Friday, September 16, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 17: You're Everything That a Big Bad Wolf Could Want

I'm going to assume that most of you are already familiar with wandering monster tables. The idea is pretty simple: you write up a list of monsters you want the players to be able to encounter and then number them so that they can be chosen by a die roll.

The outdoor wondering monster list in Cook's Expert book is a little more complex. It involves nested lists; that is rolling on one list references other lists. The monsters are grouped by similarity. For instance, the lists you can roll for a swamp encounter include Men, Flyer, Humanoid, Swimmer, Undead, Insect, and Dragon. Each of these send you to another list which actually includes the monsters. Not only does this give you a huge variety of monsters without having to resort to d100s, it also makes certain types of monsters more common in one place that in another. In the swamp list Undead appear twice. Animal is listed twice for the woods list, and Men is listed six times for encounters in a hex that includes a city.

When it comes to actually listing the monsters, some tables just list the names and often in alphabetical order. Again, redundancy is used to increase the likelihood of encountering a particular type of critter. This is the sort of wandering monster table most of us are used to.

In Vault of the Drow, Gygax gives us a very different sort of list. His wandering monster lists include detailed groups, each of which has a specific purpose or goal that they are pursuing when the PCs encounter them. Zack does something very similar with his expansive random encounter lists in Vornheim.

The great thing about these lists is that they do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. You don't have to guess why this particular band of slaves and drow overseers are wandering through the fungus forest. Gygax lays it all out for you. The bad thing about this sort of list is that you can only roll on it so many times before it starts repeating itself. Zack suggests crossing encounters off in his lists and replacing them with new ones as they are used.

Cook's list is the opposite. Even if your rolls do turn up two different groups of nomads, the lack of details means its very easy for you to make each distinctive. Unfortunately, by that same token, it's entirely up to you, in the heat of the moment, to make them distinctive. If you're good at that sort of on-the-fly encounter creation, this is great. Not everyone is, though, and you're going to be rolling on these tables a lot as you run your hex crawl. There's no reason you can't give yourself a little more help if you need it.

So let’s investigate a compromise option. In addition to a list of monsters, you can also use a list of motivations. This simply tells us what is foremost on the mind of the wandering monster. It serves principally as a springboard for improvisation.

You can roll all the dice at once, but I'd suggest rolling the monster first and then the motivation. I designed this list so that rolling a 2d4 returns a reasonable motivation for bestial monsters. For sentient creatures, roll a 1d10.

  1. - diplomacy
  2. - patrolling territory
  3. - hurt
  4. - horny
  5. - hungry
  6. - napping
  7. - fighting! (roll again on the wandering monster table to see who the monsters you first rolled are, or are planning on, fighting)
  8. - home
  9. - raiding
  10. - art

This list is purposefully vague. “Diplomacy” might mean you’ve encountered an envoy from one tribe to another, or it might mean a caravan carrying tribute, or a craftsman gathering materials to build a peace-offering. “Horny” might mean a couple preparing to get frisky, humanoids raiding to engage in a bit of bride-kidnapping, or a more poetic soul pining for a lost love. “Home” could mean they’re in their lair, or they’re seeking a new lair, or they’re improving their lair in some way.

Now we simply combine this with territory-specific lists of creatures. This list is for the eastern jungles. If the PCs are traveling through the goblin territory, roll a d8. If they are in the Lizardfolk territory, roll 3d4. When they have reached the orc territories, you can roll a 5d4. And you can always roll a straight-up d20 when you want something really random.

