Monsters and Treasures in the B/X Dungeon

Getting to work on some dungeons for my next campaign, I want to stick as close as possible practical to what the Basic and Expert rules actually advise as guidelines to see how that really plays out in actual play. I have found that most of the moving pieces in this game are set up very deliberately to form a larger system, and not everything does what you first expect them to do coming from later games. I have learned that it’s almost always best to first pinpoint what you don’t like about the results of a mechanic before you start modifying the mechanic. It’s hard to improve something when you don’t know how it actually performs as designed, and you can easily miss out on something cool if you replace it before having it properly tested. So straight up B/X with only the TSR attack roll procedure replaced it will be for the start of the campaign.

The GM guidelines for making a dungeon in the Basic Rules recommend about 1/3 of rooms to have creatures, 1/2 of which possess treasure; 1/6 of rooms to have a trap, 1/3 of which are guarding a treasure; 1/6 of rooms with a special feature like magical effects or weird machines; and 1/3 of rooms being empty, 1/6 of which have a hidden treasure. For simplicity, lets assume here reaction rolls are made with no Charisma modifier, so half of all creatures encountered will be hostile. In practice, it’s can be considerably less.

In an 18 room dungeon, these fractions come out as nice even numbers, and it’s also a good scale for a mid-sized dungeon or level of a larger dungeon. This gives us the following lineup of rooms.

  • 3x monster with treasure
  • 3x monster
  • 1x trap with treasure
  • 2x trap
  • 3x special
  • 1x hidden treasure
  • 5x empty

Assuming the party spends 1 turn in each of the 18 rooms and 6 turns exploring and mapping the corridors, we get a total of 24 turns. After every 5 turns, the party needs to rest for one turn, which is 4 additional turns for a total of 28. There is a 1 in 6 chance for a wandering monster every 2 turns (or just 1 in 12 every turn), so we can expect 2 random encounters over those 28 turns. With the six monster rooms, that’s a total of 8 monster encounters, and rolling their reaction gives us an average of 4 fights.

(Those 4 fights cause additional wandering monster checks, which at a 1 in 6 chance produce an average of 2/3 encounters, or a 1/6 chance for another hostile creature. Small enough to ignore here.)

I think thia is quite an interesting tally for an 18 room dungeon: We can expect about 30 turns spend in the dungeon, with 4 fights, 4 nonhostile encounters, 3 traps, 3 special features, and 5 treasures. This is much less than I expected. And I love it! With a distribution of content like this, I can see how a place can feel like an old abandoned ruin. Very different from the fortified outposts that make up most dungeons I am familiar with.

Something that had never occured to me before is that 2 out of 5 treasures located in a dungeon will be in the possession of creatures that mean the party no harm. That puts the players into an interesting position. They probably won’t try to rob a group of nonhostile elves who are exploring the dungeon themselves, but what about a pair of ogers who can’t be bothered to try beating up the PCs? Players might still want to steal from them, and perhaps even kill them to prevent future attacks on travelers on the nearby road. Very interesting stuff.

The Basic Rules also recommend that about 1/4 of XP players gain in a dungeon should come from monsters, the rest from treasures. You could use the treasure tables to generate treasure hoards, but that’s something I always found too bothersome, as a dungeon full of simple insect monsters would have completely different amounts of treasures than a dungeon that is a big bandit lair. My prefered method is to tally up the XP values of all the room creatures and multiply that by 3 to get the amount of gp for all the treasure in the dungeon. (Nothing for wandering monsters, because those are supposed to be undesireable to enconter.) Then I just put the coins in the treasure hoards on the dungeon map as seems appropriate, with the arbitrarily chosen magic item added here and there. (I actually put another amount of treasure equal to the XP of the room creatures into hidden secret rooms that I don’t expect the players to find most of the time, as an additional challenge.)

Interesting stuff. I can’t wait to see how this will play out in practice.

Handling Random Encounters

I created a new tag for articles named “The Yora Rules” and pinned it to the top of the page. Over the years I developed a number of small mechanics and tweaks to the B/X rules and interpretations of rules that don’t clearly spell out a specific procedure. A big reason behind many of my procedure is to reduce the mental workload on my own brain in regard to how I am personally affected by ADHD. Some of my changes might seem superflous and no more easy or faster than the default rules, but they do work often a lot better with the way my brain works, resulting in a much faster and smoother game. I still think they are more elegant in some ways and could be very useful to anyone.

