Hireling prices are insane!

I was playing around with the idea that players keeping a stronghold in the wilderness with a staff of servant and guards would have to keep stocks of food to feed everyone, as a constant money drain and source of fun side adventures. While I was checking if food and other stuff is already included in the cost of hiring mercenaries and specialists, I realized that the wages given are completely nuts!

The most expensive mercenaries cost just as much per month as the price of rations for four weeks. Most of them are making much less than that. I was first considering to lower the price of rations to something more sensible, but looking at the prices of other items as well, it really is the cost of mercenaries that is ridiculous.

Peasant militias can be hired for a month for the price of a small sack. Professional light footmen for the price of a large sack. And archers for the price of a backpack. Meanwhile an animal trainer makes a hundred times as much money as an archer, and a sage a thousand times as much money as a basic soldier. Talk about wage gap.

I really don’t know who originally came up with the costs for mercenaries and how this could ever have gone into print? This confirms my suspicion that TSR didn’t know about the concept of playtesting. And apparently not even proofreading. I think these costs probably will have to be increased by a factor of ten to make any semblance of sense. At least.

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”.

Expanded Wilderness Travel Rules

Expanding on my table for wilderness travel rates from a few days ago. For maximum efficiency, I am simply listing travel rates in 6-mile hexes. I think in the same way that a 10-minute Turn is not exactly 60 rounds or 600 seconds, we don’t need to treat a 6-mile hex as exactly ….31680 feet. (I had to look that up, and so would you. Those units are stupid!) In actual play, both duration and distance are abstract fiction that don’t relate to anything physical. And characters in the game world would not have actually have any means to measure either distance or time with any accuracy anyway. In a game, if players ask an NPC for a distance to a place or how long it would take to get there, that NPC would give them a rough guess like “some 10 miles” or “three days, if you keep a good pace”. That’s good enough on the players side. When I run wilderness adventures, I am fully in the camp of “the players never get to see any hex maps”. The hex map is a tool for the GM, just like random encounter tables. And for the purpose of telling the players when they arrive at a point, you really only need hexes. Miles are meaningless from a mechanical point. Or at least they are if you have a system for travel speeds in place that doesn’t have any granularity smaller than a hex. Which is what the following tables are all about.

Land Travel

Encumbrance Easy Terrain
Difficult Terrain
Unencumbered 6 hexes 3 hexes
Encumbered 4 hexes 2 hexes
Heavily Encumbered 2 hexes 1 hex

As I mentioned in my previous post, this is based on the assumption that a healthy adventurer with no significant load can cover 36 miles on a road or easy ground in a day. That would actually be quite impressive for a real human, but still plausible. However, in practice characters traveling through the wilderness to explore dangerous ruins and caves will be carrying quite a lot of stuff, and mostly deal with difficult terrain once they get off the roads, so that travel rate will rarely come up in actual play. So for the sake of easy use by the GM, I have no issue with that table maybe getting a bit high.

River Travel

River Speed
Base Speed 4 hexes 4 hexes
Slow Flow 3 hexes 5 hexes
Fast Flow 2 hexes 6 hexes
Rapid Flow 1 hex 7 hexes

From all I could find, going at 3 miles per hour ± the speed of the water is a pretty common speed when paddling on a river. Take that by 8 hours and you get 24 miles per day, or 4 hexes. If you go with the water flow, you’re going to get a bit more, if you’re going against it, you’ll get a bit less. If you wanted to, you could probably quite easily calculate what the flow speeds in the table above would be in miles per hour. But since player character’s won’t be measuring that during play, “slow”, “fast” an “rapid” are good enough for me.

Switching Pace

Something that I think would be neat to have is a system in which you can seamlessly have the party switch from one pace to another, like going a certain distance by boat, then continuing by foot on a road for a while, and covering the rest of the day’s travel on a mountain path. It could be done, but for that you really would need 1-mile hexes, and that’s just way too small for my own needs. At this point, I am diverting from my usual approach to get the mechanics all neat and consistent, and instead just guestimate things. If the party wants to move into a hex with terrain and encumbrance that would allow for 2 hexes per day, just check if they still have half of the day left. If yes, their camping spot for the night will be in the next hex. If not, it’s going to be in the last hey that they reached. It’s imprecise, but good enough for me.