1 - goblins
2 - rock baboon
3 - python
4 - giant bees
5 - crab spiders
6 - goblins with (roll a d6):
1 - 2: harmless giant spider mounts (doubles movement rate)
3: black widow spider mounts
4 - 6: tarantella spider mounts
7 - lizardfolk
8 - black widow spiders
9 - basilisk
10 - lizardfolk mounted on tuatara lizards
11 - spitting cobra
12 - orcs mounted on dire wolves
13 - hydra
14 - orcs
15 - ogre
16 - robber fly
17 - orcs
18 - wolves
19 - ogres riding elephants
20 - displacer beasts

There is, of course, lots of room for expanding this list. I didn’t manage to get most of the giant lizards listed in Moldvay’s Basic, for instance, or any fey, etc. But this, combined with our motivations table and the reactions table mentioned last time, gives us a good working list that can provide a wide variety of encounters on the fly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 16: to Fight the Horde and Singing and Crying...

Let’s start our discussion of random tables with the classic: wandering monsters.

Mr. Cook writes:

Encounters are usually checked for once per day, but the DM may include planned encounters, or may make additional checks if appropriate. No more than three or four encounter checks should be made per day.

Again, the time scale, like those for distance, is grossly large.The assumption is that the PCs will travel through a hex, jot down the principal terrain type, and then move on. Making only one or two wondering monster checks per day means that you can quickly mark off a handful of days fairly quickly. Cook suggests rolling a d6 to see if an encounter happens; in grasslands and hexes occupied by a civilized settlement, encounters have a 1-in-6 chance of happening. Most terrain has a 2-in-6 chance of generating an encounter, while jungles, swamps, and mountains have a 50% chance of generating an encounter.

That’s not a lot of encounters. Traveling across your fantasy version of the American Great Plains will allow your average group of PCs to cover 18 miles in a day (three hexes) and encounter wandering monsters only once per six days on average (or basically once every 108 miles).

In short, logistical shortfalls are of greater concern than monsters. That D&D is about exploration more than monster-mugging becomes abundantly clear in a hex-crawl. Logistics are a bigger issue than combat (and so we’ll take a closer look at it later, when we discuss hex-crawling from the picture side of the DM’s screen).

But wait, there’s more! If you use Moldvay’s Monster Reactions table (page B24 for those of you following along at home), combat becomes even less likely. That’s because it’s a 2d6 roll with the most common results (a roll of 6, 7, or 8) being “Uncertain, monster confused”. You’re just as likely to roll “Enthusiastic friendship” (a 12) as you are “Immediate Attack” (a 2). (Cook reproduces the table on page 23 of the Expert book when discussing outdoor encounters.)

And, just to lower the chances of combat even further, there is a chance for the PCs to evade the monsters. The table given decreases the chances for larger parties of PCs, and increases the chances for larger groups of monsters. A party of 5 to 12 PCs, hirelings, etc, has a 50% chance of evading a group of monsters numbering between 4 and 8, and a 70% chance of evading groups larger than that. Failure to evade still allows the PCs to flee “in a random direction (no mapping)” with a 50% of being caught if the monsters are faster. “This procedure is repeated until the party successfully evades or is caught. (This may result in the party being chased for several days, if the pursuers are really serious about catching them.)”

Two other things of note on wandering monsters: first, many are bestial, and so won’t be carrying treasure on them, unless the PCs are lucky enough to encounter them in their lair. Second, there is absolutely nothing done to match the levels of the PCs with the toughness of the monsters on the charts. In most terrains, Cook’s tables return a dragon (which could be a chimera, wyvern, basilisk, or salamander in addition to one of the classic color-coded wyrms) in one of eight encounters on average (one in four if the encounter is mountainous, hilly, or barren terrain).

The moral of our story here is that combat isn’t the fun in a hex-crawl. The real fun is exploration and discovery, and even a mid-level party is going to want to avoid most combats and needs to be willing to sacrifice their mounts if they encounter a hungry dragon or the like.