Some I’ve shared here before and have gotten a quite positive reception, so I thought it might be useful to have them all in one place. Frequently I lay out my entire thought process in excessive detail, which I think might be of interesting to some, but isn’t very useful to just looking up how I do certain things or to share it with other people. A year ago I wrote about how I handle random encounters, but that one’s just a wall of text, so here is the actual mechanics in one simple bit.

Step 1 (Preparation): Roll up groups of Creatures

Consider which areas of wilderness the party will likely travel through, how many random encounters are likely to happen on the way, and which dungeon levels they will be exploring in the next game. Use the respective Wandering Monster tables to roll up the creature type and creature number for as many encounters as you expect you will need and put them in short lists for each area.

Step 2 (Preparation): Roll Surprise for the Creatures

Roll 1d6 for each creature group on the list. On a 1 or 2, mark them as being surprised when the party encounters them.

Step 3: The Players roll for Wandering Monsters

In the Wilderness: Roll a die four times per day spend in the wilderness. One for morning, noon, evening, and night. Roll a d12 for most wilderness, or a d10 or d8 for particularly densely populated areas. If the party is in a dungeon at the time of an indicated random encounter, either ignore it or have the creatures run into the camp outside with the hirelings, mounts, and pack animals.

In a Dungeon: Roll a d12 at the start of every exploration turn. (The total number of encounters will be the same as rolling a d6 every two turns, but you don’t have to remember if you rolled last turn or not.)

Causing Attention: If the party does something to draw attention to them, like causing a big fire in the wilderness or making loud noise in a dungeon (such as fighting), make an extra wandering monster check right then and there. Any creatures allerted that way will arive in the next turn or later, in addition to the regular wandering monster check every turn in a dungeon.

Something always happens on a 1: When the die roll is a 1, a random encounter happens. Tell the players that a 1 means encounter before rolling the die in the open. Or better, let a player roll the die. Show the players plain to see that you didn’t make this encounter happen at a moment in the game that you thought would be fun. You’re not making things hard for them when they are weak, or delay challenges until they are ready for them.

Step 4: Referencing the Prepared Encounter List

I am putting this here as step 4, but actually you don’t need to look at the list at this point. Because you already prepared the list in advanced, you knew the kind of creatures and number of creatures in this encounter and whether they will be surprised or aware since the previous random encounter was completed. This is the reason why I prepare this list in advance. Any time the players are talking among themselves to decide on their next step, I can put some thought on how I would use this group of creature if it is encountered in one of the two or three rooms the players might choose to explore next. I do not have to make something up on the spot right as I roll the die on the wandering monster table, which usually ends up just being “there are X number of Y standing in the middle of the room”, which is boring. Having just a minute or half to think about it without all the players staring at you waiting in anticipation to hear what they just ran into can make a big difference.

Step 5: The Players roll for Surprise

One of the players rolls a d6. On a 1 or 2, the party is surprised. (For some creatures encountered, it’s on a 1 to 3.)

If the players are not surprised but the creatures are, the players have one round to act before the creatures spot them. They can use that round to quickly retreat back around the corner they just passed or move into a nearby suitable hiding spot. If they do, the creatures remain unaware of the party until the players do something to reveal their presence.

Step 6: Roll for Distance

In the Widerness: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 4d6 x 30 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 2d6 x 30 feet.

In a Dungeon: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 2d6 x 10 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 1d6 x 10 feet.

Step 7: The Players make a Raction Roll

If the creatures’ attitude towards the party is not obvious because of circumstances (like mindless undead or guards searching a castle on alert), have the players make a reaction roll.

If the party has been surprised but the creatures are not, roll 2d6 for the reaction roll. (No Charisma modifiers apply.)

If the party is not surprised, one character may greet the creatures. That character rolls 2d6 plus the Charisma bonus to reaction rolls.

2: The creatures start to attack immediately.

3-5: The creatures are hostile. They threaten the party with violence to hand over their treasure, be taken prisoner, or to immediately leave the area, depending on what seems appropriate in that situation.

