An Interpretation of Dragonbane’s Resting rules

Going through the mechanics for Journeys in Dragonbane, I came upon this rule in the section on resting:

“A shift rest lasts one full shift of time and can only take place in a safe location where there are no enemies nearby.”

Other rules in the Journeys section indicate pretty strongly that the writer assumes anywhere that isn’t inside a dungeon to be a safe location. But personally, I wouldn’t consider pitching a tent in the goblin hills or spider woods to be “in a safe location”. Ultimately, what is safe enough to allow the PCs to rest is at the discretion of the GM.

For the Woodland Vales system, I really want to players to set up proper base camps while exploring a stretch of wilderness, where they can store their food and other supplies, as well as the heavy treasures they find under the guard of their hirelings who also take care of the pack animals. Using a more severe interpretation of what constitutes a safe place for the purposes of resting immediately makes this a much greater necessity without really touching the rest of the Dragonbane rules at all.

Similar to the havens (I think that’s the term) in The One Ring, finding the home of a friendly NPC, the shrine of a benevolent spirit, or an abandoned tower with intact walls can be a hugely beneficial discovery. A location secure enough to regain all HP and WP and remove all your conditions becomes a key resource for the ability to delve further into the unknown wilds. Without it, you can only get four Round Rests to recover 1d6 WP and four Stretch Rests to recover 1d6 WP and HP per day.

A less severe approach to this is to assign all outdoor areas a security rating of safe, wild, and dangerous. In a wild area, the Bushcraft roll to find a suitable camp site for making a Shift Rest is made normally. But in a safe area it is rolled with a boon and in a dangerous area with a bane. In a dangerous area you might still be able to find the occasional safe campsite to make a Shift Rest, but with a bane (roll twice, take the worse result) it would be quite unpredictable which nights you will be able to. Even with this house rule, any place that is reliable secure and does not require Bushcraft checks at all would still be a very valuable resource.

Woodland Vales: Choosing the Hex Scale

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

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

The Default Domain Template

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

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

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

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

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

The Why and Where of Towns

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

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

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

The Options for Hex Scales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woodland Vales: An Introduction

This might be the first post in a potentially long running series. Or I might lose interest after a week or two and not much more comes from it. Hard to say at this point.

What this is

For a good while now, I’ve been pondering and tinkering with various ideas for a kind of sandbox campaign that would be best suited to really bring out what I consider the strengths and most interesting design of my Kaendor setting and emphasizes the aspects of sandbox play that I always found the most intriguing. What I am aiming for is a structure and set of mechanics and procedures that combines the Basic/Expert D&D dungeon and wilderness exploration system by Tom Moldvay and the concept of players establishing a domain in the wilderness, with the West Marches approach to player proactivity by Ben Robbins, the Points of Light worldbuilding paradigm, and various inspirations from the Hill Cantons posts by Chris Kutalik. And yes, this all sounds extremely 2011.

What this series is going to be about is to take all these elements that people have used very effectively in the past and turn them into one unified system that is simplified and streamlined enough that even someone with ADHD like me can run it entirely from memory without having to cross-reference any tables or do any kind of calculations in the middle of play. I think that I had already some 90% of all the mechanics and procedures well worked out over the last couple of years, and mostly this will be me putting all of that mess into an orderly and coherent form that other people can understand and actually use for their own games, or adapt it in parts.

The big question when doing something like this is always whether you are going to present the readers with the finished product that they can use and reference during play, or to take them to the entire design process and explain in detail what all of the moving parts do and my reasoning for making them the way they are which would be immensely useful for people who want to further tinker with it to adapt it to their own needs and purposes? In my over-abundant enthusiasm, I decided that I want to try doing both. This series of posts will go with the later approach first. While I think my ideas are pretty cool, I don’t have expectations that this will turn into the next surprise breakout hit book for sandbox campaigns among the DIY Elfgame crowd. But I know that there are plenty of people who love tinkering with this stuff like I do and that there is a real audience interested in just talking shop. Even if I end up not having the stamina to see this through to the end, individual posts about the design process of specific elements will still be of some use to some people.

What it’s for

The overall campaign concept for which these Woodland Vales systems are being designed is based around an Iron Age society of scattered farming villages that cluster around a main hill forts that serves as the central market town and stronghold of the local big man.These islands of early civilization are separated from each other and surrounded by true primordial wilderness of dark forests, vast swamplands, and treacherous mountains. Traveling merchants move between towns with boats and rafts across a network of rivers or with caravans of pack animals along a few established trails through the woods. Throughout the wilderness and the scattered valleys of farmland are the ruins of ancient  civilizations of inhuman sorcerers, many of which hold the hidden lairs of dangerous monsters or treacherous magical curses that keep people far away from them, but also occasional ancient treasures that are an irresistible lure for foolish young warriors and reckless vagabonds.

Civilization is a fairly small affair in these Woodland Vales, and many of the clearings and valleys that could be suitable for farming have never been settled or been abandoned after some calamity befell their people. The old keeps and crumbling castles of their former lords and chiefs often become home to monsters or bandits, making these vales dangerous places to move through. But many of them could still hold great potential for settlement and various resources that could be of great value, if someone were to drive out those threats and secure their boundaries.

The player characters in a Woodland Vales campaign are assumed to be adventurous warriors and scoundrels, or curious and ambitious scholars and apprentice sorcerers lured by the promises of riches and ancient secrets. The intention behind the mechanics is to strongly incentivize players to establish temporary or permanent bases on the very edges of the inhabited vales that will serve as their base camps for the exploration of the surrounding unsettled valleys. Resource management goes beyond counting torches and arrows, and includes taking caravans of pack animals to a nearby town to stock their base with supplies for weeks of exploration and possibly maintain hold of the surrounding area throughout the winter. This will require large numbers of hirelings to both maintain the base and defend it while the PCs are gone for days or even weeks to roam through the forests and descend into caves and ruins. It is up to the players to chose between expanding one of their bases into a proper stronghold and recruit people to build farms under their protection, or to keep moving to other borderland valleys and establishing a new base camp there. Either way, this is a process that is meant to start in the early game and not to be locked away behind some arbitrary experience threshold once there are no more challenging monsters to be found.

As owners of a stronghold (or perhaps several keeps owned by different PCs?), there is also a lot of room to go into a more political game of dealing with the other big men of the region and making allies to stand again common foes. Mass Battles are something that I can very much see as being a thing in this kind of campaign environment, for which a simple wargame system like De Bellis Antiquitatis could quite easily be added on to the RPG rules for Player Characters. But what I want to avoid is to turn campaigns into games of tax accounting or granular base building where you have to count the silver pieces for the furnishing of individual rooms. Owning a stronghold should be a game of making meaningful decisions and dealing with new kinds of dramatic conflict. While managing your resources to establish how many troops you actually can field when it comes to a battle is of course important, I believe that the amount of number crunching should be limited to as low as absolutely possible.