With this in mind, our two goals in creating a wandering monster table need to be 1: a random complication to the otherwise straightforward logistical challenges over overland travel and 2: an opportunity for interesting RPing encounters. We’ll tackle actually building some tables next time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 15: Getting Random

Embracing the hex-map-as-improvisational-tool, we’ll want to develop other, similar tools as sort of utility-multipliers for it. The most traditional of these is the random table. And the most traditional random table is the wilderness wandering monster table. But there’s no reason to stop there. You can create random tables for all sorts of things, including:

  • unusual land formations.
  • results for hunting, fishing, and foraging.
  • disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hail storms, etc.
  • weather.
  • frequency of and style of the ubiquitous defensive terrain the PCs will always want to camp in.
  • celestial phenomena like auroras, shooting stars, blood-red moons, etc.
  • bizarre animal behavior like birds trying to bury themselves or spontaneous sponge migrations.
  • magical effects, like magic being stronger or weaker, or rivers that steal your memories, or portals to other planes or other spots on the map.

There’s no need to go crazy here; none of these are mentioned in Cook’s Expert book, for instance, and so you can probably get along just fine without them. Still, if there’s any aspect that you consistently find yourself flummoxed on when the players ask about it, go ahead and make a table.

In my Doom & Tea Parties game, the PCs have been very careful to be well-supplied before leaving town, but they’re always asking me about the layout of their camp. A good random table simply helps me not repeat myself too often. Magic is extremely rare (so I don’t bother with a table of wacky magical effects or strange animal behavior, since anything the PCs see along those lines is extremely important and crafted to fit the situation) and the island of Dreng Bdan, like the one we’ve been building for this series of articles, is in the tropics, so the weather is fairly predictable (rain every day during the rainy season, hot the rest of the time).

The key to a good random table is to not put more than you need to inspire you on it. The more detailed the table is, the less flexible it is. Here’s the table I’ve been using to describe defensively-positioned campsites in the jungle:

Roll a d10 1d4 times on the following table.
1: water (stream, river, pond)
2: boulders
3: hollow tree (strangler fig)
4: fallen tree
5: thorn bushes
6: cliff or ledge
7: sink hole
8: quicksand
9: insects
10: tangle of vines.

By rolling on this table, I get a series of barriers that the PCs will use to guard one or more flanks of their camp. Some are potentially as dangerous to the PCs as they are to any attackers (like the insects or the stream if its inhabited by nixies), and I usually describe these features to the PCs to see if they want to accept the site or if they want to keep searching for something a bit safer.

It’s the combination of a random number of randomly generated features that keeps this list from looking like too much of the same thing over and over again. All of these are things you’d expect to find in a jungle, and so a certain amount of repetition is fine, even builds a sense of verisimilitude, but the combos are going to be unique enough to spur my own imagination when necessary. You may find your own imagination needs fewer or more details. As always, season to taste.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 14: What do I See?

Whether you’ve opted to be a traditionalist and allow your players a few levels in the dungeon, or just decided to throw them straight into a hex crawl, eventually you’re going to have to deal with what, exactly, is in these hexes that we’ve mapped out. Six-mile hexes made sense in terms of long distance travel. In terms of what someone standing on the ground can see, however, they are absolutely absurd.

Our hex map is a gross abstraction. This is where you see the greatest divergence between a hex crawl and a traditional West Marches campaign. In a West Marches map it’s very important to mark minute details of the terrain since that is how the PCs are going to navigate across it. It’s very much a matter of moving from the river to the old, twisted oak, past the toppled menhir towards the ragged ridge.

Hex crawling is not like this at all. The basic unit of time measurement in hex-crawling is not the round or the minute or even the hour, but the day. The scale is not about searching for lost children or combing through forests to find a hidden shrine. It is more on par with the movements of armies, the interactions of nations, and the journeys of explorers.

Your hex map is a tool for improvisation but it cannot answer the question, “What do we see?” It can help you answer that question, and that’s exactly what it’s for. But it’s only a help. The DM of a hex crawl needs to be ready to fill in the fine details from the gross generalizations.

So what can be in a six-mile hex? Doc Rotwang turned to his own neighborhood to answer what could be found in a one-mile hex. I’m going to turn to history for my example. Specifically, what existed in Sherwood Forest?

