Non-rule Rules in my Campaigns

Someone asked on Enworld about informal conventions and customs in people’s games that go beyond the mechanical rules of the game system, and it occurred to me that I actually have quite a lot of those. Might as well share the list here:

  • My campaigns are set up to be about exploring the world, not the characters. Adventures are expeditions by the party, not personal stories. Players are free to drop in and out of the campaign without disrupting the campaign too much. As long as three players make it to the game, we play.
  • When making characters for the campaign, there’s only two hard rules they have to follow: Every PC must want to go exploring dangerous places, and has to want to cooperate with the party for this. Antisocial loners who are reluctant to go on adventures are simply not viable for the campaign.
  • Create characters with the assumption that they will probably die in some dark hole from an accident or getting stabbed by a nameless critter and that you might go through two, three, or even more characters before the campaign wraps up.
  • Since PCs are replaceable and to some degree interchangeable, backstory is something that the players can create to help deciding on their characters’ personality and stats. It won’t normally be relevant in play.
  • When players want to take an action against other PCs, (attacking PCs or messing with their possessions) the offending players have to openly state the actions their characters are contemplating. It is then up to the defending players alone to decide if the offending PC goes through with the action or not. If the defending players decide on on, then the offending players have to accept that their PCs decide not to do it.
  • My role as GM of the campaign is to facilitate the game for the players. I try my best to provide a world that has places to explore and treasures and wonders to find, and villainous NPCs who are doing their villainous things which the players can choose to try to topple and drive out if they want to. I’ll describe what the PCs see, answer questions about the world, and try to make NPCs react plausibly to what the players are doing, given the resources and powers I’ve written up for them.
  • As GM, I don’t have a stake what’s going to happen in the campaign. I describe the situation to the players, the players state what they want to do, we run that input through the mechanics of the game, and I interpret the output of the dice to describe the new situation. I just run the game computer, I don’t plot or conduct the adventures.
  • Everyone can die. All NPCs and monsters have their stats fixed, and the game mechanics and dice decide which attacks and spells succeed and what effect they have. If the big bad dies in the first round or the party gets wiped, that’s the story that is playing out.
  • I will always try my best to make anything that could potentially kill a PC visibly look like a real threat. I want players to always make a conscious choice to put their characters into mortal danger. It will never appear suddenly without warning.
  • Retreat or surrender are almost always an option. (Though the players still need to work to pull it off.) Encounters are not dialed in to ensure the players can win.
  • The requirements for progress on character advancement are objectively stated as standard mechanics of the game, or defined at the start of a quest. Progress points are gained when those requirements are met, in the specified amounts.
  • Any die that falls off the table automatically counts as failure against the player’s favor.
  • Only the GM can call for a roll. Players can not announce a roll.
  • Every roll that will lead to an immediately visible result for the PCs is rolled in the open.
  • For random events like Wandering Monster encounters or a rotten bridge collapsing, the roll is a single die with the probability of “1 in N”. The standing rule is “Something always happens on a 1”. What is going to happen on a 1 is specified before the roll is made. The die is rolled by a player. (Which makes it clear that what happens is not the GM’s personal preferred outcome.)

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?”

FHA Advanced and Improved Map

I hadn’t been quite happy with how the first draft of the map for the Forest of High Adventure campaign came out and so I did some big revisions to it that still mostly stuck to the original sketches.

It’s still a 10-mile hex map, but the area it covers has now been reduced to one quarter the original size. This is still a very sizable area about the size of Northern Germany, but I feel that the density of major settlements feels now much more plausible at this smaller scale. It’s still a 300 mile journey up the river from the coast to the northwestern mountains. Going there and back again could easily turn into a two month expedition. It’s not Lewis and Clarke scale, but actually still a really major undertaking when you think of it.

The black dungeon markers now look much more dense as well. This sandbox feels packed. There’s a pretty empty region on the eastern side of the coast, but that area is supposed to be the region that’s been somewhat settled by civilization, so there’s not being a whole lot of exploration adventures to be done there doesn’t seem like a problem.

And so far this really is just the big impressive ruins and cave systems with a backstory. I have not even added any regular small monster lairs yet. With so much stuff going on, I feel I’m probably not even going to need to skip over the middle part of long journeys. One random encounter check for every hex of travel still shouldn’t result in an overwhelming amount of encounters when traveling between any two hexes.

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.

Sword & Sorcery Sandboxes?