6-8: The creatures are uncertain and observe what the party does next. After the party has reacted in some way, the character doing the talking makes another reaction roll with a bonus or penalty depending on what was said or done.

9-11: The creatures don’t want trouble. They might ignore the party of leave the area, depending on if they seem to be a threat or not. Intelligent creatures might be cordial but not interested in further interactions beyond common pleasantries.

12+: The creatures are friendly. They might invite the party to their camp or lair, offer useful information, or propose to join forces.

Step 8: Resolve the Encounter

The encounter either ends in a fight or a conversation. (Which might result in a fight later.)

Additional Note: Surprised Parties

There is one kind of encounter situation that the B/X procedure does not enable, and that is creatures spotting the party without being noticed and following them around for a while. When the players make the wandering monster check and it rolls a 1, they know something is there. You can’t tell them “you don’t notice anything”. Also, the players are supposed to roll the reaction roll themselves where they can see it. When that 1 is rolled for wandering monsters, the encounter has to happen now.

This is one of the main reasons I don’t roll up the creatures and their number in the middle of play after a wandering monster check and prepare them in advance instead. Same for rolling their surprise.

If I know I have a creature that would stay hidden if it catches the party by surprise, and that creature will not be surprised itself, then I can spend some thought on what it will do if the party fails their own surprise roll, depending on the reaction roll:

Immediate Attack: The creature has been stalking the party for a while and decides to jump them now, getting a free round to attack before the party can react.

Hostile: The creature decides this is a good moment to confront the party. It’s positioned in a way that is most advantageous to itself and no roll for encounter distance is necessary.

Uncertain: Keep rerolling until you get a different result. The creature has been observing what the players do while it was hiding.

Avoiding Trouble: This is inconvenient since the creature can just escape without the players ever knowing it was there. I guess the best option is to let one player catch a glimpse of it before it disappears, and if the party pursues they won’t find any trail to follow.

Friendly: The creature just comes out in the open to greet the party.

Only the first two really depend on the geometry of the area they are encountered in. If the players end up not being surprised for that encounter, they will run into the creature in the middle of doing whatever it is doing. So there are really just three possible things worth considering in light of the next environment the players decide to enter.

What’s the function of a Stronghold?

Working on my Ruins of the Shattered Empire campaign, I was thinking again about Kenshi, a wonderfully weird sandbox indy game set in a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland full of bandits, robot skeletons, ancient vaults, ninja, cultists, crashed satellites, insect men, random orbital lasers from the sky, and flesh eating giraffes. The game has no story. You just start somewhere in the desert, with nothing but the shirt on your back – if your character is one of the lucky ones – and your only goal is to survive by getting something to eat and avoid getting eaten yourself. Unless your character is one of the mentioned robot skeletons. It’s a wonderfully odd game that feels like something that would have been made in the early 80s if the technology had existed back then. People who like things like Veins of the Earth or Ultraviolet Grasslands will probably appreciate the style. There are various bare bones NPCs around the game world that ask to join your team or can be permanently hired for a one time payment. The desert is full of hungry beasts and nasty bandits, and while it certainly is possible to play the game as a lone wanderer, a very attractive option that opens up very early on is to build a small base with a wall that protects your people while mining ore to sell in a town or working on a patch of dirt to grow your own food. You still keep getting attacked by raiders who’ll easily break down your gates after a minute or two and loot your little storage shed, and so you can easily find yourself in an endless cycle of expanding your base to provide more food and income to expand your group with additional warriors, so that you can expand even bigger to add your own workshops to make your own weapons and armor instead of having to buy them. It’s often compared to Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld, with it’s own special type of weirdness and hilarity.

In addition to building materials, you also need to first research construction plans for new buildings and equipment, and for that you need books of ancient knowledge. A few of which can occasionally be found in stores for a hefty price, but the more rare ones require you to go explore ancient ruins in increasingly more dangerous parts of the massive wastelands. And setting out on an expedition to find and explore these ruins always reminds me of good old D&D wilderness adventures. The ruins themselves are all pretty small, so I wouldn’t call looting them dungeon crawling, but getting your group of scavengers to those places and hauling back your loot to your far away base is just like wilderness adventures should be.