We have a fairly good idea of the boundaries of Sherwood Forest because the term “forest” was more legal than botanical in medieval England. Using the 1232 borders (unfortunately many years after the death of King John, and so probably after the notorious banditry that would’ve inspired the legend of Robin Hood) we can see that it was roughly 6 miles wide and 24 miles north-to-south. This makes it almost perfectly fit four of our 6-mile hexes stacked atop each other. And what could a traveler in 13th century England expect to find in Sherwood Forest?

According to our map, the following: fourteen towns and villages, three abbeys, five hunting lodges, and three castles. Hardly a deserted and desolate place, even when not harboring a band of Merry Men.

This, then, is the other beauty of the six-mile hex. It’s literally big enough for you to put damn near anything you need in it, from a hidden bandit camp to a lost castle everyone forgot was there. The gross details we’ve plotted on our map are the things that are obvious: the large communities, the dominant terrain, that sort of thing. If you suddenly need a pond or a strange outcropping of mystical crystals, or the pillar of a cranky, misanthropic living saint, there’s more than enough room in each hex for you to include it. Suddenly dropping in a mountain with a 100-foot carving of a skull in its cliff-face might be a bit much, but short of that there’s lots of room for improvisation, the inclusion of new material (like a recently purchased adventure module), or whatever your random tables generate.

Next time, we’ll talk about more about random tables, since they’ll be your best friends when it comes to spicing up the PCs’ journeys across our hexed terrain.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 13: You Take the High Road and I'll Take the Low

Finally, back to the hex-mapping fun. What's the next step? That depends on how traditional you want to get. My game of choice these days is Labyrinth Lord/Moldvay/Cook B/X. The assumption of Moldvay and Cook was the players would graduate to hex crawling at the third or fourth level. Before then, the adventures would primarily be focused on dungeons.

If I was going to do things this way, I'd probably stop building the hex map now and refocus my efforts on one or two dungeon locations near the human city. It's still good to have mapped out the island as we have because I want to seed the dungeons with the promises of the hex-crawl. In this case, at least one of the dungeons would've been constructed by the wicked elves back when they ruled the island. I might also throw in a hint or two about the mind flayers or one of the dragons. I'd probably avoid using goblins since I want those to be one of the special parts of the jungle. I'd probably go with lesser undead, regular humans, and fantastical animals and follow the classic tropes of making each level more dangerous than the one above. I'd also strongly adhere to Moldvay's scheme of dungeon design in which a third of the treasure is in the hands of monsters, a third of the treasure is guarded by traps and a third of the treasure is undefended, though perhaps difficult to get to or find.

Optimally, the dungeons would be in, or very close, to the city. Part of the goal would be to solidify the human city as a home base for the PCs. One of the benefits of starting this way is that the players really learn their way around the human city. By this I don't mean geographically; the human city is mostly a safe place and I don't expect to do any urban crawling through it. I'm more talking about learning what resources the city has to offer and how to get them. They should learn which temples offer which services, what the alternatives to the temples are, if any, where they can (and can't) sleep safely for the night and store their treasure, and, of course, where they can acquire weapons, armor, and other supplies.

Finally, when I run hex-crawls, it can be important to have some idea of who the political and economic movers-and-shakers are in the civilized border area. There's an aspect of first contact in my hex crawls. The PCs are likely to find themselves ambassadors and go-betweens for both the human city and the monster civilizations they encounter. So there will at least be opportunities to explore the dungeons on behalf of, or under the patronage of, someone important in town.

I'm not going to go into too much detail here, because there are already some great resources for writing dungeons. With an eye on the above issues and prepping the campaign for the hex crawl to come, the dungeon should follow the usual design advice that works for low-level dungeoneering. That's not to say that they can't be unique. Only that there are well known methods for crafting a successful low-level dungeon and there's no reason not to use those here.

Next time, we go back to the hexes as we prepare to unleash our players upon them.