Random Encounters

I know many people like to check for random encounters in the wilderness once per hex that party moves through, but I found that to actually not make much sense to me. Yes, you are moving through more area when traveling at a faster speed, so there are more spots you pass through where you could encounter something. But you’re also going to spend less time in each spot, which reduces the chances that you are in any one given place just as other creatures are passing through it. I think that just cancels each other out and travel speed does not actually affect the chance of encountering something on a given day. Only the total time spend in the wilderness does.

So I simply roll for random encounters four times per day. Once in the morning, once around noon, once in the afternoon, and then one more check during the night. Regarding which hex a random encounter takes place in, I am again going with “make something up”. If a party is traveling four hexes in a day and a random encounter happens during noon, is it locate in the second hex or the third hex? I don’t know, pick one. It really doesn’t matter.

To check for an encounter, roll a dice that reflects the likelihood of encountering anything in the area the party is traveling through. Going with my paradigm of something always happens on a 1, smaller dice result in more encounters, and larger dice in fewer encounters.

Encounter Density Encounter Check Dice
Desolate d10
Sparse d8
Average d6
Populated d4

I can totally understand if this system is a bit too abstracted and not granular enough for some people. But I like its neatness in how easy it is for actual use during play, while still overall being somewhat plausible in the distances a party can cover in a day and not diverging too significantly from the distances and durations you’d get with using the exact numbers from the Expert Rules.

Overland Travel Speed

The 6-mile hex has long ago established itself as the default size for overland travel on hex grids for a number of reasons. And I rally quite like it myself. I like consistency.

From Hydra’s Grotto (click for more detail)

Hexes are a nice aid for GMs in that you can break down all distances in easy to track chunks, and more importantly can note down where the party of PCs is currently at by simply marking the hex they are in.

One thing that D&D has always gotten annoyingly wrong however, is that the various systems for overland travel speeds all don’t work with 6-mile steps. This whole thing is getting really rambly, but I don’t know how to get it more concise right now, and I really want to get some new stuff on the site.

In B/X, movement speed outdoors is either 24, 18, 12, or 6 miles, depending on a character’s encumbrance. Great. But if you are traveling through forests, deserts, hills, and broken lands, this speed is reduced to 2/3 the normal progress. So 16, 12, 9, or 4 miles. Only one of these is a multiple of 6. Same issue even now in 5th edition. Movement speeds of 30, 24, and 18 miles work great. But not if you cut them to half in any kind of difficult terrain and you get rates of 15, 12, and 9 miles per day.

You don’t actually get the most convenient feature that using a hex grid can provide. You still have to track how many half hexes or even third hexes the party has moved in a given day.

The most convenient for GMs would be a system in which all possible distances are increments of 6 miles. And the only way in which this really works is using base speeds of 36, 24, and 12 miles per day, with all forms of difficult terrain reducing that by half to 18, 12, and 6 miles per day.

Encumbrance Easy Terrain
Difficult Terrain
Unencumbered 36 miles 18 miles
Encumbered 24 miles 12 miles
Heavily Encumbered 12 miles 6 miles

However, 36 miles is really quite a lot.

But how unrealistic is it really? There are plenty of sources for military references for marching armies that put good progress somewhere in the 24 to 30 miles per day range, though often much less than that. And if you look around for advice on how far people can expect to hike for a day, those 24 to 30 miles numbers show up as well as recommendations for beginners who might be unsure how far they can actually make it in a day. 36 miles in a day is significantly more than that.

But a party of PCs in a wilderness exploration game is usually not an army on the march. Nor are they inexperienced hikers. Also, all those numbers assume 8 hours of moving per day. That leaves 8 hours of resting in camp and 8 more hours of… what exactly? If you’re on vacation and hiking for fun, there’s plenty for you to do during that last third of the day. But moving through dangerous territory to get to an even deadlier dungeon is very much not a vacation. I think adventurers crossing the wilderness would do a bit more walking each day than tourists. And another very important factor is that in most systems, being “unencumbered” usually translates to very light gear with very little weapons, tools, and supplies. When a party is crossing through the wilderness for several days, they won’t be unencumbered. If using the numbers I’ve proposed above, 36 miles in a day would be something that only really happens for messengers in a hurry. No loitering around, carrying only the barest necessities, sticking to roads and easy ground. And in that context, 36 miles in a day does not seem that implausible. Much more common, at least for the campaigns that I run, would be traveling with a medium load, mostly going through forests and swamps, which would reduce the usual distance per day down to 12 miles. A much smaller number.