I’m also now remembering how I always found the use of NPCs as part of PC’s “gear” in Apocalypse World a really cool approach, and how they can be used as really nice adventure hooks, but I don’t want to go onto another tangent and actually get to the point.

Base building in Kenshi is in many ways an economy sim in which you figure out how to assign your characters to different jobs, optimize workflows, manage your resources, and invest your profits into new technologies and expanding your operations. It’s a lot of fun on a computer that takes care of all the math, and you spend hours upon hours on it by yourself. It’s not something that translates to playing a roleplaying game as a group. All the stronghold building rules for RPGs I’ve come across so far fail because of this. But the aspects of defending your stronghold against raiders and having to go out into the dangerous wilderness to gain resources you need to maintain and expand your base are also endlessly exciting, and those activities are the daily bread and butter of D&D adventurers.

I am really intrigued by the idea of giving the players the tools to take over any abandoned or cleared out ruin, fixing it up and fortifying it, and using it as their main base of operations while they are exploring the surrounding wilderness. And after some pondering on the subject, I believe the best way to approach this is not to start with any mechanics for upgrading a base or price lists for various expansions, but first figuring out what kinds of functions the stronghold should play in a game that is still fundamentally about going into dungeons to find treasure. This really is just throwing around some ideas and sorting out my own thoughts on this.

What a Stronghold should be for

Safe Resting Place: This really is the primary function of a stronghold in the wilderness for adventurers. A stronghold provides a place where the party can rest and recover from their ordeals without having to make wandering monster checks. I plan to run the campaign without clerics, so healing either takes a good amount of time to recover naturally, or use up healing potions that are valuable and can not be infinitely replaced. This should make a place where the PCs don’t have to worry about monster attacks.

Treasure Vault: If the players have their stronghold guarded by mercenaries while they are out of adventures, I would consider storing their new treasures in their vault as having “returned with treasure from the wilderness”. Since they are also no longer under constant threat of being attacked, that means they have completed their adventure and can get the XP that their loot is worth.

Supply Depot: In addition to storing treasure at the stronghold, the players can also store supplies of food, water, ammunition, lamp oil, and tools. The stronghold might even have its own well or cistern to provide an endless supply of water. Using their base as a supply depot means that the players don’t have to carry as much supplies to get to the dungeon and back, and if they should be running low while in the dungeon, a resupply trip to their stronghold would be considerably shorter than returning all the way to the nearest town. Of course, they first need to get the supplies from the town to the stronghold, which can be a small side adventure in itself.

Necessity of Hirelings: I love hirelings as a game element, and really want to see wilderness adventures turning into large expeditions of a dozen people or more. Having just four or five PCs as the whole party is nice for a lot of campaigns, but I think wilderness exploration campaigns should be at a much larger scale. Wilderness exploration is more than having one outdoor combat encounter between the town and the dungeon entrance. That’s the kind of game the Expert rules are for. Having a stronghold full of supplies and treasures means the players need someone to guard all of it while they are away. And they probably don’t want to leave some mercenaries they picked up in a tavern alone with all their money for days on end on a regular basis, so they should also have some trusted retainers to leave in charge while they are gone. With a more permanent base, you also probably will want to have additional servant staff to cook and make repairs, tend to the animals, and you can see how this can escalate very quickly.

Money Drain: One thing that lots of people have been thinking about a lot for a very long time is what players should be doing with all the money they make on their adventures. Especially in a campaign where XP are gained from finding treasure to mechanically support the PCs’ endless hunger for more gold, the whole thing becomes increasingly less believable if the characters are already drowning in more gold than they know what to do with. Conan is always up for an opportunity to steal some gold because he’s constantly broke. In such stories, the heroes spend their loot on wenches and ale, but enjoyment of luxuries is not something that you can really get across through the mechanics of a game. Players saying that their characters go on a massive tavern crawl after an adventure is maybe fun once or twice, but stops feeling rewarding after that. A stronghold is a great way to drain the coffers of the PCs. Every expansion or upgrade to their base costs money, and all the guards and staff need to be constantly paid for. The wages are pretty cheap, but if you include proper tracking of time (without a meaningful campaign is impossible, as you know) then all the time that the PCs are spending in the wilderness while searching for ruins, days spend healing from injuries, weeks spend learning new spells and creating potions, and whole months stuck inside waiting for the end of winter, this all adds up.