I was planning to write this as presenting a concept that I have worked out, but the more I’ve been getting into it, the more it morphed into sharing a question I am pondering.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve recently become very excited about Dragonbane, which very much matches all the things I was looking for in a game system for the last 8 years or so. I had settled on OSE as the next best thing, but Dragonbane looks like the Fantasy Heartbreaker that I would have made. And I’m now much more interested in launching a Dragonbane campaign in my Kaendor setting than running it as an OSE wilderness exploration campaign as I had planned while working on the regional map and the towns and ruins contained in it. Dragonbane is of course a different game than OSE, and does not have the underlying mechanical framework that makes classic dungeon crawling and wilderness exploration work. Without XP for treasure, or even a mechanic for XP, the typical incentive structure falls away, and resource management also works out rather differently. So a different approach to structuring the campaign is needed.

And of course when this question comes up, my first thought is always “Would this work well in a Sword & Sorcery style?” And I think with Dragonbane the answer is very much yes. If you do the presentation right, the default rules of Dragonbane should work effortlessly with almost any Sword & Sorcery setting.

The longer I’ve been playing RPGs, the more I’ve become convinced that sandbox campaigns are really the only way to play heroic adventure games. The ability to go to any place on the map, try anything, and negotiate with NPCs in any way you think makes sense because you have a GM right there who can have the world and it’s people react to the PCs in real time is the great promise of the RPG medium. The aspect that you can never get from any other. Any campaign that doesn’t put this front and center seems like a waste of amazing potential and a lack of understanding of the medium. RPGs are where you can make stories and experience them at the same time and there’s always more world outside of the current frame. I don’t want to accept anything less when playing an RPG.

But what does a sandbox campaign even mean in regards to the Sword & Sorcery genre?

One major, and perhaps defining, element of Sword & Sorcery is that it’s a storytelling style that isn’t about an ongoing continuity and overarching narrative arcs where everything exists to build up to one big final conclusion that resolves everything. Instead of a heroes entire journey from beginning to conclusion, Sword & Sorcery storytelling is much more like a highlight reel of the most dramatic and fantastic moments in the lives of the protagonists. How their journey actually started is not really that important, and how it all gets resolved eventually even less. We’re here for the cool parts.

Because of this, I think that having a whole Sword & Sorcery sandbox campaign as a single continuity that tracks the events of the PCs lives day by day might not really be that appropriate. “On day 183 the party rested in town. On day 184 the party had one random encounter with bandits on the road and traveled 24 miles. On day 185 the party had no random encounters and traveled 30 miles.” No, that really doesn’t seem right. The same goes for equipment and money. You really don’t have to keep track of how much money precisely the PCs have at any given point and whether they might be 12 gold pieces short for buying a new suit of plate armor after the old one got destroyed.

However, when you play a campaign purely as a series of one-shot adventures with the same characters, then you lose out on one of the great aspects of a sandbox campaign. Making long term enemies and allies and getting to live with the consequences of your actions. I think choices always become so much more interesting when you have consider how they might impact situations that the characters will encounter much later. We don’t generally see that much in Sword & Sorcery fiction, but old enemies coming back to take another shot at you really cool in a game. Especially when you know that these are enemies that you made even though you had other options available to you at that time.

I also really like the aspect of travel on a hex map of the players being free to chart any course through the wilderness with the possibility of evading encounters with dangerous enemies because of good planning on their part, or running into difficult situations because they were trying to avoid something else. But if you go hex map, then you really need to track the miles traveled every day and the food and other supplies running out and being resupplied through interactions with the environment. My thinking on this situation is that the most interesting choices are the likes of “Do we try to sneak over the pass through the mountains guarded by the villain’s soldiers or do we try to take a detour through the Spider Woods?” Soldiers or spiders? Which hexes through the Spider Woods specifically and the speed at which to travel won’t really make that much of a big difference compared to the initial decision. So I guess that perhaps the old Pointcrawl approach might be the best option here. The pointcrawl adventures by Chris Kutalik are set up quite similar to outdoor dungeons, being a large space to explore, with the implication that players likely might try to check out every point. But the principles should work just as well for tracking long distance travel between more detailed sub-regions and offering a great range of possible paths that the players can take to move between them. This system for travel should keep the most interesting and impactful choices for the players as part of the game, but it greatly compresses the majority of the total journey.

As I said at the start, all of this turned out as mostly just sharing what is currently on my mind about the subject, rather than any real system or plan. But maybe something interesting to think about for others as well.