches, and shifts which are the same concept, except that there are four shifts in a day. Once per shift, a character can rest for one round to recover 1d6 Willpower Points, or rest for one stretch to recover 1d6 Hit Points. When characters rest for a full shift, they regain all their HP and WP. But don’t remove their severe injuries, which is why I absolutely would use that optional mechanic to have some sense of characters actually getting injured in fights.

This also feels like a good point to mention Conditions. There are six conditions that mirror the six attributes. When a character is suffering from the respective condition, say Exhausted for Strength, then all checks for skills that rely on the respective attribute are rolled with bane, that is roll two d20 and keep the worse one. At a stretch rest, you can remove one of your conditions, and on a shift rest you remove all.


Unlike the other professions, the Mage does not get a special ability that uses Willpower Points to activate, but instead gets spells. A mage character is trained (double starting rank) in one of three magic skills: Animism is basically druid magic, Elementalism is Fire, Ice, and Stone magic, and Mentalism is telepathy, telekinesis, and divination. All mages can still learn any spells, but their rank in the other two skills starts much lower and they will probably have to deal with a lot of failed castings before they get their ability to useful levels. But at least you make a roll to advance a skill at the end of the adventure as long as you used it just once and it didn’t even have to have been successful.

If the skill check to cast a spell rolls a critical failure on a 20, the caster suffers a magical mishap. As with the severe injuries, these are way less dangerous as the equivalent mechanic in Forbidden Lands. Worst case, a demon is attracted to the caster and will show up during the next shift. What kind of demon and what it wants is left to the GM. No risk of of a dimensional rift opening and tentacles dragging the mage to hell any time you cast a spell.

Limitations of the Core Rules

The package of pdfs that I got is called the Core Rules. I have no idea if there are any other versions of Dragonbane or if there are any planned. But for what is being offered here, the term is very much appropriate. In many ways, this feels like a toolkit of core mechanics more than what most people would typically expect of a complete game. In this version, there are 49 spells and 14 sample monsters, and the five most generic humanoids to pick from (and one non-generic one). Certainly enough for a one-shot or mini campaign in a super generic Middle-Earth fantasy setting, but for anything more fancy than that, you will have to create your own custom content.

And the game seems to be intended to be that way. There are several mentions of more options possibly coming in future releases. There is even an open license that allows anyone to make and publish supplements for Dragonbane, though not to reproduce that content of the core game itself.

There also is really no Gamemaster section in the rulebook worth mentioning. It’s just the mechanics and assumed that anyone playing this game already knows what kinds of campaigns they want to run with it and how to do it.

Which I guess to a certain crowd is just fine. For people already deeply into B/X, OSE, and other games of that category, none of these things might be obstacles. Especially when you are looking for a generic system for which you would have to create the custom creatures of your homebrew setting anyway. And monster and NPC stats are really simple to begin with. Even simpler than in B/X.

I think this might possibly be just the game for me. It’s the purest example I’ve ever seen of what a Fantasy Heartbreaker might look like, with pretty much every single thing it seeming like it was more or less copied over from other games I already known and then welded together. But I really approve of what the designers chose pick for their pieces to turn into this game. From a mechanical perspective, there is not a single thing regarding character creation, advancement, skills, combat, or magic that I don’t like on my first and second read. But if this is all that Dragonbane is going to be, I don’t see it becoming a big breakout hit that will become hugely popular. I can see it getting a reputation similar to Barbarians of Lemuria and maybe with a big dose of luck, get a little time to shine like OSE had some months ago. And I guess that’s fine.

Since I read the whole thing only twice now, I don’t really feel like I could rate it in any way. But being such a light package, I also don’t think there is going to be a lot more learned from a third or fourth reading. I think all that’s left is to just take it for a spin and see how it plays out in practice. It seems like a game that should take very little prep work for adventures when it comes to crunch, so maybe I’ll have an opportunity to give it a try later this summer after I’ve moved closer to my new job and peak work season is over. Certainly looking forward to do it.

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.