Merchant Access: This is related to the aspect of Supply Depots above. Once the players have established their stronghold and have to make regular runs to the next town for considerable amounts of supplies (all those hirelings need to eat), they can become important enough customers for traveling merchants to make detours to sell their goods to the PCs. Maybe not with whole wagons, but at least with a handful of mules. In addition to regular supplies, such merchants can have a number of special items for sale that the players might be interested in, like potions or maps, and also provide the players with new rumors when they are away from civilization for long.

Trouble with the Neighbors: Even with solid fortifications and mercenary guards, the treasures and supplies inside a strongholds will attract all kinds of people and creatures. Some might be out to raid the place, while others might simply not appreciate newcomers in their territory. The possibilities for adventures beyond the default treasure hunting are endless, without the typical situation of sending the players to chase after prepared adventures. Pacifying the surroundings is a good way to let the players be proactive and deal with situations in whatever ways they come up with, without giving them a villain with a plan they have to stop before it is too late.

What a Stronghold should not be for

Economy Sim: As I mentioned earlier, managing your resources and working out production systems can be a lot of fun if you’re playing by yourself on a computer, but just isn’t something that works as a roleplaying game. Adding a smithy to your stronghold or constructing a wind powered water pump for your well can be fun and exciting, but I think it really shouldn’t turn into a resource management game.

Generating Income: In Kenshi, I started my first base as a small mining camp to simply mine ore, smelt it into metal plates, and sell them in the next town to make money with which I would buy anything else I need, such as food and medicine. Getting your stronghold self-sufficient and even profitable is a fun idea, but that would go directly against the overall premise of the campaign and one of the main purposes for having a base. The upkeep costs for having the stronghold is meant to provide the financial pressure to keep the PCs going into dungeon to search for more treasure. The strongold being a source of money instead of a giant money sink would work completely opposite to that. While being landowners with servants working for them can be a fun idea for some roleplaying games, it just doesn’t fit here.

Seat of Government: Related to the point above, becoming the biggest dog on a stretch of the frontier and clearing the surrounding land for settlement can be a great motivation for characters. But once you get into that kind of stuff, there’s not going to be much room or time for continuing to go dungeon crawling. You could still go into underground places to fight the enemies of your domain, but then you end up with a completely different type of gameplay from sneaking around in the dark to steal treasure without alerting the inhabitants.

This as a broad overview of where my thought are on this subject at the moment. We’ll see if I’ll get around to put further work into this and develop it into some kind of system with established mechanics and procedures.

Discovering Sites in the Wilderness

I’m a big fan of wilderness sandbox campaigns, but never been really enthusiastic about the hexcrawling approach, in the sense of “go from hex to hex until you find something”. A 6-mile hex is something like 80 km². Even a large castle might not be noticed while simply moving through such an area, and if the area is forest or mountains, you would have to run straight into it. Spending some amount of time to search a hex to see if you discover something also doesn’t seem convincing to me. If you’re a treasure hunter, you wouldn’t just pick a random spot in the wilderness and start searching it with a fine comb. That takes way too long to find anything of interest. What I believe adventurers would do is trying to make their way to sites that they already know about and that look promising for holding treasure.

Under this approach to adventuring, the players first need to have clues where to look for treasure and adventure. So here’s a couple of ways that PCs can learn of new sites to add to their own map.

Highly Visible: Castles and watchtowers are commonly build on high points where they can overlook a lot of the surrounding areas. Sites like that could be spotted by simply being in the same hex they are in. Or in particularly clear terrain, even by being in a hex next to it. Though if the site is hidden among trees or mountains, it would remain hidden even party is moving through the same hex.

Sites on Roads and Rivers: If a site is directly on an old road or a river that the party is using for navigation, the players discover it automatically when they pass that spot. In some cases, it might even make sense to road signs or something similar point the players that something worth investigating lies down a side path from the road the party is currently traveling on.

Found Maps: Players can find maps among the treasures they pick up which show some sites that are known to them, and some sites that are not. This allows them to go search for and discover the new locations by following the clues on the map. They could also buy maps from certain individuals, or be given a map as a reward from grateful NPCs.