And at the end of the day, we’re talking about a game that has hit points as one of its basic mechanics. We’re not running an actual simulation of anything here. Also, any amount of miles really is just a made up number in an almost undefined virtual space, not any actual physical distances. Might some people think that 36 miles in a day is a bit of a stretch? Sure, why not. And I am not going to argue with anyone on whether that can actually be sustained for more than a day or two. But having to bother with only full hexes and not dealing with any fractions or partial hexes is a big convenience for running fantastical adventures in a made up space, and that’s the part that really matters.

Something always happens on a 1!

I mentioned this idea in another post last summer in regards to wandering monster checks, but I think it’s actually a rally nice principle that can be applied to all dice rolls without a defined die size and target number.

I’ve talked about accessibility of RPG rules in the past, both here and in several other places, and my personal experience as a GM with ADD has always been that my brain very easily becomes overloaded when juggling numbers at the same time as I am trying to follow a conversation. The trivial task of putting the initiative counts of six to eight participants in an encounter into a descending list has always been the single most challenging thing and greatest struggle to me about running games. (Now I always use group initiative to skip the whole issue.) But another thing that isn’t always easy for me in the heat of the action is probabilities like “2 in 6”. I rolled a 4, is that a success or not? Do we count the lowest two numbers or the highest two? This can be really easy stuff, but for my brain that’s something that takes up completely disproportional amounts of processing power. Not a good situation.

My solution is to make any such rolls a probability of “1 in 4”, “1 in 6”, “1 in 8”, and so on. If I’m using material that uses other odds, I translate them into whichever “1 in N” probability gets closest and write that in my notes. The result of this is that even when my mind is getting overloaded with input from the players and I am trying to establish what happens next, I only have to look at the die in front of me and remember “Something always happens on a 1!”

If it’s not a 1, then nothing happens. Proceed as normal. If it’s a 1, that always means the answer to “does X happen?” is always a yes. I’ve adopted this method as a solution to my specific personal problem, but I think it’s a really neat way to handle a wide range of rolls in general. It’s also helpful for new players who are still trying to figure out what’s actually going on all the time. On top of that, there’s a dozen different ways of how you can roll a die to determine the outcome of an action. Sometimes they have to roll higher than a number on their character sheet. Sometimes they have to roll lower. Sometimes they roll a die and add a number from their character sheet and the GM tells them if it’s a success or not. Sometimes they roll d6 and a 1 is a success, other times they roll a d8 and 7 is a success. Any time you can simply tell a player “just roll that die, when it’s a 1 something happens” is a moment where that player has a lot less new information to process.

I also think it helps with speeding along play and creating additional excitement by simply having a player roll a dice in the middle of the table, and since they’ve seen the same thing a dozen times before now, they already know “something always happens on a 1!”, without you having to explain to them how the odds for this specific roll are working. And by having established that something always happens on a 1, there is no ambiguity on whether that roll really mattered or you arbitrarily decided the outcome in disregard of the die. When the players see a 1, they can jeer in excitement or despair without even having to look at you. In my perception, this is a very useful tool to make players realize that the fates of their characters are entirely in the hands of themselves and random luck, and that trying to figure out what the GM wants or expects doesn’t make any difference.

You could of course switch it around and say “something always happens on the highest number of the die”. But that requires one additional mental step to get to the actual result, which is identifying what type of die has just been rolled. I think everyone who’s played with new players know that it takes them a good amount of time to look for the die in front of them that has the same amount of numbers that you just told them to roll. It may not be immediately obvious if a die sitting in the middle of the table and showing a 10 is a d10 or a d12. And in my personal situation, when I am trying to run an encounter with lots of players chattering in excitement, staring at a die in front of me and trying to remember what meaning there was behind the die I just roll can take me two or three seconds. Figuring out if that 10 on the die before me means something or nothing is an additional step I just don’t need if it doesn’t add any additional value to the game. And ADD is not an uncommon condition, anecdotally even less so among RPG players. I would hazard to guess that more groups have one than not, and wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of them is affected by similar forms of mental overload as me. Even if this seems to trivial to be pointless to you, there might very well be a player in your group who’d really benefit from it. So “something always happens on a 1!”.