Rumors and Quests: Locals simply tell the party about sites they know but are not on most maps. This also provides the players with some vague idea of what they might have to deal with when they get there.

Following Tracks: After a random encounter, if the players try to follow fleeing enemies or follow their trail to where defeated enemies came from, the tracks can lead them to a nearby site where the creatures have their lair. If no matching site is anywhere nearby on the GM’s map, a quick lair can be put together with a small cave or campsite plan and rolling up a lair encounter by the wilderness encounter rules.

By using all five of these methods to give players hints where they can find new sites they didn’t yet know about, it should be quite easy to make it all feel quite natural and a consequence of the players’ actions, rather than the GM deciding the party needs a new site to be send to. It’s not a big red glowing sign telling the players “the next prepared adventure is here”.

Random thoughts on alchemy and sandbox campaigns

With the top level worlduilding for the Shattered Empire having reached a pretty concrete and solid stage, I’ve started turning back to thinking about specific details for an actual sandbox campaign set somewhere in this world. And while discussing some ideas, we happened to talk about players spending the money they get from all the dungeon crawling, travelling merchants as random wilderness encounters, and how generic magic weapons are boring compared to setting up your gear to fight a specific monster. It got me thinking about how the Witcher games don’t let you drink potions or put poison on your weapon while a monster is trying to claw your eyes out. You got to do your alchemical preparations before you step into the monster’s lair, perhaps even brewing up some special brews you didn’t normally keep stocked in your inventory.

And that discussion gave me an idea: Let’s have alchemical ingredients that can be used to create potions to help fight specific monsters, but these ingredients are hard to get and can each be used for a number of different potions.

Usually in videogames with crafting systems, you have basic ingredients that you can pick up from defeated enemies or growing in the environment in practically infinite amounts, and special ingredients that are only dropped from a single monster in the whole game to make one specific item, or make you choose one of two possible items that can be made with it. For the record, I hate crafting in videogames. It’s mostly a pointless waste of time that clogs up inventory space to drown you in junk that is worse than stuff you find. And I think one of the main flaws with these mechanics is the way they treat the ingredients.

But let’s approach this differently to make it something that is narratively meaningful and doesn’t turn into a convoluted minigame. The really badic ingredient, which are dirt cheap and just grow everywhere in the environment, are not even worth tracking. They have negligible costs and require no effort to acquire. And to make the special ingredients much more interesting and meaningful, make them both limited and expensive and make them useful for multiple different things. Letting the players fight a monster and take ingredient A from it, which they can turn into item X is really just a different way for giving them item X from the monster’s treasure. But say instead that there are maybe a dozen of the monster in the whole sandbox and the players might end up with anywhere from 0 to 12 of ingredient A, depending on how they explore the world and interact with the creatures, and that each of the ingredients can be used to make item X, Y, or Z. If these items they can make have limited uses that mostly shine in quite specific situations, the players will have to make a choicd if they want to use the three ingredients they have to make one of each item, three of the same item, or two of one and one of another. Since they don’t know what situations they will be dealing in the future, the correct answer is to keep them stored and make whatever item is needed, once they know it is needed. This adds a few additional scenes to adventures in which the PCs are making specific preparations for the adventure ahead, based on the information they have of what they arw getting into. That’s always great to make a world become more alive and present.

But also, you can make these ingredients available in small quantities for high prices at merchants. If it’s travelling merchants, it’s going to be a one-time offer as well. If the objects that can be made are sufficiently strong and have appropriately limited uses before they are used up, then these ingredients might be worth quite a lot to the players. And asking to take a look at the alchemy chest of each merchant they encounter can be a highlight of each shoping trip.

Buying the ingredient isn’t the same as buying the final item. There’s still alchemical work to be done. If it’s something that takes longer, it can be useful to employ an alchemist, especially when this kind of work comes up regularly. Which also costs money. And that alchemist is going to need a lab. Don’t let him do that stuff over a campfire with a little box of alchemy supplies. A proper lab best fits into a permanent base, which can be a much bigger source of expense for the party.

I’ve not done any work yet on either ingredients that could be found on adventures or be one-time offers by travelling merchants, or the kinds of items that could be made with them. But I think it’s a really interesting direction to follow that could potentially add a lot to sandbox campaigns.

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.